Van Til on Presuppositional Apologetics

August 17, 2017

Continuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, some books are more challenging and slower-going, such as a selection for apologetics:  Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith,  about presuppositional apologetics.  The writing style itself is not always easy to follow, with a lot of abstraction and philosophy, though some parts are clearer.  Overall, though, I see the basic points of presuppositional apologetics, along with a detailed explanation for why classical/evidential apologetics is not the best approach for communication with unbelievers.

Throughout, Van Til contrasts Catholic and Protestant-Evangelical (Arminian) apologetics, with the understanding of Reformed Theology.  As well-pointed out, what it really comes down to is that Reformed folks should use the same approach for both preaching and apologetics; Reformed preaching proclaims the sovereignty of God in all things, including salvation, as well as the total inability of the lost sinner.  Yet often, Reformed Christians depart from this when it comes to apologetics, turning instead to lost man’s “reason” independent of the authority of God’s word.  The analysis of basic differences in the very definitions of concepts between unbelievers (even unbelievers of varying types, pagan polytheists versus secular), such as the concepts of deity and mankind, is quite interesting, all supporting the point that believers really do not share any “common” point with the unbeliever, in terms of the natural man’s thoughts and reasoning.

The Reformed Christian is often Reformed in preaching and Arminian in reasoning.  But when he is at all self-conscious in his reasoning he will seek to do in apologetics what he does in preaching.  He knows that man is responsible not in spite of but just because he is not autonomous but created.  ..  He knows also that the sinner in the depth of his heart knows that what is thus held before him is true.  He knows he is a creature of God; he has been simply seeking to cover up this fact to himself.  He knows that he has broken the law of God; he has again covered up this fact to himself.  He knows that he is therefore guilty and is subject to punishment forever; this fact too he will not look in the face.

And it is precisely Reformed preaching and Reformed apologetic that tears the mask off the sinner’s face and compels him to look at himself and the world for what they really are.  Like a mole the natural man seeks to scurry under ground every time the facts as they really are come to his attention.  He loves the darkness rather than the light.  The light exposes him to himself.  And precisely this neither Roman Catholic or Arminian preaching or reasoning are able to do.

Van Til points out that evidentialist apologetics does the first part of evangelism by appealing to the natural man’s thinking, and challenging the atheist/agnostic unbeliever with the fact, the existence, of God.  Only after this first part of “accommodating” the unbeliever, the apologist then “switches” to the Christian perspective and why one should believe the Bible, etc.  The unbeliever can certainly follow along at the first point, since nothing is being challenged in his fundamental human reason.  As Van Til observes, the result is a two-phase approach to Christian conversion:  first to Theism, then, later, conversion to Christianity.  This method obviously does ‘work’, as God’s sovereign purposes in calling His elect include even faulty apologetic methods; but Van Til makes the case for a true Reformed approach to the matter.

It helps to relate what Van Til is saying to real-world examples.  What Van Til described here, describes the conversion story of C.S. Lewis, who was an atheist when he met colleague J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford in the 1920s.  Much has been said on the negative side regarding the theology of both of these men – though as has also been noted, Tolkien converted Lewis to Christianity in general, not to Catholicism.  Yet as Lewis himself described it, his conversion was indeed a two-phase process: first, conversion to theism, and then – about two years later – to the Christian faith.  Van Til’s critique of classic apologetics provides the clear explanation for the very process/method of Lewis’ conversion experience.

Though the overall reading is not easy, I’m now over halfway through, and some parts are quite good, with insightful quotes.  In closing, here are a few great quotes from Van Til:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. And it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work but it also tells us who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.


Time rolls its ceaseless course. It pours out upon us an endless stream of facts. And the stream is really endless for the non-Christian basis. For those who do not believe that all that happens in time happens because of the plan of God, the activity of time is like to that, or rather is identical with that, of Chance. Thus the ocean of facts has no bottom and no shore.


  1. August 17, 2017 at 7:43 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Robert
    August 18, 2017 at 8:49 am

    Well organized and written thoughts!
    R.C. Sproul is for classical apologetics, I believe.
    Don’t both methods have their place? …. or at least support and include each within the other to some degree. Classical ultimately depends on God’s sovereignty, but Reformed/Presup still relies on man’s reason, his mind, experiences, language, understanding, etc. which God uses to bring him to true understanding and faith in the Gospel. The Bible “presupposes” God… but it still gives lots of facts, arguments, evidences, demonstrations of power, etc. of God’s existence and Who He is, right?

    • August 18, 2017 at 11:35 am

      Interesting, I hadn’t heard that about Sproul, but just googled and found reference to it. Here is a good response to Sproul’s ideas:

      Presuppositional apologetics, from what I’ve learned so far from Van Til, is more complex than that.
      Reformed/presupp does not rely on man’s reason and understanding — that is precisely Van Til’s point here, the total depravity/total inability of natural/lost man. Only the apologetics of the Catholic/Arminian style (classical/evidentialist) appeals to natural man’s reasoning ability, to set out to ‘prove’ the existence of deity.
      The underlying point of presupp is that natural man already knows and believes in God — but he does everything he can to suppress that knowledge — Romans 1.

      So the starting point is what the Bible itself says, about who God is and who we are. Yes, the Bible itself tells us who He is — as opposed to a general, vague, non-personality concept of impersonal monotheism. Classic apologetics appeals to general revelation first, but that revelation by itself does not tell us about the Triune God of the Bible; only special revelation, the scriptures, tell us that.

  3. Robert
    August 19, 2017 at 8:16 am

    I used to be a little more fluent in these things than now, but it seems that both neither “camp” can be 100%. — Unless a Van Tillian was just a non-feeling robot machine … he would incorporate some amount of evidential (“organic”) reasoning in talking to a non-christian. Likewise unless an evidentialist was a total naive “sentimentalist” …. they would have to look to God’s sovereignty and authority at some point, at least in prayer, for the lost… But I’m probably in way over my head here with this discussion.

    But regardless, I would like to see R.C. Sproul’s explanation of his charge of “equivocation” where he says the presup folks change the definition of “circular” (reasoning) in their arguments as mentioned in the link you gave — exactly where and to what do they change the meaning.

  4. August 25, 2017 at 3:49 am

    Good stuff

  1. September 1, 2017 at 3:10 am
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