Subjectivism and Van Tillianism

Descartes rested ontology on epistemology – I am because I think. Kant came along a few centuries later and said that all our knowledge of the external world is constructed by our own subjectivity. This was what he described as his “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. In a post a few weeks ago I cited Van Tillian John Frame frankly admitting the Kantian moorings of Van Til’s project, even if as a reversal of the identity of the transcendental.

Although I haven’t got it all put together in my mind yet, it seems to me that by constructing Christian epistemology, theology, and apologetics in a Kantian framework, Van Til necessarily commits himself to a subjectivistic orientation. While it is true that he talks of the objective self-contained God who objectively interprets his own revelation for man, and of man who then analogically thinks God’s thoughts after Him, a deep subjectivism nevertheless appears again and again as the final answer to the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian.

For instance, in his discussion of general revelation in Christian Apologetics Van Til says that while general revelation is “historically sufficient” as the necessary contrast against which special revelation appears, and while it is “clear” in and of itself, nobody can truly be a theist unless he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Only Christians are real theists, and only the Holy Spirit working subjectively in a man’s heart can make him able to properly understand anything that God says. Interestingly, Van Til calls this subjective process of the Holy Spirit in a man’s heart a “Copernican revolution,” implicitly invoking Kantian categories (pg. 36). The objective world may be “out there,” but man only knows it via a subjectivistic process involving the mediating, shaping force of categories inside of him. Although as a matter of confession the Van Tillian constantly tells everyone he relies solely on the objective Trinity for everything, as a matter of implication and actual practice he holds that ontology rests on epistemology and that reality is grounded in human thought processes.

But that’s not all. Keeping in mind the subjectivistic orientation, wherein knowledge is grounded on operations inside the consciousness of man, Van Til goes on to say that man can only put everything in “true perspective” if God gives him a new heart so that he can accept the evidence “for what it really is” (pg. 37). Van Til invokes Calvin’s doctrine of the internal witness of the Spirit, but he does not note that Calvin says this internal witness is the final piece of conviction of Scripture’s inspiration for the believer, not the only piece. Calvin spends a lot of time discussing the objective marks of Scripture, and in no way says they are worthless. They are not the whole story, but for Calvin that does not mean they are no story at all. Van Til seems to me to obliterate this careful conjoining of objective and subjective, and to rest everything on the subjective.

It is true that just after invoking Calvin he says that he is talking about the salvific purpose of Scripture (ibid.), but the way he frames the whole discussion seems to be a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Van Til goes on to say that “one must be a believing Christian to study nature in the proper frame of mind and with the proper procedure,” but then, when he admits the influence of indwelling sin even on the believer’s interpretations of revelation, his only answer is that the believer must “test his interpretations constantly by the principles of the written Word.” However, as was noted yesterday in my citation of R.L. Dabney on natural theology, devaluing man’s natural capacities (such as reason) in the name of wanting to avoid giving man too much logically creates the opposite problem of making man too inept to understand anything. Why should anyone believe that the Van Tillian is properly interpreting Scripture? If regeneration is the necessary precondition for proper understanding, but regeneration is basically invisible and subjective and inside a man, how do we outside of the Van Tillian know he’s regenerate? The whole thing rapidly flies apart into a duel of subjective impressions.

Other than the dominant emphasis on subjectivism, all of this seems to me to be a radicalization of the traditional Protestant doctrine of the clarity of God’s revelation and of God’s dealings with men in history. Traditionally (at least following Luther) the clarity of revelation was thought to have two aspects, external and internal. Any competent reader could understand the basic “stuff” of Scripture externally (that is, non-salvifically), but only those regenerated by God could understand it internally (that is, salvifically). The difference between men had only to do with salvation, not with basic comprehension. One begins to see why Van Tillians seem to talk out of both sides of their mouths regarding such things as evidences for faith and points of contact with unbelievers. They have to talk out of both sides of their mouth because they are trying to talk to people outside of themselves but their basic theory of truth and how people know it is mired inside their own consciousness. They are basically unable to ground their program on something more stable than ideas that are “clear and distinct” only to themselves.

It seems to me that the final result of claiming that only regeneration can make a man able to “truly” interpret anything is to rest the interpretive process, and the obtaining of truth itself, on purely subjective processes. Objective and subjective are divorced, faith and reason are dichotomized, religion is privatized, and theology becomes the domain of those who, with Kant in one hand and the Bible in the other claim that men have to grow up by daring to think for (in) themselves.:”(By this I am referring to the frequent Van Tillian rhetoric about the “immaturity” of past generations of Christians, and the tactic that goes with this rhetoric of willfully jettisoning anything that is “traditional” which does not comport with the deliverances of the Van Tillian’s own private consciousness. “Sapere aude,” indeed.)”: Perhaps I am being needlessly provocative here, but I just have to ask what is this but the very “Enlightenment” thought that Van Tillians so vehemently complain about in others?

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4 Responses to Subjectivism and Van Tillianism

  1. Eric Parker says:


    As a proto-Van Tillian delving into the philosophical theology of St. Thomas I have recognized some of the overly-subjective tendencies in Van Til and Greg Bahnsen.

    Two questions: (1) Are you leaving room for the general Augustinian subjective tendency (divine illumination, etc.) in your interpretation of Van Til? (2) Do you think Frame’s “triperspectivalism” falls into the same subjectivity of his theological father?



  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Eric, great questions. I do recognize the Augustinian subjective aspect of the problem, but it seems to me that that is covered best by the traditional Reformation understanding of revelation’s “clarity” which I mentioned in the post. The difference is one of salvation, not basic understanding. I believe that Augustine held this idea, since, for instance, in On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis he mentions that unbelievers can know quite a few things about the world and believers better make sure not to say, with an appeal to God’s revelation, stupid things about the world that the unbelievers can readily disprove. But this is an area of my engagement with Van Tillian thought that I’m still working on.

    As to your other question, it’s been too many years since I read Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, and at that time I was hard pressed for time and did not really “get it” like I’d need to in order to responsibly engage it. I’m open to hearing your thoughts on it.

  3. Eric Parker says:


    As far as Frame’s DKG goes it is an excellent book. It’s been a couple of years since I read it but I do not recall anything too terrible in it. However, I do lament what I see is a general lack of precise argumentation among Van Tilians such as Bahnsen, Frame, and Oliphint. Frame, for example in his Doctrine of God (which I do take much issue with) criticizes Aquinas’s use of the anolgia entis in four pages! He does the same thing with the problem of the relations between the immanent and economic Trinities – 1 page!!! Those issues are WAY too important to just glide over. In the end, because of the short treatment, Frame says things that don’t sound very orthodox.

    On that same note: the above mentioned guys hardly ever site those against whom they are arguing. This irks me the most. I mean, if I turned in some of their stuff to a professor at RTS I would fail for lack of cogent argumentation and demonstration of the opponent’s error. It just ain’t academic man.

    Back to Frame and his Doctrine of God. I hope to blog about some of his errors. First of all, he accepts the traditional Van Tilian caricature of the Medieval scholastics as rationalists tainted by Aristotelean philosophy therefore succumbed by autonomous reasoning. That idea is just false, and if anyone were reading the contemporary literature on Anselm, Aquinas, etc. they would know that.

    I hope to blog about these issues in the next couple of weeks, especially: Van Til’s argument that the Reformed need a “different” apologetic because we have a different doctrine of God, Oliphint’s accusation that Aquinas failed to present an adequate separation between Creator and creature, and Frame’s assertion that Aquinas’s anolgia entis neglects the “univocal meaning” of some God-language.

    Thanks again,


  4. Tim Enloe says:

    I hear you on the lack of sustained interaction with other positions in a lot of these guys. They tend to let aphorisms like “the impossibility of the contrary” and “autonomy” and “Greek thought” do much of the work for them. Although, in Frame’s defense I’ve been pretty pleased with his 1995 book on Van Til. It has its weak spots, but the nice thing is that he doesn’t hesitate to take Van Til to task for dealing irresponsibly with other thinkers, including several Church Fathers and Aquinas. Frame covered a LOT of ground in that book, so even though it has some shortcomings of material I’d be charitable and say he just couldn’t say everything in one place.

    As for the Medievals, that’s a field I spend a lot of time on here and in recent months I’ve been accumulating quite a bit of hard data that shows the Van Tillian caricature about compromising the Faith with “Greek thought” to be really out of touch with the patristic and Medieval writers themselves. Again, the problem turns out to be a lot of vague handwaving by the Van Tillians based on the mere presumption that Reformed Theology is (1) more pure and “consistent” than everything else, and (2) a self-consistent whole needing no input from outside sources.

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