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A Fundamental Problem With The Presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til

david haines
David Haines is an alumnus of Southern Evangelical Seminary

By, David Haines

Cornelius Van Til was, without a doubt, one of the most influential apologists of the Neo-Calvinist movement of the twentieth century. Van Til received his philosophical training under W. H. Jellema at Calvin College (a gifted philosopher who had received his training under well-known English Idealists such as Josiah Royce, F. H. Bradley, and T. H. Green), and then later at Princeton where he completed the work for his Doctorate in philosophy under Archibald Allen Bowman (also a well-known Idealist). Van Til was raised in the Dutch Reformed Theological tradition, and while at Calvin College, he began studying Dutch Reformed thinkers like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Herman Bavinck.

The approach to Christian Apologetics that Van Til proposes in his numerous writings has become known as Presuppositionalism, though some have recently attempted to rename it as Covenantal Apologetics (Cf. Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint). The philosopher or apologist who is well acquainted with the modern and post-modern philosophy of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger will recognize that Van Til’s system of apologetics is very much dependent upon these sources.

Van Til’s approach to apologetics proposes that it impossible for unregenerate human-beings to know something of the one true God unless they first presuppose the truths of Christianity (such as the existence of the Triune God of the Bible, and the divine inspiration of the Bible). Van Til’s system is quite complex, and due to ambiguous terms, easily misunderstood. It is based upon two important claims. First, what we might call the law of the sunglasses, which claims that all humans interpret the universe through an interpretative schema. Second, the No-common-ground clause, which, though it takes many different forms and is open to different interpretations, essentially claims that humans cannot “get out of” or escape this interpretative schema in order to compare it with that which is—reality. In other words, the sunglasses cannot be removed.

If Van Til’s system based upon these two fundamental assertions is true, then the traditional understanding of Natural Theology (understood, in a broad sense, as the thesis that man can know something about God through nature, by reason alone, without specially-added divine help through inspired Scriptures, visions, etc.), held by almost all church theologians from Justin Martyr to B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen, is impossible. In this session, we propose, first of all, to examine the method of apologetics that was proposed by Van Til—summarizing the basic elements of his system. We will then suggest that if we accept the two fundamental assertions of this system, then we must either accept an absolute relativism of interpretative schemes or fall into self-contradiction. Not only this, but these two fundamental assertions lead to a number of serious shortcomings that should motivate us to reject Van Til’s system.

My name is David Haines. I hold a 4-year Bachelor of Theology from Covington Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Philosophy from Southern Evangelical Seminary. I am currently a PhD. Candidate in philosophy at Université Laval in Québec City. I have pastored and served as a teaching pastor in numerous churches in Québec. I have seen God use my training in theology, apologetics and philosophy to help many believers better understand the Word of God. I am currently a professor at Tall Oaks Classical School in Delaware, where I teach Latin, Greek, and the History of Christian Apologetics. I also teach at Séminaire Baptiste Évangélique de Québec where I have taught courses on Apologetics, History of Apologetics, Theology Proper, Prolegomena to Theology, and Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians. In 2017 I will be teaching a course on the Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis.

I look forward to seeing you this year at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics.

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