Van Tillianism, Postmodernism, & Neo-Orthodoxy: Is There a Relationship Here?

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partaij1

Puritan Board Freshman
Thank you. Now I understand where you're coming from and can make sense of your posts. Your rejection of Kant and your connection of Kant with Van Til is significant to the way you view the goings-on at Covenant College. I'm not inclined to argue with you, since I too see a great deal of Kant in Van Til (but I'm not yet sure that's a bad thing).

However, could I ask for just a little bit more clarification on behalf of members who may have been shocked by your posts? Are you saying that Van Tillians are necessarily postmodern/neo-orthodox, or that Van Tillianism leads to (or stems from) postmodernism/neo-orthodoxy, or simply that Van Tillianism is compatible with postmodernism/neo-orthodoxy? (I think those are the only options.) I ask this because there are many Van Tillians on this board, and they probably could not make any sense out of how someone could be labeled all the ways you labeled Dr. McLellan.
-- Charliej

Charlie,

These are carefully nuanced and thoughtful questions. How they are answered can, of course, have profound implications for those who are Reformed. I think by the way you pose these questions, you are aware that the stakes are high.

At Westminster Seminary for forty-three years, as you know, Cornelius Van Til had a significant influence on an entire generation of Reformed pastors. As you've noted, a number of people associated with this blog are Van Tillian. It is not surprising that he has had such an impact. He was quite intelligent, spiritually alive and dedicated to Christ, committed to Scripture, and well versed in philosophy.

As you noted, Van Til is, while being critical of Kant, also indebted to Kant. Through Kant, Van Til brought to the church (at least in its Reformed branch) an epistemology that was a synthesis of Reformed theology and Western philosophy (Kant). The result was particularly evident in a new apologetics, altogether unprecedented in the church's history. John Frame recognizes this when he notes a parallel between the importance of Kant in all that follows in Western philosophy and that of Van Til in Reformed circles and thinking.

We might want to pause here for a moment, though, and think through the troubling implications of this (regardless of what one thinks of either Kant or Van Til):

(1) Can we identify another instance in the church's history where an significant overhaul of the presentation and defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ hinged on the teaching of a secular philosopher?

(2) If Van Til had been relying solely on Scripture (Sola Scriptura), which is arguably the most important principle of Reformed thinking, would he have been able to present his influential proposal for apologetics?

(3) Related to the first question, if Van Til was right to incorporate Kant's epistemology into Reformed and biblical theology, does that not mean that the church was in the dark on apologetics for roughly eighteen hundred years prior to Kant? Moreover, does that not mean that the apostles themselves (e.g., Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 17:2-4), not having Kant's theory of knowing, mistakenly related to people as if there was a common ground of neutrality, shared facts, etc. between themselves and the unregenerate people they were trying to persuade that Jesus is the Messiah?

(4) And does this not all mean that Scripture, as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20) and that which equips the "man of God" for "every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17), is actually not sufficient or complete enough for that "good work" which is preaching and defending the gospel of Christ? That the church doesn't have its fullness completely in its head Jesus Christ but needs philosophy for that particular aspect of its work? That the church needed Kant before it was fully enlightened about the true state of the unregenerate in their blindness and with respect to knowing in general and hence, what ought or ought not to be said in bringing the gospel to them -- what ought or ought not to be expected of them as unregenerate?

Just on the face of things, why is it that Reformed people have become so enamoured with a philosopher? Have they read Calvin's Institutes with a view to noting his critical posture toward philosophy, his reasons for opposing any synthesis of Christianity and Western philosophy? Have they really worked through the philosophically learned apostle Paul's clear charge: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy" (Colossians 2:8)?

Anyway, it is difficult to talk about Van Til's ideas without considering philosophy, and particularly, what is going on in Kant.

The short answer (oops, too late!) to your question is that Van Tillianism, postmodernism, and neo-orthodoxy all share the epistemological idealism of Kant.

Moreover, the approach that Van Til took with synthesizing modern philosophy (Kant) and Reformed Christianity has a logical and historical continuum -- i.e., the insight Van Til took from modern philosophy in its historical development calls for an update: modernism has aged into postmodernism.

I will say more about this later, but Van Til naively and inconsistently assumed a direct realistic access to Scriptural meaning, although, this was what saved him from the implications of epistemological idealism which in its latter form as postmodernism denied that there was any directly or immediately accessible meaning in the text (the Bible included).

But I've gotten ahead of myself. I've already used a term which may not be clear. So if I may, I need to do some preliminary work first before I respond further to your questions. Though you may be familiar with my terminology, for the sake of clarity and for readers who may be following this discussion who may not be familiar with philosophy, I will provide a couple of definitions that will need to be learned, or it will be difficult (if it isn't difficult already) to follow me.

I. I define "epistemological realism" as the belief that reality or truth exists and is directly or immediately knowable.

For my purposes, "epistemological realism" is the same as "common sense realism," "naive realism," and "direct realism."

"Epistemological realism" is associated with the "correspondence theory" of truth which states that "truth is what accords with (or corresponds to) reality."

The implication here is that there is a reliable correlation between the way the mind processes reality and the way reality itself is. There can, therefore, be a match between the way the mind knows things and the way things actually are.

I see a pencil on my desk right now.

"Epistemological realism" takes that statement not as a claim or "belief" that needs to be justified somehow before it can become knowledge (the way philosophers may feel is necessary) but as "knowledge" already and in itself.

It is called "simple seeing" or "knowledge by acquaintance." It stands for knowing in its "is-structure" -- i.e. and in my above example, The pencil is the object I see and its actual structure or form accords with what I see.

This is just plain ordinary or everyday knowing as all of us know and depend on it.

One more definition.

II. I define "epistemological idealism" as the belief that reality or truth exists but is indirectly or mediately knowable. Reality is known through or by ideas, by conditions and structures internal to the mind.

Using the pencil illustration, epistemological idealism speaks this way: "I am being appeared to in the manner of a pencil on my desk. I see a particular object (x) as a pencil. It has the "as-structure" of a pencil. I don't know what it really looks like (its "is-structure"); I only know how it appears to me given the way my mind conditions it."

There is a family of different theories of truth which may all be associated with "epistemological idealism." I will mention the primary one: "the coherence theory of truth." Here's the definition: "truth is what coheres with everything else we believe."

There are other theories in the same family belonging to epistemological idealism (such as the "pragmatic theory of truth") but what this family does not accept, of course, is the "correspondence theory of truth."

Often in philosophy, "idealism" is regarded as a metaphysical (what pertains to the ultimate nature of things) description merely -- i.e., as the belief that reality is entirely mental or the product of the mind. Bishop Berkeley is most generally associated with this extreme form of "idealism."

But Western philosophy presents other forms of idealism than the Berkeleyan variety.

First, Plato's doctrine of the Ideas or Forms states that reality exists in an immaterial realm only encountered directly or immediately when the soul is disembodied after death. In that state, the soul sees directly or immediately the Ideas or Forms. Then when the soul is reincarnated it learns by recalling through questions what it knew perfectly, directly, and immediately when it saw the Ideas or Forms in its disembodied state. The material realm is a shadow (less real) of the immaterial realm. According to Plato, "the body is the prison house of the soul." Matter/body gets in the way of mind, distorts knowledge, makes knowing imperfect. The more purely rational one is while in an embodied state in the material realm is the more one makes progress in knowing reality as it actually is (that is the Forms or Ideas themselves).

Second, fast forward to Descartes, the father of modern philosophy. Descartes holds to a radical dualism between mind and body/matter -- that these are two different substances which cannot relate to each other. In his quest for indubitable knowledge, he believes all he can know, is known by a subjective turn within: his own ideas or thoughts as a thinking being. Plato's Ideas or Forms are now in the human mind itself. The mind has become its own prison. And that's where I'll have to leave it for now.

Blessings,

Joseph
__________________
 

CharlieJ

Puritan Board Junior
Unstated Assumption?

As Sean Connery would say, "The gamesh afoot."

To play devil's advocate here, I don't really remember Van Til ever admitting his indebtedness to Kant. Of course, it shows up in a few ways. But isn't there another solution other than declaring that presuppositionalism makes Christianity dependent on a secular philosopher? Sola Scriptura theologians would say that the Bible has always contained all the necessary truth pertaining to the Christian life. However, not all Christians realize all that truth. So couldn't Van Til (or a defender of Van Til) argue that Kant is not the source of "presuppositionalism"? Kant, like many philosophers before him (most notably Aristotle), merely got some things right that the Bible taught all along and provided the Church with the vocabulary to express those things. I think that most presuppositionalists would trace their philosophy from Van Til back to Kuyper and Calvin, perhaps even Augustine. Is that not legitimate?
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
Charlie, the trouble is that before Descartes, there was really only one epistemology in the Church. Calvin and Luther both assumed that the senses were reliable, and that the perceived reality had a real correspondence to actuality.

Descartes changed all that by suggesting that maybe the reality that we perceive is a delusion, like the Matrix--that maybe everything we "know" is in fact a lie. Thus, he sought to rebuild the foundation of knowledge--and ultimately failed. John Locke tried to rebuild trust in the senses, but between Bishop Berkeley and David Hume, that project fell through.

Enter Kant--Kant suggests that there is a reality that we perceive, but that it is distorted and shaped by various factors and that it has some correspondence to reality, but not a whole lot.

Reid, in contrast, realized that our criterion for knowledge is not absolute "philosophic certainty" but "reasonable certainty" (defined as per a courtroom). This view restores all that Descartes doubted and was the majority view in the Presbyterian Church and especially at Princeton (Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield) until Van Til.

I myself am still working out a synthesis between the two. While I strongly advocate Reid's position, I am also conscious of the fact that the perception of reality may be shaped by various factors, depravity being one of them. I would say that the answer is ultimately both.
 

rbcbob

Puritan Board Graduate
If Van Til's apologetic is "new" then how does it differ from Owen?

“We believe the Scripture to be the word of God with divine faith for its own sake only; or, our faith is resolved into the authority and truth of God only as revealing himself unto us therein and thereby”

“Unless we intend so to wander,we must come to something wherein we may rest for its own sake, and that not with a strong and firm opinion, but with divine faith. And nothing can rationally pretend unto this privilege but the truth of God manifesting itself in the Scripture;”

“Most persons, therefore, are effectually converted to God, and have saving faith, whereby they believe the Scripture, and virtually all that is contained in it, before they have ever once considered them.”-John Owen
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
Quite frankly, Owen is missing something--scripture itself has authority that is derived from God Himself. We believe the scriptures not because they are self-sufficient, but because they are given by the inspiration of God. We trust them because we trust God.
 

rbcbob

Puritan Board Graduate
Quite frankly, Owen is missing something--scripture itself has authority that is derived from God Himself. We believe the scriptures not because they are self-sufficient, but because they are given by the inspiration of God. We trust them because we trust God.


How so? Owen says:

"But the doctrines contained in the Scripture, or the subject-matter of the truth to be believed, have not in them the nature of a testimony, but are the material, not formal, objects of faith, which must always differ. If it be said that these truths or doctrines do so evidence themselves to be from God, as that in and by them we have the witness and authority of God himself proposed unto us to resolve our faith into, I will not farther contend about it, but only say that the authority of God, and so his veracity, do manifest themselves primarily in the revelation itself, before they do so in the things revealed; which is that we plead for." -Owen vol IV
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
Well, if scripture's authority is derived from God, then obviously we don't believe it on its own merit, but because we believe that it is from God. In other words, we must know something before we know the truth of Scripture.

But I think that there are fundamental assumptions about knowledge that Van Til makes that would never have been found in Calvin or Luther or the Puritans, all of whom assumed an epistemology closer to Reid's than to Van Til's.
 

rbcbob

Puritan Board Graduate
Well, if scripture's authority is derived from God, then obviously we don't believe it on its own merit, but because we believe that it is from God. In other words, we must know something before we know the truth of Scripture.

But I think that there are fundamental assumptions about knowledge that Van Til makes that would never have been found in Calvin or Luther or the Puritans, all of whom assumed an epistemology closer to Reid's than to Van Til's.

Which Reid? The Scottish Common Sense Philosopher?
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
Well, if scripture's authority is derived from God, then obviously we don't believe it on its own merit, but because we believe that it is from God. In other words, we must know something before we know the truth of Scripture.

But I think that there are fundamental assumptions about knowledge that Van Til makes that would never have been found in Calvin or Luther or the Puritans, all of whom assumed an epistemology closer to Reid's than to Van Til's.

Which Reid? The Scottish Common Sense Philosopher?

The same. His views were dominant in American seminaries up until the rise of liberalism. Van Til abandoned them in favor of continental philosophy as espoused by Kuyper.
 

rbcbob

Puritan Board Graduate
Well, if scripture's authority is derived from God, then obviously we don't believe it on its own merit, but because we believe that it is from God. In other words, we must know something before we know the truth of Scripture.

But I think that there are fundamental assumptions about knowledge that Van Til makes that would never have been found in Calvin or Luther or the Puritans, all of whom assumed an epistemology closer to Reid's than to Van Til's.

Which Reid? The Scottish Common Sense Philosopher?

The same. His views were dominant in American seminaries up until the rise of liberalism. Van Til abandoned them in favor of continental philosophy as espoused by Kuyper.

It has long been my assessment that Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (as injected into Princeton via Witherspoon) was the seed that brought Old Princeton down. It exalts Reason and undercuts Revelation. You will no doubt disagree, but therein the battle resides.
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
Which Reid? The Scottish Common Sense Philosopher?

The same. His views were dominant in American seminaries up until the rise of liberalism. Van Til abandoned them in favor of continental philosophy as espoused by Kuyper.

It has long been my assessment that Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (as injected into Princeton via Witherspoon) was the seed that brought Old Princeton down. It exalts Reason and undercuts Revelation. You will no doubt disagree, but therein the battle resides.

I don't know that Machen would agree there.

It may be that compromises were made, even by the orthodox (I notice, for example, that Warfield was a theistic evolutionist), but Van Til's approach went to the other extreme by nearly rejecting reason (certainly rejecting natural reasoning). It's a balancing act.
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
Back to the Kant/Van Til connection -- how does that fit with Mr. Van Til's assertion that knowledge is revelational? Kant, and on into modern philosophers, believed that knowledge could be self-discovered. This proved important in such statements (given amongst our founding fathers) that something like our rights could be self-evident; and to use George Marsden's analysis, this led into virtue-for-virtue's sake that unhooked righteousness from the revealed word of God.
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
I think it's important to note that the founding fathers listing the rights as "self-evident" predates Kant by half a century and is found in Locke.

Second, Van Til is indeed building on a Kantian basis with revelation substituted for self-discovery. They're both philosophic idealists. The trouble is that while Kant may be justified in putting human reason in that place, given his position, Van Til was not. There must be knowledge preceding revelation or else we could not know revelation.
 

ChristianTrader

Puritan Board Graduate
Which Reid? The Scottish Common Sense Philosopher?

The same. His views were dominant in American seminaries up until the rise of liberalism. Van Til abandoned them in favor of continental philosophy as espoused by Kuyper.

It has long been my assessment that Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (as injected into Princeton via Witherspoon) was the seed that brought Old Princeton down. It exalts Reason and undercuts Revelation. You will no doubt disagree, but therein the battle resides.

I agree that Common Sense Philosophy was what brought Princeton down, however I do not think it is due to them exalting reason. I think they exalted a form of reason that was not right. For example, common sense is person/culturally relative. One needs to use reason to determine if common sense is accurate or not. Sometimes this is/was not done.

CT
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
I think it's important to note that the founding fathers listing the rights as "self-evident" predates Kant by half a century and is found in Locke.

Second, Van Til is indeed building on a Kantian basis with revelation substituted for self-discovery. They're both philosophic idealists. The trouble is that while Kant may be justified in putting human reason in that place, given his position, Van Til was not. There must be knowledge preceding revelation or else we could not know revelation.

Right after I posted, I realized my timing was off. I do think its fair to say, that Locke created a serious uncoupling of knowledge from revelation that has worked its way out through modern times.

Mr. Van Til strongly opposed the idealist label. John Muether quotes him as saying:
I cannot think of anything I have written in which I have expressed any sympathy with idealism. On the contrary, beginning with my dissertation, I have sought to expose idealism as being basically hostile to the Christian religion, inasmuch as it destroys even the Creator-creature distinction."
 

Philip

Puritan Board Graduate
I think it's important to note that the founding fathers listing the rights as "self-evident" predates Kant by half a century and is found in Locke.

Second, Van Til is indeed building on a Kantian basis with revelation substituted for self-discovery. They're both philosophic idealists. The trouble is that while Kant may be justified in putting human reason in that place, given his position, Van Til was not. There must be knowledge preceding revelation or else we could not know revelation.

Right after I posted, I realized my timing was off. I do think its fair to say, that Locke created a serious uncoupling of knowledge from revelation that has worked its way out through modern times.

Mr. Van Til strongly opposed the idealist label. John Muether quotes him as saying:
I cannot think of anything I have written in which I have expressed any sympathy with idealism. On the contrary, beginning with my dissertation, I have sought to expose idealism as being basically hostile to the Christian religion, inasmuch as it destroys even the Creator-creature distinction."

Be that as it may, Van Til can be labeled as an idealist. I recently went back and reread Plato's myth of the cave (Plato was the founder of idealism) and found the similarity with Van Tillian thought uncanny.

The same. His views were dominant in American seminaries up until the rise of liberalism. Van Til abandoned them in favor of continental philosophy as espoused by Kuyper.

It has long been my assessment that Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (as injected into Princeton via Witherspoon) was the seed that brought Old Princeton down. It exalts Reason and undercuts Revelation. You will no doubt disagree, but therein the battle resides.

I agree that Common Sense Philosophy was what brought Princeton down, however I do not think it is due to them exalting reason. I think they exalted a form of reason that was not right. For example, common sense is person/culturally relative. One needs to use reason to determine if common sense is accurate or not. Sometimes this is/was not done.

CT

I think you're misunderstanding common sense epistemology here. Common sense epistemology holds that we do in fact have knowledge of reality and that it comes through the use of all of our cognitive equipment including the senses, rational intuition, inductive logic, etc.

I like to think of common sense as "courtroom epistemology": that is, if we would accept it in a court of law, then we can claim to know it.
 

The Calvin Knight

Puritan Board Freshman
I suggest you read Van Til on Plato's cave, I remember him discussing it many different times. I'll attempt to find a quote for you or a place to look sometime tonight.


Van Til discusses Plato's cave in "The Defense of the Faith" on page 109-110 of the 4th edition. Plato's cave follows Van Til's discussion of "Less Consistent Calvinism" and he refers to it as an illustration of the Roman Catholic position.
 
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