A Fundamental Problem With A Fundamental Problem with the Presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til

Before anyone gets too excited by Haines’ upcoming critique of Van Til at SES (including Haines himself, I might add), it might be useful to point out a common mistake he has made in discussion of Van Til thus far.

The philosopher or apologist who is well acquainted with the modern and post-modern philosophy of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger will recognize that Van Til’s system of apologetics is very much dependent upon these sources.

He notes this in the body of his announcement for his SES talk – but it might be illustrative to you to note that in his 28pg paper on Van Til, he says the following in footnote 21:

It is interesting to note that there seems to be a link between Van Til’s notion of interpretative structures and the hermeneutics of being of Martin Heidegger. There has never been a study showing that Van Til was influenced by Heidegger (and other post-modern existential thinkers such as Kierkegaard), and the frequent cry some presuppositionalists is that Van Til was not influenced by any non-Christian philosophers (In fact, if he had been, this would have been potentially detrimental to his system. Van Til, himself claims that he is not influenced by Idealism, Hegel, Existentialism or Phenomenalism, but only by simple Calvinism (Cf. Van Til, DF, 23.).).

He goes on to say, in the same footnote:

Secondly, it is evident, contrary to Van Til’s protests, that Van Til was indeed influenced by different aspects of the popular philosophical systems of his time (Cf. Van Til, DF, 137, 19fn80, 137, 113.) The attentive reader cannot help but notice the subtle similarities between Heidegger’s hermeneutics of being, and Van Til’s Presuppositionalism. That there is a probable connection between Van Til’s system and Heidegger’s hermeneutics of being can be shown as follows: It is common knowledge that Van Til was influenced by the Dutch reformed school of philosophy (There is no doubt that Van Til was influenced by Abraham Kuyper, but he was also influenced by thinkers such as Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven, both of whom were heavily influenced by Neo-Kantian philosophy, Heidegger, and Husserl (cf. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2013), 243-244.) Also important for this question is that Van Til was familiar enough with Heidegger’s writings to be able to write a scathing attack on the Heideggerian notion of god (cf. Cornelius Van Til, “The Later Heidegger and Theology”, in The Westminster Theological Journal , 26:2 (May 1964), 121-161. Interestingly enough, Van Til’s
Presuppositionalist system shares, with Existential Phenomenology and Relativism, some basic foundational doctrines, namely the Kantian critique of knowledge (without going into too much detail we can note Van Til’s use of the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world (Van Til, IST, 83, 113. Cf. Van Til, DF, x, 32fn15, 71fn46, 91.)), and the hermeneutics of being (which is essentially the notion that all people necessarily interpret the world that presents itself to them through categories that they inherit in one way or another). For example, we find the influence and combination of Heidegger’s hermeneutics of Being, and of the Kantian critique of knowledge, in the works of a well-known Canadian post-modern theologian, Myron Bradley Penner, “In one sense, of course, hermeneutics is a kind of epistemology — at least insofar as it is a reflection on the nature and limits of human knowledge. (Myron Bradley Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2013), 70. Cf. Ibid., 11, 29, 67-68, 127, 147.) Let it be noted that to claim that Van Til’s dependence on the works of Kant and Heidegger therefore falsifies his system would be a genetic fallacy. However, if it turns out that the positions of Kant and Heidegger run into serious difficulties, then it may be possible that Van Til’s system falls prey to these same problems.

So, there are no studies which say this. But here’s an attempted argument. Fair enough. But it fails.

“It is evident” – ipse dixit.

Notice the “influences”, if you own the book. Go to these references. Take pg 137 as an example. Bradley, Kant. Now notice the start of last paragraph on the page, which continues on the next. “In reply we need only to observe that this way of escape is not open to the Reformed apologist.” Bradley, an idealist, is similarly treated. He is considering the *problems* with idealism, and showing the consequences which derive from such a position. Sure, he uses transcendentalists and idealists as foils. He uses lots of people as foils, no? Considering this as an “influence” – or as a “dependence” is exceedingly wrong-headed. See fn80 on pg 19. Think it through. Val Halsema is doing what? Why is he doing so? What is Van Til’s intent in mentioning his own critic? What is he responding to, and what is his general theme, throughout this entire response section? I have no idea what Haines is referring to on 113, and Haines doesn’t say. His references to IST are similarly inconclusive. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he was looking for any and all references to philosophers in these two works, and saying that because he references them, he is influenced by them and/or depends on them. Just between you, me, and the fencepost – if he wants to try to prove this thesis, he would have done far better to actually interact with some of Van Til’s specifically philosophical material, instead of vaguely cherrypicking material which, on the main, has to do with reponses to his critics, or his comparisons of the Reformed system to that of major schools of philosophy, on a broad canvas.

Just as one additional tip, for those who might be as new to reading Van Til as Mr. Haines seemingly is: Van Til does a lot of “repurposing” of terms. He uses terms which he happens to like – but assigns different meanings to them. Intentionally. He is doing something a great deal like John does with Logos. What Mr. Haines mistakenly thinks is “reliance” is, in fact, a repurposing – and a redirecting – of certain aspects of a variety of systems which, in isolation, have some parallel within classical reformed theology. He is a trained philosopher – in a lot better school than most philosophers can claim, incidentally – who is also a trained theologian – and who is much interested in showing how the two fields are intertwined. You have to actually read his defenses against the accusations which the entire first third of DotF deals with, however. He gets these sorts of accusations *all the time*. He is, however, no longer around to defend himself – so, with all due respect, Mr. Haines – please, feel free to make more uninformed speculations. I’ll be happy to reply, and I’m sure there will be entire classes of grad students at WTS who will be more than happy to disabuse you of your conclusions, and that your speculative fiction will provide reams of papers in response. Don’t say, however, that I didn’t warn you.

There is no support for his first premise. I’ll leave Haines to attempt to find some, if he wishes. This attentive reader notes that Van Til had a great deal to say about Heidegger, (as well as Kant) in a great many places within his corpus – and that it might be educational for others to track those down for themselves – to save themselves embarrassment, at the very least. Here’s a hint: track down a copy of “A Christian Theory of Knowledge”. Esp. the blue volume, with the helpful index, which the other editions, to my knowledge, lack.

Mention, discussion of, or comparison to is not dependence. This is, essentially, the exact same argument that many, many people have made about Van Til and *idealism* – which, you might note, he discusses more than just about any other philosophical system. Eventually, you folks might figure out that he was very, very widely read – and that even y’all are going to run out of people he mentioned, eventually. Maybe then this will stop. There I go being optimistic again, though. By that time, the latest round will have forgotten that the first round existed. I’ll make sure to watch this upcoming talk, though. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you, David. This kind of stuff isn’t going to fly.


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