ApologeticsA Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith
The Transcendental Perspective of Westminster’s Apologetic* by Robert D. Knudsen
Westminster Theological Seminary has a full-scale department of apologetics. This makes it stand out among major theological seminaries. In most of the main line seminaries apologetics waned in proportion to the growth of liberal theology. In liberal seminaries, apologetics suffered because of theological liberalism’s understanding of the Christian faith, and it finally disappeared.
Theological liberalism focused on spiritual life, as it understood it. Especially in its Ritschlian form, it placed at the center an overwhelming spiritual experience of the, person of Jesus. For the faith of the church, it said, Jesus has the value of God. But both this faith and the Christ it confesses lie beyond the pale of doctrinal formulation. Of itself doctrine was regarded as rigid and dogmatic, an ossified expression of the dynamics of the spirit. Doctrine was given second place, as a symbolic expression of the life found in Jesus Christ. The tactic then was to penetrate beyond doctrinal formulations, with their particularity and rigidity, to the dynamics of the life of spirit. Within this climate of thought, apologetics, as a defense of a doctrinal formulation of Christian faith, was downgraded and finally eliminated. It was replaced by comparative religion, the philosophy of religion, the psychology of religion, and now even by the phenomenology of religion.
In response, the founder of Westminster Seminary, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, said that Christianity is not first a life but a doctrine. If one is to give himself to Jesus Christ, Machen said, he must know the one to whom he’s committing himself.
* Slightly revised version of an address delivered by the author on the occasion of his inaugaration as Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, 4 March 1986.
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One cannot have faith unless he possesses the assurance that the object of his faith is worthy of his confidence. If one wishes to know what Christianity is, furthermore, he should not refer to a modern idea of spiritual life but to what Christianity meant as it was established by Christ himself. On its part, Machen said, liberalism has departed from historic Christianity and is no true Christianity at all. True Christianity is historic Christianity. Historic Christianity is such that it confesses truths to which it must hold and which it must defend when attacked. Thus, in view of Machen’s adherence to historic Christianity, it is not surprising that Westminster Seminary retained apologetics as an independent discipline within its curriculum. It agreed with Machen that historic Christianity is capable of rational defense. As you know, Machen himself used historical proofs in the service of the gospel. Cornelius Van Til differed from Machen in that he insisted that one must examine closely the foundations of proof; but he agreed with Machen that Christianity is capable of rational proof. He accepted Machen’s invitation to become the first professor of apologetics at the Seminary.
It may surprise one that apologetics was also downgraded among Reformed thinkers. Apologetics seemed to require a defensive posture. Its history could be interpreted as a series of retreats. Always on the defensive, it appeared condemned to abandon one redoubt after the other to the forces of unbelief. For one who wanted a positive strategy this kind of apologetics had lost its allure.
With such an idea of apologetics in mind, the great Dutch theologian and journalist Abraham Kuyper tried to avoid a strategy of retreat. He opted for a powerful thrust forward. Rejecting defensive apologetics, he highlighted the power of the Christian world-and-life view, especially as it has been understood in its unity and integrality by the Reformed faith. Kuyper found the strength of the Reformed community in its isolation, free from the taint of compromise of its basic principles. Its world view was to be jealously guarded in its purity and vigorously applied in its implications for all thought and life. Accordingly, Kuyper was very much opposed to obscuring boundaries (de verflauwing der grenzen), especially the boundary between belief and unbelief. He rejected the ill-advised at-
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tempts to effect syntheses between Christian and non-Christian principles. On Kuyper’s view the Dutch word for principle, beginsel, has a richer meaning than its English equivalent. It stands closer to the German word Prinzip, which may suggest a force that drives one along, or the Greek word arche, in the sense of a “first principle.” For Kuyper a principle is something that impels and molds. Christian principles are major forces that direct and form the life of the Christian community. Driven by Christian principles, the Christian community should not assume a defensive stance; it should busy itself with bringing to fruition the meaning of its principles in every sphere of life–in the church, the state, the family, the school, the business establishment, etc. Since he identified apologetics by and large with defensiveness, Kuyper had little place for it, and he became a major source of whatever distrust of apologetics there is within the Reformed community.
Within Kuyperian circles, Christian apologetics has been replaced, in great measure, by Christian philosophy. There has been a vigorous, positive effort to construct a philosophy based on the Scriptures, a philosophy that is truly philosophy and not covert theology. This tendency came to clear expression, as you know, in the systems of Professors D. H. Th. Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd of the Free University of Amsterdam. Advocates of this philosophy sometimes wonder out loud whether there is still any room for Christian apologetics. They do not include it in their curricula, and they sometimes look askance at the makeup of a department of apologetics as we have it here at Westminster.
Christian philosophy is very important. I myself am very interested in it. Apologetics, I shall say, needs a Christian philosophy. I must insist, however, that there is still an important place for Christian apologetics. As long as the gospel is being preached, as long as there is missionary activity in the church, as long as the church maintains contact with the cultural situation around it, the proclamation of the gospel will be met by challenges that call forth the reasoned defense of the faith that is called apologetics and the reflection on that reasoned defense that is the science of apologetics. Indeed, apologetics can benefit from Christian philosophy. It will also inevitably relate to problems that are the province
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of Christian philosophy. Nevertheless, apologetics is not simply Christian philosophy, and it will never truly be replaced by Christian philosophy.
Now, do we not find among contemporary theologians an interest in apologetics? Do we not come across a distinction among contemporary theologians between kerygmatic and apologetic theology?
Indeed, we find such a distinction here. Contemporary theologians do indeed speak of apologetic theology. We must be careful, however. What is often meant is quite different from what I have in mind. In contemporary parlance, apologetic theology is theology that holds that the message of the gospel does not come down from above, like a plumbline, without any relation to culture or without having any anticipations within culture. Apologetic theology relates to culture. There are anticipations of the gospel, it is said, within the cultural milieu. Possibly culture is said to ask the questions and theology give the answers.
Apologetic theology of this kind has taken radical forms. It is suggested that the question concerning the gospel arises even from the deepest denial of the gospel witness, that an affirmation of God and his grace arises even from the most profound denial of him and the most solid repudiation of his grace. This line of thought intends to break the back of any position that holds to a doctrinal Christianity that comes to us with divine authority. It claims, furthermore, that no relation to God is authentic unless it has been tested in the fires of unbelief. This viewpoint has been expressed in the formula: atheism in the religious act. “Atheism” has been a major theme in contemporary theology. Such an apologetic theology has arisen out of a desire to demonstrate solidarity with modern man in his unbelief and even despair. In Hegelian fashion, it has sought the positive in the negative; but in no way has it sought to offer a foundation for our confidence in the truth of the gospel once and for all delivered to the saints. It does not offer a proof of doctrinal Christianity. Quite the contrary!
As I proceed, I shall accept as apologetic that which offers itself as proof of the Christian faith. An apologetical stance will have to assume that Christianity can be rationally defended. Furthermore, I shall not accept any end-run around
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doctrine. A Christianity that is rationally defensible cannot be a doctrineless one, where Christ is understood not to have made any claims for himself. Even as they hold to such a position, some persons may still want to speak of doctrine. But I shall refuse to call “doctrine” that which has arisen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the destruction of doctrine. The Christ whom we preach is the Christ who witnessed to himself and who was witnessed to by God, who said, “This is my beloved Son·.” An apologetic must respect God’s witness to Christ and Christ’s witness to himself. Considering who Christ is, these are at bottom one and the same. We must take our stance, as Kuyper did, solidly within the framework of the Christian world-and-life view, but at the same time offer a rational defense of Christianity. In doing so, we shall even have to distance ourselves from those who say that there must be a criterion for faith but who refuse to accept any simple, normative criterion for what that faith is.
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Under the leadership of Dr. Cornelius Van Til, Westminster Seminary has developed a presuppositional apologetic. This means, on the face of it, that one cannot defend the Christian faith without presuppositions derived from that faith. It also means that one must challenge the presuppositions of unbelief. Christian apologetics must challenge that which lies at the foundation of man’s rebellion from God and his Word. There is now a wide spectrum of presuppositional apologetic, within which there are considerable differences as to what is meant by presupposition and how presuppositions are related to faith.
To understand the Westminster presuppositional apologetic, one must see it in its radicality. It was radical in its beginnings. It is radical in its systematic formulation. For it presuppositions are not simply intellectually formulated principles, on the order, let us say, of theoretical axioms. Nor are they simply postulates, which may be drawn from theology as a scientific discipline. As Van Til sought already as a graduate student to challenge unbelief, he came with a radical Christian world view, in the spirit of Abraham Kuyper, and with the purpose of challenging unbelieving thought at its root. His
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thought was essentially this: Given anything that is meaningful-indeed, given anything at all–one can provide an account of the fact that it is possible only on the foundation of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, as witnessed by the Scriptures. What is (namely, being) is possible only on the presupposition of a full-orbed Christian theism. Any other starting point is inadequate; it will be unable to offer us a standpoint from which we can understand the world in its unity and diversity.
Thus Van Til’s thought moved in a direction he rightly called “transcendental.” He inquired as to what lies at the foundation of the possibility of what is (being) and of meaning. A transcendental argument moves from what is to the conditions underlying its possibility.
Van Til would not have been able to take this stance if he had not steeped himself in the Reformed tradition, especially as that was represented by Abraham Kuyper. Van Til’s position hung from the biblical teaching of the absolute sovereignty of God, the Creator. It was molded by the scriptural teaching that God imparts himself in his revelation and that this revelation is unitary, extending to everything created. Thus Van Til emphasized the organic unity of general and special revelation. His position turned on the idea that man is a covenant being, whose entire existence is dependent upon and focused on God, in his revelation, so that man comes to himself in covenant obedience. Thus, given any thing, one need not look away from it in order to refer to God and his revelation and/or to human response to that revelation. The sovereign God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ is already present everywhere in his revelation, and man, who was given the position of God’s vicegerent, is already responding to him either for the good or for the bad. As Van Til understood it, God’s revelation extends not only to what is outside of man but also to the human response to this, impelled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It was with this spiritual and intellectual equipment that Van Til sought to challenge the humanistic philosophies of his day, notably idealism and pragmatism. In this his attention focused on idealism. It is indeed the case that Van Til’s purpose was not simply to refute idealism. That would have been
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an exercise worthy of a paper on Christian philosophy. In idealism, however, one had a most refined attempt to reflect on man in a radical way. Furthermore, idealists were claiming that their efforts expressed Christian truth in a manner that was defensible to the modern mind. Finally, the idealists themselves were criticizing pragmatism for having failed to attain to a comprehensive position. Now, if the idealist position itself was found wanting on this same score, pragmatism would fall with it. In his doctoral dissertation, “God and the Absolute,”1 Van Til argued that idealism, in spite of its pretensions, still fell short. For the sovereign Creator-God of the Scriptures it had substituted the Absolute. This Absolute, however, was unable to comprehend all of the facts; there was always something left over. Thus idealism was doomed to take the position that it itself had sought to overcome. It inevitably fell into pragmatism, with its idea of an open universe. It is only as the mind focuses on the sovereign Creator-God of Scripture, who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, Van Til argued, that it can reach a standpoint deep and broad enough to see God, the self, and the world in proper perspective.
Van Til developed this argument in the interests of the proclamation of the gospel. But it itself was not simply proclamation or, if you will, preaching. The Westminster apologetic is argument. It is argument, indeed, that completely depends on the revelation of God, but it is argument still. It is argument of a special kind, which Van Til himself called transcendental.
Of course, Christian apologetics arises within the context of the proclamation of the gospel. It must live from the truths of the gospel; it may serve as an important adjunct, as a reassuring support, to preaching. But it itself is not simply preaching. Van Til himself pointed out its focus when he described it as the reasoned defense of an integral Christian theism against the attacks of unbelief. The systematic character of apologetics is determined by this focus. Thus, there is much preaching that is unaccompanied by apologetics, and
1 Van Til followed this with an article, having the same title, in Evangelical Quarterly, vol. II (1930). This article is reprinted in Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Idealism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), pp. 7-35.
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no apologetics is simply preaching. Furthermore, the proclamation of the gospel is not dependent on apologetics. Its compulsion is finally that of the witness of the Holy Spirit to the Word.
It is as the gospel is preached, in obedience to the evangelical mandate, and as it confronts human culture that the situations take shape that call forth apologetics. Christian apologetics arises in an attempt to answer the challenges to the faith that emerge as the faith is proclaimed and has effective contact with its cultural milieu. Thus apologetics certainly has in mind the promulgation of the gospel, in answer to the great commission, and it may indeed serve as an important adjunct to missions, as it does to preaching; nevertheless, it is not missions. Apologetics must focus on constructing reasoned argument. Its systematic focus is reasoned defense. If it takes for itself a goal like that of rhetoric, namely to convince, and if it is satisfied when it has been convincing to some people, it may well lose its systematic focus and in the long run undermine itself. It is important to keep this systematic focus in view and to distinguish apologetics from missions in the interests of preserving missions itself. The impact of the gospel is not dependent on reasoned argument, no matter how scripturally founded it may be. As with preaching, the power of missions is finally that of the witness of the Holy Spirit to the Word.
Argument, whether that of Christian philosophy or apologetics, must be carried out on the foundation of the truth of the gospel, from which it must live and upon which it must reflect, and it must depend on the power of the Spirit. Apologetics will discover its focus in responding in a reasoned way to the challenge of the culture within which the gospel is proclaimed, in fulfillment of the missionary calling of the church, and it will criticize this culture as to its foundations; but the gospel and its power are deeper than any cultural phenomenon. The gospel must be allowed free play. Apologetics should also reflect on the religious roots of the culture in which the gospel is being proclaimed; thus it will have to reflect on the depth of the cultural encounter that brought it forth. In reflecting on its cultural milieu, apologetics will of necessity reflect on itself, on its own religious presuppositions.
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Westminster’s radical apologetics responds to attacks of unbelief in a fashion that is based radically on the message of the Scriptures. As I have suggested, it does so in a radical reflection on the ground of the being and meaning of the cosmos. This reflection is possible, I say, only in obedient response to the radical message of the Scriptures, as incorporated in a radically founded Christian world-and-life-view.
Westminster’s apologetics subjects cultural phenomena to a radical critique. It seeks out their religious foundations and at the same time reflects on its own. Van Til, along with his. Reformed colleagues, has done much culture critique, as we observe in his analyses of Greek culture. We must take careful note, however, of how this critique explores culture in depth. It does not simply examine a culture to see how it bears or impinges on theology. It does not simply examine the theological presuppositions of statements that issue from nonChristian milieu, or, for that matter, even from Christian milieu. If one takes the radicality of Van Til’s transcendental method into consideration, he can only conclude that Christian apologetics must examine and criticize the religious impulses already at work in any given culture. The transcendental thrust of Dr. Van Til’s thinking at its very outset entails, I believe, the need of transcendental critique of culture and of cultural phenomena. Arising within a cultural context, Christian apologetics must reflect on that culture as to the religious impulses that impel it, and in so doing Christian apologetics will of necessity reflect on itself and its own foundations.
Transcendental critique, in the sense I have been describing it, is a very important ingredient of Reformed philosophy and apologetics. It is required by a radical point of departure, such as that Dr. Van Til took as his own in entering upon his apologetical effort. The only question, to my mind, is how this transcendental critique can best be carried out.
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Presuppositional apologetics is often criticized for being fideistic. This criticism must have in mind more than the fact that presuppositional apologetics claims that argument for Christianity must be built on faith. To label an apologetic “fideistic” must imply that it stands in the way of true argu-
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ment for Christianity. As I understand it, fideism holds that Christianity is not in need of defense, or that defending Christianity means introducing arguments that distort it, that is to say, that there is an incommensurability between rational argument and Christian faith. Westminster’s apologetics has always rejected fideism, understood in this way. It has always stressed that Christianity is capable of rational defense. In fact, Dr. Van Til has insisted that we must be able to “prove” things to the opponent of Christianity. I should say that any position that admits the propriety of rational defense of Christianity is not fideistic. The issue between presuppositional apologetics and its critics on this score will revolve around what kind of argumentation is used.
A more advanced criticism against presuppositional apologetics is that it cannot enter seriously into a rational defense of Christianity, because it has already presupposed, or assumed, the truth of its own position. The presuppositional argument is guilty of reasoning in a circle, of committing the fallacy of petitio principii, of assuming what must, first be proved. Any rational argument, such critics maintain, must not do this. It must leave the conclusion open, if only for the sake of argument. One need not abandon his personal convictions, but they may not be allowed to influence the course of the argument. Certainly, they may not prejudge the conclusion of the argument.
This point leads to yet another related criticism of presuppositional apologetics. The presuppositional argument, it is said, having failed to place itself on a basis, a common basis, that would make true argument possible, is thereby consigned to a dogmatic affirmation of the Christian faith over against its critics. The result is dogmatic head-butting, without true communication and without the possibility of coming to a fruitful solution of the problems.
Certainly, a presuppositional apologetic may not settle for a dogmatic head-butting–an uncommunicative setting of one set of presuppositions over against another. Its claim that all argument is controlled by presuppositions might suggest this. And the manner in which some interpret the presuppositional apologetic has indeed led to this conclusion. But this, I wager, is the result of a misunderstanding.
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We are aided in grasping what apologetical confrontation if we understand that the presuppositions involved are not simply personal. We are not talking about a situation where one set of personal presuppositions are simply set up over against another set of personal presuppositions. We are talking, as I suggested before, about a situation where we are attempting to show that Christian presuppositions are necessary if one is to give an account of his life and thought. The issue revolves around the presuppositions that offer the transcendental ground of our experience. What must be presupposed if our experience and its meaning is to be properly accounted for? Put negatively, we claim that if the opponent of Christianity is faithful to his own assumptions he will be unable to give an account of his experience. Lose hold of the proper point of departure and you will be unable to avoid landing up in difficulties, which will not go away simply because you reason more accurately but only because you begin to occupy the true starting point.
We are helped to understand the situation, furthermore, if we understand that the difficulties appear on the scene, not because of what we ourselves conclude, but by a process that resides in the nature of things. That is, abandon the true starting point and you will be led into these difficulties, in spite of your best efforts to avoid them.
As I point out to the students in my required course, The Encounter of Christianity with Secular Science, this form of reasoning was present in the apologetic of the Scotsman James Orr. Lose your grip on the true point of transcendence, he said, which is found in the God-man Jesus Christ, and you will be bound over inextricably to a set of circumstances, which will lead you into despair. The pattern of Orr’s apologetic appeared clearly in his argument from history. As there was a departure from the God-man Jesus Christ, there was an inevitable descent, as we may observe, from a choice between Christianity and humanism, between Christianity and scepticism, and finally, as this process hit bottom, between Christianity and despair. It is as we observe the necessary outcome of the abandonment of the true starting point, Jesus Christ, that we obtain a proof, be it indirect, of its validity and necessity.
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Now, our department of apologetics has pointed out to several generations of students the inadequacies in James Orr’s position. But the basic form of the argument remains, the same fundamental argument that we use and that offers us an indirect proof of the truth of the Christian starting point. As I have said, the argument Is negative, indirect, transcendental. Lose hold of the true point of transcendence and you will be unable to attain to a unitary, coherent understanding of your own self and your world. This inability will be an indirect argument for the validity of the true starting point, which must be assumed if the difficulties are to be overcome.
This transcendental argument is not dependent on personal considerations alone. It depends on what it has discerned to be a structural state of affairs within the creation. This state of affairs is able to be discerned only in the light of God’s revelation and will not be understood adequately except in terms of obedient response to that revelation; but it is there, and it can be pointed out to those who would be critics of the Christian faith. No argument, even this one, is able to coerce the opponent to believe; nevertheless, the opponent may again and again be cornered and confronted with what are the inevitable consequences of his having assumed a false starting point. Possibly, by the grace of God and the witness of the Holy Spirit, he may be induced to abandon his false point of departure and embrace the true one in Jesus Christ.
Whatever else one may point out in the apologetics of Dr. Cornelius Van Til, it is undeniable that he used this kind of argument. A case in point, as I suggested, is his dissertation, “God and the Absolute,” where he argues that if we abandon the true, transcendent starting point in the God of the Bible and place our trust, immanently, in the Absolute of the idealists, we are unable to account for the unity and coherence of our experience. He himself calls this form of argument indirect and transcendental. Another case in point is his argument in his Christian-Theistic Evidences, where he argues that if we abandon the true starting point we are bound to transgress and even obliterate boundaries, leading us into irrationalism. Thus, he argues, in the history of psychology we observe a false rationalistic beginning and a consequent descent into irrationalism. Again, the negative outcome of hav-
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ing abandoned the true starting point is regarded as a confirmation of the validity of the true starting point. Here too the argument is indirect and transcendental.
The Christian apologist does not simply hold to his own, presuppositions and butt with them against his opponent’s presuppositions. He attempts to show his opponent what are the inevitable consequences of holding to his own false starting point, his own false presuppositions. He can do this because of the structural state of affairs that pertains, to which he is able to direct his opponent’s attention. He does not admit that the truth of the Christian faith may be held in abeyance or that his opponent may be allowed to assume that God and his revelation can be put on hold, awaiting the outcome of the argument. His argument assumes all along the truth of the Christian position.
Van Til’s critics, as we saw, often accuse him of setting up a head-to-head dogmatic confrontation between opposing positions. Some critics also accuse him of having suppressed the use of evidence.
Whatever partial justification there may be for such criticism, it does not follow from Van Til’s use of transcendental method. A transcendental apologetic does not tone down or eliminate what is given and its meaning; it only argues that the unbeliever is unable to account for the possibility of what is given. He must fall to grasp the ground of the possibility of everything that is.
In regard to this transcendental orientation, one may remember Van Til’s illustration about the unbeliever’s use of borrowed capital. The unbeliever uses the good gifts of God, which are spread abroad in the creation and on which he depends in his thought and life, without giving God the glory. He is able to do what he does because he is using borrowed capital. The transcendental thrust of Van Til’s position is also incorporated in his well-worn illustration of the little girl who is able to reach up and strike her father only because she is sitting on his lap.
In one or another writing, Van Til says that he never wished to downgrade historical argumentation of the kind used by Dr. Machen; he only wished to assure that scientific investigation be carried on with proper attention to the presuppo-
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sitions involved. Van Til’s view of common grace also conforms to this pattern. It allows for the fact that even those who deny God and his grace are capable of great accomplishments; but it also requires one to explore in depth the religious presuppositions of these unbelievers and observe how their accomplishments would not have been possible at all if their unbelieving assumptions had been carried through consistently.
The place of evidence in Van Til’s position was discussed recently by Thom Notaro, in his book Van Til and the Use of Evidence.2 That Van Til has always had a place for the use of evidence has not been lost on the careful reader of his works; nevertheless, it is good that this point has received careful, systematic treatment.
In spite of the truth of the points I have just made, however, another line of thought in Van Til has indeed militated against what is given and the meaning of what is given. This line of thought stands in the way of his use of evidence. Van Til suggests that to dwell on what is given presupposes that it is neutral and lands one in contingency. In order to avoid contingency, one must look away from what is given to its ground. One must relate, he says, to God, who is the ground of all being and meaning. Because of this strain in his thinking, Van Til has had difficulty with the twin ideas of a created order and of a structure of creation. Professor Hendrik Stoker, of South Africa, pointed to this difficulty in Van Til’s thinking in his chapter in the Van Til volume, Jerusalem and Athens.3 Stoker says that Van Til has focused on the vertical and has given too little attention to the horizontal Indeed, if we use this somewhat unfortunate distinction between vertical and horizontal, we may say that Van Til has insisted that we must relate the horizontal to the vertical, if we are not to fall into contingency and destroy the possibility of obtaining a proper view of the unity and diversity of the cosmos. Following this line of thought, he must insist that one look away from the
2 Thom Notaro, Van Til and the Use of Evidence (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980).
3 Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (ed. E.K. Geehan; Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 27, 31, 46, 48 57ff., and passim.
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idea of an order and structure within the creation. Along this route, “generality” becomes identified with “neutrality” and the way is blocked to exploring in depth what is given and its structure. As I pointed out, the latter way is that which is followed in transcendental argument. Transcendental argument does not look away from what is given; it explores it in its depth, discerning that which lies behind or underneath it and establishes the ground of its very possibility. In view of what I have said, Van Til’s suppression of the given and of evidence, to the degree that it actually takes place in his thought, must be attributed to a failure to come fully to grips with the implications of his transcendental method.
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The issues to which I am referring were brought out, though not fully enough, in the volume published in honor of Van Til, Jerusalem and Athens. As we look to the future, we should keep in mind the need to carry on the discussions that were begun there. We should continue them in order to come to a clearer and more consistent expression of the radical, reformational apologetic instituted by Van Til himself.
As we look to the future, we should be mindful of the resources within the Christian philosophy that has grown up in Kuyperian soil. That is especially the case since Van Til himself has spoken highly of it and has acquainted his students with it for many years. If this philosophy is understood in its transcendental signification–which, unfortunately, is often ignored-it is clear that it refers to transcendental presuppositions in a way that dovetails with the main thrust of the Westminster apologetic. If one analyzes what is given, it says, he will observe that his experience is structured and that it can be viewed from the point of view of various aspects or modes. This modal order comprises one of the “horizons” of our experience, as Dooyeweerd calls them, which underlie and help to account for the possibility of our experience. This philosophy has also given much attention to the self, as it stands coram deo, before the face of God, in covenant obedience or disobedience. This self is transcendent; nevertheless, reflection on it is transcendental. It is a reflection, not as in idealism of the spirit on spirit, but of the self on itself as it
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also had much to say about the structure of human existence, a structure which itself is completely dependent on God and witnesses to him in its every part. The self accompanies every human activity, and this activity cannot be accounted for except in reflection on the self and its attitude toward God, other selves, and the world.4
The Calvinistic philosophy has also explored the driving forces that stand behind human life and thought. An important part of the Calvinistic philosophy is transcendental reflection on the religious motives underlying life and thought. It is quite in line with the transcendental thrust of his own position that Van Til has also spoken of religious motives when he, for instance, has undertaken a critique of Greek culture. Indeed, he has insisted that all of the so-called religious motives can be understood within the framework of the one that dominated Greek thought, namely, the motive of form and matter. In this, I believe, he is mistaken. But this is no place to argue the point. The important thing to observe here is that Van Til has been willing to speak of religious motives as he has engaged in culture critique. Should that surprise one, when he considers the fact that Abraham Kuyper gave such an important place to principles, in the sense of motivating forces? According to the Calvinistic philosophy, the religious motives accompany one in all his thought and action. They color how one will respond to God, either in covenant obedience or disobedience. These religious motives are not found by looking away from what is given in experience and its structure; they are discovered only by exploring experience and its structure in depth.
As I said, Christian apologetics is not Christian philosophy. Nevertheless, in its defense of the faith, it will bear on issues and use resources that are the domain of Christian philosophy. Our Westminster apologetic has benefited greatly from the philosophical insights that have come to us from our Reformed community. As we look to the future, we should explore these relationships even more carefully in an attempt
4 Cf. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (4 vols.; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1953-58) 1.34ff.
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to make our apologetics even more solid and effective for Christ.
As we look to the future, we should continue to work on our apologetics. We should seek to purify it of elements that do not properly fit in with its radical, transcendental orientation. Apart from this radical orientation, it cannot offer a sufficient challenge to unbelief. This radical orientation is necessary if it is to reflect, as an apologetic, the radical demands that the gospel brings to bear on our life and thought. It is incumbent on the Christian community to develop the means to serve Christ in the radical way that his person demands. Our Westminster apologetic has been given to us by God as one instrument with which our Christian community can serve him as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
As Christians, we rejoice in the fact that we have Christ in our hearts. To have Christ there is of supreme importance. We are united with him in his death and resurrection. In him we have the hope of eternal life, both now and at his second coming. But we may not forget that this same Christ who lives in our hearts, as we live in him, is the cosmic Christ. According to Scripture doctrine, he is one with the Father; he was with the Father at the creation; he now sits at the right hand of the Father, to intercede for us as an eternal high priest, of the sort that Melchizedek was; he is the one who will come again to redeem his purchased possession so that we may be with him where he is, in a new heavens and a new earth. Our Christian lives, centered in our hearts, important as they are, do not stand alone. They are taken up in the great cosmic drama of redemption, which our apologetic is calculated to serve. All rulerships and powers are being placed under Christ’s feet; there will come a time when he will give all things to the Father, that the Father may be all in all. Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Maranatha!
Westminster Theological Seminary
Formatted By: Jonathan Barlow
Added to CRTA’s Online Resources: 2-23-97
Quote As: Knudsen, Robert D. WTJ 48 (1986) 223-239.