I am not a Van Tilian presuppositionalist, though I am sympathetic with certain aspects of Cornelius Van Til’s approach. Over the past few years, I have—to the best of my knowledge—read every book and syllabus that Van Til wrote related to apologetics.
Even after reading several thousand pages of Cornelius Van Til’s writings, I do not find his approach or his assumptions to be wholly convincing. At the same time, I’ve also recognized that there are instances when Van Til’s critics have misconstrued his claims. Admittedly, the critics aren’t the only culprits here! Van Til himself was at least partly to blame. Much of Van Til’s articulation of his own thinking is scattered, unclear, and poorly supported. Still, despite Van Til’s apparent struggle to communicate with clarity, there is much to learn from this Reformed philosopher and theologian. As part of this process of learning, there are some criticisms of Van Til that should be set aside because they misrepresent what Van Til thought and taught.
What Can Non-Christians Know?
One of the most frequently-voiced criticisms of Cornelius Van Til has to do with his supposed claim that a non-Christian can never actually know anything. Here’s one typical example of this criticism, from Kelly James Clark’s contribution to the book Five Views on Apologetics:
Van Til’s epistemological claims seem clearly to imply that non-Christians cannot know anything. … Surely even the most benighted unbelievers know that they aren’t the only people who exist in the world, what their names are, and what they ate for breakfast. The reason unbelievers can’t know anything, according to presuppositionalists, is that the presuppositions upon which their knowledge is based are all wrong — they believe on the basis of autonomous human reason and not on the basis of the God who is reason.
Admittedly, there are times when Cornelius Van Til did sound as if he denied that non-Christians know anything. Fallen humans are—according to Van Til—“blind with respect to the truth wherever the truth appears” (Christian Apologetics). “Unless the scales be removed from [one’s] eyes,” Van Til writes elsewhere, no one can “know anything truly about God or about anything else” (A Survey of Christian Epistemology).
These sweeping declarations are, however, far from the full story. Particularly in A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Cornelius Van Til made it clear that his perspective was more nuanced than it might appear on the surface. Here is Van Til’s primary point, as I understand it: If any human being were to apply a consistently non-Christian epistemology in his or her search for knowledge, that person would find no knowledge at all. No one, however, actually does this. The reason that no human being does this—or even can do this!—is because the very act of rational predication is dependent on Christian faith. Any act of reasoning depends—according to Van Til—on the epistemological conditions made possible by the ontological Trinity. Orthodox, trinitarian Christianity is thus “the necessary foundation of ‘proof’ itself” (“My Credo”).
If someone rejects Christianity, that person may reason and may even reason rightly. However, he or she does so inconsistently because the Triune God is the necessary pre-condition for all rational thought. Rebellious humanity lives by the “suppression of the truth … in principle,” but, in actual practice, no one is capable of fully suppressing Christian truth because reason itself presupposes the truth of Christianity (The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture). “Non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently” (The Defense of the Faith). And so, from Van Til’s perspective, a non-Christian may be capable of counting but she can never consistently account for her counting or for her capacity to count. That’s because “the philosophy of fact as held to by Christian theism is the only philosophy that can account for the facts” (Introduction to Systematic Theology).
The Reality of Rational Predication and the Necessity of the Ontological Trinity
All of this brings the careful reader of Van Til to a crucial question: Why is the ontological Trinity the necessary foundation for all rational predication?
One critic of Van Til provides the following rationale for the foundational function of the ontological Trinity in Van Til’s thought: The ontological Trinity is foundational for rational predication “because our triune God decreed all facts and created all facts and providentially controls all facts.” Given Van Til’s scattered articulation of his reason for treating the ontological Trinity as the necessary pre-condition for knowing, this misunderstanding is understandable. At this point, however, this particular critic of Van Til is only partly correct.
If I have rightly read the works of Van Til, the reason why all rational predication relies on the ontological Trinity is because the ontological Trinity alone is able to solve the philosophical dilemma known as “the One and the Many.”
So what is entailed in the dilemma of “the One and the Many”?
The philosophical dilemma of the One and the Many recognizes that reasoning requires the simultaneous recognition of two seemingly irreconcilable realities: (1) all things are united, and yet (2) all things are distinct. To put it another way, rational predication cannot take place without implicitly admitting the mystery that all reality is connected and yet that many things in the universe are also clearly distinguishable from one another. References to this perennial dilemma can be traced back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle.
In Van Til’s thinking, this mystery is resolved only by recognizing the cosmos as the creation of the God who—by being three and yet one—stands as the living solution to the dilemma of the One and the Many. In A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Cornelius Van Til wrote that
Aristotle admitted to being baffled at the question of the infirma species, i.e., the relation of the individual to the lowest universal. There he found the ultimate mystery. On the one hand you cannot say that the individual is subsumed under the species entirely, lest there be nothing but species, and the whole individual disappear. On the other hand, you cannot have complete individuality without bringing the individual in relation with others. Aristotle therefore admitted that, as far as he could see, the relation of the individual and species, or the relationship of the fact to law, remained a mystery. And since the day of Aristotle there has not been any advance made on this score, because modern philosophy has continued to build upon the same assumption that Greek philosophy built upon, namely, that all things are at bottom one and return unto one. … Upon pragmatic basis, and for that matter upon antitheistic basis in general, there can be no object-object relation, … there can be no subject-object relation, … there can be no subject-subject relation. … No human being can utter a single syllable whether in negation or affirmation unless it were for God’s existence. … The Trinity is the conception by which ultimate unity and diversity is brought into equal ultimacy.
The ontological Trinity is, according to Van Til, the “concrete universal” upon which all rational thinking depends (Common Grace and the Gospel).*
Van Til’s grounding of every rational thought and reality in the ontological Trinity also provides the essential foundation for his transcendental argument for God. Every fact in the universe proves the truth of Christian theism, according to Van Til, because every fact and every description of facts relies on the reality of an ontological Trinity.
Cornelius Van Til Never Taught that Non-Christians Know Nothing
For reasons that I will likely explore in a future blog post, I disagree with Cornelius Van Til on this point. Still, regardless of whether or not I agree, it is crucial not to criticize a claim that Van TIl never made. Cornelius Van Til never taught that non-Christians know nothing. What he declared was that, if non-Christians actually believed and knew only what is consistent with their worldview, they would know nothing at all.
To possess or to articulate any fact at all depends—according to Van Til—on the ontological Trinity, a conception that is characteristic solely of the Christian worldview. The non-Christian may reject the Christian worldview and even deny that he or she is borrowing from the Christian worldview—but such protests arise from the non-Christian’s willful suppression of truth that he or she already knows. From Van Til’s perspective, non-Christians do have knowledge, but a non-Christian’s possession of this knowledge is inconsistent with the foundations of his or her worldview.
* “Concrete universal” is a term borrowed from G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy, which Van Til seems to have either redefined or misconstrued. In Hegel’s thought, “concrete universal” refers to a particular object or entity which is defined by its distinct determinations within a universal reality. In “Adorno, Hegel, and the Concrete Universal,” Charlotte Baumann provides this helpful summary of the concrete universal: “The problem a concrete universal responds to is how to unite many distinct entities without denying their difference. In an abstract universal, particulars appear to be nothing but examples of a universal concept. A concrete universal, on the contrary, is, as Hegel says, the ‘unity of distinct determinations,’ the universal’s ‘determination is … the principle of its differences.’ What does that mean? … A concrete universal should not be thought to unite differences in the sense of one substance which has many properties. It rather is the ‘principle of its differences’ in that it only exists through two distinct entities, or that their difference only exists through it.” This concept does not accurately describe either God’s intra-Trinitarian relationships or the relationship of the ontological Trinity to the universe. Nevertheless, “concrete universal” was the term that Van Til selected to describe the function of the ontological Trinity as the resolution of the dilemma of the One and the Many in his thought.