Van Tillian Inconsistency

I want to start off by saying that I fall into the “presup” camp when it comes to apologetics. I find the position to be most consistent with Scripture (which I am not seeking to defend in this article). However, I find problems among those in the camp and even with some of Van Til’s teaching. I don’t necessarily buy everything Van Til or his followers teach or have taught. I would label myself a “moderate” presuppositionalist. I believe it is possible to find middle ground between the “classical” approach and the “presup” approach without having to result to what I think is a false dilemma between the two positions. Both sides have truths that can be offered and we shouldn’t throw either position out entirely because we may not like certain teachings sourced in either position. I do find it ironic that there are those in the “classical” camp who would complain because some in the Van Tillian camp will reject their position or aspects of it on theology proper due to philosophical commitments that are used in their theology, but then turn around and criticize the “presup” view because Van Til used idealist philosophical concepts in his system. For some reason, it is okay for “classicists” to use philosophical concepts in their theology (and rightly so) that are found in pagan philosophy, but Van Til can’t, even when he goes to great length to defend himself against accusations of adopting idealism (see his work “The Defense of the Faith”). And on the flip side, there are those in the Van Tillian camp that have fallen into this too, where there will be criticism of the usage of “Greek philosophy” in theology while adopting a system (“presup”) that has inherent philosophical commitments that are found in idealism. We have to move beyond this type of argumentation. With all that said, this article spawned out of me reading an essay that Dr. Matthew Barrett of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary posted by Richard A. Muller titled, “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay” from 2018. This article is not meant to cover every inconsistency by Van Tillians or the beliefs of Van Til, but a point-by-point discussion of inconsistencies among Van Til and some of his followers. Also, when I say, “Van Tillian” in the title, I am not only referring to what Van Til may have taught, but some teachings found among the “presup” camp that have come from followers of Van Til. Let us begin.

The Doctrine of God

This doctrine seems to be in some way be at the center of multiple controversies. There are those in the “presup” camp (not necessarily everybody) that have adopted an unorthodox doctrine of God. However, there seems to be disagreement among followers of Van Til with Van Til himself on what constitutes an orthodox theology proper. One need look no further than Jeff Johnson. He identifies as a presuppositionalist in his book, “Saving Natural Theology from Thomas Aquinas,” on page 6 of the Kindle edition. However, there does not seem to be agreement even with Van Til on who God is (although this may be done in ignorance). In his previous book (“The Failure of Natural Theology”) he specifically rejects the concept of God as “actus purus,” meaning God is pure act without the capacity to become more than He actually is. He is the fullness of His being, completely perfect. Jeff says the following:

Actus Purus Is Not the God of the Bible…Actus Purus Is Oblivious and Unconcerned…Actus Purus Cannot Create…Actus Purus Does Not Have a Free Will…Actus Purus Is Impersonal…Thus, according to Aristotle, God is somewhat deistic in that he is oblivious to the universe.

Johnson, Jeffrey D. “The Natural Theology of Aristotle.” The Failure of Natural Theology: A Critical Appraisal of the Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas, Free Grace Press, 2021, pp. 66–69.

As you can see, he expressly denies this doctrine. He sees it as a philosophical commitment and not a biblical one, although he does see some overlap between Aristotelian concepts of God and the biblical God (see page 67). However, it is clear that Van Til did teach this doctrine of actus purus as applied to God and even grounded this understanding of God as the basis for his apologetic position (which position Jeff Johnson espouses). Notice what Van Til says,

As God is absolute rationality so God is also absolute will. By this we mean primarily that God did not have to become good, but has from everlasting to everlasting been good. In God there is no problem of activity and passivity.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Behavior.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 83.

Even on a footnote on the same page, K. Scott Oliphint who edited the 4th edition, says the following in relation to the above:

That is, as orthodox theology has maintained, God is Pure Act. There is nothing incomplete or in any way imperfect in God.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Behavior.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadelphia, 1955, p. 83.

And Van Til then seems to tie this view of God to his view of apologetic methodology where he says,

It should be especially noted that Christians put forth this concept of God, not as something that may possibly be true and may also possibly be untrue. From the nontheistic point of view our God will have to appear as the dumping ground of all difficulties. For the moment we waive this objection in order to call attention to the fact that all the differences between the Christian and the non-Christian point of view, in the field of ethics, must be ultimately traced to their different God-concepts. Christians hold that the conception of God is the necessary presupposition of all human activity.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Behavior.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 83. (Emphasis mine)

Just prior to this section is where Van Til established actus purus as biblical in understanding God’s nature. So the context and what is said above would seem to indicate that to reject this view of God is to undermine a core aspect of Van Til’s position on God. Jeff says he’s a presuppositionalist without qualification as we’ve quoted already, so it can safely be assumed he holds to Van Til’s apologetic as a whole. Remember, this concept of “presupposing” God is key to Van Til’s methodology. God must be presupposed to account for all things such as logic, thought, facts themselves, etc. This is essentially the transcendental method of arguing for God’s existence. Also, there is no real neutrality when it comes to man. Man’s state is sinful and as such he is bent away from God. Also, since he lives in God’s world, man must assume God by default since he is using those things created. He cannot escape God. So this statement made by Van Til that, “the conception of God is the necessary presupposition of all human activity” is an indication of his apologetic methodology. This, I think, would put Jeff in a precarious situation as it relates to holding to Van Tillian apologetics the way he does.

Proofs for God

Now, I want to visit some of the apologetic argumentation of Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary who knew Van TIl personally and was a student of his post-Van Til’s retirement. Among the Van Tillian camp and with Van Til himself, there is a large amount of criticism of Thomas Aquinas. Van Til, at least to me, seems to identify Aquinas with the broader Roman tradition and not allow for much nuance of Romanism. If this is indeed the case, this could be problematic as the Catholic Church under Aquinas was very different than post-Trent Rome, so this could lead to anachronistic predication. Regardless, the emphasis on Aquinas by Van Til seems to have been passed to at least some of his followers including Dr. Oliphint. Let us look at an example. Richard A. Muller says the following in critique of Oliphint’s understanding of “proofs for God” :

Oliphint makes several crucial mistakes in his interpretation of Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God. The first mistake is categorical. Oliphint assumes, largely on the basis of Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles (even though his analysis of Aquinas’s proofs is based on the Summa Theologiae) that the proofs are not only an exercise in the philosophy of “pure” natural reason but also a form of apologetics. The proofs in the Summa Theologiae, however, are identified as preambles to articles of faith that neither identifies them exclusively as philosophy nor classifies them as apologetic—they belong to sacra doctrina.

Muller, Richard A. “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay.” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 53, 2018, p. 274.

This is key, as critiques of the “classical” position of apologetics from the “presup” camp do assume that the arguments coming from the other side, i.e Thomistic the view, are indeed apologetic in nature. This can be understandable given that men like Norman Geisler, who was R.C. Sproul’s mentor, used Thomas as an apologetic tool (see Dr. Oliphint’s book, “Thomas Aquinas” page 55, Kindle edition). However, Thomas never meant his work to be utilized as an apologetic tool or for it to be apologetic in nature, but as part of the basic articulations of the Christian faith itself. This changes the discussion, as this means to critique the “classical” position based on these proofs from Thomas would be to fall into a straw manning by arguing against something that Thomas never said. If the argument is simply against one like Geisler who turned the theistic proofs of Thomas into apologetical arguments, then the argument would be against Geisler and not Thomas unless one misrepresents Thomas. However, Oliphint, who is a prominent Van Tillian, imputes these motives of theistic proofs to Thomas himself as is seen in Muller’s critique above. One should argue against followers of Thomas who have changed his proofs into apologetic tools rather than going after Thomas when he was simply laying out the Christian faith if they are to engage with these proofs at all. Given the discussion above, we can then look at a common argument for any theistic proof that is not attached to the Van Tillian model and is applied to Aquinas’s theistic proofs. Muller says this,

The second mistake is also a categorical one: it concerns the issue of precisely what Aquinas thought he was proving. Oliphint, who has strenuously advocated Mclnerny’s critique of Gilson and has referenced a Cajetanian reading of Aquinas, clearly misunderstands Cajetan’s view of the proofs. Oliphint represents Cajetan as teaching that the “proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself.”…The intent of the proofs is not to provide a full doctrine of the Christian God but only to show that reason can attain a set of rather limited concepts that can only be predicated of God and that will be seen to belong to God in the full development of the Christian doctrine of God subsequent to the proofs.

Muller, Richard A. “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay.” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 53, 2018, p. 276-277

This line is key from Oliphint’s book “Thomas Aquinas” that Muller cites, “proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself.” (Page 155, Kindle edition) Oliphint is actually referring here to a Cardinal that was explaining Thomas but Oliphint clearly thinks this principle is true of Thomas’s theistic proofs. But as one works through a massive work like the Summa, it can be seen clearly that saying these theistic proofs logically leave us with merely a god and not the God is inaccurate. Aquinas in the Summa is very clear that the God these proofs are pointing to is not a faceless god but the God of Scripture. As he expounds for instance on God’s immutability in Part I, question 4 of the Summa where he clearly establishes the God that does not change is the God of Malachi 3:6, the one true and living God. And the starting point for Aquinas is not philosophy, but Scripture. He then works from the already established Scripture to bring to light implications of divine immutability. To separate the proofs of God’s existence from the rest of Aquinas’s work as if they are arguments that merely prove a “god” is to take Aquinas’s words completely out of context and to let Van Tillian methodology blind. This Van Tillian argumentation would apply certainly to an evidential apologetic where God’s word is left out of the presentation for the sake of different evidences and even theistic proofs. This methodology is not intended to couple the supernatural with the natural in terms of apologetic argumentation, but it is meant to use “evidence” in lieu of the supernatural to prove the supernatural. This is not what we find with Aquinas. We find that he never meant these proofs to be apologetic and that they were to be taken with the whole doctrine of God, that God being from Scripture who is brought out elsewhere in the Summa.

The Concept of Analogy

We now arrive at a thorny topic: “analogy” There seems to be issue here as it relates to Van Til when it comes to his definition of “analogy” and the concept of the Thomistic “analogy of being.” Let us look at Muller again.

Oliphint’s discussion of Aquinas’s view of God draws heavily on the claims of Cornelius Van Til, one of whose basic points of critique is that Aquinas’s “idea of the analogy of being compromises the biblical doctrine of creation.” The reason for this, in Van Til’s view, is that the notion of an analogy of being comes directly from Aristotle and reduces the distinction between the Creator and the creature by adopting the Greek philosophical assumption that “all being is essentially one” and that “all individual beings are being to the extent that they participate in this one ultimate being,” thereby undermining the Christian teaching of “a self-contained God”…

Muller, Richard A. “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay.” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 53, 2018, p. 270

I am not sure what version of analogy of being Van Til would have held to explicitly, but he did at the very least rejected the concept of “analogy of being” between God and creation, understood Thomistically. This would naturally create problems. It would be dangerous to reject analogy between God and creation as this would mean there really is likeness between us and God in some way completely destroying the creator/creature distinction that must be kept if God is to truly be the first cause of all things and independent of all things. Clearly though, Van Til rejected Thomas’s view of analogy and applied analogy in a different way. What I will say though is I doubt Van Til denied in every respect analogy of being as this would result in no distinction in reality or concept between Him and His creation. I don’t think this was the case. It seems to me that he denied the concept of analogy of being, but maintained it in other areas unknowingly and inconsistently. This would merely show a misunderstanding of Thomas rather than a complete denial of the doctrine all together. What is odd about Van Til’s understanding of analogy of being is that he thought it broke the distinction between God and creatures. This is a complete misunderstanding of analogy of being as it relates to Thomas in that it sought to show a very qualified similarity between God and creatures without violating the distinction. By definition this is the case, and to say it isn’t implements a straw man fallacy. What would in fact break down the distinction would be to utilize a univocal understanding of God and creation or adopt an equivocal view. Van Til seemed to have two different meanings of “analogy” when talking about God. That we shouldn’t talk about the relation between God and creation by way of Thomistic analogy and that analogy of “knowledge,” which Oliphint breaks down for us in a footnote in Van Til’s “The Defense of the Faith”, is how we should view analogy as it relates to God. First we will quote Van Til and then Oliphint’s footnote:

All of this may again be expressed from another point of view by saying that human knowledge is analogical of divine knowledge.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Knowledge.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 62.

Here is Oliphint’s footnote aforementioned on the above statement from Van Til:

Van Til’s notion of “analogy” or “analogical,” as it applies to knowledge and to predication, is central to his theology and apologetic. Though the term itself is confusing, in that it carries with it a host of assumptions in Thomism, it should not be confused or in any way identified with Thomas’s understanding of analogy. Though for Thomas there was an analogy of being, for Van Til, the notion of analogy was meant to communicate the ontological and epistemological difference between God and man. The difference has been expressed historically in terms of an archetypal/ectypal relationship.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Knowledge.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 62.

Why Van Til chose to use the terminology Thomas did is odd and even Oliphint notes this terminology as “confusing” since it is clearly a Thomistic term. This makes it quite concerning that Van Til would choose to reject the notion of analogy of being and replace it with his own, confusing definition of “analogy” even if what he meant wasn’t necessary incorrect. This phraseology is not helpful.

Conclusion

These are just some quick points laid out of inconsistencies I see in Van Tillian theology. This does not mean I’m abandoning all that position. But I will not jump on the “presup” band wagon and try to remain objective. Van Til was a product of his day and it seems to bleed through sometimes in a negative way. I have come back to the “presup” position with new eyes having studied more historical theology and theology proper. I’ve been able to look at the position and go, “no that doesn’t work” for some things. But I can do so without throwing out the position entirely. I refuse to commit the genetic fallacy of rejecting “presup” because it came from Van Til or because Van Til was allegedly an idealist. This argumentation is not sound. But, like we do when we critique Aquinas while keeping the gems he taught, we should be willing to critique the Van Tillian camp even if it makes us fall out with the “cool kids club.”

– Daniel Vincent (thanks for those from the team who assisted with reviewing and editing this article)

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