Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Van Til v. Muhammad

Late last April, John Johnson kindly sent John Frame and me a prepublication copy of a surrejoinder to a rejoinder we published in Evangelical Quarterly.

I then emailed him a reply.

His surrejoinder has just been published:


Since I don’t see any difference between the prepublication version and the published edition, I’ll simply post (with minimal revision) my original letter:


Thanks for the copy of the forthcoming article. Sorry I didn't have time to reply sooner.

A few comments on a few of your statements:

"The upshot of all of this for Van Til is that the so-called 'point of contact,' that is, the intellectual common ground where a Christian can address a non-believer, is narrow at best, and always tenuous."

VT doesn't have a cookie-cutter view of the unbeliever. Common grace is not uniform in the intensity of its distribution.

Some unbelievers are more self-consciously hostile to all things Christian than others.

Unbelievers like, say, Dawkins or Dennett, if they found any common ground, would immediately set about to dynamite the bridge, even if their own life depended on it.

But in the case of other unbelievers, common grace may have preserved a larger swath of common sense.

This variability is not keyed to any particular school of apologetics. Whether you're a Van Tilian, evidentialist, natural theologian, or what-all, you're either going to face the same opening or the same wall depending on who in particular you are talking to.

"Perhaps the Van Tillian will claim that the willful rejection of God entails more than just fallen man's desire to escape moral and ethical duties. Original sin has actually impaired our very reasoning process; we can no longer "think straight" as a result of the noetic effects of sin. Indeed, Van Til says of fallen human reason that 'we cannot grant that it has any right to judge in matters of theology, or, for the matter of that, in anything else. The Scriptures nowhere appeal to the unregenerated reason as to a qualified judge.'"

This fails to distinguish between our rational faculties and our rational standards. VT is talking about the unbeliever's criteria, not his innate ability to reason.

"Frame realizes, of course, that there are other versions of God among the religions of the world, but he tends to dismiss them, one reason being because he sees most of them as derivative of the biblical God. Thus, these Gods are not serious candidates because, after all, they are only poor copies of the triune God of the Bible. Listen to what he says on this matter: 'Christian heresies are religions influenced by the Bible, but which deny the central biblical gospel. Among the Christian heresies are not only those designated as such in history (Arianism, Gnosticism, Sabellianism, Docetism, Eutychianism, etc.), but also the historic rivals of Christianity, namely, Judaism and Islam.' When I first read this, I was not sure but that I had encountered a typographical error. Judaism, a religion that preceded Christianity by centuries, and eventually gave birth to it, is a Christian heresy? I will leave it to the reader to puzzle out what Frame could possibly mean by this. (But perhaps he says this because he knows that his apologetic system would work as well for a Jew as for a Christian. After all, The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament!)."

This is a semantic quibble. I remember Bruce Waltke once saying in class that because he's an OT prof., people constantly ask him questions about Judaism, expecting him to be an authority on Judaism.

As he explains to them, he's an authority on OT religion, not Judaism, which is completely different.

Frame is clearly referring to post-Second Temple Judaism, which is largely shaped in reaction to Christianity.

"Additionally, I think many others, both Christian and non-Christian, would have trouble with Frame's assessment of Islam as a Christian heresy."

"Many would have trouble"?

This impressionistic, quantitative appeal is not a reasoned objection to Frame's position.

"By assigning Islam (and Judaism!) to the disreputable realm of Christian heresy, Frame artificially strengthens his case that only the Christian God can account for the world as we know it."

This assignment is only artificial if Islam is not, in fact, a Christian heresy. You've said nothing to overturn Frame's claim.

True, Frame didn't go on to document his claim. That's because, in this instance, Frame is outlining an apologetic strategy rather than a full-blown argument.

Because apologetics is so specialized and interdisciplinary, he outsources certain issues to Christians with some expertise in that field. On Islam, for example, he may delegate the detailed argumentation to a guy like Bob Morey.

"Geisler, in discussing Islamic theologians' understanding of Allah's revelation of the Koran to Muhammad, notes that Muslims understand Allah's speech to be an 'eternal attribute of God that is not identical to God but is somehow distinguishable from him.' If this so, Geisler reasons, "it would seem that the Islamic view of God's
absolute unity is, by their own distinction, not incompatible with Christian trinitarianism."

This represents a later development in Islamic theology. And it's a point of tension in Islamic theology.

"As to the charge that Van Til and Frame seem to level against Allah, namely, that he is too far removed and distant (i.e., not immanent enough) to truly be the source of all logic, order and morality, Muslims have no difficulty in maintaining that Allah is indeed the
force that binds the universe together in a coherent, rational manner."

"Maintaining" and "demonstrating" are two different things. The question is not what Muslims believe, but whether they can make good on their claims. That's what apologetics is all about.

"A Muslim could do so because Allah, as portrayed in the Koran, seems to be described in much the same way as God is in the Bible, that is, as the absolute master of the universe."

To the extent that this is true, it's because Islam is a Christian heresy.

"But, even if Muhammad fashioned Allah after the God of the Bible (and this seems obvious to me) it is not obvious to Muslims, who take the Koranic descriptions of Allah to be infallible revelation, and thus a sure basis for apologetics."

What is true and what is "obvious" are often two very different things. That's what apologetics and philosophy are for.

By definition, a Muslim will deny that the Koran is, in part, a garbled, hearsay version of the Bible. We expect that. But we do more than lodge a claim. We go on to document the claim.

This is not a question of countering their assertions with our assertions. Rather, this is a question of backing up our assertions with relevant evidence or logic.

"But I still fail to see how Allah could not be the Creator of the world. Frame might reply that only a fully transcendent and fully immanent God could be responsible for the world as we know it. But how does he know that? Because it seems logical? Well, perhaps, but Muslims, and the ever-growing numbers who convert to Islam each year,
do not see Christianity as logically superior in this regard."

What they "see" (or not)?

i) You keep resorting to this populist appeal. That's not
apologetics. That's not an argument for or against anything.

ii) BTW, what makes you think that most converts even convert to Islam for philosophical reasons? Do you have some polling data?

"Geisler, writing about Van Til's insistence that only the triune God of Christianity can explain the world, says that 'Certainly, as Van Til argues, it is necessary to posit a God to make sense out of the world. However, he has not shown that it is necessary to posit a triune God. This is true whether or not one accepts his argument that only the Trinity solves the problem of the one and the many.'"

Sorry, but this denial doesn't make any sense to me. If one did accept his argument that the Trinity solves the one-over-many problem, then why would that not be a compelling argument for the Trinity as well as the religion with which it's affiliated?

"Van Til, contrary to much popular belief, is not opposed to using evidences to help prove the truth of Christianity. In fact, he welcomes the use of evidence, provided it is presented as part of the overall Christian presuppositional worldview. What Van Til will not allow is for man, with his so-called autonomous reason, to examine the traditional apologetic evidences on their own merit, apart from the
Christian presuppositions that Van Til says these evidences depend upon."

Largely true, though to speak of evidences "on their own merit apart from Christian presuppositions" assumes that they have intrinsic merit apart from Christian presuppositions.

"Now, what does the Muslim apologist claim? He claims, not surprisingly, that his scriptures are the only true revelation of God. In fact, the Muslim in this instance actually goes Van Til one better, for the Muslim claims that his Koranic presuppositions involve accepting the belief that the Bible contains errors and is not trustworthy! Just as Van Til insists that sinful, unregenerate man cannot be trusted to sit in judgment upon scripture, so the Muslim insists that the Bible is inferior to the Koran. Christians have no right to judge the Koran based upon the Bible, because the Bible contains willful misrepresentations of divine truth. The 'revelations to Muhammad were a renewal of God's earlier revelations to Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and many other prophets, revelations that Muhammad said had been corrupted.' This willful corruption of the Bible sounds a great deal like the sinful, deliberate rejection of God that Van Til claims all unbelievers are guilty of."

This plays on some serious equivocations:

i) It fails to distinguish between the Meccan and Medinan verses. In the earlier—Meccan—verses, Christians are accorded the right to judge the Koran. Muhammad appeals to the People of the Book (Jews & Christians) to vouch for his prophetic credentials. So he sets up the Bible and its Judeo-Christian interpreters as the standard of

By the time we get to the Medinan verses, there's a dramatic about-face. This is one of the major hurdles in Islamic apologetics.

ii) There’s an elementary difference between saying that the text is corrupt, and saying the reader is corrupt.

"The Christian can easily counter the Muslim claim that the Bible has been corrupted; the manuscript evidence, for the New Testament especially, is so great as to virtually guarantee that the New Testament text we read today is essentially the same as what was contained in the autographs. But of course, this does not matter at
all to the Muslim apologist; his Koran says the Bible is corrupt, and that is all there is to it. Well, he must say this; there are too many contradictions between the Bible and the Koran. The Muslim apologist will not let textual scholars, with their Van Tillian "autonomous reason," sit in judgment upon the Koran in this matter, any more than Van Til will let a non-believer sit in judgment upon the Bible. We thus seem to have reached a stalemate. Both Van Til, and his Muslim counterpart, argue that their particular scripture must be trusted, and all others rejected. All of this will strike the unbeliever as fideism."

Here are some more equivocations:

i) To say that no one can sit in judgment of God's word (whether we identify that word with the text of Scripture or the Koran) assumes that the text before you is, indeed, God's word. The Koran itself has a very checkered textual history. Even if you believe in Koranic revelation, a spurious text is not the word of Allah. Hence, it lacks
the authority of Allah.

So an appeal to authority in matters of textual criticism will beg the question. You must establish the authenticity of the text before you can identify it with the word of Allah (or Yahweh or Christ). The only authoritative text is an authentic text. The text must be authenticated before it can be authoritative.

ii) And unless he can demonstrate that the text of the Bible is unreliable, a Muslim apologist is stuck with the contradiction between the Meccan and Medinan verses. This is not sitting in judgment of the Koran, as if we were applying an outside standard to the Koran—although Muhammad himself does that very same thing in the
Meccan verses.

Rather, this is a problem internal to the sacred text of Islam itself. It's a twofold problem:

a) The contradiction between the Meccan and Medinan verses, and:

b) The checkered history of the Koranic text itself.

"But the problem with Van Til's approach to Christian evidences is that, once a non-Christian accepts the presuppositions that Van Til insists upon, he is already a Christian! What is the point of arguing, say, for the historicity of the resurrection if the person with whom the apologist is debating already accepts all of Van Til's preconditions about the nature of the debate?"

This is confusing several different things:

i) There are the presuppositions with which the apologist operates. The unbeliever may or may not accept these presuppositions, but they guide the apologist. This is what, in the first instance, the apologist presupposes.

ii) Van Til also proposes an exercise:

a) For the sake of argument, ask the unbeliever to assume the Christian viewpoint, and then ask him whether that makes better sense of the world. Here the Christian apologist takes the unbeliever on a guided tour of what Christian theism leads to.

b) For the sake of argument, the Christian apologist assumes the unbelieving viewpoint, and takes the unbeliever on a guided tour of what that leads to.

We've been over this ground before.

"The same could be said for the Muslim presupposition that the Koran is the theological corrective to a textually corrupt Bible. Once someone accepts this basic presupposition, he is already a Muslim-no one but a Muslim believes that the Koran contains the very words of God, words that pre-existed in heaven before being revealed to
Muhammad. If appeals to outside evidence are rendered unnecessary by both the Van Tillian as well as the Muslim approach, how can a non-theist ever decide which of these great world religions is true?"

This is a caricature. By now you really should know better.

Where does Frame or Van Til say that outside evidence is unnecessary?

There's more to Van Tilian apologetics than transcendental reasoning. Remember that there was a division of labor at Westminster. VT could delegate the evidential task to his colleagues in the OT and NT depts. He left that to Allis, Young, Machen, and Stonehouse.

He then concentrated on the philosophical task, since that was his forte.

"A Van Tillian would say that Christianity is obviously true, because it teaches what all men instinctively know, namely, that there is a God, and that unbelievers knowingly reject him despite the fact that they know better."

Yes, but VT wouldn't use that as an argument with unbelievers.

The point is, why are unbelievers? Is it a simple matter of innocent ignorance? Do they just need to be educated in the faith?

Or does it run much deeper? Is there a willful rejection of the truth?

This is not, of itself, an apologetic argument, but it does make a difference in what the apologist can expect from many unbelievers, and it therefore shapes his tactical approach.

"The Van Tillian could claim that Christianity is true because the Bible teaches that it is true."

Another caricature. You're not trying very hard.

"What about an appeal to evidential arguments, like the resurrection?"

This assumes that an argument for the resurrection is a purely evidential argument. Is it?

What a typical atheist will do is to turn the argument for the resurrection into a probabilistic argument, and then dismiss the resurrection as wildly improbable. A guy like Michael Martin will take Humean assumptions and plug them into Bayesean probability theory.

Appealing to the raw evidence isn't going to make a dent in his armor.

"Van Til rules this out unless one views it with the spectacles of Christian presuppositions. And it is precisely those presuppositions that are the problem, for they are no more convincing than the presuppositions that an Islamic apologist could use in the defense of his faith."

i) Really? You think that Christian presuppositions are no more convincing than Islamic presuppositions?

ii) And what happens when it really is a clash of competing presuppositions? What about Hume and Martin—to name a few? What if the point of conflict does come down to a presuppositional issue rather than an evidential issue?

iii) It sounds nice to have a set of criteria which everyone agrees on. But that's chimerical.

iv) Even if there were such a set of criteria, that only pushes the question back a step. How do we identify these criteria? What are our selection criteria for our selection criteria? Where to they come from? How do we know that these are the right rules of evidence or the suitable truth-conditions?

v) Assuming that we do have a good set of criteria, what makes them sound criteria? Because, presumably, they match up with the way the world is.

But if, in fact, God is a member of the real world, then the criteria must include God. They must implicate God. For in order to be true to the world, they must be true to a world in which God exists.

They validate the existence of God, but by that very same token, the existence of God validates the criteria. For them to be true of a world with God, God must be true.

Were they entirely independent of the truth-claim, then they'd never implicate the truth-claim in the first place.

Like a roadmap, the reasoning is reversible. I can go from the point of origin to the destination, or I can retrace my steps. There's no one starting-point.

The problem with the evidentialist is that he using certain criteria to argue for the existence of God. The criteria are independent of God. Indifferent to God. They criteria are one thing, and the theistic arguments are another.

Now, the Van Tilian doesn't object to using criteria to argue for the existence of God. But the Van Tilian makes another move. He doesn't merely use criteria or argue with criteria.

Rather, he finds, in the criteria themselves, the makings of a theistic proof. What makes these criteria possible? What makes them truth-conducive? What are their truth-conditions? What are the necessary conditions without which they would not be reliable rules of evidence?

"I do not wish to claim that there is no value in the Van Tillian system; far from it. As I stated above, Van Til (and Frame) does a masterful job of showing how the non-theist has no rational basis for his perceptions of the world, since he will not allow for a proper theistic foundation for those perceptions. But, as I have shown in
this paper, Van Til's system does not fair nearly so well against a theistic, in this case a Muslim, position."

It's true that a transcendental argument is less effective against a rival position which is, in many respects, a calculated counterfeit. For the counterfeit will ape many of the properties of the original.

In that case, you expose the counterfeit for what it is—a Christian heresy. You talk about the background and behavior of the founder. You compare and contrast the "new" revelation to its template (the Bible).

"For the absurdity that results when two combating apologists both claim to be in possession of their own inerrant set of self-authenticating scriptures, see John W. Montgomery, "Once Upon an A Priori," in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R. Geehan (Philadelphia: P and R Publishing, 1971), 380-392."

i) Why do you think it's okay to criticize Frame for "artificially" classifying Islam as a Christian heresy when you continue to resort to this utterly artificial thought-experiment by Montgomery?

ii) Moreover, as both Frame and I have pointed out before, we can simply substitute evidentialist Gibis and Shadoks for Van Tilian Gibis and Shadoks.

iii) Furthermore, it's illogical to reject the self-authentication of Scripture just because it has certain consequences. Just because someone may mimic the same claim. That's no way to disprove a truth-claim.

How many Christians have the intellect or education of John Warwick Montgomery?

Most Christians at most times and places have been in no position, either in terms of natural aptitude or educational resources, to mount an evidential case for their faith.

So were they wrong to believe the Bible? Does your apologetic philosophy automatically discount the faith of 95% of Christians who ever lived and died? Not to mention OT Jews.

Or is there something about the Bible that makes it inherently credible and worthy of our belief?

We need to have a doctrine of Scripture which can account for and accommodate the faith of most Bible-believers, including the original audience for the Scriptures. Every Christian is not a high-powered intellectual with a resume of Ivy-League degrees.

So unless Scripture is self-authenticating, that disqualifies the faith of most of God's people, including most of the readers to whom the Bible was originally address.

iv) We also need to distinguish between historical Islam and Muslim apologists who have learned to imitate Christian terminology and Christian apologetics. We need to distinguish between historical Islam and an opportunistic repackaging of Islam theology or apologetics for
Western consumption.

On a more personal and professional note:

In some instances your new article marks an advance over the old article. In some instances, you have reformulated your original position in light of our objections. That's progress.

But in many other instances you reiterate the same arguments despite what we've said.

I don't know why you do this. If we are responsive to your arguments, you need to be responsive to our counterarguments.

If you've been corrected on a point, you either need to acknowledge the correction and withdraw your erroneous argument, or else you need to explain where our counterargument went wrong.

A Christian apologist needs to have a capacity for self-criticism.

For purposes of making a career in theology or apologetics, there's a professional temptation to accommodate a particular faith-community. To give in.

The same pressures are present in secular academia.

Resist the temptation.



  1. Islam, is it really how the media portrays it? Is it really all about terrorism and extremism? Here is your chance to find out! Visit our blog--> http://thejourney2islam-team.blogspot.com/

  2. Speaking of Van Tillian apologetics, check out this recent interview of Michael Butler.

  3. As you suggested, Steve, I've posted my own comments on Johnson's response.

  4. Admin,

    Yes it is.....thanks

  5. Did you guys see this response to Van Tillian PS?

  6. "Dawkins then asks, “if God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them” (253)?

    For the same reason we don’t just forgive Hitler or Stalin. It would be unjust."

    Unless, of course, Hitler and Stalin had accepted Christ as their personal savior. Than they would have been automatically forgiven, and it would be just. Right?