Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th Edition, ed. Scott K. Oliphint. Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008. Paperback. 427pp.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
Reformed systematic theology and a Reformed method of apologetics are intertwined. In a changing world where the Reformed faith is challenged both from within and from without, it is more important than ever to be equipped to return to a defense of the Reformed faith that is rooted in Reformed theology. This makes this annotated reprint of Van Til’s Defense of the Faith timely.
I initially passed by this book largely because I had already read the third edition of the same book. This is a reprint of the entire first edition of the text with added explanatory notes by Dr. K. Scott Oliphint. What I had not realized was that the first edition was substantially longer than subsequent editions because the first edition was written largely in order to defend Van Til’s views against a string of critics connected with Calvin Theological Seminary. In many respects, this book is misnamed. Instead of a defense of the Christian faith, it contains primarily Van Til’s defense of why he defended the faith in the way that he did.
Rather than presenting a full critical review of the book itself, I will point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of the book for understanding Van Til’s method and how this book can help us think about apologetics in relation to the Reformed system of theology.
First, in some respects, this reader is undecided whether he likes better the fourth edition of The Defense of the Faith or one of the older and shorter versions of the same work. Dr. Oliphint’s notes are extremely valuable in explaining terms, but Van Til’s interaction with his critics reads as though the reader is overhearing parts of a conversation that has occurred behind closed doors. Other editions largely omit this material in an attempt to turn the book into a more positive statement of Reformed apologetics. In the full version, Van Til got off to a rocky start by beginning with a twenty-five page introduction which consists of little more than block quotations from his critics. The critics themselves are highly philosophical in their approach, which makes this one of Van Til’s more complicated works. However, lest I run the risk of dissuading the reader from picking up this book, it is important to note that the original introduction makes the remaining structure of the book clearer than later editions do. In the first major section, Van Til rehashed the basic structure of his apologetic in order to add clarity in the face of opposition. In the second section, he reviewed this apologetic structure again by confronting his critics head on. The later omissions explain why the structure was confusing to me when I read the third edition of the book. These editions come across as presenting a conflict without a context. Another interesting feature of this work is that it is largely Van Til’s own hand-selected compendium of his other major works, since he chose to defend himself largely by commenting upon what he had written already. This gives us a window into what he considered to be the most significant features of this method.
Second, this book is extremely valuable in clarifying many misconceptions that surround Van Til’s method to the present day. For instance, Van Til consistently argued that the Christian’s “point of contact” with the non-Christian resided in the fact that all men are created in the image of God and inescapably reveal their Creator. In this sense, they have an internal witness against themselves that the Triune God of the Bible created them. They “know him” through this internal witness, although the unregenerate will never acknowledge that this is the case. The non-Christian, whether he realizes it or not, presupposes that man is ultimate in determining the nature of reality, but because he is created in the image of God, he cannot live consistently with his principles. He does not know God truly because he is suppressing the knowledge of God that he has imprinted on his heart by nature. The Christian must show the non-Christian that any position that he holds will always be inconsistent because he has treated himself rather than the Triune God of Scripture as the ultimate first presupposition of his reasoning. The principles upon which he thinks are sinful and rebellious, and he needs to repent and believe in Christ. This is what Van Til meant when he asserted that we must begin our thinking with God. The only two choices for an ultimate (and presupposed) first principle of reality, knowledge, and ethics are either the Triune God of Scripture or the idea that man is the measure of all things. This is what makes this approach “presuppositional.”
In spite of this fact, a popular Reformed apologist asserted recently that beginning with God in our thinking is impossible because only God can begin thinking with God – therefore, I must begin thinking with myself. This speaker missed the fact that Van Til was not so much concerned with the manner in which we think as the principle upon which we ground the possibility of thinking itself. Van Til never taught that we cannot begin an apologetic conversation with a human subject rather than a divine subject. He wrote, “If then the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting point, it remains true that God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate or final reference point in human interpretation” (100). To this, Dr. Oliphint adds, “This point needs to be emphasized. Van Til affirms that the proximate starting point for all our thinking is, of necessity, the self. The apologetic point, however, is that the ultimate reference point with respect to predication is the triune God” (100, fn 31). Here, as in many cases, Van Til asserted the exact opposite of what he is accused of saying.
I have not yet read a critic of the basic tenets of Van Til’s method who has given sufficient evidence that he has carefully understood that method. Most arguments against him are a straw-man of one kind or another. With Oliphint’s help, this book has the potential to clear up several other misconceptions of the presuppositional approach. Examples include: To presuppose the Triune God of Scripture does not mean refusing to argue for the truth of the Christian faith. It means that without this presupposition, nothing else is (legitimately) intelligible. Also, reasoning within a circle (in this case the Christian world-view) is not the same thing as the fallacy of circular reasoning. Our view of the world is determined by our most fundamental (presuppositional) commitments. The Christian always presupposes the Triune God and the authority of his Word (though not perfectly in practice) and the non-Christian always presupposes that this same God does not exist and that He cannot speak to mankind (also imperfect in practice). These basic commitments determine what kind of system of thought we can hold to consistently. The heart of Van Til’s method, that is so widely misunderstood even at present, is that the basic unconscious presupposition of the non-Christian rests upon sinking sand, while the believe alone stands upon solid rock. It is our goal, apologetically, to show him that his presupposition is hopelessly untenable and that ours is necessary. This is an ethical problem that requires redemption in Christ and it is not simply an intellectual difficulty. Though Van Til’s writings can become clouded by philosophical terminology, this is the method that is essentially used every time the gospel is preached faithfully from a Reformed pulpit (read the book for more about this point).
Third, whatever readers think of Van Til’s apologetic method, we should commend him for seeking to develop an approach that is self-consciously Reformed. He developed his apologetic from a classic Reformed systematic theology and his approach is irreversibly dependent upon that Reformed system taken as a whole (see esp. chapter thirteen). In this writer’s view, his position is the only one that is consistent with classic Reformed systematic theology. If Van Til teaches us anything, it is that the manner in which we defend our faith must depend upon the content of the faith that we are defending: “Only in the Reformed faith is there an uncompromising statement of the main tenets of Christianity. All other statements are deformations. It is but to be expected that only in the Reformed faith will we find an uncompromising method of apologetics” (134. See also 273.). Later he added, “I seek to oppose Roman Catholicism and Arminianism in apologetics as I seek to oppose it in theology” (253. See also 299.). In a day where the system of Reformed theology is eroding in many instances, it will be a question as to whether or not Van Til’s method can survive. Recent Reformed systematic theologies have, among other things, denied the imputation of Adam’s sin, sought union with Greek Orthodoxy, radically restructured the very idea of systematic theology, or made systematic theology subservient to biblical theology. A Reformed system of apologetics will only be as strong as the Reformed system of theology upon which it is built. We cannot experience radical changes in our system of theology without radically changing our approach to everything. Van Til’s work should cause us to take pause, not only as we decide how we should defend the faith, but as we decide what that faith is that we hope to defend.
Lastly, in light of the modern renaissance of studies on the doctrine of the Trinity, Van Til’s method is explicitly and thoroughly Trinitarian. In contrast to other approaches to apologetics, the doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely essential to his apologetic method. In the seventeenth century, the Tri-unity of God was regarded as one of the principia, or first principles, of theology (Scripture is the other principium of Reformed theology). This says more than asserting that the Trinity is an essential doctrine. It means that the rest of the doctrines of the Reformed system rest upon the God who is Triune as a principle upon which every other doctrine rests. Over time, as the church began to argue for a generic conception of God from reason, the Trinity became something that was added later to the system of theology rather than standing as the very foundation of theology. Readers will need to consult a work such as Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics to fill out the details on this point. However, it could be argued that Van Til presented the first genuine practical development on the Reformed doctrine of the Trinity since the high period of Reformed orthodoxy. This means that Van Til has a lot to say, not only to modern apologetics, but to contemporary theology.
This review was first published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, July 2012.