What’s So Wrong With Classical Apologetics?

Excerpt from Van Til’s Apologetic, by Greg Bahnsen:

Yet we must recognize the truth contained in the contention that there is a general consciousness of man. We can do this first of all by recognizing that there once was such a consciousness. We must go back to the Adamic consciousness as being the fundamentally human consciousness. We speak now of the Adamic consciousness previous to the entrance of sin in the world. As such it was entirely able to judge, for the good reason that it was not ethically alienated from God. Not as though man’s original ethical consciousness was able, by and of itself, to judge between right and wrong. Even before the fall man’s ethical consciousness needed the instruction directly given it by God’s speaking with man. But because of its inherently right attitude toward God and his revelation, man’s moral consciousness could judge between right and wrong. The fact that man was a temporal creature did not hinder him from seeing the truth about the relation of God to the universe. It is true that the range of his knowledge never could be as comprehensive as the range of the knowledge of God. But this was not necessary. Validity did not depend upon range. We cannot say then that because man was a finite creature, he could not relate man properly to the existence of God but had to live by revelation from the outset. There is no such contrast between revelation and reasoning in the case of Adam. He could reason soundly just because he reasoned in an atmosphere of revelation. His very mind with its laws was a revelation of God. Accordingly, he would reason analogically and univocally. He would always be presupposing God in his every intellectual operation. He did not reason from nature of from himself as existing independently, to God as the “first cause.” He reasoned as one seeing all things from the beginning for what they are, i.e., dependent upon God.It follows then that because we hold that there once was no ethical alienation between God and the consciousness of man, but perfect harmony, we can now say that the consciousness of man should be perfect too. In other words, we hold that the Christian theistic system is as a matter of fact the truth. Accordingly, to be truly human one must recognize this truth.

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It is not, then, as though the clear recognition of the fundamental ethical difference between the regenerate and the non-regenerate consciousness implies that there is a two-fold truth, or that we must use one type of argument for one type of consciousness and another type of argument for the other type of consciousness. It is exactly the deep conviction that there is metaphysically only one type of consciousness, and that the non-regenerate and the regenerate consciousness are but ethical modifications of this one fundamental metaphysical consciousness, that leads us to reason with unbelievers. And it is exactly because of our deep conviction that God is one and truth is therefore one, that we hold that there is only one type of argument for all men. All that the recognition of the deep ethical difference does is to call attention to this very fact that it is God who must make this one truth effective in the hearts of men.[1] –– Cornelius Van Til


Let me begin by apologizing for the long quotation. I have been accused of cherry-picking Van Til, and so I wanted to expand the quotations I use so that this charge will be laid to rest. However, I don’t expect that accusation to go away anytime soon. Before we know it, we’ll have to upload the entirety of Van Til’s works in a PDF file and link it on every blog post!

In the block above, an excerpt originally seen in Van Til’s Survey of Christian Epistemology, there is a brief analysis of believing and unbelieving “ethical consciousness” and the single, related metaphysical consciousness. Unfortunately, Van Til is not the best at expressing his position and so we need to tread slowly so that we, and perhaps even his own followers, can attempt to understand him. Let me also note that I am not particularly new to Van Til. I was staunchly Van Tillian a matter of a couple years ago. I considered it the only apologetic method consistent with orthodox Reformed theology. Of course, this all changed when I began looking at presuppositionalism a bit more closely. I always had a hard time understanding Van Til, and even some of what Greg Bahnsen wrote, and I do not think I’m alone in this. Van Til appears to confuse several philosophical categories which results in a lapse of communication. It’s Kees’ Achilles heel.[2] The above quoted material is an example of that confusion at play in Van Til’s writing. But, rather than focusing on his inconsistencies, as I did in my last article, I will hone in on Van Til has in common with classical Christians and lead us to ask the question, What’s so wrong with classical apologetics for Van Til and his followers, since they principally and practically appear to do the same thing? Why arbitrarily limit argumentation to the transcendental argument?

I don’t want to answer these questions in this article, I want to encourage my presuppositional brothers to ask them.

Man’s General Consciousness

Van Til frames man’s general consciousness in terms of Adamic consciousness, which was obviously lost after the fall. Before the fall, and only before the fall, was there a monolithic consciousness. After the fall, there is believing and unbelieving consciousness. We need to, therefore, understand that, for Van Til, there is a discontinuity between believer and unbeliever, there is no epistemic neutrality but a fundamental chasm between the two.

He writes, “we must ask whether it is then of any use for the Christian to reason with his opponent (Van Til’s Apologetic, 472).” If the consciousnesses between both believer and unbeliever are so different, how do we reason with one another? Van Til suggests that we can reason with one another precisely because God is absolute, and therefore, man is accessible to Him. God, therefore, utilizes preaching of the Word and rational argumentation as means to draw the unbelieving elect unto Himself.

In light of the truth that man’s consciousness was once good, we know that man’s consciousness ought to still be this way, it being the way God created him. For Van Til, we need to hold out this truth to the unbeliever and point them to the fact there can only be true consciousness if it is recognized within the context of the triune God’s revelation.

Two Types of Consciousness

We have already alluded to the fact that consciousness is an epistemological category. Consciousness is man’s act of becoming aware of his own existence and the world around him. We can be conscious of various things. I am conscious of my surroundings as I sit in McDonalds and write this article. My wife, hopefully, is conscious of the fact our son is in another room when she does laundry, etc. It is this way in which Van Til appears to be using the term “consciousness.” The type of consciousness Van Til appears to be referring to here is ethical in nature. Believer and unbeliever have different ethical consciences. The believer has an ethical God-consciousness, being regenerate, and the unbeliever has an ethical consciousness of his own making.

The problem here is that consciousness has reference to reality, not perception. Consciousness answers the question of what someone is aware of. But no one can be aware of something false, since falsity is essentially non-existent. Kees goes on to try and remedy this by saying he doesn’t mean––in talking about two kinds of consciousness––to suggest there are actually two kinds of truth; rather, there is only one truth which is metaphysically founded upon the absolute God of the Bible. I submit that Van Til fails to make proper distinctions at this point.

It sounds like he’s saying there are two consciousnesses, but really there’s only one consciousness. Perhaps what he means to say here is that there is a distorted perception of what’s right and wrong (ethics) had by the unbeliever––this he refers to as the unbelieving consciousness. However, despite their sinful distortion of true consciousness, there is only one true consciousness, and that consciousness obtains only for the believer who is regenerate. If this is what Van Til means, that men, in their sin, distort God’s world, Reformed classical theologians would probably tend to agree.

Metaphysical Consciousness

Kees goes on to mention a metaphysical consciousness which is one and only one. The problem here is that he essentially agrees that both believer and unbeliever have the same metaphysics, objectively, to work with. Yet, subjectively, they have created their own “metaphysic,” or self-delusion. Reality, for the unbeliever, is functionally different than the reality of the believer and this is because the unbeliever is self-deceived in their sin. They’ve created a la la land, so to speak.

At this point, it’s helpful to note that nothing discussed thus far, if qualified and if properly understood, is disagreeable to the classical theist. We agree the there is only one objected reality, grounded in the triune God; a reality which, unfortunately, is distorted by the unbeliever in their sin––and this is an ethical distinction. We agree that because God is the Lord Sovereign over the universe, that it is indeed worthwhile to reason with the unbeliever, since God can use our reasoning and preaching as a means to draw people unto Himself.

Only One Kind of Argument?

All this, however, assumes that unbelievers can understand what we’re saying and that our proffered reasons––together with proclaiming the Gospel––are suitable tools in the hand of the Lord to draw sinners unto Himself. But, fundamentally, this is what the classical apologist believes as well. We do not expect that our classical arguments, by themselves, will cause the natural man, in his sin, to do the right thing, that is, to repent and believe in the Gospel. We simply believe that our arguments can be used in the broader scheme of God’s providence to bring sinners unto salvation.

Though we seem to share the same principles, at least in terms of what Kees has said so far, he goes on to write:

And it is exactly because of our deep conviction that God is one and truth is therefore one, that we hold that there is only one type of argument for all men. All that the recognition of the deep ethical difference does is to call attention to this very fact that it is God who must make this one truth effective in the hearts of men.

Because God is one, for Van Til, there is only one kind of argument that should be used, and it is his argument which he perceives to be the right one. This, quite conveniently, precludes Thomas’ five ways, for example. It also disapproves of their order in syllogistic reasoning. For Van Til, our premise and our conclusion must be God. But, if both believer and unbeliever live within the context of the same objective metaphysic, and if God saves sinners by means of our reason, why ought we be limited to one line of reasoning, if indeed all of our lines lead to the same God?

Claiming that one God entailed one argument is like claiming that, since God is one, there ought only be one approach. But, this is not so since we see in the New Testament Paul using several different approaches depending upon his audience. In Acts 17, he’s using pathos to appeal to his listener’s ethos, and this is an Aristotelian method of rhetoric. Philip, on the other hand, uses a different approach with the Ethiopian eunuch based on the situation. The Stoics and Epicureans, Paul’s audience in Acts 17, would not have given Paul a hearing if he did not approach the way he did. Likewise, Philip approached the eunuch in the way he did because of what the eunuch was reading, the Isaiah scroll. If there are manifold approaches, why can’t there be different kind of arguments?

Why Can’t We Be Classical?

The suppression of God’s truth happens because of man’s ethical bent against God. There is not some ontological bruise on man’s reason such that he is incapable of interpreting facts. Unbelievers can know formal truths, and can reason properly, just like believers. However, the ethical rebellion of man against God suggests that man takes the truth he receives through nature and twists it, modifies it, molds it, into anything but what the Christian God intends.

But if this is strictly ethical, it’s not as if man’s thinking is defective in the sense of its functionality. It still functions properly. The question is what man chooses to do with the revelation he’s surrounded by. His will is in bondage to his own sin, so man will distort God’s revelation. Yet, all men, both believer and unbeliever, receive the same revelation. And all men can interpret that revelation rightly, but instead, choose not to so long as they remain outside Christ.

So, for the classical apologist, our arguments serve a two-fold purpose. We point out the foolishness of the unbeliever by pointing out how God’s world says something about God. On this point, the presuppositionalist would agree. They too engage in argumentation to expose the folly of the unbelieving thought process. But our arguments serve another purpose, to preach the book of nature to the unbeliever in hopes that God will show him or her their fault in rejecting the obvious.

Now, as every presuppositionalist will point out, it does no good to bring a person to believe in this very limited revelation of God. They need to see His Son. At this point, we share the Gospel, and hopefully the Gospel permeates all our discussions, since it is God’s chief means by which He draws sinners unto Himself.

So, in light of all the above, why is it so bad to be classical when:

  1. Both classical and presuppositional Christians appeal to proofs (the transcendental argument is a proof)…
  2. Both classical and presuppositional Christians agree that sinful man distorts nature and, instead of doing what he’s supposed to, makes nature something other than it is in their own self-deception…
  3. Both classical and presuppositional Christians agree that there is only one truth and all men live within the context of this one truth, or metaphysic…
  4. Both classical and presuppositional Christians desire to communicate the Gospel to those who are lost since, both agree, the Gospel alone is the power of God revealed for salvation?

[1] Greg Bahnsen & Cornelius Van Til, Van Til’s Apologetic, 472-473, 476
[2] Kees, pronounced “Case,” was Van Til’s nickname.

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