On Fideism, Testing (Mal 3), and Van Til

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Gwallard

Puritan Board Freshman
When continuing to read Bahnsen's Van Til Reader, I was struck by a contrast: Van Til completely disagrees with fideism, and completely disagrees that sinful man can be convinced by reason alone. Tell me if this is helpful, confused, or off base.

I do not think these are incompatible, but it may explain why people say that Van Til's method is fideism. If I can use testing as an example: God declares that he should not be tested as he was tested at Meribah in Exodus 17, but he also commands that he be tested in Malachi 3. The first testing is one that attempts to establish faith by a sign, when abundant signs have already been given - making God something of a slave or a puppet of those who doubt. The second testing is one that comes from an already established faith which will be accompanied by signs. Those who test the Lord in Exodus 17, in effect, say "not enough evidence," though his workings are still within recent memory; those who would test the Lord in Malachi 3 say, "I believe you already" though they may be timid in trusting all his promises fully in light of their current circumstances.

Fideism is (Bahnsen 73) "the view which assumes knowledge originates in a fundamental act of faith, independent of rational presuppositions." There are those who will attempt to test God's claims to establish faith, and will not have faith until what they desire is demonstrated before them. These people will call Van Til's view fideism because VT claims with the Bible that men and women are not convinced of the truth by rational demonstration, but by the Holy Spirit's inward testimony. The Calvinists of these people will also say that man is totally depraved, and that man often uses his rational faculty to attempt to dethrone the God they already know very well in their hearts in any way they can.

But why Van Til's method is not fideism is because those arguments which demonstrate the rational truth of God's existence are essentially true; those same arguments which the unbeliever rejects as uncertain are in their essence actually certain, but the unbeliever declares the opposite. The knowledge exists before faith is placed upon God, but he simply desires to "test" God ad infinitum to establish it. That the unbeliever cannot be turned by rational proof alone is not the problem of the proof, but of the unbeliever, so the Holy Spirit must be waited upon to do his work.

Van Til also might be called a fideist in the same way that anyone might: knowledge includes faith. Knowledge is "justified, true belief" afterall. The Christian just has a new relation to the knowledge which he already had - the knowledge becomes the source of joy, peace, life, and application. God calls his people to trust his promises in Deuteronomy toward Israel and put him to the test (Malachi 3:10) by doing righteousness, so they might see (have it demonstrated) that they are true.

True demonstrations are everywhere. Demonstration which the person accepts only follows the work of the Holy Spirit. That is not fideism...
(personal ramble below)

...but I honestly struggle with it, because I am like the Israelites at Meribah - I want a demonstration that is so clear that I cannot be in doubt about it. Certainly, there can be no rationality at all without the Triune God, and therefore he is certain, but my subjective appropriation of that truth is much like the rebellious Israelites. I seek to test God to believe in him who is already without doubt, because I feel there is doubt within me though I know it is born of sin. Though I know now that I can say that Van Til's view is not fideism, there are still little lights going off in my head telling me something is wrong with that evaluation, for whatever reason. The evidentialist might say trust those inhibitions, and the Van Til disciple might call that the result of sin and unbelief.
 
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greenbaggins

Administrator
Staff member
Van Til would answer in this way, I believe: the ground of both our faith and our reason is the self-revelation of our Trinitarian God. Both the presuppositions which we hold, and the faith in which we believe are grounded on a revelation that originates entirely outside of us. Hence the charge of fideism will not hold against Van Til. Fideism believes that the ground of rationality is our faith, and therefore that the ground is internal to us. Neither does it fall into fideism to claim that the Holy Spirit convinces us internally of the truth of the external revelation (the principium external to us and the principium internal to us). For, as Bavinck and others have shown, even the internal principium comes from the Holy Spirit and does not originate in ourselves, but changes our beliefs.

Furthermore, what Van Til is arguing against has to be kept in mind. He is rejecting the idea that there is a neutral rational ground between believers and unbelievers. That is why he says we cannot argue unbelievers into the kingdom. Even our rationality is controlled by our presuppositions, which, in the case of Christians, are grounded on the external revelation. We are not calling unbelievers so much to a debate as to repentance. Van Til is concerned with seeking to prove that unbelief is primarily a moral issue of the unbeliever rebelling against what he knows to be true.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
God declares that he should not be tested as he was tested at Meribah in Exodus 17, but he also commands that he be tested in Malachi 3.

Van Til missed a key moment to really work "covenantal" themes into his apologetics with passages like that. For a school that claims to be "covenantal in apologetics," they really don't take advantage of that.

Even though I fundamentally disagree with Van Til, he isn't a fideist. Kuyper is. Van Til believes the Christian faith is rational. The problem is he goes on to say that it is rational because without it you can't prove anything. Maybe that's true, but that's a really tall order.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Van Til also might be called a fideist in the same way that anyone might: knowledge includes faith. Knowledge is "justified, true belief" afterall.

I'm glad you said that. I've told cage stage presups that Van Til/Bahnsen believed that knowledge = justified, true belief. They yelled at me and blocked me on facebook.

Back to your question: I think you are more asking of knowledge whether God exists. The Israelites had a more covenantal context. They weren't obedient. I don't think "test" is being used in the same sense.
 

Gwallard

Puritan Board Freshman
Van Til would answer in this way, I believe: the ground of both our faith and our reason is the self-revelation of our Trinitarian God. Both the presuppositions which we hold, and the faith in which we believe are grounded on a revelation that originates entirely outside of us. Hence the charge of fideism will not hold against Van Til. Fideism believes that the ground of rationality is our faith, and therefore that the ground is internal to us. Neither does it fall into fideism to claim that the Holy Spirit convinces us internally of the truth of the external revelation (the principium external to us and the principium internal to us). For, as Bavinck and others have shown, even the internal principium comes from the Holy Spirit and does not originate in ourselves, but changes our beliefs.

Furthermore, what Van Til is arguing against has to be kept in mind. He is rejecting the idea that there is a neutral rational ground between believers and unbelievers. That is why he says we cannot argue unbelievers into the kingdom. Even our rationality is controlled by our presuppositions, which, in the case of Christians, are grounded on the external revelation. We are not calling unbelievers so much to a debate as to repentance. Van Til is concerned with seeking to prove that unbelief is primarily a moral issue of the unbeliever rebelling against what he knows to be true.
I think I was trying to get to that second part (italicized in my quote), and I completely agree! The objective truth of the world is that his Revelation is not only there, but true; and not only true, but demonstrably true in the world - that we do not believe it is not a fault of the truth, but of the subject himself. Our testing of God cannot establish God's existence through the demonstration that we desire because our sinful minds are tainted and our internal, rational workings will not allow us to admit the demonstrable, objective truth before us. Our sinful selves desire to have demonstrated ad infinitum what has already been demonstrated before us: God exists. But that unbelievers cannot repent because of rational argumentation doesn't mean there must be an unjustified "leap of faith" internal to ourselves before we can be convinced.
What I'm struggling with is that the inward witness of the Holy Spirit seems like a decision that 1) comes from within (though effected/originating from without), and 2) is before or without demonstration. I'm trying to argue that demonstration has been all around him - it is the fault of the person who does not accept them in their subjective appropriation of them. That Van Til says that the person cannot be convinced by rationality does not destroy the rationality of the world and bring us to fideism, but just means that the subject cannot change himself, which is such a sacred cow to people that they call the work of the Holy Spirit fideism. Faith makes understandable (Subjective appropriation), faith does not make rational (an objective attribute of the world); and in order to have faith, one 1) cannot be convinced because of their sin, and 2) must be convinced by the Holy Spirit. I'm struggling for metaphores, but it's less like a "leap of faith" in Van Til, and more like a being thrown across a chasm to safety by the Holy Spirit. Does this mean that all apologetics, then, cannot be like forcing someone across the chasm - something impossible for us- but is more like showing how solid the Christian view (to both Christian in defense, and to pagan in offense) is compared to their falling in air? Fideism is waiting for faith, VT is waiting for God. We just demonstrate the rationality of Christianity and the baseless "rationality" of the unbeliever to the glory of God.

Side question: If there is no rational ground which the believer and unbeliever hold in common, then can the rational proof of the transcendental argument be of any more power to the unbeliever's conversion than the other proofs?

I'm really being humbled here. I have been critical for the last decade about how terrible of a writer Van Til is, but here I am doing just as bad. Ha!
 

Gwallard

Puritan Board Freshman
I'm glad you said that. I've told cage stage presups that Van Til/Bahnsen believed that knowledge = justified, true belief. They yelled at me and blocked me on facebook.

Back to your question: I think you are more asking of knowledge whether God exists. The Israelites had a more covenantal context. They weren't obedient. I don't think "test" is being used in the same sense.
Just to understand what you mean here, are you saying that the people at Meribah were not doubting that God existed when they said, "Is God with us or not?," but they were more questioning, covenantally, whether he was present with them to bless them? It wasn't a question of existence, but of covenantally present blessing?
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Just to understand what you mean here, are you saying that the people at Meribah were not doubting that God existed when they said, "Is God with us or not?," but they were more questioning, covenantally, whether he was present with them to bless them? It wasn't a question of existence, but of covenantally present blessing?

That is correct. Atheism is a modern phenomenon. In any case, they saw God's might acts. That was precisely the problem.
 

Gwallard

Puritan Board Freshman
[Van Til] isn't a fideist. Kuyper is. Van Til believes the Christian faith is rational. The problem is he goes on to say that it is rational because without it you can't prove anything. Maybe that's true, but that's a really tall order.
To continue with the clarifying questions (if you'll humor me), are you saying that it is a tall order because in order to prove such a thing we would have to have comprehensive knowledge - or, close to comprehensive knowledge, maybe(?) - of all the religions or philosophies that exist or could exist? Or, what makes it such a tall order?
 

Charles Johnson

Puritan Board Sophomore
I think the reason Van Til appears to be a fideist to many (though he isn't) is that while he admits the possibility of the intellectual knowledge of God without saving faith, he dismisses it so thoroughly that it reading much of his body of work in isolation it appears as if he is denying that such is possible. He often appears to reduce mankind to two groups: the open atheist and the regenerate Christian. Now, his actual beliefs are more subtle than that, but that's what it looks like he's saying if one doesn't read the essential context, which can be as broad as reading an entirely other volume than the one currently in one's hands. That's a huge weakness of Van Til. One doesn't have to read everything Turretin or Brakel or most others wrote for one to understand the force of a single passage. They can be used as a reference on a single matter. The reader of Van Til does not have that luxury.
 
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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
To continue with the clarifying questions (if you'll humor me), are you saying that it is a tall order because in order to prove such a thing we would have to have comprehensive knowledge - or, close to comprehensive knowledge, maybe(?) - of all the religions or philosophies that exist or could exist? Or, what makes it such a tall order?

It's possible, but few people adequately know enough of every false system to show how each system fails to account for unity and diversity. Van Til usually fell back on the standard topics: Platonism, Aristotle, David Hume, Kant. His critiques are fine, but real life is usually more nuanced than that.
 

83r17h

Puritan Board Freshman
To continue with the clarifying questions (if you'll humor me), are you saying that it is a tall order because in order to prove such a thing we would have to have comprehensive knowledge - or, close to comprehensive knowledge, maybe(?) - of all the religions or philosophies that exist or could exist? Or, what makes it such a tall order?

Part of what makes it a tall order is how you would go about constructing a proof of it. It is perhaps conceivable at a high level how you would do such a proof (and I personally think Van Til was correct in the conclusion), but actually constructing it with rigor might be impossible. Even if you could demonstrate it with a proof, would such a thing be useful? Not really. I've had conversations with friends who are atheists along these lines - I could dismantle their worldview and presuppositions, demonstrating that they couldn't account for knowledge and that I could. And they openly admitted it. Didn't change anything, they don't want to obey God's commands so they won't believe.

The other thing (which Jacob gets at in #10) is that you either need to find a way to demonstrate every possible system cannot justify knowledge (which is impossible one-by-one because there are conceivably infinite systems), or you need to find a way to deal with systems under a generalization that allows you to deal with more than one at a time. But how? After all, if it is only an ultimate being of unity and diversity (which are co-ultimate), why can't I invent a system with a made-up one nature and five person god, who is not the God of the Bible, and claim that I've justified knowledge? If it is a Trinity, why the Biblical one as opposed to someone's invented one, who thinks that [insert sin here] is cool?

Jacob, you're more knowledgeable than me here, so please correct me if I'm in error.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Part of what makes it a tall order is how you would go about constructing a proof of it. It is perhaps conceivable at a high level how you would do such a proof (and I personally think Van Til was correct in the conclusion), but actually constructing it with rigor might be impossible. Even if you could demonstrate it with a proof, would such a thing be useful? Not really. I've had conversations with friends who are atheists along these lines - I could dismantle their worldview and presuppositions, demonstrating that they couldn't account for knowledge and that I could. And they openly admitted it. Didn't change anything, they don't want to obey God's commands so they won't believe.

The other thing (which Jacob gets at in #10) is that you either need to find a way to demonstrate every possible system cannot justify knowledge (which is impossible one-by-one because there are conceivably infinite systems), or you need to find a way to deal with systems under a generalization that allows you to deal with more than one at a time. But how? After all, if it is only an ultimate being of unity and diversity (which are co-ultimate), why can't I invent a system with a made-up one nature and five person god, who is not the God of the Bible, and claim that I've justified knowledge? If it is a Trinity, why the Biblical one as opposed to someone's invented one, who thinks that [insert sin here] is cool?

Jacob, you're more knowledgeable than me here, so please correct me if I'm in error.

You've hit the nail on the head. And as I tell some presups, a quaternity can just as easily explain unity and diversity as a Trinity. Of course, I don't really think a quaternity is ultimately feasible, but on the surface level it works.
 
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