Plantinga & Van Til: Can They Be Friends?

Well… kinda.

Throughout my study of apologetics, more specifically, my assessment of varying apologetic methods, Cornelius Van Til has certainly stood out. There exists in Van Til a commitment to the Scriptures along with a forceful argument for the Christian system of thought rarely seen in other apologists.

One of the issues, however, has been how Van Til relates to our current generation. Van Til (‘Kees’ for short), was born in Denmark during the 1890s. A rising pillar of Christian orthodoxy, Kees would come to interact with some of the most important names in theological liberalism (Friedrich Schleiermacher) and neo-orthodoxy (Karl Barth). Not to mention his almost constant, yet necessary, reference of Hume and Kant’s philosophies.

Van Til’s background and opponents often leave his readers with a chronological and linguistic gap to fill on their own. Because of this, people tend to either drastically misunderstand him, or understand him so well that they adopt his lingo!

Enter Alvin Plantinga. The man has been around for years and has developed a somewhat new apologetic method which I think is helpful in a lot of areas, especially when it comes to developing the presuppositional method of apologetics. While Plantinga would not call himself a presuppositionalist, per se, many of the tenets he expounds upon in works such as Warranted Christian Belief and Where the Conflict Really Lies helps add something to the Van Tillian method… something, perhaps, of clarifying value.

Both Van Til and Plantinga are careful to bring out theological principles such as the sensus divinitatus (divine sense), as well as God’s sovereignty, and God’s revelation. Now, both have very different ideas as to what capacity something like the divine sense operates. Nevertheless, both are in agreement that such a principle exists, and that should be noted.

Van Til’s apologetic, in simple terms, runs something like this: the Christian God exists by virtue of the impossibility of the contrary. Some contemporary lay-apologists (like myself) may immediately jump to the most obvious objection, “You can’t just assume that to be true and call the argument done!” However, that’s not the Van Tillian method. Kees believed in the demonstration of this claim. He didn’t think Christians ought to just state it as a matter of fact and walk out of the room.

Some, though, have had a hard time seeing this desire for rational discourse in Van Til because his method, as it is practiced today, is often majorly oversimplified and turned into a semantical word match. As correct as many modern Van Tillians may be in their approach, they appear to be oversimplifying the method so as to leave the opponent of Christianity slightly puzzled.

I think it is here that Plantinga can be of service to us Van Til fan boys (or fan girls). It is undeniable, if one were to read Van Til in Defense of the Faith or Christian Theistic Proofs, they would see Van Til’s heart in demonstrating the validity of his argument. Note: this is not because Van Til put God in the dock (the criminal’s box), but because the unbeliever has a persistent knack for suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Though they know God, they suppress the truth about Him in unrighteousness. Thus, in an effort to not only be intellectually honest, but also give off the perception of intellectual honesty, it is crucial that the Christian show others (believers and non-believers alike) how the transcendental argument can be demonstrated.

One of the ways Van Til does this is by engaging in a process of elimination. He addresses Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Neo-Orthodoxy, Theological Liberalism, and Atheism (e.g. naturalism). While analyzing these, Van Til demonstrates how they are internally inconsistent, and thus irrational.

At this point, Plantinga’s notion of warrant would serve our method well. Men like Dr. James Anderson and Dr. Greg Welty have used Plantinga in beneficial ways while maintaining their methodological presuppositionalism. It can now be understood that Van Til makes an effort at demonstrating his point, and this is essentially what Plantinga wants to do as it relates to a Christian system. Now, methodologically, the two men take two very different routes. However, taking Plantinga’s notion of warrant alone, I contend, will help to relate our presuppositional method to the contemporary reader.

Warrant, what is it? Before we can answer that, we must understand that Plantinga is attempting to answer what he calls the de jure question, that is, whether or not Christian belief is rational or reasonable. Warrant, therefore, as Plantinga describes it, is produced:

by [1] cognitive processes or faculties that are functioning properly, [2] in a cognitive environment that is propitious for that exercise of cognitive powers, [3] according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief (p. xi, Warranted Christian Belief).

The exposition of this formula can be found in chapter 5 of the same volume. It is not our aim here to explain the totality of Plantinga’s model for warrant. What should be noted is that, while Van Til gives us an argument and a method of demonstration, Plantinga helps to develop the latter, that is, the way Van Til might demonstrate the claim: the Christian God exists by virtue of the impossibility of the contrary.

Why couldn’t, for example, a person argue the impossibility of the contrary, and along with their process of elimination of competing “worldviews” present also the positive warrant of the Christian worldview? In other words, how is the claim “the Triune God of the Scriptures exists by virtue of the impossibility of the contrary,” warranted?

Plantinga argues for warrant by way of what he calls the Aquinas/Calvin model, which I am skeptical of. It seems to include the divine sense as an epistemic receptacle and divine special revelation as merely conduit to provide that receptacle with content. That would not be Van Til’s view. But the presuppositionalist may have their own way of showing warrant.

I think this is a field ripe for harvest, and those reading this (as well as myself) have a grand opportunity to explore this possibility of a synthesis between two great Christian apologists. Who knows? Perhaps this could be the subject of many thesis papers and dissertations! Either way, in the event that I am mistaken about this possible friendship, it is at least food for the presuppositionalist’s thought. Our method was taken rather seriously in academic circles during Van Til’s time. Ask yourself, Is it taken as seriously during our time? Is it seen as a joke? Does it need more exposure? Development?

How about this one: How may we best love God with our minds with respect to presuppositional apologetics?

Thinking of answers to these questions will help us to be better apologists. By God’s grace, we will see the robustness of our method for what it is, just as Van Til saw it–as the only distinctly biblical approach to the defense of our faith and an intellectually rigorous discipline.

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