Keith Mathison has a helpful overview of Van Til’s theological-philosophical project over at the Table Talk blog and raises a number concerns as a friendly critique, in the tradition and spirit of R.C. Sproul. Before jumping into my thoughts on the article, let me heartily recommend Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura to you. It’s simply one of the best treatments of the whole doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
I’m no Van Til scholar by any stretch, but I have definitely been raised in the Van Tilian/Framian tradition of presuppositional thinking and apologetics. It’s what I’ve marinated in all my life, and I would hasten to add that Frame’s chastened, charitable, and deeply appreciative interpretation, expansion, and at points, modification of Van Til is certainly the strain of his thinking I have been taught and trained in. The various solipsistic or verging heretical or idol-worship versions of Van Tilianism Mathison mentions are completely foreign to my experience. As Mathison’s references allude to in the article, John Frame has been perhaps Van Til’s greatest popularizer and disciple, and he has never shied from critiquing Van Til where he thought necessary. I find myself happily in that camp.
Mathison’s criticism of Van Til’s weaknesses as an academic philosopher seem to me, in the main, fair and legitimate, specifically as it relates to clarity of communication, technical terms, and formal definitions. Mathison is charitable and largely presumes the best of intentions on Van Til’s part, but notes that Van Til can at times say opposite things about the nature of an unbeliever’s knowledge, was sloppy in his use of “person” when he said that God was both one person and three persons, used historical and philosophical terms idiosyncratically, and I’m willing to grant without great first hand study, that he significantly overstated the differences between what he was promoting and the Christian philosophical and apologetic tradition. All of that I take as helpful, persuasive, and seems like fair criticism from my vantage point.
“Accounting” is the Point
However, and you likely guessed the conjunction was coming, the first eyebrow raise came towards the end of his discussion of the complexity of Van Til’s take on the difference between believing and unbelieving knowledge. Mathison concludes a lengthy summary wondering, “Although Van Til doesn’t say it in this way, it seems that the difference may be rooted in the distinction between the unbeliever’s knowledge of things in the world (which can be true “as far as it goes”) and the unbeliever’s accounting for his true knowledge on his own false assumptions about reality (something that he cannot do).” The key word in that last sentence is accounting.
In the attached footnote, Mathison continues his speculation along these lines with a tree analogy, wondering if Van Til means that unbelievers may know and see that there is a tree, but because of their fallen state see the tree tinted red, and therefore apart from Christ cannot see the tree clearly/accurately — and in this sense “truly.” Mathison denies being able to know whether that is an accurate way to read Van Til or not. For my part, and perhaps this is revelatory of being far more immersed in Frame’s work on Van Til than Van Til himself, but that is precisely what Van Til meant. It has everything to do with pointing out the unbeliever’s inability to consistently account for his knowledge apart from God and the necessary impact that inconsistency will have on the nature of his knowledge. But honestly, Mathison did such an admirable job quoting Van Til and summarizing him on the nature of knowledge and the antithesis, I’m honestly a bit flummoxed as to why he arrives at this speculative, head scratching uncertainty.
Just as Mathison chides Van Til for being unclear, I want to gently chide Mathison for not seeing the answer right in front of him. This point, it seems to me is the diamond of Van Til, the point of it all. But Mathison’s unwillingness to accept that likely interpretation dogs him as he goes on to explore what Van Til meant by “antithesis,” noting that Van Til made statements that verged in various extremes (although Mathison cites Frame who counsels us to temper the extremes and so appreciate the main point). This mistake continues to haunt Mathison when he returns to Van Til’s discussion of humans and our faculty of reason.
Formal vs. Practical “Accounting”
For example, Mathison writes, “One of Van Til’s most fundamental criticisms of traditional apologetics is that it unintentionally makes the mind of man ultimate.” But, speaking of traditional apologists, Mathison replies, “They are not asserting that the mind of man is the ultimate final court of appeal, somehow higher than God. Van Til is criticizing traditional apologetics for something he ends up, in a roundabout way, granting. He has fabricated a problem that did not exist and has devised an entire apologetic methodology to solve this nonexistent problem.”
Mathison is of course correct formally and technically in his claim. No Christian apologist formally asserts that the mind of man is the ultimate final court of appeal, but nevertheless, and Van Til’s central point is that human beings do it practically all the time. When Mathison claims that Van Til has fabricated a problem that did not exist, he is making a breathtaking claim. Let me explain. What happens when a Christian apologist snaps at his wife? He has sinned, yes, but in that irrational act, the Christian apologist certainly has presupposed that his mind is the ultimate final court of appeal, somehow higher than God. He has judged (foolishly/wrongly) that anger and frustration are a reasonable response in that moment. Thankfully, by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the Christian apologist will momentarily come to his senses and repent of his sin and irrationality. But every non-believer functionally venerates his own intellect as the ultimate final court of appeal. Welcome to the real world where sinners do assert that their minds are the ultimate final courts of appeal all the time, in every sinful fit. Even believing Christians relapse into this insanity from time to time as they battle the flesh that remains inside them.
Reason as a Stolen Vehicle
Mathison continues his criticism wondering if Van Til realizes the necessity of human reason in the act of presupposing that Van Til makes so central to his method. And if so, “Does this mean that man, his rational faculties, or the laws of reason are metaphysically ultimate? No. None of them would even exist without God. God is metaphysically ultimate. It simply means that the human act of presupposing cannot occur without them. In other words, everything that Van Til says the believer or unbeliever must do presupposes reason. Van Til has not escaped this fact by creating presuppositional apologetics.”
Mathison is correct to point out that God’s existence is metaphysically ultimate regardless of man’s apprehension. But again I believe Mathison fails to grasp Van Til’s point. The point is that an ethical slant and moral filter is also inescapable in the use of the mind and human reason. The point of asking an unbeliever to give an account for their knowledge is an opportunity to point out their unethical use of reason. Yes, reason is presupposed, but reason is not a simple mathematical formula, a stainless steal idea-processor. Reason, so long as it pretends to be autonomous or neutral or in any way agnostic or atheistic, is operating as a rogue agent. Precisely because God’s existence is the metaphysical ground of all human reasoning, for humans to try or claim to reason apart from Christ, without giving Him thanks and worship, is for them to drive a stolen vehicle. And to the extent that reason attempts to operate apart from the Lordship of Jesus Christ, it is operating in rebellion to the God who gave that gift, and that rebellion (antithesis) cannot help but filter and slant the information processed. This is surely the point of Solomon’s maxim: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” Van Til may be a better pastor than philosopher, more aware of human realities and less careful with his terms and definitions on paper, but he is pointing out something profoundly true and helpful.
Mathison continues: “Supposedly, this method of apologetics presupposes God as opposed to presupposing human reason. This method, however, does in fact presuppose the unbeliever’s human reason and its ability to discern which of the two opposing views explains intelligibility.”
But again, Mathison doesn’t seem to appreciate the ethical or moral dimension of asking an unbeliever to account for their knowledge. The question that Van Til is insisting we press on unbelievers is basically the request: take me to your leader, or if you prefer: where’d you get that rad car? The point isn’t that there’s some way to step out of your brain, the point is to destabilize the natural tendency of fallen men to think uncritically, to practically or functionally worship their ability to reason, to rely on their own moral-intellectual authority thoughtlessly — to assume that it’s perfectly fine for them to be their own leader, to assume that their intellect (the rad car) just came “naturally” or randomly. This fundamental humanism may lead some to bow before naturalistic science, humanistic empiricism, humanitarianism, or even various pagan religions, but all of those “faiths” are ultimately graven images of the self. Sinners put their trust in themselves, their ability to reason, interpret, and understand the world around them rightly. They drive their stolen vehicles around (using their reason while not acknowledging the God who created them) and insist that they are doing just fine, thank you very much, and they do not need God to use their minds, reason, etc. The point of questioning a man’s presuppositions is not to question the common grace gift of basic human reasoning itself, the point is to question the veneration, the unholy assumption that reason has no idolatry problem, that reason is in any way neutral. It isn’t. It is either captive to Christ or a slave of sin. That is the antithesis. That is the point. And it’s a glorious point.
I appreciate Mathison’s overview of the historic Reformed take on “natural theology.” I’m grateful for the more recent work of Reformed theologians in recovering a robust (biblical) natural theology, and given our current sexual insanity, a sturdy, biblically informed natural theology is very much needed. So I take Mathison’s point that if all you read was Van Til, and you buried your head in the sand, you’d have a pretty distorted picture of things. But once again, I take Van Til to be a better pastor than philosopher in this matter. His concerns should not be waved away because people insist that they are not making the mind the ultimate judge and arbiter of truth. Every pastor knows that people can tell you one thing with a straight face and actually be doing the very opposite. And this is in some sense the very nature of the Fall: we saw that we were naked and we hid — what a reasonable (and true!) analysis that simultaneously reveals a deep and tragic distortion of truth and reality. The space between formal positions and de facto positions are the hallmarks of hypocrites, pharisees, legalists, and to some extent, every stripe of sinner. To the extent that we let unbelievers reason without reference to God, we are letting them pretend to have the rights to a tool they stole from their Maker. This makes them fools, and their foolish hearts, Scripture insists, have become darkened (Rom. 1). Whatever they may see truly, they only see through the shadows of their rebellion. This must not be forgotten, or else we will not love our unbelieving opponents in the truth.
As Mathison notes, Van Til’s appraisal of natural theology fits fairly well with the post-enlightenment manifestation of those studies — the primary manifestation that Van Til was responding to. So why not appreciate it there, for what it was? But the fact that natural theology could grow that kind of rationalistic mold should give us a bit more appreciation for Van Til’s “nuke it” approach, even if in the final analysis, his assessments are not always entirely accurate or nuanced. And wherever Van Til was actually historically inaccurate, we should happily correct the record, but I also wonder if Van Til’s Jedi-pastoral sense was a bit more sensitive than some of our purely academic metal detectors. I would commend Van Til’s historical takes as worthy sparring partners, the judgements of a faithful great-grandfather in the faith, perhaps a bit cranky or hide-bound in places, but worthy of careful consideration and dialogue, not knee-jerk or proud dismissal.
Finally, returning to the themes above, I hazard a guess that the frustrating ambiguities that Mathison and others detect in Van Til’s writing were a function of his desire to hold the truths of Scripture up against the realities of the human condition on the ground. I don’t have any problem with folks pointing out the ambiguities, especially where it impinges on central Christian doctrine (e.g. God is one person and three persons is not helpful). But when it comes to an unbeliever’s knowledge of the world, I simply don’t believe that we can answer that question with a one-size-fits-all simple sentence. We may certainly say that all men continue to bear the image of God under common grace, and sin has marred this image and all of its functions in various ways. But this doesn’t mean then that we have a scientific formula for the nature of “fallen” knowledge. With the Reformers we insist that it is sufficient knowledge to be condemned and insufficient knowledge to be saved. That’s “true” knowledge in some sense and not really “true” knowledge in other senses. I mean, what kind of knowledge was it if 30 million years from now you’re burning in Hell? Not very “true,” I would submit.
So while I appreciate Mathison’s criticisms and warnings, and I think his article should be read and appreciated by students of Van Til, I do not go along with his conclusions that Van Til’s flaws and weaknesses are so intrenched that his work cannot be commended, much less salvaged or rehabilitated. On the contrary, I hold that Van Til’s insistence that there is no neutrality, that the antithesis runs through every human heart and mind, and that apart from God’s supernatural intervention, our rational capacities are seriously slanted — these are enormously helpful and biblical tools for the Christian Church and needed now more than ever, as we seek to call our culture to repentance and back to Christ. An academic and formally accurate Christian philosophy truly is helpful and needful, but I don’t believe we will achieve this goal of cultural reformation merely with more footnotes and scholarly apparatus. No, while we should certainly strive to be more careful than Van Til was at points, we should not shy from the task before us which is something a lot closer to Van Til than the ivory tower, something that includes both the street smarts of Johnny Cash and the acumen of Francis Turretin.