Friday, January 06, 2017

Problems with Van Til

I'm having to read a bit of Van Til, the Dutch-American Reformed apologist, and although I don't have the time (or, frankly, inclination) to enter into a proper detailed analysis of what I'm reading, here are a few thoughts which may or may not be of interest to someone.  Some of this would certainly apply to some other apologists I've read.

1.  Too much system, not enough story.  For Van Til, the history of Christ is part of the Christian theistic system.  I wonder whether the strong Calvinist emphasis on the priority of eternity over time (and note that in some form or other I would certainly want to endorse that priority!) means that there just isn't really space for narrative here?  All of history is implicitly just the outplaying of the pre-established system...  Anyway, the upshot is that we end up arguing over systems, and not reporting news.

2.  Too many straight lines, not enough cross.  I think that Van Til thinks that that if we just start in the right place, we can proceed by an orderly rational process to correct conclusions.  I'm not sure what the epistemological significance of the cross is for him.  If the height of God's self-revelation is the death of his Son, can we reliably draw any straight lines in our thinking?  The cross doesn't just contradict the world's wisdom. leaving thinking that is committed to the 'Christian theistic system' untouched and able to go on its merry way; it is a call for the constant crucifixion of all our systems.

3.  Too much fight, not enough victory.  I think related to the system/story thing.  Van Til talks a lot about the encounter between the Christian and non-Christian worldviews as a struggle of life and death, as a war without compromise.  I suppose if you have two static systems of thought, that might be so.  But we don't have a system of thought, we have a story, and the story is of God's victory over everything that opposes him.  It's as that story makes itself true in the experience of an individual that people will turn.

4.  Too much presupposing, not enough surprise.  Connected to the straight lines thing, I don't quite see how you can read the Bible and not see that God's salvation plan is a surprise!  It doesn't need people to first accept any set of presuppositions; the resurrection of Jesus bursts onto the scene and carries with it the power to communicate despite people's different intellectual starting points.

5.  Too much submission, not enough salvation.  I believe in the Lordship of Christ, but Van Til stresses submission to his Lordship as the first implicit step in thinking in any way that might qualify as rational.  To be honest, at points he sounds more Islamic than Christian - all about submission rather than salvation, Lordship rather than love.

I suppose I was never going to enjoy reading someone who once published a book called Christianity and Barthianism.  But at least now I've clarified for myself why I think he's so jolly awful.


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  3. All good points. I think van Til's approach is a useful tool for levelling the field - the problems for start when his followers start to say that Christianity is the only presupposition that 'makes sense' of the world - that you can't account for reason, existence, coherent experience etc., without it. I think people are perfectly justified in saying 'so what?' in that it may be that we could never account for those things anyway, and they do seem to work well enough for our purposes regardless. As you say, Christianity becomes an explanation, rather than an allegiance or commitment to this particular story.

    I find Thomas Reid's approach better for first principles, which do seem necessary to me before we even approach Scripture, i.e. an individual must have unjustified trust that he exists as a consistent self, that language has real meaning, and that he ought to seek truths of the most importantance (which nearly everyone does instinctively). Some van Tillians go so far as to say we can only know that which can be deduced from Scripture, which begs so many questions in itself. So I think you're right to emphasise the Bible as ultimate story - our commitment to which remains rooted in mystery at the level of the choice, and subsequently explained by the work of the Holy Spirit.

  4. Michael5:05 pm

    How come you 'have to' read Van Til - are you studying formally these days?
    Interested in hearing more!

    1. I'm studying for an MA with Union School of Theology - part-time. Mostly good fun!