Norman Geisler has an entry on Cornelius Van Til in his 'Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics" This is a critique by Greg Welty Here's an outline of Geisler's eight-page entry on 'Cornelius Van Til': Biographical Details [I. Philosophy of Apologetics] [I.A. 'Traditional' Apologetics] [I.B. Christian and Non-Christian Together] [I.C. A Consistently Apologetic Method] [II. Revelational Presuppositionalism] [II.A Rejection of Classical Apologetics] [II.B Van Til's Apologetic Method] [II.B.1 The method of implication] [II.B.2 Reasoning by presupposition] [II.B.3 Indirect method] [II.B.4 External and internal method] [II.B.5 Transcendental] [II.B.6 The reductio ad absurdum method] [III. Key Concepts] [III.A God's Sovereignty] [III.B Common Ground] [III.C Brute Facts] [III.D Human Depravity] [III.E Analogy and Paradox] [IV. Evaluation] [IV.A Positive Contributions] [IV.B Negatives in Van Til's Apologetics] [V. Sources] ----------------------- Now, Geisler has a definite gift for organising and presenting historical evidences for the Christian faith, for analysing the concept of miracle, and for exposing the internal weaknesses of alternatives to Christianity. He is also one of the few evangelicals to appreciate the work of Thomas Aquinas. And perhaps, in the end, this encyclopedia will prove its strength in precisely that way. For that the church should be thankful for the recent production of this volume. However, Geisler's entry on 'Cornelius Van Til' only stops short of being pure, unadulterated horror. Here are my comments on some of the sections I've outlined above. Keep in mind that while the entire entry is eight pages long, most of the 'sections' are only one or two paragraphs at most... ... except for 'Negatives in Van Til's Apologetics,' which runs on for four pages straight! ---------------------------- Biographical details Here Geisler informs us about 'two undated works.' One is _Why I Believe in God_, but Geisler never gets around to telling us about the other work! The sentence ends abruptly; poor editing, at the very least :) [II.B Van Til's Apologetic Method] [II.B.4 External and internal method] Geisler's article relies heavily upon Frame's _Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought_ (CVT:AAT) in its positive exposition of VT's views. Unfortunately, Geisler often quotes Frame's *summaries* of VT's method, and then explicitly *attributes them to* VT! Case in point is this section: 'Van Til's apologetic method is both external and internal. He argues: ...', and what immediately follows is an extended quote, not from VT, but from Frame's exposition of VT. Now, while I believe the Frame quote is a good summary of VT's strategy, it is very misleading for Geisler to quote Frame *as* VT. It happens again and again. [IV. Evaluation] [IV.A Positive Contributions] Here there are some surprising defences of VT from misunderstanding: 'Van Til defended the formal laws of logic in principle and practice. He believed the laws of logic were the same for both the Creator and creatures. However, formally because of sin they are not understood or applied in the same way. He was not an irrationalist.' 'There are certainly rationally necessary preconditions for meaning, and they do, as Van Til argued, demand that we posit the existence of a theistic God.' [we'll pass over for the time being the redundancy of 'theistic God' :) ] 'Often overlooked by nonpresuppositionalists is the practical value of a presuppositional approach. Non-Christians do implicitly (and even unconsciously) presuppose the basic principles of a theistic worldview in order to make sense out of the world. Pointing this out debunks their world view and invites them to consider the positive value of the Christian worldview. No doubt Schaeffer's effectiveness in doing this is a result of his study under Van Til.' [IV.B Negatives in Van Til's Apologetics] Here Geisler admits that many criticisms of VT are based upon misunderstanding. Geisler also follows many of Frame's criticisms of VT's methodology, as Frame laid these out in CVT:AAT. These include the points that all apologetic argument must not fit one pattern, that transcendental argument may be supplemented by more traditional argument, the difference between transcendental goal vs. transcendental conclusion, issues concerning probability vs. certainty, and the identification of VT's extreme antithetical formulations of the noetic effects of sin. Geisler follows Frame in holding that VT's 'indirect' argument for Christian theism can be 'stated in a positive form.' Thus, we can construe VT's indirect argument: 1. If God does not exist, the world is unintelligible. (if ~G, then ~I) 2. God does not exist. (~G) 3. Therefore, the world is unintelligible. (~I) as convertible to a 'positive' argument: 1. If the world is intelligible, God exists. (if I, then G) 2. The world is intelligible. (I) 3. Therefore, God exists. (G) However, (in what may be one of my only public criticisms of Frame!), I believe that in this instance Frame (and therefore Geisler) are wrong, and that on two counts. First, the 'indirect' argument above still does not capture the content of a transcendental argument. For starters, it does not have a modal scope that ranges over all possibilities, but only states that God *is* an explanation for the intelligibility of the universe. Second, the two arguments above are *not* convertible into each other. They have different premises, with different semantic content. The premise that 'the world is intelligible' is found in the second argument, not the first. The first argument is a reductio ad absurdum, in the sense that 'God does not exist' is the premise assumed for the sake of argument, and which then is shown to lead to the (absurd) conclusion that the universe is unintelligible. But the second argument is not a reductio ad absurdum in any sense. If reductio ad absurdums are simply 'convertible' to a direct argument, one wonders why they have persisted over millennia as a distinct argument form. Geisler concludes: 'Van Til's protests to the contrary, he cannot avoid giving a positive apologetic argument. This being the case, much of Van Til's steam against classical apologetics evaporates.' I disagree. The reason why 'much of the steam' evaporates is *not* that transcendental arguments can be converted into traditional arguments, but that transcendental arguments are not the *only* kind of apologetic argument that can be mounted (within the confines of biblical orthodoxy) against the unbeliever . Later, Geisler repeats the old canard that: 'The basic difference between Van Til and Aquinas is that, while they both agree *ontologically* that all truth depends on God, Van Til fails to fully appreciate that finite man must ask *epistemologically* how we knows this [sic]. In this he confuses the order of *being* and the order of *knowing*.' VT addressed this charge long ago: 'Man's consciousness of self and of objects presuppose for their intelligibility the self-consciousness of God. In asserting this we are not thinking of psychological and temporal priority. We are thinking only of the question as to what is the final reference point in interpretation' (_Defense of the Faith_, 2nd ed., p. 77). If, according to Geisler, 'finite man' were to ask *epistemologically* how he knows that *ontologically* all truth depends on God, VT would have a ready answer: the transcendental argument from the impossibility of the contrary. And that is an answer within the realm of *epistemology*, with no confusion with ontology. It's too bad that Geisler did not avail himself of Frame's article on the Ligonier Apologetic, reprinted at the end of AGG. There Frame, in addressing the same 'order of being confused with order of knowing' charge, says: 'on Van Til's view, the self is the "proximate," but not the "ultimate" starting point [IST 203]. What this means, I think, is that it is the self which makes its decisions both in thought and practical life: every judgment we make, we make because we, ourselves, think it is right. But this fact does not entail that the self is its own ultimate criterion of truth. We are regularly faced with the decision as to whether we should trust our own unaided judgment, or rely on someone else. There is nothing odd or strange (let alone logically impossible) about such a question; it is entirely normal' (AGG 224-225). Frame goes on to point out that it is the *opponents* of VT who confuse the ontological with the epistemological. Critics like Geisler and the Ligonier group focus on the metaphysical/ontological/psychological question of whether all decisions are decisions of the self. But a 'yes' answer here (to which VT would agree) does not prejudice the answer to a completely distinct, epistemological question: *what standard* ought the self to use in coming to its decisions? VT kept these questions distinct. It is his opponents who don't seem to be able to tell the difference. Later, Geisler charges against VT that 'one cannot beg the question and merely presuppose the theistic God. Presuppositions cannot be arbitrary.' This completely overlooks, of course, VT's *many* arguments throughout his published work that the intelligibility of epistemic, scientific, and moral practices *depend* upon the obtaining of a Christian ontology (as this ontology is described by Christian presuppositions, that is, biblical teaching). VT's arguments for this dependence may be inconclusive or lead only to probable conclusions. But *no one* -- in light of the pervasiveness of these arguments throughout the VT corpus -- can adequately represent VT as 'merely presupposing' the 'theistic God,' or being 'arbitrary.' Geisler writes: 'How does Van Til know the Christian position is true? If Van Til answered, as he seems to in his writings, "Because it is the only truly rational view," perhaps Aquinas would reply, "That is what I believe. Welcome, dear brother, to the bimillennial club of rational theists." ' But this is an insult to Aquinas. If Tom had his wits about him, and had actually perused VT's works, he would have said, 'I'm glad we make the same *claim* about the rationality of the Christian position. But it seems that we are diametrically opposed in our view as to *how* we know the Christian position is rational.' VT and Aquinas belong in the same club insofar as they both affirm that the Christian position is rational. But it is to beg the question against Van Til (or at least to severely misrepresent him) to claim, *on the basis of* this common confession, that they *also* agree as to how this confession is shown to be true. Later, Geisler claims that: 'A common mistake of Reformed presuppositionalism is to equate the figure of speeh *dead* with the concept *annihilated*, a mistake which, fortunately, they do not make when speaking of the "second death" (Rev. 20:14).' However, Geisler attempts absolutely no documentation of this 'mistake,' with reference to VT or any other Reformed author. Instead he just attributes, apparently in general, 'this skewed view of the noetic effects of sin' to any and all presuppositionalists. Geisler's arguments against the Reformed exegesis of 1Co 2:14 ('the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God') amount to special pleading for the Arminian point of view. The lack of 'understanding' in question is, according to Geisler, a lack of knowing their truth 'by experience'! The noetic effects of sin are now reduced to the (trivial) point that the unbeliever isn't a Christian yet. Perhaps the worst part of Geisler's critique of VT is the lengthy section on VT's view of the Trinity. One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry when Geisler quotes John Robbins as a relevant authority on this topic. Geisler's basic fallacy is to argue in the following fashion: [P1] VT claims that 'God is not simply a unity of persons; he is *a* person.' [P2] VT 'never clearly differentiates between the two senses of the term *person*.' [C] Therefore, VT's formulation 'violates the law of noncontradiction.' Geisler tries to make the above argument more sophisticated than it sounds, but in the end this is his basic move/fallacy: because VT didn't *specify* the different senses of 'person,' therefore there *are* no senses to be specified. Geisler concludes his section on the Trinity: 'Van Til does not overlook the fact that he has not provided a real difference in the definition of the term "person" as used of "one person" and "three persons." He admits that "We may not always be able to show how two concepts can logically coexist." But unless a difference can be shown, Van Til has not avoided the charge of contradiction. For one cannot have both three and only one of the same subject (person).' Unfortunately, the VT quote in the above paragraph is really Frame's sentence, not VT, even though Geisler attributes it to VT. But no matter. For Geisler's conclusion still doesn't follow. The 'charge of contradiction' will only stick if VT asserted 'one person' and 'three person' in the same sense, which is precisely what VT denied. The most of what VT can be accused is apophatic use of terms, which is normal enough procedure in doing theology. No one should know this Thomistic point better than Geisler himself. Later, Geisler claims that VT's view 'leads to skepticism about God, since there is no point of actual identity between our knowledge and his.' Since Geisler leans so heavily on Frame's CVT:AAT throughout his article, it would have been helpful if Geisler had actually interacted with Frame's extended analysis of the issues involved in the 'Clark Controversy,' which was about 'identity of content' in VT. (Even Bahnsen says Frame's treatment is 'one which I highly recommend to readers interested in the matter,' VT:R&A 225 fn. 147.) Finally, Geisler argues that, because VT never argues for why the intelligibility of the world depends upon there being *three* persons in the Godhead (instead of two or four), *therefore* 'there are fideistic elements in Van Til's form of presuppositionalism.' If this is all Geisler can come up with, I suppose we shouldn't fault him too much. This final charge is quite scaled back compared to the one leveled against VT way back in Geisler's _Christian Apologetics_ (Baker, 1976), p. 38: 'Therein is the fideistic hitch in his [VT's] whole approach, for it would appear that the Bible is *assumed* to be true by an act of faith in its self-vindicating authority in an admittedly circular reasoning process. If that is the case, the "proofs" of God and historical "facts" of Christianity would have absolutely no meaning or validity outside the fideistic acceptance of the presupposition that Christianity is true.' It seems that in the past 23 years, Geisler has moved from seeing VT as an unrestricted fideist, to seeing him as having 'fideistic elements' due to an inability to argue why *three* persons of the Trinity are transcendentally necessary. We can be thankful that the degree of misrepresentation has been reduced by at least this much :) [V. Sources] Geisler's bibliography for this particular entry is woefully incomplete. While lack of a reference to Bahnsen's latest VT book (VT:R&A) is understandable (I'm sure this entry went to press before Bahnsen's book was printed), lack of a reference to Bahnsen's _Always Ready_ is inexcusable. The only Bahnsen book referenced is _By This Standard_! Also inexcusable is lack of reference to Frame's AGG, Pratt's _Every Thought Captive_, and Thom Notaro's _Van Til and the Use of Evidence_. None of these works even make it into Geisler's one-page entry on 'Presuppositional Apologetics'! How John Robbins' scurrilous and incompetent _Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth_ made it into [V. Sources], while these major works of exposition and application by Bahnsen, Frame, Pratt, and Notaro did not, is beyond my comprehension. To make matters worse, Bahnsen's essay on 'The Reformation of Christian Apologetics' is explicitly quoted in the text of the 'Cornelius Van Til' entry, but the volume from which it comes (Gary North's _Foundations of Christian Scholarship_) is never referenced in [V. Sources] at the end of the entry! The reader is left with no clue as to where this essay is to be found. And in the 'comprehensive' 29-page bibliography at the very end of the encyclopedia, there are *no* references to any works by Bahnsen, Frame, North, Notaro, Pratt, etc., even to the few works by Frame and Bahnsen which *are* referenced in the 'Cornelius Van Til' entry!
On Geisler’s entry on Van Til
February 9, 2009 by SLIMJIM