It remains puzzling to me that many still fail to understand what it is that Van Til means when he argues that we ought to argue with Scripture as our presupposition. Many, it seems, still interpret that as if all Van Til meant by it was that everyone has presuppositions, or that we need to assess each other’s presuppositions. To read it in this sense is to abstract Van Til’s usage of it from his theological commitments (which was why he began his Defense of the Faith with an extended summary of basic Reformed theology).

Van Til, however, did not use the word presupposition as a mere philosophical term to denote an apologetic method – nor was he advocating a form of post-modern relativism. Rather his intention was to borrow philosophical jargon in order to communicate what Reformed Orthodoxy had always taught when they argue that Scripture was to be placed as the Christian’s principium cognoscendi for all of life in general, and especially in our knowledge of God in particular. Scripture, as our principium, is the source, authority, foundation, and norm for knowledge. God is wholly other, for Van Til, and thus knowledge of Him could not be gained from abstract reasoning nor by way of a pre-dogmatic model of natural theology, but by His voluntary condescension to reveal himself.

This understanding of our doctrine of Scripture comes, in part, through the theology of Herman Bavinck:

But in the logical order Scripture is the sole foundation {pnncipium unicum) of church
and theology. . . . Not the church but Scripture is self-authenticating (αύτοπιστος), the judge of controversies . . ., and its own interpreter (sui ipsius interpres). Nothing must be put on a level with Scripture.. .. Scripture alone is the norm and rule of faith and life. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:86)

In this life, God has spoken decisively through Holy Scripture:

“Thus, we have discovered three foundations (principia)’. First, God as the essential foundation (principium essendi), the source, of theology; next, the external cognitive foundation (principium cognoscendi externum), viz., the self-revelation of God, which, inso­far as it is recorded in Holy Scripture, bears an instrumental and temporary character; and finally, the internal principle of knowing (principium cognoscendi internum), the illu­mination of human beings by God’s Spirit.” (Reformed Dogmatics 1:213-214).

What Van Til means, therefore, in arguing that Scripture must be our presupposition, or that we have to argue to the unbeliever by way of presupposition, is that our defense of the faith must be carried out in a manner consistent with our convictions about our doctrine of Scripture. So, in apologetics no less than in our doing of theology, we cannot compromise our conviction in what Scripture is, nor could we compromise our ethical obligation to interpret God’s world in light of God’s Word.

For Van Til, special revelation and general revelation cannot be read independently of one another – they must both be mutually coordinated, with a priority on God’s verbal revelation (Van Til sees Adam and Eve’s prohibition to eat from the tree as emblematic of what they were supposed to do, namely, to conduct activity in God’s world with God’s Word as the authoritative norm. Adam and Eve were not to interpret the trees autonomously – they were to obey God’s Word.) Especially after the fall, man’s reasoning is darkened, and God’s special revelation now bears an additional redemptive and corrective function to it.

In Van Til’s words: “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.”  (“Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word, 117). Man is thus ethically obligated to think God’s thoughts after Him, to obey and to read God’s world in light of God’s Word. This is a covenantal obligation – the unbeliever, therefore, is the one who refuses to submit every thought to Christ and His Word – to read the world in light of his own autonomous reason. This ethical breach will have epistemological and intellectual consequences that are disastrous. Again, this has its roots in Bavinck:

General revelation leads to special, special revelation points back to general. The one calls for the other, and without it remains imperfect and unintelligible.” (Philosophy of Revelation, 28)

It should be clear by now that what Van Til was trying to do was to formulate a defense of the faith that might be consistent with what Reformed Orthodoxy as a whole has always affirmed about their doctrine of Scripture. He thought that his method was that which was most consistent with the Scriptural convictions of his tradition.

For these reasons, (1) the ambiguity and philosophical baggage behind the word ‘presupposition’ (2) the heavily theological foundations behind Van Til’s apologetic and (3) the many misunderstandings of Van Til’s thought, Scott Oliphint has tried to recoin the term “presuppositional apologetics,” changing it to what I think is a better term: Covenantal Apologetics (or epistemology).

When Critics reject Van Til’s apologetic method what it exposes is not so much, therefore, that they are rejecting his method per se, but rather the Reformed doctrine of God, doctrine of Scripture, Doctrine of Man, and Doctrine of Salvation on which his methodology and apologetics rest. Any discussion of Van Til that might be fruitful, therefore, will do best to not abstract his apologetics from his theology, as many had done in the past. The point of discussion should therefore be located in the classical loci of theology, on which Van Til’s epistemology and apologetic depend.

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