Where My Peoples Is? (Or: Van Til’s Argument for the Exclusivity of Christian Theology)

Posted: December 10, 2014 in Philosophy in the Van Tillian Tradition
Tags: , , , ,

(**UPDATE**… Glenn Peoples has replied to this post in the comment section, insisting that I’ve misunderstood his statements somehow.  I’m not clear on how I’ve misunderstood him, so I haven’t changed my post.  Still – let the reader be aware that I may be critiquing a straw-man. — A.D.)

I like Glenn Peoples but I think he’s a little presumptuous sometimes.1

His podcast “Say Hello to my Little Friend” is enjoyable and helpful to me as a Christian apologist.  From time to time he even says positive things about Van Til.  Unfortunately, he has a few criticisms as well2; one being that Van Tillians are cliquish.

Well Glenn Peoples, I’m not cliquish, but I’m not willing to allow that you’re a “presuppositionalist” either…at least not in the popular sense.  Anyone, even secular philosophers, can look at their opponents’ assumptions and investigate whether they’re consistent with the proposition being contested.  That doesn’t mean they’re presuppositionalists.  It just means they’re good philosophers.  The Van Tillian wants to go a step further and say that *only* Christian assumptions will be consistent with *whatever* proposition is being contested (and also the only assumptions consistent with the proposing of it).

In podcast 011, “What is Presuppositional Apologetics?” Peoples suggests that Van Til *never* presents an argument for this.  Consider his words starting at 42 min:

“Van Til believed that he had a silver bullet.  He didn’t have to, so he thought, tackle non-Christian worldviews one at a time and show that they lack the necessary basis for intelligibility.  He thought that the argument just outlined did show that for all non-Christian worldviews.

How exactly did he argue that his transcendental argument achieved this?  Well here’s where things get frustrating.  He never really explained exactly how his argument showed this.  He uses the term “Christian theism” in his arguments like in the quote you just heard, he talked about the Christian theistic point of view, but he never justifies that limitation.  He never justifies saying that it is Christian theism alone that provides the necessary grounding here….no where in any of his writings or the writings of Greg Bahnsen for that matter, will you ever find an argument for the claim that *only* Christianity could ever supply these things.”

While I don’t blame Peoples for not being a Van Til scholar, I do blame him for making these sorts of categorical claims without scholarly support.  As a matter of fact, Van Til (and Dr. Bahnsen as well, but I’ll focus on Van Til in this post) *did* offer (or at least: alluded to) a theological argument for why it would be the case that Christian theism alone provides for the preconditions of intelligibility.

Of course, this argument is only successful if Christianity is, in fact, true.

Glenn Peoples isn’t alone in misunderstanding this tidbit of Presupper thought – people ask me questions about it all the time.  So I’ll try to briefly outline the argument below.

As a preface:  Van Til was seeped in the Reformed scholastic tradition and much of his work might be interpreted as an attempt to take that tradition seriously, re-package it, and assert it polemically.  Accordingly, Van Til relied on (what were considered: established) theological arguments.  He argues that the divine attributes imply each other.  Dr. Scott Oliphint, in following Van Til, offers an example of this sort of argument:

“If we affirm that God is essentially a perfect Being (one who lacks nothing), if we affirm his character is a se, then it cannot be that he is in any way essentially limited by anything outside of himself, since to be limited would by definition be a lack; it would be a constraint placed on God by something else, be it space or time or human choices.” ~ “God With Us” pg. 16

But now, consider a typical citation from Van Til which directly applies to the topic at hand:

“Then, too, man could not be otherwise created than in accordance with the image of God, since there were no idea or patterns above or distinct from the nature of God according to which God could create him.” – Intro to systematic Theology, pg. 119.

Here we have it Glenn Peoples.

You may not like it.  You may snub it with characteristic snobbery (so common among those who study analytic philosophy)…but this constitutes an argument for why, if Christianity is true, it must be exclusively so.3

 I’ll try to polish up the argument and state it formally (although I hope no one faults Van Til or presuppositional apologetics for my bad formulations):

—————————————

P1:  God is A Se

P2: God’s being A Se implies there is no concept outside of Himself by which He might pattern any of His works. 

P3:  If God works, His work will be fashioned after concepts which are internal to (and identical with) His character.

Conclusion:  Therefore, all of Creation is, necessarily, “reflective” of God. 

—————————————–

Consider John Frame’s reassertion of this point in typical Van Tillian jargon:

“God’s covenental presence is with all His works, and therefore it is inescapable… all things are under God’s control, and all knowledge… is a recognition of divine norms for truth. Therefore, in knowing anything, we know God” (18). Frame elaborates: “[B]ecause God is the supremely present one, He is inescapable. God is not shut out by the world… all reality reveals God” (20).”  These citations are taken from “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”.  H/T to J.W. Wartick.

An implication of all this is that no non-Christian conceptual scheme will ever be able to successfully account for a Creation that is reflective of the Christian God.

In addition to this theological argument we have exegetical arguments which would demonstrate from authority that *only* the Christian worldview will, in final analysis, be successful at “mapping” our experience. I’ll not delve into the relevant Scripture passages in this post, however (in a future post I may do an outline of relevant verses and if I do, I’ll link to it here).

Christian theology is, on this view, exclusive.  Islam can’t cut it, Atheism can’t cut it, Hinduism can’t cut it, and so on ad infinitum. Even if we can’t say (off the tops of our heads) how each of these non-Christian systems fail, Van Til’s argument shows that *if* Christianity is true, then all non-Christian views will fail some how or other.  It’s the task of the individual presupper to skillfully confront whichever he’s approached with when the time comes.

Hope that helps clarify the situation for those interested in this aspect of Presuppositionalism (even Glen Peoples).


1. He “dissed” me once:  I was about to have a debate with a moral anti-realist and I posted a question about it on Peoples’ blog.  He emailed me a quick paragraph telling me that he didn’t allow pseudonyms and asked if I could please re-submit my question under my real name.  Of course I did – then he ignored it. He could have spent that paragraph directing me to good literature or offering a few much-needed tips, but no. For God’s sake, if you’re going to devote your life to esoteric disciplines like the philosophy of religion, at least throw a bone to young bucks from time to time who might need your help! How often do philosophers get to do something meaningful for others? Not often.

2. For an interesting criticism that I hope to address in a future post, see People’s article “One of the Ways in Which Van Til Was Wrong”.

3. While this particular citation refers to the creation of mankind, Van Til commonly applied the same sort of thought to all Creation. For a rigorous discussion of his doctrine of creation and why it necessitates the exclusivity of Christian theology, see Nathan Shannon’s article comparing Van Til to John Locke: http://philosophyandtheism.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/christianity-and-evidentialism-van-til-and-locke-on-facts-and-evidence/  

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Mike says:

    Van Til usually characterizes the unique character of the Christian God that makes His existence necessary for the possibility of knowledge as the “ontological Trinity” or the “concrete universal.” Both of these phrases refer to the One and the Many being eternally related to each other (particular facts related to concepts), which allows for the possibility of knowledge, as opposed to the source of reality being the One in abstraction (a pure blank) or the Many in abstraction (pure chaos), neither of which can be objects of knowledge.

    Like

    • Aarond Dale says:

      Hey Mike,

      Thank you for the comments and the clarification about Van Til. I wish an enterprising young presuppositionalist (in the Van Tillian line) would write an essay on Van Til’s idea of the “concrete universal”.

      Maybe one day, I’ll try it? (God willing, someone more able will get there first.)

      Also, I’ve linked to your site in my side-bar…I’ve been linking people to “Van Til Diagrammed” for a long time. Great stuff!

      Like

  2. “this constitutes an argument for why, if Christianity is true, it must be exclusively so.”

    You may notice, if you look back at what you quoted from me, that this is not what I denied that Van Til had. Instead – as you said – my claim was as follows:

    “He didn’t have to, so he thought, tackle non-Christian worldviews one at a time and show that they lack the necessary basis for intelligibility. He thought that the argument just outlined did show that for all non-Christian worldviews.

    How exactly did he argue that his transcendental argument achieved this? Well here’s where things get frustrating. He never really explained exactly how his argument showed this. He uses the term “Christian theism” in his arguments like in the quote you just heard, he talked about the Christian theistic point of view, but he never justifies that limitation. He never justifies saying that it is Christian theism alone that provides the necessary grounding here.”

    So I did not say that Van Til failed to argue that “if Christianity is true, it must be exclusively so.” In fact it is relatively obvious that if Christianity is true then it must be exclusively so. The transcendental argument that you quoted me talking about was meant to show that only Christianity could be true because only Christianity provides the necessary preconditions for intelligibility. Van Til never offered an argument for that strong claim.

    I’m sorry you feel I dissed you. Obviously (I hope), that wasn’t intentional. I don’t allow pseudonyms, and while I often interact with commenters at my blog, I can’t always commit time to it.

    Like

    • Aaron Dale says:

      Hey Glenn Peoples – thanks for the reply and on the “diss”, I was only being half-serious. Your material’s benefited me greatly over the last few years.

      On the other issue:

      I tried thinking of a phrase that would describe what you’re getting at and could probably have come up with something more precise; but, what I mean by Christianity being “exclusive” is just that, only Christianity can provide the necessary preconditions of intelligibility, which I believe the rough-shod theological argument Van Til alludes to and which I’ve tried to formalize here, demonstrates.

      So *if* you’re suggesting that Van Til didn’t have an argument for why “Christian theism alone provides the necessary grounding here“, well, there it is in my post. The argument I provided (if successful) shows why Christian theism, alone, provides for the necessary preconditions of intelligibility.

      But maybe you’re looking for something more subtle?

      Maybe you’re asking how we can make the move from Christianitys being the necessary precondition of intelligibility to Christianitys being true? This is the ol’ “justification” problem with transcendental arguments (I believe Barry Stroud first raised it against Strawson’s transcendental arguments). If this is what you mean, then you might be willing to grant that Van Til had an argument for why Christianity, if true, would (alone) be able to account for human intelligibility, but you’re wondering if Van Til ever presented an argument for why this would imply truth?

      If that’s what you mean, then I think you’re still wrong to say that neither Van Til or Bahnsen offered arguments for it. (Bahnsen directly interacts with this problem in numerous places).

      At any-rate, I’m far more interested in the problem itself than in demonstrating that Van Til or Bahnsen addressed it at some point in their writings or lectures.

      Thanks for dropping by; it’s an honor.

      Like

Commenting Presupposes Christianity...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s