Was Van Til afraid of Natural Theology?

Cornelius Van Til
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“Men ought to reason analogically from nature to nature’s God. Men ought, therefore, to use the cosmological argument analogically in order thus to conclude that God is the creator of this universe…. Men ought also to use the ontological argument analogically” (An Introduction to Systematic Theology [1971], 102).

“The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down the validity of this argument to the probability level. The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound” (The Defense of the Faith, [Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1967, third edition], 197).

Van Til sort of had the same problem as Warfield. He accepted Science so far as it didn’t stand in opposition to his set core of presuppositions. Van Til no doubt will define Creator and Creation according not to the Scriptures, but to the ‘plain sense reading’ of the Scriptures which he has either established for himself or followed others into doing.

Plus, he wasn’t against an old earth…

“Augsburg Publishing House … will not reprint it. … This book was rejected by one publisher because the author held that humanity has been in existence for something like 20,000 years (now Nelson is an anti- evolutionist, at the same time he does not accept Ussher’s chronology) and he was therefore rejected as unsound by someone who thinks that in opposing evolution we must also maintain that humanity not more than 6 or 7 thousand years old (or 10,000 at the outset) . Now, I think this is a debatable point but that if we’re going to fight evolution we will have to hit it where we can hit it hard and not hit it where the issue itself is debatable like this. I’m not sure how long ago man existed on this earth and I’m not sure this makes that much difference.” – Source: Cornelius Van Til, Christian Critique of Evolution, Audio Recording. The Works of Cornelius Van Til, [CDROM]. In the last 10-15% of the recording. Transcribed by Jonathan Barlow.

Oddly enough, his student, John Frame (Rushdoony claims to be a student too), supports this idea of presuppositional apologetics, noting that,

There are some kinds of assumptions we usually consider immune from revision. Among these are the basic laws of logic and mathematics: what factual discovery could possibly persuade us that 2 + 2 is not equal to 4? The same is true of basic ethical principles, especially those governing the inquiry itself: For example, no factual discovery could legitimately persuade a researcher to be less than honest in recording data.

I am not a huge fan of apologetics, and the more I read of this kind, the less like I am ever to be. Frame is suggesting, then, that his acceptance of factual discoveries is dependent upon his own experience. “Presuppositionalism is the reverse of the scientific method. It starts with a conclusion and builds a hypothesis which will always fit the conclusion.” [source: RODOFA] There starting point is the mythical ‘God’s Word’, and not Scripture nor actual actual data. Everything, including accepted facts, must be built upon one’s interpretation of ‘God’s Word,’ meaning that if one was to question their interpretation, then….

Unbelief leads to distortion of the truth, exchanging the truth for a lie

In other words, the moment you begin to really question whether or not your interpretation of Scripture is wrong, you are then thought of as being an unbeliever. Further, it is a world of black and white for them, allowing no middle ground.

Beyond that, I take issue with his statements on ‘Romanism.’

First, the Reformed apologist cannot cooperate with the Romanist in the establishment of the existence of God. The theism of the Roman Catholic theology is not “theism come to its own”; it is a vague, general sort of theism. It is a theism in which the God of Christianity and the God of Greek philosophy, particularly the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, are ground together into a common mixture. The theism of Romanist theology is a theism heavily freighted with pagan elements of thought. If such a theism were proved to be true, then the Christian theism of the Reformed Christian would be proved to be untrue. If with the Romanist we “prove” the existence of a god, then we have disproved the existence of the God of Christianity. It is only a perverted type of Christianity, such as constitutes Romanism, that fits onto the perverted type of theism which is “proved” by Romanist theologians.

The second major negative conclusion to be drawn from the remarks of Hepp and Warfield is that the Reformed apologist cannot co-operate with the “evangelical” in providing the truth of evangelicalism. By evangelicalism we mean what Warfield meant when he spoke of it as identical with the general non-Reformed Protestantism.

This second negative conclusion follows directly from the first. The evangelical does want to co-operate with the Romanist in proving the truth of theism. He argues that Protestants have many doctrines in common with Romanists, and that the existence of God is the most basic of them. Why then he asks in amazement, cannot Protestants co-operate with Romanists in proving the truth of theism? Why not have the Romanist help us build the first story of the house of Christian theism? After they have helped us build the first story of our house we can dismiss them with thanks for their services and proceed to build the second story, the story of Protestantism, ourselves.

The answer to this is that if Romanists have helped us in building the first story of our house, then the whole house will tumble into ruins. It has already been noted that when they build the first story of their house the Romanists mix a great deal of the clay of paganism with the iron of Christianity. The concrete blocks may be those of Christianity, but the cement is nothing other than the sand of paganism. Woe to the Protestant who seeks to build his Protestantism as a second story upon a supposedly theistic foundation, and a first story built by Romanism or by Protestants in conjunction with Romanists. Only a defective Protestantism can be built upon the perverted theism of the Romanist type. For, as Warfield puts it, the precise characterization of evangelicalism is that which describes it as a defective Protestantism. Warfield’s point is that evangelicalism is inconsistent Protestantism. It has carried into its system certain foreign elements ultimately derived by way of Romanism from paganism.

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Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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