Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: The Defense of the Faith

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 1st ed. 1955, 4th ed., K. Scott Oliphint editor. P&R Publishers, 2008.

I haven’t done a book review in a while. It’s not that I haven’t been reading. It’s just that I haven’t read much that merited me to share my thoughts. I’m still not sure that Van Til’s book The Defense of theFaith meets that qualification, but alas here I am anyways.

Van Til is known as the father of presuppositional apologetics. He argues that his method is THE reformed apologetic that is most consistent with Scripture and Calvin himself. A bit of backstory: Van Til left Calvin College perhaps in large part due to controversy stirred up with his apologetical method. He then took up a tenure at Westminster Theological Seminary and flourished. His ardent students who have followed in his footsteps are the late Greg Bahnsen and John Frame.

I would be lying if I told you that this book was great. I’m not a philosopher and my theological chops are not all that sharp as a result. My area of expertise is NT studies, biblical theology, and the NT's use of the OT. Apologetically, my area of “expertise” would be biblical studies related. I can handle Ehrman. I don’t know what to do with Kant. Be that as it may, Van Til laid out quite eloquently (read: philosophical jargon that flew high over my head) his methodology for a consistently reformed apologetic. It goes something like this. 

First, there can be no neutral ground between believers and non-believers. We all interpret nature, being, and knowledge based on our presuppositions for good or for bad. However, since we are all created and bear the image of God because of God’s common grace, there is a sense of divinity [sensus divinitatis because Latin makes it better!] wherein we all have some knowledge of God. The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is that the sinner suppresses that truth (Rom. 1:18ff.) and opts to believe in autonomy rather than acknowledge subservience to the Creator. What this looks like then is that a Christian can offer all the proof or evidence in the world to an unbeliever. But the unbeliever will simply interpret it based on his presupposition of autonomy. The error, among others as Van Til points out, is that the non-believer has no way to account for fact or logic so as to interpret nature or reality or being and so on. That is not to say that the unbeliever cannot know something. However, they can only know because they have access to the only way we can know anything – the sensus divinitatis. But because they deny their knowledge of God and suppress it, they cannot account for how they know anything. This makes the non-believer function in the realm of both a rational and irrational epistemology. They can rationally use logic to know something, but they believe everything is left to chance which can only lead to irrationality (what they know can just as simply change). However, the believer can account for knowledge because not only does he acknowledge the sensus divinitatis, but God has determined everything in the counsel of his will and thus knows everything. Only that which he ordained can happen. Thus God has an absolute knowledge. There is no chance with God. And God has revealed himself partly in the sensus divinitatis. Therefore knowledge is accessible and accountable for believers. When non-Christians know something and declare they know something, they are actually borrowing from the Christian worldview or tapping into the truth of God that they so deeply try to suppress.Therefore, the only way to account for anything, much less knowledge or reality or facts, is through the Christian (and reformed) worldview. Or to put it another way, Bahnsen said, "[T]he proof of the Christian God is the impossibility of the contrary."

Even as I type this out, I feel like I do not completely understand or have the ability to explain Van Til. I almost certainly need to re-read it, and sooner the better. However, I have encountered modern presuppositional apologists and have been quite impressed with their argumentation. Perhaps the best example of this method in action is Greg Bahnsen’s debate against Gordon Stein the atheist. He totally destroys him. It is definitely worth the listen.

As for the book, Van Til is dealing with a lot of issues. But more than anything, he is not just arguing for a methodology, he is arguing, or better defending his methodology from his peers who have completely trashed him. It got quite tiresome having to read how so-and-so got it wrong or misquoted or misrepresented or misunderstood his views. Conversely, I found the philosophical approach and the presuppositional method quite engaging. I have taught a low level form of it in my 10th grade class the past 2 years. But I still teach a classical approach as well. But Van Til does an extraordinary job explaining why his method is thoroughly reformed and thus biblical. I want/need to read more by others who can speak to me on my level.

With that in mind, I can’t say at all why this book was in my High School library! But I am delighted it was. But I can only give it one thumb up since it is a read beyond me. Perhaps this just means I need to improve my philosophy and metaphysical theology more.

No comments: