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A Conflict of Apologetic Visions

I will mention here briefly a few disagreements with Gary Crampton's review of Greg Bahnsen's posthumously published Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, a survey and defense of Van Til's thought.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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I will mention here briefly a few disagreements with Gary Crampton's review of Greg Bahnsen's posthumously published Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, a survey and defense of Van Til's thought. Crampton's review is (or was) available at the Trinity Foundation website,, and was published in the July 2000 issue of The Trinity Review. Crampton is a follower of the late Presbyterian philosopher Gordon Clark and makes most of the same criticisms of Bahnsen that Clark made of Van Til. I myself stand with Van Til. However, unlike some other Van Tilians, I am not on a crusade against Clark. I read a number of Clark's writings closely in my early 20s and benefited greatly from them. His work on education (which Rushdoony first helped get into print) is outstanding, and his Religion, Reason, and Revelation is a classic. His foundational work is A Christian View of Men and Things, and I highly recommend it, though with some reservations.

I believe Clark's position enjoys a particular kind of appeal: to bright but youthful Christian minds (though I do not wish to be understood as condescending when I suggest this). In the postmodern world, there is a craving for a simple rational certainty that Clark's epistemology offers, though if consistently held it subverts a consistent Christian epistemology, in my view. I believe that this quest for rational certainty becomes less important as one matures in the Faith (I am not thereby suggesting most Clarkians are immature in the Faith). While, therefore, I applaud Clark's commitment to historic, Reformed orthodoxy; intelligible, propositional revelation; and a distinctively Christian worldview, I dissent from his criticism of Van Til, which Crampton's critique generally follows. Let me mention just a few main points relating to the latter.

Will the Real Presuppositionalist Please Stand Up?
Crampton argues that Van Til is not a genuine presuppositionalist because Van Til believes there are proofs for God's existence. Van Til, unlike Clark, was no opponent of the theistic proofs, only of the idea that those proofs could be shorn of the Christian system or context (see Thom Notaro's Van Til and the Use of Evidence). At the outset, we encounter Crampton's (and Gordon Clark's) defect in addressing Van Til's use of evidence: they are still operating within the old foundationalist ("classical") paradigm. As an epistemological school, foundationalism holds that knowledge is possible by means of a particular unprovable but indubitable axiom (Clark also called it a "first principle"). One posits this axiom and builds upward to gain knowledge from it. Foundationalism lost popularity in the twentieth century and has been gradually replaced by a school known variously as contextualism or coherentism. This is the notion that knowledge is systemic: you "get inside" a "system" or web of beliefs in order to gain knowledge. Actually, modern contextualism is largely a secularization of the Christian theory of knowledge. To the Christian, knowledge is what it is because every aspect of the universe is created and conditioned by the sovereign, Triune God and every fact is what it is because it is a God-ordained fact. Within this Christian system or context, there are not merely theistic "proofs" for the existence of God; there is nothing but proof for the existence of God. Every aspect of reality is revelational of God and proves His existence. Christian contextualism does not permit rather, it demands absolute proof for the existence of God in our wholly God-conditioned universe. The apologetic error is not in appealing to these proofs; it is in appealing to these proofs while trying to ignore the God-created and -conditioned universe that displays them.

Crampton argues against Van Til's so-called "transcendental argument," the idea that the system of Christianity is valid on the grounds that one must assume it in order to believe or understand anything at all. To Crampton, disproof of one theory or worldview is not proof of another. This objection is possible only within a foundationalist paradigm. It has no force in terms of Christian contextualism. Within the Christian system and it is the only valid one the proofs for God's existence have, in the words of Van Til, "absolute probative force." How could they have anything less? Every aspect of created reality, even sinful reality, cries out to the existence of the sovereign, Triune God. It is certainly true, therefore, that Van Til is not a presuppositionalist of the foundationalist kind; he is rather a presuppositionalist of the contextualist kind, just as everybody else is. Everybody is an operational contextualist.

Clark's foundationalist epistemology leads to some strange conclusions with regard to natural revelation. For one thing, he claimed that ordinary science cannot furnish truth. No Van Tilian would be caught making that assertion. Is not the all-conditioning God the God of creation no less than of Scripture? True, man's conclusions with regard to creation are subject to God's revelation in the Bible, but this is equally true of his conclusions relating to the exegesis of the Bible itself. It is true that creation is under God's curse, but so is the mind of man, which is a part of creation. Any argument against the possibility of deriving truth from God's creation is equally an argument against deriving truth from Sacred Scripture, because we need to employ human and therefore potentially fallible reasoning to arrive at knowledge imparted in either. If we can derive truth from the Bible, we can also derive it from creation. Both are God's revelation: necessary, authoritative, sufficient, and perspicuous.

Sola Scriptura and Apologetics
The Clarkians are not comfortable with this. Crampton, for instance, holds that Van Tilians who argue this way embrace a fallacious "two-source" theory of truth and thus undermine sola Scriptura. Crampton follows his mentor, Gordon Clark, in positing Scripture as "the axiom of revelation" (see Clark's An Introduction to Christian Philosophy). Crampton and Clark make the reductionist epistemic error of denying that Christianity as a system is the presupposition of all thought and instead suspend everything on the accurate exegesis of the Scriptures. This sounds God-honoring, but as a matter of fact, it is not. The Scriptures are not given in a vacuum. They are given within a God-created universe, which includes man himself. The Triune God Whom the Scriptures reveal conditions the reception of the Sacred Scriptures. This is another way of saying that God's revelation in creation is no less significant than His revelation in Scripture. One is not the substitute for the other they are complementary, not competing, always meant to be mutually reinforcing (see Van Til's masterful essay "Nature and Scripture" in the Westminster Seminary symposium, The Infallible Word; contrast this with Gordon Clark's lukewarm and grudging assessment of natural revelation in his essay "Special Divine Revelation as Rational" appearing in Carl Henry's symposium Revelation and the Bible). If Scripture is the "axiom of revelation" from which we alone can obtain knowledge, what about the trustworthiness of our senses by which we read it? Is this Book in our hands real? Do our eyes actually see words on a page? Does our mind actually put those propositions together properly so that we can understand? If knowledge is limited to Biblical revelation, we have an impoverished not to mention impossible epistemology. This is why, as Van Til asserts, "It is the actual existence of the God of Christian theism and the infallible word of the Scripture which speaks to sinners of this God that must be taken as the presupposition of the intelligibility of any fact in the world" (The Defense of the Faith, 2nd ed., p. 118). The Bible as an "axiom of revelation" must never be a rationalistic presupposition shorn of the all-conditioning Christian system of which it is a part. The infallible Scripture is an essential part of the system. You get the Scriptures by affirming the system which is revealed in the Scriptures. By "system," Van Til does not mean "a logically penetrable system." He means Christian truth expressed in divine revelation Christ, the Bible, and creation, all interdependent (Van Til was no advocate of Thomistic "natural theology"). This system is adapted to man's human condition and "is not an exhaustive replica of the truth as it is in God himself." It is an analogical, not an univocal, system. Man's own systems of theology even the best, like the Westminster Confession of Faith are derivative of the truth set forth in the Bible's system, which is itself analogical in relation to the truth in the mind of God. In other words, good systematic theology is derivative of, but twice removed from, the mind of God (Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, pp. 37-38).

Contrary to Crampton, none of this is a denial of sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura is possible only within the Christian system. The affirmation of sola Scriptura apart from the presupposition of Christianity as a whole produces cults and heresies like Unitarianism. There is only one source of truth the Triune God, but His truth is not limited to the Bible. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 make this abundantly clear. To argue that the Bible and not the Christian system is the correct epistemic presupposition in that we learn the Christian system from the Bible ignores the fact that the universe within which we confront the Bible must be seen in terms of the Christian system in order to make sense of the Bible. This surely constitutes circular reasoning, and we need not shrink from it. Creation testifies to the God of the Bible, and the Bible reveals more comprehensively and clearly than creation the God to Whom creation testifies even before we come to the Bible. Creation and the Bible are complementary, not competing.

Knowledge and Skepticism
Crampton asserts that Van Til's analogical view of knowledge "if carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to complete skepticism." Why? Crampton suggests that an analogy of the truth cannot be the truth itself. Analogy produces skepticism. What he fails to recognize is that what he calls "an analogy of truth" within the Christian system is in fact the truth. The fact that man's knowledge is analogical and not univocal as it relates to God's knowledge does not mean that it is analogical and not univocal as it relates to the Christian system of which man himself is a part. The fact that man is neither God nor shares God's knowledge does not mean man cannot know truth.

Further, Bahnsen has rightly pointed out that when Van Til asserted that God's knowledge and man's knowledge do not coincide at a single point, what he means is that "it is man doing the thinking and not God which introduces a discontinuity between the two acts of knowing, a discontinuity that is greater and more profound than the discontinuity between one person's act of knowing something and another person's act of knowing it" (Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, p. 226). Van Til is not arguing that God and man do not know the same things; he is arguing that because every act of man's knowing is dependent on and a reflection of God's previous knowing, his knowing is never identical with God's. The fact that they share the same objects of knowledge is not tantamount to saying that they share the same content of knowledge. Only if you give epistemology and not ontology the priority will you think otherwise. God as a Being is qualitatively different from man; therefore, His knowledge is qualitatively different from man's. Knowledge springs from ontology; ontology does not spring from knowledge. God knows differently because He is a different kind of being. Does this lead to skepticism? Of course not. Man's being, including his mind and his entire universe, is created and constructed by the sovereign, Triune God revealing Himself truthfully in Christ, Scripture, and creation. We can be confident of the basic validity of our senses and reasoning processes because of this God. Man is an analog, not an extension, of God. He is made in God's image. Because he does not share in God's being, he cannot share in God's knowledge. If he could share in God's knowledge, he could equally share in God's being. This is where a consistent view of univocal knowledge between God and man must lead.

The Logos Is a Person, Not a Principle
We subsequently confront what is perhaps the most damaging aspect of Crampton's thesis. He and Clark hold that a generally good translation of John 1:1 may be, "In the beginning was the logic." The implications of this view are spelled out quite clearly in Carl Henry's massive God, Revelation, and Authority, in which he posits that the logos of John 1, Jesus Christ, guarantees a rational, universal epistemology. This, in my view, is a serious distortion of John 1, and is, in fact, the very sort of reasoning John was attempting to refute. His whole point is that the logos of the ancient Greeks is not the logos of the Christian God. His logos is a Person, Jesus Christ. Men are not saved by a unifying, rational principle; they are saved by Jesus Christ. The issue is not, as in neo-orthodox parlance, personal versus propositional revelation. Biblical revelation is surely propositional, and it is the truth. However, men gain eternal life by means of union with Christ (Jn. 6). Men are saved not by contemplation, but by appropriation. (John Calvin makes this point most powerfully in his chapter on "The Lord's Supper and Its Advantages" in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.) Rational communication between men is possible not because of the Greek idea of a rational, universal, abstract principle, but because all men are made in the image of God and reflect that image in every iota of their being. God's revelation to man is religiously holistic, not reductionistically rational. We are not saved by ideas; we are saved by union with Christ communicated, to be sure, in the propositional ideas of the Bible.

Van Til's is an intensely personalistic epistemology; it is not a logos-epistemology, whether that of the patristic apologists or the Enlightenment or Gordon Clark. Clark needs a logos-epistemology to guarantee rational certainty because he does not recognize the exhaustively personal relation between God and His creation. For Van Til, the personalism of the Triune God, not an impersonal rational principle, secures epistemological certainty. Clark's logos-epistemology, like that of many of the church fathers, introduces an impersonal abstraction into the realm of the Faith (see Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, pp. 84-89). Van Til could never abide this. It denies the all-conditioning, Triune God. Clarkians do not buy this. Clark's main disciple John Robbins, for instance, attacks Van Til for teaching that not only are the three members of the Trinity discrete Persons, but the entire Godhead is a Person (Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth, pp. 18-21). But to Van Til, the suggestion that God is not a Person but merely an "essence" is a concession to Greek abstractionism that introduces a pagan impersonalism into the Trinity. For Van Til, the introduction of impersonalism into epistemology assaults the God of the Bible.

Between Van Til's and Clark's apologetic methodologies we detect what Thomas Sowell would term a "conflict of visions." The disagreement is not on this particular point or that. There is a deep, almost instinctual difference over the nature of reality itself. Both hold firmly to Reformed doctrine; both are thoroughly orthodox. The difference is not over discursive doctrine, but in the approach to the doctrine. Christian contextualism reflects a different ethos and orientation than Christian foundationalism. Van Til presupposes the Christian system and does not attempt to verify it at the bar of man's reason or logic, an act he considers sinfully autonomous. Clark presupposes the Sacred Scriptures, which, he surely believes, teach the Christian system, which in turn meets the criterion of logical consistency in that it conforms to the law of contradiction (A Christian View of Men and Things, pp. 32-34). Van Til's presuppositionalism is systemic; Clark's is axiomatic. Van Til's is contextual; Clark's is foundationalist. Van Til's is personal; Clark's is impersonal.

Van Til and Clark were both doughty defenders of Calvinism, but their conflict of apologetic visions will not soon abate.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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