Where do you start? Van Til’s Apologetic Part 3 – 1/15/2018

. . . Let’s listen in on a pastoral staff’s brainstorming meeting on how to grow their church . . .

 “We’ve got to be relevant to our community, so how about a big food drive for the poor?  Everybody will notice that!”

“Sure.  Write that down, along with the idea of collecting shoes for orphans.”

“What about the young people, the kids?  We’ve got to be relevant for the kids!”

“Maybe we could recruit . . . or hire . . . some high quality musical talent for our, uh, worship service?  If we don’t put on the best show, the kids will find some other place to rock.”

Blog 113 image - staff meeting“Great, good idea.  Write that down.  What about the adults?”

“Well, the ones with kids are hooked already, as long as we keep the kids happy.  The rest of them . . . hey, we could do a teaching series on how to have great sex in your marriage or, uh, with your significant other.”

“Yeah, and another series on money . . . how to make it and leave a financial legacy.  We can launch that with a full spectrum marketing campaign!”

“Great.  What about people who actually want to be involved, you know, doing something?”

“Well, we can always use more parking lot monitors and nursery workers.  And more hosts for small group meetings.  Hosts don’t need to actually know anything . . . we can provide them with talking points every week.  Anything really important we need to do, the pastoral staff can handle it, of course.”


What are the goals of American churches?  What are the goals of American Christians?  Are they the same?  You might sit down with your family and write down what your goals are . . . what you think God’s will is for your lives . . . and then write down what you think the goals are for your church.  Don’t go to your church’s mission statement for that.  Just analyze what the church does every week and what it spends money on.  That will tell you what they value and what they’re trying to accomplish.  And the same for you.  What do you do every week and what do you spend money and time on?

Where should you start if you’re going to figure out your life mission, from scratch?  This may sound crazy, but the place to start is theology, your worldview, what you believe it’s all about, what you think about reality, the reality of who you are, who God is, what the past teaches, what you think the future holds, your responsibilities to God and how you think God wants you to deal with others.

Simple, right?  Actually, it is, if you’re a born again Christian and have a Biblically based worldview.  (The second does not necessarily follow from the first.)

Cornelius Van Til, 1895 - 1987

Cornelius Van Til, 1895 – 1987

I’ve read and written about some of the work of Cornelius Van Til, a luminary in 20th century apologetics.  He espoused and defended what is called presuppositional apologetics, the approach I hold to because I am absolutely convinced it is the Biblical pattern for reaching the lost with the Gospel, in addition to discipling / training young believers to defend their faith.  In Van Til’s book, The Defense of the Faith (1955), he gives us a glimpse into his mindset:

“Now the basic structure of my thought is very simple.  I have never been called upon to work out any form of systematic theology.  My business is to teach apologetics.  I therefore presuppose the Reformed system of doctrine.”

Namely, he doesn’t start with the latest marketing ideas, nor an analysis of culture to determine the most relevant way to reach people.  Neither does he start with philosophical ideas, nor the writings of the so-called ‘church fathers.’  He starts with what he believes is Biblical doctrine.

Now for the most part, his apologetics is, indeed, built on the Bible and there he gets it right.  Where, on occasion, he gets it wrong, is where his Reformed doctrine steers him wrong.  In fact, as I’ve argued in other essays, if you start with Reformed doctrine, there is no use for apologetics at all.  Everything . . . I mean everything . . . is swallowed up by the Calvinist perversion of the idea of sovereignty, and the salvation of every individual in history is settled by Unconditional Election.  Game over.  Go home.

OK, so that’s the big caveat on Van Til.  When he forgets his TULIP, he gets a lot right and I love the guy for that.  By the way, I don’t recommend The Defense of the Faith for you to read.  I’ve got the 2008 unabridged 4th edition and in this essay I’ll pull some ‘relevant’ nuggets out for you.  Van Til is often wordy and a bit esoteric in style so, since life is short and there are only so many books you can read, pick one of the other books I’ve recommended for nighttime reading.

The opening dialogue in this essay illustrates the tendency of evangelicals to start anywhere at all, even a brainstorming session, to figure out how to do what God already designed long ago.  Whether it’s evangelism or discipleship, noting that these two areas pretty much encompass the vital aspects of the Christian life, we start with God.  And we learn of God from His revealed word.

Van Til writes that there is too much discussion over whether God exists, and too little about what kind of God we are talking about.  Classical apologists weave clever yet obtuse arguments for the existence of some kind of god.  We rather should start with God – as revealed in the Bible – and declare His nature boldly and forthrightly.

For example, God is holy and just.  He is loving and merciful.  He offers forgiveness, yet pays for it Himself (the cross).  He is omniscient and omnipotent.  These characteristics resonate with the heart and mind of man, since we are made in His image.  Every lost man instinctively knows that if God is there, He must be holy and just.  Every man knows that God must be loving enough to give us a way out of a judgment we certainly deserve.  Every man knows that all the wicked of the ages must be brought to justice.  And every man, when confronted by the law – the 10 commandments – has conscience enough to know that he will see judgment.

The evangelist must make these points efficiently, compassionately, and fervently.  The Christian mom and dad must teach their children this theology to enable them to confront their Judge and Savior, too.

Will any god do?

Will any god do?

In short, the heart, mind, and conscience of man will resonate with truth so that you don’t . . . and you shouldn’t . . . try to convince him that a generic god exists.  We’re not preaching or teaching the Muslim or Roman Catholic or Hindu gods.  And we’re not going to reach entertainment-addicted, self-absorbed Americans with worldly methods.  You might get them to enjoy the show, but you won’t get them saved, unless you eyeball them with Truth.  That at least gives them a chance.

This essay is not about methods.  I’ve covered methods in many other pieces on this site.  This essay is really about foundational theology and principles that underlie both evangelism and discipleship.  It’s a very modest survey, yet I hope that some nuggets will be beneficial.

Van Til:  “. . . the attributes of God may also be summed up by saying that God is absolute personality.”  God is THE source of the idea and the existence of personality.  In atheism there are no persons, just clumps of molecules bumping around.  But in reality, namely this world we live in, we are persons because we are made in the image of God. 

“There were no principles of truth, goodness, or beauty that were next to or above God according to which He patterned the world.  The principles of truth, goodness, and beauty are to be thought of as identical with God’s being; they are the attributes of God . . . Non-Christian systems of philosophy do not deny personality to God, at least some of them do not, but, in effect, they all agree in denying absolute personality to God.”



This decisively answers the question of Plato’s character Euthyphro, “Is the good good because God says it is, or does God say it is because it is good.”  That’s a false dilemma.  The first choice makes God’s laws arbitrary, the second puts qualities like goodness above and beyond God, as if God entered into our universe where they already existed.  The Biblical solution is that goodness, love, beauty, justice . . . indeed all virtues . . . are the very nature of God.  We find good to be good, and evil to be evil, because our nature, reflected in what we call conscience, has been formed from God’s character.  Sin, of course, mars us and warps us, but that’s our fault.  Christ came to restore us, in toto, not merely saving us, but transforming us so that, eventually, once resurrected, we will have the eternal unmarred nature we were intended to have from the beginning.

Van Til stresses the point that, although we are created in His image, yet “man must always be different from God.”  We can never outgrow our creaturehood.  We exist and operate on a different scale.  One of the advantages of our finiteness is that we can grow throughout eternity, never bored, never exhausting the infinite riches of our relationship with the Author of everything.  Atheists who despise the concept of Heaven on the presumption that it will be boring are fools indeed.  (I expand on this in my free ebook on this site, “One Heartbeat from Hell . . . Plus Eleven Other Compelling Reasons to Become a Christian.”)  In this life, also, Christians have no excuse to be bored.  Got free time?  Pray.  Praise God.  Thank God.  Use your theology to spend free minutes to appreciate your Savior.

Van Til:  “We cannot expect to attain to comprehensive knowledge even in Heaven . . . we should have to be God ourselves in order to understand God in the depth of His being.  God must always remain mysterious to man.”  But mysterious is in the same sense as the mysteries revealed to us by Paul and the other apostles in the New Testament – mysteries revealed at the proper time are mysteries no longer.  Through eternity, mysteries will certainly be unfolded, but since the knowledge of God is inexhaustible, we will never lose the joy of anticipation.

So what is faith?  We can trust God explicitly and implicitly, because what we don’t understand yet is built on an ever growing and solid foundation.  Amazingly, God trusts His children.  Van Til:  “Man was to be prophet, priest, and king under God in this created world . . . As a prophet man was to interpret the world, as a priest he was to dedicate this world to God, and as a king he was to rule over it for God.  In opposition to this all non-Christian theories hold that the vicissitudes of man and the universe about him are only accidentally and incidentally related to one another.”

The unbeliever thus makes man too small.  God’s children, in the ages to come, will have such responsibilities restored.  Unbelievers want to rule now, despite – in their worldview – being mere clumps of molecules embedded within a chaotic universe.  And they want to rule without any God telling them what to do.  Man’s fall was an attempt to redefine his life and his future apart from God.  Bad move.  Death entered the world and human lifespans are too short, even if man was smart enough to overcome the impossible interstellar distances that keep him from taking over this galaxy, not to mention the entire universe, Star Trek fantasies notwithstanding.  Worldly man lives and dies too quickly for such distances, though, and only God has the technology to resurrect man and enable him with God-given technology (power) to inherit God’s creation.

Van Til sees the question of knowledge as “an ethical question at the root.”  Factually correct knowledge about God is not the same, Biblically and in reality, as knowing and loving God.  Multitudes of false converts populate the churches who possess some true doctrinal knowledge, but whose assent to doctrine does not produce works, as described in James 2:14.  Knowledge of God that does not transform does not save.  An evangelical or fundamentalist churchgoer may know much about Scripture, but in his rebellion knows nothing at all of spiritual value . . . his knowledge just puffs him up.

Where do you start in politics?  Start with God, the Bible, and man.  The Scriptural arc of history includes a certain prophetic future.  Evangelicals today are obsessed with politics, but apathetic to the Great Commission.  Should Christians in America vote and vote responsibly?  Of course.  Might a Christian run for political office?  Sure, if that’s God’s will for his life.  If it is God’s will, though, he won’t neglect personal evangelism and discipleship, and he will maintain a Biblical perspective on his work . . . for example, tax policy and taxation rates are important enough to get right, so get it right.  But it’s the lost world’s obsession that political activism will save the nations and create a godless utopia.  Hey, Christian, don’t play the antichrist’s game.  That’s where the political efforts of man will climax.

Blog 113 image - galaxyWhether in politics or in business or in family life or whatever, what are your grounds for making decisions?  Secular philosophers presume that man can acquire knowledge autonomously, without any reference to God who is the source of all knowledge.  A common secular approach is to “go to as many as possible of those reputed to have knowledge.”  University professors enjoy the conceit of seeing themselves as ultimate sources.  But worldview matters.  If we got here by evolution, your ethics will be different than if we are accountable to God.

Van Til notes that Eve went to as many as possible of those who were reputed to have knowledge.  In her mind, apparently, God and Satan both had a reputation for knowing stuff.  Eve had to weigh the reputations.  She put herself in the Judge’s seat, which belongs only to God, expressed through His word.  Eve judged poorly and ‘whipped’ her husband into going with the flow.  Her epistemological choice was entwined with ethics and we live with the consequences.

Here’s another reason Van Til offers to bolster our confidence that we must always start with a God-centered view of life . . . Anything we know about God should and can be objective.  God certainly knows himself and every conceivable detail of His creation.  Our existence within the creation derives from God, along with any meaning and hope in life.  “We are fully interpreted before we come into existence.  God knows us before and behind:  He knows the thoughts of our hearts.”

Have you ever considered that God doesn’t just see you from in front or behind like others see you.  He sees you from above and from beneath and from within.  His omnipresence gives Him a perspective from any and all vantage points.  Yet He builds a road from Himself to us, as Van Til points out, via Scripture and the indwelling Holy Spirit (for believers).  That road, like any road, goes both ways.  We can find God by the road He built and thereby find objective knowledge of Him and His will, enjoying true although not exhaustive knowledge of reality.

Blog 113 image - Eve and the serpentOur knowledge is not exhaustive, of course, because of our finiteness, but what we do know can be TRUE.  Postmodernists and subjectivists deny this, of course.  They’re wrong – willfully out of touch with reality.  Evangelical small group studies that simply poll their members for feelings or opinions without searching for definite true answers from God’s word insult God and destroy each other.

Can’t unbelievers be objective about the big issues?  No.  In standing on a God-denying worldview they deny reality.  What can they say that is true about ethics or purpose or marriage or the nature of man?  Regardless of claims to objectivity, fervency in support of error is willfully wrong . . . sinful.  What should they do about it?  Deal with it – repent.  The Christian must be compassionate and gracious in his witness, while being bold and direct.  The stakes are too huge to equivocate.  If you have a relative or a friend or a neighbor in denial (Who doesn’t?), they will be wrong about life’s purpose, wrong about ethics, wrong about WHO holds their atoms together, wrong enough to be one heartbeat from Hell.  Help them out!

Help him or her out even if he denies all reality.  Van Til’s expositions on apologetics depend on the Biblical truth that the natural man knows he is a creature of God and responsible to Him, even if he vocally denies it.

Van Til:  “A man may have internal cancer.  Yet it may be the one point he will not have one speak in his presence.  He will grant that he is not feeling well.  He will accept any sort of medication so long as it does not pretend to be given in answer to a cancer diagnosis.  Will a good doctor cater to him on this matter?  He will not . . . So it is with the sinner . . .”

You, Christian, have the responsibility to bring “flame-throwers to the very presupposition of the natural man’s ideas with respect to himself.”  Use the law to get to the conscience that you know is there, because he, too, is made in the image of God.  The natural man “is so much in contact with the truth that much of his energy is spent in the vain attempt to hide this fact from himself.”  How do you do this in practice, on the street, or with your lost grandma in your living room?  See my Evangelism essays or my free ebook on methods.

In brief, though, some methods are more powerful than others.  It’s generally fruitless in an initial – and possibly only – encounter with a skeptic to argue historical issues regarding the Resurrection or the consistency of the New Testament manuscripts.  The power issues are those at the foundation of the skeptic’s worldview . . . rationality, morality, hope, love, meaning . . . namely, all the ‘big stuff’ of life that goes beyond mere molecules in motion.  The foundational issues are those embedded in God’s character and reflected in His image-bearers.

Blog 113 image - brain chemistryOnly because God is rational and therefore not constrained by brain chemistry, is it possible for us to be rational, not merely chemical automatons.  Love, hope, and meaning are issues that God wired into us.  The atheistic worldview has no room for any of life’s real issues.  Morality is entwined with justice and with judgment, and God’s laws make perfect sense to every man’s conscience.

If the unbeliver is a Muslim or a Roman Catholic, etc., the principles are the same.  The natural man’s conscience is convicted by the Biblical laws and the Gospel is the only sensible remedy.

Presuppositional apologetics, then, is a two-step approach.  First, confront the unbeliever’s position to show that it cannot be lived or thought coherently.  Second, help the unbeliever understand the Biblical worldview as the only possibility for this life and for eternity.  The Gospel flows directly from step two.

Van Til quotes A. E. Taylor, a professor and philosopher of a century ago, on the observation that skeptics who exalt science as the pinnacle of all truth, stand on no foundation.  All science is built on the presupposition of the ‘uniformity of nature.’  Yet, “No one could possibly prove its truth to an opponent who seriously disputed it.  For all attempts to produce ‘evidence’ for the ‘uniformity of nature’ themselves presuppose the very principle they are intended to prove.”

You see, every experiment in physics, chemistry, or biology is done at a particular point in space-time.  But results are published as if they apply throughout space-time.  Just a moment after any experiment is done, the Earth has rotated to a different orientation, and has moved through space along with the rest of the solar system, into a somewhat different part of the galaxy.  The galaxy also moves within the universe, and the expansion of the universe presents a somewhat different universe as our environment changes moment by moment.

Blog 113 image - laser labBut it’s reasonable, you say, to assume uniformity.  After all, how can we make any progress of any kind if we don’t?  Right.  We assume it.  We presuppose it.  We presuppose that the laws of physics don’t change moment by moment and that it doesn’t matter much whether we measure the charge of the electron at 10 am or 4:23 pm.

As Christians we presuppose God who established consistent laws and made science possible so that man can exercise dominion, whether we do it well or poorly, in using our free will because we are not automatons, but in that respect share God’s character of choice-making.

The bottom line point is that everyone lives and dies with presuppositions.  Pick the right ones and reality makes sense.  You can’t prove the existence of God when you start with unbelieving presuppositions.  But atheistic / materialistic presuppositions do not allow for rationality or logic, so you can’t even have a conversation.  If you start with the presupposition of God as revealed in Scripture, however, everything makes wonderful sense.

Van Til:  “One cannot prove the usefulness of the light of the sun for the purposes of seeing by turning to the darkness of a cave.  The darkness of the cave must itself be lit up by the shining of the sun.  When the cave is thus lit up, each of the objects that are in it ‘proves’ the existence and character of the sun by receiving their light and intelligibility from it.”

And so God illumines reality . . . all of creation and all of the richness and complexity of human existence.  Once you’ve established in the heart and mind of the unbeliever the awesome distinction between God’s worldview and the paltry alternatives, then by all means, if helpful, move on to specific arguments about historicity, flood geology, etc.

I like this assessment by Van Til:  “Modern philosophy in practically all of its schools admits that all its speculations end in mystery . . . It admits that ultimate reality is unknowable to man . . . (everything is) necessarily relative to the mind of man.”  How can it be otherwise for the natural man?  If man is merely an accidental product of naturalistic forces within the universe, what are man’s hopes and dreams and intents, other than the vagaries of brain chemistry?  The natural man makes a blind leap of faith to assume that truth is something meaningful and that man, on his own, can determine such truth.

Van Til goes on to note that modern theology goes hand in hand with modern philosophy, in which the Bible cannot be trusted as an authoritative source and so we can reinvent God to conform to our feelings of what He should be, so that He doesn’t interfere with the way we want to do things.  Sins become mistakes, worship becomes a rock concert, and salvation is about charitable work in this life . . . and, by the way, don’t worry about the after-life; if it’s there, everyone goes to the heaven of your imagination.

Now, here’s an issue that is a bit subtle, so I’ll try to make it simple enough so that I can understand it.  Van Til insists that every man since Adam has been both utterly irrationalistic and utterly rationalistic.  How can that be?

When Adam refused to take God’s prediction that bad consequences would follow disobedience, Adam irrationally assumed that God didn’t know what He was talking about and the universe simply might not be like that.  At the same time, Adam decided that he, Adam, could be certain enough of his own conclusion to bet his life on it.  That’s rationalism – man deciding autonomously what truth is.  Rationalism is the foundation stone for atheists, who insist that their reason and logic transcends brain chemistry, while at the same time insisting that there is nothing between their ears but brain chemistry.  Hey, that’s irrational!

And so every man and woman since Adam sins, going our own way, imagining that sin has no evil consequences, whether selfishness or substance abuse or fornication or greed, despite the clarity of God’s word and despite enormous evidence all around us, including our own experiences.  At the same time, man continually decides that he, himself, can make the rules for the day on his own authority.  This all is true both for unbelievers and for believers who fall or leap into sin.

I’ll end my review here.  Bottom line:  It’s a simple, old-fashioned Biblical principle . . . Build your life on God’s word in very practical ways.  Start with a God’s-eye view of marriage, child-rearing, business, discipleship, evangelism, science, engineering, law, medicine . . . everything.  Be alert to discern the difference between worldly methods and philosophies which fight against Biblical counsel, no matter how plausible they seem.  This is not an easy thing to do!  It’s a life-long quest, because we are immersed in this deceptive world.  You’ve got to get into your Bible and live there at least a little each day.  And then live the day with God’s precepts in mind.  Memorize Scripture.  Think about it.  Discuss it.  Read and analyze good books by good authors to get insights that God has given them.

That’s why I’ve enjoyed reading Van Til.  I don’t recommend this particular book, unless you’re an apologetics glutton like me.  Yet despite his flaws (TULIP), he had some real insights.  I hope I’ve succeeded in sharing some of those for your edification.  Let me know.

  • drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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