by John M. Frame
[This article was originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995), 81-102. Used by Permission.]
As we seek to make the best use of Cornelius Van Til’s thought in our own time, it is especially important that we come to grips with his concept of antithesis, the diametrical opposition between belief and unbelief and therefore between belief and any compromise of revealed truth. The concept of antithesis is one of Van Til’s own major concerns, and it is that element in his thought which has brought him the most severe criticism. In the present pluralistic theological climate, it seems particularly difficult to draw lines sharply enough to support Van Tilian talk of antithesis: lines between denominational traditions, between liberal and conservative, between Christianity and other religions, between belief and unbelief. Universalism is taken for granted in contemporary liberal theology, and conservative Christian thinkers, if not going that far, often tend nevertheless to play down the differences between themselves and others. Is it possible, even necessary, to maintain Van Til’s emphasis in our time and to repudiate all these tendencies toward accommodation? Or did Van Til overstate his case, unnecessarily inhibiting biblical ecumenism? Or is the truth to be found somewhere between these two evaluations?
As we consider the matter of antithesis, we must simultaneously consider the doctrine of common grace, which teaches that God restrains sin in the unregenerate. On the basis of common grace, Van Til maintains that unbelievers know some truth despite their sin and its effects. It might seem at first glance that antithesis and common grace are opposed to one another, at least in the sense that one limits the other. Whether or not that is the best way to look at it, it is certainly true that there are temptations to imbalance on either side.
Van Til’s concept of antithesis can be understood as a continuation of the work of two men who had great influence upon him: Abraham Kuyper and J. Gresham Machen. Kuyper devoted much thought both to antithesis and to common grace. Indeed, he also devoted much action to the application of these concepts in church and society. Machen’s fundamental insight was the highly antithetical point that orthodox Christianity and theological liberalism are not two differing Christian theological positions, as Calvinism and Lutheranism, but are rather two different religions, radically opposed to one another. For Machen, liberalism was not Christian at all, but was fundamentally opposed to
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Christianity as it is defined in Scripture and history.1 Van Til applied this “antithetical” thinking to neo-orthodoxy2 and other theological movements.
Van Til applied the concept of antithesis not only to unbelief in general and to the more recent variations of liberal theology, but also to the historic divisions within the Christian church. The problem with Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Arminianism, even “less consistent Calvinism,” is that they compromise with unbelief, understood as the antithesis to true Christianity. Compromise, of course, is different from capitulation, and Van Til recognized that. In Jerusalem and Athens, he charges John Warwick Montgomery, a Lutheran who opposes Van Til’s apologetic, with “straddling the fence.”3 Nevertheless, he often uses the language of antithesis (“great gulf” language) to describe, not only unbelief as such, but also those Christians who are not in his estimation fully Reformed. Consider these remarkable words, describing Stuart Hackett, an Arminian critical of Van Til’s apologetic:
Indeed, the issues between us are total. There are no “fundamentals” in common between us.… Hackett’s Christian faith and my Christian faith, which we both desire non-Christians to accept, are radically different. They are different not only in theircontent but also in the very method of their construction.4
And the concept plays another, still broader, role in Van Til’s thought. For to Van Til, “antithesis” is not only a means of criticizing others; it is also a key to the very formulation of Christian truth. Van Til rethinks the whole system of Christian theology and reformulates it with the concept of antithesis in view. How does he do that? By showing that Christian theology is a system of truth, that its elements are so profoundly interrelated that to deny one doctrine is implicitly to deny the whole.5 This demonstration, if successful, leaves us with a choice between that system (Van Tilian Reformed Christianity) and rank unbelief, with a great gulf in between. Any attempt to cross that gulf, to mediate between those two positions, is doomed from the start, logically incoherent and spiritually bankrupt. Hence, Van Til’s theological formulations all reinforce Machen’s antithesis.
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All of this is by way of introduction to the central role of antithesis in Van Til’s distinctive apologetic method. Van Til is important as a theologian, a philosopher, and a preacher, as well as an apologist, but apologetics was the center of his work and the key to understanding the rest of his thought.
His apologetic may be described in four parts: First, he offers us a view of the “metaphysics of knowledge,” the basic relationship between creator and creature as it affects human knowledge of God and of the world. Second, he explores the “ethics of knowledge,” particularly the noetic effects of sin and regeneration. Third, he constructs an argument for Christian theism which he believes to be consistent with his conclusions in the first two areas. Fourth, he develops a critique of non-Christian thought and of its detrimental influence upon Christian thought. In this paper I shall refer briefly to the first of these and spend most of my time on the second. The third and fourth will not directly concern us here.
Van Til’s view of the “metaphysics of knowledge”6 is, to my mind, entirely unproblematic. If one desires to reason as a Christian, he must recognize that human thought is servant-thinking; that like all human activities it is to be subordinate to God’s revelation. Our present concern with Van Til’s metaphysics of knowledge is to note its relations to the concept of antithesis.
(1) It presents a justification for presuppositional thinking entirely apart from considerations about the noetic effects of sin and therefore of antithesis. Van Til is quite explicit that “even in paradise” Adam had the obligation to interpret the world in submission to God’s personal address to him, and that indeed he could not “read nature aright” except “in connection with and in the light of supernatural positive revelation.”7 Even if the Fall had not taken place, Van Til says, we would still find it necessary to presuppose God’s word as the ultimate standard of truth. Therefore it is possible to hold a distinctively Van Tilian epistemology even if one differs with him concerning the effects of the fall and the nature of antithesis.
(2) Nevertheless, Van Til’s metaphysics of knowledge provides a foundation for the doctrine of antithesis. For if all meaning and truth are based upon divine thought and all human knowledge upon the subordination of human thought to divine thought, then even apart from the biblical teaching about the Fall we know that any deviation from the servant-thinking will produce drastic distortions in human thought.
Let us now move to Van Til’s “ethics of knowledge,” which includes his specific teaching about antithesis and common grace. Here Van Til seeks to describe concretely how the Fall affects human thought. Sinful man, according to Van Til, “sought his ideals
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of truth, goodness and beauty somewhere beyond God, either directly within himself or in the universe about him.”8 He “tried to interpret everything with which he came into contact without reference to God.”9 In this connection, Van Til often refers to the process described in Romans 1: that fallen man suppresses what he knows to be true about God, exchanging it for a lie.
Instead of presupposing God’s revelation as the ultimate criterion of truth, the sinner presupposes (as Kant advocated so clearly and explicitly) that his own autonomy is the ultimate principle of being and knowledge. Thus fallen man stands in “antithesis” with God and with God’s people as well. In regeneration, the human consciousness “has in principle been restored to the position of the Adamic consciousness.”10 The qualification “in principle” implies that the “relatively evil” remains “in those who are absolutely good in principle.”11
Van Til also asserts that there is “relative good in those who are evil in principle.”12 Thus he defends the doctrine of common grace. The noetic implications of common grace are as follows:
But in the course of history the natural man is not fully self-conscious of his own position. The prodigal cannot altogether stifle his father’s voice. There is a conflict of notions within him. But he himself is not fully and self-consciously aware of this conflict within him. He has within him the knowledge of God by virtue of his creation in the image of God. But this idea of God is suppressed by his false principle, the principle of autonomy. This principle of autonomy is, in turn, suppressed by the restraining power of God’s common grace. Thus the ideas with which he daily works do not proceed consistently from the one principle or from the other.13
An important problem, however, emerges at this point. Despite Van Til’s affirmation of the ambiguity of the unbeliever’s position under common grace, he nevertheless often writes as though the unbeliever knows and affirms no truth at all and thus is not at all affected by common grace. Note:
The natural man cannot will to do God’s will. He cannot even know what the good is.14
It will be quite impossible then to find a common area of knowledge between believers and unbelievers unless there is agreement between them as to the nature of man himself. But there is no such agreement.15
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But without the light of Christianity it is as little possible for man to have the correct view about himself and the world as it is to have the true view about God. On account of the fact of sin man is blind with respect to the truth wherever the truth appears. And truth is one. Man cannot truly know himself unless he truly knows God.16
[The unbeliever] interprets all the facts and all the laws that are presented to him in terms of [his unbelieving] assumptions.17
The unbeliever does not even find Christian truth to be meaningful: “it is precisely Christianity as a whole, and therefore each of these doctrines as part of Christianity, that are meaningless to him as long as he is not willing to drop his own assumptions of autonomy and chance.”18
And since the unbeliever’s depravity excludes all common notions, we can be sure, we can safely predict, what the unbeliever will do with an apologetic argument. When a Christian presents the historical argument for the resurrection of Christ, a pragmatist philosopher, says Van Til, “will refuse to follow this line of reasoning. Granted he allows that Christ actually arose from the grave, he will say that this proves nothing more than that something very unusual took place in the case of that man Jesus.”19 Contrary to Hodge, who speaks of “reason” as “something that seems to operate rightly wherever it is found,” Van Til insists that “the ‘reason’ of sinful man will invariably act wrongly.… The natural man will invariably employ the tool of his reason to reduce these contents to a naturalistic level.”20 Note here the twofold “invariably.”21
On this extreme antithetical view, it would almost seem as if no unbeliever can utter a true sentence. It would also seem as if no communication is possible between believer and unbeliever. Unregenerate man cannot know what the good is, so how can he understand sin and the need for redemption in Christ? Since he cannot know his own nature, and cannot know God, and since truth is one, he literally cannot know anything. But how does a Christian present a witness to somebody who literally knows nothing? And why should we witness? For we can be safely assured that the unbeliever will be quite indifferent to any facts which we set before him. Is there any role at all here for common grace to play?
I believe that Van Til was at least sometimes sensitive to the difficulty of the problem, though at many points in his writings he seems quite unaware of it. The peak of his awareness of this issue can be found in Theology, where he uncharacteristically admits
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to having some difficulty in formulation. Here he concedes that the fact that unbelievers have knowledge which is “true as far as it goes” “has always been a difficult point,” and indeed he even adds that “we cannot give any wholly satisfactory account of the situation as it actually obtains.… All that we can do with this question as with many other questions in theology, is to hem it in in order to keep out errors, and to say that truth lies within a certain territory.”22 His conclusion:
The actual situation is therefore always a mixture of truth with error. Being “without God in the world” the natural man yet knows God, and, in spite of himself, to some extent recognizes God. By virtue of their creation in God’s image, by virtue of the ineradicable sense of deity within them and by virtue of God’s restraining general grace, those who hate God, yet in a restricted sense know God, and do good.23
A “mixture”! But that view of the unbeliever’s mentality provides a rather weak basis for all the strong antithetical language. If there is such a mixture, how can we be so sure that the unbeliever might not agree with us, at times, about flowers and trees, or even about the good, or the nature of man, or the existence of God, or that the resurrection was more than a “strange event”? How can we declare in advance what the unbeliever will or will not agree with?
As we have seen, Van Til is aware of this problem. His statements indicate a certain agnosticism as to its precise solution. Yet he does not leave this matter as a paradox, as he urges us to do in connection with the Trinity and with the relation of predestination to free agency. He rather tries to alleviate it by describing the situation more concretely, using various concepts, illustrations, images.24 One problem, however, is that there are quite a number of these explanations, and they are rather different from one another. Van Til’s intent is that these explanations of the paradox should be taken as additive and supplementary, perhaps as perspectivally related to one another, though he does not use that language. My evaluation is that nevertheless these formulations are not altogether consistent with one another, and some of them can be rejected on other grounds. Thus, if we are to build upon Van Til’s work we will have to adopt or modify some of these formulations and reject others.
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We may call these formulations “strategies for reconciling antithesis with common grace.” I classify them as follows: extreme antithetical, normative, situational, existential, and practical.
I. Extreme Antithetical Formulations
We have seen already that Van Til often speaks in ways that suggest the unbeliever knows no truth at all and therefore has literally no area of agreement with the believer. This extreme antithetical position is reflected in some of Van Til’s strategies for reconciling antithesis and common grace.
Van Til sometimes asserts that divine revelation is given to all, but that the unbeliever always interprets it wrongly. We have already seen this in earlier quotations. Note also:
By using the term “general revelation” we emphasize the fact that this revelation is accessible to all men and valid for all men even though only believers interpret it truly.25
When the unbeliever interprets the world, he interprets it in terms of his assumption of human autonomy.… The unbeliever is the man with yellow glasses on his face. He sees himself and his world through these glasses. He cannot remove them. Hisinterpretation of himself and of every fact in the universe relating to himself is, unavoidably, a false interpretation.26
On this account, common grace, if there is any role for it at all, would be seen only in God’s gracious provision of revelation. There is, evidently, no divine restraint of sin in the unbeliever’s process of interpretation.
To my knowledge, Van Til never defines “interpretation,” but I gather he uses it fairly broadly to describe all of a person’s activity in his attempts to understand the world. The contrast, then, is between the revelation inherent in the creation, and the distortion which enters whenever the unbeliever tries to understand that creation. Van Til’s assertion that all the unbeliever’s efforts to know (as all his efforts generally) are tainted by sin is simply an application of his Reformed view of total depravity and thus may be accepted as cogent in the present context. But does that depravity entail, as Van Til suggests, that all the unbeliever’s interpretive activity results in false conclusions? To say that it does is not part of the historic doctrine of total depravity, nor is it consistent with Van Til’s own view of common grace. On this strategy, there is no “mixture,” only unmitigated falsehood.
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One can, of course, try to patch up this strategy by employing some of the others listed below. One can say that the unbeliever’s interpretation is incorrect only “on an ultimate level,” or “insofar as he is self-conscious,” etc. My present point, however, is that the distinction between revelation and interpretation is not in itself sufficient to describe the relation of antithesis to common grace. Common grace is not merely an objective revelation of God. Rather, if it is anything, it is a divine restraint upon the sinful activity of the unbeliever. In this context, it must be a divine restraint upon the unbeliever’s sinful distortion of revelation. To deny that restraint, as Van Til appears to do in the present context, is to deny common grace itself.
In Defense, Van Til asks how unbelievers can agree with believers as to weights and measures and answers:
If sin is to be ethical alienation only, and salvation as ethical restoration only, then the question of weighing and measuring or that of logical reasoning is, of course, equal on both sides. All men, whatever their ethical relation to God, can equally use the natural gifts of God.… As far as natural ability is concerned the lost can and do know the truth and could contribute to the structure of science except for the fact that for them it is too late.27
Here he argues that weighing and measuring are created human capacities and that, as such, they are not affected by the Fall. This is similar to his illustration of the buzz saw28 which he uses to indicate that the unbeliever’s created faculties (such as the logical faculty) may work very efficiently while working in the wrong direction. On this analysis, common grace would be seen in God’s preservation of the metaphysical situation, the unbeliever’s epistemic faculties, and antithesis would be seen in that the unbeliever always makes a faulty use of his created equipment.29
However, this view contradicts Van Til’s emphasis elsewhere that common grace is not needed to preserve the metaphysical situation, nor is it the source of the unbeliever’s natural knowledge of God.30 And Van Til also takes issue with Abraham Kuyper’s view of weighing and measuring by saying that “Weighing and measuring are but aspects of one
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unified act of interpretation.”31 Therefore, weighing and measuring cannot be taken as natural, “metaphysical” abilities that are somehow prior to and independent of that interpretive activity which is affected by sin. To the extent that all epistemic or interpretive activity is affected by the Fall, to that extent weighing and measuring must also be affected.
Often, Van Til describes the unbeliever’s knowledge as “formal.” In criticism of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Tao, an objective knowledge common to all men, Van Til replies, “But surely this general objectivity is common to Christians and non-Christians in a formal sense only.”32 The non-Christian can “formally understand” the truth,33 even give “formal assent” to the “intellectual argument for the existence of God.”34 But it is wrong to say that the unbeliever has, concerning God, “correct notions as to content, not merely as to form.”35
Van Til uses the word “formal” to describe cases in which two people use the same words, but with different meanings, and thus tend to misunderstand one another. He points out that “There can be no intelligible reasoning unless those who reason together understand what they mean by their words,”36 and he adds that although the unbeliever may actually construct theistic proofs, the god he proves will always be something different from the God of Scripture. Indeed, the unbeliever differs with the believer over the meaning of “soul,”37 the meanings of “is” and “is not,”38 and the meaning of “supreme” in the phrase “supreme being.” 39 As for “miracle,” there is “nothing but formal agreement between the scientist and the Christian.”40 Traditional apologists err because “they attribute to the natural man not only the ability to make formally correct statements about ‘nature’ or themselves, but also to mean by these statements what the Christian means by them.”41
Put all of these statements together, and the conclusion seems to be that Christians and non-Christians speak entirely different languages. Although both groups use words like “God,” “soul,” “nature,” “miracle,” “self,” even “is,” the meanings of these words differ radically between them. But how, then, is communication possible between believers and unbelievers? If I say to you “good morning” and mean by that “hooray for the San
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Diego Padres,” what have I communicated?
Indeed, Van Til himself insists that the unbeliever’s knowledge is not “merely formal.” In a context which, oddly enough, directly adjoins one of the above passages, he speaks against Lockean empiricism:
Accordingly we cannot say that the innate knowledge of God in man is the merely formal ability, the capacity or potentiality, in view of man’s creation as an intellectual being, to recognize revelation if and when it comes. There can be no human consciousness that is not stirred to its depths by the revelational content within itself as well as about itself. Thus the innate knowledge deals with a thought content, and not with a mere formality. The finite human consciousness is itself revelational of God.42
One might defend Van Til’s consistency at this point by saying that for him the unbeliever has a true revealed thought-content in his knowledge but never expresses it in words except “formally.” However, that would be a highly artificial distinction, one which Van Til, to his credit, never makes explicitly.43 Certainly it would be hard to justify such a distinction from Scripture. Jesus, for example, commends the words of the Pharisees in Matt 23:2, 3, not just their inner knowledge, and Paul speaks similarly about pagans in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12, 13.
It is this insistence of Van Til that the unbeliever is in “actual possession” of revealed knowledge44 that leads me to reject all of these “extreme antithetical formulations.” For if any of these formulations is true, then it cannot be maintained that the unbeliever has an actual knowledge of God. To have knowledge, it is not enough to be exposed to revelation, to have efficient epistemic capacities, to be able to speak with formal correctness. Subhuman creatures are exposed to revelation; animals and computers have efficient epistemic capacities; and parrots can speak with formal correctness. But none of these have the knowledge of God in the sense of Romans 1. We must say something more about the unbeliever if we are to credit him with a genuine knowledge of God (even a knowledge suppressed by sin).
II. Normative Formulations
Van Til often expresses the antithesis as an opposition between two “principles”45 at war with one another. The unbeliever is in principle sold out to Satan, the believer to God. But neither is perfect in his allegiance: “As the Christian has the incubus of his “old
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man” weighing him down and therefore keeping him from realizing the “life of Christ” within him, so the natural man has the incubus of the sense of deity weighing him down and keeping him from realizing the life of Satan within him.”46 Therefore, “insofar as men are aware of their basic alliances, they are wholly for or wholly against God at every point of interest to man.”47
That “insofar” is crucial to what I am calling Van Til’s “normative” formulations. In these formulations, the antithesis is essentially between two “principles,” “systems,” “allegiances,” or “norms.” Individual unbelievers are opposed to Christianity only “insofar as” they are true to their “principle.” Note: “But to the extent that [the unbeliever] interprets nature according to his adopted principles, he does not speak the truth on any subject.”48 Van Til criticizes S. J. Ridderbos because he fails to distinguish
clearly between the knowledge of the natural man that comes from his creation and his knowledge as it is implied in the idea of autonomy. He thinks it is a mistake to distinguish between common notions derived from the image of God in man and common notions that proceed from the idea of autonomy. Thus he cannot take the principle of autonomy in its full seriousness of opposition to the truth.49
Autonomy is the unbeliever’s “principle.” Insofar as he is true to that principle, says Van Til, he knows nothing truly.
This kind of formulation is very important in Van Til’s thought. When I was his student, I wrote a paper quoting and criticizing what seemed to me to be rather extreme expressions of antithesis in his writings. Alongside my quotations, Van Til wrote in the margin several times “according to their principle,” “in their systems,” etc. Note: “it is of these systems of their own interpretation that we speak when we say that men are as wrong in their interpretation of trees as in their interpretation of God.”50
It should be noted, however, that this strategy for reconciling antithesis and common grace is very different from those “extreme antithetical” approaches noted earlier in section 1. Under the normative approach, there is no suggestion that believer and unbeliever are speaking different languages, or that all the unbeliever’s interpretive activity will lead to false conclusions, or that the unbeliever will never utter a true sentence except “formally.” Rather, here Van Til recognizes quite explicitly that the unbeliever may well grant many truths of Christianity. All that antithesis requires in this strategy is that when
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the unbeliever speaks such truth we should regard him as inconsistent with his own principle.
And the unbeliever is inconsistent. To the objection that Van Til is denying that the unbeliever can discover truth, he replies, “we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently.”51 Not that this formulation makes the antithesis a dead letter. Certainly the concept of antithesis has the very practical function of warning apologists not to assume too much about the unbeliever. The unbeliever is operating on a basic assumption or presupposition opposite to that of the Christian. And the unbeliever has a strong motivation to interpret all of reality according to his own presupposition. Thus when the unbeliever finds in his own thinking some uncomfortable bit of Christian truth, his inclination will be somehow to twist it, suppress it, deny it, domesticate it, or simply to change the subject.
I believe this formulation is much more adequate scripturally than those listed in the first section, though we shall see in subsequent sections that it needs to be supplemented. As Van Til establishes in his “metaphysics of knowledge,” God does expect us to honor him as the ultimate source and standard of knowledge. The nature of sin is to deny such honor to God. The unbeliever seeks, through his words and thoughts, to deny God’s rightful honor. Thus there is antithesis. But there is no need to assume that either believer or unbeliever is fully consistent with his “principle.” Rather, the opposite is the case.
This formulation has some significant consequences. On this formulation, as opposed to the extreme antithetical formulations, we cannot predict the response of the unbeliever to an apologetic, whether that apologetic be traditional or Van Tilian. As we have seen, Van Til always thought that the unbeliever’s response was in general predictable. He insisted, for example, that the unbeliever will necessarily reject the evidences for the Resurrection. But that may not be so on a normative interpretation of the antithesis. For one thing, the unbeliever may simply be inconsistent in such a situation, granting the evidential arguments.52 For another thing, of course, special grace may intervene: the Holy Spirit may choose to regenerate a person on the occasion of such an apologetic presentation.
A somewhat parenthetical observation: Van Til often uses the noetic effects of sin to show that the Christian apologist should always go beyond the presentation of evidence and present a transcendental, “presuppositional” argument. His contention is that the unbeliever will always repress the evidence, and so something other than evidence must also be presented. Although I do believe in the use of transcendental argumentation, and I
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accept some of Van Til’s other justifications for it, I do not defend it on this particular ground. For (a) we do not know for sure that the unbeliever will reject the evidence, and (b) to the extent that sin leads the unbeliever to repress evidence, it may equally lead him to repress the force of a transcendental argument.
III. Situational Formulations
Another type of Van Tilian strategy for reconciling antithesis with common grace is represented by the following:
It should be remembered that the universe has actually been created by God and is actually sustained by his providence. This precludes the possibility of any non-Christian philosopher, however profound, offering a system of interpretation of the universe that would seem satisfactory even to himself.53
Here, the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth is limited in the very nature of the case. Since this is Gods world, no unbelieving system can adequately account for it; such a system therefore will of its own nature generate problems. The main problem, of course, is that the unbeliever misses what is obvious, since God is revealed clearly in creation.
Together with this we should note Van Til’s statement that “even in [the non-Christian’s] virtual negation of God, he is still really presupposing God…he cannot deny God unless he first affirm him, and that his own approach throughout its history has been shown to be destructive of human experience itself.”54 Here the verb “presupposing” is used with a meaning different from Van Til’s usual concept of “presupposition.” Usually, Van Til uses “presupposition” to indicate the fundamental religious direction of a person’s thought. Here it cannot mean that. It does, however, mean that the unbeliever’s natural knowledge of God cannot be suppressed away. Nor does it fail to influence the unbeliever’s explicit thoughts and words. One cannot deny God without affirming him, because apart from God, denials are meaningless. So, to use Van Til’s frequent illustration, the unbeliever is like a child slapping her father while being supported by her father’s lap.
Though Van Til does not enumerate here the specific types of problems that inevitably arise from an attempt to construe the world nontheistically, we may assume that they include inconsistencies (as we saw earlier), factual inaccuracies, existential dissatisfactions, etc. Where the unbeliever’s antitheism is inconsistent, there is then by logical necessity some affirmation of the truth; for the contradictory of anti-theism is theism. Whatever may be the type of inadequacy, Van Til here tells us that the unbeliever himself is capable of recognizing that inadequacy to some extent; for his system will not “seem satisfactory even to himself.”
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When Van Til recognizes such insight in the unbeliever, he is, as in the normative formulations, contradicting his own more extreme antithetical formulations. The situational formulations are, however, compatible with the normative ones. For in both, we have a picture of the unbeliever attempting to understand reality apart from God, and yet failing. The situational formulations add to the normative the following: (a) The unbeliever’s thought is deficient in ways other than logical inconsistency. (b) These deficiencies are not merely accidental, nor are they simply the result of the unbeliever’s intellectual failures. Rather, deficiencies are necessitated by the very nature of the situation. An unbelieving system cannot adequately describe God and his world. (c) Just as his depravity affects everything the unbeliever thinks and says, so does common grace.
The point of (c) is that the relation between truth and falsehood in the unbeliever’s consciousness is somewhat paradoxical. We can certainly distinguish between some assertions of unbelievers that are true and others that are false. But in doing that we do not thereby neatly distinguish the noetic effects of sin from those of common grace. The fact is that depravity attaches to everything the unbeliever says and does, for depravity is, after all, total. And common grace also attaches to everything; for everything the unbeliever thinks and says “presupposes” truth in the atypical sense of “presuppose” noted earlier.
The normative formulation alone might encourage us to distinguish sharply between the unbeliever’s denials of revelation, which reflect depravity, and his inconsistent affirmations of it, which reflect common grace. What we see now, however, is that the unbeliever is not only inconsistent in certain assertions he makes, but in his thought as a whole. For everything he thinks and says “presupposes” a truth which all his thought seeks to deny.
IV. Existential Formulations
Still another approach to the relation of antithesis to common grace is found in Van Til’s examination of the unbeliever’s heart-condition. Consider the following:
The question of knowledge is an ethical question at the root. It is indeed possible to have theoretically correct knowledge about God without loving God. The devil illustrates this point. Yet what is meant by knowing God in scripture is knowing and loving God: this is true knowledge of God: the other is false.55
Knowing God, then, is not a merely intellectual matter. It includes love; it also is closely connected with the emotional component of regeneration. Notice how Van Til uses Charles Hodge’s exegesis of Eph 4:24 and Col 3:10: “Regeneration secures right knowledge as well as right feeling; and right feeling is not the effect of right knowledge,
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nor is right knowledge the effect of right feeling. The two are inseparable effects of a work which affects the whole soul.”56
Therefore, the antithesis is regeneracy versus unregeneracy, a good heart versus a bad one; and that in turn is, as Van Til always insists, an ethical issue. As Van Til defines it in Christian-Theistic Ethics, the works of the unbeliever are not done to the glory of God, based on the scriptural standard, motivated by faith. So it is with knowledge; for in his view, “the intellectual itself is ethical.”57 Knowledge itself must be sought with the proper goal, standard, and motive if it is to be “true” in the fullest sense. Recall the statement we quoted earlier that for Van Til knowledge and love are not separable.
So the unbeliever may say many things which in themselves the believer cannot fault; but those things, like all the words of sinful man, spring from sinful motives within. Even the devil has knowledge after a fashion, as we have seen. The unbeliever, too, like his father the devil, speaks truth, but falsifies it by the way he lives: “Formal assent to the intellectual argument for Christianity, and pharisaical punctiliousness in living up to the form of the law, are in themselves perhaps the most diabolical falsification of the truth.”58 Thus Van Til often speaks of the unbeliever giving “intellectual assent” to the truths of Christianity: “we may hold that [the children of Cain] ‘knew’ the truth intellectually as fully as did the children of God.”59 Evidently, some unbelievers, like the Pharisees or the devil, can be quite orthodox!
We might be inclined here toward a formulation like the following: unbelievers may accept the truth intellectually, but are morally opposed to it. Their problem is “not intellectual but moral.” This is the way Gerstner, Sproul, and Lindsley formulate the noetic effects of sin in their Classical Apologetics.60 Certainly there is much truth in this formulation. Certainly Van Til would agree with the intention of this formulation to place the unbeliever’s depravity in the ethical as opposed to the metaphysical realm. The buzz-saw illustration mentioned earlier teaches that the intellectual capacities of the unbeliever as such may work quite efficiently; sin does not destroy them physically or metaphysically.
However, Van Til also says,
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When we say that sin is ethical we do not mean, however, that sin involved only the will of man and not his intellect. Sin involved every aspect of man’s personality. All of man’s reactions in every relation in which God had set him were ethical and not merely intellectual; the intellectual itself is ethical.61
Similarly, “It will not do to separate the logical powers of man from his moral powers and say that though man is morally unwilling to serve God, he can intellectually know God aright.”62 In this context, he concedes that in one sense Satan and human sinners like Cain know God very well. “But herein exactly lies the contradiction of Satan’s personality that though he knows God he yet does not really know God. His very intellect is devising schemes by which he thinks he may overthrow God, while he knows all too well that God cannot be overthrown.”63
Thus, like the situational formulation, the existential formulation is paradoxical. We cannot neatly divide the personality of the unbeliever into one portion which is affected and another which is unaffected by the Fall. To be sure, sin does not necessarily destroy our rational capacity to formulate propositions and make inferences. Unbelievers may and often do excel believers in those capacities. But in all the unbeliever’s assertions and reasoning, he acts as a sinner; and in all his assertions and reasoning, he reflects God’s common grace.
At the same time, he knows God in one sense and fails to know him in another. The two senses of knowledge here are difficult to define and distinguish.64 Perhaps the most helpful elucidation of this distinction is for us, with Van Til in the preceding quotation, to simply observe the biblical figure of Satan: brilliant and knowledgeable, but brought by his sinful hatred into a hopelessly stupid project, the project of trying to overthrow the kingdom of the living God. The interplay of his brilliance and stupidity is exceedingly difficult to describe, except by the narratives of Scripture and history. But it rings true. We have all known brilliant people who have in this way made fools of themselves. Satan is like them, to the nth degree, and non-Christians in general are like him in turn.
Of course, there are important differences between Satan and human unbelievers and between some unbelievers and others. One difference to which Van Til often refers is a difference in “self-consciousness.” “There is therefore a gradation between those who sin more and those who sin less self-consciously.”65 Self-consciousness in this sense is sometimes a function of learning: unbelievers tend to be more explicitly antagonistic to
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Christianity when they are philosophizing than when they are speaking from common sense.66 Sometimes it is also a function of historical differentiation:
Paul speaks of the ignorance of men to whom the gospel has not been preached. There is therefore a gradation between those who sin more and those who sin less self-consciously, as some are closer and others are further removed in history from the original direct supernatural revelation of God to men.67
Here the normative and existential formulations overlap. Here Van Til speaks of “self-consciousness.” Earlier we saw that he often speaks of the “systems” or “principles” of the unbeliever being the specific locus of noetic sin. I take it that these formulations are pretty much equivalent.68 To say that the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth is “in his system” or “insofar as he is true to his principle” is the same as saying “to the degree that he is epistemologically self-conscious.” Still, this is not to say that sin has no effects upon people who are relatively unconscious or unsystematic in their thought. For in such people we still find knowledge without love, which is the heart of noetic sin.
Van Til occasionally used formulations which pressed the concept of “self-consciousness” in a psychological direction, as if the unbeliever’s knowledge of the truth were unconscious or subconscious. The Reformed apologist “must seek his point of contact with the natural man in that which is beneath the threshold of his working consciousness, in the sense of deity which he seeks to suppress.”69 However, Van Til also writes, “We should, however, be on our guard not to make too much of the distinction between preconscious and self-conscious action… [as if intuition] were something quite different and something more elemental than ratiocination.”70 In general he does not insist that all of our agreements with unbelievers must be limited to the unbelievers’ subconsious beliefs. In general, when Van Til talks about an unbeliever’s level of “self-consciousness,” he is talking about the unbeliever’s intentions and sophistication rather than his psychological self-awareness. Depravity and common grace are both displayed at all levels of psychological consciousness, as is clearly implied by the normative and situational formulations.
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Depravity and common grace are both pervasive realities. Therefore, we should be able to understand at this point why Van Til makes use of “extreme antithetical formulations.” If depravity is pervasive, it will not do to suggest without qualification that the unbeliever knows a collection of truths which he holds in common with the believer. There is no commonality without difference.
On the other hand, we can also understand why the extreme antithetical formulations are themselves inadequate without considerable qualification: (a) These suggest that the unbeliever literally errs in every statement he makes. As we have seen, depravity does not necessarily work that way. Depravity works in many ways. It sometimes leads unbelievers literally to deny the teachings of Scripture. Sometimes, however, it leads them to affirm those teachings hypocritically—without love, without a heart to serve God. (b) They suggest that the specifically intellectual aspects of human depravity always appear in the discrete statements the unbeliever makes, rather than in the stupidity of his entire life-direction. (c) They fail to convey the fact that the unbeliever’s very denial of the truth is in some respects an affirmation of it: it is inconsistent and therefore conveys truth along with error (normative formulation), it presupposes the truth (situational), and it recognizes the truth intellectually while responding to it foolishly (existential).
V. Practical Formulations
We have seen that Van Til’s view of the unbeliever is actually very complex, a complexity which he appears to deny in his extreme antithetical formulations, but which we certainly must take into account if we are to build well on Van Til’s foundation. Bearing this complexity in mind, how shall we practically prepare ourselves for apologetic encounters? What should we expect of the unbeliever?
I questioned earlier Van Til’s assertion that we can predict how the unbeliever will respond to an apologetic challenge, for example, by twisting the evidence for the resurrection of Christ into a naturalistic scheme. I believe it is evident now that no such prediction is possible. The unbeliever may well twist the evidence in this way, or he may not. He may confess that Jesus is risen, but confess it hypocritically or with hatred of the God who so triumphed over his lord Satan. These are alternatives within the sphere of common grace. We should recognize also that special grace may intervene and use the presentation of such evidences to bring conversion. Thus the actual response of the unbeliever to an apologetic argument is quite unpredictable.
Van Til’s most practical formulations, then, are formulations which (contrary to the extreme antithetical formulations) leave the situation fairly open and flexible. I referred earlier to Van Til’s assertion that there is a “mixture” of truth and falsehood in the
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unbeliever’s mentality. The non-Christian’s statements “do not consistently proceed from the one principle or the other.”
In the same vein, Van Til often urges apologists to avoid the assumption that the unbeliever can form a “basically proper judgment on any question.”71 “Basically” and “essentially” seem like rather vague terms. In a thinker as conscious of principle as Van Til, one would not expect to find that sort of vagueness. We ask, are the unbeliever’s judgments proper or improper? When the issue is principial, how can we introduce terms that suggest differences of degree?72
But Van Til does, and perhaps that is where we should leave the matter for practical purposes. Unbelievers do speak truth sometimes, but their overall understanding of the world is “basically” wrong. Nor can this basic wrongness always be demonstrated in a purely conceptual way. Is Einstein’s relativity theory wrong because it was devised by a non-Christian? Is it “basically” wrong? To say so without further explanation would be misleading. The wrongness of an unbeliever’s mentality is essentially a wrongness of the heart; and that wrongness of the heart may be expressed actively and conceptually in various ways. A non-Christian scientist may discover facts and report them accurately; the wrongness of his perspective may appear in his use of those facts or in his inner motivation for discovering those facts, rather than in his statement of them. His theory as such may be “basically right,” though his overall outlook on life will be “basically wrong.”
When the apologist approaches an unbeliever, he should expect to find one who represses the truth of God in one way or another, so that the overall configuration of his life is wrong and wrong-headed. But the specific forms this repression takes are so many and varied that it is not possible to predict just how an apologetic confrontation will go. To use a currently popular phrase, apologetics must therefore be “person variable.” It must deal with each inquirer according to his own special needs, concerns, interests, problems. Van Til himself thought it was possible to predict the course of such encounters. But his own account of the complexities of the unbeliever’s consciousness cannot be reconciled with such predictability.
And it may be that he was not actually so rigid on this question as some of his formulations suggest. As a student I used to press him on the literal force of his view of antithesis. It seemed to me then that a literal account of it (“we may never agree with an unbeliever”) would require all sorts of absurdities, for example, that Van Til would not even have the right to accept Kant’s critiques of some of Leibniz’s arguments, which he
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certainly wanted to do. Van Til’s replies to me were always of a rather common-sense variety. Of course, he said, we can agree with Kant, or Plato, or Aristotle, about this or that, but not about their “basic” ideas. He was not hesitant to express agreement with unbelievers on various points, such as the importance of the one-and-many problem.73 He could even speak of the “lofty ethics of idealism,”74 and he speaks of how we should “apply the method of the idealist logicians in a way these idealist logicians, because of their own anti-theistic assumptions, cannot apply it,”75 thus implying some level of agreement with the idealists as to how concepts cohere in a system of thought. But he felt that the “basic” structure of these philosophies was antithetical to Christianity, and he presented cogent argumentation to show that was so. Van Til would challenge me to find one actual case in the history of non-Christian philosophy in which someone attained an authentically theistic world-view. I was, of course, unable to produce any examples.
His point seemed to be, not some rigid conviction that we must never agree with unbelievers on any proposition, but rather the empirical observation that as a matter of fact depravity tends to produce systems of thought which deny biblical truth in significant ways. Perhaps there are one or two unbelievers who repress the truth more subtly than that, devising intellectual systems which actually affirm Christianity, but who hold these truths hypocritically. That is possible, and it may have happened; but we must agree that it does not happen very often.
I would suggest that although Van Til’s talk of antithesis often appears very rigid (perhaps necessarily so, since we are talking about differences in “principle”), his use of the concept was fairly flexible. Following the example of his practice rather than of his more extreme formulations, we may (and in my judgment should) do the same.
* * * * *
Thus far, I have discussed five ways in which Van Til describes the relation of antithesis and common grace. Putting together what we have learned, I would suggest that the extreme antithetical formulations with which Van Til’s thought is most commonly identified and for which it is most commonly criticized do not represent Van Til at his best or at his most typical. Nor do they represent the full complexity of Van Til’s thinking on these subjects. Indeed, it would, I believe, be very wrong for us to go into apologetic encounters taking these statements literally.
No doubt Van Til himself was fond of his more extreme antithetical formulations. To those he devoted his greatest eloquence, his greatest illustrative cleverness (the buzz-saw, the man made of water, the jaundiced eye). Why? In my view, he saw himself as the
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heir to Kuyper and Machen, and he saw his responsibility as that of maintaining the antithesis mentality in the Machen movement and promoting it throughout the larger church. His greatest concern was that that sense of opposition to unbelief might lose its sharpness. Further, his more careful analyses of antithesis (normative, situational, and existential) did warrant the view that the effects of depravity upon the unbeliever were comprehensive, so that it could be said in one sense that the unbeliever “knows nothing truly.” He very likely felt that these considerations justified his extreme formulations.
But as we have seen, although the noetic effects of sin are comprehensive, we must give attention to the nature of those comprehensive effects. And it is simplistic to hold that those effects amount to a propositional falsification of every utterance of the unbeliever. Van Til recognized that in his better moments; but his formulations do not always reflect that level of insight.
The point is not that we (we Van Tilians) must de-emphasize Van Til’s doctrine of antithesis in favor of his doctrine of common grace. To do that would be to rob Van Tilian thought of all its distinctiveness. Rather, what we must do is to understand and make use of the full dimensions of Van Til’s thinking about the antithesis, rather than to practice a “Van Tilian apologetics” which simply takes his most extreme formulations at face value. Such extreme and literalist uses of Van Tilian antithesis actually tend to weakenVan Til’s teaching in this area, for they tend to describe “antithesis” largely in intellectual terms, as if it were merely about one group of propositions logically contradicting another. In fact, Van Til’s “antithesis” is far more than that. It is a teaching about the whole life of man, believing and unbelieving, about the conflict of the ages between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the wicked one. This conflict embraces the intellect, but it also embraces every other area of human life. And we do not see adequately how the antithesis affects the intellect until we see how sin places the intellect, together with all the rest of life, into the service of an idol.
When we understand the antithesis in its full dimensions, we will see more fully the legitimacy of the “great gulf” language in certain contexts. To be sure, there is a great gulf between Christianity and unbelief, and between authentic Christianity and deformations of it. Is there also a “great gulf” between Reformed Christians and non-Reformed Christians, or between Van Tilian apologists and non-Van Tilian apologists? I confess I would be more conservative than Van Til was with this kind of language, maintaining that the chief antithesis is between belief and unbelief as such, rather than between varieties of belief or with various formulations of the truth. Arminianism and non-Van Tilian apologetics systems are erroneous in some measure, I would say; but they have much in common with the Reformed faith, and at the deepest level; thus we should not criticize them in the same terms we use to criticize unbelief.
Do Reformed believers really share “no fundamentals in common” with Arminian Christians like Stuart Hackett? In my view, statements like this are unwise and untrue if taken in their natural meaning. The issue of antithesis is essentially an issue of the heart,
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and I am confident that Reformed believers are, in general, of one heart with their Arminian brothers and sisters.
The problem is this: Van Til sometimes forgot that his doctrine of antithesis was a doctrine about the human heart. He sometimes thought that he could identify it exhaustively with various conceptual oppositions. In this belief he was wrong. If we are to maintain fully Van Til’s “presuppositionalism of the heart” in our own day, we must avoid such confusion.76 I am not, of course, saying that one’s doctrine has nothing to do with his heart-condition. Doctrine proceeds from the heart as do all of our words (Matt 12:34). But as we have seen, the precise relation between heart condition and verbal confession in individual cases is rather complex.
The notion is abroad in some circles that Van Til’s thought forbids us to seek to learn anything at all from unbelievers, or even from non-Reformed Christians.77 Van Til does give some aid and comfort to that position by means of his extreme antithetical formulations. I take it, however, that my analysis decisively refutes such applications of Van Til’s thought. Van Til himself learned plenty from non-Christian and non-Reformed thinkers, and he taught his students to do the same. Wooden application of Van Til’s more extreme antithetical statements misses entirely the subtlety of Van Til’s teaching, and it takes as its operative starting point those statements of Van Til which are least defensible scripturally and which contradict Van Til’s own fuller formulations.
Still, in my view, the great need in our time is for more, not less, recognition of antithesis. Here, Van Til can continue to make an important contribution to Christian thought, as long as we focus on the richness of his teaching rather than carelessly employing his more colorful formulations.
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1 See J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923)
2 The title of Van Til’s work, Christianity and Barthianism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962), intentionally reflects that of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. Compare his earlier work, The New Modernism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946), the title of which also reflects Machen’s thesis.
3 Cornelius Van Til, “Reply” to Montgomery’s “Once upon an A Priori,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (ed. E. R. Geehan; Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 403.
4 Van Til, in Jerusalem and Athens, 15–16; emphasis his.
5 I have documented and explored Van Til’s concept of a “theological system” in my article, “The Problem of Theological Paradox,” Foundations of Christian Scholarship (ed. Gary North; Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976) 295-330, also published as the pamphlet Van Til: The Theologian (Phillipsburg, NJ: Pilgrim, 1976).
6 Van Til’s clearest account of these matters, in my view, is found in his Introduction to Systematic Theology, hence Theology (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974) 22-23.
7 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (3d ed.; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967) 106.
8 Van Til, Defense, 15.
9 Ibid., 47.
10 Ibid., 49.
12 Ibid., 50.
13 Ibid., 170.
14 Ibid., 54.
15 Ibid., 67.
16 Ibid., 73.
17 Ibid., 203.
18 Ibid., 150.
19 Ibid., 8.
20 Ibid., 83.
21 Cf. Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, hence, Knowledge (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969) 297-98. For similarly extreme statements of the antithesis, see id., Defense, 203, 228; see also p. 296 in the first edition of Defense (1955); Theology, 14, 22, 56, 75, 146, 189; Knowledge, 262, 293.
22 Van Til, Theology, 26. Compare his statement on p. 25 that this is a matter of “great complexity.”
23 Ibid., 27. With regard to the odd grammar, or perhaps punctuation, in the last sentence, sic. On the “mixture” idea, cf. Defense, 170: “Thus the ideas with which (the unbeliever) daily works do not proceed consistently either from the one principle or from the other.”
24 I suspect that his inner perception of the issue varied considerably from time to time through his career. The apparent agnosticism of Theology, 26, and Defense, 170, is hard to reconcile with the sense of assurance permeating many of his discussions of this issue.
25 Van Til, Theology, 75.
26 Van Til, Knowledge, 258–59, emphasis his; cf. 265, 301–2.
27 Van Til, Defense, 171.
28 Ibid., 74.
29 I take the term “epistemological” here to be roughly synonymous with the term “interpretive” discussed in the preceding section. I believe also that the “psychological/epistemological” contrast found in Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972) 52-53, is more or less synonymous with the distinction under consideration.
30 Ibid., 159.
31 Ibid., 44.
32 Van Til, Defense, 59.
33 Ibid., 74.
34 Van Til, Theology, 198.
35 Van Til, Knowledge, 296; cf. Theology, 194.
36 Van Til, Defense, 77. He does not actually use the word “formal” in this context.
37 Van Til, Knowledge, 265–72.
38 Van Til, Theology, 37.
39 Ibid., 194.
40 Ibid., 114.
41 Ibid., 113.
42 Ibid., 195; cf. p. 196, where he makes some fairly tortuous distinctions in this regard.
43 However, see later the discussion of Van Til’s half-suggestions that the unbeliever’s knowledge is somehow subconscious.
44 See also Van Til, Defense, 91–92.
45 Ibid., 209.
46 Van Til, Theology, 27. In response to John Murray’s criticism, Van Til came to abandon this idea as a theological formulation; but it still serves as a good illustration of how Van Til understood the nature of the unbeliever’s knowledge of God. It is, to the unbeliever, as sin is to the believer, a distraction from the main direction of his life.
47 Ibid., 29.
48 Ibid., 113, emphasis mine.
49 Van Til, Defense, 170.
50 Van Til, Theology, 84.
51 Ibid., 103; cf. pp. 173-75 and Theology, 27, 60.
52 We shall see, and Van Til recognized this, that unregeneracy is compatible with a certain amount of doctrinal orthodoxy, the Pharisees and Satan being cases in point.
53 Van Til, Theology, 75. In this connection, he refers to Job 28:12–14 and 20–22.
54 Van Til, Knowledge, 13.
55 Van Til, Defense, 17, emphasis his.
56 Ibid., 75. Here Van Til is quoting Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952) 3.36. Cf. my treatment of the emotions in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987) 335-40.
57 Van Til, Defense, 46.
58 Van Til, Theology, 198.
59 Ibid., 78; cf. Defense, 299, and Knowledge, 19, 226, 292.
60 R. C. Sproul, John H. Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) 52; cf. my critique in “Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic,” WTJ 47 (1985) 279-99, reprinted in my Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994) 219-43.
61 Van Til, Defense, 46.
62 Van Til, Theology, 92.
64 For an attempt to do this roughly and approximately, see my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 49–61.
65 Van Til, Knowledge, 46.
66 Van Til, Defense, 82.
67 Van Til, Knowledge, 46. Cf. the account in Common Grace of the process by which unbelievers and believers become more and more clearly differentiated from one another as history progresses to its consummation. I confess I have reservations about the scripturality of this theological construction, but I do not doubt that there are differences between people as to the degree of self-consciousness with which they repress the truth.
68 See Van Til’s own equation of them in Theology, 83–84.
69 Van Til, Defense, 98. Van Til frequently appeals to what is “deep down” in the heart of the unbeliever (ibid., 94, 231). Cf. also his emphasis on the “involuntary” nature of the unbeliever’s recognition of truth, as in Theology, 88.
70 Van Til, Theology, 90
71 Van Til, Defense, 83. Cf. p. 93: “we cannot admit…that [the unbeliever’s] claim to interpret at least some area of experience in a way that is essentially correct, is mistaken.”
72 Cf. also the statement, “formally and incidentally, [unbelievers] have said many things that are true” (Van Til, Theology, 32). We discussed “formally” earlier. “Incidentally” suggests that unbelievers speak truths, but not on the main drift of a topic of conversation.
73 Ibid., 24.
74 Ibid., 63.
75 Ibid., 115.
76 See my Apologetics, 57–88, where I attempt to show some other ways in which Van Til confuses heart-attitudes with propositional formulations.
77 Understandably, this sort of view is not usually found in print, but I think many WTJ readers will recall private conversations and presbytery speeches to this effect. For one published example, see the exchange among William Dennison, the William White, and myself, in Journey, Sept-Oct, 1987, Mar-Apr, May-June, and July-Oct, 1988, and Jan-Feb 1989.