Critique of Van Til’s Presuppositionalism

Critique of Van Til’s Presuppositionalism June 8, 2022

[originally from 23 October 2004]

Words of Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) will be in blue.

 I touched specifically upon this subject in an old paper: “Live” Dialogue on the Rationality of Christian Belief, Presuppositionalism, and Philosophical Arguments for God’s Existence. By a coincidence, this was written exactly four years ago from the time of this writing (23 October 2000). Here are some of my thoughts from that exchange, which will serve as an introductory section for my more extensive critique:

Romans 1 teaches us that we intuitively know there is a God, through His creation. But I think the logic is different; it is the argument from design in primitive form, in my opinion . . . Romans 1, which I accept primarily on faith, and secondarily on the evidence which truth always sets forth, by the nature of things.

I accept revelation and inspiration, but I think it is also verifiable by psychology and anthropology, independent of Christian presuppositions.

Truth is truth wherever it is found. Aristotle and Plato found much truth, and they didn’t have Christian presuppositions. One can do much science without Christian presuppositions, though I would argue that science itself is ultimately grounded in Christian metaphysics and even revelation at a very fundamental level.

The basis for rationality is the universe as God created it, and our minds as God created them, which are capable of perceiving reality and making order out of existence. I deny that there can be a world without logic, . . . [which] is eternal insofar as it is grounded in the character and “mind” of God, just as love is. The universe inherently “has” logic, just as it inherently has the God who created it.

I don’t think any of the theistic arguments are absolute, airtight proofs. I think their force comes from the power of cumulative evidence and converging conclusions, all pointing to God. But it always requires faith. God can’t be reduced to philosophy. I merely say that good philosophy is entirely consistent with a Christian outlook, and revelation, and the supernatural . . . in my apologetic, theism (philosophically speaking) is a super-probable and plausible hypothesis, based on the cumulative evidence of both philosophy and science, and also human experience and history. But it isn’t proven by those things. It is only “certain” by faith. I ultimately believe in faith, but when I go out to evangelize and “be all things to all people,” I must argue in terms they can understand, apart from faith propositions, which they don’t accept like we do. Just as Paul did, of course (Mars Hill).

Your point of view (insofar as I understand presuppositionalism) says that the Christian and the non-believer have little or nothing in common epistemologically. That I emphatically reject. So when you try to persuade a philosophically-minded person to be a Christian, how do you go about it?


I. Preliminaries
II. The Distinction Between Being and Knowing (Ontology and Epistemology) and Reliance on Circular Reasoning
III. The Basis, Warrant, and Justification for Beliefs and Presuppositions
IV. Philosophy and Theology Converge, Yet Rationality and Logic Are Spurned?
V. Distortions of St. Thomas Aquinas’ True Positions on Natural Theology and Universals
VI. The Place of Scripture in Presuppositionalism and Catholicism
VII. Van Til’s Anti-Catholicism and Profound Misunderstanding of Catholic Theology
VIII. The Inevitable Internal Difficulties and Incoherence of Presuppositionalism
IX. Does Holy Scripture Teach Natural Theology in Romans 1?
X. “Self-Interpretation” and Miscellany
XI. Conclusion: “The Starting Point” of Christian Philosophy and Apologetics Sources

I. Preliminaries
As Cornelius Van Til wrote, the antithesis “is between those for whom the final center of reference in knowledge lies in man, and those for whom the final center of reference for knowledge lies in God, as this God speaks in Scripture.”
Indeed, this is the difference between Christianity and secularism or atheism, not between different models of apologetics, which all agree that God is the ultimate frame and ground of reference, as far as I can tell. Van Til casually accepts that his own system is circular (as we shall see later), but that doesn’t mean that all other systems are either logically circular or inconsistent.
It is self-evident, as far as it goes, that all Christians claim to submit to the Bible. But Van Til’s view is, however, too limited, in that it seems to preclude a philosophy or method of hermeneutics or exegesis from the outset. It is too simplistic (what does such submission mean and entail?; how do we know which writing is this “Word of God”?; indeed, why assume that such a Divine Word has to always be in writing?; who interprets this Word authoritatively?, who decides interpretational disputes?, etc.). Beyond that, it is also too narrow of a criterion because Christianity is far more than submission to written revelation.
Van Til writes that “Christianity and theism are implied in one another….Christianity can never be separated from some theory about the existence and the nature of God.”
I should think not: Christianity being a species of theism. But theism doesn’t imply Christianity. Islam and Judaism are both theistic but they do not imply Christianity.
One doesn’t argue with someone of a different persuasion by merely stating one’s own, as if it were self-evident. That doesn’t require compromising one’s own position, but rather, arguing from a perspective of “granting hypothetically that a, b, and c are true . . . ” In the endeavor of trying to reveal the falsity of an opposing view, one has to attack that view from the inside and show internal inconsistencies, incoherence, and implausibility. That can’t be done by merely stating one’s own view (which is preaching, not apologetics). Besides, ontology and epistemology are two different things.

II. The Distinction Between Being and Knowing (Ontology and Epistemology) and Reliance on Circular Reasoning


Christian apologist Norman Geisler elaborates:

First of all, fideists confuse epistemology and ontology. That is, they fail to distinguish the order of knowing and the order of being. The Christian fideist may very well be right about the fact that there is a God, but this begs the question unless he can tell how he knows this is the case. God may indeed have revealed himself to us through the Bible, but how do we know that the Bible is the Word of God? Other books with contrary teachings also claim to be the Word of God (e.g., the Koran). Assuming the truth of Christianity, a Christian fideist is right in what he believes about God but wrong in the reason for that belief. Certainly if there is a God and all truth comes from him, it follows that even the very criteria of determining truth from error will be God-given. But God is what is to be proven, and we cannot begin by assuming his existence as a fact. If we do not have any tests for truth with which we can even begin, we can never make truth claims nor can we even know something is true. We can simply believe without justification what we want to believe. But in this case so can any idiotic, insane, or contrary view be simply believed. And how is one to say who if anyone has the truth? Without an epistemological way of knowing the truth, no ontological truth claims can be pressed. (Geisler, 61-62)

The central difficulty of Van Til’s apologetic system is that he claims that other views are meaningless and true knowledge impossible to attain. He arrives at this conclusion by reasoning. Yet when we ask by what reasoning does he conclude that his system is the only possible one to hold, we find (quite remarkably) that he consciously offers logical circularity (!). Reformed theologians and apologists R. C. Sproul and John Gerstner are rightly very critical of this absurd approach to the truth-claims of Christianity:

In all systems of thought except presuppositionalism circular reasoning is considered demonstrative evidence of error. In presuppositionalism, instead of being a vicious circle, it is a sign of intellectual virtue. While neo-orthodoxy could say that “contradiction is the hallmark of truth,” presuppositionalist orthodoxy makes circularity the hallmark of truth. This “glorious circle” distinguishes revealed truth presupposed from all other systems which are circular also but ingloriously so . . . a circle gets one nowhere and . . . those who travel in these circles either admit this, or are naked fideists. (Sproul et al, 318)

To admit one’s own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another. (Van Til, 118 / Van Til [2], 101)


This definition of circular reasoning involves Van Til in . . . the exercise of petitio principii — question begging. This fallacy of circular reasoning is defined by Irving Copi:

In attempting to establish the truth of a proposition, one often casts about for acceptable premises from which the proposition in question can be deduced as conclusion. If one assumes as a premise for his argument the very conclusion he intends to prove, the fallacy committed is that of petitio principii, or begging the question. (Copi, 83)

With respect to the existence of God and the authority of the Bible, presuppositionalists frankly admit to the use of circular reasoning in precisely this sense . . .

The only alternative to “circular reasoning” as engaged in by Christians, no matter on what point they speak, is that of reasoning on the basis of isolated facts and isolated minds, with the result that there is no possibility of reasoning at all. Unless as sinners we have an absolutely inspired Bible, we have no absolute God interpreting reality for us and unless we have an absolute God interpreting for us, there is no true interpretation at all. (Van Til [3], 142)

Here Van Til not only reasserts this principle of circular reasoning, but gives the reason for so doing. We say that circular reasoning is the end of all reasoning and Van Til mot only considers it the beginning of all reasoning but he gives a reason for the necessity of circular reasoning. This is a circle within a circle. If Van Til can prove that circular reasoning is necessary if there is to be any reasoning at all, he has proven circular reasoning by noncircular reasoning . . . one simply cannot live in circles and think as a rational human being. In order to justify abnormal, antitraditional, irrational patterns of thought (circles), he has to accept normal, traditional patterns of thought.

In the same context, Van Til makes this remarkable statement:

We cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason because it is reason itself that learns of its proper function from Scripture. (Van Til, 125)

Reason “learns” of its proper function from Scripture. Reason, therefore, is represented as already existing and functioning. Now it reports to headquarters and gets orders as to how it is to function.

. . . the transcendental argument . . . though Van Til often infers it he never apparently explicitly defends it. If he did, that would be the end, of course, of his presuppositionalism. He insists on presupposing God without rational compulsion. Then he moves to the world which can be understood, he argues, if approached presuppositionally. But he cannot argue, because that would be proving the presupposition which cannot be proven by autonomous human reason. But the understanding of the world is assumed because the God who explains it is assumed. We cannot get off this theoretical merry-go-round. It cannot move up and down or even spirally, but only in dizzying circles. (Sproul et al, 322-326)

[I]nstead of being a “glorious circle” it [circular reasoning] leads inevitably to anti-intellectualism and ultimate fideism even in the most “rational” presuppositionalists. The Emperor of the Land of Presuppositionalism . . . has no clothes . . . Classical apologetics, with its horror of circularity, is the little child who embarrasses everybody by pointing out the obvious. (Sproul et al, 338)

One can’t begin with circular reasoning and somehow, inexplicably rise to a plane where the irrational suddenly becomes rational, while other systems “reduce to absurdity.” Presuppositionalism is already logically absurd by necessary recourse to circular argument; therefore it is in no position to judge the rationality or irrationality of other systems. First let it become a rational, logically coherent system itself before going on to judge other systems. Sproul et al state:

According to Van Til, the intellect is not functioning in its traditional role until the knowledge of the Creator is assumed. But if so, then it is a mystery how we can know the Creator-creature relationship except through the intellect . . . one cannot believe anything without first knowing it by the intellect. Van Til has cut off that bridge to knowledge. How then does he get any knowledge to accept or believe? . . .

Van Til has taken this position, not noticing — once again — the difference between priority in the order of being and priority in the order of knowing. . . .

Any meaningful statement by Van Til about intellectual priority pertains to the order of being and not to the order of knowing. God is indeed first and is indeed the Creator of the human intellect. If that is what Van Til wants to say, we heartily agree. But given the proposition that God is first in order of being and the human intellect is second, does it follow that in our thinking we are able to move in the same order? It does not at all follow. The exact opposite follows. If we are endowed with intellect, then our intellect has first to function in apprehending the nature of God who created the intellect for that purpose . . .

How do we explain Van Til’s apparent blindness to such an obvious matter? It is his overall thinking which controls him here and pulls him out of the rational order . . . one simply cannot know before he knows. . . .

In Van Til’s thought, as in . . . every other rational being’s thought, the intellect has to precede even his thought of God. This does not detract from God, since it is He who made us this way . . . (Sproul et al, 228-230)

III. The Basis, Warrant, and Justification for Beliefs and Presuppositions

Warfield says that apologetics as a theological discipline has to establish the presuppositions of systematic theology such as the existence of God, the religious nature of man, and the truth of the historical revelation of God given us in the Scriptures. In contrast to this, Kuyper says that apologetics must seek only to defend that which is given it in systematics. Warfield argues that if we were to follow Kuyper’s method we would first be explicating the Christian system and afterwards we would be asking ourselves whether perchance we have been dealing with facts or with fancies. Kuyper argues that if we allow apologetics to establish the presuppositions of theology [as Warfield urges] we have virtually attributed to the natural man the ability to understand the truth of Christianity and have thus denied the doctrine of total depravity.

Norman Geisler offers some countering arguments to this sort of thinking:

Fideists do not differentiate clearly the difference between the basis of belief in God and the support or warrant for that belief . . . Evidence may be used to support, confirm, or even accompany this belief; but it must never be the basis for believing. The fideists properly stress the basis for belief, namely, God or his revelation; but they seem to neglect entirely the warrant or support for exercising this belief. In short, evidence bears directly on belief that there is a God but not directly on belief in God. “Belief that” is an intellectual matter and there are rational arguments for it. But “belief in” is an existential concern that has no such objective tests for truth. Fideism is right on the latter but almost completely overlooks the need for criteria or test for the truth that there is a God, or that the Bible is the Word of God, and so on.

. . . Fideists fail to understand the implications of the difference between the unavoidability of and the justifiability of presuppositions. We may grant that presuppositions are unavoidable; men cannot think without epistemological and even ontological assumptions. However, the crucial question is not whether we can avoid using presuppositions but whether we can justify those we use . . . which presupposition should be chosen and with what warrant? . . . Can some beliefs be eliminated as false and others be established as true? If so, by what method or test for truth? Fideists do not face these questions squarely; or if they do, they tend to provide nonfideistic answers, such as to believe otherwise is contrary to one’s experience, to reason, to his hope for the future, or it brings undesired results. But to answer this way is to return to rationalism or to move on to experientialism or pragmatism as tests for truth. This is no longer methodological fideism. (Geisler, 62-63)

All Christians have faith in certain beliefs, doctrines, and realities (God’s existence, the possibility of revelation, and miracles, the incarnation, the atonement, various Protestant and Catholic distinctives, and so forth). That goes beyond philosophy. But it precludes some imagined “neutrality.”

IV. Philosophy and Theology Converge, Yet Rationality and Logic Are Spurned?

If theology is philosophy, of what school is it? It will do no good to simply call it “trinitarianism,” because that tells us nothing more than we already know: viz., that Christians are trinitarians. So what (it’s merely more circular reasoning)? That helps us not a whit to understand what “philosophy” true Christian theology is to be equated with. It will not do to continually excoriate Catholic philosophy as supposedly always “Platonist” and yet refuse to subject one’s own alternate point of view to a similar analysis, which categorizes it according to certain philosophical schools of thought.

If “theology is philosophy” and vice versa, and there is no distinction to be made, then why do so many presuppositionalists frown upon logic, proudly use circular reasoning, and even claim that God is somehow apart from logic itself? Sproul and Gerstner analyze this curious, odd inconsistency, citing Christian apologists Ronald Nash, Gordon Clark, and Alvin Plantinga (widely considered the most influential and important Protestant Christian philosopher today):

In evaluating the contemporary religious revolt against logic, Ronald Nash discusses a common strand of thought within both neo-orthodox theology and evangelical theology, citing examples in Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, Donald Bloesch, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, and al Wolters: that human logic cannot be extended to a transcendent God. Human logic is restricted to this side of the ontological boundary between God and the created order {Nash, 95}. Nash cites Alvin Plantinga’s reaction to this kind of theological agnosticism:

This kind of thinking about God begins in a pious and commendable concern for God’s greatness and majesty and augustness; but it ends in agnosticism and in incoherence. For, if none of our concepts apply to God (or if none of our inferences extend to God), then there is nothing we can know or truly believe of him — not even what is affirmed in the creeds or revealed in the Scriptures. And if there is nothing we can know or truly believe of him, then, of course, we cannot know or truly believe that none of our concepts apply to him. The view . . . is fatally ensnarled in self-referential absurdity. (Nash, 99)

. . . how could this God reveal anything about Himself to us if He is utterly dissimilar from us and His categories of thought are as wholly other as His being? If God is totally ontologically dissimilar, then neither He nor we have any reference point for meaningful or intelligible discourse. Communication between totally dissimilar beings is manifestly impossible.

. . . in certain Christian circles there is a persistent allergy to rationality . . . The fear is that reason makes God subject to a law which is greater than Himself, making God answerable to Aristotle, rather than Aristotle to God. But Aristotle did not invent logic or reason. Aristotle was no more responsible for the invention or creation of logic than Columbus was for inventing or creating America.

. . . The Christian faith affirms logic not as a law above God but as an aspect built into Creation which flows from His own character. According to Gordon Clark, “The law of contradiction is not to be taken as an axiom prior to or independent of God. The law is God thinking.” (Nash [2], 67) (Sproul et al, 75-76)

V. Distortions of St. Thomas Aquinas’ True Positions on Natural Theology and Universals

[T]he assertions of philosophy and science can be self-consciously true only if they are made in the light of the Scripture. Scripture gives definite information of a most fundamental character about all the facts and principles with which philosophy and science deal. For philosophy or science to reject or even to ignore this information is to falsify the picture it gives of the field with which it deals.
This does not imply that philosophy and science must be exclusively dependent upon theology for their basic principles. It implies only that philosophy and science must, as well as theology, turn to Scripture for whatever light it has to offer on general principles and particular facts…the Christian philosopher and the Christian scientist will be first of all directly dependent upon Scripture itself. 

This is (as we have come to expect by now) a gross caricature of the Catholic position, and outright misinformation. St. Thomas Aquinas is usually the “whipping boy” of this particular mindset of a sub-group of Reformed Protestantism. But is the above an accurate description of Aquinas’ position on “natural reason” or “natural theology”? Hardly. The influential Reformed apologists Sproul and Gerstner defend the great Catholic philosopher and theologian from such calumny, citing his own words:

For the Christian, natural theology does not mean that humans, in their natural state, have the intrinsic ability to rise to a knowledge of God by the sheer force of intellect unaided by divine revelation. Such a view is repudiated by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, including St. Thomas Aquinas:

It seems that a man cannot know any truth without grace . . . Now however pure it be, bodily sense cannot see any visible thing without the light of the sun. Hence however perfect be the human mind, it cannot be reasoning know any truth without the light of God, which belongs to the aid of grace . . . The natural light bestowed on the mind is God’s light, by which we are enlightened to know such things as belong to natural knowledge. (Fairweather, 11:137-139)

. . . To be sure, Aquinas does mention the biblical teaching of natural theology in passing, but he does not build his case for natural theology by a simple appeal to the New Testament:

The existence of God and similar things which can be known by natural reason as Romans, Chapter I affirms, are not articles of faith, but preambles to the articles. Faith presupposes natural knowledge as grace presupposes nature. (Fairweather, 53)

Aquinas and other advocates of natural theology were aware of what the Bible says about the matter. Special revelation confirms natural theology. This fact is important to the debate over natural theology for two reasons. The first is that the Bible makes a claim for the validity of natural theology which claim must be tested and seen to be valid or invalid. The second is that once the Bible is established as special revelation its teaching on the question of natural theology is normative. This is crucial to those scholars who affirm special revelation and general revelation but deny natural theology. For if the special revelation which they affirm teaches natural theology, then their position is exposed as inconsistent. . . .

[I]f the Bible is special revelation and if it teaches natural theology then, of course, by irresistible logic we must conclude that natural theology is valid. The authors of this volume do believe the Bible is special revelation and that it does teach natural theology. (Sproul et al, 25, 36-37)

Christian philosopher Ronald W. Ruegsegger examined the similar distortions of St. Thomas’ thought by another Reformed apologist, Francis Schaeffer (a great influence on my own Christian development, and often a profound and thought-provoking writer, but no philosopher by any stretch):

Schaeffer’s account of Aquinas’ influence on subsequent thought is governed by two assumptions. The first is the claim that “Aquinas brought [the] Aristotelian emphasis on individual things — the particulars — into the philosophy of the late Middle Ages, and this set the stage for the humanistic elements of the Renaissance and the basic problems they created.” (Schaeffer, 52)

The second assumption is the claim that Aquinas held that “the will of man is fallen, but the intellect was not.” (Schaeffer [2], 11). According to Schaeffer, this is equivalent to making the intellect autonomous, or independent, which in turn produced three bad results. First, Aquinas thought that one could develop natural theology independently from the Bible. Second, Aquinas made philosophy independent from Scripture. Third, Aquinas made it possible for the arts to develop apart from Scripture. . . .

According to Aquinas, although the senses naturally apprehend particulars, the object of cognition is the concept, or universal . . . Aquinas refers to these universals post rem, that is, universals as abstracted from objects.

In addition to universals post rem, Aquinas holds that there are universals ante rem (prior to things) and universals in re (in things). As for universals ante rem, Aquinas maintains that universals are prior to things on the ground that when God created the world, his universals ideas served as the exemplary patterns as he created the particulars that make up our world. Finally, universals in re are universals in particular objects serving as their essences.

This sketch of Aquinas’ epistemology necessarily has left out many details, but it shows that universals play an important role in Thomistic philosophy . . . It is true that in following Aristotle, Aquinas placed more importance on particulars than Plato did. However, Plato had a difficult time finding any role for particulars in his system. By contrast, Aquinas’ incorporation of particulars as well as universals seems to be a step in the right direction, rather than a mistake as Schaeffer sees it. . . .

[T]he following passage from Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae shows that Aquinas does not hold that natural theology is totally independent from Scripture:

Even as regards those truths about God which human reason can investigate, it was necessary that man be taught by a divine revelation. For the truth about God, such as reason can know it, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors; whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that, besides the philosophical disciplines investigated by reason, there should be a sacred doctrine by way of revelation. (Aquinas, I, q. 1, a. 1)

. . . Bonaventure had excluded Aristotle from the ranks of metaphysicians on the ground that he lacked the light of faith. Aquinas replied that unless we wish to condemn reason as such we must say that it is at least theoretically possible for a secular philosopher to develop a satisfactory metaphysics. Nevertheless, Aquinas acknowledged that it is not practically possible for a secular philosopher to do so, because on the one hand God is the first principle of true philosophy, and on the other hand the intellect is weak. (Ruegsegger, 112-115)

VI. The Place of Scripture in Presuppositionalism and Catholicism
Catholics accept the material sufficiency of Scripture (all Christian doctrines can be found in it, either explicitly, implicitly, or deduced from other clear indications). We also accept Sacred Tradition as a source of Christian truth, but not in the sense that it is somehow distinct from Scripture, as if it contains something different (in terms of overall theology and viewpoint) from the Bible. The much-misunderstood and distorted Catholic position on the relationship of Bible and Tradition is best described in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), from Vatican II:

Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit . . . hence, both scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence. (II, 9)

Of course, this view on authority (far from being some post-Tridentine innovations) is precisely that of the Church Fathers, according to three prominent Protestant Church historians:

As regards the pre-Augustinian Church, there is in our time a striking convergence of scholarly opinion that Scripture and Tradition are for the early Church in no sense mutually exclusive: kerygma, Scripture and Tradition coincide entirely. The Church preaches the kerygma which is to be found in toto in written form in the canonical books.

The Tradition is not understood as an addition to the kerygma contained in Scripture but as the handing down of that same kerygma in living form: in other words everything is to be found in Scripture and at the same time everything is in the living Tradition.

It is in the living, visible Body of Christ, inspired and vivified by the operation of the Holy Spirit, that Scripture and Tradition coinhere . . . Both Scripture and Tradition issue from the same source: the Word of God, Revelation . . . Only within the Church can this kerygma be handed down undefiled . . . (Oberman, 366-367)

Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the 16th century, for ‘in the ante-Nicene Church . . . there was no notion of sola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.’. . . (1)

The apostolic tradition was a public tradition . . . So palpable was this apostolic tradition that even if the apostles had not left behind the Scriptures to serve as normative evidence of their doctrine, the church would still be in a position to follow ‘the structure of the tradition which they handed on to those to whom they committed the churches (2).’ This was, in fact, what the church was doing in those barbarian territories where believers did not have access to the written deposit, but still carefully guarded the ancient tradition of the apostles, summarized in the creed . . .

The term ‘rule of faith’ or ‘rule of truth’ . . . seems sometimes to have meant the ‘tradition,’ sometimes the Scriptures, sometimes the message of the gospel . . .

In the . . . Reformation . . . the supporters of the sole authority of Scripture . . . overlooked the function of tradition in securing what they regarded as the correct exegesis of Scripture against heretical alternatives. (Pelikan, 115-117, 119; citations: 1. In Cushman, Robert E. & Egil Grislis, eds., The Heritage of Christian Thought: Essays in Honor of Robert Lowry Calhoun, New York: 1965, quote from Albert Outler, “The Sense of Tradition in the Ante-Nicene Church,” p. 29. 2. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:4:1)

It should be unnecessary to accumulate further evidence. Throughout the whole period Scripture and tradition ranked as complementary authorities, media different in form but coincident in content. To inquire which counted as superior or more ultimate is to pose the question in misleading terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest clue to its interpretation, for in tradition the Church retained, as a legacy from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of her institutional life, an unerring grasp of the real purport and meaning of the revelation to which Scripture and tradition alike bore witness. (Kelly, 47-48)

VII. Van Til’s Anti-Catholicism and Profound Misunderstanding of Catholic Theology
This pervasive Protestant tendency towards false dichotomies — wrongly pitting this against that, when it is by no means necessary to do so — is found throughout Van Til’s silly, hackneyed, inaccurate (frankly, ignorant) depictions of supposed Catholic views. For example:

Roman Catholicism takes a position half way between that of Christianity and that of paganism . . .

[with regard to the philosophy of knowledge]

All in all then it is clear that Romanism cannot ask its adherents to submit their moral consciousness to scripture in any thorough way. And accordingly Rome cannot challenge the non-Christian position in any thorough way. (Van Til [2], 56-57)

Romanism should be regarded as a deformation of Christianity, in fact as its lowest deformation. And this deformation expresses itself not merely at some but at every point of doctrine.

. . . the natural man does not need the light of Christianity to enable him to understand the world and himself aright. He does not need the revelation of Scripture or the illumination of the Holy Spirit . . .

[directly contrary to St. Thomas, as cited above: “however perfect be the human mind, it cannot be reasoning know any truth without the light of God, which belongs to the aid of grace . . . The natural light bestowed on the mind is God’s light, by which we are enlightened to know such things as belong to natural knowledge.”]

. . . the self-contained ontological trinity of Scripture. The Roman Catholic apologete does not want to prove the existence of this sort of God. He wants to prove the existence of such a God as will leave intact the autonomy of man to at least some extent. Rome’s theology does not want a God whose counsel controls whatsoever comes to pass.

. . . There is no place anywhere in the whole of Roman Catholic thought for the idea that any human being should be wholly subject to God. On the contrary, the position of Rome requires the rejection of the counsel of God as all-determinative. (Van Til [2], 71, 73, 77-78, 138)

Now Catholic theology denies God’s Providence, and Catholic apologists care little about defense of the Holy Trinity?!!! The former assertion (as well as the latter) would be great news indeed to St. Thomas Aquinas (the “bad boy” of Catholic theology, according to Van Til), who wrote:

Now, because God not only gave existence to things at their origin but causes their existence by preserving it as long as they exist . . . so he not only gave them active forces when he first created them but constantly causes those forces in them. Hence with the withdrawal of the divine influence, all action would cease. So every action of anything is traced to him as its cause.

Every movement of the will by which some powers are put into action also comes from God as the primary object of tendency as well as the first willer. Every action should therefore be attributed to God as its primary and principal agent. (cited in Clark, 333-334, from Summa of Christian Teaching, III, 67)

But Van Til, undaunted, and apparently unfamiliar with Aquinas’ thought, quixotically proceeds, exclaiming:

According to Roman Catholic theology . . . God has to await man’s decisions on many points. Thus God does not really control whatsoever comes to pass. And this means that man’s ultimate environment is only partly under God’s direction . . . It is no wonder, then that, holding this doctrine of the ultimacy of the mind and will of man in its theology, Romish theology should recognize the legitimacy of the idea of autonomy in the field of philosophy. (Van Til [2], 136-137)

On a Romanist basis . . . the Christ could not and did not accomplish one finished act of world salvation. (Van Til [2], 155)

St. Thomas must be turning over in his grave again at such a ridiculous caricature of Catholic soteriology, for he wrote:

Christ by suffering out of love and obedience gave to God more than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race . . . Christ’s passion was not merely a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race: according to “He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). (in Clark, 469, from Summa Theologiae, III, q. 48, a. 2, c)

Christ’s passion achieves man’s salvation effectively. (in Clark, 470, from Summa Theologiae, III, q. 48, a. 6, c)

It’s in Reformed theology where the true conflict with Scripture and the all-sufficient work of Christ is seen, since it holds to Limited Atonement, or the notion that Jesus Christ died only for the elect, and not for all mankind — as Catholics, Orthodox, and Arminian Protestants hold. Further examination of Van Til’s manifold errors and appalling misrepresentations of Catholic teaching would be too depressing and embarrassing . . .

The Protestant doctrine of God requires that it be made foundational to everything else as a principle of explanation. If God is self-sufficient, he alone is self-explanatory. And if he alone is self-explanatory, then he must be the final reference point in all human predication. He is then like the sun from which all lights on earth derive their power of illumination. You do not use a candle in order to search for the sun. The idea of a candle is derived from the sun. So the very idea of any fact in the universe is that it is derivative. God has created it. It cannot have come into existence by itself, or by chance. God himself is the source of all possibility, and, therefore, of all space-time factuality.

. . . the Catholic method of apologetics “is a compromise between the Christian and the non-Christian view on the matter of the final reference point of human experience.”
This is another false dichotomy, and poor comprehension of the Catholic view. Above, we saw how St. Thomas Aquinas did not have to deny either side of the equation; he stressed both universals and particulars (contrary to the Schaefferian and Van Tillian distortions and caricatures of his thought). Catholics don’t create all these dichotomies; it is Protestantism which does that.
“…only those who hold to the doctrine of God as self-sufficient will naturally also hold to the doctrine of Scripture as self-interpretative.”
This amazing assertion is far from true at all, let alone self-evidently true. First of all, what intrinsic connection exists between the ontological self-sufficiency of God (which, again, all Christians readily accept) and the authority question of the place of Scripture in Christianity, as related to Church and Tradition? None, that I can see.
Secondly, how is it evident that self-interpretation of Scripture is part and parcel of “self-sufficiency”? One can believe that Scripture is self-sufficient for doctrine (Catholics accept its material sufficiency) yet not believe that it can either interpret itself or be isolated from an authoritative, binding Church and tradition. Van Til has to demonstrate why all these axiomatic assertions should be accapted. Otherwise, they are no better than the axioms of Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

God’s revelation in nature, together with God’s revelation in Scripture, form God’s one grand scheme of covenant revelation of himself to man. The two forms of revelation must therefore be seen as presupposing and supplementing one another….Revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture are mutually meaningless without one another and mutually fruitful when taken together.

Again, we observed above that Aquinas would not disagree with this at all. But of course Van Til mistakenly thinks that he does.

VIII. The Inevitable Internal Difficulties and Incoherence of Presuppositionalism
Van Til seems to be only opposed to non-circular evidences . . . but we reply: what good is a logically circular “evidence” in the first place — especially for a non-believer whom one is trying to persuade and evangelize? I question whether it is either an “evidence” or apologetics at all, in many cases, because of its very circularity. It is merely an assertion, not a defense. The former is clearly not the latter. Norman Geisler examines the results of one aspect of this circularity:

Fideism faces a final dilemma. Either it makes a truth-claim or it does not. If fideism is not making a claim to be true, then it is not a position in philosophy, but simply a study in psychology . . . On the other hand, if fideism makes a truth-claim then it must have a truth-test. For not all truth-claims can be true, at least not contrary ones . . . If he does not, then as an unjustified belief it has no rightful claim to knowledge . . . if the fideist offers a justification for his belief — as indeed the whole argument for fideism would seem to be — then he is no longer a fideist, since he has an argument or justification for holding his belief in fideism. In short, either fideism is not a rightful claimant to truth or else it is self-defeating. But in neither case can it be established to be true. (Geisler, 63-64)

Sproul and Gerstner concur:

If the presuppositionalist offers any reason, he ceases to be a presuppositionalist. Bahnsen is too consistent to do that. But a faith in Scripture, or in anything for that matter, that does not rest on reasons, is fideism. Thus, if Van Til or Bahnsen deny that their faith in Scripture is fideistic they will be denying their presuppositionalism. If they admit it, they admit fideism. In short, presuppositionalism is a form of fideism, and this charge cannot be denied without denying presuppositionalism. (Sproul et al, 309)

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1909) puts it yet another way:

Fideism owes its origin to distrust in human reason, and the logical sequence of such an attitude is scepticism . . . It is also a fideistic attitude which is the occasion of agnosticism, of positivism, of pragmatism and other modern forms of anti-intellectualism. As against these views, it must be noted that authority, even the authority of God, cannot be the supreme criterion of certitude, and an act of faith cannot be the primary form of human knowledge. This authority, indeed, in order to be a motive of assent, must be previously acknowledged as being certainly valid; before we believe in a proposition as revealed by God, we must first know with certitude that God exists, that He reveals such and such a proposition, and that His teaching is worthy of assent, all of which questions can and must be ultimately decided only by an act of intellectual assent based on objective evidence. Thus, fideism not only denies intellectual knowledge, but logically ruins faith itself. . . .

Revelation, indeed, is the supreme motive of faith in supernatural truths, yet, the existence of this motive and its validity has to be established by reason. No one will deny the importance of authority and tradition or common consent in human society for our knowledge of natural truths. It is quite evident that to despise the teaching of the sages, the scientific discoveries of the past, and the voice of common consent would be to condemn ourselves to a perpetual infancy in knowledge, to render impossible any progress in science, to ignore the social character of man, and to make human life intolerable: but, on the other hand, it is an error to make these elements the supreme criteria of truth, since they are only particular rules of certitude, the validity of which is grounded upon a more fundamental rule. It is indeed true that moral certitude differs from mathematical, but the difference lies not in the firmness or validity of the certainty afforded, but in the process employed and the dispositions required by the nature of the truths with which they respectively deal. The Catholic doctrine on this question is in accord with history and philosophy. Rejecting both rationalism and fideism, it teaches that human reason is capable (physical ability) of knowing the moral and religious truths of the natural order; that it can prove with certainty the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and can acknowledge most certainly the teaching of God; that, however, in the present conditions of life, it needs (of moral necessity) the help of revelation to acquire a sufficient knowledge of all the natural truths necessary to direct human life according to the precepts of natural religion. (“Fideism,” Vol. VI, 68-69)

IX. Does Holy Scripture Teach Natural Theology in Romans 1?
The time has come to cut to the quick and determine whether Scripture teaches natural theology or not. I agree with Sproul and Gerstner that it certainly does, and that Romans 1 is the clearest expression of this. They write:

Verse 19 makes it clear that it is truth or knowledge about God which is being repressed or held down. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:19 RSV).

Here the apostle asserts that knowledge of God is not shrouded in obscurity, detectable only by an elite gnostic group or by a skilled master of esoteric mysteries. That which can be known about God is plain. . . . not hidden or concealed, but manifest, being clear and transparent for anyone to see . . . God Himself shows this revelation to man. “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20 RSV). Here is the text of texts to establish the biblical basis for general revelation and natural theology. . . .

It is important to note that Paul does not deny the ability of natural man to reason or even to reason correctly if free of prejudice. The problem is not in the capacity for thought per se, but in the thought process that begins and is maintained by prejudice to the facts. The intellectual problem is produced by the moral problem, not the moral problem by an intellectual one.

Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Rom. 1:22-23 NASB)

This severe indictment by the apostle could easily be misconstrued as an assault upon the intelligence of natural man. A close look at this passage, however, will indicate that the passage attacks not intellectual ability but morality. . . .

We conclude that the apostle Paul teaches clearly and unambiguously that humans possess a natural knowledge of God which rests upon the foundation of general revelation . . . In rejecting certain forms of natural theology, we must not discard natural theology altogether if we want to maintain a position which is consistent with the New Testament . . . If people do in fact have a knowledge of God from nature, then a natural theology is possible . . .

If the apostle Paul is correct, then Kant was in error and the Christian apologist must work to establish once again a sound natural theology. (Sproul et al, 43, 52-53, 62-63)

X. “Self-Interpretation” and Miscellany
The Catholic Church offers the only non-arbitrary, historically- and biblically-defensible ecclesiology. God can guide His Church and protect it from error (infallibility). That Church can then guide mankind to true doctrine and a proper overall hermeneutic of Scripture. This may not be easy for folks to accept as a faith proposition, but at least it is not circular, and has much biblical warrant.


Catholicism has reason and faith in a proper balance, and does not deny the constant necessity of the faith aspect in the slightest. It is presuppositionalism that has demoted reason to a place where I believe God never intended it to be.

How is it “human autonomy” to believe that one person is given a special charism by God to guide and head the Church? If one wishes to deny all ecclesiastical or pastoral offices by the same reasoning, that would be consistent, but to deny and caricature the papacy in particular on these grounds, is curious and an insubstantial piece of reasoning. It seems more like mere prejudice or at least religious hostility. Catholics can give many biblical evidences for the papacy — and that is where the argument over its propriety and utility and very existence properly should take place.

XI. Conclusion: “The Starting Point” of Christian Philosophy and Apologetics
I shall again cite the wonderful analyses of Sproul and Gerstner, in conclusion:

The issue of starting point is crucial to the debate. The presuppositionalist maintains that you cannot get to God by starting with the self . . . , and the traditionalist argues that the self is the only possible starting place. . . .

The inevitability of beginning with the human self is admitted occasionally even by presuppositionalists. For example, Van Til acknowledges that

all agree that the immediate starting point must be that of our everyday experience and the “facts” that are most close at hand. But the exact charge we are making against so many Idealists as well as Pragmatists is that they are taking for granted certain temporal “facts” not only as temporary but as an ultimate starting point. (Van Til [4], 120)

This is a very significant point not often made by Van Til. As a matter of fact, it is never made consistently as a part of his system. If it were, much of his criticism would collapse. . . .

We contend that the “‘facts’ . . . most close at hand” are merely a starting point just because they are the only place at which anyone can start. If we do start at that point, we learn from the evidence that surrounds us that there is a God who alone can explain the ultimate meaning of everything.

If Van Til were willing to begin with us at that starting point and then argue from the observation of the world around that God alone explains everything, we could not agree more. C.S. Lewis makes a good deal of the fact that one could not confidently think without ultimately assuming a rational being at the head of the universe; but he does not begin with this rational being. By contrast, Van Til insists that a person must begin at that point. We find it difficult, therefore, to understand his casually saying that. of course, everybody begins at the common-sense, proximate starting point. We wish Van Til would acknowledge this all the time, instead of almost always supposing that anybody who starts there makes a fatal error because he necessarily ends there.

No, the traditional theist does not end there. And yes, the presuppositionalist too must always begin there. Van Til’s exception in the above case shows him to be inconsistent. This is apparent when any line of Vantillian thinking is pursued. He vacillates from one position to another — without being aware of it, for he certainly does not defend vacillation, though he does defend circularity of reasoning. He glories in circles. But we do not find even Van Til glorying in vacillation. Van Til consistently confuses God as the ontological starting point with God as the epistemological starting point; from this confusion arises his vacillation. (Sproul et al, 212, 214-216)

Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, in Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, edited by Anton Pegis, revision of the English Dominican Fathers’ translation, New York: Random House, 1945.
Clark, Mary T., editor, An Aquinas Reader, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1972.
Copi, Irving M., Introduction to Logic, 4th edition, New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Fairweather, A.M., editor, Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, Library of Christian Classics, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954.
Geisler, Norman L., Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1976.
Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.
Nash, Ronald H., The Word of God and the Mind of Man, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1982.
Nash, Ronald H. [2], editor, The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968.
Oberman, Heiko, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, revised, 1967.
Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1 of 5: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971.
Ruegsegger, Ronald W., editor, Reflections on Francis Schaeffer, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House / Academie Books, 1986.
Schaeffer, Francis, How Should We Then Live?, Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1976.
Schaeffer, Francis [2], Escape From Reason, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1968.
Sproul, R.C., John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House / Academie Books, 1984.
Van Til, Cornelius, The Defense of the Faith, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955.
Van Til, Cornelius [2], The Defense of the Faith, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co. 3rd revised edition, 1967.
Van Til, Cornelius [3], Systematic Theology, Classroom Syllabus, 1949.
Van Til, Cornelius [4], A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Den Dulk Foundation, 1969.


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Summary: I “dialogue” with Corelius Van Til (1895-1987) and critique his presuppositionalist views, as well as argue in favor of evidentialist apologetics.

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