Monday, May 25, 2015

The Van Til Files

Most of my notes on Van Til, both pro and con. I am not saying whether I think Van Til is right or wrong.  

My non-existent neo-Plantingian Interview

This interview never happened.  It is between me and myself.  On a more serious note, I have noticed that my philosophical readings do not fit into any specific category.  That is good, I suppose, since “joining a school” is not the best start.

Question: You read Van Til, doesn’t that make you a Van Tillian?
Answer:  Not really.  I don’t find all of his apologetics convincing, but I do appreciate his reading of Greek and medieval theology.  I think he has a lot of promise in that area.  More importantly, Van Til, better than anyone else at his time, showed the importance of God as a Covenantal, Personal God.
Q.  But didn’t you used to promote Thomas Reid’s Scottish philosophy?  All the Van Tillians I know reject it.
A. There are two different “Van Tillian” answers to that question, and his reconstructionist disciples only knew one of them.  In Survey of Christian Epistemology (p. 132-134) he notes that if the Scottish school takes man’s cognitive faculties as a proximate starting point and not an ultimate one, then there is no real problem.  Further, we see Thomas Reid and Alvin Plantinga saying exactly that.   Elsewhere, however, Van Til was not as careful in his reading of Reid, and the reconstructionists read him as condemning Common Sense Realism.
Q.  So, is there a contradiction between the two schools?
A.  If the above distinction is made, I am not convinced there is.
Q. You keep mentioning Alvin Plantinga.  Are you a Reformed Epistemology guy?
A. I’ve read quite a bit of Wolterstorff and Kelly James Clark.  I like what they have to say.  I am not an expert on Plantinga so I have to demur at that point.  I do think there is a dovetailing between Thomas Reid and Plantinga, and if that convergence holds there is an exciting opportunity to unite Reformed guys along different epistemological and even geographical lines.
Q. What do you mean?
A. The guys in Westminster (either school) claim Van Til.  There is a debate on how well they understand him, but that’s beside the point. I think I have demonstrated above that there is no real contradiction between the two at least on the starting point.  This means that guys who hold to some variant of Common Sense epistemology and/or Van Tillian presuppositionalism do not have to be at loggerheads.

Q.  There is still one other Dutch giant you haven’t mentioned.

A.  You mean Herman Dooyeweerd, right?
Q. Correct.
A.  If you trace the development of the Reformed Epistemology school, you can find something like Dooyeweerd at the very beginning.  When Wolterstorff and Plantinga edited Faith and Rationality, they were at that time strongly influenced by Dooyeweerd. I am not saying that’s where they are today.   However, I do believe that Dooyeweerd’s contention that all men have a pre-theoretical “faith commitment” from the heart is in line with what Kelly James Clark and Van Til say about pretended neutrality.

Survey of Christian Epistemology (Full)

Typical van Til book.  Numerous interesting insights on Greek philosophy.  Sort of spirals out of control on Idealism as he (likely) tried to fit his dissertation into three chapters.

Medieval Epistemology
CvT is friendlier to Augustine in this volume than he was in A Christian Theory of Knowledge.   Here he emphasizes the differences between Augustine and Plato and focuses the discussion on the problem of knowledge that Plato raised in the previous chapter: what is the principle of Unity (One) and Diversity (Many)?

For CvT this solution lies in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Without a doctrine of creation, the sense world is seen as an “ultimate” (48).  And if we start with an ultimate plurality, how will we get to unity?  Plato never found unity in the Ideal world, for the Idea of the Good never acquired supremacy over the other ideas, and there remained the problem of the Idea of mud, hair, and filth.

The scholastics accepted the Greek idea of the soul, which parallels the chain of being.   At the lowest level is the vegetative part, then the appetitive, then the cognitive (this also parallels comments made by John of Damascus).

Universals and Paganism
The problem of universals is simply a restatement of the problem of the One and the Many.

Donum Superadditum
Something (image of God) received with man’s being.  The origin of this thought lies in the pagan idea of a material universe with an evil inherent in it existing independently of God (62).  It’s hard to see on this gloss how God could have created man “good” apart from endowing him with a little something extra.

Modern Epistemology: Lutheranism
Luther thought of the image of God in purely moral categories, neglecting such as the will and intellect. Van Til analyzes the Lutheran view of the sacrament as it relates to the person of Christ, and as such to epistemology:  the human can become divine.  It is an intermingling of temporal and eternal (70).  As such, Lutheranism also finds itself facing the same difficulties that Platonism faced.

Original Sin and Representation (78)

Van Til has an illuminating discussion on original sin.  He addresses the common challenge to it:  it is illogical because we can’t be tried for someone else’s actions.   But he points out that this only works if we reject the category of representation.

He says that the principle of representation holds because the members of the Trinity are mutually representational.  That is an interesting suggestion, but I am not sure what he really means by that.  He goes on to say that God creates in representational categories (78-79).  Again, very intriguing but not really that clear.

Modern Epistemology: Arminianism
For Watson finitude involves evil (82).  “No creature can be entirely perfect because he is finite” (Watson, Theological Institutesvol 1, p. 33).  This mutes the distinction between general and special revelation. But as Van Til points out, this is paganism.  It posits a world independent of God.  If God created the world there is no reason why it can’t be perfectly good (Van Til, 82).  Van Til asks the question, “Why [on the Arminian gloss]could not God create a perfect though finite being?”   The only real answer for the Arminian is that there must be laws and conditions above God to which he must answer (90).

Van Til then employs the standard (and in my opinion, devastating) objection to Arminianism:  was it in God’s plan that man should fall into evil?  If he says yes, then he is a Calvinist.  If he says no, then he posits a Platonic man outside the plan and power of God (83).  Like Plato, this posits a world independent (to some degree, anyway) of God.

Van Til then goes on to discuss the Arminian contention that for an ethical act to be truly free, it must occur in an impersonal vacuum (Miley, Systematic Theology, I: 409, quoted in Van Til, 87).  The problem with this is given what we confess about God, and that all facts are in a God-vacuum, then on Miley’s gloss it’s hard to see how any action could occur. Van Til points out this is an anti-theistical position.  He writes, “[this] act could not occur except in the Void” (88).

Modern Epistemology: Calvinism

Van Til links Calvin’s project under the “Covenant” (96).  He notes that we see his “representation” in the Trinity as well.   The persons of the Trinity are exhaustive of one another.  This allows man to find the principles of unity and diversity within the Trinity (and hence, within eternal categories).

If the Trinity is representational, then man, too, thinks in representational categories (97)

Epistemology and non-being participation

Some of this will be my own reflections on CvT’s A Christian Theory of Knowledge and the rest will be towards a construction of anti-scale of being philosophy.  I am not reviewing the whole book because it’s unnecessary.   Why do a review of any CvT work after Bahnsen’s magnum opus?  Further, the last 150 pages of CTK could have been left off and the book would have been better.

While CvT’s critique of Romanism was good, he didn’t integrate his earlier (and fine) critique of Plotinus, Augustine, and being/non-being into his larger critique of Romanism, which likely could have buried Romanism.  Instead, he got sidetracked on showing how Karl Barth is secretly in line with the nouvelle theologie of post-Vatican II theology.  That simply doesn’t wash.   For all of Barth’s problems, he rejected the analogia entis and the substance metaphysics upon which Rome is built.

CvT gives a fairly good summary and critique of the early church fathers.  There is some difficulty in this, since no one, even anchoretic traditions, are entirely clear on who constitutes (and when!) the ECFs.  Even admitting Tertullian is a heretic, I don’t think you will find many exceptions in the ancient world to the epistemology CvT is summarizing.   

The later Palamite epistemology is simply a refinement (and perhaps bungling) of some neo-Platonic themes, so to the degree that CvT accurately summarizes and critiques the being theologies of Augustine, Plotinus, and Eurigena, the criticism applies to Palamas (and Palamas and Augustine are closer than one might suspect).  CvT writes that the early church could not find a Christian view of freedom to coalesce with a Christian view of necessity, with the result the fathers opted for a nonbiblical view of free will.

Non-Christian Continuity and Discontinuity
A non-Christian view of continuity sees an identification of God and man, as seen below:

The higher on the scale, the more real and “true” the thing is.  Van Til notes that Tertullian sees sin as “the opposite of good.”  This sounds correct until we realize that means sin is “lower” on the scale of good.   Sin has “slenderness of being.”
On the principle of continuity it is hard to see how Tertullian (and Justin)’s view of God is different from the Stoics’.  But when he argues against Marcion, he says the Christian God is “Other” than man (107).

Later Platonisms
Moving to the fathers (Origen and Clement) we see the scale of being hardened in place.   CvT quotes Plotinus to the effect, “thought is motion” and this is inferior to ecstasy.   (Rowan Williams has a helpful summary on this point).

Here our chart is modified. God is now seen as hyper-ousia, above ousia.  How does one then get from the highest point on the scale of being to “above being?”   Mysticism, ecstasy.   Van Til can then make the critique that many of these fathers employed both rationalism (scale of being, continuity principle) and irrationalism (ecstasy, mysticism).  In fact, rationalism and irrationalism on this gloss are dialectically correlative.

If man is on the scale of being and participates in good, then consistently we must say he also participates in non-being.

Is Finitude Evil?
This is the key point: on metaphysical accounts (and yes, I used the word “metaphysical”) man is defective because he is finite (he participates lower on the scale of being, even to participating in non-being.   Biblical religion, by contrast, sees man’s problem as ethical:  he is in rebellion to God.   CvT then gives a helpful discussion on “total depravity.”  We are not saying that man’s noetic capacity is ruined.   It is in rebellion.

A Metaphysical Fall from Oneness
Augustine is very clear (City of God section on the Platonists) that One = Truth = Being.   The further away from the One we get, the more irrational we get.   The problem is that historical facts are in the realm of the many (further, since history is contingent).  This is similar to Plato’s problem of learning by experience.  Van Til writes,
When Plato took his line and divided it sharply between eternal being of which there was genuine knowledge or science, and non-being of which there was no knowledge, he was faced with the question of how learning by experience is possible (129).
Back to Augustine:  Eternal Truth and History are dialectical opposites.  If Christ is the Eternal Word (and true) then how could he be historical? If historical, then not eternal, and thus not true, and thus unknown.  This is where one’s onto-epistemology leads.  As Van Til says, “The first option leads to truth without content.”
Van Til has a nice phrase to summarize all of this:  slenderness of being.  (And that is where these traditions find man’s free will).
Other notes:
Rejecting the Augstino-Platonic view of Time:  sheer timeless (moving image of eternity) would swallow up all distinctions.
I almost understand what CvT means when he says pure rationality and pure irrationality demand one another (144).  I wish he would have clarified it.
I understand his criticisms of Barth and some of them are valid.  I don’t think he fully showed how Barth’s actualist ontology is at odds with Rome’s analogia entis.


  1. Do you think a (consistent) nomimalist can accept Van Til's solution to the one and the many? Does the rejection of universals make this irreconcilable (since there would only be the many)? How about a conceptualist? Is it necessary that universals (or concepts) have actual subsistence?

    1. A nominalist probably wouldn't accept CvT's solution. And for what it's worth, I don't think CVT is that far off.

      While I am not an expert on the subject, there are quite a few varieties of nominalism. An extreme nominalist denies universals in such a way that only bare particulars exist. That would be someone like Hume or Rorty and maybe Derrida.

      A trope nominalist admits that abstract qualities exist, but doesn't really know *how* they are related. He doesn't have the problem that extreme nominalists have, but he doesn't have much of a solution.

      Weak realists like Wolterstorff would say that universals are "types" and their instantiations are tokens, but the types are real. I would probably fall into this category.

      A Conceptualist could probably take Van Til's solution.

      Hard (Platonic) Realism: The most metaphysically rigorous and beautiful of the systems, but with a few problems--notably the 3rd Man Argument. Let’s say that A, B, and C, partake of Largeness (L₁). By self predication L₁ is also large. There is now a new plurality: A, B, C, and L₁. Given the One-over-many principle, there is a form of largeness in which all of the above partake. We will call it L₂. We still have a form of Largeness distinct from our sets, so now we have a new set: {A, B, C, L1, and L2} which now partakes in a new instantiation of Largeness, L3. See where it's going?

    2. Where would a modified Maximus fall in the midst of this? What I mean is: the existence of 'logoi' (creatively spoken words) that exist schmatically in the mind of God, but when spoken (come to exist), they represent (in some fashion) the real, which still is particular.

      It probably has holes, but, for me, it's a starting place to take the Nominalist's critiques of Chain-of-Being seriously, without abandoning Realism (which has to be if there is an Author/Creator). It's away to bring speech-act theory into questions of metaphysics. It's perhaps what Duns Scotus was trying to do, before being coopted towards Occam and Medieval-German Nominalism.

    3. I always read Maximus as being a hard realist. Collectively, I see him saying that the logoi are the Forms which are manifested in Christ the Logos.

      Or to say it another way: The Logoi manifest the Forms which are collectively the Logos.

      I would love to see how speech-act comes to play in this.

    4. The way I understood Maximus (indirectly) is that the logoi are creative words spoken by the Word, which have their identity in the Word, but do not constitute the Word, being creaturely and not begotten. Thus, I Cal, am a logos, spoken by the Logos, among many logoi who have their particularity established in the Logos, without being collapsed merely into Humanity proper. In God I live, move, and have my being. Thus I am not what I am because of convention, but established in the mind of God. Every particular object has its place in the Logos as logoi.

      I'm still trying to work this out, but I think we need to maintain realism without giving into Platonism (which many Church Fathers were too quick to do, without trying to bend the grammar to new purposes.

      Or, in other words, instead of taking gold from Egypt to further the way to the Promise Land, they turned the caravan around and moved back in with Pharaoh.

      Where Speech-Act comes to play is in the life of the logoi. If we see ourselves as 'creative-words' (such to be made Imago Dei, or to be 'breathed out' vis. Gen 2), then seeing our lives as written texts, where our humanity (locution), character (illocution), and will/loves (perlocution) find a place.

      Thus Redemption is the supervening (term is not quite adequate, but forgive me) Holy Spirit respeaking the Word. Maybe it's a way to continue to undo Arminian objections, and smuggle Augustinian/Calvinian (Pauline??) sovereign grace into places that are superficially hostile (the East?).

      These are rough thoughts,

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    6. ***The way I understood Maximus (indirectly) is that the logoi are creative words spoken by the Word, which have their identity in the Word, but do not constitute the Word, being creaturely and not begotten.***

      That's a really neat idea. Reality is verbal, so to speak. Well-said (no pun intended).

  2. Edit:

    "respeaking the Word" ought to be "respeaking the words". If we find ourselves as stray sounds (becoming more bestial ala Romans 1), we must be respoken by the Word (Christ) through His Breath/Voice (Holy Spirit), thus we are reconstituted as words (logoi).

    Hope that makes some sense.