A Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith

Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic by John M. Frame



Classical Apologetics has been eagerly awaited. This book puts into systematic (and at least somewhat technical) form an apologetic approach of considerable interest, which up until now has been expressed primarily in popular writings and taped lectures. It is also notable for its critique of “presuppositionalism” (mainly in its Van Tillian form). This book is one of the most extensive critiques of Van Til to date, 1 and I think of all the critiques of Van Til this one shows the most thorough research and the most accurate interpretation.2 In saying this, I should acknowledge a possible conflict of interest: The authors express indebtedness to me for correspondence between myself and Gerstner which “significantly sharpened our understanding of Vantillian apologetics.” 3 However, in commending these authors for their understanding of Van Til, I am not intending to commend myself. My contribution to their formulations was relatively small (and, as it turns out, not always understood and/or accepted). But Gerstner himself is a former student of Van Til and has (as I know from personal discussions) been mulling over Van Til’s position for many years, with an intense interest and scholarly


*R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984. x, 364. $12.95).
1. Its only rival in this respect is James Daane, A Theology of Grace (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1954); but that book is limited in its focus to Van Til’s doctrine of common grace, and it shows much less understanding of Van Til’s thought than the volume under review.
2. I will indicate that in this book also there is much, and serious, misunderstanding of Van Til; but these authors are much closer to the truth about him than his earlier critics, such as the Calvin Forum group (see Van Til, The Defence of the Faith [Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955] 4ff) or the critics in Jerusalem and Athens (ed. E. Geehan; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967).
3. P. x of the book’s preface. Cf. also the slightly extravagant comment on p. 299.

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care not matched, in my view, by other critics of Van Til.4 Thus the credit for the book’s high critical standards must go to the authors themselves.

I shall not discuss the details of the book’s historical studies, though these are interesting and are among the book’s best features. Gerstner was a professor of church history for many years, and this is his chief area of expertise. In general, the historical sections argue that a kind of “evidentialism” similar to the Ligonier type5 has been the common view of orthodox Christians through most of church history; hence it deserves to be called the “classical” or “traditional” view. This argument is supported by studies of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, seventeenth-century orthodoxy, Eastern and Roman orthodoxy.6 However, the authors believe that classical apologetics today is “sick and ailing,” though not dead.7 “Presuppositionalism,” they tell us, “has become the majority report today among Reformed theologians, although it cannot even be called a minority report of church history.”8 Other reviewers more historically inclined than I will doubtless seek to evaluate this thesis. Substantial arguments, I think, can be presented on either side. Of course, the issue is not terribly important in evaluating the relative validity of the two approaches. If Van Til’s view is relatively new, it is not on that account false; Protestants are not traditionalists.9 In general, it seems to me that the history of apologetics before our century is ambiguous on these questions. Orthodox Christian apologists have always believed in the supreme authority of Scripture over all human reasoning–the essence of the Van Tillian position. On the other hand, they have also spoken of various kinds of reasoning that in some sense


4. The book is dedicated to Van Til “who has taught a generation that Christ is the Alpha and Omega of thought and life” (p. v). I do not doubt the genuineness of the authors’ admiration and affection for Van Til: see pp. 183f.
5. “Ligonier” is a convenient shorthand for “Sproul-Gerstner-Lindsley,” since all three authors have been associated with the Ligonier Valley Study Center in western Pennsylvania.
6. Pp. 189ö211.
7. P. 34.
8. P. 183.
9. Van Til himself finds relatively little of value in his apologetic predecessors. See his A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), and his syllabus, Christianity in Conflict (mimeographed, 1962).

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legitimately “precede” faith.10 The apparent contradiction here was, in general, not perceived as a problem until after Kant’s “Copernican revolution” which greatly increased the epistemological sophistication of theologians and philosophers. Only after Kant could the logic of presuppositions be systematically investigated (as it was, even before Van Til, by thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and by Christian apologists like James Orr). Thus to ask whether Calvin was a “presuppositionalist” or an “evidentialist”11 is a bit like asking whether Augustine was a Protestant or a Catholic.12

As to the modern situation, many of us will be surprised to hear that presuppositionalism is the “majority report” among current apologists. It all depends, of course, on how you define presuppositionalism. I suppose that a case can be made, that, in this age, following Kant, Hegel, Marx, Einstein, pragmatism, phenomenology, existentialism, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Polanyi, Hanson, Dooyeweerd, and many others, most apologists have taken seriously the issue of presuppositions. In our time, it is exceedingly difficult to deny that human thought (whether scientific, logical, historical, philosophical, religious, or whatever) is influenced by our “pretheoretical” attitudes and commitments.13 Perhaps this fact is what suggests to our authors that presuppositionalism is ascendant presently; they do not document their assertion, so it is hard to say. In my view, this openness to considering the influence of pretheoretical commitments on thought is a long way from a full-fledged presuppositionalism. Still, it is a positive development in the dialogue. One of my great disappointments about the current volume is its failure to deal in any serious way with these powerful philosophical currents which create,


11. I use these terms to accommodate the authors under review, but really I think they are quite misleading, suggesting that Van Til is opposed to the use of evidence and/or that the traditionalists have no presuppositions to examine. On the contrary: all parties to the discussion must deal with both presuppositions and evidences, and they differ only on the roles to be played by these.
12. I am not saying that such questions are unanswerable, but rather that they are subtler than often supposed, and difficult to answer in any useful way.
13. Contra Dooyeweerd, however, I maintain that the reverse is also true and that no sharp distinction can be drawn between “pretheoretical” and “theoretical.” See J. Frame, The Amsterdam Philosophy (Phillipsburg, NJ.: Harmony Press, 1972).

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for many, considerable presumption against the Ligonier type of apologetic.

I. Ligonier and Van Til

I shall now try to analyze the authors’ critique of Van Til, before discussing their positive apologetic. In the book itself this order is reversed, but I feel that in this review questions of methodology and epistemology ought to precede discussion of the authors’ arguments for Christianity; and the former questions are inseparably bound up with the critique of “presuppositionalism.”

Van Til’s apologetics is essentially simple, however complicated its elaborations. It makes two basic assertions: (1) that human beings are obligated to presuppose God in all of their thinking, and (2) that unbelievers resist this obligation in every aspect of thought and life. The first assertion leads Van Til to criticize the notion of intellectual autonomy; the second leads him to discuss the noetic effects of sin. The Ligonier group criticizes Van Til in both areas, which we shall consider in that order.

A. Autonomy, Reason, and Circularity

The initial description of presuppositionalism shows insight in the prominent place given to Van Til’s critique of autonomy:14 this is, I think, the foundation of Van Til’s system and its most persuasive principle.15 We must not do apologetics as if we were a law unto ourselves, as if we were the measure of all things. Christian thinking, like all of the Christian life, is subject to God’s lordship.

However, the book’s analysis of the autonomy question reveals unclarity and/or misunderstanding. The authors deduce from Van Til’s statements about autonomy that he wants us to “start with” God, rather than with ourselves.16 Now “start with” is (like “precede”


14. P. 185.
15. In my view, this point is both more important and more cogent than, e.g., Van Til’s view of the noetic effects of sin. The latter is often singled out as being central to Van Til’s thought, but it is one doctrine which Van Til himself admitted to have difficulty formulating: see An Introduction to Systematic Theology (unpublished class syllabus, 1961) 26f. Autonomy is the more crucial issue, for Van Til’s analysis of it indicates that even if man had not fallen, he would still have been obligated to reason presuppositionally.
16. Pp. 185, 212ff.

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and “priority”) an extremely slippery phrase in theology and apologetics. It can indicate a pedagogical order of topics, an emphasis, a method of study, a conviction about prominence or importance, a relation of necessary or sufficient conditionality, or a criterion of truth. I believe that Van Til almost always has the last alternative in mind, though there is occasionally some ambiguity. At any rate, one would expect the Ligonier authors to offer some analysis of this concept, to make some attempt to define it (both for Van Til and for their own system). But no such analysis is forthcoming. The authors write as if the meaning of the idea were perfectly self-evident.

So they insist that we must, in coming to know God, “begin with ourselves,” and therefore reason autonomously in some sense. “One simply cannot start outside himself. To begin outside oneself, one would first have to depart from himself.”17 Now certainly in one sense this is true, and Van Til quite readily admits it. Our authors even quote him to this effect,18 but they claim that it represents an inconsistency in his thought, a kind of embarrassing admission.19 Anyhow, on Van Til’s view, the self is the “proximate,” but not the “ultimate” starting point.20 What this means, I think, is that it is the self which makes its decisions both in thought and practical life: every judgment we make, we make because we, ourselves, think it is right. But this fact does not entail that the self is its own ultimate criterion of truth. We are regularly faced with the decision as to whether we should trust our own unaided judgment, or rely on someone else. There is nothing odd or strange (let alone logically impossible) about such a question; it is entirely normal.

Therefore, there are two questions to be resolved: (1) the metaphysical (actually tautological!) question of whether all decisions are decisions of the self, and (2) the epistemological-ethical question of what standard the self ought to use in coming to its decisions.21 Van


17. P. 212.
18. P. 214f, cf. p. 316f.
19. Unfortunately, this is rather typical of the volume. The authors make statements about Van Til which can be contradicted from his writings; but instead of reconsidering the accuracy of their interpretation in these cases, they simply accuse Van Til of inconsistency. Thus their accounts of Van Til’s positions are almost always oversimplified at best.
20. Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 203.
21. Our authors charge Van Til with confusing the order of being with the order of knowing (p. 229). At this point, however, it is they who confuse metaphysics with epistemology.

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Til and the Ligonier group agree, I think, on the first question, though it is not of much interest to Van Til; but that agreement does not prejudice the answer to the second question. That one still needs to be posed and resolved. And it is the second question that Van Til–and Scripture–are concerned about. Scripture regularly calls God’s creatures to submit their judgment to that of their creator. If someone objects that even a choice to serve God is a choice made by the self and therefore “starting with” the self in one sense, Van Til can simply grant the point, while reminding his questioner that in another sense, in a far more important sense, this choice does not “start with” the self.22

The same sorts of distinctions need to be made in the discussion of human reason, another topic prominent in this book. Classical Apologetics is rationalistic with a vengeance. The authors attack the anti-intellectual trends of our time,23 laud signs of a “retreat from this anti-intellectual binge,”24 show at length from Scripture our obligation to reason with unbelievers.25 “Fideism” is the great enemy.26 Van Til, however, they say, abandons apologetics,27 refusing to reason with unbelievers. He doesn’t believe in proofs28 or evidences.29 He denies that you can find God at the end of a syllogism.30 The present reviewer, that notorious Van Tillian, cannot engage in rational argument with anyone:

[The Arminian] can argue with Frame, but Frame will not argue with him. Frame can only tell him that he is in error and that he must change his mind because he, Frame, has been illumined by God to see otherwise.31


22. If “autonomy” in the first sense necessitates autonomy in the second sense, then, of course, it necessitates autonomy for Christians and non-Christians alike. Therefore, if our authors’ argument were sound, it would prove too much. It would legislate autonomy for everyone, not just for those who are “beginning” their path toward Christianity, as on the Ligonier view (p. 213f). Human reason, then, would be the “ultimate” criterion, not merely the “penultimate” or “provisionally ultimate” as our authors would have it (pp. 301, 331).
23. P. 12ff.
24. P. 15.
25. P. 18ff.
26. P. 24ff.
27. P. 188.
28. P. 253ff.
29. P. 276ff.
30. P. 287.
31. P. 301.

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On the contrary, say our authors: just as we cannot avoid “starting with ourselves,” so we cannot avoid the use of reason (in any area of life, particularly apologetics). Any attempt to persuade an unbeliever of Christian truth requires reasoning; indeed, rational argument is necessary if we are going to show the “rational necessity of presupposing God.”32 And, in fact, presuppositionalists do give reasons.33 In practice, “there is no real difference on the matter of autonomy.”34

Buttressing all of this is the familiar argument that some basic principles of reason (such as the law of noncontradiction) must be presupposed in any intelligible discourse; indeed, “The law of Noncontradiction (is) a Universal Prerequisite for Life.”35 You can’t question logic without presupposing it; you can’t argue against the primacy of logic without presupposing it as primary.

So our authors support the “principle of the primacy of the intellect.” This does not mean that the intellect is more excellent than the God whom the intellect discovers; rather, “primacy of intellect means that we must think about God before we can actually know him.”36 Thus, when Van Til speaks of a “primacy of the intellect based on the creator-creature distinction,” he seems to be talking nonsense. If the intellect is primary, its primacy is not “based on” anything. And if God is somehow known prior to intellectual activity, then how do we know him at all?

But here, as with “starting point,” some distinctions must be made. “Intellect” or “reason” can mean various things: laws of logic, the psychological faculty by which we make judgments and draw inferences, the judgments and inferences themselves, systems of thought.37 It is certainly true that reason as a psychological faculty is involved in any rational activity. Thus putting it tautologically emphasizes the obviousness of the point. It is the same sort of obviousness we saw earlier in the proposition that one must “start with the self.” But just as “starting with the self” leaves open the question of what criterion of truth the self should acknowledge, so


32. P. 224.
33. P. 238f.
34. P. 239; cf. p. 324f.
35. P. 80, emphasis theirs; see pp. 72ö82.
36. P. 227.
37. Philosophers, such as Hegel, have sometimes defined rationality in terms of their systems so that, e.g., rationality = Hegelianism.

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“starting with reason” leaves open the question of what criterion of truth human reason ought to recognize. As a psychological faculty, reason has the choice of operating according to a number of different principles: different systems of logic, different philosophical schemes, different religious commitments. Van Til, therefore, may (and does!) grant that reason is involved in all human thought and life. But for him the important question is, What criteria of truth ought our reason to acknowledge?

Our authors would answer this question by saying, first of all, that reason ought to acknowledge the law of noncontradiction. (Perhaps they even define reason in terms of the laws of logic, so that for them the “primacy of reason” means, not the primacy of a psychological faculty, but the primacy of logic; that, again, isn’t clear.) Again, however, the main point is true in a sense. The law of noncontradiction denies that p and not-p can both be true at the same time and in the same respect. That is a Christian principle, presupposed by Scripture itself. But it is, of course, also highly abstract. Nothing more concrete can be derived from the law of noncontradiction alone. To derive concrete conclusions we need additional principles, principles which are religiously, as well as philosophically, problematic.38 Hence the tendency for various philosophers to define rationality in terms of their particular systems. It is at this point that Van Til enters the discussion and demands that God’s voice be heard in the selection of rational principles. It is at this level, with this sort of concern, that he talks about “a primacy of the intellect based on the creator-creature distinction.” He refers here to a reasoning process which recognizes God’s standards as supreme. Perhaps for clarity’s sake he would have been wiser not to speak of the “primacy of the intellect” at all;39 but it isn’t difficult to understand what he means. Reason is always involved in the human search for knowledge; but reason must always choose its standards, and that choice is fundamentally a religious one.


38. Cf. V. Poythress, “A Biblical View of Mathematics,” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship (ed. G. North; Vallecito, Calif.: Ross House, 1976) 159ö88; J. Frame, “Rationality and Scripture,” in Rationality in the Calvinian Tradition (ed. H. Hart, et al.; Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1983) 293ö317.
39. There are several other reasons why this phrase is misleading. See my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, forthcoming.

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Our authors reply, however, that we must, after all, “think about God before we can know him.”40 And if we are trying to think about God before we know him, then, obviously, at that stage of our inquiry, we cannot presuppose God. We cannot make God our supreme standard until we know that he exists. Therefore we must adopt some other standard, at least “provisionally.”41 But this analysis (1) denies the clear teaching of Romans 1 that everyone knows God already (vv. 20, 21 {Rom 1}), (2) posits an exception to 1 Cor 10:31: that when you are just beginning your quest for knowledge, you do not need to think “to the glory of God”; you can justifiably think to the glory of something/someone else. Such notions fall by their own weight. They are intolerable to the Bible-believer.

Our authors, therefore, have failed to show that Van Til abandons rational argument, proofs, evidences. He does abandon neutral, or autonomous reasoning; that is all. And nothing in Classical Apologetics shows that he is wrong in rejecting these. For the record, let me emphasize that Van Til does not reject proofs, arguments, evidences; on the contrary, he endorses them in the strongest terms.42 The Ligonier authors are quite aware of this, but they dismiss it as inconsistency or insist that Van Til’s arguments aren’t really arguments at all.

However, it is quite impossible to argue for Christianity, or anything else for that matter, without making a presuppositional choice. One cannot reason without criteria of truth. And criteria of truth come from a wide variety of sources, ultimately religious commitment.43 Those criteria will either be Christian or non-Christian.44 If


40. P. 227.
41. Pp. 301, 331.
42. See The Defense of the Faith, 120, 196; An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 102ff, 114f, 196; A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 292; Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, NJ.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969) 179ff, 190ff. See also T. Notaro, Van Til and the Use of Evidence (Nutley, NJ.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980).
43. Again, it would have been helpful if the Ligonier authors had offered some response to the rather broad range of philosophical opinion (even outside Christianity) to this effect. Classical Apologetics seems to be written in a curiously pre-Kantian, pre-Kuhnian context, and thus it strains our credibility. The authors have not dealt with the most serious criticisms of their position.
44. Listen to the law of non-contradiction!

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they are non-Christian, they will be self-defeating and subject to divine judgment.

To say this is to say that argument for Christianity will always be in one sense circular. Arguments for Christianity must be based on Christian criteria, which in turn presuppose the truth of Christianity. You can’t prove God without presupposing him. This is one of the principles of Van Til’s apologetics which most irritates our authors.45 To them, circular reasoning is a logical fallacy, pure and simple.46 But what is the alternative? Again, the alternative seems to be that an unbeliever begins his quest, either with no criterion at all or with a “provisional” criterion of a non-Christian (or perhaps “neutral”) sort; then by linear, noncircular reasoning, he learns that he must adopt the Christian criterion.47 But, as we noted earlier, this construction violates Rom 1:18ff and 1 Cor 10:31. According to Scripture there is no one in this position–no one without a knowledge of God’s criteria. Those who seek to adopt non-Christian standards (and there are no “neutral” ones) are simply disobedient to the Revelation they have received. If one could proceed from neutrality to truth, then noncircular argument would be possible. But of course it is not possible, because Scripture condemns autonomy.48

Does this circularity entail the death of all reasoning, as the Ligonier authors fear? No: (1) All reasoning, Christian, non-Christian, presuppositional, “classical,” is in this sense circular. There is no alternative. This is not a challenge to the validity of reason; it is simply the way in which reason works. (2) There are distinctions to be made between “narrow circles” (e.g., “The Bible is God’s word because it says it is God’s word.”) and “broad circles” (e.g., “Evidence interpreted according to Christian criteria demonstrates the divine authority of Scripture. Here it is:…”). Not every circular argument is equally desirable. Some circular arguments, indeed, should rightly be dismissed as fallacious. (3) Reasoning on Christian criteria is persuasive because (a) it is God’s approved way to reason, (b) it leads to true conclusions, (c) and everyone, at some level, already knows that such reasoning leads to truth (Romans 1, again).


45. See p. 318ff; cf. pp. 137ff, 144ff.
46. P. 322.
47. P. 325.
48. Again, even many non-Christian authors (see earlier note) concede this sort of point about circularity. It simply is not responsible, in the present intellectual context, to dismiss all circularity as a mere logical fallacy.

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B. The Noetic Effects of Sin

Why is it necessary to presuppose God, according to Van Til? The Ligonier authors have a theory about that. They attribute to Van Til the notion that “The fundamental fallacy of the traditional approach is in not recognizing that without knowing everything one cannot know anything.”49 (Without the double negatives: what they are saying is that for Van Til we cannot know anything unless we know everything.) This point comes up elsewhere in the book,50 and the authors think it is important enough to embellish poetically: “…one cannot know the flower in the crannied wall unless he knows the world and all.”51 On this account, Van Til would be teaching that we need to presuppose God in order to have, somehow, that omniscient perspective on reality. However, they never give any references in Van Til’s writings to show that he believes any such thing; and of course they cannot, for this is not his position. Van Til does sometimes argue, in terms reminiscent of idealism, that true human knowledge presupposes the existence of a comprehensive system of knowledge; but unlike the idealist, Van Til finds this comprehensive system in the God of Scripture. He explicitly denies the similar-sounding proposition that we human beings must have comprehensive knowledge in order to know anything:

One of the points about which there has been much confusion when we speak of the objectivity of human knowledge is whether human knowledge of the world must be comprehensive in order to be true…. But we believe that just for the reason that we cannot hope to obtain comprehensive knowledge of God we cannot hope to obtain comprehensive knowledge of anything in the world.52

Van Til, in fact, explicitly denies the principle that we must know everything in order to know anything. He attributes this principle to “the non-Christian methodology in general, and that of modern phenomenalism in particular.”53

On the contrary: to Van Til, our need to presuppose God has nothing to do with such idealist epistemologial speculations. Rather, we presuppose God because in the nature of the case that is the


49. P. 186.
50. Pp. 306, 313.
51. P. 186.
52. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955 edition), 60.
53. Ibid., 136 (1963 ed., p. 119). In the immediate context he discusses idealist epistemology, from which this notion comes.

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right way to reason, and because, therefore, we are obligated to reason that way. The necessity is an ethical necessity.

Which brings us to the question of the noetic effects of sin. At this point, I find a surprising amount of agreement between the Ligonier authors and Van Til. “The pagan’s problem,” they say, “is not that he does not know that God is, but that he does not like the God who is.”54 The nature Psalms and Romans 1 tell us that God is clearly revealed in the world, and all human beings know God through this revelation.55 Thus the unbeliever is without excuse. This “natural theology,” they argue, is mediated through the creation.56 (I agree that this is the teaching of Romans 1, but I would add that this fact does not preclude other forms of revelation in addition to the mediate form described in Romans 1.) Why, then, do people need complex arguments in order to believe? The answer is that they repress the truth revealed in creation.57 They are not morons, but foolish.58 Their problem is not intellectual weakness, but moral refusal to accept what is clearly revealed. Or, to put it more precisely, they do have intellectual problems, but “The intellectual problem is produced by the moral problem, not the moral problem by an intellectual one.”59 They know God, but they do not know him savingly. Honestly, in all of this (and in their summary)60 I have not found anything that I or Van Til would disagree with! The Ligonier men seem to think that Van Til holds a very different position — that he thinks sin destroyed the unbeliever’s reasoning power,61 but as usual they fail to document adequately their interpretation and they ignore statements in Van Til to the contrary.

I will surprise them even more by saying that I agree, in general, with their account of the testimony of the Holy Spirit.62 The utterly


54. P. 39.
55. When our authors say that for presuppositionalists God “reveals Himself exclusively in Holy Scripture” (p. 287) (presumably in contrast with natural revelation), they are evidently getting carried away with themselves. Van Til’s belief in natural revelation needs no documentation.
56. P. 43ff.
57. P. 47.
58. P. 52.
59. Ibid.
60. P. 62.
61. P. 241ff, esp. p. 245.
62. P. 137ff, p. 162ff. See my article, “The Spirit and the Scriptures,” forthcoming in Scripture and Truth II (ed. D. Carson and J. Woodbridge; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986).

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fideistic view which they attribute to me63 is their own creation, made up out of thin air. They present no documentation of it from my writings. Apparently they believe that my other positions necessitate such a view. I find that hard to believe! They say that for me “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit must be utterly apart from and prior to speculative knowledge and evidence of the inspiration of the word.”64 Nonsense. I quite agree with them that the Spirit witnesses to the word through witnessing to evidences (along with other ways, to be sure). As for the Spirit being “prior to speculative knowledge,” I think I have expounded sufficiently the ambiguities of “priority” language in theology. In any case, I grant what I think they want me to, that people sometimes reach true conclusions about God without the witness of the Spirit.

Van Til’s writings do pose some difficulty here. He does clearly recognize that unbelievers know the truth (Rom 1:21) and that they sometimes reach true conclusions “in spite of themselves,” i.e. in spite of their unbelieving presuppositions. However, there are points at which he seems to say that unbelief always leads to intellectual error and that no propositional truth is possible apart from the Spirit’s witness. His representations, I think, are not fully consistent. What is more, he has admitted some difficulty in this area.65 The problems stem from Van Til’s realization that even though unbelievers do know the truth, their rebellion often infests their intellectual activity. Much pagan philosophy can be explained precisely as attempts to evade the truth of God’s revelation. Therefore, it is not sufficient to say (as the Ligonier writers seem to want to say; but see below) that the unbeliever’s problems are moral rather than intellectual. Morality influences intellectual judgments.66 At times, indeed, the authors of our volume recognize this fact: they write, “The intellectual problem is caused by the moral problem, not the moral problem by the intellectual one.”67 I agree, and I note that here they at least recognize that there is an intellectual problem as well as a


63. P. 299ff.
64. P. 299.
65. An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 26f.
66. More than that, all intellectual judgments are morally determined. A right judgment is a judgment which we ought to make (the ought being a moral ought).
67. P. 52.

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moral one, though they don’t stress that fact very much in their discussion.

The interesting net result is that on paper there is very little difference between the Ligonier group and Van Til on the noetic effects of sin and the testimony of the Spirit. Both maintain that depravity is total, that it causes repression of the truth, that the unbeliever has intellectual difficulties because of his moral rebellion, that he has knowledge of God but not saving knowledge. To both, the testimony of the Spirit works with and through our apologetic arguments to break down that rebellion and lead the unbeliever to acknowledge the truth which he already knows. Part of the reason for this agreement is that the Ligonier form of the traditional apologetic (as opposed, e.g., to that of Clark Pinnock) is self-consciously Calvinistic.

But the Ligonier authors are not very consistent in their confession of total depravity. Note here what they say about people who are not yet Christians, but seeking the truth:

[Van Til] always assumes that the person who begins to examine the universe without presupposing the existence of the divine Lawgiver necessarily presupposes his own status as a lawgiver. That is by no means a necessary assumption of the person who begins by examining the data which he has at hand·. They do not necessarily deny the divine being as Van Til insists that they do. People do not assert their autonomy against an initially known God as Van Til insists that they do. They simply operate according to human nature.68

Here, note that they deny what they earlier affirmed on the basis of Romans 1, that the unbeliever knows God. Further, they deny that all unbelievers are hostile to God, repressers of the truth. At least some unbelievers, in their opinion, are sincere seekers after truth, operating merely according to the necessities of created human nature. Seriously, now: is this a doctrine of depravity worthy of Calvinists?

So, though on paper the differences in this area are not great, there is in the Ligonier authors a lack of seriousness in the application of the doctrine of depravity to apologetics. Similarly, on the question of “common ground,” our authors state a position which is precisely identical with Van Til’s:

If we consider common ground to mean a common perception and perspective of reality, then obviously no such common ground for discussion exists between believer and unbeliever. From the believer’s vantage


68. P. 232f.

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point every aspect of life, every bit of experience, every dimension of reality, is understood and interpreted from a theological perspective·. It would appear that both [believer and unbeliever] enjoy a univocal understanding of the daffodil·. (but] The believer acknowledges the significance of that daffodil, not as a cosmic accident, but as something that in itself bears witness to the majesty and beauty of the Creator God. This the unbeliever does not acknowledge, positing, instead, a completely opposite and antithetical understanding of the daffodil’s significance.
From a different perspective, however, there is common ground, namely the whole of creation. Believer and unbeliever live in the same universe. Each sees the same phenomena. The unbeliever and the believer can agree that two and two are four, and at certain principles of deduction are valid while others are invalid. Thus a kind of common ground is established.69

In my opinion, Van Til himself could have written this formulation, except for the bit about a “univocal” understanding which raises a few (in my view minor) problems.70 In fact, paragraphs nearly identical to these might be pasted together from Van Til’s writings. But both Van Til and the Ligonier authors have had trouble maintaining consistency here, Van Til tending to forget the areas of agreement between believer and unbeliever (“in spite of themselves”), and the Ligoniers tending (as we have seen) to compromise their concept of “a completely opposite and antithetical understanding” between believer and unbeliever.71

One last comment in this area: It is unfortunate that a demonstrable misreading of Van Til at one point leads the authors to a serious misrepresentation of Van Til’s position. On p. 214 they quote Van Til as saying that the Christian “has no point of contact with the non-Christian.”72 They take this as a statement of Van Til’s own view, but in context it is actually a paraphrase of Stuart Hackett’s critique of Calvinism. I could write this off as a minor mistake, except that it shows, in its way, an extraordinary ignorance of Van Til’s position. Van Til would never say that the Christian has no point of contact with the non-Christian; in fact he has said the opposite innumerable times. Mistakes like this make one wonder how seriously


69. P. 70f.
70. Van Til seems to resist any positive use of the term “univocal” in regard to our knowledge of God. But if as in this context it simply means “literal,” I know of no principle in Van Til’s thought that would be violated by such a “univocal” knowledge of God. See my “The Problem of Theological Paradox,” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, 310f.
71. Is some of this inconsistency related to the book’s triple authorship?
72. P. 214, quoting Van Til in Jerusalem and Athens, 16.

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these authors have tried to understand Van Til. Could they have simply dismissed as inconsistencies the countless positive references in Van Til to “point of contact,” focussing upon this one reference as his definitive formulation, without even trying to explain the others? Or did the author of this section have such a poor knowledge of Van Til that he actually thought this was a representative formulation? It is hard to account for this sort of blunder except as a serious lapse of scholarship stemming from ignorance and intense prejudice, a desire to make Van Til say something he does not actually say, in order to make him more vulnerable to criticism.

II. The Ligonier Apologetic

I must needs be briefer in dealing with the book’s positive argument for Christianity, because of the demands of time and space, and because the argument itself is not as novel or interesting (to Me!) as the critique of Van Til. Still, there are a few new wrinkles.

The Ligonier authors believe, as we have seen, that traditionalist apologetics is sick and ailing, though not dead. One of the reasons for the malaise, in their view, is that other modern classicists have abandoned the traditional claim that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated, settling for arguments which merely claim probability.73 Here, interestingly, is another point of agreement between the Ligonier group and Van Til. Our authors here frequently sound Van Tillian notes: that if Christianity is not certainly true, then we have, to some extent, an excuse for unbelief.

But how can we reach the level of demonstrative certainty? On the Ligonier view, decisive appeal to special revelation is excluded; that would be “presuppositionalism.” But that means the argument must be wholly based on human sensation and reason, unaided by special revelation. Everyone agrees that human reason and sensation are fallible. So whence the desired certainty? The Ligonier authors believe such certainty can be attained by appeal to certain “universal and necessary assumptions.” These are assumptions which, though sometimes challenged, cannot be regularly and consistently denied. As such, they are prerequisites of science and, indeed, of all human life.74 These are, the law of noncontradiction, the “law of causality”


73. Pp. 100f, 125, 148, 276.
74. P. 71f.

Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic WTJ V47 #2 Fall 1985 p. 295

and “the basic reliability of sense perception.” Since these principles cannot be regularly and consistently denied, the book argues, they must be regarded as certain, along with all of their implications. Thus the authors try to show that Christianity is one of those implications: to deny Christianity is to deny one or more of those “universal and necessary assumptions.” Since we cannot deny those, Christianity also must be regarded as certain.

The argument is “transcendental,”75 presuppositional in a sense. The authors are asking “What are the assumptions necessary for life and knowledge to be possible?”76 Van Til asks the same question and concludes that the whole content of God’s revelation is such a necessary assumption! In one sense, the Ligonier authors are saying the same thing, but less directly. To deny Christianity, they say, is indeed to deny truths which we cannot consistently and regularly deny. Van Til, similarly, says that unbelievers cannot consistently and regularly deny Christianity, that they can exist only on “borrowed capital,” inconsistently making use of Christian ideas which they wish to reject. I am tempted, therefore, to read the Ligonier argument as a kind of “indirect presuppositionalism,” an attempt to show (more concretely than Van Til) the ways in which Christian assumptions are unavoidable. On such an approach, the authors would be asking the non-Christian to presuppose Christian concepts (concepts compatible with Scripture) of logic, cause, sense-experience, since denying these concepts leads to chaos. Van Til and the Ligonier group, on that interpretation, would again be very close. In my view, the cogency of the Ligonier argument arises from the fact that something like this is going on. But, on the other hand, we have to remember all the talk in this book about autonomy, the inconsistencies on depravity and so on. Whatever may actually be the case, these authors at least think that they are reasoning on a neutral basis, with concepts of cause, etc., which are not distinctively Christian, even though they imply a distinctively Christian world-view.77

A brief look now at the authors’ theistic proofs. Their ontological argument, following Jonathan Edwards, is virtually Parmenidean: We have an idea of being; in fact, we can think of nothing else than being. Nonbeing is unthinkable. Thus being must be eternal,


75. P. 71.
76. Ibid.
77. How is it possible for a concept logically to imply a Christian world-view if that concept is not itself in an important sense distinctively Christian?

Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic WTJ V47 #2 Fall 1985 p. 296

omnipresent, limitless in all perfections–in other words, God. There is an obvious objection to this, however, which the book doesn’t even mention. However infinite being may be, our idea of being extends to finite being as well. Therefore, if “being” is divine, then finite beings are part of that divine being. In other words, without some modifications, the argument proves pantheism. And the argument fails to draw any distinction between the kind of “infinity,” “eternity,” “omnipresence,” etc. attributable to a pantheistic god, and the very different (but similar-sounding) attributes revealed concerning the God of Scripture.78

The cosmological argument: Our authors state the “law of causality” first in what they admit to be tautological fashion: “Every effect has a cause.”79 Since the world is contingent, they argue, it must be an effect. What, then, is its cause? The world is not a mere illusion (nonbeing-see above), nor is it self-created, which is nonsense. If it is self-existent, then it is in effect transcendent and divine, so God’s existence is proved. If it is created by a self-existent being, then again, God is proved. An infinite number of contingent beings cannot be the world-cause: if no one of them is sufficient to cause the world, then the whole series will not be sufficient either. Much could be said (and has been said) about this sort of argument. What is most notable to me is that, as in the Ligonier version of the ontological argument, the authors fail clearly to rule out the pantheistic alternative, namely that the universe is its own god. About all I can find in the book responding to this objection is one sentence: “(God) is personal because He is the pervasive cause of all things including the purpose and the personal.”80 But it is by no means obvious that a being must itself be personal in order to be the cause of personality.

The ontological and cosmological arguments together suggest that on the Ligonier view, being is unlimited and therefore possesses all excellencies in infinite degree.81 These excellencies include all the traditional attributes of the Christian God including personality. Therefore God exists. However, the concept of an “excellency,” a perfection, is religiously problematic. What is excellent to one person is a defect in the eyes of another. Personality is a perfection to a


78. P. 93ff.
79. Pp. 82f, 111.
80. P. 123.
81. P. 123.

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Westerner imbued with Christian teaching. To a Buddhist, that would not necessarily be the case. Therefore, the sort of proof offered in our book presupposes a particular set of values, or else it is simply invalid. It is, in other words, either a presuppositional argument or else it is a failure.

I shall pass over the teleological argument to look at the authors’ presentation of Christian evidences. Here the authors follow the pattern of other books of this kind. They begin with the premise that the Gospels are “reliable historical sources.”82 (It would not do, of course, to presuppose more than this, that these books are the word of God. That would be circular and presuppositional.) In these reliable historical sources, we learn about Jesus: that he worked miracles and that he claimed to be God.83 Jesus’ miracles prove divine attestation of his claim; therefore he is God, and his testimony that Scripture is God’s word is to be believed. At that point, we conclude that Scripture is our ultimate standard. Thenceforth, we argue on the basis of biblical authority–i.e., like presuppositionalists!84

A few comments on this argument: (1) The authors overestimate, I think, the current scholarly consensus on the reliability of the Gospels. They assume that almost every NT scholar will concede that the Gospels are “generally reliable.” I doubt it. (2) Even if we grant that some very unusual events took place in the ministry of Jesus,85 how can we be sure that these can be explained only as a divine attestation to Jesus’ authority? It is extremely difficult to prove (apart from Christian presuppositions) the negative proposition that no other cause could have produced these events. The authors need to prove this proposition in order to make their case, but nothing in the book amounts to such a proof. (3) Recall that these authors boasted earlier that they were offering, not just a probable argument,


82. P. 141.
83. Interestingly, at this point, our authors sound another Van Tillian note: miracles are of no evidential value without a theistic presupposition (p. 146ff). They believe that they have established the existence of God by means of theistic proof, and therefore have refuted decisively any notion that miracles are impossible. Of course, Van Til would go beyond this and say that the cogency of miracle requires, not a barely theistic, but a full-blown Christian world-view.
84. Except, presumably, when we are doing apologetics. But why should that be an exception?
85. And of course the question must be raised as to how unusual an event must be before we call it a miracle.

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but a demonstration, warranting certainty. Now I can understand how they can make this claim for the earlier part of their argument: the “universal and necessary assumptions,” the theistic proofs. (I do not think they succeed in making good this claim, but I can understand why they think they have made it good.) But when they get to the historical evidences, I do not find even the slightest plausibility in their claim to demonstration. The assumption of the Gospels’ reliability is highly debatable; the argument that miracles always testify to a divinely appointed messenger is also weak. And some have questioned whether Jesus did warrant belief in the Scriptures. Of course, on these matters I think the Ligonier authors are right and the liberal critics wrong. But if they look at these questions without the full range of Christian presuppositions, I don’t see how they can responsibly claim anything more for their argument than a high degree of probability.

Some Formal Matters

At the risk of losing the reader’s attention, I think I should point out some editorial problems in the book which ought to be corrected in future editions. There are a great many of these, possibly in part because of the triple authorship. (1) I do not understand the need,in context, for three pages dealing with theological creativity (pp. 64ff). (2) The excursus on probabilism in theology (pp. 125ff) seems also to belong somewhere else. It breaks up the discussion of dysteleology. (3) On p. 185, the third point does not make much sense to me; at least it does not seem clearly distinguishable from the second point. (4) Note the typographical error on p. 187–the “poetic influence of sin”(!) (5) On p. 220, the authors give the impression that Van Til’s Survey of Christian Epistemology is a different book from his Metaphysics of Apologetics. Actually, the two books are one and the same, the former being a more recent printing of the latter.86 (6) Recall our earlier point about the misreading of the Van Til reference on p. 214. (7) I agree with the authors’ assessment of Runner’s concept of “republication” (p. 251f), but it fits rather


86. I must say that I am also somewhat disturbed by the large number of references to this title and the relatively small number of references to Van Til’s more recent writings. It hardly seems fair to judge Van Til to such a large extent on the basis of his first, relatively unnuanced, class syllabus, dating back to 1929.

Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic WTJ V47 #2 Fall 1985 p. 299

awkwardly into the context. (8) On p. 254, second paragraph, who is speaking? Van Til, Sullivan, or the Ligoniers? (9) The material on Duns Scotus (p. 260), also seems out of place.


There is much here to make us think. I was surprised at how close these authors were to Van Til at various places. There are, I think, some areas here for further dialogue between Van Tillian and Ligonier apologists. There is much similarity in regard to general revelation and the noetic effects of sin. There is recognition of the need for more than mere probability in grounding our faith. The authors also recognize that evidential arguments presuppose some elements of a Christian world-view. The chief difference is in the evaluation of autonomy. There is also room for further debates as to who is the most consistent with the shared Calvinistic premises.

Surely, there is plenty of room for mutual support and encouragement in the Lord. Speaking personally, I owe a great deal to John Gerstner, who for several decades was the most cogent and tireless defender of the Reformed faith in western Pennsylvania. Sproul and Lindsley, through the Ligonier Valley Study Center, continue Gerstner’s ministry, sending this Reformed message all over the world by lectures and tapes: excellent communications, on the whole, of the Gospel of Christ. We Van Tillians have much to learn from these valiant men; and I dare say they have much to learn from us as well.

Westminster Theological Seminary in California
P.O. Box 2215
Escondido, California 92025

Formatted By: Jonathan Barlow
Added to CRTA’s Online Resources: 2-24-97
Pagenation Retained
Quote As: Frame, John. Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic Westminster Theological Journal [47, 2 (Fall 1985), 279-99].

Reformed Theology and Apologetics
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