04 June 2007

How I'm a "modified van Tilian"

by Dan Phillips

I can't believe it's that interesting to that many, but several have asked me what I mean when I say I'm a "modified van Tilian."

Frankly, I've been reluctant to answer because I know readers often seem to expect a doctoral dissertation in 500 words, and I'm not prepared to give that. But enough nice folk have asked, nicely, and I think they deserve what answer I have. And so, I'm taking off of Matt Gumm's question from my most recent post here.

Matt's question:
DJP: what do you see as the connection between apologetics and evangelism? How are they related?

Also, would you mind sharing (or pointing to it if you've already talked about it) what you've modified about your van Tilianism? Thanks.
My answer:

Well, if I'm not held to doctoral dissertation standards, I'd say that evangelism rests on apologetics, explicitly or implicitly. That is, it proclaims a truth which has been, is, and/or can be vindicated apologetically.

And, while I don't think that sheer proclamation is a substitute for apologetics, good apologetics should always issue in a declaration of the gospel. Our goal is not to prove ourselves right and the sinner wrong. Our goal is to show that God is right, and the sinner is wrong, that he is "without excuse" (Romans 1:20), and thus to point to Christ as God's answer to man's deepest needs.

In spite of a lot of reading, I'd not say I'm an expert on van Til/ianism. But it has struck me often that, in their zeal to show the inadequacy of evidential-ISM, van Tilians often neglect, or positively deride, the Biblical role of evidences.

For instance, a zealous and thoroughgoing van Tilian might jump all over a man who said "Evidence is essential, evidence 'demands a verdict,' and the evidence points to Christ's deity."

Yet Jesus Himself said something just precisely like that, more than once (John 5:36; 10:25, 27, 38; 14:11; 15:24).

So any apologetic theory or praxis that seems apologetic about evidences is inadequate.

By the same token, any apologetic that thinks that the mere amassing of evidence is sufficient to compel belief is also wrongheaded, both epistemologically and anthropologically. It overlooks the dominant role of one's presuppositions, and the dominating power of sin in creating and enforcing those presuppositions, evidence be damned.

Hence, if you read my own apologetical essay as linked to in the article, you will see a sort of two-pronged approach that both attempts to take fundamental aim at the premises, and brings evidence to bear in demonstrating the truth of the Gospel. (I've solicited the evaluation and feedback of van Tilians on that essay, and so far have gotten none.)

So, for what it's worth, there you have it.

Dan Phillips's signature


James Scott Bell said...

Dan, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Not being a Calvinist (and it seems to me Van Til appeals mainly to those who hold Calvinist presups) I would come at it from the other side and say I am, perhaps, a modified evidentialist. You certainly cannot move someone into the kingdom via evidence alone; the Holy Spirit is in operation, so forget about being self-sufficient.

Yet we are clearly presented with a "case for Christ" in the Bible, and whether that shores up our own faith, or enables a skeptic to overcome doubts (via the Spirit, again) then we ought to be about that.

DJP said...

I think van Til's Mr. Black / Mr. White / Mr. Grey dialogue was really devastating to the evidentalist position.

Mr. Grey (evidentialist) keeps tossing evidence-balls to Mr. Black (pagan). However, black is standing by the bottomless pit of Contingency. He simply tosses each ball into that pit. Evidence for the Resurrection? "Sure, why not?" responds Mr. Black. "It's a strange, Ripley's Believe-it-or-not universe. Weird things happen."

FX Turk said...

We don't link to Gummby quite often enough. We should do it randomly just for good measure.

Matt Gumm said...

And you should warn me ahead of time so I can spend all weekend writing something that has more substance than "MLB Gameday Audio."

FX Turk said...

Best. Sidekick. Avatar. Ever.

Touchstone said...


When the "thoroughgoing" van Tillian presupp'er jumps all over evidentialist claims, he's simply being consistent with the foundations of presuppositionalism.

It's a central tenet of presuppositionalism as conveyed by van Til that knowledge must be *ministerial* in its application, and never *magisterial*. Magisterial use of reason is explicitly outlawed as sinful by van Til -- it places reason as a "judge" of God and the Bible (in his view).

So, I suppose what you've laid out here *is* a modification of van Tillian presuppositionalism, but that's one *heck* of a modification; you're embracing (at least in part) the very thing van Til sought to destroy as depraved and sinful.

All of this assuming, of course that you mean by "evidences" what the general public would understand that term to mean. For example, the NT claims for Christ's resurrection and empty tomb are only as reliable , evidentially, as the Bible itself, given an evidentialist approach. If the inerrancy of the Bible is *presupposed*, then a few verses from Matthew are all that's need to prove the resurrection.

The latter approach would be a presuppositional approach, of course, so if you are simply saying we should admit evidences, but only evidences that presuppose our conclusion, than you are not far afield from van Til. Evidentialism grants currency to the idea of a posteriori reasoning, though -- deciding after a review of the available facts and evidences what the truth of the matter might be and how certain we might be of that conclusion.

At the bottom, it comes down to this: either the Bible is subjected to outside scrutiny, and can acquit itself on the basis of autonomous reason (not necessarily prove itself, mind you), or reason is subjected to the Bible, and anyone who approaches an evaluation of scripture and Christianity without first presuming its truth has an illegitimate basis for their evaluation.

Autonomous reason or fideism, in other words. They are mutually annihilating in the view of van Til. Given that, I'm quite confused on what grounds you might "evidentialize" your status as a van Tillian presuppositionalist. Van Til is demanding your fideism, and declaring any autonomous reasoning illegitimate. You are (apparently) trying to *merge* these two incompatible ideas. There must be a crucial piece I'm misunderstanding.

Maybe you *are* proposing "evidence" as just those things that presuppose your conclusion here?


Stefan Ewing said...

I know I turn every comment into a personal testimony, but what else do I have to go on?

Now that I have been reborn in Christ, I'm getting great pleasure from reading works that appear to be presuppositional in nature. But God called me out of a strictly atheist background. I had no grounds on which to believe in God in the first place, and yet, through a long series of events, I was being ineluctably drawn towards Him. Nevertheless, I was highly skeptical and had a strongly materialistic understanding of the universe, and while over the years, I vaguely came to believe in the God Who was calling me against my own limited sense of reality, I embraced wholeheartedly the notion of the historical Jesus and could not understand the mystery of the Cross at all, let alone the reality of the physical resurrection of Christ, nor the Virgin Birth, all the miracles, and so on. As a result, with no prospect of accepting the risen Christ, I floundered around, lost in sin for years.

In fact, at the moment of my rebirth, I was still not firm on all that stuff, but praise the Lord that by His grace He had given me sufficient faith to surrender to His Son and led Him guide me from there.

Just after I was saved, that whole Talpiot "Jesus Tomb" nonsense came to light, which I knew was bosh but which I feared could potentially lead me astray (not yet understanding the concept of assurance of salvation). So God in his sovereign design led me to start reading the evidentialist arguments for Christ's bodily resurrection—Simon Greenleaf and William Lane Craig among them—and suddenly, not only did I know that Talpiot was half-baked nonsense, but I was also able to embrace once and for all so much else of the Gospel that I had previously rejected, doubted, or vacillated on.

Learning to trust God on this—the miraculous nature of the birth, incarnate life, death, and resurrection of His Son—through evidentialism, in turn led me to accept intellectually the inerrancy of Scripture. This made it possible for me to move on to presuppositionalism, which in turn led me to accept not merely in my head but in my heart, the truth of His whole Word.

Insofar as I accepted the existense of God from the moment He first began calling me, I guess the process He led me on was never entirely evidential, but in many particulars—and Vantilians may flame if they must—it seems nevertheless that one of the methods by which the Lord has instructed and taught me in His ways by evidentialism. From my naive point of view, both kinds of apologetics are necessary, and ideally, should be used to complement each other.

Stefan Ewing said...

P.S.: A certain person 'round these parts has questioned lately what kind of faith it is, if it requires years of reading heavy books to understand—whether Christianity (or at least Reformed Theology) is only for intellectuals. Not at all! But God works on different people in different ways. For those of us who started out as sinful, stubborn, proud, book-learned intellectuals, he has to work away on us for years before the truth gets through our thick skulls, for in our puffed-up worldly delusions, we are among the worst sinners.

Camden Bucey said...

A great resource on the subject is Thom Notaro's Van Til and the Use of Evidences.

Unknown said...

How is an evidentialist who understands the way presuppositions subjectively skew a listener's thinking, and believes in 1st Corinthians 2:14, different from a presuppositionalist?

I regard Van Tillianism as essentially mystical and anti-rational at its foundation, because it denies that presuppositions can be verified or falsified. Then it illegitimately steals all kinds of stuff out of the evidentialist's vault, bolts it on to its own apologetic, then bats its eyes innocently while claiming to be all0out for the use of evidences.

Does being an evidentialist = being ignorant of the reality of philosophical or ideological prejudice, or does being an evidentialist automatically makes you some sort of semi-Pelagian as regards what you think the fallen mind is capable of receiving?

I regard Bahnsenites as saying both: that psychological naivitie and a denial of total inability are mandatory attributes of evidentialism.

I say that evidentialism does not require any belief in tabula rasa.

Andrew D said...

Yet Jesus Himself said something just precisely like that, more than once (John 5:36; 10:25, 27, 38; 14:11; 15:24).

First - this is a great point! Beware, lest our apologetic method become narrower than the Lord’s! Even though I had read those verses before, for some reason I never made an application to apologetics.

Umm...er... “something just precisely like that”?

Dan, are you turning postmodern? Or poking fun at postmodern nonsense? Was that intentional? Well either way it was really funny and I just precisely understood something like what you meant 

DJP said...

It was kinda ironic.

Doug E. said...

I am no expert either, but it seems that most who hold to the presup method still use evidence. What it ultimately seems to boil down to is, what worldview or standard for knowledge are we going to use to examine the evidence. Christians do not put down the truth and accept false standards in order to interpret the evidence. For example, we can't use a logical positivist's understanding of knowledge to examine the evidence. We must examine the evidence with a Christain epistemology. So presups must be addressed first.

Here is a good example of Gordon Clark using the existence of truth as evidence for the existence of God.


Just my two cents. I'm still trying to figure it all out myself.

God Bless,


DJP said...

That didn't quite work.

Here's the link.

Touchstone said...


I just took the time to read your "apologetic essay" you linked to in your post. For the most part, those are words I would be happy to claim as my own. I would recommend this piece to others who are unbelievers or agnostics that are considering the Gospel.

But just right there, that ought to signal that you are in van Til's dog house. That piece is a "classic" example of "classical apologetics". Decidedly "Aquinas" as opposed to "van Til". From the van Til I've read, he would completely reject your approach to apologetics as one that legitimized autonomous reason.

Here's a brief example. In your essay, you lay out what you say are the odds against a number of Biblical prophecies being fulfilled by chance, as opposed to the telic providence of God's intervention in the affairs of men:

Now, the odds against this alone are simply staggering. The very idea that conservatively dozens of prophecies uttered over the course of more than a millennium should converge so specifically on one Man is, on the premise of randomness and chaos, unthinkable. In fact, it has been calculated that the odds of just eight prophecies being randomly fulfilled in one man are:

1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000

That jaw-dropping number may be illustrated in this way: if you were to take 1017 silver dollars and lay them over the state of Texas, it would cover the entire state over two feet deep. Mark one silver dollar, throw it back in, and stir the entire mass thoroughly. Then blindfold G. W. Bush and tell him to pick up that very silver dollar on the first try!

I would agree that the odds of all those events working out that way by chance are *mighty slim*! So I'm nodding as I read that.

But Cornelius is frowning his Big Frown™.

Here's a passage from pp 61-62 of van Til's Common Grace and the Gospel:

To avoid a natural theology of the Roman sort, we shall need to come to something like a clear consciousness of the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian mode of argument with respect to the revelation of God
in nature. God is, and has been from the beginning, revealed in nature and in man's own consciousness. We cannot say that the heavens probably declare the glory of God. We cannot allow that if rational argument is carried forth on true premises, it should came to any other conclusion than that the true God exists... Thus the imperative necessity of introducing the distinction between
the psychologically and the epistemologically interpretive, becomes again apparent. God still speaks in man's consciousness. Man's own interpretative activity, whether of the more or of the less extended type, whether in ratiocination of an intuition, is no doubt the most penetrating means by which the Holy Spirit presses the claims of God upon man. The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down the validity of this argument to the probability level.
The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound. Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold. It is not merely as easonable as other positions; it alone is the natural argument as clearly as we can, we may be the agents of the Spirit in pressing the claims of God upon men. If we drop to the level of the merely probable truthfulness of Christian theism, we, to that extent, lower the claims of God upon men. That is, we believe, the sense of Calvin's Institutes on the matter.

That's a longish quote, but I think that one makes the point clear; van Til rejects "probabilistic" arguments as arguments that diminish the "claims of God upon men". So, while your odds here with respect to the probabilities of some set of prophecies bearing out as the result of sheer stochastic processes are compellingly lie, you are standing in Aquinas' camp when you do this, and legitimizing autonomous reason when you do so.

van Til finds this execrable.

That's not a problem for me, as I said above. van Til's a bad dude, in my view. But you'll understand that I'm surprised to read your characterization of yourself as a 'modified van Tillian' when I read your essay.

One might as well say an atheist is a "modified theist"!


Gordan said...

I don't know who's right in all this, but I do know this: If Bahnsen were here to comment, he'd crush you all. (I prob'ly wouldn't understand it, but I'd cheer anyway like I did.)

Stefan Ewing said...

And the reason?

"Douglas Jones wrote...that "some of us also remember him for...his lightning fast typing skills...." (Source)

Sharad Yadav said...

I think the interesting question, to which either you or Phil gave your "modified" status as an answer, was how Van Til's gig escapes the charge of a pomo view of epistemic justification (i.e. it rejects the burden of epistemic justification altogether). Still interested in hearing in what way your own modifications address that one.

DJP said...

Thanks for interacting, Touchstone.

However, in your citation of me, you overlook this introductory statement, after I have lobbed grenades at opposing premises:

What I propose in general is very simple: adopt a premise, and work it out. See if it is borne out by the facts that it would predict. (Of course, that in itself presupposes a certain law of correspondence, but [A] as I said, we cannot think, reason, or predicate anything about anything without premises, and [B] as a Christian, I have a basis for doing that — on which more later.)

And, similarly, you overlook the words that follow your excerpt:

Of course anyone can "explain" anything by chalking absolutely everything up to chance and contingency. Chance is indeed a bottomless pit into which the most stubborn and inconvenient fact, argument, or line of evidence can be thrown with finality. Beware, however: this one is a growing pit, it is a hungry chasm. You may feel momentary relief today at throwing in this intricate mosaic of fulfilled prophecy; but tomorrow, the same pit will inexorably claim every last detail of your life, leaving you with nothing but a nightmare pastiche, a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces can never fit together.

Intuitively, most honest thinkers would know (as illustrated above) that the "odds" of such a mosaic as this as it were laying itself out randomly are statistically nil. The "odds" are zero. Contingency aside, however, and laid on the premise of the truth of Jesus' claims, the phenomena fit like a glove. In other words, what we see in fulfilled prophecy is exactly what one could expect to see if Jesus were Lord, God, and sole Savior.

I could quote similarly from the concluding paragraphs of the essay.

All that to say this: you're not right about what I'm trying to do. I was.

Craig Schwarze said...

...the Biblical role of evidences

I've only just started reading Van Til's "Christian Apologetics", but he doesn't seem to be as rabidly anti-evidentialist as some of his followers are.

What he does do is make the (very valid) point that an evidence is only going to be convincing within an ideological framework.

So the great evidentialist argument is usually the resurrection. But proving a man rose from the dead doesn't prove he was God, doesn't prove he can forgive sins, doesn't even prove he was telling the truth. Those things only follow if you accept the Christian "framework" that goes around the resurrection.

Stefan Ewing said...

Makes sense.