How do the classical arguments for God’s existence fit into presuppositional apologetics—or do they? Is there any place for the teleological, cosmological, or ontological arguments in presuppositionalism? And what about historical texts, artifacts, and arguments? Can evidences from history help to make a presuppositionalist case for faith or not?
Some scholars seem to see classical and evidential arguments as tools that are incompatible with presuppositionalism. In William Lane Craig’s book Reasonable Faith, for example, Craig Blomberg contends that
C. Stephen Evans speaks similarly in Faith Beyond Reason, suggesting that Cornelius Van Til
exponents of [presuppositionalism] reject … ‘evidentialist’ apologetics … as misguided because they think that one cannot demonstrate the probability of Christianity apart from presupposing its truth.
vigorously [rejected] the claim that apologetic arguments can be mounted that appeal to facts or logical principles that the unregenerate mind can grasp. Van Til [argued], for example, that one should not try to give rational arguments that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
So are these claims correct? Does presuppositionalism necessarily preclude the use of rational, empirical, and evidentialist arguments? If not, how might these arguments function practically in a presuppositionalist approach?
My unequivocal answer to this question is, “Yes, sort of—but it’s complicated.”
There are many valid critiques when it comes to Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic methodology, and I will mention several of them in my conclusion. At the same time, the suggestion that presuppositionalism rules out every use of classical and evidential arguments reveals an incomplete and somewhat inaccurate understanding of what Van Til was attempting to do.
For the record, I am not a Van Tilian presuppositionalist—my approach to apologetics is far too deeply shaped by the theologians of the first four centuries of Christianity to embrace the Van Tilian variety of presuppositionalism. As such, my goal is not the vindication of my own convictions; it is, instead, the clarification of a position that I do not personally hold.
Regardless of where you happen to stand on this issue, let’s spend a few paragraphs together here, taking a brief but careful look at the possible roles of classical and evidential argumentation in presuppositional apologetics.
What Is the Place of Classical Arguments in Presuppositional Apologetics?
Cornelius Van Til clearly carved out space for some usage of classical arguments in The Defense of the Faith: “I do not,” he wrote, “reject ‘the theistic proofs’ but merely insist on formulating them in such a way so as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture.”
In the larger context of his method, it seems that what Van Til questioned was not the cogency of the cosmological and teleological arguments but their epistemological starting point. Remember: From Van Til’s point of view, no reasoning can occur without the presupposition—whether knowingly or unknowingly—of the Triune God. The existence of the Triune God of Scripture is—Van Til contends in The Defense of the Faith—“required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world.” There is, therefore, no point of rational neutrality from which the Christian and the non-Christian can ever make the same argument based on the same epistemological assumptions. Rational argumentation itself requires the reality of a Triune God. Christians affirm this reality; non-Christians do not, although they draw unknowingly from the Christian perspective every time that they make a rational argument. The reason that this is the case is primarily because only the ontological Trinity can solve the perennial philosophical problem of the One and the Many, and it is solely this trinitarian solution to the problem of the One and the Many that makes rational predication possible, according to Van Til.
What this means when it comes to the cosmological and teleological arguments is that these arguments are able to succeed precisely because—and only because—of the precedent reality of the Triune God. Whether or not the individual making one of these arguments knows it, the cogency of these arguments depends wholly on God’s existence. And so, there is—at least in Van Til’s view—some degree of necessary circularity in the classical arguments. Without the infinite and Triune God of the Scriptures, the cosmological and teleological arguments end up demonstrating—Van Til claimed—“no more than that [human beings] accept a finite God.” “The empirical theistic proofs” become “invalid” whenever they’re treated as if they have a force that is independent of the presupposition of a Triune God. Thus “they should be stated in such a manner,” Van Til declared in Introduction to Systematic Theology, “as to make God the presupposition of the possibility of predication in every sphere of life.”
Similarly, the ontological argument works—according to Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology—only if the apologist substitutes “the idea that the God of Scripture is the presupposition of all true interpretation for the Cartesian idea that [one] can begin from [oneself] as the ultimate starting point.” And so, what Van Til rejected was not the classical arguments per se. What he denied was the notion that these arguments may be made on the basis of neutral human reason. Rational epistemology is itself dependent on the Triune God. Thus, the arguments can only be made—according to Van Til—if one has already presupposed the very God that the arguments seek to demonstrate.
Cornelius Van Til and the Apologetics of Thomas Aquinas
Recognizing this aspect of Cornelius Van Til’s thought does not eliminate the gap between classical apologetics and presuppositionalism—but it does clarify the precise shape and scope of the distinctions between them. It also raises a significant question: Did Cornelius Van Til correctly describe and critique classical apologetics in the first place?
Van Til rightly pointed out that classical apologists assert that human reason is capable of achieving knowledge of certain truths about God without presupposing the reality of the Triune God.
But Van Til’s critique of classical apologetics goes further than this.
In Van Til’s view, any assertion that human reason is competent to achieve knowledge of God—or, indeed, knowledge about anything at all!—without depending, knowingly or unknowingly, on the reality of the Triune God represents an implicit affirmation of humanity’s capacity to reason autonomously, without God. Classical apologetics is, according to Van Til’s “My Credo,” “based upon the assumption that [humanity] has some measure of autonomy.” By allowing some autonomy in human reason, classical apologists—according to Van Tilian presuppositionalism—divorce rationality from its necessary foundation in the threefold nature of God.
But was Van Til correct on this point?
Do the classical arguments, as they are deployed by classical apologists, actually require the possibility of autonomous human reason? If not, what do these arguments require? And where does the knowledge that’s achievable through these arguments originate?
Classical apologists do affirm that there are, in the words of Thomas Aquinas “some intelligible truths about God that are open to the human reason.” Human reason is, according to Thomas, “competent to attain” certitude regarding God’s existence—but competency is not the same as autonomy. Neither this knowledge nor the competency to attain it operates autonomously—that is to say, independent of God’s rationality or God’s design—in the classical apologetics of Thomas Aquinas.
- (1) In the first place, both the capacity to obtain this knowledge and the structures by which this knowledge is obtained are implanted within humanity by God. General revelation no less than special revelation comes “to us from God” (In B. de Trinitate, q. III, a. 1, ad 3). “The knowledge of principles that are known to us naturally,” Thomas wrote in Summa Contra Gentiles, “has been implanted in us by God” (I:7).
- (2) For the Christian, human reason does not operate independently from faith. In the words of one editor and translator of Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas saw that “even when the philosopher and the believer consider the same things in creatures, they do so through different principles.” Christians receive by faith even those beliefs that reason is competent to attain.
The Divine Mercy … instructs us to hold by faith even those truths that human reason is able to investigate. … It is an error … to enclose what belongs to faith under the limits of philosophy. On the contrary, philosophy should be reduced to the limits of faith (Summa Contra Gentiles, I:4; In B. de Trinitate, q. III, a. 1, ad 3).
- (3) If human reason were autonomous, this would lead inevitably and only to error. Thomas Aquinas was quite clear in Summa Contra Gentiles about what would happen if reason did operate autonomously: “If this truth were left solely as a matter of inquiry for human reason,” the result would be errant conclusions because “human reason for the most part has falsity present in it” (I:4). Here, Thomas seems to have recognized that sin has had an impairing effect on human reason that has resulted in a defective epistemic capacities in fallen humanity. Even if a Christian and a non-Christian hold the same beliefs, each one holds these beliefs on the basis of different principles and that the non-Christian’s epistemology is inevitably defective because it is not grounded in Christian faith.
It is true that Thomas called for apologetics to begin with human reason, at least when engaging with individuals who reject the authority of Scripture (Summa Contra Gentiles, I:2). This was never, however, because he thought reason somehow operates autonomously from God or Scripture. The principles that make rational knowledge possible are implanted in humanity by God, and only the knowledge of a Christian is able to rest wholly and completely on right principles (Summa Contra Gentiles, I:7).
Although there are certainly distinctions between John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas on this point, there are similarities between Calvin and Thomas on this point. According to Calvin,
This method of investigating the divine perfections by tracing the features of God’s presence that extend like a shadow across the sky and earth is common to those inside and those outside the church. (Institutio Christianae religionis, I:5)
None of this is meant to suggest that the methods of Thomas Aquinas and Cornelius Van Til somehow mesh with one another, but it does suggest greater affinity than Van Til’s critique allows.
Standing beside an atheist beneath a midnight sky and staring across a solar system that has swirled in orderly ellipses for billions of years, Thomas Aquinas might have argued that a transcendent God is necessary for this cosmos to exist and that the type of deity necessitated by the cosmological and teleological arguments is the same sort of God who is described in Holy Scripture. Perhaps Thomas would then have sought to establish the truthfulness of Scripture on the basis of historical evidences.
Standing beside the same atheist and facing the same night sky, Van Til’s approach would likely be a regressive transcendental argument in which he contended that the cosmological and teleological arguments as well as all scientific reasoning require the reality of the Triune God of the Scriptures.
The approach is not the same, but any claim that Thomas Aquinas turned over the keys of autonomy to human reason requires an egregious misreading of Thomas’ own teachings.
Does Historical Evidence Have a Place in Presuppositional Apologetics?
But what about historical evidences and the evidential arguments that arise from these evidences?
The case is slightly clearer when it comes to historical apologetics. “Historical apologetics is absolutely necessary and indispensable to point out that Christ rose from the grave,” Van Til admitted in Introduction to Systematic Theology. In this context and several others, it seems Van Til saw no dissonance between presuppositionalism and historical apologetics, as long as the evidences were not presented in a way that allowed human standards of probability to set the standard for whether or not the claims of Christianity are to be accepted as believable. These evidences are to be taken as true—according to Van Til—not because they are probable but because they cohere with God’s true and self-attesting revelation of his truth.
Are Evidential Apologetics Merely Probable?
Once again, however, I am not entirely convinced that Van Til rightly represented the positions he perceived in his ideological opponents. Van Til declared in Introduction to Systematic Theology that “the traditional apologist appeals to ‘probability,’ yet from his own experience the unbeliever knows how extremely improbable a resurrection is.”
Van Til seems, in the first place, to have conflated probability with frequency. More significantly, the “traditional apologist”—to use Van Til’s terminology for the evidentialist—does not believe or call others to believe on the basis of mere probabilities. Yes, an evidentialist apologist may talk about the historical plausibility or probability of the resurrection of Jesus. And yet, the intent of the apologist’s appeal to the probability of a miraculous event on the basis of historical evidences is almost always to demonstrate that belief in this particular event is not irrational. The evidentialist apologist is not declaring that he or she merely believes the resurrection to be probable. The apologist is using historical tools and terminologies to describe an event that he or she absolutely believes to be true.
When an evidentialist argues for the “plausibility” or “probability” of the resurrection, the apologist is, in some sense, taking the non-Christian’s perspective for the sake of argument—a strategy that Cornelius Van Til himself explicitly allowed in his Christian Theory of Knowledge. “Christians can,” according to Van Til, “place themselves upon the position of those whom they are seeking to win to a belief in Christianity for the sake of the argument.” Van Til makes this point again in his Survey of Christian Epistemology when he points out that
we … may for argument’s sake present Christian theism as one hypothesis among many and may for argument’s sake place ourselves upon the ground of our opponent.
Presuppositionalism and the Place of the Classical Arguments and Historical Evidences
At this point, we’ve surveyed a sufficient breadth of data to return to the query with which we began: Can a presuppositional apologist use classical and evidential arguments? The answer is—as I suggested before—“Yes, but it’s complicated.” Or, to put it a bit more clearly now, based on a better understanding, “Yes, but perhaps not in the same way that a classical or evidential apologist would use them.”
A presuppositional apologist can certainly employ classical arguments, but this usage must presume and press for a recognition that it is impossible to make any argument at all apart from the reality of the ontological Trinity.
When it comes to historical evidences, there is also a clear place in presuppositional thinking for such arguments. For the presuppositionalist, however, historical evidences cannot establish or demonstrate what is true. In some sense, historical arguments illustrate what is already known to be true. Since God has set his own standard for truth in his self-attesting Word, human standards of probability can never decide whether or not the claims of Scripture ought to be received as truth.
And so, Craig Blomberg is on the right track when he writes that, according to presuppositionalism, “one cannot demonstrate the probability of Christianity apart from presupposing its truth.” C. Stephen Evans speaks somewhat less accurately when he contends that Cornelius Van Til rejected “the claim that apologetic arguments can be mounted that appeal to facts or logical principles that the unregenerate mind can grasp.” It is, in fact, entirely conceivable for a presuppositionalist to make such arguments, and non-Christians can indeed grasp them—but this process is possible, according to the presuppositionalist, only because the unregenerate person borrows unwittingly from a rational framework that is grounded in the Triune God.
What Can Be Known About God through What He Has Made?
Classical and evidential apologetics do have a place in presuppositionalism, but their function differs radically from how a classical or evidential apologist might use these same arguments. This difference is due primarily to the presuppositionalist assertion that all rational argumentation presupposes the ontological Trinity—an assertion that is, in my view, difficult if not impossible to defend on the basis of Scripture.
If the ontological Trinity actually is the foundation for all rational thought and predication, one would think that this fact would be explicitly articulated somewhere in Scripture—but it is not. In fact, the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul in his letter to the Romans, communicated the content of the knowledge of God that is available through the cosmos in this way:
What can be known about God is evident. … For his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. (Romans 1:18-20).
The attributes that Paul described in this letter—invisibility, sovereignty, divinity—are sufficient to reveal humanity’s rebellion, but they fall far short of revealing an ontological Trinity. If the Trinity is not entailed in the intellectual content that every rational mind is able to attain, it seems unlikely that the ontological Trinity is the necessary presupposition for all rational thought.
Even if one supposes (as I think Van Til would have) that knowledge of the Triune God is uniquely accessible to regenerate persons, it is clear that generation after generation of Christians—and, indeed, generations of faithful Israelites prior to the birth of Jesus—somehow managed to defend God’s truth without recognizing that their rational arguments were grounded in the ontological Trinity. At the very least, shouldn’t someone have discovered this and stated it explicitly at some point before the twentieth century?
In the end, Cornelius Van Til’s critiques of classical and evidential apologetics reveal a troubling tendency toward misinterpretation of his opponents, and his reorientation of the classical arguments is grounded in the questionable assertion that all rational thought requires the presupposition, knowingly or unknowingly, of the ontological Trinity. This assertion falls short in light of both holy Scripture and the history of Christianity.
Cornelius Van Til seems to have been aware that the form of presuppositionalism he proposed was an innovation, unmoored from the generations of faithful Christians who came before him. In “My Credo,” Van Til admitted that the models of apologetics that he rejected are the very models that characterized “the very earliest of apologists” in the history of Christianity. Van Til further declared that it was not until John Calvin that anyone developed “a truly Christian methodology of theology and apologetics”—but he also critiqued Calvin for not having done so with sufficient thoroughness. “Even Calvin,” Van Til said in Introduction to Systematic Theology, “did not bring out with sufficient clearness at all times that the natural [person] is as blind as a mole with respect to natural things as well as with respect to spiritual things.”
In his introduction to Inspiration and Authority by B.B. Warfield, Van Til suggested that it was Immanuel Kant’s reorientation of epistemology and metaphysics that had finally made it possible to pursue a purer form of apologetics: “It is only in our day,” Van Til claimed, “that there can be anything like a fully consistent presentation of one system of interpretation over against the other. … For the first time in history the stage is set for a head-on collision.” Perhaps I am wrong in this, but I find it difficult to accept that Christian apologetics was pursued incorrectly for nearly two thousand years, until a glimmer of light dawned in the twentieth century and Cornelius Van Til effected a Copernican revolution in the Christian intellect, courtesy of categories provided by Kant.
Without Van Til’s assertion that the Triune God is necessary for all rational predication, presuppositionalism in its distinctly Van Tilian variety collapses. There are, of course, forms of presuppositionalism and types of transcendental arguments that do not require this foundational assertion. Van Til’s own approach, however, requires nothing less.