Friday, January 10, 2014

Clark and Van Til

There are two very different traditions of presuppositionalism. The first comes from Dr. Gordon H. Clark. Dr. Clark understood Christianity as a system of thought. He treated it much like Euclidian Geometry. The Christian system is comprised of propositions (or theorems) that are deduced from the axiom of scripture. The axiom (first principle, or presupposition) for the Christian is the Bible alone is the Word of God. This axiom is selected among other possible axioms because of God’s illumination (by Christ and the Holy Spirit) and the axiom’s consistency and richness, i.e. its ability to provide knowledge. In other words, unlike other possible axioms, God reveals the Christian axiom to be true and it can solve problems in Epistemology, Metaphysics and Ethics. 

Dr. Clark’s presuppositionalism follows the tradition of Augustine's rationalism with its denial of sense perception. But contra traditional Rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, Dr. Clark argued the laws of logic (i.e. the laws: of identity, excluded middle, non-contradiction, rational inference) have no content to them; hence, the laws as our sole axiom furnish us with very few theorems, if any.  Thus the laws of logic alone are not broad enough as an axiom. We must start from the sure foundation of Scripture. As the Holy Spirit has revealed it's truth to our minds. By this standard Dr. Clark repudiates all forms of Empiricism and uses this as an advantage in apologetics. This approach can be properly distinguished from traditional Rationalism as Dogmatism or Scripturalism. As Dr. Clark argued forcefully that knowledge is exclusively what is deduced explicitly or implicitly by the axiom of Scripture. This axiom, as a presupposition, is shown to be true by the Holy Spirit; and by the axiom's ability to solve simple and complex problems in thought. 

Dr. Clark was a Philosopher par excellence. So Clark’s main arsenal in apologetics is logical analysis of worldviews. He quite often, and brilliantly if I might add, uses reductio ad absurdum type arguments in refuting detractors.

The second tradition in the presuppositional school comes from Dr. Cornelius Van Til. Dr. Van Til thought of everything in terms of worldviews with presuppositions (e.g. Kuyper). But also acknowledged, as the Old Princeton School per Thomas Reid, all men as image bearers of God know Him innately, but they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The noetic effects of sin preclude man from coming to a saving knowledge of God. Moreover, man as a rebel against God views himself as autonomous (i.e. the final standard for meaning and truth). However, the noetic effects of sin does not render apologetics useless. Van Til, unlike Abraham Kuyper, believed Christians have an ultimate proof of Christianity at its disposal—the transcendental argument for God’s existence. The first step to this approach is to deny religious neutrality and human autonomy. There is no middle ground between worldviews. A person is either committed to Christ or Satan. One either affirms Christianity or a token of the Non-Christian type. Furthermore only God, as described in Scripture, is the ultimate standard of meaning and truth. Here is where Dr. Van Till’s brilliance shined. Dr. Van Til argued that if the non-Christian is epistemically self-conscious (of his spurious human autonomy), he would be confronted with the necessity of the Christian presupposition, namely, only God, as described in Scripture, is the ultimate authority and source of meaning and truth.

The Christian should not argue for Christianity merely by empiricism, rationalism or existentialism; rather the Christian argues for the truth of Christianity transcendentally. He argues that the Christian worldview is the transcendental precondition for human thought and experience. Thus the Christian worldview is necessary to bring unity and completeness to the divided perspectives of empiricism (situational), rationalism (normative) or existentialism (subjective). 

In modern vernacular, unless the Christian worldview is true one cannot prove anything. The argument is formulated loosely by confronting non-Christians to make sense of knowledge, rationality, induction, freedom and morals all the while assuming human autonomy. Dr. Van Til called this arguing from the impossibility of the contrary (much like in Geometry the argument from contradiction). Once the presupposition of human autonomy is logically demonstrated as impossible then the Christian presupposition is offered as the only alternative to make sense of knowledge, rationality, induction, freedom and morals.

Dr. Van Til emphasized that all men have presuppositions (i.e. beliefs used to interpret evidence). Thus no one is religiously neutral to be able to follow the evidence whereever it leads. A person is either committed to Christ or Satan. In the context of truth and meaning, one is either committed to autonomy (self-law) or theonomy (God’s-law). The Christian proves his presupposition transcendentally.   He argues from the impossibility of the contrary (i.e. unless the Christian worldview is true one cannot prove anything).

Van Til was not opposed to reason. He viewed reason as a tool of God. Van Till understood reason as derivative from God. God, who is essentially and originally rational, created man rational after His image. God gave truth and meaning to the actual world. He was the ultimate standard for meaning and truth, which included proper interpretation of the actual state of affairs. However, after the fall, man exchanged the creator for the creature and became vain in his reasoning. Man placed himself on the throne of God; he claimed the right to be essentially and originally rational.  Man asserted his reasoning as the measure/judge of all things (including God and the Bible). In effect, fallen man asserted his reasoning alone was the ontic and epistemic foundation for knowledge, rationality, induction, freedom and morals. Fallen man sees these things as human constructs with man at its source. Van Til turned this kind of reasoning on its head by arguing for a Copernican revolution in apologetics we now call covenantal or presuppositional apologetics.   

Van Til was concerned to rightly put human reason in its proper place under God’s rationality, authority, control, presence and power. Such a task is accomplished when we argue transcendentally.

Dr. John Frame rightly shatters the criticism that presuppositionalism merely argues in a circle. First, Frame points out the logical order of a Biblical epistemology can be conceived as linear (e.g. God’s rationality ->; human faith -->; human reasoning). In God’s rational providence, He produces human faith that governs human reasoning. All three of these components are inseparable. One cannot reason without faith (in reason); and one cannot justify either faith or reason without God.


Scholars (e.g. Carnell, Reymond, Nash, Frame) have examined their apologetical contributions and  identify weaknesses and strengths to provide a synthesis of the best their systems offered.  



Reformed Apologist said...

Like the Blog. Just added it to my list. Keept it up!

Anonymous said...

This is a very good summary of both apologists, one of the best concise one I've seen in a long time. I wish more people could see this in light of so much misrepresentation of both men and their methodology

R.C. Dozier said...

Will do!

Yes, I couldn't agree more. Both men were truly seeking to put God and His Word first in apologetics.

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