Van Til's Presuppositional Apologetic - A Critique

Discussion in 'Apologetical Methods' started by Brian Bosse, Nov 16, 2006.

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  1. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Everyone,

    I am new to the board, although I have interacted to some degree with several members of this board over the years including Civbert and Paul Manata. Paul and I have discussed at length apologetic methods and I have engaged in several debates with athiests using Van Til's apologetic. You can find my last debate here: The Shoot Out at the OK Corral - Does God Exist?.

    On my blog I am doing a series on Van Til's apologetic looking into the claim that it provides objective certain proof. My position is that it does not do so. I am currently seven entries into the series, which I estimate is about the half way point of my critique. I would love to interact in this thread with objections, questions and observations. I would also welcome comments at my blog site. Here is the link to the first entry: Van Tillian Presuppositional Apologetics - A Critique (Part 1). Thank you for your consideration.


  2. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    I am pathetic. I'm responding to my own sorry post - and I am the only response! :down: Aren't there any Van Tillians out their wanting to defened themselves. :confused:

    Lost and Lonely,

  3. PresReformed

    PresReformed Puritan Board Freshman

    Maybe they already known that his Apologetic can't be defended ;)
  4. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Paul,

    Good to hear from you.

    Paul, you are right on here. If the Van Tillian removes his claim to “objective, certain proof,” then he is left with a very powerful apologetic indeed. Even though the proof does not meet the strict criteria for objective certainty, that does not mean it is wrong.

    Just a slight technicality here. TAG does not provide the necessary preconditions for intelligibility. The Christian worldview does via the triune God. My claim is that this is not established in an objective certain manner. However, I do think the proof provides rational justification.

    The very argument Van Til, Bahnsen, and you, Paul, make is a Reductio Ad Absurdum argument (RAA). Another name is an indirect argument. The argument form referred to as 'retortion' aims at showing an opponent to be presupposing the truth of one proposition that contradicts another to which he is committed. This leads to the opponents position being refuted. Why is it refuted? Because it follows directly by the RAA method. Paul, retortion is a form of RAA.

    All transcendental arguments are RAA arguments. Not all RAA arguments are transcendental.


  5. Civbert

    Civbert Puritan Board Junior

    Maybe this is not surprising. You've given them a lot to chew on, and quick responses are going to be difficult. Maybe if you snip a few quotes from you blog and post them here? Give them something you think they might have questions about.

    I myself am a bit slow to respond to a couple posts because your responses are thoughtful, and I want to respond when I have a clear window of time to sit down and clearly articulate my thoughts. (Is it articulation when it's written?? Maybe there's a better way to say that. :? )
  6. Civbert

    Civbert Puritan Board Junior

    Then Neither can Van Tillians "know" any of the claims made because Van Til also said Scripture was the foundation of Christian knowledge.

    Really, if you take away the absolute claim in the Van Til's argument for Christianity - you are left with a Clarkian compatible apologetic. Clark applied many of Van Til's principles, only he did so in a more rational and consistent manner.

    We can have a debate on epistemology on another thread if you wish. But if you're going to make claims about knowledge, then be prepared to justify your own. It will be interesting to see how Van Tillian propositions end up sorted out between knowledge and opinion.
  7. Magma2

    Magma2 Puritan Board Sophomore

    That’s a good policy, but I haven’t really noticed where you’ve actually applied it? Besides that, I do admit you have a tendency to lob bombs, which, in my view, merely reveal a near complete lack of appreciation for the problems of epistemology and an even greater lack of understanding of Gordon Clark. Not a very becoming posture for a man who claims to be a philosopher of sorts.

    Note carefully, you wrote– “know hardly anything.” Then you grant that Clark’s Scripturalism provides a basis for *some* knowledge? The question is, what account can YOU give for the many things you merely assert and assume to know? The very things you repeatedly and unthinkingly chastise "Clarkians" for! I think your lazy argument here again belies a failure to grasp even the fundamental problems of epistemology.

    Now, if you only actually stuck to your stated policy, perhaps you wouldn’t look so foolish.
  8. Magma2

    Magma2 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Not to detract from Brian’s post, but perhaps as a supplement, consider the above. Paul has just finished a thread in which he demonstrated the failure of TAG. Brian has done the same. Now Paul complains that Scripturalism fails to account for it’s own system. Well, that system is “Christianity” and it’s accounted for by the Scriptures alone; i.e., the system’s axiom. The system includes all those propositions set down or necessarily inferred from Scripture -- what Clark called the “Westminister principle” (see his reply to Mavrodes at

    So what is Paul’s objection? It seems to me it’s how do you account for the Christian system’s axiom? Well, of course, in addition to demonstrating a lack of understanding of Clark, who Paul thinks himself fit to criticize and ridicule, such lazy arguments illustrate a further lack of understanding concerning the relationship of axioms to theorems or even how an axiom functions within a system. What Christians are to do in apologetics is to attempt to clear the battlefield in order to present the Christian alternative. Acceptance of the Christian axiom is, in the words of Calvin, “a pious assent.” It is a choice governed by the grace of God, not the conclusion of any prior or antecedent argument, transcendental or otherwise. Since the Scriptures are self-attesting (that is, unless you accept Van Til's doctrine of Scripture then I would say the Scriptures are self-refuting), there is no, nor can there be, any prior proof as to the truthfulness of Scripture. Scripture is its own account (Heb 6:13b; ". . . since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself").

    The job of Christian apologetics is to present our hearers with a choice (just read the final page or two of Clark's "Thales to Dewey" to get a flavor of how this might be done. Then read the rest of the book in order to do it). As John Frame put it, and which is something Paul should seriously take to heart, “Clark’s method is more like an exploration than like a proof. By renouncing proof, he avoids the circularity of having to prove the axiom by means of the axiom.” Amen. I don’t know that Clark could have said it better himself.

    But, since it’s taken Paul so long to discover TAG fails to do what it has always claimed, perhaps rather than lowering the epistemological bar by following the paths of men like Sudduth or Plantigna, or, even worse, John Frame, he might actually spend some time and study giving Clark a fair hearing instead?
  9. Jeff_Bartel

    Jeff_Bartel Puritan Board Graduate

    Is the world coming to an end? :lol:
  10. Civbert

    Civbert Puritan Board Junior

    Good post! I still think a debate on epistemology would be good. I have yet to hear a viable alternative to Scripturalism.

    P.S. We can call it a discussion if it makes anyone feel better. Nothing formal. Just toss some ideas around. See if anyone really knows anything. ;)
  11. Jeff_Bartel

    Jeff_Bartel Puritan Board Graduate

    Sorry, I guess I did! :doh:
  12. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Everyone,

    I have just finished installment number 11 of my critique, and things are beginning to wind down. It seems that there is going to be no Van Tillian who is going to defend himself. I would like to note that Paul has stated that I got off on the wrong foot by misidentifying the argument form as a Reductio Ad Absurdum rather than as retortion. I am anxious to see whatever support he has. I think it will be obvious that when you formalize his argument utilizing retortion it will be a reductio argument. This objection of Paul's, however, is extremly minor. My critque has nothing to do with the argument form, which I said is good, but rather with how the premises are established. Are they established in a certain manner, or not?

    With all of that said, there are some who have posted in the thread that have been quite critical of Van Til's apologetic. I find his apologetic to be brilliant even when one acknowledges that it is not certain. I agree with Civbert that it is compatible with Clark in this regard. Also, Dr. Bahnsen is a "favorite dead guy" of mine (to borrow a phrase from Piper) even though I find him to be wrong on the points I make in my critque. He took Van Til's apologetic to the street. I say this to my shame. I have engaged in apologetics to some degree in the streets. I certainly have discussed apologetic method much more - and maybe even prefer to discuss it rather than to practice it. Again, this is to my shame.


  13. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Probably the reasons you aren't getting any responses:

    Most of the Van Tillians here are in message board withdrawal. Manata hardly posts due to probable business. I swore to never post again last week and had to break that for a day (part of the week I am in class 12 hours a day, so I can't post much). And the others can answer for themselves.
  14. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    and the above post was probably my last post on PB, or one of them. Not because of you, mind you.
  15. August

    August Puritan Board Freshman

    Brian, thanks for the series. I am sure that there are many, like me, who follow your arguments the confines of anonimity (until now). I have some questions, rather than a critique of your posts.

    Please correct me if I wrongly represent you anywhere in my response, as it is hard to get exact meaning across in this format.

    Your objection to the Van Tillian apologetic is that it does not provide objective, absolute proof based on the failure of the two-step process of 1. Proving that Christianity provides for rational argument, and 2. That no other worldview can provide for rational argument.

    Mainly, your objection is that since, in step 2, one world view at a time is addressed, it becomes an inductive method, and no objective, absolute truth is by definition possible from that.

    However, is your objection not valid only if you can show that there are an infinite, or number approaching infinite, number of worldviews that provide for rational knowledge? If the number of worldviews are limited, then the Van Tillian apologetic holds true, provided it can address via internal critique the shortcomings of those views. I think this is also Paul M's objection to Van Til, that in theory the infinite number of contra-views is possible?

    In such a case, is it then not possible to reduce the contra worldviews to a limited number of common axioms, which achieves the goal of Van Til? I am not sure what those common axioms may be though, but they cannot be unlimited in number.

    I also struggle to come to terms with your whole argument, in that does not seem to provide for any objective truth. If there are two truth claims, by what standard do we determine objective truth? It cannot be done from outside of the observers worldview, so therefore all truth is subjective? For every objective truth claim, one can in theory invent a position that turns it into a subjective truth claim.

    Sorry for the rambling, I hope some of that makes sense to you.
  16. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello John,

    Thank you for your response.

    Yes, this is my objection. But let me qualify this by saying that I equate “objective, absolute proof” with philosophical certainty. Van Tillians generally claim to have a philosophically certain proof. This is where my objection lies.

    This is my main objection. However, throughout the critique I have raised other objections. For instance, the RAA argument put forth may be mistakenly applied. Greg Bahnsen, himself, made this point in his debate over apologetic methods with R.C. Sproul. He said that any argument that we think is a valid application of Modus Ponens is not know with certainty. He said there is always a chance we are misapplying the argument.

    Another objection has to do with establishing the Christian worldview as sufficient to provide for intelligibility. This argument is never made explicit. Rather, it is just asserted. One never sees an exhaustive list of those preconditions necessary for intelligibility. One never sees a philosophically certain exegesis of Scripture making the same point. Etc……Normally, they just assert that it is true in their worldview. But again, they never prove that is true in their worldview in a philsoophically certain manner. These are minor points, but they are points nevertheless. The major point has to do with the one you mentioned above.

    No. All I need show is that the apologist never considers all of the possible worldviews. Consider the scientific theory that all electrons repel each other. There are a finite number of electrons; however, we have never observed all of them. The theory is based on an inductive argument. Unless every element is exhausted, then we cannot conclude with deductive certainty that all elements do or do not have some property.

    Yes, I think this may be possible, and would be an excellent way for the apologist to proceed. In post number 10 and 11 of my critique, I showed that this was precisely what Bahnsen was trying to do. He was arguing two common axioms: (1) All non-Christian worldviews are based on human autonomy; and (2) All worldviews based on human autonomy fail to provide sufficient conditions for knowledge. If, and this is a big if, the apologist is able to do this, then he has accomplished what he needs to do. The problem is that these to points are only asserted and never proved in a philosophically certain manner.

    There is a possible rub here. My point is not to try and draw any epistemological conclusions from my argument. My point is just to say that the presuppositional argument is not philosophically certain. If one defines objective truth as philosophically certain truth, then I do not think we can ever know that we know something objectively. However, I do not think one needs to define objective truth in this manner. I think we have epistemological limitations, and that is that we do not know anything with philosophical certainty – even this statement itself. I find the claim that we can have philosophical certainty to be arrogant and to confuse creature/creator distinction. The only being that has philosophical certainty is God. Again, I do not assert this with philosophical certainty.

    Let me know what you think about these things. I have been heavily criticized for saying that no creature has philosophical certainty – especially by Van Tillian apologists. I would be happy to discuss this further in another thread.


  17. August

    August Puritan Board Freshman

    Brian, when you say "philosophical certainty", what exactly do you mean? Again, I don't want to assume that I know the finer details of your argument.

    In my mind, philosophical certainty has to do with the correspondence of our perceptions (for want of a better word) to reality. I see lower down that you seem to deny that anyone can attain that kind of certainty. If God is a reality, then you are saying that we can never be 100% sure that He exists. This presents an interesting conundrum for me. How can one then be sure of one's own existence? And more importantly for a Christian, how can you be sure of your salvation? It all seems to descend into relativism.

    I want to explore this a little further. It is my opinion that you are making a small category mistake here. Again, maybe it is just my ignorance or misunderstanding of your position, so please don't jump all over me.

    The discussion of the existence of God is a second-order discussion, as opposed to the study of electrons, for example, which is a first-order discipline. The study of electrons, or for that matter the large majority of scientific phenomena, is a normative investigation of natural forces. There is no attempt to normalize anything in the discussion of God's existence, in fact, I would argue that it is the exact opposite. I would also venture that your analogy does not work, since you cannot assert that there are an infinite number of worldviews that are contra Christianity. For you to assert as such, you have to establish that there are an infinite number of axioms that can be used as premises for the non-existence of God. The number of contra-arguments will depend on the number of possible logical combinations from those axioms. There may be many, and many more to come, but they do not add up to an infinite number. Currently I am aware of about 22 broad categories of discussion between believers and non-believers, and those have been pretty consistent for the last century. One can continue to invent contra-arguments, but they will all ultimately come back to one of those categories, as well as facing the challenge that any new invented argument should at the very least exhibit some signs of credibility.

    We discussed this briefly in the previous exchange, where you agreed that the shorter route will be to evaluate the validity of the contra-argument axioms. You also pointed out that this fails, since there is no philosophically certain argument made that shows that human autonomy cannot provide for sufficient conditions for knowledge.

    I have to admit, that somewhat confuses me. In making that statement, are you not assuming the very thing that you are trying to prove? I can even take my confusion one level higher, namely that in your entire argument against Van Til you assume that there is an objective measure, by which you can determine the validity of his argument or not. In making that argument, you either assume Van Tils position, or you assume human autonomy. If it is the first, then you may have proven yourself wrong, or, if it is the second, then you are circular. Again, Brian, this may just be my warped understanding of what you are trying to say, and not anything aimed at your person.

    Mmmm, that is an interesting perspective. How do you know that God has philosophical certainty?

    Overall, I think you have done an excellent job with this whole series, and it has certainly caused my gray matter to flutter. Thanks for a most interesting conversation so far.
  18. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello John,

    Philosophical Certainty: Person A is philosophically certain about belief X if and only if person A knows in an infallible manner that X is true.

    Let’s define what is real as that which is true in the mind of God. Let’s assume for the sake of the discussion that X is true in God’s mind. Let’s say I believe in X. What kind of belief is this? Is it a tentatively held belief? Is it strongly held? No matter what, from God’s perspective my belief in X is knowledge – knowledge being defined as true belief. From my perspective, I believe I have knowledge (I believe X to be true), but this belief can range from tentatively held all the way to philosophical certainty. So, philosophical certainty has to do with the state of my belief about X, and not about X itself.

    This is true. However, let’s be clear on what this means. I can be 99.999999999999% sure God exists, but this is not philosophical certainty which is nothing short of 100%.

    If by surety you mean 100% certainty, then you cannot be sure. However, you could be 99.9999% sure you exist, or are saved, or whatever…. Consider the issue of your salvation. How do you know you are saved? Do you know the doctrines taught in Scripture with 100% certainty? Are you infallible? You might claim that the Holy Spirit bears witness with your spirit that you are saved. Fine, but my guess is that the guy in Matthew 7 would say the same thing. Do you know the testimony of the Holy Spirit in an infallible manner? If it is possible for any of these answers to be ‘no’, then you do not have philosophical certainty about your salvation. Now, you may have 99.99999% surety of your salvation.

    You misunderstood my analogy. My objection is not that there are an infinite number of possible worldviews. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that there are a finite number of possible worldviews. My argument is that the apologist never demonstrates in a philosophically certain manner that out of all of these possible worldviews only Christianity provides the sufficient condition for knowledge. Let’s make this more concrete. Let’s say the set of all possible worldview is: W={C, ¬C(1), ¬C(2),…, ¬C(9)} where C is the Christian worldview, and the rest are non-Christian worldviews. In this scenario, there are only 10 possible worldviews. My claim is that the apologist never takes down all 9 non-Christian worldviews in his apologetic. (Don’t mistake this example. It would be easy for the apologist to do this if there were only 9 such worldviews. I am just trying to illustrate what he fails to do. The number of possible non-Christian worldviews is considerably larger than 9 even if it is finite.)

    Two points: (1)The Van Tillian claims that he has an objectively certain proof. This claim needs to be understood within the rules of logic and inference in the apologist’s worldview. How is he using his terms? What standard is he using? My argument is that if you accept the Van Tillian conception of objective certainty and justification, then he does not provide what he claims on his terms. So, the issue is not how I can use the laws of logic and rules as to what constitutes objective certain proof. The issue is how the Van Tillian can use his worldview conception of the laws of logic and justification to provide an objectively certain proof. My critique is an internal critique of Van Tillian apologetics. (2) It is not clear to me that the dilemma you provided is a true dilemma. It is not clear that the only two possible positions are Van Til’s position and human autonomy.

    Your question is a little ambiguous. I will answer it in two different ways. (1) The manner in which I know God has philosophical certainty is in a rationally justified manner. (2) I know God has philosophical certainty because God knows all true propositions in an infallible manner.

    Thank you for your kind words John. You are very gracious. I appreciate how you push back on me in such a kind way. It is refreshing.


    Last edited: Dec 1, 2006
  19. schaflera

    schaflera Inactive User

    Access to the debate?

    Hi Brian,

    You wrote: "Paul and I have discussed at length apologetic methods and I have engaged in several debates with athiests using Van Til's apologetic. You can find my last debate here: The Shoot Out at the OK Corral - Does God Exist?."

    I followed your link but it says "Sorry, but only moderators can read topics in this forum."

    Would it be too much to ask you to somehow make it available to readers? Could you send a copy to my email: [email protected]?

  20. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello Rhett,

    I have emailed it to you.


  21. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I've always thought the beauty of presuppositionalism is its defiant resolution that "objective certain proof" is not based upon a rational but a relational consideration. It would be a shame to mar such a beautiful countenance.
  22. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    I believe that you are on to something. I think my post here:
    leads to a potential counter to the critique.

  23. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Good reference, Hermonta. Rom. 1:28, "They did not like to retain God in their knowledge." John Murray comments, "The sin in this case is described as refusing to have God in their knowledge. The godlessness of the state of mind is apparent -- they did not cherish the knowledge of God because they did not consider God worthy of such thought and attention." There is so much ink wasted in defence of the rationality of Christianity. One need only point to the moral bankruptcy of a system which refuses to acknowledge God and His claims, as the apostle does in the latter part of Rom. 1. If I remember correctly John Frame recognises the superiority of the moral argument.
  24. Brian Bosse

    Brian Bosse "The Brain"

    Hello CT and AB,

    This 'something' was...

    I am not sure what this means. The context would indicate that my critique misses the mark because it is based upon "rational considerations" rather than "relational considerations." Can someone clarify this for me, and explain how this potentially ends up being a counter to my critique? Thank you for your consideration.


  25. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    If Christianity is in fact "Super Basic" then one would have to acknowledge that certain methods or forms that do not get one objective certainty for non super basic beliefs have no bearing on whether they will with a super basic belief.

    On a lesser note, the ability to doubt the truth of something does not necessary render a matter less than objectively certain. One could in fact be behaving irrationally.

  26. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    The point would be, that presuppositional apologetics begins with the fact that man already has actual knowledge of God. Man naturally thinks inside the theistic box. His problem is alienation from God. To then evaluate arguments for the knowledge of God as if knowledge of God were only possible, and something man must yet be brought to, is self-defeating.
  27. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I would be interested in pursuing a particular line of thought suggested to me by the series critiquing CVT's apologetic. The basis for the critique is the claim, "if God does not exist, then rational inquiry is impossible." Mr. Bosse makes it his errand to prove this is an induction. So his critique could be summarised as follows: if induction, then false. My question: Why is it false? I think it can be proven that every premise includes an induction, from which it necessarily follows that all human thought is circular. If human thought is circular it is finite. If it is finite then any absolute truth claim is an implicit affirmation that truth exists in an infinite Mind outside of human rationality. It is also an implicit affirmation that this infinite Mind has revealed this truth in order that the human mind can know it.
  28. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    I really like this. I don't think I would have appreciated this fully except for the TA/TE thread recently.
  29. Civbert

    Civbert Puritan Board Junior

    Brain shows that this premise is never shown to philosophically certain. It is simply assumed true.

    The inductive part of the critique is that (although the argument is claimed to have philosophic certainty, in fact, only inductive arguments are used in it's favor.

    It is not "false", it is philosophically uncertain. Induction /= false. Induction = uncertain.

    Please explain how every premise includes an induction and then how this necessarily leads to all human thought is circular. And then, what bearing does this have on the critique?

    It does no follow necessarily that "if human thought is circular" and "if there is an absolute truth claim" then "truth exists in an infinite Mind outside of human rationality." Obviously this is an enthymeme - but I don't see what additional premises will make your conclusion necessary.

    Again, this does not seem to follow.

    I'm not trying to pick apart your response - it's simply that your writing is wonderfully concise. Each sentence seems to cover a lot of ground - so I need to unpack it.
  30. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    I think the problem is your assumption that an argument of a certain form cannot be objectively certain. You are going to have to make an argument for that. And to be fair, it seems that Brain believes that philosophical certainty does not actually exist. At best all that can be argued there is that one has does not have such. But to go from there to it cannot exist is a bit of a leap.

    The argument is claimed to be objectively certain not because one does or does not hold to the conclusion as infallibly certain but because one should or has not right to deny the premises or the conclusion.

    Okay, what part of the argument does anyone have a right to deny?

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