A Thomistic Transcendental Argument that Needs Van Til

A Review of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition:  A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008).


I recently read Edward Feser’s book The Last Superstition because someone who claimed to be a former Van Tilian said it was the book that converted him to Thomism.  Cornelius Van Til often criticized Aristotle, and criticized Aquinas for relying on Aristotle, and criticized Classical apologetics in general.  As the subtitle indicates, Feser’s book is directed at refuting atheism, not Van Til.  It should be no surprise, then, that Feser does not identify Van Til and respond to his criticisms of Aquinas.  My conclusion after reading the book is that Feser does not even incidentally provide a refutation of Van Til’s criticism of Aquinas.  Nevertheless, because there is a great deal of debate over what exactly Van Til found wrong with Aquinas, Feser’s book provides a convenient way to compare and contrast Thomistic apologetics with Van Til’s presuppositional approach to Christian apologetics.

Critics of Van Til’s rejection of Thomistic philosophy will probably be surprised to find how much agreement I find between Feser’s Thomism and Van Til.  With so much agreement, how could Van Til excoriate Aquinas so often?  I’ll get to that, but first some points of agreement.

Agreement between Feser’s Thomism and Van Til

The philosophical issue known as “the one and the many” plays a large part, I would say even the central part, in Van Til’s defense of Christianity and criticism of other worldviews.  Van Til says, “The whole problem of knowledge has constantly been that of bringing the one and the many together.”[1]  This issue is about accounting for both change and continuity, justifying our descriptions of changing experience by using universal concepts.  Van Til recognizes that Thomistic philosophy attempts to bring the one and the many together in order to account for our knowledge the world and God: “In its natural theology, traditional Romanist thought seeks to avoid univocism (i.e., Parmedian identity philosophy), and equivocism (i.e., Heraclitean flux philosophy).  The result is expressed in its notion of analogy.”[2]

Feser also recognizes the importance of the issue of one and the many for epistemology.  Like Van Til, Feser appeals to the examples of the pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides to describe the two extreme conditions that must be avoided:

If Parmenides was wrong to deny the existence of change, Heraclitus was also wrong to claim that change is all that exists.  For Aristotle, the right view, here as elsewhere, is somewhere in between the extremes. . . .   With Heraclitus, he holds that these real things undergo change; with Parmenides he holds that what is real cannot be change alone; and with Plato holds that form is the key to understanding how something permanent underlies all change. (57)

Both Van Til and Feser see the Christian God as providing the answer to the problem of the one and the many, so that God’s existence is necessary in order for knowledge, reason, science, ethics, and the like to be possible.  The worldviews that deny God’s existence reduce to absurdity because they undermine the very possibility of reason and science.  In other words, Feser endorses a transcendental argument for God’s existence, as does Van Til.   Van Til says that, “. . . we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method. That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us.”[3]  Feser says, “Indeed, nothing makes sense – not the world as a whole, not morality or human action in general, not the thoughts you are thinking or the words you’re using, not anything at all – without final causes” (70-71 – emphasis in original).  By “final causes” Feser means purposes, and he holds that God must exist as the ultimate source of purpose in the universe.  Feser says that he endorses the “argument from reason” that “materialism and naturalism . . . undermine the very possibility of rational inquiry” (244-45).  He argues that for materialism to be true, “the very notion of truth would have to be abandoned. . . .  In the name of reason, truth, and science, [the materialist] destroys all reason, truth, and science” (234).  Feser is specifically talking about the necessity of humans having a mind here, but he also says that God must exist as a final cause behind the human mind:  “If universals, propositions, and mathematical objects are eternal and necessarily existing entities that cannot plausibly exist apart from a mind, and such a mind could not (for the reasons we have seen) be a finite or limited mind like ours, it follows that they must exist in an eternal and infinite mind” (90).  Although, Feser acknowledges that “Aquinas does not defend this argument himself, but he and many other medieval Scholastic philosophers did endorse the idea that universals and the like exist as ‘thoughts’ in the divine intellect. . .” (90).

Van Til’s argument for God’s existence is a version of the argument from reason.  He argues for God being not only the source of universal, necessary concepts, but also the source of the individual facts of the world to which concepts are related:  “For us the facts are what they are, and the universals are what they are, because of their common dependence upon the ontological trinity.  Thus, as earlier discussed, the facts are correlative to the universals. Because of this correlativity there is genuine progress in history; because of it the Moment has significance.”[4]  God must be the First Cause of all things in the world in order for individual facts in the world to be able to relate to universals.

As one would expect from a Thomist, Feser defends Aquinas’ Five Ways, that God’s existence as the First Cause is necessary to account for motion, causation, contingent being, degrees of perfection, and purpose in the world (91 ff.)  Van Til has problems with some aspects of these arguments, as I will explain, but not the claim that God necessarily exists as the first cause and purpose behind everything in the world.   Van Til says that

. . . [M]en ought to reason analogically about themselves. They ought to reason analogically about their being (ontological argument), about the cause of their being (cosmological arguments), and about the purpose of their being (teleological argument). Men ought to see themselves concretely for what they are. They cannot in any true sense define or describe themselves except in terms of their derivation from and responsibility to God. They ought to see that the words being, cause and purpose have no possible meaning when applied to themselves, except in relation to God as their creator and judge.[5]

Van Til insists here that we ought to reason analogically, and anyone familiar with Aquinas knows that he also places a great deal of emphasis on describing the similarity and differences between man and God in terms of the analogy of being.  Yet, we will see that Van Til and Aquinas have stark differences in how the analogy between man and God should be understood.

Feser criticizes “the Paley/’Intelligent Design’” approach because it “more or less gives away the store to the skeptics by adopting the modern ‘mechanistic’ conception of nature, and thus is reduced to a pathetic ‘God of the gaps’ strategy” (113).  Likewise, Van Til often criticizes this method of arguing for God’s existence.  He gives this critique of Joseph Butler, whose method of arguing for Christianity was later adopted by William Paley:

It is not only on the question of special occurrences in nature that we differ with modern science; it is on the question of the basis of natural law itself that the rift appears. The Butler type of apologetics has failed to observe this basic point. As it has not questioned the legitimacy of the assumption of brute facts, so it has not at every point challenged the legitimacy of the assumption of self-contained, ultimate laws. It has granted that science can make a true explanation of brute facts with the help of impersonal laws.[6]


Disagreement between Feser’s Thomism and Van Til

While Feser’s arguments are good up to a point, issues about Greek views of form and matter that Feser does not address ultimately undermine his arguments.  In this passage, he makes claims that Van Til would regard as clearly going beyond what Aristotelianism can provide to the defense of Christian theology:

Now recall the Aristotelian principle that a cause cannot give what it does not have, so that the cause of a feature must have that feature either “formally” or “eminently” that is, if it does not have the feature itself (as a cigarette lighter which causes fire, is not itself on fire), it must have a feature that is higher up in the hierarchy of attributes (as the cigarette lighter has the power to generate fire).   But the Unmoved Mover as the source of all change, is the source of things coming to have the attributes they have.  Hence He has these attributes eminently if not formally. That includes every power so that He is all-powerful. It also includes the intellect and will that human beings possess (features far up in the hierarchy of attributes of created things, as we will see in the next chapter), so that He must be said to have intellect and will, and thus personality, in an analogical sense.  Indeed, he must have them in the Highest degree, lacking any of the limitations that go along with being a material creature or otherwise having potentiality (98-99).

That all sounds good, but Aristotle’s Unmoved Move cannot possess all the variety of attributes of lower beings in the highest degree.  Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover does not know, love, or create the world.  The world is moved because the world loves, has a desire for, the Unmoved Mover.[7]   The Unmoved Mover is a completely passive mover; it is not a living and active god like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob described in the Bible, where God’s existence is reflected in the world because He created it.  There is a shared attribute between Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and objects in the world, and that is a principle of form or unity.  And according to Aristotle’s philosophy, that principle of unity is possessed in the highest degree by the Unmoved Mover.  But that still does not mean that God has a variety of attributes of lower beings in the highest degree.   The form-matter scheme adopted by Aristotle, Plato, and other Greeks is that matter is the source of change and individuality, while form is the source of unity.  The Unmoved Mover is defined by removing all “matter,” which leaves the Unmoved Mover a completely blank unity, an empty concept.  The result is a dead, passive, immobile emptiness that Aquinas tries to equate with the Christian God.  Van Til writes, “The One is One so long as it is wholly above all contact with space-time facts. It is this abstract principle of pure negation which Aristotle speaks of when he says that God is pure thought thinking itself (noysis noyseos). This ‘pure thought’ does not think of itself any more than it thinks of the world, because it is not the thought of a self at all.”[8]  As a principle of unity abstracted from all diversity and change, there is no content to the Unmoved Mover’s self to think about.

Some have argued that Aquinas rejects the bad parts of Aristotle while keeping the good.[9]  But, unfortunately, Aquinas endorses the bad part of Aristotle that makes God into an empty concept.  “God is a supremely simple form, as was shown above (Question [3], Article [7]). . . . Reason cannot reach up to simple form, so as to know ‘what it is;’ but it can know ‘whether it is.’”[10]  A supremely simple form has all of its content removed.  With no content to it, it is impossible to say “what it is.”  Similarly, in Summa Contra Gentiles Aquinas says, “Now, in considering the divine substance, we should especially make use of the method of remotion.  For, by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is.”[11]  By remotion “we approach nearer to a knowledge of God according as through our intellect we are able to remove more and more things from Him.”[12]  Rather than a divine being that cannot be described because He is so much more complex than our puny, finite human minds can comprehend, Aquinas’ Aristotelian method of thinking about God results in a being that cannot be described because there is no content to his being to describe.  All content to God has been removed.  As Van Til puts it, “As far as knowledge of God is concerned the primary relation according to Thomas is that of negation.  When he says that reason (by an Aristotelian method) can prove that God exists, this is pointless inasmuch as he adds that it cannot say what God is.”[13]  Aquinas’ proof of the existence of God proves a God who does not exist, since there is nothing left to His nature once all content has been removed.

Here Van Til describes the biblical way of describing God as He is seen through His creation – by removing the limitations of created things, not removing content:

Accordingly, we need the indescribable fulness of the being of God as the presupposition of our notions of time and space. Then we subtract from these notions the limitations that pertain to them by virtue of the fact that they are created by God. If we do this, we walk theistically on the way of negation. The way of negation is then, at the same time, the way of affirmation. God then appears so full and rich in his being that we cannot even make negations with respect to him without the presupposition of the fulness of his being.”[14]

In this way, we are able to describe God as Feser wants to describe Him, as having “intellect and will, and thus personality, in an analogical sense, . . . [and having] them in the Highest degree, lacking any of the limitations that go along with being a material creature. . . .”  Analogical thinking that is consistent with the biblical worldview compares the Creator and creation by removing limitations from the creation in order to understand the Creator, not by removing content from the creation’s diversity so that the Creator is left as an empty concept.  The creature is analogous to the Creator by being a finite one-and-many that reflects the Absolute One-and-Many.  The creature is not analogous to God by having a principle of unity from God while being disanalogous to God by having manyness from the separate source of non-being/matter.

Rather than being an abstract universal, Van Til describes God as a “concrete universal.”  This is a term that Van Til borrowed from Hegel and other idealist philosophers, but Hegel’s concrete universal was an ideal to be achieved in the future (if ever), whereas Van Til uses the term to describe God as He has been for all eternity.  It means that all individual facts and the concepts that apply to them have their origin in God, in His eternal plan for the universe.  Van Til also emphasizes that the doctrine of the ontological Trinity – three equally divine persons in the Godhead for all eternity – means that God’s nature cannot be reduced to an abstract unity.  God’s nature irreducibly has both particular and universal aspects to it.

The Greek form-matter scheme is not merely a deficient view that needs to be supplemented with Christian views.  The Greek view must be rejected if Christianity is true.  The two views are incommensurable.  Aristotle excludes all particulars and change from the Unmoved Mover, consistent with Plato and other Greek philosophers.  But particulars and change cannot be excluded from the Christian God.  God is triune.  He is a living, active God.  God’s character and eternal decrees do not change, but there are changes in God described in the Bible.  He is slow to anger, but given rebellion against Him for long enough, He gets angry and sends judgment against the rebels.  On the other hand, if God threatens judgment on a rebellious people, God’s anger will subside and the threat removed if they repent (Jeremiah 18:7-10).  The pure form of Greek philosophy is eternally static.  Van Til rightly concludes that the Unmoved Mover could not be a person but only an impersonal “it.”[15]  It is an empty concept.  It could not decide to create the world of diverse change since all diversity and change are excluded from its nature.  The Unmoved Mover could not be the First Cause of the world.  The Greek view really has two independent, ultimate causes of the world:  non-being and being.  Matter, arising from non-being, is as ultimate as being in Aristotle’s view.  This pure being called the Unmoved Mover that does not know the world or create the world and who is separate from the other ultimate cause of the world, non-being or matter, is a finite god, a false god, an idol – not the absolute God of the Bible who is the source of form and matter, unity and change, for the world.

Aristotle held that the universe is eternal.  In this passage from Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas acknowledges that his Aristotelean method of proving God’s existence does not yield the biblical God because it does not prove a God who creates the world out of nothing:

[29] Two considerations seem to invalidate these arguments. The first consideration is that, as arguments, they presuppose the eternity of motion, which Catholics consider to be false.

[30] To this consideration the reply is as follows. The most efficacious way to prove that God exists is on the supposition that the world is eternal. Granted this supposition, that God exists is less manifest. For, if the world and motion have a first beginning, some cause must clearly be posited to account for this origin of the world and of motion. That which comes to be anew must take its origin from some innovating cause; since nothing brings itself from potency to act, or from non-being to being.[16]

In other words, his best argument for the existence of God presupposes an eternal universe, but God’s existence based on this proof is “less manifest” than if he could prove a God that creates the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo).  Since Aristotle’s method does not give him a God that creates the universe ex nihilo, Aquinas says said that a beginning to creation could not be proven by reason but must be an article of faith.[17]  He views faith in God as a creator like the second story of a house added to the first story established by “natural reason,” which amounts to Aristotelean philosophy.  However, a god who is just as old as the universe and not the creator of the universe hardly deserves the name of God in the biblical sense.  In fact, Aristotle’s view excludes a creation of the world with a beginning.  Matter exists eternally, and the eternally static, empty form of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, who does not know anything about the world, could not choose to cause anything in the realm of matter.  In the Thomistic syncretism between Aristotelianism and Christianity, Van Til concludes that “‘reason’ and ‘faith’ make contradictory statements about reality;” “Thomas the theologian” was to affirm beliefs that “Thomas the philosopher” must deny, and vise versa.[18]

Note that with Aristotelianism/Thomism, we are not talking about a material universe that is eternal because a concrete universal God eternally sustains it by His sovereign will.  That might be a logical possibility, although a universe with a beginning certainly puts greater emphasis on God’s sovereignty.  The pure form of Aristotle and Aquinas cannot create the universe or explain the one-and-many rationality of the universe even if the universe were eternal.

Even apart from these problems, Aquinas should have suspected that he was on the wrong track by integrating Aristotle’s paganism into Christianity when he reads the Apostle Paul stating that all men are in rebellion against God and suppress the knowledge of God (Romans 1, 3).  Aristotle’s form-matter scheme is a reflection of his rebellion against his Creator and the futile thinking that results from it, not natural revelation from God.

We can say that Aristotle got something right when he recognized that there needs to be a source of unity for the world (in contrast to modern atheists who subscribe to materialism), but that does not make his argument a building block for Christian views because his view of unity is irrational.  Abstract being, with no content, is a complete blank, which amounts to non-being.  With no content, it cannot be an object of rational thought.  Then this empty unity is added to the principle of diversity with no unity, which is equivalent to chaos, another irrational principle.  These two irrational principles are supposedly mixed together to form the intelligible world.  Van Til describes this futile approach as adding zeros together and expecting to arrive at a positive number.[19]  He also gives us this vivid description the relation between Greek form and matter:  “The result is that Aristotle’s body of knowledge resembles greatly that of Kant: it is, namely, an island of ice, floating on a boiling cauldron of chance.”[20]    Even though Aristotle tried to tone down the separation between form and matter in Plato by patching together little pieces of form to little pieces of matter, he still relied on the same basic view of reality, as Van Til explains:

Moderate realism does not want a world of pure essence or form such as Plato had. It wants to deal with Socrates as a man of flesh and blood. But even Plato said that the Good, the pure essential form, tends to be inherently diffuse. Essence, he said, tends to reveal itself in the world of existence. But when it does so, it can do so only by itself intermingling with pure non-existence, the purely essential with the purely non-essential, the purely determinate with the purely indeterminate. But when the world of essence becomes incarnate in the world of existence, then this world of existence must return to the world of essence. And what is true of the world as a whole is true of each man in the world. Each man is separated from the world of essence by his participation in the world of non-being. But unless we begin with the Creator-creature distinction, participation in non-being is the only principle of individuation there is.[21]

Because abstract form and abstract matter can’t “stick” together, each being irrational concepts that exclude each other, Aristotle cannot account for our intelligible experience of a world with causation and purpose:

More particularly, do I escape subjectivism if I am told that the being which I meet in my first breath of self-awareness is the analogical being of St. Thomas? I know what the analogical being of Aristotle is. I know that it is based on a supposed interaction of pure form and pure matter on a continuum of levels, a chain of being. I know that, with his idea of being as analogical, Aristotle tried to mediate between the abstract eternal essences of Plato’s thought and the utterly unrelated particularism of Sophistic thought. I know that the effort of Aristotle, was a failure. His lowest species was still of the same nature as was the highest essence of Plato. For Aristotle, as well as for Plato, knowledge is of universals only.  Aristotle’s concept could do nothing but drift on a bottomless and shoreless ocean of chance that was pure matter.  Holding firmly with Plato and with Parmenides to the adequation of thought and being, Aristotle was unable, for all his supposed empiricism, to attribute any significance to history and its individuality.  The moderate realism of Aristotle, like the more extreme realism of Plato, could explain nothing in the world of change except by explaining it away.[22]

God as a concrete universal is the necessary precondition for rationality in the universe. The intelligible world is not the product of two irrational principles coming together but the product of an absolutely rational God.  Human beings can use their reason to rationally investigate the world because they and the world are wholly created by a rational God.  Knowledge is not produced from two irrational principles.  Knowledge comes from knowledge – human knowledge is derived from God’s eternal knowledge of all things.  All the individual facts in the world in all their changing variety and all the concepts that apply to them have eternally existed in the mind of God, in His eternal plan for the world.

Since the form-matter scheme undermines the very possibility of rationality, it should be no surprise that it undermines many basic doctrines of Christianity in addition to God being the creator of a universe with a beginning, such as the Creator/creature distinction, a fall from a state of perfection, salvation at some point in history, the incarnation of Christ, a finished revelation from God, and absolute ethical obligations, as I explain more fully in another essay.[23]


Historian Charles Norris Cochran explains the uniqueness of Christianity compared to the philosophy of Classical civilization, which Christianity defeated:

The revelation of Christ was the revelation of the Divine Nature as the Trinity.  Accordingly, in the Trinity, Christian wisdom discovers that for which Classicism had so long vainly sought, vis. the logos or explanation of being and motion, in other words, a metaphysic of ordered process.  In so doing it does justice to the element of truth contained alike in the claims of classical materialism and classical idealism; while, at the same time, it avoids the errors and absurdities of both.[24]

That God could become a man in the flesh in history was a dramatic testimony to the eternal nature of God.  The incarnation of Christ was only possible because God was eternally such a God whose nature did not exclude the particular and changing.  Because God is a concrete universal, God can create time and space ex nihilo and be active in that realm.  This genius of the Christian worldview was squandered by Aquinas.  The treasures of the Christian birthright were sold out to a large extent for a mess of pottage from paganism.  Thomism is double-minded Christianity.  Single-minded Christianity declares soli Deo Gloria – “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever.  Amen.” (Rom. 11:36).

[1]  Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974), p. 10.

[2]  Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought  (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and

Reformed Publishing Co., 1980 [1971]), p. 111.

[3]  Cornelius  Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed

Publishing Company, 1969), p. 201.

[4]  Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel  (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1972), p. 64.

[5]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 104.

[6]  Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Evidences (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), p. 89.

[7]  Aristotle, Metaphysics XII, 7.

[8]  Cornelius Van Til, The Great Debate Today (Nutley, N.J.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971), p. 184.

[9]  For example, John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1995), pp. 266-67, 341.

[10]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 12, Article 12.

[11]  Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith (Summa Contra Gentiles) tr. by Anton C. Pegis, Vol. 2 (Garden City: Hanover House, 1955), p. 96 (1:14.2).

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 161.  Also see Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism  (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979), p. 57.

[14]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pp. 211-12.

[15]  Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), p. 302.  See also, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture (Phillipsburg, N.J.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1967), p. 19; The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel (Phillipsburg, N.J.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 8; The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), p. 238.

[16]  Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1:13.29-30.

[17]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 46, Article 2.

[18]  Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought , p. 96.

[19]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 20.

[20]  Van Til, Who Do You Say That I Am? (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1975), p. 21.

[21]  Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, pp. 220-21.

[22]  Ibid., p. 217.

[23]   Michael H. Warren, Jr., “The Scope And Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument:  A Response to John Frame,” pp. 9-13, http://www.christianciv.com/The_Scope_and_Limits_of_VTAG.pdf.

[24] Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture:  A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 436-37.

Please follow and like us:
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Calvinist Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Thomistic Transcendental Argument that Needs Van Til

  1. Pingback: Early November 2017 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address