Apologetics to the Glory of God

Van Til’s Argument Part II

In our last post, we dealt with the claims made over at The Gospel Coalition Blog that Van Til did not make an argument while setting forth his methodology. “Roberto G” made that claim, and we dealt with that sufficiently for the time being. Now, we will deal with Doug Perry’s assertion that Van Til’s “legacy” has “given us the school [of] circular reasoning held by most presuppositionalists”. His sentence is rather garbled, and none too clear, but it seems to be saying that transcendental argumentation is circular, as far as I can tell. Now, even if this isn’t precisely what he means by this, this is an extremely common objection. I’m dealing with this primarily due to the fact that it seems to be the claim that Van Til’s arguments were circular. It might be interpreted that only Bahnsen’s version of TAG is said to be circular, but this is largely irrelevant, in my view, as what is typically said to be circular in Bahnsen’s TAG will be seen to be just as circular in regards to Van Til’s argumentation.

On to the quotes.

Whoa. I have to strenuously disagree with Frame on this. Sure, VanTil has been influencial[sic], but “Most Important” – no way. In fact, I think a whole bunch of others, like R.C. Sproul have been way more important. 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. So, thanks for letting me disagree :)!![1]

I’d just like to point out a few things at this juncture. R.C. Sproul’s work on apologetics[2] is highly critical of Van Til’s methodology; a mention of Sproul in this comment might indicate that the author has read these critiques. I have dealt with some of Sproul’s allegations on this blog in the past, so I’m aware of what is said. The reason I bring this up is that Sproul (or at least the authors of Classical Apologetics) say(s), repeatedly, that Van Til engages in circular reasoning. The reasons for this assertion are varied and complex; and it must be said that Van Til himself says that there is a sense in which *all* reason is necessarily circular. However, this is not said in a vacuum. There are many pages of discussion that Van Til provides to demonstrate why he says this. There are entire chapters where the discussion is meant to demonstrate just this singular point; namely, that every system of thought, in some sense, begins with what it seeks to prove. This is not to say that much of circular reasoning is fallacious. It is not even to say that the vast majority of circular reasoning is fallacious. In fact, I will go out on a limb to say that there is a vanishingly small amount of circular reasoning which is not fallacious. This does not, however, invalidate the point that Van Til is making here. Even more strongly, it actually reinforces his point. When Van Til talks about circular reasoning, he is speaking systemically. He is not speaking of a limited scope, or a small argument for a single fact. When he speaks of all reasoning being circular, in some sense, he is speaking of circularity in terms of an entire worldview, as a unit, and only in that respect – and in no other respect.

What is meant by this? Well, for that, we have to delve into his published work to get at the meat of the issue. We cannot simply assert this, and hope it sticks, can we? Only by dealing with what he actually says, and breaking it down thoroughly can we really get at what he has to say. The following quote is often taken to be evidence that Van Til is shamelessly encouraging all and sundry to engage in circular reasoning at every point. We will examine this statement, it’s context, and other statements in that same work, to get a sense of what is meant, first off.

[T]his brings up the point of circular reasoning. The charge is constantly made that if matters stand thus with Christianity, it has written its own death warrant as far as intelligent men are concerned. Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? Our answer to this is briefly that we prefer to reason in a circle to not reasoning at all. We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning that is possible to finite man. […] Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about him any other way, than by a transcendental or circular argument. The refusal to admit the necessity of circular reasoning is itself an evident token of opposition to Christianity.[3]

In the paragraphs prior, we are given the immediate context for this statement. It is never a good idea to divorce the statement from its context; and we shall try to show that the context explains why it is that VT makes the preceding statement.

The opponent of Christianity will long ago have noticed that we are frankly prejudiced, and that the whole position is “biblicistic.” On the other hand, some fundamentalists may have feared that we have been trying to build up a sort of Christian philosophy without the Bible. Now we may say that if such be the case, the opponent has sensed the matter correctly. The position we have briefly sought to outline is frankly taken from the Bible. And this applies especially to the central concept of the whole position, viz., the concept of an absolute God. Nowhere else in human literature, we believe, is the concept of an absolute God presented. And this fact is once more intimately related to the fact that nowhere else is there a conception of sin, such as that presented in the Bible. According to the Bible, sin has set man in enmity against God. Consequently it has been man’s endeavor to get away from the idea of God, that is, a truly absolute God. And the best way to do this was to substitute the idea of a finite God. And the best way to accomplish this subordinate purpose was to do it by making it appear as though an absolute God were retained. Hence the great insistence on the part of those who are really anti-Christian, that they are Christian.

It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its concepts of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. So also it makes very little difference whether we begin with the notion of an absolute God or with the notion of an absolute Bible. The one is derived from the other. They are together involved in the Christian view of life. Hence we defend all or we defend none. Only one absolute is possible, and only one absolute can speak to us. Hence it must always be the same voice of the same absolute, even though he seems to speak to us at different places. The Bible must be true because it alone speaks of an absolute God. And equally true is it that we believe in an absolute God because the Bible tells us of one.[4]

Also, I want to point out the ellipsis in the initial quote above. What is contained in that ellipsis?

The method of implication[5]. as outlined above is circular reasoning. Or we may call it spiral reasoning. We must go round and a thing to see more of it’s dimensions and to know more about it, in general, unless we are larger than that which we are investigating.[6]

So, there is Van Til’s initial explanation of what he is trying to say. We will hear more of Doug’s objections, and then we will return to Van Til’s comments at the end of the same volume from which we have quoted.

Back to Doug.

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.[7]

This sort of answer, I believe, stems from the commonly touted explanation given by Ligonier, that Presuppositional apologetics is easier and requires less thought, since it allows us to simply tell the non-Christian that he has the wrong presuppositions. This may be a common misrepresentation of PA, but it is by no means accurate. We are saying much more than this. We are not simply saying that the unbeliever has his presuppositional commitments wrong, but actually make the argument that his presuppositional commitments render his own experience unintelligible. From there, we then show that Christianity, far from rendering human experience unintelligible, gives meaning to everything in human experience. Only in Christianity is evil given a purpose which not only redeems it, but uses it for His glory, and His people’s good, for instance. But back to the objection above, it is said that we are “begging the question”, or engaging in “circular reasoning”. I would first note that the two are not identical, but are related. Circular reasoning is a formal fallacy, while question begging is informal. Circular reasoning is structural in nature, while petitio principii involves hidden or self-referential premises. But that is neither here nor there.

Let’s think of Christianity as Van Til is thinking of it. We think of Christianity “as a unit”. What Christianity is, is an all or nothing proposition. You cannot assume *this* part of Christianity here, and *not* assume this other part of Christianity there. First, recall that Van Til speaks of “spiral” reasoning. He gives us the picture of circling around something quite large that we may see it in its entirety. This is our first clue as to what he means. For another clue, let me give you another quote, which may give you another clue.

It is reasoning in a spiral fashion rather than a linear fashion. Accordingly, we have said that they can use the old terms deduction and induction if only we remember that they must be thought of as elements in this one process of implication into the truth of God. If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, 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. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize.

The charges made against this type of reasoning we must turn against those who made them.[8]

Did you catch what I was trying to point out? If we are circling around this very large object – we can start looking at it anywhere along that spiraling examination. Any point we start from is the “proximate” starting point – the “immediate” starting point. Van Til points out elsewhere that he is consciously following Calvin, however, when he is using proximate and ultimate. Whether you look to self, and then immediately see God – or look to God, and then immediately look to self – the two are bound up together inextricably, due to the image of God in you. Ultimately, however, all things are related to God – and have their relation to each other only made meaningful by God’s ordination of them as such. Whether it is insisted that we can (or should) start with ourselves apart from God, or that we can (or should) start with God and His revelation to us; there is a presuppositional commitment that we have already begun with. The unbeliever (and, unfortunately, many believers) insists that we cannot start with God. This is itself a presuppositional commitment, and if the charge is made that reasoning that “puts the cards on the table” and says outright that it starts with God is circular; then it is equally the case that reasoning which does not start with God is equally circular. This is not hidden in our case, and rightfully so.

Another quote may show us a further clue.

The charge is made that we engage in circular reasoning. Now if it be called circular reasoning when we hold it necessary to presuppose the existence of God, we are not ashamed of it because we are firmly convinced that all forms of reasoning that leave God out of account will end in ruin. Yet we hold that our reasoning cannot be fairly called circular reasoning, because we are not reasoning about and seeking to explain facts by assuming the existence and meaning of certain other facts on the same level of being with the facts we are investigating, and then explaining these facts in turn by the facts with which we began. We are presupposing God, not merely another fact of the universe. If God is to come into contact with us at all it is natural that the initiative must be with him. And this will also apply to the very question about the relation of God to us. Accordingly, it is only on God’s testimony that we can know anything about him.[9]

Note the next clue. God is not just another fact, of the same order as any other. God is God, and creatures are creatures. There is a fundamental distinction between creature and creator that the creature continually attempts to erase. That transcendence is the key to most of the misrepresentations that people present. They overlook Van Til’s constant drumbeat of the absolute God and the creature/creator distinction. We have already seen where Van Til states that “a truly transcendent God and a transcendental method go hand in hand.” In the paragraph prior, he says the following:

But if it be said to such opponents of Christianity that, unless there were an absolute God their own questions and doubts would have no meaning at all, there is no argument in return. There lie the issues. It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence. Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. It does not seek to find whether the house has a foundation, but presupposes that it has one. We hold that the anti-Christian method, whether deductive or inductive, may be compared to a man who would first insist that the statue of William Penn on the city hall of Philadelphia can be intelligently conceived of without the foundation on which it stands, in order afterwards to investigate whether or not this statue really has a foundation.[10]

Quite frankly, I have never seen a systematic attempt to deal with the preceding issues from any critic of Van Til. Not once. Certainly not with the level of quotation that I’m employing here. If you want to be taken seriously as a critic; take what you’re critiquing seriously. That’s all I’m going to say about the subject. It will then, at this point, often be objected that we know God through Scripture, which is “through the senses”. Well, Van Til addresses this, too.

Even in paradise it was God’s verbal self-disclosure, and the disclosure of his will for man’s activity in relation to the created cosmos, that was indispensable for man’s ability to identify any fact and to relate any fact properly to any other fact. Applying this to the Scripture, it is but natural that we should accept the Scripture testimony about itself. If we did anything else we would not be accepting Scripture as absolute. The only alternative then to bringing in a God who testifies of himself and upon whose testimony we are wholly dependent, is not to bring in God at all. And not to bring in God at all spells nothing but utter ruin for knowledge. In that case knowledge may be said to be reduces to the pass of drawing circles in a void. Hence we must return the charge of circular reasoning to those who made it. On the other hand, we are happy to accept the charge of circular reasoning. Our reasoning frankly depends upon the revelation of God, whose “reasoning” is within the internal-eternal circularity of the three persons of the Trinity. It is only if we frankly depend for the validity of our reasoning upon this internal circular reasoning in the triune God that we can escape trying in vain to reason in circles in a vacuum of pure contingency.[11]

Again, Van Til makes an argument. He explains what it is he means by circularity, what the entailments are, and what he doesn’t mean by circularity. If you recall above, as well, he explains why God and His revelation are inseparable. It is from this principle that I derived my oft-repeated slogan here at CH – “Presuppositionalism is Sola Scriptura in an apologetic context.” I haven’t changed my mind about that, and don’t plan to – because I am Reformed – and as a Reformed Christian, only Sola Scriptura is suitable for an apologetic.

We will stop here for this installment, and then pick back up in dealing with a few other niggling objections raised by the erstwhile commenters at TGC.

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  1. [1]Comment 93289
  2. [2]Classical Apologetics
  3. [3]A Survey of Christian Epistemology, pg 12
  4. [4]Ibid., pgs 11-12
  5. [5]By “method of implication”, Van Til is referring to the discussion on pgs 9-10, where he lays out the transcendental argument, and the accompanying methodology. Of especial note is his discussion of how it differs from deductive and inductive reasoning, as well as his discussion on 10 as to what is a “truly transcendental argument”.
  6. [6]SCE, pg 12
  7. [7]Comment 93308
  8. [8]SCE, pg 201
  9. [9]Ibid., 201
  10. [10]Ibid., 11
  11. [11]Ibid., 202


4 responses to “Van Til’s Argument Part II”

  1. Paul Avatar

    Your challenge: Is the Triune God of the Scriptures the proper grounds for knowledge (or: suggest another, such as morality)?
    God’s answer:
    Romans 1 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:18-21 ESV)
    And Romans 2:
    “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them”
    (Romans 2:14-15 ESV)

    Even the unregenerate man KNOWS the truth. He simply surpresses it. In apologetics, my approach is to bring them back to what they already know through GENERAL REVELATION (See Calvin’s Institutes, Book1 also) and then launch into evangelism, preaching the Gospel, via special revelation.)

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

      Hi Paul (Lance),

      You have persuaded me that you take the approach to apologetics you have outlined above. We do not. So much for autobiographies. Note also that we are not Roman Catholic. See also my response below.


  2. 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)

    But wait. There’s more.
    Scripture gives us an epistemological approach that is different than the VanTillians.
    Romans 1 “19For what can be(AL) known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature,(AM) have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they(AN) became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22(AO) Claiming to be wise, they became fools”

    Romans 2 “14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law,(S) by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15They show that the work of the law is(T) written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them”

  3. C.L. Bolt Avatar
    C.L. Bolt

    Hi Lance,

    I see nothing in the Scripture you posted that goes against a Van Tilian approach to epistemology. Do yourself a favor and read some Van Tilian material before so glibly attempting to refute the system as a whole. Romans 1.18ff is somewhat of a locus classicus for Van Tilians, and the passage is addressed at length in our recent journal In Antithesis.

    Nobody here argues that the universe came into being by itself. I know of some non-Christians who do, and they do not believe it is illogical to do so. In fact, that is the very point of contention when some cosmological arguments are on the table, so the quote from Sproul is rather unhelpful.


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