Van Til on Agnosticism

cvtstreet1“With such as these it would seem that the point we should be most anxious to drive home is that in trying to be agnostic, and in trying to say that they have no need of metaphysics, they have already given one of the two possible answers to every question of epistemology that may be asked. They have, as a matter of fact, said that all the facts—or, in epistemological language, they have said that the object and the subject of knowledge—exist apart from God and are able to get along without God. They think they have said nothing at all about ultimate matters, while as a matter of fact they have in effect said everything that could be said about them, and, we believe, more beside. They have tried to be so modest that they did not dare to make a positive statement about anything ultimate, while they have made a universal negative statement about the most ultimate consideration that faces the mind of man. That this charge is fair is apparent from the consideration of the opposite. Suppose that the object and the subject of knowledge do not exist apart from God. Suppose, in other words, that the Christian theistic conception of philosophy is true. In that case, it is not only possible to know something about ultimate things, but in that case the knowledge of proximate things depends upon the knowledge of ultimate things. In that case, not a single fact can be known unless God is known.

What the present-day agnostic should do then is to make his position reasonable by showing that God does not exist. The burden of the proof is upon him. He claims, of course, that the burden of the proof is upon us when we hold that God exists. Yet this is clearly not the case, since his own position, to be reasonable, must presuppose the non-existence of God. If God does exist, man can know him, for the simple reason that in that case all knowledge depends upon him. Hence an agnostic position must first prove that God does not exist.

From these considerations it follows that agnosticism is completely self-contradictory. And it is self-contradictory not only upon the assumption of the truth of theism, but it is self-contradictory upon the assumption of the truth of antitheism, which is the assumption of agnosticism.”

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.212-213

The Two Systems

087552480X“The two systems, that of the non-Christian and that of the Christian, differ because of the fact that their basic assumptions or presuppositions differ. On the non-Christian basis man is assumed to be the final reference point in predication. Man will therefore have to seek to make a system for himself that will relate all the facts of his environment to one another in such a way as will enable him to see exhaustively all the relations that obtain between them. In other words, the system that the non-Christian has to seek on his assumption is one in which he himself virtually occupies the place that God occupies in Christian theology. Man must, in short, be virtually omniscient. He must virtually reduce the facts that confront him to logical relations; the “thingness” of each thing must give up its individuality in order that it may be known; to be known, a thing or fact must be wholly known by man…

The system that Christians seek to obtain may, by contrast, be said to be analogical. By this is meant that God is the original and that man is the derivative. God has absolute self-contained system within himself. What comes to pass in history happens in accord with that system or plan by which he orders the universe. But man, as God’s creature, cannot have a replica of that system of God. He cannot have a reproduction of that system. He must, to be sure, think God’s thoughts after him; but this means that he must, in seeking to form his own system, constantly be subject to the authority of God’s system to the extent that this is revealed to him.”

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.15-16

The Foundation of Historical Apologetics

Historical apologetics is absolutely necessary and indispensable to point out that Christ arose from the grave, etc. But as long as historical apologetics works on a supposedly neutral basis it defeats its own purpose. For in that case it virtually grants the validity of the metaphysical assumptions of the unbeliever. So in this case, a pragmatist may accept the resurrection of Christ as a fact without accepting the conclusion that Christ is the Son of God. And on his assumptions he is not illogical in doing so. On the contrary, if his basic metaphysical assumption to the effect that all reality is subject to chance is right, he is only consistent if he refuses to conclude from the fact of Christ’s resurrection that he is divine in the orthodox sense of the term. Now, though he is wrong in his metaphysical assumption, and though, rightly interpreted, the resurrection of Christ assuredly proves the divinity of Christ, we must attack him in his philosophy of fact, as well as on the question of the actuality of the facts themselves. For on his own metaphysical assumptions the resurrection of Christ would not prove his divinity at all.

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.242

Everyone has an a priori

prpbooks-images-covers-md-9780875527895No human being can escape making an assumption about the nature of possibility at the outset of his investigation. All men have a priori assumptions in terms of which they approach the facts that confront them. The Christian frankly admits that his a priori is the assumption of the existence of the ontological Trinity, the temporal fiat creation of the universe, and man’s creation in the image of God. The non-Christian has a different sort of a priori. Every non-Christian has an a priori. And the a priori of every non-Christian is different, radically different, from that of the Christian.

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.198

The Clash Between Different Systems of Truth

vtThe objections against the phenomena of Scripture would therefore be legitimate if those who make them could show us the positive foundation on which they are standing. This foundation should enable them to explain the facts in terms of a system of truth other than that which is offered in the Bible. This point will later concern us more fully. For the moment, the difference between the final point of reference of the Christian and the final point of reference of the non-Christian is indicated so as to make plain that no discussion of “fact” can be said to settle final issues unless it takes this difference into consideration. The Christian’s belief in the Bible as the Word of God is involved in, and is an expression of, his belief in the triune God as the only final point of reference in all human predication. The Christian holds to the authority and finality of the Bible not because he can clearly, that is exhaustively, show the coherence of every fact with every other fact of Scripture. He rather holds to this doctrine of Scripture because, unless he does, there is no resting point for the search of facts anywhere.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.36

Van Til’s Proposal for Apologetic Methodology

My proposal, therefore, for a consistently Christian methodology of apologetics is this:

1. That we use the same principle in apologetics that we use in theology: the self-attesting, self-explanatory Christ of Scripture.

2. That we no longer make an appeal to “common notions” which Christian and non-Christian agree on, but to the “common ground” which they actually have because man and his world are what Scripture says they are.

3. That we appeal to man as man, God’s image. We do so only if we set the non-Christian principle of the rational autonomy of man against the Christian principle of the dependence of man’s knowledge on God’s knowledge as revealed in the person and by the Spirit of Christ.

4. That we claim, therefore, that Christianity alone is reasonable for men to hold. It is wholly irrational to hold any other position than that of Christianity. Christianity alone does not slay reason on the altar of “chance.”

5. That we argue, therefore, by “presupposition.” The Christian, as did Tertullian, must contest the very principles of his opponent’s position. The only “proof” of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of “proving” anything at all. The actual state of affairs as preached by Christianity is the necessary foundation of “proof” itself.

6. That we preach with the understanding that the acceptance of the Christ of Scripture by sinners who, being alienated from God, seek to flee his face, comes about when the Holy Spirit, in the presence of inescapably clear evidence, opens their eyes so that they see things as they truly are.

7. That we present the message and evidence for the Christian position as clearly as possible, knowing that because man is what the Christian says he is, the non-Christian will be able to understand in an intellectual sense the issues involved. In so doing, we shall, to a large extent, be telling him what he “already knows” but seeks to suppress. This “reminding” process provides a fertile ground for the Holy Spirit, who in sovereign grace may grant the non-Christian repentance so that he may know him who is life eternal.

– Cornelius Van Til, My Credo (Jerusalem and Athens) p.20-21
(Bahnsen p.729-730)


Presuppositions Accepted by Faith

That is to say, Kant’s supposed advance upon earlier forms of philosophy is found merely in the fact that he has combined an abstract rationalism such as that of Parmenides or Spinoza with that of an equally abstract brute factualism such as that of the most extreme process philosophers of history. This is all that anyone who does not start his thinking on the presupposition of the God of Christianity and his revelation through Christ speaking in Scripture can do. All men do their thinking on the basis of a position accepted by faith. If your faith is not one which has God in Christ speaking infallibly in Scripture for its object, then your faith is in man as autonomous. All of one’s reasoning is controlled by either of these presuppositions.

. . . Only if one presupposes God as the one in whom rationality and being are coterminous and coextensive can he use the laws of logic at all. And if he does this, he knows better than to attempt to determine what is possible or impossible in reality by means of these laws. The Christian has a God whom he as a creature cannot fully comprehend. God says I am and is able to fully justify this assertion. He is able to make it stand because only on the basis of this assertion does the thinking and willing activity of man have any possible meaning at all. The Christian gladly accepts the idea that he cannot logically penetrate the idea of man’s responsibility and his place in the plan of God. But Kant has brought God as well as himself down into utter darkness. He has no foundation on which he can make any assertion stand.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism p.128-129

Examining the Basement

[The following quote is taken from Van Til’s short pamphlet ‘Why I Believe in God‘ in which he develops an imaginary conversation with an atheist.]

Now in presenting all your facts and reasons to me, you have assumed that such a God does not exist. You have taken for granted that you need no emplacement of any sort outside of yourself. You have assumed the autonomy of your own experience. Consequently you are unable—that is, unwilling—to accept as a fact any fact that would challenge your self-sufficiency. And you are bound to call that contradictory which does not fit into the reach of your intellectual powers. You remember what old Procrustus did. If his visitors were too long, he cut off a few slices at each end; if they were too short, he used the curtain stretcher on them. It is that sort of thing I feel that you have done with every fact of human experience. And I am asking you to be critical of this your own most basic assumption. Will you not go into the basement of your own experience to see what has been gathering there while you were busy here and there with the surface inspection of life? You may be greatly surprised at what you find there.

– Cornelius Van Til, Why I Believe in God.

The Presupposition of the Triune God

prpbooks-images-covers-md-9781596389236We may as well say, therefore, that we are seeking to defend Christian theism as a fact. And this is really the same thing as to say that we believe the facts of the universe are unaccounted for except upon the Christian theistic basis. In other words, facts and interpretation of facts cannot be separated. It is impossible even to discuss any particular fact except in relation to some principle of interpretation. The real question about facts is, therefore, what kind of universal can give the best account of the facts. Or rather, the real question is, which universal can state or give meaning to any fact.

Are there, then, several universals that may possibly give meaning to facts? We believe there are not. We hold that there is only one such universal, namely, the triune God of Christianity. We hold that without the presupposition of the triune God we cannot even interpret one fact correctly. Facts without the triune God of Scripture would be brute facts. They would have no intelligible relation to one another. As such they could not be known by man.

– Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Evidences p. 2


In your light do we see light

In fact it then appears that the argument for the Scripture as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God. Protestants are required by the most basic principles of their system to vindicate the existence of no other God than the one who has spoken in Scripture. But this God cannot be proved to exist by any other method than the indirect one of presupposition. No proof for this God and for the truth of his revelation in Scripture can be offered by an appeal to anything in human experience that has not itself received its light from the God whose existence and whose revelation it is supposed to prove. One cannot prove the usefulness of the light of the sun for the purposes of seeing by turning to the darkness of a cave. The darkness of the cave must itself be lit up by the shining of the sun. When the cave is thus lit up each of the objects that are in it “proves” the existence and character of the sun by receiving their light and intelligibility from it.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith p.130-131

‘For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.’ – Psalm 36