Apologetics to the Glory of God

Van Til’s Argument Part I

In the comment section of Justin Taylor’s post, we have already seen perhaps the most common claims made by opponents of the covenantal apologetic. By “Roberto G”, we have the claim that Van Til didn’t make an argument; and by Doug Perry, we have the claim that the argument is circular. To head off any claims that I misunderstand what they have to say, let me quote the two gentlemen in question on the specified topics, and then I’ll deal with their comments as a whole in later posts, as I’ve decided to make this a short series, to deal with the common claims made by these two gentlemen concerning our apologetic method. Not only will this directly respond to their objections, but give us a good reference for a “Frequently Asked Questions” entry in the future – as these are objections we truly do see quite often.

Roberto G: “Is it ever mentioned that VT never formulated in all his writings a transcendental argument for God’s existence?”[1] “While u can certainly gain some insights from VT on defending the faith, it is simply a matter of historical record that VT didn’t produce an argument for God’s existence”[2]

Doug Perry: “VanTil’s unfortunately[sic] legacy seems to have given us the school circular reasoning held by most presuppositionalists (Bahnsen) and has caused many well-intended reformed theologians to disdain scientific arguments over against secular claims. And that is why we have otherwise orthodox reformed scholars buying into evolution.”[3] “If you have to assume that what you are trying to prove is true before you can form your argument, that is “begging the question” or “assuming the initial point”. Petitio principii is not a valid form of argument.”[4]

Notice, in this post, that these two gentlemen, in their collective critique, fall into the same dilemma that we have discussed several times previously. The post “Two Initial Objections to TAG” came instantly to mind when I saw these comments on the same post. To be sure, neither of these gentlemen said that TAG was *both* circular and unstated – however, notice that one said it was circular, and the other said it was unstated. This does show that despite the vehemence of their opposition, it is not at all clear that either is the case, given that one can object that the argument is “circular”, and the other can say there is no argument made! If on one hand, the argument is said to be circular, this means that there is a recognizable argument. On the other hand, if one says that there is no argument made, it can hardly be circular! So, given that two objectors can make demonstrably antithetical claims; it is hardly clear that either can be accepted with the dearth of argumentation provided by these gentlemen.

In the post “Agreus Attempts to Tackle TAG“, these twin objections are explored in a more detailed fashion.

So, let’s address these Roberto’s particular claim prior to addressing Doug, followed by the remainder of their comments.

Roberto claims that it is “a matter of historical record” that Van Til did not formulate an argument for the existence of God. This, I must say, is an amazing claim from someone who claims to have read Van Til. In this post, you can find a section that quotes Van Til, in his exchange between “Mr. White”, “Mr. Grey”, and “Mr. Black”, in the work “Defense of the Faith”. It reads as follows:

It is this that the Reformed Christian, Mr. White, would tell Mr. Black. In the very act of presenting the resurrection of Christ or in the very act of presenting any other fact of historic Christianity, Mr. White would be presenting it as authoritatively interpreted in the Bible. He would argue that unless Mr. Black is willing to set the facts of history in the framework of the meaning authoritatively ascribed to them in the Bible, he will make “gobble-de-gook” of history.

In that post, I provide the following commentary:

This is where we are called to set things in antithesis; to argue the impossibility of the contrary. When we set these two worldviews against each other, we must do so comprehensively. We must do so with the facts being clearly presented for what they are in the unbeliever’s system. Understand; your particular Mr. Black’s peculiar position may be more or less consistent with what Mr. Black here presents. This is of no consequence. This is an illustration of how these conversations tend to proceed, and with a typical example of an unbeliever.

So, here he lays out the method; for those of you who are 1) Unbelievers, and think that it hasn’t been laid out or 2) Believers who haven’t seen it expressed in simple terms – this is where it’s at, so pay close, close attention here. First – note that in this, he is setting out *the entirety* of interpretation, in any sense, at once. *Any* (and every) fact must be presented as authoritatively interpreted in Scripture. This is what we presuppose – this authoritative interpretation. This is not done piecemeal, but comprehensively. Then, we have the argument – unless Mr. Black is willing to set the facts of history in the framework of the meaning authoritatively ascribed to them in the Bible, he will make “gobble-de-gook” of history. This is the transcendental argument; the only proof is that without it, you can’t prove anything. In this case, he is using it in regard to the meaning of facts. Unless you take them to mean what Scripture says they mean, they are, in fact, meaningless. They are arbitrary, unconnected.

On page 381 of Defense of the Faith (4th Edition), you will find Van Til saying the following:

“…the argument for Christianity must therefore be that of presupposition. With Augustine it must be maintained that God’s revelation is the sun from which all other light derives. The best, the only , the absolutely certain proof of the the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed, there is no proof of anything. Christianity is proved as being the very foundation of the idea of proof itself.”

“The only “proof” of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of “proving” anything at all. The actual state of affairs as preached by Christianity is the necessary foundation of “proof” itself.”[5]
While it seems quite commonplace to make the assertion that Van Til never formulated an argument, this is simply not the case. For further demonstration;

“What we shall have to do then is to try to reduce our opponent‘s position to an absurdity. …we must meet our enemy on their own ground. It is this that we ought to mean when we say that we reason from the impossibility of the contrary. The contrary is impossible only if it is self-contradictory when operating on the basis of its own assumptions.”[6]

And Further:

[the] whole Christian theistic position must be presented not as something just a little or as a great deal better than other positions, but must be presented as the only system of thought that does not destroy human experience to a meaningless something. This is in accord with the teaching of the Bible that those who do not accept Christ are lost. Accordingly, if Christian theism is defensible at all it must be defensible in this way. And if it is not defensible in this way it is not defensible in any other way, because any other way of defense reduces the uniqueness of Christianity at once. The question is one of “this or nothing.” The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove that if one is not a Christian theist he knows nothing at all as he ought to know anything. The difference is not that all men alike know certain things about the finite universe and that some claim some additional knowledge, while the others do not. On the contrary, the Christian theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God. He does this in no spirit of conceit, because it is a gift of God‘s grace. Nor does he deny that there is knowledge after a fashion that enables the non-theist to get along after a fashion in the world. This is the gift of God‘s common grace, and therefore does not change the absoluteness of the distinction made about the knowledge and the ignorance of the theist and the non-theist respectively. The method of argumentation will accord with the general position taken so far. It will seek to show that antitheistic knowledge is self-contradictory on its own ground, and that its conception of contradiction even presupposes the truth of Christian theism. It must be the method of the impossibility of the contrary, or that of the destruction of the enemy. It must show that univocal reasoning is self-destructive.[7]

We can multiply quotes here – we can multiply, and then some. The problem we are facing is that in most cases, what people are looking for are the standard arguments for the existence of God. Van Til is giving what is essentially a meta-argument; an argument which can start from any fact whatsoever, and show that the unbeliever simply cannot account for that fact, that their conception of it as such is self-contradictory, and that their entire system is invalid. This is not an argument from Aquinas, or Anselm. It is not intended to be. As Van Til says, “a truly transcendent God and a transcendental method go hand in hand.”[8]

Next post, we will deal with Doug Perry’s assertion that Van Til’s argument is circular.


  1. [1]Comment 93273
  2. [2]Comment 93296
  3. [3]Comment 93289
  4. [4]Comment 93308
  5. [5]CVT, “My Credo”, Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, ed. E.R. Geehan, pg 21
  6. [6]Survey of Christian Epistemology, pg 205
  7. [7]Ibid, 222-3
  8. [8]Ibid, 11


7 responses to “Van Til’s Argument Part I”

  1. Steven S. Avatar
    Steven S.

    I have a question — there’s a word that keeps cropping up, and I want to make sure I have the right definition to work from.

    What does it mean to “account” for something, in this context?

    1. RazorsKiss Avatar

      An explanation, or a reason, why something is the way it is.

      For example; Unbelievers can count – but they can’t account for counting. (A paraphrase of Van Til). They can do it – but they don’t have a reason for the doing of it, or a meaningful explanation for “counting” itself. This isn’t to say they can’t count – the opposite is the case. It is to say that they can’t explain counting as a meaningful human experience, apart from God’s ordination of it.

      1. Steven S. Avatar
        Steven S.

        I suppose I’m confused here, because…

        but they don’t have a reason for the doing of it,

        The joy of exploring and understanding more about the world 😉
        I presume you mean something more significant than that — since similarly, any mathematical logician can give you a meaningful explanation of “counting”, “number”, etc. These are all internally self-consistent concepts without bringing supernatural intervention into it at all.

        I suppose that what I’m getting at here is that “It is that way because that’s how human minds model the universe” is an explanation for human activity, again without external intervention (save that of the universe which they are modeling. The times I’ve had this discussion (or ones like it before) there seems to be an expectation of “presentation for above” in the use of “accounting”.

        why something is the way it is.

        Now, is this explanation of the form “These things possess the characteristics , , and , because they must, to be these things properly” as opposed to “These things possess these characteristics because that’s the point they’ve arrived at through biological and memetic development”? (e.g. “Why are plants this way instead of that way?” as opposed to “Plants ended up here because that’s where mutation took them?”)

        Because if so, it seems that the very notion there implies a Way things Ought to Be, that is not contained within a materialist viewpoint at all; it’s neither here nor there, as it were, aside from the physical and memetic development described above.

        I suppose the question is “Is there always a reason why something is the way it is, or is there space for chance and accident?”

        apart from God’s ordination of it.

        Wouldn’t that be enumeration of it? (Sorry, couldn’t resist the math joke.)

        1. RazorsKiss Avatar

          Yes, you’re confusing “cause” with “reason”. A reason is the *purpose*, or *meaning*. There is no purpose, or basis for meaning in their worldview. “Because human minds model the universe” is uninteresting – because it is a description, not a reason. It’s like saying “it is because it is” – a tautology. The question being asked is not “how did they end up this way”, but “what must be presupposed for an intelligible meaning of things being this way”.

          The whole point is that there is no ought, purpose, or meaning in the unbelieving worldview. It is because it is. It is because of random interactions – an inherently irrational state of affairs – but we are being asked to rationally consider this irrationalistic state of affairs. Why? How can someone account for this? When we are speaking of “giving an account”, we are speaking not of financial accounting – but of the giving of an explanation which renders it intelligible in the first place. Van Til’s pun is a play on the two meanings of “account”.

          This isn’t a record of transactions – which is all the materialist can attempt to offer us. I say “attempt” because there is no intelligible basis for “transaction” to be had, as this assumes order – something else that irrationalistic chance cannot account for. What we are asking for is an account for the “value”, or ‘meaning” of something. An explanation which gives the reason why the purported “value” of the concept or fact is meaningful in the first place. Again, not the causal chain itself – but an argument for the validity or meaning of the items being within that (or any) causal chain at all.

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  3. Lance Greer Avatar
    Lance Greer

    “You have to stop thinking logically to argue that the universe came into being by itself, out of nothing.” – R.C. Sproul — Ligonier Ministries (@Ligonier) December6, 2011

    Kant was wrong to believe that human beings are the source of reason and logic. Van Til made the mistake of accepting Kant’s premises about reason and logic. Sproul gets it right.

    1. C.L. Bolt Avatar
      C.L. Bolt


      Van Til never accepted the alleged Kantian premises that human beings are the source of reason and logic. You make yourself look silly by negatively commenting concerning something you clearly do not understand. See my reply to your other comment regarding the quote from Sproul.


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