Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

The Apologetics and Theology of Cornelius Van Til

This essay provides an appreciative analysis of two key, sometimes misrepresented apologetical contributions of Cornelius Van Til: the definition of presupposition, and paradox and the Trinity. Recent criticisms of Van Til tend to repeat the suggestions that he operated with a Kantian and Hegelian synthesis, accounting for inconsistencies in his theological and apologetical programme. Rather than directly addressing recent scholarship, a relatively unfamiliar debate between Van Til and J. Oliver Buswell will be examined in an effort to let Van Til speak for himself. In doing this it will become evident why he remains an important and needed figure for the Church in a post-postmodern, secular/pluralistic cultural moment, aptly described by Chares Taylor as a “…spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane”.[1]

I. Introduction

The Apostle Paul describes the glorious ascension of Christ to the believers in Ephesus in vivid detail, as the victorious Christ reigns over death, leading captivity captive (Eph 4:8-10). This, Paul wedges between his call for unity in the Church, and the gifts given to the Church. Among these gifts are evangelists and shepherd-teachers (4:11). Historical theology and church history are made all the more enlivening when one considers the fact that many of these gifted evangelists and shepherd-teachers are wrapped up in the persons of apologists. The history of apologetics offers much for which believers are to be profoundly grateful. From Justin Martyr (100-65), to Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 202), to Augustine (354-430), to Anselm (1033/4-1109), to the “Angelic Doctor” Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the early and medieval Church established a long apologetic trajectory. One need not read Calvin’s (1509-64) Institutes very long to see his was an apologetic burden, as he defended the Trinity against the aberrant views of Michael Servetus (1511-53) and Giovanni Valentino Gentile (c. 1520-66), an adherent of Lelio Sozzini (1525-62). Even a confessional document, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643-47) presents its Christology well aware of the ongoing threat of the latter’s Socinianism.

Philosophers David Hume (1711-76) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and the scepticism they nurtured for the Academy brought about the need for ongoing apologetic developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Traditional apologetics in the form of classical argumentations drawn from the medieval period, coupled with historical and evidential arguments for the claims of the Bible proved effective and were a priority of the epicentre of Reformed thought in America, Princeton Theological Seminary.

However, sceptical arguments continued to gather ground in academic circles and in wider society. In that context Princeton Seminary graduate, Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), sought to build a bridge between the full flowering of Princetonian apologetics in his beloved professor, the “Lion of Princeton”, B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), and the apologetic practice of the Dutch doyen of doctrine, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920).

Van Til is due fresh appreciative consideration. In part, this is due to the consideration his work has received in recent years from scholars in the Reformed orbit, calling attention to what they perceive to be Kantian and Hegelian tendencies embedded in his thought, to the point that his relationship, for instance, to Warfield represents departure, rather that development.[2] These criticisms, while recent in vintage, are of threadbare trajectory, bordering on tired tropes. They fail as a whole to demonstrate actual deep engagement with his corpus, which is the key to a proper understanding of the theological and apologetical programme of this important Christian thinker.

Before these recent entrants into the sparsely-populated field of Van Til’s friendly critics, Bible Presbyterian Church pastor, former President of Wheaton College, and later Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, Dr J. Oliver Buswell (1895-1977) had taken exception to perceived inconsistencies in the thought of Van Til. In a review, in the November 1948 edition of The Bible Today magazine, entitled “The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism”, Buswell essentially charges Van Til with a number of things, accusations which manifest basic misunderstandings all along the way.[3] Despite this, Buswell’s critiques provide a useful entry point into an opening up of Van Til’s thought.

II. The Definition of Presupposition

At the outset, it must be stated that Buswell and Van Til used terms differently. The very use of the term “presupposition” differed between the two scholars. In what Greg Bahnsen refers to as a “linguistic key to their miscommunication”,[4] Buswell writes, “In what sense do we students of theology presuppose our basic presupposition? There may be many answers to this question but only one answer is necessary for our procedure: we take our presupposition as a conclusion arrived at on the basis of what we consider good and sufficient reasons.”[5]

Hence, the trajectory is set for misunderstanding. This is strange, when one considers the fact that Buswell is, for all intents and purposes, the one who coined the term “presuppositionalism” with which Van Tillian apologetics would become inextricably linked at a popular level. This occurred in a two-stage evolution of the word, in both instances offered to the world by the pen of Buswell. His May 1948 Bible Today article, “The Arguments from Nature to God: Presuppositionalism and Thomas Aquinas”, was actually a review of Edward J. Carnell’s An Introduction to Christian Apologetics.[6] Carnell (1919-67) was a student of Van Til, and earlier of Gordon Clark (1902-85) at Wheaton. Sadly, he faced emotional struggles and instability throughout his relatively short life. He departed from Van Til significantly, even while occasionally using similar nomenclature. Ultimately for Carnell, a pre-supposition is a hypothesis to be tested.[7] Carnell’s test of a presupposition is that it must bear the weight of non-contradiction, empirical fact and personal relevance.[8] Once Christianity passes this test, Carnell concludes:

Let us sum up our analysis of the criteria of verification and proceed to a new topic. Having no perfect system of thought, while we walk by faith and not by sight, the Christian suggests that a rational man settle for that system which is attended by the fewest difficulties. The worth of a system of thought is conditioned to its ability significantly to answer those basic question [sic] of life which all people must face. In the light of these observations the Christian throws forth his major premise – the existence of God who has revealed himself in scripture as a foundation for rational coherence.[9]

For Carnell, the test of rational coherence adjudicates the validity of the Christian’s major premise. Buswell pronounces Carnell’s book as “the best work thus far produced”, in terms of a “clear understanding of presuppositionalism.”[10] He quotes as an example of Carnell’s presuppositionalism, “[W]hen one begins his philosophy apart from the assumption of the existence of a rational God, he has thrown himself into a sea of objectively unrelated facts.”[11] He then likens Carnell’s views to those of Clark, who writes, “The Christian, therefore, following the bishop of Hippo [Augustine], is careful to point out that instead of beginning with facts and later discovering God, unless a thinker begins with God, he can never end with God, or get the facts either.”[12] Buswell proceeds to critique Carnell, charging him with unfamiliarity with John Dewey (1859–1952) and Frederick Robert Tennant (1866-1957),[13] and setting him over against a Buswellian explication of Aquinas. Buswell admits that presuppositionalism and the “philosophy of traditional Christian evidences” both depend on the power of the Holy Spirit for the task of apologetics. He notes, “The distinction between the two schools is that the one denies, and the other recognizes that the Holy Spirit uses inductive evidence and arguments from probability as instruments in the practice of evangelization and conviction, these arguments being transitive to the minds of unbelievers.”[14]

It is not within the scope of this article to explore or evaluate in any depth the nuanced differences between various types of presuppositionalism, such as Clark’s or Carnell’s, in relation to Van Til. However, Buswell, who coined the term “presuppositionalism”, seemed to flatten the definition in a rather general and simplistic manner. To the historical matter at hand, in this review article of Carnell’s Introduction to Christian Apologetics, Buswell says, “The term ‘presuppositionism’ was given me by my good friend Dr Allan A. MacRae in a casual conversation some months ago. I caught up the word immediately as an accurate designation for a significant school of thought.”[15] While drawing the term presuppositionism from MacRae, Buswell is the first, it would appear, to tailor it into presuppositionalism, and affix it in print to an apologetic method. While probability is not proof, it is likely his doing this contributed to his apparent inability to properly distinguish and understand Van Til on the whole notion of presupposition and presuppositionalism. In any event Van Til did obviously not coin or co-opt these terms, but rather accepted them, after they had been employed in the pages of the “The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism”.[16]

The debate in The Bible Today, played out in these two articles: the May 1948 review of Carnell, followed by the November 1948 article in which Buswell designates Van Til the “fountainhead of presuppositionalism”. After this he penned a review of Warfield’s Revelation and Inspiration in a March 1949 Bible Today article entitled “Warfield vs. Presuppositionalism”.[17] Whereas Buswell’s review of Carnell, while certainly critical, was appreciative at points, “Fountainhead” and “Warfield vs. Presuppositionalism” were pointed, clearly aimed at Van Til, and set up the public debate that ensued between them in magazines and journals, books, syllabi and in person. The Bible Today historical context saw these articles followed by two from Van Til – “Presuppositionalism” in the April 1949 issue of The Bible Today and “Presuppositionalism Concluded” in the June-September issue.[18] The latter article was intended for the May 1949 issue, however “an unusual accident at the printer’s” prevented this. Humorously, however, that May issue was not without commentary to introduce a little levity to the discussion.

The following contribution is from a reader whose name was withheld by request. It may reflect the thought of others, though it does not mirror the mind of the editor.

To the Bible Today –

I do not like your Presuppositionalism controversy;
it is getting acrimonious, and doesn’t show
much grace, common or special.
But I know how you both could sing
     I know not how God’s wondrous grace
           To me He hath made known,
     Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
            Redeemed me for His own.
     But I know Whom I have believed,
            And am persuaded that He is able
     To keep that which I’ve committed
            Unto Him against that Day.

But –

Scotch is Scotch,
And Dutch is Dutch,
But Calvin was French, you see,
And died at the age of fifty-five,
Not older than “B” or “VanT.”

He wrote in the language of 1509 –
He wrote not English nor Dutch,
He wrote in the words he understood
And has been translated much.
And the mind of the Scotch interprets Scotch,
And the mind of the Dutch sees Dutch;
But God’s great grace is working on
And souls respond to His touch.
And when in the glorious crowning day
The Scotch and the Dutch shall meet,
They both will say “It is all of grace;
We have reached the mercy seat.”
But Buswell still will drive his “Bus”
And Van Til his “Van” will drive,
But whether thru tunnel or over bridge,
By grace they will both arrive.

                                     Anonymous [19]

For all the grace and grins that anonymous sonnet afforded, the issues were and are quite serious. And there was a difference between the Bus and the Van. While both were fuelled by grace, only the latter offered an apologetic for that grace as a certainty. The former could only assure one that all the evidence pointed to that grace being the most likely, most probable route to take. Only the Van offered the assured apologetic map that accounted for those things necessary for driving to the destination.

Early on then, Van Til had to face critique and respond to it. However, that Buswell could speak of his presupposition, and commend that presupposition to students of theology as “a conclusion arrived at on the basis of what we consider good and sufficient reasons” is a clue that he and Van Til were miscommunicating, at the most basic definitional level. What did Buswell understand by presupposition, and hence, presuppositionalism? He flattened the concept, saying, “The philosophy of Christian evidences which I am advocating does not differ from presuppositionalism in that I am ever willing to admit or assume anything whatsoever contrary to Christian theism except in the well known logical form of an admission ‘for sake of the argument.’”[20] “Assumption” appears to be key, perhaps part and parcel, of his understanding of what “presupposition” means in the context of the current debate. That this was a naive, simplistic definition on Buswell’s part, and that Van Til was never operating on the definition of presupposition as assumption of a particular random fact, as though all facts are equal, hence not culpable of simplistic circular reasoning, is seen in A Survey of Christian Epistemology:

The charge is made that we engage in circular reasoning. Now if it be called circular reasoning when we hold it necessary to presuppose the existence of God, we are not ashamed of it because we are firmly convinced that all forms of reasoning that leave God out of account will end in ruin. Yet we hold that our reasoning cannot fairly be called circular reasoning, because we are not reasoning about and seeking to explain facts by assuming the existence and meaning of certain other facts on the same level of being with the facts we are investigating, and then explaining these facts in turn by the facts with which we began. We are presupposing God, not merely another fact of the universe. If God is to come into contact with us at all it is natural that the initiative must be with him. And this will also apply to the very question about the relation of God to us. Accordingly, it is only on God’s own testimony that we can know anything about him.[21]

Buswell, after flattening the definition so as to show how he, as an evidentialist, complies with presuppositionalism in terms of assumptions, distinguishes between his position and Van Til’s approach, asserting that “[w]hen a careful analysis is made, presuppositionalism is logically contradictory”. He tells a tale of travel:

For example, I meet a bewildered traveler in the Pennsylvania Station. He tells me that he is bound for Philadelphia, but I see him starting down the stairway for a train which is bound for Boston. What do I do? The presuppositionalists rather generally accuse those who adhere to the traditional philosophy of evidence of saying to the bewildered traveler, “I will go with you down those stairs; I will carry your baggage, I will get on the train and help you to a seat; I will even go with you to Boston, on the presupposition that the train is going to Philadelphia.” How ridiculous! I have read many pages of presuppositionalists’ philosophy in which the bound-for-Boston-to-get-to-Philadelphia view is assigned to traditional evidentialists.

What do we do to try to get such a bewildered passenger on the right track? First, we tell him the simple fact that the train is not bound for Philadelphia but for Boston. If he shakes his head and continues, we point to the sign over the gate. If he still pushes down the stairway, we may even follow him a few steps and show him that the train is headed eastward and not westward. If he still replies, “I am sure this train will get me to Philadelphia”, we may patiently persist: “Assuming for the sake of the argument that you are right, it would logically follow that the station management puts a Boston sign on the gate for a Philadelphia train, and that a train headed eastward out of the Pennsylvania station is bound for Philadelphia. It would then have to follow that Philadelphia is wrongly located on all the maps in common circulation.” Thus by showing the bewildered man the implications and consequences of his false assumptions, in terms of matters of fact which are common ground for us both, he may be convinced of his error and induced to switch over, baggage and all, to the proper gateway and the proper track.[22]

Key to the story Buswell tells is the testing of assumptions by the evidences (for example, locations on maps) – “matters of fact which are common ground”. Buswell concludes, “It is simply not true to say that a man whose presuppositions are anti-theistic cannot be shown his mistakes and then and there have his course changed.”[23]

So Buswell operated with the assumption that a presupposition is ultimately an assumption, a pre-commitment. But, in the hands of Van Til, Buswell says:

There is a difference, however, those who hold to presuppositionalism are advancing a negative thesis, denying that there is common ground of reasoning between those who accept Christian presuppositions and engage in the spread of the Gospel, and those who do not accept Christian presuppositions and reject the Gospel.[24]

In other words, Buswell would acknowledge that all have prior commitments, be they Christian or non-Christian assumptions. Basic also to his definition of presuppositionalism is the denial of common ground between believer and unbeliever. As will be discussed below, Van Til did, indeed, posit an inescapable “common ground” for all human beings created in the imago Dei.

It is not surprising Buswell would be suspicious of the term “presupposition”, at least as far as he saw it applicable to Van Til. For, as John Frame points out, the commonality of the concept arose in idealist philosophical writings:

Idealism in Germany (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel) and Britain (Green, Bradley, Bosanquet) continued Kant’s transcendental approach, although it reached different conclusions about the preconditions of knowledge. It was in the idealist literature that presupposition became a common philosophical term. Van Til wrote his doctoral dissertation on the idealist concept of God, and, doubtless, picked up the term from that school of thought, even though he was very critical of idealism in general.[25]

This alone, as has been seen, would have set a course of suspicion for Buswell.[26] But, Frame’s assessment is also instructive in seeking to understand Van Til’s developing and multifaceted understanding of presupposition. For, in his Princeton University doctoral dissertation, God and the Absolute (1927), Van Til says,

Beginning as we did with the assumption of the validity of human knowledge we have found that this assumption implies the existence of a completely actual experience. Hence we can now say that human knowledge presupposes the Absolute. If our argument has been correct, then we have all the while been able to search for the Absolute because in reality the rationality of our experience with which we began finds its source in Him. We would not be able to bring the two together if they were not at bottom related; the rationality we possess would be meaningless without God. We would not be able to ask questions about the Absolute or about anything else without the Absolute being the source of our ability. Hence we shall from now on say that we must presuppose the Absolute of Theism if our experience is to have meaning.[27]

Note how, in this earliest of writings, Van Til uses the idea of a presupposition, not as a mere assumption or precommitment, but an assumption in the context of a complete experience, sourced in God, who makes sense of rationality and predication, and distinguishes Christian theism from idealism. This statement is, albeit embryonic, programmatic for the trajectory of his thinking, moving forward. Doubtless, Van Til is speaking in philosophical terminology, consistently with the duplex cognitio, which is at the heart of Calvin’s Institutes, Bk. I. The Absolute Van Til presupposes is not equal with thought or an abstraction, “At any rate, it will be seen that Idealism, because it conceives of God as cosmically dependent, has not been able to regard Him as Absolute and has by so doing not escaped any logical difficulties except by creating others. Granted then that Idealism has presupposed an Absolute it has not presupposed one that can really be called such.”[28] Van Til’s Absolute is not dependent: “Now we hold that no one has presupposed an Absolute unless this Absolute be considered as self-sufficient. An Absolute which is cosmically dependent is no Absolute.”[29] Idealism results in futility:

We must now proceed to draw a further consequence from the idealistic failure to presuppose a genuine Absolute namely that it really amounts to doing without an Absolute in any sense, i.e. making human experience and temporal reality self-interpretative. If we say that our experience is meaningless without the presupposition of the Absolute we cannot then turn about and say that the Absolute has no meaning except in dependence on us. If you do, you have not presupposed an Absolute but a correlative or counterpart and are in for an infinite regress, bouncing back and forth between two semi-absolutes. This being unsatisfactory and refusing to accept the Absolute as sole source of meaning, so that you give it interpretive authority, you are trying to do without an Absolute altogether.[30]

Van Til sees this most basic issue of definition when he writes, years after his debate with Buswell in 1969’s A Christian Theory of Knowledge:

It is in this way that we must understand what Buswell means when he speaks of Christian presuppositions. “The primary presupposition of the Christian religion is, of course,” says Buswell, “Jesus Christ.” Moreover the laws of logic are implied in the Christian’s basic presuppositions. According to Buswell the Christian should say: “We take our presupposition as a conclusion arrived at on the basis of what we consider good and sufficient reasons.” These good and sufficient reasons were obtained by a purely inductive procedure. This inductive procedure involves the idea of pure contingency.

For Buswell presuppositions are not the conditions which make experience intelligible. As a Christian, Buswell believes that when Jesus said he was the Son of God he spoke the simple truth. As a Christian Buswell believes the Bible and what it says about God and man, about sin and redemption on its say so as the absolutely authoritative word of God.

However, as an apologist Buswell presents the Bible and “the system of truth” it contains as an hypothesis which may or may not be proved true by an empirical investigation carried on in terms of principles which are not openly Christian but which are distinctively pre-Christian which means, of necessity, from a biblical point of view, non-Christian.

Believers and unbelievers stand on absolutely common ground with respect to the investigation to be undertaken. The one as well as the other must agree to exclude any and every a priori prejudice in favor or against Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. The Christian merely offers the claim of Jesus as the hypothesis which is more probably true than its opposite. But we must ask what are Buswell’s and what are the non-Christian’s ontological foundations which allow them to make such probability statements intelligible. If the non-Christian is able, apart from Christianity, to make his notion of probability intelligible then for what purpose does he need Christianity? He is thoroughly able to make himself and his world intelligible to himself in terms of himself without God and his revelation.[31]

The idea of revelation is key to Van Til’s apologetic programme. Indeed, the Bible of the Triune God and the Triune God of the Bible are central to his understanding of presupposition, not as a hypothesis to be tested. While Van Til posited the Bible, and the Christian theistic system it taught, as the overarching presupposition from which to proceed, Buswell held:

The sense world includes the Bible as well as the light of nature. Certainly from the Bible we can derive correct information. Thus we are not excluded from an argument beginning in the sense world. In the Bible we often find an argument beginning with the light of nature itself, leading to the theistic conclusion.[32]

This indicates a basic difference, not only their respective understanding of the term “presupposition”, but in how the Bible fits into the apologetic task. To begin, Scripture is self-attesting, rather than hypothetical, standing in need of verification. The Bible of the Triune God and the Triune God of the Bible bespeaks the all-encompassing nature of a presuppositional approach, with all its epistemological, experiential and ethical implications. The Bible fits into the apologetic task differently for Buswell and Van Til in relation to contingency in argumentation. Again, his more mature thought is represented in A Christian Theory of Knowledge:

The doctrine of Scripture as self-attesting presupposes that whatsoever comes to pass in history materializes by virtue of the plan and counsel of the living God. If everything happens by virtue of the plan of God, then all created reality, every aspect of it, is inherently revelational of God and of his plan. All facts of history are what they are ultimately because of what God intends and makes them to be…

It is impossible to attain to the idea of such a God by speculation independently of Scripture. It has never been done and is inherently impossible. Such a God must identify himself. Such a God, and only such a God, identifies all the facts of the universe. In identifying all the facts of the universe he sets these facts in relation to one another…

Such a view of God and of human history is both presupposed by, and in turn presupposes, the idea of the infallible Bible…

If history is not wholly controlled by God, the idea of an infallible Word of God is without meaning. The idea of an essentially reliable Bible would have no foundation. In a world of contingency all predication is reduced to flux…

It thus appears afresh that a specifically biblical or Reformed philosophy of history both presupposes and is presupposed by the idea of the Bible as testifying to itself and as being the source of its own identification.[33]

Yet, the same stream of thought is present much earlier in his response to Buswell’s articles in The Bible Today. In his April 1949 article, “Presuppositionalism”, Van Til’s very first statement explaining his approach, then being criticized by Buswell, was to affirm his primary goal of teaching the Bible as infallible, along with his own heart commitment to its infallibility, followed by a full statement of God’s self-revelation as the utterly unique God of the Bible. He proceeds, then, to affirm the economic and ontological Trinity. This hints at what he would, years later, write in A Christian Theory of Knowledge:

God’s supernatural revelation is presupposed in all successful rational inquiry on the part of man. And all revelation of God to man is anthropomorphic. It is an adaptation by God to the limitations of the human creature. Man’s systematic interpretation of the revelation of God is never more than an approximation of the system of truth revealed in Scripture, and this system of truth as revealed in Scripture is itself anthropomorphic. But being anthropomorphic does not make it untrue. The Confessions of the Church pretend to be nothing more than frankly approximated statements of the inherently anthropomorphic revelation of God. For it is such a system that is directly involved in the idea of the self-contained God.[34]

The rest of the article reads as a summary of Reformed Christian orthodoxy, set in response to the criticisms Buswell had levelled against him in “Fountainhead” in November of the previous year. The point is that Van Til’s method, his apologetic, is nothing apart from not only revelation, but the whole summary system of Reformed theology. Hence, Oliphint rightly elucidates, “Van Til uses the notion of presupposition in a general way, but always to denote the fact that one’s own world and life view must be based on the truth as it is found in Scripture, and more specifically, that truth is found, seminally, in the Westminster Standards.”[35]

This methodological difference, grounded not exclusively, perhaps, but certainly programmatically in a divergent view of the way the Bible is affirmed and applied in the apologetic task justifies Van Til, in his sequel article, “Presuppositionalism Concluded”, in the June-September 1949 issue of The Bible Today, in telling Buswell:

Coming now to a brief statement of the method of defense of the propagation of what I believe and how it differs from the traditional method I may note first that you have not, for all the length of your article, anywhere given a connected picture of my argument. Yet you at once characterize it in contrast with your own as being “negative and universal.”[36]

With all due respect to the earnest and godly Dr. Buswell, given his flattened definition of presuppositionalism and his own philosophy of “traditional Christian evidences”, with its lack of an all-encompassing functional symbiosis with Reformed confessional orthodoxy and Vosian biblical-theological hermeneutic, it is understandable why Van Til could point out the very one who coined the term “presuppositionalism” had not presented a “connected picture”.

In fairness to Buswell, however, none of this is to say that there has been no difficulty defining what Van Til meant by presupposition in a way that was both concise and at least aiming toward comprehensiveness.[37] Greg Bahnsen focuses on what may be characterised as function and ultimate intentionality and integrity of process, when he writes:

No exception is made for the knowledge by which the Christian defends the knowledge of Christ. This means that the apologist must presuppose the truth of God’s word from start to finish in his apologetic witness. It is only to be expected that, in matters of ultimate commitment, the intended conclusion of one’s line of argumentation will also be the presuppositional standard that governs one’s manner of argumentation for that conclusion – or else the intended conclusion is not his ultimate commitment after all.[38]

And, by presupposition, Bahnsen offers this definition:

A presupposition is an elementary assumption in one’s reasoning or in the process by which opinions are formed. In this book, a “presupposition” is not just any assumption in an argument, but a personal commitment that is held at the most basic level of one’s network of beliefs. Presuppositions form a wide-ranging, foundational perspective (or starting point) in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated. As such, presuppositions have the greatest authority in one’s thinking, being treated as one’s least negotiable beliefs and being granted the highest immunity to revision.[39]

Van Til enthusiasts will forever be indebted to Bahnsen’s seminal tome of key selections of Van Til paired with insightful analysis. His definition of presupposition brings clarity and captures, again, the functional scope of the term. However, it is somewhat pedantic. In his excellent study of Van Til’s presuppositional thought, Gabe Fluhrer attributes this, in part, to the influence on Bahnsen of W. V. O. Quine, who spoke in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” of beliefs forming a “holistic web” that conditions statements, rather than them existing in isolation.[40] Fluhrer acknowledges that Bahnsen’s definition does not explicitly capture the religious “heart” component of John Frame’s definition:

Van Til uses the term presupposition to indicate the role that divine revelation ought to play in human thought. I do not believe he ever defines the term. I have tried to define it for him as a “basic heart-commitment”. For the Christian, that commitment is to God as he reveals himself in his Word. Non-Christians substitute something else – another god, themselves, pleasure, money, rationality, or whatever – as that to which they are ultimately committed and that which governs all of life, including thought. Our ultimate commitment plays an important role in our knowledge.[41]

Again, the revelational nature of Van Til’s definition of presupposition comes to the fore in a discussion of so-called “Block-House” methodology, in which certain Reformed doctrines are appended to an Arminian or Romanist construct, rather than acknowledging the revelational character of man and building an apologetic on a consistently Reformed and scriptural foundation. Van Til says:

It is not difficult to see that the Christian position requires the apologist to challenge this whole approach in the interest of the knowledge of the truth. If man’s necessarily discursive thought is not to fall into the ultimate irrationalism and skepticism that is involved in modern methodology we must presuppose the conception of the God that is found in Scripture. Scripture alone presents the sort of God whose intuition of system is not bought at the price of his knowledge of individuality, and whose knowledge of individuality is not bought at the expense of intuitional knowledge of system. But such a God must really be presupposed. He must be taken as the prerequisite of the possibility and actuality of relationship between man’s various concepts and propositions of knowledge. Man’s system of knowledge must therefore be an analogical replica of the system of knowledge which belongs to God.[42]

Van Til struggled to clarify his position for Buswell, because Buswell struggled to understand the covenantal/revelational nature of Van Til’s comprehensive method. This misreading resulted not only in a misfire on the most basic level of discussing presupposition, but also misrepresentation of key aspects of the doctrine of Scripture, theology proper, not to mention the implications for anthropology, all of which are central to the apologetic task. 

When Buswell penned “Warfield vs. Presuppositionalism” as a thinly veiled prelude to the appearance of Van Til’s two articles for The Bible Today, in which he explained his apologetic approach, he complained that the publisher appeared to have omitted certain articles from the original publication of Warfield’s classic volume on the doctrine of Scripture. He noted the reason had to have been the obvious divergence of apologetic philosophies represented by Warfield and Van Til, who supplied the lengthy introductory essay to the reprinted volume. In his article, Buswell rather cheekily allows, “I do not believe there was any deliberate motive of deception, such as advancing this anti-Warfield philosophy under cover of his name. Rather, the adherents of this paradoxical view seem to fail to realize what a contradiction is.”[43]

III. Paradox and the Triunity of God

In “Fountainhead” Buswell is immediately taken with what he perceives as a sort of Barthian paradox in Van Til’s thought that directly affects his doctrine of God. While acknowledging that Van Til “believes in the God of the Bible”, Buswell asserts that he nonetheless “has certain peculiar notions in regard to the doctrine of God which require special attention. First and most critically important of these notions, as I see the question, is his doctrine of paradox.”[44]

Buswell’s radar was sensitively attuned to any and all forms of idealism and quasi-idealism. He was particularly alert to any hint of Hegel in philosophy, or a family resemblance along the theological trail of Barth. Buswell’s writings are replete with sightings and warnings of the like. So, it is no real surprise – although Van Til may have been shocked – when Buswell observes, “[Van Til] is a well-informed and deeply zealous anti-Barthian; but I have sometimes wondered whether the zeal of his anti-Barthianism is not in part derived from the bitterness of close similarity in certain aspects of his philosophy.”[45] Now, Buswell clarifies that for Van Til paradoxes are only apparent, whereas for Barth, they are actually contradictory.[46] However, Van Til is too close for comfort, certainly too close to escape Buswell’s strident critique.[47] However, once again, one sees the apparent misunderstanding, the trajectory for which is set at the starting point of the definition of the very presuppositions one has about presuppositionalism. The case in point is Buswell’s rejoinder to his own distinction between Van Til and Barth, in which he seems to take back what he gave:

I cannot help feeling, however, that Van Til is unwillingly drawn into a very compromising position by his insisting upon, and welcoming, these apparent contradictions or paradoxes. When the doctrine of paradox is carried so far that correlativism between God the Creator and man the creature is renounced, I cannot see much to choose in this respect between Van Til’s position and that of Barth. For the latter, everything which is true for man in material history, is false from the point of view of eternity. For the former vast areas of human historical matter are merely “limiting concepts” or “as if to God”.[48]

This is a significant aspect of the breech between Buswell and Van Til, and requires patient attention be paid to a host of sources. One must consider the published works of each, as well as their unpublished correspondence in the form of letters, annotated syllabi and other materials. Pertinent marginalia by Van Til related to Buswell’s thought in, for instance, his own copy of Buswell’s Systematic Theology, as well as the occasional dialogue he conducted with Buswell in the margins of his copy of Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek are also important sources. Buswell calls attention to what he sees as a problematic passage in Van Til’s Common Grace, setting it up thus:

[W]hereas for most of us a paradox is a misfortune, something to be carefully studied and resolved, so that the apparent contradiction will be seen clearly to be no contradiction, for Dr. Van Til on the other hand, there are certain specific, deeply established paradoxes which must form a part of theology. He says to hold to this position [the doctrine of the Trinity] requires us to say that while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former. If it is the self-contained ontological trinity that we need for the rationality of our interpretation of life, it is this same ontological trinity that requires us to hold to the apparently contradictory. This ontological trinity is, as the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Standards puts it, “incomprehensible”.[49]

Van Til’s point is, in so many words, finitum non capax infinitum. Given what appears contradictory, it must be humbly acknowledged as paradoxical and mysterious, given the infinity of God. The larger context of the quotation makes clear Van Til is distinguishing between two, and only two, options for approaching the revelation of God as Trinity: 1) non-Christian epistemology, which can only be satisfied if God is made finite, else the non-Christian epistemology would destroy itself; 2) Christian epistemology, submitted to God’s revelation of himself in Scripture.

Specifically, Buswell’s criticisms impact Van Til’s understanding of the Trinity and his idea of “the one and the many”. Buswell also sees this paradox language affecting a proper understanding of God’s relation to man, denying correlativity between God and man. Buswell rejects the language of “the one and the many” and “equally ultimate” as addressing “a problem however, which, in my judgment, is confined to the minds of those who have been affected by non-Christian monistic philosophy”. Buswell offers a simple solution: “For the simple Bible believer, and the one who sees the truth of created dualistic realism as Charles Hodge does, it is no problem at all. Whatever exists, exists, and that is that… It actually exists since he has created it, so we call it realistic. It has an important distinction within it, that between personal and non-personal existences, so we call it dualistic.”[50] After all but equating the teaching of Van Til with that of the modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) on the matter of the Trinity being contradictory, Buswell affirms his own orthodox confession of the doctrine of the Trinity, adding the qualifier that “I confess that I see not the slightest contradiction (though of course I see much that is beyond my comprehension) in these magnificent statements [i.e., creedal statements about God being one in essence, three in person].”[51] Of course, “seeing” things of God that are quite beyond our comprehension is precisely what Van Til is getting at when he speaks of embracing mystery and acknowledging the paradoxical nature of the infinite God in his revelation to the finite creature.

Also affecting Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity, according to Buswell, is his use of the phrase “concrete universal”, attributing it to his doctrine of paradox. Indeed, Van Til writes:

To use a phrase of Kierkegaard, we ask how the Moment is to have significance. Our claim as believers is that the Moment cannot intelligently be shown to have any significance except upon the presupposition of the biblical doctrine of the ontological trinity. In the ontological trinity there is complete harmony between an equally ultimate one and many. The persons of the trinity are mutually exhaustive of one another and of God’s nature. It is the absolute equality in point of ultimacy that requires all the emphasis we can give it. Involved in this absolute equality is complete interdependence; God is our concrete universal.[52]

This leads Buswell to beseech Van Til, “O my dear Brother! I do not question your devotion to the Lord and to the Bible. I do not question your sincerity, but look at the mud on your feet! You have been deeply mired in Hegelian idealistic pantheism.”[53] To be sure, the expression “concrete universal” is Hegelian nomenclature. Kant, a deontologist, posited universals for knowledge and ethics, which universals were not grounded in sense experience, and hence were abstract. Hegel responds by suggesting a “concrete universal”, grounded in the reality of the experiential world, which makes sense of, organises and unifies reality.[54] Van Til co-opts this philosophical language and posits the self-contained, independent Triune God of aseity as the “concrete universal”. Van Til did, in fact, claim to do away with correlativity between God and man. This must be understood, not as doing away with relatability, but as his attempt to show that God is prior to and independent of man. He had stated this more simply for the readers of The Bible Today:

In the syllabi to which you refer and with which you are familiar, I have spoken of the equal ultimacy of the one and the many or of unity and diversity in the Godhead. I use this philosophical language in order the better to be able to contrast the Biblical idea of the trinity with philosophical theories that are based upon human experience as ultimate. When philosophers speak of the one and the many problems they are simply seeking for unity in the diversity of human experience. In order to bring out that it is Christianity alone that has that for which men are looking but cannot find I use the terminology of the philosophy, always making plain that my meaning is exclusively derived from the Bible as the word of God. “In the Bible alone do we hear of such a God. Such a God, to be known at all, cannot be known otherwise than by virtue of His own voluntary revelation. He must therefore be known for what He is, and known to the extent that He is known, by authority alone.[55]

In this paragraph, not only does Van Til clarify for the readers of Buswell’s magazine what he means by such philosophical nomenclature; he also shows what he would intend, ultimately, as primary in presuppositionalism, namely the principium essendi (God), and the principium cognoscendi (Scripture). More comprehensively, he says in The Defense of the Faith:

What has been said about the being, knowledge, and will of God, as the being, knowledge, and will of the self-sufficient ontological Trinity may suffice for purposes of introduction. Enough has been said to set off the Christian doctrine of God clearly from the various forms of the non-Christian doctrine of God. The God of Christianity alone is self-contained and self-sufficient. He remains so even when he stands in relation to the world as its creator and sustainer. All other gods are either out of all relation to the universe or else correlative to it.

The Christian teaching of the ontological Trinity, therefore, gives it a clearly distinguishable metaphysic, epistemology and ethic. In all these three Christian theism is wholly different from any other philosophy of life.[56]

Again, Van Til uses the term “concrete universal” in order to show that the self-contained Trinity makes sense of the particulars of man’s experience.  Timothy I. McConnel writes:

A concrete universal is one which includes all its particulars, and which also is fully expressed in them. At the same time, the term itself would seem to imply that it also has ontological status, i.e. exists, and is not a mere concept. Van Til argues that only the Christian doctrine of the triune God meets all the qualifications demanded by this notion that originated in idealist philosophy.[57]

Van Til explained this to Buswell in his reply, insisting that use of these phrases in relation to the Trinity actually corrected Hegelianism by using its own terms:

Take now these two points together (a) that I have consistently stressed the necessity of asking what God is in himself prior to his relation to the created universe and (b) that I have consistently opposed all subordinationism within the self-contained Trinity and it will appear why I have also consistently opposed correlativism between God and the universe and therefore correlativism between God and man. By correlativism I understand a mutually interdependent relationship like that of husband and wife or the convex and the concave side of a disk. I know of no more pointed way of opposing all forms of identity philosophy and all forms of dialectical philosophy and theology. I have also spoken of this self-contained Trinity as “our concrete universal”. Judging merely by the sound of this term you charge me with holding Hegelianism. I specify clearly that my God is precisely that which the Hegelian says God is not and yet you insist that I am a Hegelian.[58]

Buswell would not buy this. It walked like a Hegelian, it quacked like a Hegelian, and “[s]tudents of the history of philosophy will need only to have the Hegelianism of this doctrine pointed out. They will see clearly and at once, that a good and sincere man has carelessly tracked in mud from the pagan streets. The ‘concrete universal’ has no place in Christian Biblical theology.”[59] He goes on: “[B]ut I must hasten to add that I do not believe that Professor Van Til is conscious of the implications of what he has said.”[60] The reality is he had held this suspicion of Van Til as far back as the Lengthy Set of Notes of 1937, wherein he makes a note, “You certainly use the vocabulary of idealism more than seems wise in my judgment.”[61] Van Til claimed he did not want to be labelled an “intellectual Anabaptist” by failing “to translate Christian truth in the language of the day”.[62]

Similarly, in his April, 1949 reply to Buswell’s review of Common Grace in the pages of The Bible Today, Van Til briefly explained his use of “the one and the many” as an accommodation of sorts to the philosophical questions then currently raised regarding the “unity and diversity of human experience”.[63]  He described the Trinity in this way, to show that only the Godhead is ultimate, and that, rather than seeking to find the answer to the problem of unity and diversity in non-Christian reasoning, it should be sought in the Trinity, wherein the equal ultimacy of the one and the many find perfect, self-sufficient expression: “The importance of this doctrine for apologetics may be seen from the fact that the whole problem of philosophy may be summed up in the question of the relation of unity to diversity; the so-called problem of the one and the many receives a definite answer from the doctrine of the simplicity of God.”[64] Hence, the “paradox” is seen in that God is not mathematically, as it were, either one or three; he is both, and that absolutely.

This is Van Til, again, seeking to ground his programme in the sovereignty, aseity and sufficiency of the Triune God. What is admittedly a very technical piece of philosophical theology is, at the same time, rife with pastoral implications, a key comfort for the despairing condition of a man seeking to make sense of self and the rest of the universe. After all, as Van Til says, “The Trinity is of the utmost practical significance to us.”[65] The implications of his efforts guard against the ultimate despair of alternatives that lead either to abstract unity or to abstract particularity, both of which would consume the other; and if allowed to be ultimate, would rid the world of meaning and intelligibility. At the same time, if some abstract principle of unity, as well as an abstract principle of particularity are each ultimate, then there is, again, only meaninglessness. Van Til offered this Trinitarian accounting of reality in opposition to any and all forms of non-Christian epistemology, most especially idealism, of which he was being accused of tracking up the carpet:

The charge that my view of God resembles that of idealistic philosophy has no more foundation in evidence than does the charge that I think of the ontological trinity as an abstract principle of One-and-Many. The basic distinction between the works of God ad intra and the works of God ad extra is constantly employed in what I have written in order to distinguish between the Christian and all forms of non-Christian thought.[66]

Yet, as the following substantial quotation shows, he was also guarding not only against Hegelian concretisation, but any Kantian chaos, that would certainly come about. In other words, the Triune God is the only legitimate answer to impersonal principle as concrete absolute, as well as some absolute abstraction in answer to the problem of unity and particularity:

It may be profitable at this juncture to introduce the notion of a concrete universal. In seeking for an answer to the One-and-Many question, philosophers have admittedly experienced great difficulty. The many must be brought into contact with one another. But how do we know that they can be brought into contact with one another? How do we know that the many do not simply exist as unrelated particulars? The answer given is that in such a case we should know nothing of them; they would be abstracted from the body of knowledge that we have; they would be abstract particulars. On the other hand, how is it possible that we should obtain a unity that does not destroy the particulars? We seem to get our unity by generalizing, by abstracting from the particulars in order to include them into larger unities. If we keep up this process of generalization till we exclude all particulars, granted they can all be excluded, have we then not stripped these particulars of their particularity? Have we then obtained anything but an abstract universal?

As Christians we hold that there is no answer to these problems from a non-Christian point of view. We shall argue this point later; for the nonce we introduce this matter in order to set forth the meaning of the notion of the concrete universal. The notion of the concrete universal has been offered by idealist philosophy in order to escape the reductio ad absurdum of the abstract particular and the abstract universal. It is only in the Christian doctrine of the triune God, as we are bound to believe, that we really have a concrete universal. In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.[67]

There is a very real sense in which the apologetic methodological impasse Buswell finds himself in with Van Til is as much a matter of theology proper, especially as it touches upon the doctrine of the Trinity, as it is epistemeological.

IV. Conclusion

A careful reading of the exchanges between the two men shows that Buswell simply misunderstood Van Til at many key points. This article has focused on two: the definition of presupposition and the concept of paradox and its relation to the triunity of God. Buswell’s modified Thomism and Dualistic Realism, his lack of formal covenantal Reformed training and sufficient exposure to and integration of the Dutch tradition of Bavinck and Vos, along with an apparent lack of deep reading of Van Til’s broader corpus provided a lens through which he could only view Van Til as breathing the air of Idealism and tracking Hegelian mud through his apologetic programme.[68]

While saying that Buswell largely misunderstood Van Til may appear a somewhat simplistic and general conclusion, it actually seems to be the most reasonable explanation for the prolonged disagreement between the two men. Ironically, Buswell, who coined the term he so vigorously critiqued, missed the simple (not simplistic) fact that, for Van Til, presuppositionalism was a label that stuck, because he received it as a way of speaking of a transcendental approach that properly gave pride of place to the principia of theology – the principium essendi and the principium cogniscendi; and this alone properly reflected a biblically faithful, albeit philosophically attenuated, apologetic: “But to engage in philosophical discussion does not mean that we begin without Scripture. We do not first defend theism philosophically by an appeal to reason and experience in order, after that, to turn to Scripture for our knowledge and defense of Christianity. We get our theism as well as our Christianity from the Bible.”[69] Van Til attempted to show that Buswell’s modified Thomism still did not erase the problem of a Roman Catholic/Arminian probabilistic apologetic method. Again, to respectfully assess the situation, it appears the godly and knowledgeable Buswell either would not listen, or truly could not understand much of the discussion. This is obtuseness uniquely evident in the various editorial comments he made in both segments of Van Til’s reply to his review in The Bible Today.[70] All in all, it seems that the debate yielded little understanding between the two. Van Til desired that Buswell take him on his own terms, qualifications and all, yet the latter showed little willingness. Again, this hopefully encourages modern day commentators on Reformed apologetics to listen carefully to what Van Til is actually saying, as this would help forestall hasty generalisations and caricatures of his thought.

Historically speaking, it appears that, beyond these articles between the two in the pages of The Bible Today from late 1948 to the middle of 1949, virtually no direct interaction between the two apologists on these matters ever took place again. While Van Til’s A Christian Theory of Knowledge engaged critically with the broader contours of Buswell’s apologetic, as well as with elements of his theology proper, the material Buswell published in book form in later years only seemed to restate his criticisms of Fountainhead. So, the debate remained a fountainhead of misunderstanding, as it were.

A couple of observations about the relation of this article to ministry, given the fact that ministry was central to both Buswell and Van Til, and the fact that theologising today must be done in service to the Christian ministry. Perhaps further study of this discussion between Buswell and Van Til could help future efforts in apologetic debate in two ways:

1) Negatively, Buswell’s participation in this debate should motivate one to listen carefully to what Van Tillians are actually saying, and avoid superficial reaction and simplistic definitions and rejections of terms and phrases that must be taken as part of an apologetic system. If the function of the apologetic itself depends upon the Christian system, then it should be no surprise that assessing the parts of the apologetic is also an organic programme.

2) Positively, Buswell sincerely desired to understand where individual unbelievers stood regarding ultimate questions, and he wished to offer practical arguments that respected their starting points. While his arguments were unwittingly compromised, he wanted to work with men, forming his arguments in ways that would respect and reach them in their various life experiences and contexts. Without adopting his probabilistic approach, Van Tillian apologists could appreciatively imitate his desire to be simple, without falling into his tendency, at times, to be simplistic.

Van Til was trained in the Idealism of his day, as is often acknowledged by recent friendly critics of Van Til. Yet, while it will not do to dismiss him as stuck in some sort of Idealistic or Hegelian mire, one must accept his programme as he intended, namely in an effort to interpret the philosophical currents of his day in light of Christian theism, employing particular philosophical nomenclature in effort to push that current to its end, in the interest of the apologetic task. In this case, his intent was to show how only the triune God of Scripture will ever answer the questions some Idealists were pursuing, without dissolving into either rationalism or irrationalism. Likewise, today, one can follow Van Til’s lead as new opportunities arise to offer a covenantal Calvinistic apologetic in the face of the various epistemic winds blowing – from postmodern scepticism, to post-postmodern indifference, to the various blends of secularism and pagan spiritualism hawked on social media, to the rejection of scriptural authority in favour of post-conservative/post-evangelical communitarian hermeneutics. If, as Charles Taylor observes, we have moved beyond the pre-Enlightenment epoch of the impossibility of unbelief, and the post-Enlightenment epoch of the possibility of unbelief, to our current, post-9/11 impossibility of belief, Van Til deserves and rewards fresh, appreciative reading.

Further, Van Til warrants attention today, given the Apostle Peter’s commissioning of all Christians to engage in apologetics. Writing not to seminary graduates or PhDs in analytic philosophy, but to Christians facing the heat of Neronian persecution, Peter provides the textus classicus on Christian apologetics (1 Pet 3:15-16):

…but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame.

A close reading of this text calls the Christian to give an apologíā (a defence) when asked for the lógon (reason) for the elpídos (hope) the believer has. In other words, to be an apologist is to be a hope defender.

In another crucial text, the Apostle Paul speaks to the task of apologetics when he writes to the Corinthian believers (2 Cor 10:3-6):

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

These texts assure every Christian they are called to the task of being hope defenders. The respect Peter calls for is due to the common ground of the imago Dei. The warfare nomenclature Paul employs is consistent with the epistemological battle that is at the heart of apologetics. Taken together, these passages call Christian apologetic hope defenders to be both a welcoming committee and a wrecking crew. This is vital for the Church on mission today. The world is in desperate need of hope. Just over a decade ago, afternoon talk shows were the philosophy classrooms for modern women and men. Today, Instagram and Snapchat provide worldview catechesis for maturing millennials and Gen-Z questioners of epistemological authority. Cornelius Van Til is an apologetical gift of the ascended Christ to the Church. A thoughtful and thoroughgoing Van Tillian apologetic in this changing context is well suited for the proclamation of eschatological hope of the returning Christ:

Yet the gift is in order to the task. The example is also meant to be a sample. Christ walks indeed a cosmic road. Far as the curse is found, so far his grace is given. The Biblical miracles of healing point to the regeneration of all things. The healed souls of men require and will eventually receive healed bodies and a healed environment. Thus there is unity of concept for those who live by the Scriptural promise of comprehensive, though not universal redemption. While they actually expect Christ to return visible on the clouds of heaven, they thank God for every sunny day. They even thank God for his restraining and supporting general grace by means of which the unbeliever helps to display the majesty and power of God. To the believer the natural or regular with all its complexity always appears as the playground for the process of differentiation which leads ever onward to the fullness of the glory of God.[71]


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