Van Tilian Turf Wars (Part 2)

Presuppositionalists are sticklers for sound apologetic methodology. But how is sound apologetic methodology discerned? Presuppositional proclivities preclude the vast majority of classical or evidentialist approaches to apologetics. That much is clear. But how does one determine who is right and who is wrong when presuppositionalists argue about methodology amongst themselves? Perhaps we all agree that presuppositional apologetic methodology is the way to go, but who is to say what presuppositional apologetic method is? Is there some standard of presuppositional orthodoxy?

Fundamentalist presuppositionalists tend to respond to these questions by citing the Bible as their ultimate authority for apologetics. The strength of this response is immediately apparent. The Bible is our ultimate authority for apologetics. We are, after all, presuppositionalists, and what we presuppose, if anything, is the Bible.

Reductionism tends to weaken this position. A biblicist approach to complex apologetic questions tends toward overly simplistic, dogmatic rationalizations couched in terms of biblical fidelity versus foolish philosophy. Should the traditional presuppositionalist urge familiarity with Van Til, the fundamentalist usually responds that Van Til is not our standard for anything. God is. Should the attenuated presuppositionalist point out the relative lack of actual argumentation in the fundamentalist apologetic, the fundamentalist may reply with a concern for rendering the presuppositional apologetic accessible to anyone, and may even categorize the call to philosophical rigor as a veiled reliance upon worldly wisdom rather than the philosophy that is according to Christ.

Traditional presuppositionalists place a great deal of stock in what the ‘father’ of presuppositionalism – Cornelius Van Til – had to say about apologetic methodology. The strength of this approach to the question of presuppositional orthodoxy is that Van Til is probably the most important figure associated with presuppositionalism. His insistence upon the systematic nature of the Christian faith and what it means for the apologetic endeavor ensured that he left virtually no stone unturned in his quest to develop the most thoroughgoing and consistent Christian apologetic imaginable while standing on the shoulders of giants like Augustine, John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Geerhardus Vos.

Hagiography is the main weakness of this position. Van Til was a godly man and great theologian, but he was merely a man and one of many theologians, so an attitude of “Van Til said it and that settles it” is subject to a number of serious concerns. Should the fundamentalist point out the error of exalting the words of man rather than the Word of God, the traditionalist usually responds by highlighting the value of church history. Should the attenuated presuppositionalist mention that Van Til has his fair share of fundamental errors, significant omissions, and vague language in his philosophical argumentation, the traditionalist typically defends the theological reasoning behind what Van Til was doing.

Attenuated presuppositionalists measure apologetic methodology primarily by philosophical cogency. The strength of this position on apologetic methodology is its seemingly common sense notion (shared by most other schools of apologetics) that the purpose of apologetic discourse is to use intellectual argument to persuade people to believe the truth. Christians have no business knowingly promoting philosophically naïve and logically flawed apologetic methods or arguments, no matter how pious they may sound when they do so.

The academic expectations of this position tend to weaken it. Rationalism is easy enough to avoid, but the emphasis of this view shifts toward philosophical form and language and away from theological content and accessibility. If the fundamentalist objects to the heavy reliance upon philosophical categories, the attenuated presuppositionalist may fire back by pointing out the necessity of sound reasoning even in the fundamentalist’s own reliance upon philosophical categories when approaching Scripture (or anything else). If the traditionalist objects to a dismissive attitude toward the work of Van Til, the attenuated presuppositionalist insists that Van Til, even given his substantial contribution to the development of apologetics, can be greatly improved upon through updated philosophical insights and clearer terms.

As with the previous post in this series, these categories and examples are not precise. But the point of the post should stand. Part of the difficulty with disagreements between presuppositionalists is that when they argue about who has the ‘purest’ apologetic they may not even mean the same thing.


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