Van Til’s Presuppositionalism, Part III: The “Presupposed” God

We saw in Part II of this series that Van Til’s presuppositionalist system of apologetics begins its arguments by assuming that neither existence nor human knowledge nor human predication (making truth statements) are justifiable apart from the assumption of the existence of the Christian God.

III. The “Presupposed” God

The heart of the Van Tillian presuppositionalist apologetic method is “the indirect method,” or, as it is also called, “reasoning by presupposition” or “the transcendental argument.” This method of apologetics focuses on the question “What conditions must be fulfilled for knowledge to be possible?” Misunderstandings of this principle of Van Til’s abound, and it may be best to get at its real meaning by first discussing meanings which, when attributed to Van Til are wrong, or else which are legitimately defined differently as parts of other apologetics systems. Here John Frame provides us with a helpful catalog.:”(Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1995], pp. 137-138.)”: One wrong view of “presupposition” is that it is an arbitrarily chosen belief with no rational support, a naked assumption. Another wrong view is that the “pre” in “presupposition” means that the belief must be held at a point in time “before” all other beliefs. A third view, held as part of a different system than Van Til’s, is that a “presupposition” is a mere hypothesis which may be falsified by examination of data.

Against all these meanings, it is interesting to note that Van Til himself did not apply the term “presuppositionalism” to his system, but occasionally accepted it from others who were critiquing his position.:”(Ibid., pg. 131.)”: For Van Til the word “presupposition” refers, in Frame’s words, to “the role that divine revelation ought to play in human thought.” It is an implicit recognition of the truth of God’s existence and the fact of His communication with man, not an explicit one.:”(Ibid., pg. 136.)”: A “presupposition” for Van Til is a man’s ultimate commitment, the supreme authority which the person recognizes, to which he adheres finally, and which governs his life. A “presupposition” is not a man’s proximate starting point, but his ultimate starting point. His proximate starting point might be his own self-consciousness, but his ultimate starting point, whether he explicitly admits it or not, is the God who made him a self-conscious being in the first place.:”(Ibid., pp. 138-139.)”:

Having defined what a “presupposition” is, we must now look at the Van Tillian presuppositional argument form. As noted earlier, Van Til will have none of a “generic theism,” but insists that the Christian defend the very specific sort of theism which is outlined in the Bible and most consistently expressed by the Reformed Protestant faith. Van Til takes it that the basic Christian doctrine of God’s aseity (self-existence) necessarily entails the Reformed interpretation of God’s sovereignty. He writes that “God’s knowledge of the facts comes first. God knows or interprets the facts before they are facts. It is God’s plan, God’s comprehensive interpretation of the facts that makes the facts what they are.”:”(Christian Apologetics [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976, pg. 7, emphasis in original.)”:

Because God is self-sufficient, His knowledge both of Himself and His creation is self-sufficient – and all-governing: “God wills, that is, creates the universe. God wills, that is, by his providence controls the course of development of the created universe and brings it to its climax…Whatever God wills with respect to the created universe is a means to what he wills with respect to himself.”:”(Ibid.)”: Metaphysically, God seeks his own glory, and in seeking it, He obtains it. “No creature can detract from his glory; all creatures, willingly or unwillingly, add to his glory.”:”(Ibid., emphasis in original.)”:

Because God is “self-contained” there is no concept of “being as being” either logically or metaphysically prior to Him. This metaphysical truth spills over into epistemology. Just as there is no appeal to a “generic being” prior to God, there is no appeal to a logic or knowledge prior to God. God is not subject to logic, such that logic can dictate what He can or cannot do – to assume this is to imply that “truth is not made ultimately to consist in correspondence to the internally self-complete nature and knowledge that God has of himself and of all created reality.” There is no such thing as “Truth in abstract,” because such a thing would mean that God was not self-contained, but was accountable to something outside of Himself.:”(Ibid., pg. 10.)”: Epistemologically, then, man can only truly know things when he presupposes (remember the definition of this word!) the self-contained ontological Trinity who alone interpreted everything for him before he was even made. It is in the Fall of man in the Garden that we see man attempting to epistemologically be his own standard of truth, determining truth apart from what God has sovereignly said.:”(Ibid., pp. 10-11.)”:

What is true for metaphysics and epistemology is also true for ethics: “On the question of ethics the doctrine of the self-contained God implies that God’s will is the final and exclusively determinative power of whatsoever comes to pass….All force in the created universe acts in accordance with the forthputting of the power of God that is back of it.”:”(Ibid., pg. 11.)”: At first this may look like general Christian belief, but Van Til takes pains to make it distinctively Reformed. He continues, speaking of the will of man, “The controlling and directing power of his will would be the will of God…It is the ultimate will or plan of the self-determinate God that gives determinate character to anything that is done by the human will.” Whether man obeys or disobeys God, he wills nothing “except in a relation of subordination to the plan of God,” which was set out sovereignly by God before the creation itself.:”(Ibid., pg. 12.)”:

We see then that for Van Til “the biblical God” who is “presupposed” (again, remember the definition of this term!) is the God who is revealed in the Scriptures, which are most consistently interpreted by Reformed Protestantism. God does not “cooperate” with His creatures, as if there were a standard outside of Himself to which both He and His creatures are subject. Rather, God alone sets all the rules, defines all the ends, and ordains all the means. There can be no compromise for Van Til on this point: “This conception of God is the foundation of everything else that we hold dear. Unless we can believe in this sort of God it does us no good to be told that we may believe in any other sort of God or in anything else…Any other sort of God is no God at all and to prove that some other sort of God exists is to prove that no God exists.”:”(Ibid., pg. 14, emphasis in original.)”:

For Van Til, this approach is required by Scripture, which depicts God as a Person who is not subject to anything outside of Himself. If logic or goodness, to take two perennial examples, were standards with existence outside of God, God would be subject to “abstract principles,” and it would actually be those abstractions that deserved the name “God.” Ultimate reality would then be impersonal, but Scripture asserts otherwise. If ultimate reality were impersonal, human personality would have no ground – hence, the presupposition of the biblical God grounds human personality. God must be “absolute person” if He is to be really God, and as absolute person He is absolutely sovereign. The only alternative to this that Van Til sees is a universe governed by impersonal fate.:”(See Frame’s discussion of this in Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, pp. 53-61.)”: This is one significant reason why he is so adamant that Roman Catholic and Arminian conceptions of God fall far short of the biblical picture, and do not provide adequate presuppositional justification for existence, knowledge, and ethics.

In the next part, we will begin to look at Van Til’s “indirect method” of apologetic argument.


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