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Geisler's article on Van Til
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- Subject: Geisler's article on Van Til
- From: Greg Welty <email@example.com>
- Date: Sat, 17 Apr 1999 16:24:43 +0100
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[Note: this email has been cross-posted to the Apologia list, due to recent
remarks there about the availability of Geisler's latest book, and
speculation about the contents of the entry on Van Til. Nevertheless,
detailed interaction with the Van Tilian approach should probably be posted
to the Van Til List, and not to Apologia.]
My copy of Norman Geisler's _Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics_
arrived by post yesterday. It's 841 pages, with rather small print in two
Here's an outline of Geisler's eight-page entry on 'Cornelius Van Til':
[I. Philosophy of Apologetics]
[I.A. 'Traditional' Apologetics]
[I.B. Christian and Non-Christian Together]
[I.C. A Consistently Apologetic Method]
[II. Revelational Presuppositionalism]
[II.A Rejection of Classical Apologetics]
[II.B Van Til's Apologetic Method]
[II.B.1 The method of implication]
[II.B.2 Reasoning by presupposition]
[II.B.3 Indirect method]
[II.B.4 External and internal method]
[II.B.6 The reductio ad absurdum method]
[III. Key Concepts]
[III.A God's Sovereignty]
[III.B Common Ground]
[III.C Brute Facts]
[III.D Human Depravity]
[III.E Analogy and Paradox]
[IV.A Positive Contributions]
[IV.B Negatives in Van Til's Apologetics]
Now, Geisler has a definite gift for organising and presenting historical
evidences for the Christian faith, for analysing the concept of miracle,
and for exposing the internal weaknesses of alternatives to Christianity.
He is also one of the few evangelicals to appreciate the work of Thomas
Aquinas. And perhaps, in the end, this encyclopedia will prove its strength
in precisely that way. For that the church should be thankful for the
recent production of this volume.
However, Geisler's entry on 'Cornelius Van Til' only stops short of being
pure, unadulterated horror. Here are my comments on some of the sections
I've outlined above. Keep in mind that while the entire entry is eight
pages long, most of the 'sections' are only one or two paragraphs at most...
... except for 'Negatives in Van Til's Apologetics,' which runs on for four
Here Geisler informs us about 'two undated works.' One is _Why I Believe in
God_, but Geisler never gets around to telling us about the other work! The
sentence ends abruptly; poor editing, at the very least :)
[II.B Van Til's Apologetic Method]
[II.B.4 External and internal method]
Geisler's article relies heavily upon Frame's _Cornelius Van Til: An
Analysis of His Thought_ (CVT:AAT) in its positive exposition of VT's
views. Unfortunately, Geisler often quotes Frame's *summaries* of VT's
method, and then explicitly *attributes them to* VT! Case in point is this
section: 'Van Til's apologetic method is both external and internal. He
argues: ...', and what immediately follows is an extended quote, not from
VT, but from Frame's exposition of VT. Now, while I believe the Frame quote
is a good summary of VT's strategy, it is very misleading for Geisler to
quote Frame *as* VT. It happens again and again.
[IV.A Positive Contributions]
Here there are some surprising defences of VT from misunderstanding:
'Van Til defended the formal laws of logic in principle and practice. He
believed the laws of logic were the same for both the Creator and
creatures. However, formally because of sin they are not understood or
applied in the same way. He was not an irrationalist.'
'There are certainly rationally necessary preconditions for meaning, and
they do, as Van Til argued, demand that we posit the existence of a
theistic God.' [we'll pass over for the time being the redundancy of
'theistic God' :) ]
'Often overlooked by nonpresuppositionalists is the practical value of a
presuppositional approach. Non-Christians do implicitly (and even
unconsciously) presuppose the basic principles of a theistic worldview in
order to make sense out of the world. Pointing this out debunks their world
view and invites them to consider the positive value of the Christian
worldview. No doubt Schaeffer's effectiveness in doing this is a result of
his study under Van Til.'
[IV.B Negatives in Van Til's Apologetics]
Here Geisler admits that many criticisms of VT are based upon
misunderstanding. Geisler also follows many of Frame's criticisms of VT's
methodology, as Frame laid these out in CVT:AAT. These include the points
that all apologetic argument must not fit one pattern, that transcendental
argument may be supplemented by more traditional argument, the difference
between transcendental goal vs. transcendental conclusion, issues
concerning probability vs. certainty, and the identification of VT's
extreme antithetical formulations of the noetic effects of sin.
Geisler follows Frame in holding that VT's 'indirect' argument for
Christian theism can be 'stated in a positive form.' Thus, we can construe
VT's indirect argument:
1. If God does not exist, the world is unintelligible. (if ~G, then ~I)
2. God does not exist. (~G)
3. Therefore, the world is unintelligible. (~I)
as convertible to a 'positive' argument:
1. If the world is intelligible, God exists. (if I, then G)
2. The world is intelligible. (I)
3. Therefore, God exists. (G)
However, (in what may be one of my only public criticisms of Frame!), I
believe that in this instance Frame (and therefore Geisler) are wrong, and
that on two counts. First, the 'indirect' argument above still does not
capture the content of a transcendental argument. For starters, it does not
have a modal scope that ranges over all possibilities, but only states that
God *is* an explanation for the intelligibility of the universe. Second,
the two arguments above are *not* convertible into each other. They have
different premises, with different semantic content. The premise that 'the
world is intelligible' is found in the second argument, not the first. The
first argument is a reductio ad absurdum, in the sense that 'God does not
exist' is the premise assumed for the sake of argument, and which then is
shown to lead to the (absurd) conclusion that the universe is
unintelligible. But the second argument is not a reductio ad absurdum in
any sense. If reductio ad absurdums are simply 'convertible' to a direct
argument, one wonders why they have persisted over millennia as a distinct
Geisler concludes: 'Van Til's protests to the contrary, he cannot avoid
giving a positive apologetic argument. This being the case, much of Van
Til's steam against classical apologetics evaporates.' I disagree. The
reason why 'much of the steam' evaporates is *not* that transcendental
arguments can be converted into traditional arguments, but that
transcendental arguments are not the *only* kind of apologetic argument
that can be mounted (within the confines of biblical orthodoxy) against the
Later, Geisler repeats the old canard that: 'The basic difference between
Van Til and Aquinas is that, while they both agree *ontologically* that all
truth depends on God, Van Til fails to fully appreciate that finite man
must ask *epistemologically* how we knows this [sic]. In this he confuses
the order of *being* and the order of *knowing*.'
VT addressed this charge long ago: 'Man's consciousness of self and of
objects presuppose for their intelligibility the self-consciousness of God.
In asserting this we are not thinking of psychological and temporal
priority. We are thinking only of the question as to what is the final
reference point in interpretation' (_Defense of the Faith_, 2nd ed., p. 77).
If, according to Geisler, 'finite man' were to ask *epistemologically* how
he knows that *ontologically* all truth depends on God, VT would have a
ready answer: the transcendental argument from the impossibility of the
contrary. And that is an answer within the realm of *epistemology*, with no
confusion with ontology.
It's too bad that Geisler did not avail himself of Frame's article on the
Ligonier Apologetic, reprinted at the end of AGG. There Frame, in
addressing the same 'order of being confused with order of knowing' charge,
says: 'on Van Til's view, the self is the "proximate," but not the
"ultimate" starting point [IST 203]. What this means, I think, is that it
is the self which makes its decisions both in thought and practical life:
every judgment we make, we make because we, ourselves, think it is right.
But this fact does not entail that the self is its own ultimate criterion
of truth. We are regularly faced with the decision as to whether we should
trust our own unaided judgment, or rely on someone else. There is nothing
odd or strange (let alone logically impossible) about such a question; it
is entirely normal' (AGG 224-225).
Frame goes on to point out that it is the *opponents* of VT who confuse the
ontological with the epistemological. Critics like Geisler and the Ligonier
group focus on the metaphysical/ontological/psychological question of
whether all decisions are decisions of the self. But a 'yes' answer here
(to which VT would agree) does not prejudice the answer to a completely
distinct, epistemological question: *what standard* ought the self to use
in coming to its decisions? VT kept these questions distinct. It is his
opponents who don't seem to be able to tell the difference.
Later, Geisler charges against VT that 'one cannot beg the question and
merely presuppose the theistic God. Presuppositions cannot be arbitrary.'
This completely overlooks, of course, VT's *many* arguments throughout his
published work that the intelligibility of epistemic, scientific, and moral
practices *depend* upon the obtaining of a Christian ontology (as this
ontology is described by Christian presuppositions, that is, biblical
teaching). VT's arguments for this dependence may be inconclusive or lead
only to probable conclusions. But *no one* -- in light of the pervasiveness
of these arguments throughout the VT corpus -- can adequately represent VT
as 'merely presupposing' the 'theistic God,' or being 'arbitrary.'
Geisler writes: 'How does Van Til know the Christian position is true? If
Van Til answered, as he seems to in his writings, "Because it is the only
truly rational view," perhaps Aquinas would reply, "That is what I believe.
Welcome, dear brother, to the bimillennial club of rational theists." '
But this is an insult to Aquinas. If Tom had his wits about him, and had
actually perused VT's works, he would have said, 'I'm glad we make the same
*claim* about the rationality of the Christian position. But it seems that
we are diametrically opposed in our view as to *how* we know the Christian
position is rational.'
VT and Aquinas belong in the same club insofar as they both affirm that the
Christian position is rational. But it is to beg the question against Van
Til (or at least to severely misrepresent him) to claim, *on the basis of*
this common confession, that they *also* agree as to how this confession is
shown to be true.
Later, Geisler claims that: 'A common mistake of Reformed
presuppositionalism is to equate the figure of speeh *dead* with the
concept *annihilated*, a mistake which, fortunately, they do not make when
speaking of the "second death" (Rev. 20:14).' However, Geisler attempts
absolutely no documentation of this 'mistake,' with reference to VT or any
other Reformed author. Instead he just attributes, apparently in general,
'this skewed view of the noetic effects of sin' to any and all
Geisler's arguments against the Reformed exegesis of 1Co 2:14 ('the natural
man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God') amount to special
pleading for the Arminian point of view. The lack of 'understanding' in
question is, according to Geisler, a lack of knowing their truth 'by
experience'! The noetic effects of sin are now reduced to the (trivial)
point that the unbeliever isn't a Christian yet.
Perhaps the worst part of Geisler's critique of VT is the lengthy section
on VT's view of the Trinity. One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry
when Geisler quotes John Robbins as a relevant authority on this topic.
Geisler's basic fallacy is to argue in the following fashion:
[P1] VT claims that 'God is not simply a unity of persons; he is *a* person.'
[P2] VT 'never clearly differentiates between the two senses of the term
[C] Therefore, VT's formulation 'violates the law of noncontradiction.'
Geisler tries to make the above argument more sophisticated than it sounds,
but in the end this is his basic move/fallacy: because VT didn't *specify*
the different senses of 'person,' therefore there *are* no senses to be
Geisler concludes his section on the Trinity:
'Van Til does not overlook the fact that he has not provided a real
difference in the definition of the term "person" as used of "one person"
and "three persons." He admits that "We may not always be able to show how
two concepts can logically coexist." But unless a difference can be shown,
Van Til has not avoided the charge of contradiction. For one cannot have
both three and only one of the same subject (person).'
Unfortunately, the VT quote in the above paragraph is really Frame's
sentence, not VT, even though Geisler attributes it to VT. But no matter.
For Geisler's conclusion still doesn't follow. The 'charge of
contradiction' will only stick if VT asserted 'one person' and 'three
person' in the same sense, which is precisely what VT denied. The most of
what VT can be accused is apophatic use of terms, which is normal enough
procedure in doing theology. No one should know this Thomistic point better
than Geisler himself.
Later, Geisler claims that VT's view 'leads to skepticism about God, since
there is no point of actual identity between our knowledge and his.' Since
Geisler leans so heavily on Frame's CVT:AAT throughout his article, it
would have been helpful if Geisler had actually interacted with Frame's
extended analysis of the issues involved in the 'Clark Controversy,' which
was about 'identity of content' in VT. (Even Bahnsen says Frame's treatment
is 'one which I highly recommend to readers interested in the matter,'
VT:R&A 225 fn. 147.)
Finally, Geisler argues that, because VT never argues for why the
intelligibility of the world depends upon there being *three* persons in
the Godhead (instead of two or four), *therefore* 'there are fideistic
elements in Van Til's form of presuppositionalism.' If this is all Geisler
can come up with, I suppose we shouldn't fault him too much. This final
charge is quite scaled back compared to the one leveled against VT way back
in Geisler's _Christian Apologetics_ (Baker, 1976), p. 38:
'Therein is the fideistic hitch in his [VT's] whole approach, for it would
appear that the Bible is *assumed* to be true by an act of faith in its
self-vindicating authority in an admittedly circular reasoning process. If
that is the case, the "proofs" of God and historical "facts" of
Christianity would have absolutely no meaning or validity outside the
fideistic acceptance of the presupposition that Christianity is true.'
It seems that in the past 23 years, Geisler has moved from seeing VT as an
unrestricted fideist, to seeing him as having 'fideistic elements' due to
an inability to argue why *three* persons of the Trinity are
transcendentally necessary. We can be thankful that the degree of
misrepresentation has been reduced by at least this much :)
Geisler's bibliography for this particular entry is woefully incomplete.
While lack of a reference to Bahnsen's latest VT book (VT:R&A) is
understandable (I'm sure this entry went to press before Bahnsen's book was
printed), lack of a reference to Bahnsen's _Always Ready_ is inexcusable.
The only Bahnsen book referenced is _By This Standard_! Also inexcusable is
lack of reference to Frame's AGG, Pratt's _Every Thought Captive_, and Thom
Notaro's _Van Til and the Use of Evidence_. None of these works even make
it into Geisler's one-page entry on 'Presuppositional Apologetics'! How
John Robbins' scurrilous and incompetent _Cornelius Van Til: The Man and
the Myth_ made it into [V. Sources], while these major works of exposition
and application by Bahnsen, Frame, Pratt, and Notaro did not, is beyond my
To make matters worse, Bahnsen's essay on 'The Reformation of Christian
Apologetics' is explicitly quoted in the text of the 'Cornelius Van Til'
entry, but the volume from which it comes (Gary North's _Foundations of
Christian Scholarship_) is never referenced in [V. Sources] at the end of
the entry! The reader is left with no clue as to where this essay is to be
And in the 'comprehensive' 29-page bibliography at the very end of the
encyclopedia, there are *no* references to any works by Bahnsen, Frame,
North, Notaro, Pratt, etc., even to the few works by Frame and Bahnsen
which *are* referenced in the 'Cornelius Van Til' entry!
I hope this has been of some help to those who are interested. Geisler's
sections on miracles total 40 large pages. And the entries under
reincarnation, resurrection, and the manuscripts and dating of the New
Testament, seem particularly substantive. The work is so comprehensive that
you should eventually get a copy, if only for quick, introductory answers
on a wide variety of topics.
But stick to Frame and Bahnsen on Van Til :)
Blessings in Christ,
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