Final thoughts from the owner of the Van Til Lists

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crhoades

Puritan Board Graduate
For some edification and challenges regarding Van Til and presuppositionalism.
Website and links can be found here: http://www.vantil.info/

Well, folks, it's time to turn off the lights. However, I do have a few
final comments to make regarding my experience of running the lists and
participating in the discussions.

First, I am as convinced as ever that Van Til was a genius and that his
vision for a 'Reformation' in Christian apologetics was fundamentally
correct and needs to be taken seriously. I have quibbles about whether a
one-size-fits-all transcendental argument is extant, and about the
legitimate use of traditional theistic arguments, to be sure. But the basic
theological and philosophical convictions lying behind Van Til's position on
these issues -- the crucial role of presuppositions, the necessity of a
revelational epistemology, the folly of pretended neutrality and autonomous
reason, the epistemological and ethical antithesis between believer and
unbeliever, the rationalist-irrationalist dialectic in non-Christian
thought, etc. -- are profoundly insightful and essentially right, so I am
persuaded. Furthermore, I think that his views on theological paradox
deserve more attention than some of his better interpreters have given them.

Second, I have come to realise that probably the greatest challenge for Van
Tilians is not to take their apologetic "to the streets" (something that has
already been accomplished, thanks to the popularizing work of Bahnsen,
Frame, et al) but to export it from the seminary to the academy, where it
will not be granted a 'free pass' on account of its Reformed credentials but
will have to pay its way with hard philosophical graft under the scrutiny of
world-class scholars. I'm reminded of something Jonathan Barlow posted to
the list six years ago:

> My burden in life is to take Van Til not "to the streets" but
> "to the journals" and actually make it academically respectable
> to philosophers. I think there can be some real advances made
> if we can be careful and state things well in the philosophical
> journals. It will be a gradual infiltration, but eventually
> we'll have people thinking our way about the nature of the
> great debate, even if they do not share our conclusion to it.

http://www.ccir.ed.ac.uk/~jad/vantil-list/archive-Aug-1998/msg00349.html

And later:

> Van Tillianism has been very parochial and only prominent in
> certain enclaves. In fact, unless you go to Westminster Seminary
> and some branches of RTS, you will never read Van Til at a
> Reformed Seminary. [...] Also, we use many concepts as Van
> Tillians which need some unpacking. We need more argumentation,
> we need more intellectual tools, etc. Otherwise, our articles
> will appear so general and fuzzy as to be meaningless. Modern
> analytic philosophy has such high standards for precision of
> language, that a lot of translation will have to go on for the
> arguments to fly.

http://www.ccir.ed.ac.uk/~jad/vantil-list/archive-Aug-1998/msg00352.html

I don't know what Jonathan is up to these days, or whether he still has this
burden, but I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed here. Yet
little progress has been made in this regard since he posted those remarks.
Once I have completed my doctoral studies, God willing, I hope to make some
modest contribution toward meeting the challenge Jonathan has laid out, of
taking the Van Tilian blade out of the Calvinist cabinet and sharpening it
against the grindstone of 21st-century analytical philosophy. And I hope
others better equipped than me will also take up the gauntlet.

Incidentally, Van Tilian presuppositionalists could learn a few things from
the Intelligent Design folk (whatever one thinks of their arguments), who
have raised their academic profile by producing peer-reviewed publications
and arranging conferences with speaking invitations to first-class scholars
who represent opposing views, as well as those sympathetic to the cause.
(And the inroads made by the ID movement, however slight, suggest that
Calvinist presuppositionalists cannot fall back on the complaint that the
Christian philosophical community is dominated by Arminians and Catholics,
true though that may be.)

Third, as a related point, Van Tilians need to recognise that if the
programme is to keep moving forward, there has to be a recognition that
Van Til's writings do not hold all of the answers and that invaluable
insights can be found in the work of other thinkers (even those who are
not -- gasp! -- working within a Reformed theological framework). On one
level, this is simply a consistent application of Van Til's commitment to
the doctrine of common grace. A couple of examples. Steve Hays recently
drew my attention to some striking similarities between Van Til's theory of
analogical knowledge and the position defended in Barry Miller's *A Most
Unlikely God* (University of Notre Dame Press, 1996). Moreover, most list
members will be well aware of my belief that Van Tilians can learn much
about rigorous epistemological analysis from the 'Reformed epistemologists'
-- Plantinga, Alston, et al. There's every reason to think that some
careful 'selective breeding' between Van Tilian thought and other
philosophical schools will lead to leaner, fitter, stronger offspring.

Finally, I'm much less sanguine than I used to be about the potential of
e-mail discussion lists and web message boards for promoting creative and
detailed interaction on topics of interest to Van Tilians. They have their
uses, certainly, not least for answering the questions of 'newbies' and
providing practical assistance for those engaged in apologetic dialogues
with non-Christians. They're also well suited to informal debating, thus
providing a valuable training ground for aspiring apologists. But frankly,
those who want to break new ground would do better to lock themselves in
their study for a month or two with a stack of weighty academic tomes and
recent periodicals, thrash out a scholarly paper targeted at some
particular issue, and have it subjected to peer review with a view to
journal publication or conference presentation. No one is going to put
that level of effort into posting an e-mail to a discussion list, I dare
say, but aiming to pass muster under the critical eye of professional
philosophers (even those with evangelical Christian convictions) is quite
another matter.

Okay, I'll come down from the soapbox now. :)

One happy unintended consequence of the VT lists has been the extent to
which they have put subscribers in touch with other like-minded individuals
with whom they have formed substantial friendships, despite the geographical
separation. Some of you have thanked me privately for the role the lists
have played in connecting people across the world (not just the US!), but I
am quite sure that I have benefitted more than anyone in that respect. I
have made many valued friends over the past six years as a result of running
the lists, most of whom I have yet to meet in the flesh (though I look
forward to shaking your hands in a typically reserved British fashion when
we all meet in glory, if not before). I hope that folk will maintain the
relationships that have been established, whether through private
correspondence or other discussion forums. And if any of you happen to
visit Edinburgh, please drop me a note and I'll arrange to buy you lunch.
Really. Even Michael Metzler. ;)

Let me finish by thanking everyone who has supported and contributed to the
lists over the years, not least those who have sent me private notes of
gratitude and encouragement, and those have taught me much about Van Til,
philosophical theology, defending the faith, and Christian grace.

Blessings,
James Anderson
 
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