The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism

The following extended review by Dr. J. Oliver Buswell continues our current series on presuppositionalism. In this article, Buswell reviews Cornelius Van Til’s then recent book COMMON GRACE. For convenience, here again is the full listing of articles in this series:

Series Articles :
1. Buswell, J. Oliver, Jr., “The Arguments from Nature to God: Presuppositionalism and Thomas Aquinas—A Book Review with Excursions,” The Bible Today 41.8 (May 1948): 235-248.
2. Schaeffer, Francis A., “A Review of a Review,” The Bible Today 42.1 (October 1948): 7-9.
3. Buswell, J. Oliver, Jr., “The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.2 (November 1948): 41-64.
4. Young, G. Douglas, “Dr. Young’s Letter”, The Bible Today 42.2 (November 1948): 65.
5. Buswell, J. Oliver, Jr., “Warfield vs. Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.6 (March 1949): 182-192.
6. Van Til, Cornelius, “Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.7 (April 1949): 218-228.
7. Anonymous, “Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.8 (May 1949): 261.
8. Van Til, Cornelius, “Presuppositionalism Concluded,” The Bible Today 42.9 (June-September 1949): 278-290.

The Fountainhead Of Presuppositionalism

A BOOK REVIEW By Dr. Buswell

THE origin of the name “Presuppositionalism” was given in a review under that title in The Bible Today for May 1948, page 235. A friendly letter from Professor Carnell, whose recent book was there reviewed, indicates that he at least does not resent the term. He suggests “Inductivism” as a counter designation, and this of course I do not resent There is this difference, however, those who hold to presuppositionalism are advancing a negative thesis, denying that there is common ground of reasoning between those who accept Christian presuppositions and engage in the spread of the Gospel, and those who do not accept Christian presuppositions and reject the Gospel.1 The inductionist thesis is positive and partial rather than negative and universal. It is held that ordinary processes of inductive reasoning are valid as a part of the method of evangelism. As a part of the inductive reasoning process, it is further held that there are areas of common knowledge occupied by the Christian evangelist and the unsaved inquirer or doubter. If the unsaved person or persons declare, “The God of the Bible is only a mythological figure,” and the Christian evangelist declares, “The God of the Bible exists as a substantive entity, an actual Being,” there must be some element of common meaning in the terms employed in the two contradictory statements, if the Scriptural conception of “unbelief” has any meaning at all.

Whether the position which I should maintain is properly designated by the term “inductionism” or not, the view that there is common ground of knowledge which may be employed in evangelism is very adequately expressed in the following paragraph by Professor Van Til’s colleague, Professor of Systematic Theology John Murray, in an excellent article on “Common Grace” in the Westminster Theological Journal for November 1942.2

. . . when we come to the point of actual conversion, the faith and repentance involved in conversion do not receive their genesis apart from the knowledge of the truth of the gospel. There must be conveyed to the mind of the man who believes and repents to the saving of his soul the truth-content of law and gospel, law as convicting him of sill and gospel as conveying the information which becomes the material of faith. To some extent at least there must be the cognition and apprehension of the import of law and gospel prior to the exercise of saving faith and repentance. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). But this apprehension of the truth of the gospel that is prior to faith and repentance, and therefore prior to the regeneration of which faith and repentance are the immediate effects in our consciousness, cannot strictly belong to the saving operations of the Spirit. They are preparatory to these saving operations and in the gracious design of God place the person concerned in the psychological condition that is prerequisite of the intelligent exercise of faith and repentance. In other words they place in his mind the apperceptive content that makes the gospel meaningful to his consciousness. But since they are not the saving acts of faith and repentance they must belong to a different category from that of saving grace and therefore to the category of non-saving or common grace. . . . faith does not take its genesis in a vacuum. It has its antecedents and presuppositions both logically and chronologically in the operations of common grace. [Professor Murray continues in a footnote] . . . All that has been said above is simply that the operations in the individual and subjective sphere whereby that truth-content has become the property of consciousness, prior to the acts of regeneration and faith, are operations that are not in themselves saving and therefore belong to the category of common grace.

The presuppositionalism which denies common ground of knowledge between Christian and non-Christian, has challenged my special attention since the early 1930’s, since a year or two after the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary and my first acquaintance with Professor Cornelius Van Til. Dr. Van Til is a devout and earnest believer, and able and competent scholar, and a skillful, and effective teacher. The impact of his philosophy upon his students is truly remarkable. I have the utmost respect and personal regard for him.

Very little in the way of published, writings came to me from Dr. Van Til until the publication of his excellent work on Barthianism entitled The New Modernism.3However he has produced, from the beginning of his teaching ministry, a considerable number of extensive, closely written mimeographed syllabi in the field of philosophical apologetics. I believe I read all of these up to about 1940, and I have examined those produced in more recent years for any changes and developments in his system of philosophy. The New Modernism does not draw upon presuppositionalism and the syllabi usually are prefaced by notations to the effect that they are non-published papers of a more or less private nature, so that one does not feel at liberty to quote them as though they were statements which the author was ready to publish.

It was with genuine appreciation therefore that I recently received Dr. Van Til’s book, Common Grace, containing a published statement of his distinctive views. In conversation and correspondence I have several times asked Professor Van -Til if the Scriptural doctrine of common grace does not imply common ground of knowledge between the redeemed and the unsaved. Others have doubtless presented to him the same question. In this book we have an elaboration of his answer.

Professor Van Til’s first chapter, “A Christian Philosophy of History,” presents his own views in very condensed form. Chapter two gives a very complete presentation of Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace and a review of a controversy on the subject which
broke out in the Christian Reformed Church some twenty or twenty-five years ago, and which has been smoldering ever since.

Chapter Three entitled “The Latest Debate About Common Grace” under the subheading “Recent Developments” is a very excellent summary of the opinions of Kuyper,( 1837-1920) Bavinck, (1854-1921) and Hepp. Kuyper was founder of and most distinguished scholar in the Free University of Amsterdam. Bavinck served in that institution with distinction until his death. Professor Valentine Hepp, Th.D., is, I believe, still actively serving there as Professor of Theology. It is from these three great theologians and from the Reformed faith as expounded in the Free University of Amsterdam, that the Christian Reformed Church, the circle of activity from which Dr. Van Til takes his background, has derived a considerable part of its inspiration and leadership.

After discussion of these three great leaders, under the subheading “Some Suggestions for the Future” Professor Van Til elaborates his own views with greater clarity and persuasiveness than in any other portion of his writing which has come to my attention.

Van Til’s Doctrine of God: Paradox

Dr. Van Til of course believes in the God of the Bible, who is “A Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” But Dr. Van Til has certain peculiar notions in regard to the doctrine of God which require special attention. First and most critically important of these notions, as I gee the question, is his doctrine of paradox. Dr. Van Til adheres to the correct historical definition of this term. A paradox is not a real contradiction, but an apparent contradiction. However, whereas for most of us a paradox is a misfortune, something to be carefully studied and resolved, so that the apparent contradiction will be seen clearly to be no contradiction, for Dr. Van Til on the other hand, there are certain specific, deeply established paradoxes which must form a part of theology. He says

. . . to hold to this position [the doctrine of the Trinity] requires us to say that while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former. If it is the self-contained ontological trinity that we need for the rationality of our interpretation of life, it is this same ontological trinity that requires us to hold to the apparently contradictory. This ontological trinity is, as the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Standards puts it, “incomprehensible.”4

Professor Van Til’s feeling that (1) the doctrine of the trinity is apparently self-contradictory, and (2) that we must accept it as an apparent paradox, is partly explained by his peculiar notion of the problem of the “one and many.” He says, “In the ontological trinity there is complete harmony between an equally ultimate one and many.” (p. 8) He frequently makes reference to this “one and many” problem as though there were some powerful compulsion requiring our minds to believe that “one” and “many”, are “equally ultimate.” This is a problem however, which, in my judgment, is confined to the minds of those who have been affected by non-Christian monistic philosophy. For the simple Bible believer, and the one who sees the truth of created dualistic realism as Charles Hodge does,5 it is no problem at all. Whatever exists, exists, and that is that. We thank God that he exists and that he has revealed himself. He has also revealed that we exist as persons created in his image, and that the non-personal created material world exists. We accept the fact of the created universe as fact regardless of the question of “one” or “many.” God of his own will, of his own good pleasure, not because of any rational necessity, chose to create the universe which he chose to create. It actually exists since he has created it, so we call it realistic. It has an important distinction within it, that between personal and non-personal existences, so we call it dualistic. Its manifold aspects are not derived from its unity, and its unified aspect is not derived from its manifold character. The created universe is not a necessary logical deduction from God’s reason, but is an ontological, existing thing because of an act of his will.

Furthermore, although the Bible and the best creedal statements derived from the Bible declare that the triunity of God is incomprehensible, the Bible and Biblical creeds never declare that the doctrine of the trinity is even apparently self-contradictory. Fosdick is quoted as saying that the doctrine of the trinity is “a contradiction in arithmetic,” namely, the proposition that three equals one mathematically. Dr. Van Til of course would not agree exactly, but he seems to say that Fosdick must appear to be right and that we must “embrace with passion” this apparent contradiction.

The Bible and the great Biblical creeds of the church say nothing of the kind. God is clearly revealed as one God. He is also clearly revealed as three persons, each of whom is in the fullest sense, God. This is indeed incomprehensible, beyond our intelligence, magnificent beyond all description, but it is not even apparently contradictory. What little we know about personality (and God has chosen to reveal himself in terms of human language) indicates that personality is a very complex matter. Persons are not material entities like bodies. There are nuclei of consciousness within individual persons, as James Orr has pointed out, following a suggestion of Augustine.6 Moreover personal beings are capable of mutual exhaustiveness and interpenetration in a way in which material bodies are not. The Biblical doctrine is that God is one self-conscious person, infinite in all of his perfections and revealed attributes, and that at the same time, without contradiction, this one personal deity subsists as three persons, each of whom is fully and completely deity. There is every reason why such a doctrine should be beyond our full comprehension, but there is no reason why such a doctrine should appear contradictory.

If it does appear contradictory to some, there is no possible ground why a Christian theologian should insist that it must appear as a paradox to all. I confess that I believe with all my heart that, “There is but one only, the living and true God” and that, “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and these three persons are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory,” and I confess that I see not the slightest contradiction (though of course I see much that is beyond my comprehension) in these magnificent statements.

Professor Van Til. continues his emphasis upon paradox

To the non-Christian our position may be compared to the idea of adding water to a bucket that is already full of water. “Your idea of a self-sufficient ontological trinity,” he will say, “is like a bucket full of water. To God Nothing can be added. He cannot derive glory from his creatures. Yet your idea of history is like pouring water into the full bucket. Everything in it is said to add to the glory of God.”

No Christian can answer this full bucket difficulty in such a way as to satisfy the demands of a non-Christian epistemology … [It is] apparently contradictory. That all things in history are determined by God, must always seem, at first sight, to contradict the genuineness of my choice. That the elect are certainly Saved for eternity must always seem to make the threat of eternal punishment unreal with respect to them. That the reprobate are certainly ‘to be lost must always seem to make the presentation of eternal life unreal with respect to them.7

Now, to the simple Bible believing Christian, unaffected by the Aristotelian “Unmoved Mover” or the pagan static absolute, the God of the Bible is revealed ‘to be intensely active in all of his works of providence and redemption. He is, and always has been just as truly glorified by the praises of generations yet unborn as he will be when they actually turn to him in faith. The dynamic self-consistency of the God of the Bible, makes it easy for us to understand that he could just as well pass over sins before the atonement was made as since that time, pending final judgment. Christ, could say, “I have overcome, the world,” just before he went to hang upon the cross, and his future victory glorified him as he hung there on the cross just as truly as it will glorify him when he comes again in the clouds. The omniscient, omnipotent redeemer of God’s elect is always perfect in glory, and one aspect of his glory always has been and always will be the literal chronological fact that “he that offereth praise glorifieth God.” I must confess here again I see no paradox at all. Wonders beyond my ability to comprehend, yes! But apparent contradiction, a thousand times no!

As to the other apparent contradiction reflected in the last quoted passage from Professor Van Til, the same recognition of the dynamic self-consistency of the God of the Bible, for me, removes the last vestige of any shadow of appearance of contradiction from the genuine offer of salvation to all mankind. This offer is perfectly consistent, in my mind, with the fact that, “not of him that willeth, but of God that showeth mercy.” God has chosen from all eternity to save a people, and that he has not chosen to save all people. This offer is consistent with the fact that he has chosen to permit some to reject his only begotten Son (John 3:18, 19); and he has — “yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established,”—he has determined to permit these to perish “for their sins.”8

I confess that I have the deepest sympathy for those sincere and honest men to whom it seems that God should^ offer salvation to all, knowing that many will certainly perish. Hut for me, there is no contradiction. Even in the appearance of the mailer, paradox there is none.

Professor Van Til further argues not only that the “full-bucket difficulty” must, appear paradoxical, lint that we must “demur” from the thought that “God’s revelation in Scripture may be expected to reveal nothing which will be apparently self-contradictory.”9

Again he says

We are not to be affrighted by the charge of holding the contradictory. . . . Faith abhors the really contradictory; to maintain the really contradictory is to deny God. Faith adores the apparently contradictory; to adore the apparently contradictory is to adore God as one’s creator and final interpreter.10

So far is the doctrine of paradox carried by Professor Van Til, that he forgets the plainest teachings of the Bible and the clearest statements of the great definitive creeds of the Reformed Faith. He says

If God is the ultimate cause, back of whatsoever comes to pass, Pighius [an opponent of Calvin] can, on this basis, rightly insist that God is the cause of sin. Calvin knew this.”

From the point of view of a non-Christian logic the Reformed Faith can be bowled over by means of a single syllogism. God has determined whatsoever comes to pass. Man’s moral acts are things that come to pass. Therefore man’s moral acts are determined and man is not responsible for them.12

Now as a matter of fact, the Scripture nowhere declares that God is the “ultimate cause back of whatsoever comes to pass,” but that he “has foreordained” whatsoever comes to pass and “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will,” (Eph. 1:11) a very different statement. To say that Calvin knew that his opponent could “lightly insist that God is the cause of sin,” is a direct contradiction of the statement, based upon many scores of Scripture passages, that “neither is God the author of sin.”13

It is of course characteristic of the school of thought to which Dr. Van Til belongs to deny the possibility of any distinction between God’s permissive decrees and his compelling decrees. Charles Hodge’s great chapter distinguishing between necessity and certainty, showing that complete certainty is not dependent upon the idea of necessity, is anathema to some of our good friends. It is customary for them to stop in the ninth chapter of Romans with the great and profound truth of the twentieth verse, “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” Indeed this is a great truth and a profound truth. But this truth does not require us to stop short of the clarification of the twenty-second verse in which Paul so simply explains that God’s attitude toward Pharoah was that of having brought him into, existence, having stirred him up, and having “endured with much long-suffering,” in order that God’s power, name, wrath, ability and glory might be the more clearly revealed in the earth. It is Paul who makes the distinction between God’s permissive decrees and his compelling decrees, and I do not find anywhere in Calvin’s Institutes or commentaries anything which suggests the opposite. Truly God has decreed “whatsoever comes to pass,” but within his decrees the Scripture makes a distinction between that which he decreed to permit, namely sin, and all those glorious works which he decreed to bring to pass, himself being the responsible cause. Only a failure to accept in all simplicity Romans 9:22 could cause one to see an apparent contradiction, a paradox, in the fact of sin within the created world.

Van Til’s doctrine of paradox leads him to say that

. . . the idea of that which is common between the elect and the reprobate is always a limiting concept. It is a commonness for the time being. There lies back of it a divine as if. One syllogism based on non-Christian assumptions, would call this dishonesty.14

The term “limiting concept” will be discussed below. In this passage it is equivalent to “as if” and is declared to be “for the time being.” This nest of confusion requires attention. It seems that Professor Van Til is telling us that common ground which exists “for the time being” is unreal. It is only “as if.” Does this mean that which really exists “for the time” is unreal or is only an illusion? What kind of doctrine is it which a non-Christian syllogism would call dishonesty? We Calvinists reject “double truth” when it calls itself frankly by the names Ritschlianism, Barthianism, pragmatism, instrumentalism, neo-orthodoxy. Is double truth which incorrectly calls itself by the name Calvinism any more acceptable?

In the work now before us, Professor Van Til does not frequently speak as though time were unreal to God. Such does seem to be the suggestion here. In his mimeographed syllabi, which of course cannot be quoted as statements that he ‘has fully formulated for publication, he has made many statements which imply that the actual temporal processes of sequence in the historical world cannot be real in the ontological experiences of God in his eternal state of being. This non-temporal eternity would certainly not be the attribute of the eternal God of the Bible. It would be more like (he Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, the fully realized, inconsistently taught by Thomas Aquinas, and the static syllogistic “God” of Spinoza. If we understand the implications of the fact that the God of the Bible gives predictive prophecy and fulfills it “in the fullness of time,” we should never call “commonness for the time being” a mere “limiting concept” or “a divine as if.”

Knowing that the Scripture teaches that Christ “was … for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every- man,” Professor Van Til’s doctrine of paradox nevertheless makes it possible for him to declare unequivocally that “Christ has not died for all men.” (p. 78) I thoroughly accept the doctrine of particular atonement as set forth in the Scripture and as defined in Charles Hodge and A. A. Hodge. Following the letter’s teaching in his remarkable book The Atonement, I teach that the atonement of Christ was for all men in (1) its sufficiency, (2) its applicability, and (3) its offer; but that the atonement is particularly designed for the elect alone in the fact that (4) Christ in his death positively acted to save a people in particular whom he is infallibly going to save, and (5) the atonement does not accomplish the salvation of all men, but some are certainly going to perish, spending all eternity in punishment under the wrath and curse of God. This five-fold outline is in harmony with the history of Calvinism. The formula, “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect,” has been generally accepted as soundly Scriptural, Augustinian, Calvinistic. The fourth point of the outline is denied by Arminians, and by Amyraldians. Points, one, two, three and five have generally been accepted by evangelicals as the term evangelical was defined prior to the 1934 edition of Webster’s dictionary.

Believing in the doctrine of “particular atonement,” it is not at all necessary for us to deny, or to hold apparently contradictory, or to hold as paradoxical the fact that Christ tasted death “for every man” in a very true sense of the word, namely, in the sense that his atonement is sufficient, applicable, and genuinely offered to all. In the light of the plain statement of Hebrews 2:9, Professor Van Til’s unqualified statement that “Christ has not died for all men” is intolerable. But when one comes to the state of mind in which he welcomes with .joy and gladly rejoices in certain paradoxes, it is not surprising that paradoxes are multiplied.

The doctrine of paradox comes to its extreme expression in the words … “we have, in our doctrines of the ontological trinity and temporal creation, cut ourselves loose once and for all from correlativism between God and man.” (p. 94)

Granted that pagan philosophy has a false correlativism, making God as much dependent upon man as man is dependent upon God, nevertheless the Bible most certainly has a definite and positive correlativism between God and man. God is the creator, we are the creatures. Creator and creature are correlative terms, if language has any meaning, and since God has created us, he is just as truly correlated with us as our creator as we are correlated with him as his creatures. He is completely sovereign. We are completely under his sovereignty, but these terms again are correlative terms.

What I fear is that Professor Van Til has actually, though of course unconsciously, in his own thinking, really cut himself free from Biblical correlativism between God and man.

He is a well-informed and deeply zealous anti-Barthian; but I have sometimes wondered whether the zeal of his anti-Barthianism is not in part derived from the bitterness of close similarity in certain aspects of his philosophy.

There is of course a great and obvious difference between Van Til and Barth. Van Til believes that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and that, revelation is historically conveyed by Biblical testimony. Barth does not so believe, but teaches that the Bible contains the Word of God, or that it is the Word of God if it conveys the Word of God to me, otherwise it is not. Another contrast between Barthianism and Professor Van Til’s philosophy, not as easy to make plain, but a true contrast nevertheless, is in the fact that for Barth the contradiction of theological paradoxes is real and ultimate, whereas for Van Til, the contradiction is vigorously declared to be only apparent.

I cannot help feeling, however, that Van Til is unwillingly drawn into a very compromising position by his insisting upon, and welcoming, these apparent contradictions or paradoxes. When the doctrine of paradox is carried so far that correlativism between God the Creator and man the creature is renounced, I cannot see much to choose in this respect between Van Til’s position and that of Barth. For the latter, everything which is true for man in material history, is false from the point of view of eternity. For the former vast areas of human historical matter are
merely “limiting concepts” or “as if” to God.

The Concrete Universal

Probably as an outgrowth of his doctrine of paradox, Van Til twice applies the Hegelian term concrete universal” to his concept of God.

In the ontological trinity there is complete harmony between an equally ultimate one and many. The persons of the Trinity are mutually exhaustive of one another and of God’s nature. It is the absolute equality in point of ultimacy that requires all the emphasis we can give it. Involved in this absolute equality is complete interdependence; God is our concrete universal.15

Aside from our objection, stated above, to the use of the phrase “equally ultimate one and many,” and our insistence that one perfect Deity subsisting as three persons each of whom is Deity, is not a paradox nor an apparent contradiction, I should make no objection to the rest of this quoted passage except for the last clause! Again Van Til says

The ontological trinity will be our interpretative concept everywhere. God is our concrete universal; in Him thought and being are co-terminous. In Him the problem of knowledge is solved.

If we begin thus with the ontological trinity as our concrete universal . . .16

Students of the history of philosophy will need only to have the Hegelianism of this doctrine pointed out. They will see clearly and at once, that a good and sincere man has carelessly tracked in mud from the pagan streets. The “concrete universal” has no place in Christian Biblical theology.

For those who may not be familiar or may not remember, let me state the facts briefly. In Hegelian philosophy such class names as man, book, church, ordinarily called “universals” or “abstract universals” are contrasted with names denoting a totality such as “mankind,” “literature,” “the church.” A concrete universal is thus a totality. The supreme concrete universal is the totality of being, reality or the universe as a whole. Can it be possible that this is what Professor Van Til means? I must say that I believe the context requires an affirmative answer, but I must hasten to add that I do not believe that Professor Van Til is conscious of the implications of what he has said.

The reader may easily check up on my definition of terms as given above by consulting any standard reference work which includes a discussion of Hegel’s terminology. Take for example the article on Hegel’s terminology in Volume I of Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy, or take the definition of “concrete universal” on page 61 of the recent Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Runes; or even take Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. “Concrete universal” is a well known philosophical term. It is specifically and definitely Hegelian in its usage, and of this fact Professor Van Til must be cognizant. If he does not employ the term in its established meaning in well known usage, he gives the reader no indication that he means anything else.

Take as a sidelight upon the doctrine of the concrete universal the phrase quoted above, “In Him thought and being are coterminous.” That is thought and being have the same boundaries, or in other words, are identical. If there is any difference between such a doctrine and Hegelian pantheistic idealism, the difference is not apparent! Almost any Christian would say, “I am in God’s thought; he thinks of me.” But if in God, thought and being are coterminous, then my being is only part of God’s thought. Am I then a created being or not? Do I have any objective status as a creature?

From another angle his doctrine of concrete universal is extremely poisonous. If thought and being are coterminous in God, what becomes of fulfilled prophecy past and future? What indeed becomes of the act of creation in time, as distinguished from the eternal purpose to create? What becomes of the incarnation? No! The God of the Bible had the thought of the incarnation from eternity; He revealed it lo Abraham as something not as yet in being. In the fulness of time and in due time, He brought the incarnation into being. It had not previously been in being.

O my dear Brother! I do not question your devotion to the Lord and to the Bible. I do not question your sincerity, but look at the mud on your feel! You have been deeply mired in Hegelian idealistic pantheism.

But there is more to this matter of the concrete universal than I have indicated above. Students of philosophy will remember that this term signifies not only totality, but it signifies the synthesis of contradictories, the Hegelian Negativität. Let the reader put together in his mind this Hegelian dialectic term with Professor Van Til’s doctrine of paradox, as explained above, and the dangers of the position into which Van Til has fallen will become the more apparent.

Limiting Concept:
Analogical Thinking: “As If”

The three terms constituting the above subheading are frequently used in Van Til’s Common Grace, especially the first two. Because of the length of this article, I must limit my explanations to the very minimum. Further references can easily be given if any of the readers of The Bible Today are interested. The term, “limiting concept” is derived from Kant and is essentially connected with his agnosticism as to external reality. The limiting concept or Grenzenbegriff,roughly speaking is a notion which is regarded as an ultimate boundary of thought, beyond which agnosticism is the only attitude. A limiting concept is thus a false, but pragmatic notion of the unknowable.

Analogical thinking is a familiar term in Thomas Aquinas. He takes it over from Aristotle in whose writings, it seems to me correct to say, it means figurative thinking. It is the opposite of univocal thinking. Univocal means strictly accurate and literally true. “Analogical” designates thinking which is specifically false and untrue, but which bears some resemblance or analogy to that which is literally true.

The term “as if,” is familiar to students of the philosophy of the neo-Kantian period. It is discussed at some length by James Orr in his Christian View of God and the World. It signifies thinking which is not taken as true, but only “as if” it were true.

It is only fair to point out that in Professor Van Til’s use of these terms he states specifically that he means them in a Christian sense, not in the Kantian sense. However, he does not adequately define the difference. One has the impression of a priest giving a Christian name to a pagan idol.

Professor Van Til’s teaching is as follows:

If we hold to a theology of the apparently paradoxical we must also hold, by consequence, to the Christian notion of a limiting concept. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept has been developed on the basis of the non-Christian conception of mystery. By contrast we may think of the Christian notion of the limiting concept as based upon the Christian conception of mystery. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of would-be autonomous man who seeks to legislate for all reality, but bows before the irrational as that which he has not yet rationalized. The Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of the creature who seeks to set forth in systematic form something of the revelation of the Creator. 17

But merely by the name “Christian” the heathen notion of limiting concept is not changed.

We must think analogically, rather than univocally. To reason as though we can remove all the “logical difficulties” which will naturally appear to be contained in the Christian system of truth is to say, in effect, that on the question of logic the believer and the non-believer occupy neutral territory and to assign to the unbeliever a competence he does not in reality possess.18
[Kuyper’s] distinction between ratiocination and perception should have been made in the form of a limiting concept. But then the question would again arise as to whether this limiting concept were to be taken in the Christian or the Platonic sense of the term. And there is evidence that indicates a lack of clarity in Kuyper’s thought as to the distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian notion of the limiting concept.19

In my judgment Kuyper would have said roundly, “Limiting concept is a pagan notion outright, and has no place whatever in Christian theology.” Kuyper’s distinction between perception and other rational processes was a forthright distinction in matters related to thought and things.

Van Til further says:

It is therefore in conjunction with the sinner’s subjective alienation from God, as a limiting concept merely, that we can speak of anything as not having been destroyed by sin.20

. . . natural revelation, whether objective or subjective, is in itself a limiting conception. It has never existed by itself so far as man is concerned. It cannot fairly be considered, therefore, as a fixed quantity that can be dealt with in the same way at every stage of man’s moral life.21

The “good nature” of Adam cannot he taken otherwise than as a limiting concept. … Granted that Adam’s nature was an active nature, this active nature itself must be taken as a limiting concept in relation to the decisive ethical reaction that was to take place in connection with the probationary command.22

It would seem here that that which is true only for a time, is taken, to be not really true. We read further

… we are entitled and compelled to use anthropomorphism not apologetically but fearlessly. We need not fear to say that God’s attitude has changed with respect to mankind. We know well enough that God in Himself is changeless, but we hold that we are – able to affirm that our words have meaning for no other reason than that we use them analogically.23

In these sentences we hare several dangerous tendencies combined. If God is absolute in the sense of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, or Thomas Aquinas’ Fully Realized, then his attitude cannot actually change, but then the objective element in the atonement, propitiation, is only an illusion! On the other hand, if the immutability of God is an immutability of His character, it is not in the least inconsistent to say that the dynamic immutability of God includes a specific change in His attitude when the sinner is regenerated and cleansed by the blood of Christ. Only so can propitiation have ontological significance, true meaning in reality.

I am not objecting to the use of anthropomorphism, or the recognition of anthropomorphism in the Scripture. When we read, “God’s hand is not shortened that He cannot save, nor His ear heavy that He cannot hear,” or when Christ says, “I am the vine, ye are the branches, obviously we are being taught in metaphors. But for God’s righteous indignation to be vindicated and His grace extended thru the atonement, certainly expresses a change of attitude in God which is more than a figure of speech.21

God’s Character, Will, and Acts

Professor Van Til is generally characterized by failure to discriminate between the character of God, the will of God, and the acts of God. He says

God, and God only, has ultimate definitory power. God’s description or plan of the fact makes the fact what it is. What the modern scientist ascribes to the mind of man, Christianity ascribes to God.25

The last sentence is true of John Dewey’s view of what the “modern scientists” ascribes to the mind of man, but, as I have shown with abundant evidence elsewhere, this view of modern science is not correct, unless, “modern science” be identified with something like “Christian Science.” The scientist ascertains or discovers. His mind does not make the fact what it is.” What an amazing view of science to find in the philosophy of a Biblical scholar!

Van Til says

The modern scientist, pretending to be merely a describer of facts, is in reality a maker of facts. He makes facts as he describes. His description is itself the manufacturing of facts. He requires “material” to make, facts, but the material he requires must be raw material. Anything else will break his machinery. The datum is not primarily given, but is primarily taken.26

These sentences are. rather clear evidence that Professor Van Til has read John Dewey’s Quest For Certainty and has taken Dewey’s word for it as to what modern scientists really do. The word “taken” instead of “given” is a specific Deweyism. But I have shown elsewhere that Dewey has misconstrued the scientists from whom he quotes. Right down the line, Aristotle, Newton, Eddington, Bridgeman, Einstein,—Dewey from his instrumentalist point of view, has misread and misinterpreted. The data of science is primarily given, and the notion that it is not so, but primarily taken, is not science, but Dewey’s instrumentalism.

Professor Van Til’s unfamiliarity with the presuppositions of scientists is revealed again on page three. He alludes to Eildinglon’s illustration of the ichthyologist who, in Eddington’s story, says, “What my net can’t catch isn’t fish.”

And Van Til comments

That is to say, description is patternization. It is an action of definition. It is a statement of the what as well as of the that.27

But Van Til has missed Eddington’s point, for in the context which Van Til does not give, Eddington says

The dispute arises, as many disputes do, because the protagonists are talking about different things. The onlooker has in mind an objective kingdom of fishes. The ichthyologist . . . His generalization is perfectly true of … a selected class . . . The selection is subjective, because it depends on the sensory and intellectual equipment which is our means of acquiring observational knowledge.28

Eddington goes on to explain that the ichthyologist has no intention of making a statement about things which his net cannot catch. He is not patternizing reality. He is merely describing what he can observe.

It is not uncommon for devout men to grow careless about fields of learning outside of their immediate activities,—not uncommon for any specialist to do the same. I am reminded of Professor Valentine Hepp, who, in his book entitled Calvinism and the Philosophy of Nature, says

The salmon, although a fresh water fish, ventures out into the sea to spawn. (p. 68)

Later he refers to the question of the conservation of energy and says that according to some authorities “the science of thermo-dynamics shows that energy is continually subject to decrease.” (p. 81) But the second law of thermo-dynamics does not indicate that energy is decreasing but only that available energy is decreasing, and this is not strictly contrary to the idea of the conservation of energy.

He says again, “The order of creation is other than that of geology and paleontology. . . . especially the order and of reptiles and birds is just exactly opposite to that of Scripture.” (p. 208f) Hepp should have read Genesis 1:20-22 more carefully.

While I am confessing other people’s errors I may as well confess one of my own. In my book What is God, published in 1937, p. 155, I erroneously refer to the cochlea, instead of the semi-circular canals, as the part of the inner ear which serves as an organ of balance. I had forgotten a point of anatomy learned long before. The embarrassment caused to me by this error, has, I hope, taught me a lesson.

Slips and mis-statements of scientific fact are likely to weaken our cause as defenders of the Bible. However, it should be stated that Professor Van Til’s opinion that “modern scientists ascribe to the mind of man” an activity such that “description or plan of the fact makes the fact what it is” is no mere slip but a basic misunderstanding of the philosophy of science.

As to the former sentence in the last given quotation, it expresses an opinion similar to that which we have quoted above, namely that “in Him thought and being are coterminous.” As I have indicated, unless we can distinguish between God’s plan and His activity in bringing the plan into actuality,— unless His active will which makes the fact what it is, can be distinguished from his “description or plan” as such, then all the history of the created world and of the
redemptive program is an illusion.

Van Til holds that holiness and truth are created by the will of God (see pages 6, 7, 65, etc.). To take any other position, seems to him to imply that there are facts and laws external to God and superior to Him over which He has no control. Charles Hodge throughout his Systematic Theology, especially in his discussion of the attributes of God, assumes a logical distinction (certainly not a separation but a true distinction nevertheless) between the character of

God and His will. This distinction is made throughout the Bible. With the greatest emphasis God’s attribute of holiness, is appealed to literally hundreds of times, as though it had some meaning in plain human language. Never does the Scripture represent the will of God as creating His holiness and truth but always as expressing God’s character which is holy and true. In the sixth chapter of the epistle, to the Hebrews we learn that when God swore by Himself to Abraham two immutable things were involved. One, His word, and the other, His oath. It is unequivocally declared that it is “impossible for God to lie.”

To argue that holiness and truth and the other revealed attributes of God are abstract universals to which God himself must submit, is a thoroughly pagan notion entirely contrary to the Scriptures; but to describe these attributes as of God’s character, attributes which his will expresses, attributes which his will cannot by any conceivable means violate, is certainly the Biblical view, and this is one of the points which Professor Van Til has missed.

In a book review in the Westminster Theological Journal for November, 1942,29 Professor Van Til says

There is no abstract law of non-contradiction in accordance with which as a pattern or as a rule of possibility God makes or does not make the universe. He is Himself the source of significant possibility.

With this as a literal statement we can heartily agree, lull the difficulty is that Professor Van Til does not realize that the source of the abstract law of non-contradiction as we know it, is the immutable character of God rather than the free-will of God. If this were not the case, to say that. God is true would have no meaning. In fact, no revealed attribute would have any significance. The words, “God is Holy” would be a mere tautology. Contrary to such a view, how careful the Scripture writers are to declare the fact that God’s character has certain specifiable attributes.

Brute Fact and Abstract Law

The ideas of “brute fact, of abstract impersonal law and autonomous man,” are rejected (p. 7). The notion of autonomous man will be discussed below in a separate section. In regard to the other two Van Til says,

Neither of them [Kuyper and Bavinck] has been able to cut himself loose from a non-Christian methodology. Both allow, to a certain extent, the legitimacy of the idea of brute facts of Empiricism and the idea of abstract universal of Rationalism. This, as noted in the case of Bavinck, makes for allowing a certain truth value to the theistic arguments. . . .30

When Hepp deals with the “theistic proofs,” he, like Bavinck, attributes a certain value to them even when they are constructed along non-Christian lines. Hepp says that Kant underestimated the value of these arguments.

In his whole discussion of the proofs Hepp allows that an argument based on would-be neutral ground, can have a certain validity. Of these proofs constructed on a neutral and therefore non-Christian basis, Hepp says that they cry day and night that God exists . . . to this we reply that they cry day and night that God does not exist. For, as they have been constructed, they cry that a finite God exists.31

But Paul declared that these proofs are evidence of God’s “eternal power and godhead.” (Rom. 1:20)

“The interpretations of the natural reason, made by the aid of abstract principles and brute facts” is again rejected on page 64. He further says

All too frequently our difficulty is needlessly enhanced in that those who affirm, and those who deny, employ in the defense of their positions such arguments as are constructed out of the idea of brute facts and abstract law. [Hepp is then held up as a bad example of this practice.]32

What are “brute facts,” and what is “abstract law?” The latter term can be denned more easily than the former. The laws of the multiplication tables, of abstract geometry, and of classical logic, are generally spoken of as abstract laws. “Two plus two equals four,” is a common and simple example. Are such laws to be regarded as external to God and superior to him, laws to which he is obliged to conform? The Christian answer must be “No.” God is supreme above all. Are these laws then to be regarded as created by his will and subject to his choice in such sense that it was purely indifferent to him whether he should call evil good or good evil, whether he should create a universe in which it was. good for one to bear false witness ‘against his neighbor, or not? To this question Van Til would reply in the affirmative, but the whole impact of the Bible, as illustrated by hundreds’ of proof texts appealing to God’s character, would answer in the negative. The laws of abstract truth are of the very character of God. When the Scripture declares (Heb. 6:18) that it is impossible for God to lie, and when Paul speaks of him as being “just and the justifier of the one who believes,” appeal is taken to his immutable, holy and true character which his will expresses, and which cannot conceivably be violated by any act of his.

What then are “brute facts?” The term simply means facts which we cannot see as directly derived from rational principles, but which are regarded as facts merely because they exist. Of course every Christian regards facts as the result of God’s act of creation. Can a Christian then regard any of the facts of creation as brute facts? The answer should be given in two stages, (1) there are certainly some facts which cannot be regarded as brute facts, but which must be regarded as inevitably derived from the very character of God himself. God must be holy, he must be true,—not by any outside compulsion but because of himself. Since God must be holy, he must hate sin, he must take the attitude of consuming wrath toward all which violates his holy character. God’s wrath against sin, then, is not a brute fact, but is a fact which is derived by the very nature of the truth itself in God, from the nature of holiness itself
in God.

(2) On the other hand, there are certain facts which must necessarily be regarded as free expressions of God’s will, not derived by any rational necessity or any other necessity from his character. One of these facts is creation. To regard the eternal God as under any necessity to create the universe would be a form of pantheism. His plan to create must be regarded as eternal. His act of creation must be regarded ‘as temporal and free. In the technical sense of the word, a “brute fact” is certainly not irrational. Neither is it rationalistic in the sense of being rationally necessitated. Creation as a fact must be regarded as a free act of God’s will, not contrary to, but not necessitated by the truth which characterizes his nature.

Another fact which must supremely be regarded as the result of God’s free will, and not in any sense necessitated, is the fact of salvation through Christ. “Of his mere good pleasure” not because of any rational necessity he chose to save a people. Grace is then, technically called a “brute fact” and through all eternity it will be more and more amazing to us that God should have chosen, of his own freedom, to save sinners through the sacrifice of Calvary.

Another fact which must be recognized as non-necessitated, is the very fact of God himself. God simply is an eternal Being, infinite and perfect in specified revealed attributes. One of the chief fallacies of Kant in discussing the doctrine of God, was his confusion of “necessary Being” with actual being. He should have perceived that if God exists by any necessity, then the necessity would seem to be at least logically prior to God. As Kant argues, there is no logical contradiction in conceiving of the existence of nothing at all. He should have reached the conclusion that God’s existence is not a necessity of reason, it is simply so. God is.

Now comes the question crucial to Professor Van Til’s presuppositionalism: If abstract laws are of the character of God, and if created facts are produced, or have been produced, ‘by the will of God, is it inconceivable that a lost sinner existing as a created fact might apprehend something of abstract truth, not knowing that it is derived from the character of God himself, might also apprehend certain brute facts in God’s creation, and might, for a time at least, have a certain limited area of truth in common with the redeemed from among men? The answer to this question will depend upon further study including topics presented below.

Professor Van Til’s Doctrine of Man :
Not Autonomous

Without defining what he means by the term autonomous, and without describing the characteristics distinctive of man as non-autonomous, Professor Van Til repeatedly declares against the notion that man is an autonomous being. He says

. . . the self-contained triune God of Christianity and the homo noumenon, the autonomous man of Immanuel Kant, cannot both be ultimate. 33

Judging from the use of the word noumenon in this sentence, autonomous man would mean man existing as a substantive entity as logically distinguishable from the phenomena by which he may be known, that is, man as an actually existing substantive entity. But what does Van Til mean by the word “ultimate”? I do not think he means eternal or uncreated. Certainly God the creator and man uncreated could not both be believed in. The language is ambiguous. But I think Professor Van Til means by ultimate, that which holds an actual status as a substantive entity in existence. I am afraid Professor Van Til’s doctrine of creation is a mere non-temporal mental act of God which does not give substantive ontological status to the thing created, other than the thought of God itself.

The notion of autonomous man is rejected again on the following page in connection with the ideas of brute fact and impersonal law, and on the next following page we read

Rome is willing, in what it calls the field of Reason, to employ the ideas of brute fact, of abstract impersonal law and autonomous man, not merely for argument’s sake, but without qualification.34

But what is the meaning of the word “autonomous?” It comes from two Greek words, autos and nomos, and is generally applied to a self-governing people having the right to make laws to govern themselves. Fortunately the Scripture discusses the question whether man is autonomous and whether he ought to be autonomous. The Christian ideal is found in I Corinthians 9:21, “To those without the law I became as without law, not being without the law of God, but within the law of Christ, so that I shall win those who are without law.” Those who have not been instructed by the revealed law of God in the Scripture are referred to in Romans 2:14, “When the Gentiles not having law performed by nature the things of the law, these not having law are law for themselves; they display the works of the law .written in their hearts. . . .” This would seem to amount to a specific declaration that in God’s view of things created man is endowed with a certain kind and degree of autonomy. This does not mean independence of God in any sense of the word. A mother holding a rebellious infant in her arms supports and sustains his every motion and action of kicking, slapping and screaming. All the leverage of the movement of the infant’s limbs is based and braced upon the mother’s arms and body. The mother is properly administering admonition and discipline at the same time. Nevertheless, the actions of the infant in his own mother’s arms are in a measure and to a degree definitely autonomous.

Professor Van Til’s denial of the autonomous character of man as a creature of God is, it seems to me, logically related to his statement quoted above, making God the ultimate cause of sinful actions.

Closely connected with the denial of the autonomous character of created man, is Van Til’s platonic realism exhibited in his references to the doctrine of original sin. He says of humanity
since the fall

Yet they do exist. They exist in Adam as their common representative.35

And it was mankind, not some individual elect or reprobate person, that sinned against God. Thus it was mankind in general which was under the favor of God, that came under the wrath of God.36

This realistic theory (realistic in the platonic sense of the reality of ideas, not in the creationist dualistic sense of the reality of created substantive entities) is discussed by Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 216ff. It was the view of Jonathan Edwards, and, as Hodge clearly shows, must be rejected as based upon non-Scriptural speculation. I sinned in Adam not by any means in the sense that I existed in Adam, certainly not in the sense that Adam was not a specific individual but mankind in general. Such notion is platonism indeed! I sinned in Adam specifically and precisely because he, an individual, represented me,— stood as the federal and representative head of all mankind in this original act of sin.

I sinned in Adam in precisely the same sense in which I died for my sins in Christ. Certainly the atonement does not mean that I existed in Christ, or that he was other than a specific individual, namely, the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, God manifest in the flesh. I died in Christ specifically and definitely because he is my Substitute, my Representative, the federal or covenant Head of the redeemed. Federal theology, or covenant theology, is based upon the representative principle which is logically ruled out when Platonic realism is applied to original sin,— ruled out when distinct individual created identity and a measure of genuine created autonomy is denied to individual men.

The reader should recall the extreme statement quoted from Van Til’s page 94, “. . . we have . . . cut ourselves loose once and for all from correlativism between God and man.” Putting these thoughts together, we have the outlines of a very unpleasant picture in which man is denied the distinctive created otherness and that measure of genuine autonomy ascribed to him in the Scriptures. There is no correlativity between God and man. For God, thought and reality are identical, therefore man’s being is merely Platonic, merely the being of a thought in the mind of God and nothing more.

Generalities Too Broad

One of the weaknesses of Professor Van Til’s work is a tendency to speak of the unsaved in general terms, which when carefully analyzed, are obviously too broad. For example, he says, “Current methodology assumes the non-createdness of all the facts of the universe; it assumes the ultimacy of change.” Op. 2) There is a large element in modern society of which this statement is true, but also a large element to which the statement could not apply. Again we read, “But all agree, by implication at least, that it [the principle of individuation] is not to be found where the Christian finds it — in the counsel of God.” (p. 3) But I meet a great many people in the scholarly world and in other spheres of life who make no such negative assumption. Many of them simply do not know. Many others fundamentally believe in “the counsel of God” but are very indefinite about it and have not committed themselves, by faith, to it. A sentence almost identical with the above is found on page five. Again he says “This [reasoning from the highest concept] has been the process of all non-Christian thought.” (p. 8) But there is no one process which can be said to be the process of all non-Christian thought! Certainly not this process of the Greeks. “He [the Arminian] reasons abstractly, as all non-believing philosophy does.” (p. 28) But not quite all! “.. . there is no sinner who, unless regenerated, does not actually seek to interpret himself and the universe without God.” (p. 43) On the contrary, Paul was acquainted with some sinners who did not “seek” what Van Til says all sinners do, but who “seek after God if haply they might find him.” True, such seeking is prompted by the Holy Spirit and is not of the unaided natural man. Nevertheless it is a fact in the life of sinners.

There are passages, particularly toward the end of the book, in which Van Til recognizes that the mass of mankind in general are as yet undifferentiated. However, the tendency to broad-sweeping generalization about the state of “all lost men” is a definite weakness in the book.

Psychology and Epistemology

Of course there is a difference between the science of psychology and that branch of philosophy which treats of the theory of knowledge, epistemology. Van Til, however, repeatedly seeks to distinguish these two terms in a manner quite unjustifiable. He says, “If there be such a thing as ‘common notions,’ psychologically speaking, it does not follow that there are such things as ‘common notions,’ epistemologically speaking.” (p. 52) The same spurious distinction is made on pages 53, 54, 56, 58, 62, 86, etc. Psychology and epistemology overlap in certain areas. I should challenge Professor Van Til to show that any other competent writer in the field of epistemology would refuse to recognize “common notions” of any kind as data within the field of epistemology.

The Question of Common Ground

One of the most striking facts in the book now under consideration is the clear evidence that Kuyper, Bavinck and Hepp do not agree with Van Til in his denial of common ground of knowledge between the Christian evangelist and the unsaved.

These three great names represent a magnificent heritage in the reformed faith. I have for some time been collecting data which seemed to me to indicate that these great reformed theologians are not in agreement with Professor Van Til. I do not read the Dutch language. Thus a large part of the writing of these men is not directly available to me. I am very thankful to Professor Van Til for his discussion of their writings. He has now made it perfectly clear that his peculiar denial of common ground of knowledge is not supported by this, perhaps the best and strongest recent tradition within Reformed theology.

Van Til’s most extensive discussion of ‘the views of these three great men is prefaced by a paragraph on “the danger of abstract thinking.” He says

It would seem to be obvious that if we are to avoid thinking abstractly on the common grace problem, we must seek to avoid thinking abstractly in the whole of our theological and philosophical effort. Perhaps the first question we should ask ourselves is whether the Kuyper – Bavinck form of theological statement . . . does not, to some extent at least, suffer from the disease of abstraction. … in the epistemology of Kuyper, Bavinck, and Hepp, there are remnants of an abstract way of thinking that we shall need to guard against.37

Kuyper speaks of facts and laws or particulars and universals. The former correspond to our perception and the latter to our ratiocination (Encyclopaedic der Heilige God-geleerdheid, Vol. II, p. 21, note). Kuyper says that the whole of our ratiocinative process is exhausted by its concern for the universals (Ibid., p. 21. … The ratiocinative process, argues Kuyper, deals with concepts only. That is to say it deals with universals only.38  [Of this abstract reasoning Van Til says] Here Platonism is in evidence.

I scarcely can believe my eyes as I read these particular opinions of a man whom I know to be competent in philosophy and theology. How could he for one moment speak of abstract thinking as an evil. Surely he knows that “being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth” are all abstract nouns and that these are attributes of God revealed in the Scripture. Whereas of course not all psychologists would agree with Kuyper’s distinction between perception and the higher processes of reasoning,—some would subdivide the data in other ways,— yet who could think of denying that reasoning processes require abstractions. No one could purchase potatoes in the grocery without the use of numbers, but numbers are abstractions,—numbers are not potatoes. If there were such a word as “potatohood” it would be an abstraction in ordinary vocabulary, even though in Hegelian terminology it would be a “concrete universal.”

What can Professor Van Til possibly mean by speaking of abstract thinking as an evil? I am afraid that I have discovered the answer, and I do not like it. The reader will remember that, for Van Til, Adam is not an individual but “mankind;” individually created men are not autonomous created beings. Now couple these considerations together with the thought that, for God, thought and being are “coterminous,” and, I am afraid that in Professor Van Til’s ontology nothing exists but what I call abstractions, nothing exists but God’s thoughts. The rational process of abstraction involves generally the concept of concrete autonomous created existences, eternally purposed by God, from which universal terms or class names are abstracted by us. For one who believes in the substantive existence of the created world as a product of the will of God, distinctly other than the thoughts of God, abstraction presents no difficulty, but for a Platonist abstraction is a painful process.

Of Kuyper’s views, Van Til says

If this position were carried through, our “systems” of interpretation would be approximations in the Platonic rather than the Christian sense of the word, our limiting concepts would he Kantian rather than Calvinistic, and our “as if” patterned after the Critique of Pure Reason, rather than after the Institutes.

But what are Christian “approximations.” Christian “limiting concepts”? Biblical statements of Christian truth are not approximations, they are not limiting concepts, they are truths pure and simple. The fact that no one statement contains all the truth in all the universe does not mean that it is not perfectly true in what it actually says. If a Christian has approximations and limiting concepts, they are mere temporary scaffolding in his progress toward better understanding. The Christian evangelist should not retain approximations, limiting concepts, paradoxes; he should seek to eliminate them as rapidly as possible. He does not preach in such terms. What he does not know, he does not proclaim “as if” it were true. What he does know is only a part of the truth, but it is a very essential part, and he proclaims it as truth and nothing less.

I have a very strong feeling that here and elsewhere Professor Van Til in calling “approximations” and “limiting concepts” and “as if”, calling these concepts “Christian” and “Calvinistic” is very much like the Roman Catholic process of calling heathen idols by the names of Christian saints. An idol is an idol just the same, and these concepts if retained, if regarded as permanent, if used to describe such fundamentals as the doctrine of the Trinity most of all, are pagan concepts, no matter how much Christian or Calvinistic protestation may be made about them.

Van Til quotes Kuyper as saying

Our thinking is wholly and exclusively adapted to these (highest) relations, and ‘these relations are the objectification of our thoughts” (Ibid, [i. e. Encyclopaedie] p. 23). All this is still Platonic. It is more than that: it is Kantian.39

Kuyper is speaking of abstract thought which is not a matter “as if” but a matter of accurate precision and truthfulness. Kuyper is right. It is Van Til who is Platonic, and not Kuyper.

But what could the word mean, “It is more than Platonic. It is Kantian”? Kant does not lie beyond Plato in the direction under discussion. I am afraid our good brother has lost his sense of direction in this passage and is using Kant and Plato as not much more than mere bad names with very little specific content.

After chiding Kuyper for not regarding the distinction between the perception and higher reasoning processes as a mere limiting concept, Van Til adds

And there is evidence that indicates a lack of clarity in Kuyper’s thought as to the distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian notion of the limiting concept.40

No, it is not Kuyper who exhibits “lack of clarity.” Van Til’s “distinction” is a “distinction without a difference.” The notion of the limiting concept as Van Til uses it is a wholly pagan and not a Christian notion. Van Til continues

Kuyper has not made a clear distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian ideal of knowledge.41

This is a frank and clear declaration. Kuyper does not agree with Van Til in denying common ground of knowledge, thank the Lord! This disagreement of Kuyper’s is indicated further. Van Til says

[Kuyper] seems to be uncertain in his mind as to what is common to the believer and the non-believer . . . he is unwilling to draw a straight line of demarcation between the Christian and the non-Christian methodology of science. . . . Says Kuyper: “To observe bacteria and microbes is in itself as little a matter of scientific interpretation as to observe horses and cows in a pasture.” (Ibid., [Encyclopeadie] p. 81) We may readily allow the validity of this point. … he speaks with the German philosophers of the natural and spiritual sciences, . . .Ponderabilia and . . . intangibles. We may readily allow a certain validity to this distinction too, but it is with Kuyper’s view of these distinctions that our difficulty begins. He seems to use these distinctions for the defense of his contention that there is an area of interpretation where the difference between those who build, and those who do not build, on the fact of regeneration need not and cannot be made to count. . . . there is “a very broad territory where the difference between the two groups has no significance” (Ibid [Encyclopeadie]p. 104). As a reason for this, Kuyper offers the fact that regeneration does not change our senses nor the appearance of the world about us. He therefore feels justified in concluding that the whole area of the more primitive observation, which limits itself to measuring, weighing and counting is common to both. “The whole field of empirical research by means of our senses (aided or unaided) on observable objects “falls beyond the principal difference that separates the two groups.” (Ibid., [Encyclopeadie]p. 104)

As a second area, and where the difference need not appear, Kuyper mentions the lower aspects of spiritual sciences. . . . Finally Kuyper speaks of a third territory that all have in common, namely that of logic. “There is not a twofold but only one logic” (Ibid., [Encyclopeadie]p. 107) This allows, he says, for formal interaction between the two groups of interpreters.

On the ground of these three common territories, Kuyper makes the following generalization: “As a result all scientific research that deals with the ‘orata, [visible things] only or is carried on only by those subjective elements which did not undergo a change, remains, common to both. At the beginning of the road the tree of science is common to all.” (Ibid., [Encyclopeadie]p. 116)43

The reader may be interested in tracing out the ways in which Van Til tries to prove Kuyper wrong in upholding this doctrine of common ground of knowledge. In my judgment Van Til does not succeed in the least. Kuyper was thoroughly sound, thoroughly Scriptural, thoroughly Calvinistic in his position.

Equally convincing evidence is presented by Van Til to show that Bavinck and Hepp held to the doctrine of the common ground of knowledge. The material cannot be treated as fully as in the case of Kuyper, since this article is already entirely too long. Van Til says

When Hepp deals with the theistic proofs he, like Bavinck, attributes a certain value to them. Even when they are constructed along non-Christian lines. Hepp says that Kant underestimated the value of these arguments. In his whole discussion of the proofs Hepp allows that an argument based upon would-be neutral ground can have a certain validity. Of these proofs constructed on a neutral and therefore a non-Christian basis, Hepp says that they cry day and night that Cod exists. (Ibid., [Hepp, Testimonium Spiritas Sancti]p. 15344

Apart from passages in which Professor Van Til presents the opinions of Kuyper, Bavinck and Hepp, 1 have made notations upon fifteen passages in which Professor Van Til expresses his own opinion. They are found on pages 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 12, 24, 25, 27f, 29, 43, 49, 63, 85, 94. It’ will obviously be impossible to give extended remarks upon each of these passages. Special attention will be called to only a few. For example

It is sometimes suggested that though there is a basic difference between the Christian and the non-Christian explanation, there is no such difference in mere description of facts. With this we cannot agree.45
We conclude then that when both parties, the believer and the non-believer, are epistemologically self-conscious and as such engaged in the interpretative enterprise, they cannot be said to have any fact, in common. On the other hand, it must be asserted that they have every fact in common. Both deal with the same God and with the same universe created by God. Both are made in the image of God. In short, they have the metaphysical situation in common. Metaphysically, both parties have all things in common, while epistemologically they have nothing in common.46

This distinction between metaphysical truth and epistemological truth is again a distinction without a difference. Any truth or supposed truth, by common usage, should be regarded as within the province of epistemology. Metaphysics (ontology) views the truth from the point of view of the question of its actual existence; epistemology views the truth from the point of view of the theory of knowledge. But the truth is one. If, as Van Til says, when an unbeliever says to a believer, “I see a red cow,” the red cow is metaphysically common to both parties but epistemologically not so, what have we here but a doctrine of double truth? The doctrine of double truth is radically contrary to Christian theology. It belongs in the category of Hegelian dialectic, Ritschlian value judgment, Barthian dialectic, etc. To claim that we have a Christian doctrine of double truth is like claiming that we have set up a Christian idol.

If the believer and the unbeliever have the metaphysical situation in common” then they have in common whatever they know about the metaphysical situation. Neither knows it all. Either may be incorrect. Either may be colorblind; but whatever they do know, fragmentary as it may be, about the metaphysical situation, they know, and whatever they know in common, they know in common epistemologically.

Van Til further says

We argue that unless we may hold to the presupposition of the self-contained ontological trinity, human rationality itself is a mirage.47

Now, of course, it is true that if one denies the ontological trinity, and if he consistently carries out this denial, to all its possible implications, he will deny the fact in history of the incarnation and so he will deny the laws of historical evidence, and so he will deny all laws of evidence, and so he will deny everything. But what human being is consistent in all of his truths or in all of his errors? ‘What human being is perfectly consistent in any truth or any error? There are multitudes of unsaved people who neither affirm nor deny the ontological trinity, who are simply lost. Shall we then say that the simple truths which may come to (heir attention and which may be accepted, the truths of the physical sciences or of daily mechanical operations, are false, merely because if they should come to deny, what they as yet do not know, and if they should be perfectly consistent in that denial, they would deny the truths which they daily affirm? Such a position would completely destroy all Christian truths. There were Christian men in the time of Columbus who denied that the world is round. If they had been perfectly consistent in their denial and had carried it out to all possible lengths, they would have denied all the laws of evidence in the physical universe, and so they would have denied the creation of God, and they would have denied God Himself. Could these men have no knowledge whatsoever merely because they did not believe that the world was round?

Van Til however says

For both the Roman Catholic and the Arminian it is a foregone conclusion that there are large areas of life on which the believer and the unbeliever agree without any difference.48

Van Til speaks his approval of Schilder who “quite rightly attacks the idea of a territory that is common to believer and non-believer without qualification,” “the popular notion of common grace as offering <a neutral field of operation between Christians and non-Christians.”49

He criticizes Hoeksema for his “failure to distinguish between Christian and non-Christian logic.” And he holds that we must accept only “a genuinely Christian-theistic logic.”50

As I have indicated above, merely because the non-Christian does not see that the laws of logic are necessarily derived from the very character of God, who is the truth, therefore the laws of logic are different, or there is a different logic, for the unbeliever. He continues, “The Arminian has not seen the necessity of challenging the idea of a neutral logic.”51 And further, “. . . it is, we believe, the use of an essentially neutral logic that leads Hoeksema . . .” into (what Van Til considers) an error.52

I have shown above that Professor Van Til is not in harmony with the best Calvinistic tradition of Holland. The following statement is equally surprising.

This position of Bavinck, [the common ground of certain areas of knowledge] it will be noted, is very similar to the old Princeton position, and both are very similar to the scholastic position. There are differences in degree between these three positions, but they agree in holding that all reasoning about Christian theism must be done on “common” ground.53

The word “all” is certainly unjustifiable, as applied to any one of these three positions described. Certainly the scholastics from their point of view, and certainly Charles Hodge from his point of view, denied that all reasoning about Christian theism must be done on common ground. However, the view that some reasoning about Christian theism may be done on common ground is certainly common to the vast majority of Bible believing Christians of simple faith down through all the centuries.

It is worthy of note that Professor Van Til sets himself in opposition to the old Princeton position. That is of course not the present Princeton position of neo-orthodoxy or neo-Barthianism, but the position of Hodge, Warfield, Wilson, and Machen. The last mentioned Christian scholar was the great leader whom Van Til and others followed a few years ago, in protest against modernism and unbelief. There are many examples found in the writings of Machen showing that he regarded the common ground of knowledge as essential to the evangelistic activities of the Church. Machen’s position is quite accurately represented in the words of Professor John Murray quoted near the beginning of this article.

Professor Van Til himself is not perfectly consistent in his denial of common ground of knowledge. He says of the lost man

. . . deep down in his heart he is still aware of this revelation and will be held responsible for it.54

But he goes straight on in the immediate context to say

There are no capita communissima, on which believers and non-believers can agree without a difference. There are no central truths on which all agree. The disagreement is fundamental and goes to the heart of the matter.55

There is no single territory or dimension in which believers and non-believers have all things wholly in common. As noted above, even the description of facts in the lowest dimension presupposes a system of metaphysics and epistemology. So there can be no neutral territory of cooperation.56

That the non-Christian may present a plausible view of nature is quite true. That it is impossible to convince any non-Christian of the truth of the Christian position, as long as he reasons on non-Christian assumptions, is also true.57

This last quoted sentence I think gives the key to Professor Van Til’s negative position in regard to common ground. Non-Christian presuppositions to him seem to mean the absolute denial of God, and the logical carrying out of all possible implications of such denial. To this I would reply (1) very few if any individuals, and very few if any systems of thought adhered to by unbelievers are consistent. In the vast majority of cases, if not in all cases, the unbelievers, and the unbelieving systems of thought with which we have to deal, contain inconsistencies which involve the acceptance of part of theistic truth. If we deny the truth of these broken fragments in non-Christian individuals and in non-Christian systems, we should also deny the truth of fragments adhered to by Christians themselves, for no Christian is perfectly consistent in all his thinking; no formulation of Christian doctrine outside of the Bible is perfectly correct in all particulars. A Christian has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and Lord. A non-Christian has not so accepted him. The Christian may inconsistently adhere to fragmentary error in spite of his adherence to the essentials of truth. The non-Christian may most certainly adhere to fragments of the truth in spite of his non-adherence to the essentials of the truth of the Gospel.

(2) Another remark to be made at this point, a remark so obvious that it seems hardly necessary, and yet a remark which, I think, goes to the heart of the difficulty; that is, that in a stark contradiction the contradictory propositions must contain common terms. The man who with more or less consistency declares, “There is no God,” and the Christian who confidently declares, “God is my Redeemer” cannot be even construed as contradicting one another unless there is a common ground in the common terms employed in both propositions. Unbelief has no meaning unless there is some common ground which the unbeliever and the believer may occupy at the same time and in the same sense.
To summarize, the Presuppositional philosophy of Professor Van Til frankly admits that it is self-contradictory upon the standards of secular logic, and that, in so basic a matter as the doctrine of the trinity. It frankly parts company in its essential position with the greatest Calvinistic traditions in Holland and in America, the traditions represented by Abraham Kuyper and the old Princeton theologians. It does not hesitate to make declarations flatly contradictory to the Westminster Confession of Faith. It does not hesitate to make declarations flatly contradictory to the Bible. It is strongly characterized by anti-Biblical Hegelian dialectic terminology and concepts;

In conclusion may I urge the readers of The Bible Today not to be impatient with the length of this discussion. The doctrine of common ground is not the Gospel, but it is, in my judgment, essential for the propagation of the Gospel, essential if evangelism is to proceed; and evangelism is the business of the church until our. Lord’s return.

CORRECTION in the article by Rev. Francis A. Schaeffer which appeared in the October Bible Today, page 7, column 2, line 16: the words “avowed explanation” should have read “a valid explanation.”


*Common Grace by Cornelius Van Til, Th.M., Ph.D., Professor of Apologetics in Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1947, viii plus 95 pages. $1.25.1 Professor Van Til in the book here reviewed does not make the distinction (a distinction which seems to me a mere quibble) between the “system” of unbelieving thought, and unbelieving thought not designated by the word “system”. If it is insisted, contrary to all common usage, that the word “system” can be used only to designate perfectly coherent integration of thought, without the slightest contradiction in it, it would still remain true that the atheistic proposition, “The material universe is uncreated”, would have certain intelligible elements in common with the contradictory Christian proposition, “The material universe is created”. No two propositions could be contradictory if they did not have certain terms and meanings in common. As a matter of fact, however, whenever we wish to indicate that a “system” of thought is perfectly consistent with itself, as the “system of doctrine” taught in the Scripture is, we are obliged to add adjectival elements. The Cartesian philosophy is a remarkable “system” but is not perfectly consistent. The “system of doctrine” taught in the infallible Word of God is perfectly consistent, not because it may be designated by the word “system” but because the Word of God itself is infallible.
2Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. V, No. 1, p. 24 f., italics not in the original.

3See my review in The Bible Today, October 1946.

4Common Grace, p. 9.

5 See his Systematic Theology, Vol. 11, p. 46.

6The Christian View of God and the World, p. 271.

7 Ibid. p. 10.

8Westminster Confession, Chapter 11.1, Paragraphs I and VII.

Ibid. p. 27.

Ibid. p. 67.

11 Ibid., p. 66.

Ibid., p. 78.

13Westminster Confession, Chapter III, Paragraph I.

14 Van Til, p. 74.

15 Ibid., p. 8, italics not in original.

Ibid., p. 64, italics not in original.

17 Ibid., p. 11.

Ibid., p. 28.

Ibid., p. 38.

20 Ibid., p. 43.

Ibid., p. 69.

Ibid., p. 71.

Ibid., p. 78.

24 “ The idea of limiting concept or analogical thinking, is also similarly discussed on pp. 9, 26, 87, 78, 83, 84.

25 Ibid., p. 5.

26 Ibid., p. 4.
27 Ibid., p. 3.

28 Sir Arthur Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science, Macmillan 1939, p. 17.

29 Vol. V, No. 1., p. 92.

30Ibid., p. 52.

31Common Grace, p. 61.

32 Ibid., p. 75.

33 Ibid., p. 5.

34 Ibid., p. 7. The idea of “would-be autonomous man” is further rejected on pp. 39 and 46.

35 Ibid., p. 72.

36 Ibid., p. 74.

37 Ibid., p. 84.

38 Ibid., p. 38.

39 Ibid., p. 86.

Ibid., p. 88.

Ibid., p. 39.

42 Ibid., p. 40f.

43 Ibid., p. 42.

44 Ibid., p. 61.

45 Ibid., p. 3.

Ibid., p. 5.

47Ibid., p. 9.

48 Ibid., p. 12.

Ibid., pp. 24f.

Ibid., p. 27.

51 Ibid., p. 28.

Ibid., p. 29.

Ibid., p. 40.

54 Ibid., p. 63.

Ibid., p. 63.

Ibid., p. 85.

Ibid., p. 94.

Series Articles :
1. Buswell, J. Oliver, Jr., “The Arguments from Nature to God: Presuppositionalism and Thomas Aquinas—A Book Review with Excursions,” The Bible Today 41.8 (May 1948): 235-248.
2. Schaeffer, Francis A., “A Review of a Review,” The Bible Today 42.1 (October 1948): 7-9.
3. Buswell, J. Oliver, Jr., “The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.2 (November 1948): 41-64.
4. Young, G. Douglas, “Dr. Young’s Letter”, The Bible Today 42.2 (November 1948): 65.
5. Buswell, J. Oliver, Jr., “Warfield vs. Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.6 (March 1949): 182-192.
6. Van Til, Cornelius, “Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.7 (April 1949): 218-228.
7. Anonymous, “Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42.8 (May 1949): 261.
8. Van Til, Cornelius, “Presuppositionalism Concluded,” The Bible Today 42.9 (June-September 1949): 278-290.


2 thoughts on “The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism

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