Monday, July 12, 2010

What does the unbeliever know?

Dan Chapa has done a post on Van Til. I’m not going to spend time quoting chapter and verse from Van Til. I have other priorities. I will, however, give my own interpretation.

I. Antithesis

Van Til sometimes casts the knowledge of the believer and unbeliever in terms of radical antithesis. This is Van Til’s way of indicating that if you take the unbeliever’s position to its logical extreme, the unbeliever negates his knowledge of God (or anything else). In principle, the unbeliever knows nothing. This represents the “ideal” unbeliever.

On a related note, Van Til, as an academic apologist, tended to take philosophical unbelievers as his paradigm-case of unbelief. And philosophers are more likely to push the envelope.

I notice that Chapa indulges in some superficial prooftexting to refute Van Til. But he’s highly selective and lopsided. For instance, 1 John also uses very antithetical language to demarcate the difference between believers and unbelievers. So there’s nothing inherently unscriptural about Van Til’s rhetorical register.

II. Common Grace

Counterbalancing his position on antithesis is Van Til’s quasi-Kuyperian view of common grace. In practice, unbelievers range along of continuum. Some unbelievers are more thoroughly and self-consciously atheistic than others. As a result, a believer has more common ground with some unbelievers than others.

To take some recent examples, there’s very little common ground between a Christian and Peter Singer or W. V. O. Quine. These are secular thinkers who go out of their way to define their own position in diametrical opposition to everything that Christianity represents. They try to create a complete, self-contained alternative to the Christian life and worldview.

As such, common ground is person-variable. We can’t generalize about the degree of common ground between believers and unbelievers.

To take a Biblical example, how much common ground does Chapa think really exists between Jesus and religious adversaries who attribute his miracles to demonic possession? Haven’t they dynamited the bridge by that last-ditch resort?

Van Til does think that unbelievers retain some true knowledge, and he uses that as a wedge to split their worldview right down the middle.

III. Square of Opposition

The tension between antithesis and common grace is not so much a point of tension in Van Til’s own position, but a point of tension in the unbeliever’s position. Van Til regards the unbeliever’s position as inherently unstable. An intellectual compromise that is not, and cannot be, consistently true or false. Because the unbeliever is using a mind which God designed, because the unbeliever is living in a world which God designed, the unbeliever cannot avoid acting like a believer in some respects. He doesn’t have a tenable alternative. He is a rebel against reality, with all the loose ends which that entails. So he lurches back and forth between rationalism and irrationalism.

On a related note, Chapa says: “David Turner studies Van Til's comments on Romans 1:18-21 and concludes that Van Til advocate the paradoxical position that unbelievers are both theists and atheists.”

This confuses logicality with psychology. That’s not a logical paradox. Rather, it makes the point that unbelievers can hold mutually inconsistent beliefs. That’s a psychological truism. The fact that their beliefs are in logical tension doesn’t mean that can’t have contradictory beliefs.

IV. Common Ground

“Common ground” is an ambiguous term. Chapa took issue with White’s position. I can’t speak for White. I haven’t heard his presentation.

But I will say this. "Common ground" could stand for common beliefs. What believers and unbelievers both know about God, at a conscious or subconscious level.

Or it could stand for common standards. Do believers and unbelievers share the same methods and assumptions?

White debates radicals like Robert Price, Bart Ehrman, and John Spong. White obviously can’t have a meaningful debate with people like that if he allows them to dictate the rules of evidence. For instance, if an opponent insists on methodological naturalism, you can’t expect White to squeeze into that straightjacket. He will have to challenge the ground rules if an opponent tries to filter out probative evidence. There’s no point debating the evidence if your opponent discounts unwelcome lines of evidence in advance of the fact. To make any headway with an opponent like that, you have to go back a step and challenge his tendentious framework.

V. Paradox

Chapa asks, “If you can have contradictions sometimes, how do you know when you can use reason and when you cannot?”

The problem with this question is that Chapa acts as though that’s never been answered before. But Anderson wrote a whole book in answer to that question! What is more, he recently went into further detail in response to Bill Vallicella and Peter Lupu. Therefore, I expect Anderson would find it rather tiresome to have Chapa repeat the same stale objection as though this objection had never been addressed.

VI. Circular Reasoning

Chapa apparently takes issue with Van Til’s commitment to circular reasoning. However, Chapa doesn’t explain what he understands by the term, and whether he imputes his understanding to Van Til.

I’d just say that, in Van Til, circular reasoning doesn’t have reference to a fallacious type of syllogistic reasoning. Rather, I suspect that it represents a modification of the coherence theory of truth, a la idealism. If Chapa finds that objectionable, he will need to explain why.

VII. Divine and Human Knowledge

Chapa apparently objects to Van Til’s position on the disanalogy between divine and human knowledge. But, once again, he raises this objection as though this hasn’t been covered in the relevant literature. A good place to start is Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 226n150; 226-27n151.

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