Review of “Christian Apologetics” (Van Til)

Christian Apologetics by Cornelius Van Til, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003, Second Edition, Edited by William Edgar, 206 pages., paperback, $11.99.

The name of Cornelius Van Til produces different responses in different people. To those who believe that man’s reason is sufficient on its own to arrive at proper conclusions about God, Van Til is the man whose apologetic method leaves Christian evidences on the sidelines. He is a fideist, a scholar who indulges in circular reasoning. But to those who believe that the Bible’s authority comes before everything – even our reasoning, Van Til is a great revolutionary, perhaps the most important Christian thinker since Calvin (so says John Frame). This is why every thinking Christian ought to read something by Van Til, and this book is perhaps the best place to start. Not that Christian Apologetics is easy reading. Indeed, I make it a rule not to read Van Til before retiring for fear of replicating his apologetics throughout “the wee small hours.” Still, what this book will do for many who give it its head is to evoke the inner cry of “That’s right! I always suspected that.”

This edition includes a fine introduction and notes by William Edgar. The introduction helps to orient the reader to the “Presuppositionalism” of Van Til. Edgar writes, “Presuppositional apologetics asks that we but recognize that all ideas and arguments come within a basic arrangement, a framework within which they make sense. That framework, when it does not conform to biblical truth, is open to challenge.” (p.5). The five chapters that follow seek to demonstrate this point.

In chapter one, Van Til sets out the theological backdrop for his approach (this is why this reviewer likes the term “theological apologetics” to define the system), a procedure foreign to other apologetical methodologies. On the basis of setting a theological agenda for a biblical defense of the Faith, he can assert, “It is God’s plan, God’s comprehensive interpretation of the facts that makes the facts what they are.” (p.27. Italics his. See also p.150). Since God is the Architect and Builder of all reality, a worldview that ignores this truth is doomed to interpret the world incorrectly. By not placing the Triune God front and center of everything we make claims about, we are left without a means to relate facts one to another. As Van Til says a little further on, “Christians are interested in showing to those who believe in no god or in a god, a beyond, some ultimate or absolute, that it is this God in whom they must believe lest all meaning should disappear from human words. Christians are interested in showing to those who hold that God possibly (or probably) exists but possibly (or probably) does not exist, that the words possibility and probability have no meaning unless the God of Christianity actually exists.” (p.39).

The second chapter is entitled “The Christian Philosophy of Life.” It propounds a worldview in which we recognize that; “The mark of God’s ownership was from the beginning writ large upon all the facts of the universe.” (p.72). As far as the Bible is concerned, “Man is said or assumed from the first page to the last to be a creature of God.” (p.80). In chapter three, “The Point of Contact,” the author deals with the question as to whether there exists any common ground between believer and unbeliever. He states famously,

“When man became a sinner, he made of himself instead of God the ultimate or final reference point. And it is precisely this presupposition, as it controls without exception all forms of non-Christian philosophy, that must be brought into question. If this presupposition is left unquestioned in any field, all the facts and arguments presented to the believer will be made over by him according to his pattern. The sinner has cemented colored glasses to his eyes, which he cannot remove. And all is yellow to the jaundiced eye. There can be no intelligible reasoning unless those who reason together understand what they mean by their words.” (p.98).

This quotation shows that Van Til (contrary to misrepresentations of him by men like Sproul or McGrath) does believe that common ground can be found once both sides understand each other’s basic presuppositions. It also shows the relevance of presuppositionalism in this age of what Jacques Ellul called, “the humiliation of the word.” Van Til presses his reader to see the truth that, “Deep down in his mind every man knows that he is the creature of God and responsible to God. Every man, at bottom, knows that he is a covenant breaker.” (p.118). That is why the Bible declares that, “The fool says in his heart, There is no God.” (Psa. 19:1). It is this suppressed knowledge that Van Til says we must discover to the would-be autonomous sinner. Presuppositional apologetics seeks to lay bear that which every sinner wishes to hide away and forget about, – that he has, “the sense of deity that he seeks to suppress.” (p.126). Every unbeliever is a creature answerable to his or her Creator.

Chapter Four deals with methodology, and it contains some of the most demanding passages in the book. Nevertheless, in it the author shows how, in the nature of the case, all reasoning is in a sense circular (p.130). He also answers objections to his method. (p. 132f.). It is in this chapter where Van Til insists that since every doctrine of Scripture is related perspectivally to the other, none ought to be defended on its own without reference to the rest of God’s special revelation. Thus, “A truly Protestant method of reasoning involves stress upon the fact that the meaning of every aspect or part of Christian theism depends upon Christian theism as a unit.” (p.149).

In the final chapter the issue of authority is addressed. Again, some of the discussion is rather complex, but there are some marvelous passages too. Two will have to suffice. The first quote addresses God’s sovereignty: “A truly Christian concept of authority presupposes that in all he does man is face to face with the requirement of God. But how could man be face to face with the requirement of God if God does not own and control all things? How could God face man with his requirements where he has no power to rule?” (p.180).

The second speaks to the non-Christian’s ultimate presupposition of Chance: “In every non-Christian concept of reality brute facts or chance plays a basic role. This is so because anyone who does not hold to God’s counsel as being man’s ultimate environment has no alternative but to assume or assert that chance is ultimate. Chance is simply the metaphysical correlative of the idea of the autonomous man.” (p.184).

Christian Apologetics is an excellent way to initiate oneself into Van Til’s world. And a mind-expanding and faith-grounding world it is. Many dispensationalists (myself included) believe that this kind of apologetic best suits their theology. Classical and Evidentialist apologists try to prove a god via rational argumentation apart from Scripture, but then suddenly transform this probable god into the one Triune God of the Scriptures. The Bible does not argue this way (Gen. 1:1; Psa. 19:1ff.; Jn. 1:1-3; Rom. 1:18f.). Indeed, it could not do so without leaving a way open for those who say that there is not sufficient proof for the Christian God (e.g. Bertrand Russell). While the reviewer does not hold to Reformed theology en toto, he does give Van Til’s works a high recommendation.

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