Bill Vallicella on Cornelius Van Til: An open mind and heart

Image result for bill vallicellaBill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, is currently reading Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith, and that delights me no end. Bill was the first philosopher to welcome my old site (now 15 years old) and greet the launching of this one (which occasioned his republishing a generous and stimulating critique of one of my efforts).

I thank Dave Lull (the “Omnipresent Wisconsin Librarian,” now retired) for alerting me not only to Bill’s “Van Til and Romans 1:18-20,” but also to “God, the Cosmos, Other Minds: In the Same Epistemological Boat? The latter is Bill’s response to my “God: “behind the scenes” (or “under the floorboards”) of every argument.” (I’m grateful to Dave for many other unsolicited yet invaluable leads he has sent my way over the years.)Image result for dave lull

After reading the second post, though, I wonder whether after a few chapters Bill’s thrown Defense against the wall in exasperation—one of my reactions, decades ago—figuratively speaking, of course.

In a blog post I can address only some of the issues Bill raise. That is, what follows does not answer Bill point for point. I’ll only suggest the lines of a fuller response.

Bill is ambivalent about Van Til: his “presuppositionalism is intriguing even if in places preposterous.” Bill doesn’t specify what merits that assessment. In any case Van Til’s distinctive charge was that all non-Christian thought—including much that is professedly Christian but infected with non-Christian presuppositions—is preposterous at its roots.

Why? Because if we are (as Van Til claims) dependent on God’s revelation to account for our knowledge, but fail to acknowledge that dependence—or worse, deny it—we reason in a void.

Non-Christians take for granted principles that jointly make sense only on a certain worldview that’s operating “in the background” (or under our mental “floorboards”). For example, we reason with unities and pluralities without giving the matter a second thought. Philosophers have given it several millennia of thought, yet are no closer to a solution than were Parmenides and Heraclitus. Today philosophers either ignore the problem, or deny that there is a problem, or arbitrarily pick the “realist” or “nominalist” pseudo-solution that suits them, consigning either the One or the Many to the realm of illusion. But as Van Til put in his 1932 syllabus A Survey of Christian Epistemology, we must not choose an epistemology (or a metaphysics with which it must be coordinated) as one chooses a hat,

In the triune creator God of Christianity, however, unity and plurality are equally ultimate, and all creation reflects that equal ultimacy. God never had the “problem,” as philosophers have had, of relating them to each other harmoniously. (Why exactly three persons? Why not two? Why not four (or more)? B. A. Bosserman’s The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til offers an answer. )

Of what use, for example, is the Law of Contradiction (which Bill adduces) apart from our (generally reliable) memories of perceiving things and regularities in nature? And how do that law and those patterns relate to moral absolutes (which subsume the imperative to seek truth and avoid fallacies)? Yet those dimensions of an adequate worldview (to list no others) are involved in every predication and argument.

What accounts for our powers of memory and symbolic reference in our harnessing of memory, which we take for granted every waking moment? Here’s one proposal: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word both is God and is in relation (pros) to God, who enlightens us as we come into the world and in whose image we are created. (John 1:14; Genesis 1:26-27). Now we have a fighting chance of making sense of the world, other persons, and our ability to communicate symbolically. What would Bill (or anyone else) offer in its place?

Again, like Van Til (at a galactic distance, of course) I’m confronting my worldview with another and seeing whether I should trade it in for another. I argue on the basis of the former, not for the former (except indirectly). Until something better comes along, I’ll interpret everything in terms of my worldview and am confident that in doing so I violate no epistemological duty.

Van Til freely granted that non-Christian scientists, historians, economists, generals, musicians, actors, novelists, and athletes reason; they do so, however only by surreptitiously borrowing from the Biblical Christian worldview, the only one in which the coordination of first truths is possible. That’s the claim. If he hasn’t already, Bill will get to that claim if he sticks with Defense.

Bill initially wonders whether in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (not a “Pauline” epistle) the Apostle begs the question in favor of theism: “if the heavens and the earth are a creation,” Bill writes, “then it follows straightaway that a creator exists.” He later retracts any such suggestion: “one who presupposes the truth of Christian theism cannot be accused of begging the question.” (By now Bill must have seen Scott Oliphint’s germane 8th footnote on page 23.)

And that’s indeed what Paul presupposes: not abstract theism, but the concrete revelation of the God of the inspired Hebrew Scriptures, which supply the equally concrete context of the Greek Scriptures. One reasons (explicitly or implicitly) on the basis of what they affirm or imply—for it is what God has revealed—about God, man, and the world and their interrelationships. Anything other worldview renders reasoning impossible.

Van Til worked out and defended that distinctive claim over six decades in critical examination of anti-theistic thought, one exponent thereof after another. It started in 1926 with his review of A. N. Whitehead’s Religion in the Making, but he did not exempt from criticism the writings of Christians into whose thought the enemy made inroads.

To state what should be obvious: in writing to Christians in Rome, Paul wasn’t arguing for theism against professed atheists, so even the suggestion that Paul was not following the rules of debate had no target. (There’s no need to “prove” theism to theists.)

Paul wasn’t even arguing for theism with the philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:18-32). What he was doing was opposing his concrete theistic worldview to their abstract and “too superstitious” gods (v. 22). Some scoffed (especially at the idea of resurrection), but others said they’d hear more from him another day.

Bill’s day seems to have come: “Now I am a theist and I am sympathetic to Christianity. But although I have one foot in Jerusalem, the other is  planted firmly in Athens.”

Now, Christianity is not a proper object of sympathy. But the concrete God-Man, Christ, who suffered (an inadequate word) on behalf of Bill, me, and billions of others, is. Does Bill accept what Christ did to satisfy the justice of the Father? Or does he prefer to continue to reason piecemeal, brick by brick, until perhaps his “Athenian” mind has been sated and then, only then, will he trade up his attitude of sympathy for one of gratitude?

And on what is he standing as he deliberates? Reason?

We ought not put God in the dock, as C. S. Lewis memorably put it. If Bill’s deity is content to stand trial—or is utterly indifferent to that prospect—then we can be sure this piece of metaphysical furniture is not the God of the Bible, awareness of whose existence we either affirm or suppress. “As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you.” Ezekiel 20:3 The god of the philosophers doesn’t talk like that. He doesn’t talk at all.Image result for god in the dock

If Van Til is right about Athens, then Bill’s mind is danger of being torn asunder.

Much of Bill’s post is a series of flat-out negations of Paul’s affirmations, including his theses the human heart. Not presupposing that Paul is writing under divine inspiration, Bill rejects Paul’s characterization of atheists whose sincerity he apparently wishes to honor.

“That the natural world is a divine artifact is not evident to the senses, or to the heart, or to reason.” Also sprach Bill.

I sincerely ask: are the billions who have perceived the natural world exactly that way—because God “wired” them that way—guilty of “begging the question”? Or are they merely superstitious, too unsophisticated to be guilty of that fallacy?

Bill says “one can argue for the existence of God from the existence and order of the natural world,” but he does that only on the basis of first truths that make sense and comport only on a certain worldview. His argument (assuming arguendo that it’s sound) only confirms something we know primordially, as do arguments that undermine solipsism or subjective idealism.

That’s the heart of Van Til’s transcendental argument: at the very inception of predication—vocal or silent—you’re on God’s turf, not neutral ground. Antitheism  presupposes theism.

Bill asserts that “it cannot fairly be said that what animates the best of them [i.e., professed atheists] is a stubborn and prideful refusal to submit to a truth that is evident. It is simply not objectively evident to the senses or the intellect or the heart that the natural world is a divine artifact.”

From where I sit, Bill has only gratuitously asserted what he finds plausible for one to sincerely affirm or deny.

“If it [God’s existence] were objectively evident, then there would be no explanation of the existence of so many intellectually penetrating, morally upright, and sincere atheists.” Since we’re in the explanation-offering business: on what basis does Bill rule out Paul’s explanation as “unfair”? Does the testimony of atheists count more than the testimony of believers? How does one decide?

Bill wonders why one cannot as easily presuppose another worldview. “Why not presuppose atheism as many today do? They can and do make claims about what we ‘know’ and what we ‘suppress.’” Donning the mask of the village atheist for argument’s sake, Bill continues: “We all know deep down that we are nothing but clever land mammals slated for extinction, with no higher origin or higher destiny, but we suppress this ugly truth because we are unwilling to face the dreadful facts.” (Emphasis in the original.)

The answer is that all worldviews are not created equal. Only one fills the bill epistemologically, metaphysically (including teleologically), and ethically. As Bill knows, perhaps with the help of Alvin Plantingathe naturalistic evolutionary account of man renders unreliable the very reasoning that allegedly yields that account. But I ask: whence the worldview-matrix within which Plantinga’s critique can be debated or even make sense? (Plantinga is Dutch Reformed, but no Van Tillian.)

Whatever the verdict on Plantinga’s argument, the enterprise of collaboratively raising and answering questions, assessing evidence, and testing hypotheses, requires persons with fallible yet reliable memories and an interest in truth. What worldview, other than the Biblical one, accounts for that remarkable coordination of conditions?

“But I am open to a change of view and a change of heart (metanoia).” I for one am glad to hear it.

I must forcibly break to Bill’s other post leaving some of his points unanswered for now.

To my claim (fairly summarized by Bill ) that

God, the physical universe, and other minds are all on a par in respect of dubitability. No one of them is more open to reasonable doubt than the other two, and none of them is open to reasonable doubt. Therefore, one can no more reasonably doubt the existence of God than one can doubt the existence of other minds.  Atheism is on a par with solipsism in point of plausibility.

Bill has only issued another report of convictions about what other people believe, doubt or deny. Those reports carry no weight. (Again, on what worldview are these generalizations sensible?)

The difference between God and the physical universe on the one hand and other minds on the other is not greater dubitability but rather ethical accountability.

The existence of God is an affront to the presumption of human autonomy in a way and to a degree that the existence of the cosmos and of other people are not. And some people, perhaps some of them learned, eloquent, and allegedly sincere atheists, simply refuse to aren’t having any of that.

I believe David Hume wrote somewhere—unfortunately for the life of me I can’t put my finger on the passage—that we’re prepared to doubt or deny any belief if having it inhibits our pursuit of our interest. If the cosmos or other people get in our way, so much the worse for them: we’ll imagine them away. (Or, failing that, annihilate the planet or dehumanize other people.)

God is not the only possible object of unrighteous suppression (Romans 1:18-20).

In any case, I’m not promoting doubt or skepticism toward the world or other minds (and I’m not saying Bill is imputing that aim to me). The problem of evil—which Bill apparently believes provides intellectual cover for some to be atheists (contra Paul)—may be psychologically difficult for some to believe in God, but it poses no logical barrier to such belief.

For the missing premise in the allegedly insuperable problem of evil is that God has no morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists. Just because God has not revealed what that reason is doesn’t mean God doesn’t have one. Further, without an absolute standard of good (which an instance of evil violates), one cannot even frame a problem of evil.

Since God is the ground of our irrationality, it is even more irrational to deny the existence of God than it is to deny the existence of the physical universe or of other people. And as sinful: it is a rebellious refusal to deny the gift of knowledge, first truths, that God has freely and graciously bestowed.

I’ll have to leave it there for now.

I hope Bill will consider acquiring resources that might illuminate Van Til’s thought for him as they have for many others. In print and on the debating stage, Greg L. Bahnsen translated Van Til’s thought into modes of expression that might more efficiently scratch where Bill’s mind is itching.

And so once again I hope my readers, but especially Bill, will acquaint themselves with Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended and Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. It’s all there.

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