David Haines will be presenting a paper on Van Til at the upcoming apologetics conference at Southern Evangelical Seminary. Joshua Whipps provides a good critique of a previous paper that Haines wrote on Van Til, but the summary of his thesis for the new paper that Haines provides is full of problems itself. Even though Van Til is difficult to understand at times, I can’t imagine someone who actually took the time to read several of Van Til’s books coming to the conclusions about Van Til’s positions that Haines does. Haines repeats some standard misconceptions about Van Til, so he must be repeating what some other uninformed critics of Van Til have said. This merry-go-round has to stop.
If anyone says that Van Til teaches that there is no common ground between Christians and non-Christians, that person hasn’t seriously read Van Til. That happens to be one of Haines’ major points. Let’s make this clear: Van Til’s position is that there is no religiously neutral common ground. Unless you add the “neutral” qualifier, you are not stating Van Til’s position correctly, and it makes a really big difference. There is common ground everywhere between Christians and non-Christians because all facts are God-created facts. Non-Christians are created in God’s image and live in God’s world, so the revelation of God confronts them everywhere. Christians can make use of this to refute their unbelief.
Haines claims that Van Til’s view is that it is, “impossible for unregenerate human-beings to know something of the one true God unless they first presuppose the truths of Christianity (such as the existence of the Triune God of the Bible, and the divine inspiration of the Bible).” Haines concludes from this that Van Til must reject, or does reject (Haines is not clear which), that “man can know something about God through nature, by reason alone, without specially-added divine help through inspired Scriptures, visions, etc.” Yet Van strongly affirms that non-Christians know God through nature, through acquired knowledge and through innate knowledge. He says:
The actual situation is therefore always a mixture of truth with error. Being “without God in the world” the natural man yet knows God, and, in spite of himself, to some extent recognizes God. By virtue of their creation in God’s image, by virtue of the ineradicable sense of deity within them and by virtue of God’s restraining general grace, those who hate God, yet in a restricted sense know God, and do good. – An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 27.
Haines misunderstandings in his paper revolve around his understanding of the role that interpretive assumptions play in our knowledge of the world. He says that on Van Til’s view, “humans cannot ‘get out of’ or escape this interpretative schema in order to compare it with that which is—reality.” First, as a Christian apologist, Haines needs to know that Hume’s epistemology self-destructed. His idea that facts speak for themselves, that we can know facts without any interpretive schema, undermined the possibility of any knowledge whatsoever, whether knowledge of the external world or even of our own existence. Demonstrating this to unbelievers is a powerful refutation of the materialistic worldview, as can be seen in Greg Bahnsen’s famous debate with Gordon Stein. Second, the interpretive schema that is true is part of reality. For example, we use logic and mathematics to interpret reality, and if we do that correctly, we are understanding reality better. Logic and mathematics are concepts, not material objects, but they are part of reality – our God-created, God-ruled reality.
Third, this idea that on Van Til’s view, everyone is locked in separate worlds of interpretive schemas goes back to John Warwick Montgomery’s essay, “Once Upon an A Priori” in the book Jerusalem and Athens, and it is wrong. Van Til’s view is that, since all facts are God-created facts, all worldviews that reject God necessarily reduce to absurdity. God-rejecting worldviews cannot account for rationality, knowledge, or ethics. A non-Christian cannot live in their isolated interpretive schema because, if they could, they would have no rationality, knowledge, or ethics. Rather, non-Christians must rely on the Christian worldview in order to have reason, knowledge, and ethics. They operate on, as Van Til puts it, “borrowed capital” or “stolen capital” from Christianity. Despite their denials of God, non-Christians are created in the image of God and live in God’s world, so they must act inconsistently with their God-denying beliefs as they live their lives. Non-Christians must “back-slide” in their unbelief in numerous ways as they live in God’s world. The job of the Christian apologist is to demonstrate this to them, showing them the complete irrationality that their position entails.
Van Til’s argument is basically what has recently been called “the argument from reason” for God’s existence, although Van Til includes his unique use of the philosophical issue of the One and the Many and the ontological Trinity in his argument. Non-Christian worldviews posit an ultimate plurality without unity as the source of reality (Heraclitus, Hume), or an ultimate unity without plurality (Parmenides, Zeno), or a combination of abstract plurality and abstract unity coming together to form reality. This last option includes the form/matter picture of reality in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and is more recently seen in the epistemology of Immanuel Kant. A plurality without unity is no basis for rationality since it is just chaos. A unity without plurality is no basis for rationality since it is a static blank. And combining the two irrational elements of chaos and a blank unity does not create an intelligible world. Rather, we must begin with plurality and unity related to each other – particular facts and their interpretive schemes related from all eternity. This requires an absolute Mind, one that has an eternal plan for the universe that relates all facts for all time to their meanings. That God’s nature cannot be reduced to a bare unity without diversity or a plurality without unity is reinforced by the doctrine of the Trinity. The three persons are genuine diversity in God, but they are unified as one God. These are the things that Haines should discuss if he wants to seriously engage with Van Til’s view of apologetics.