Dr. Cornelius Van Til: or, How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Presuppositionalism

Van Til monochromeYesterday I offered some suggestions that were meant to help narrow Van Til’s prodigious catalog down to something managable for those who desire an introduction to Van Til’s thought directly from his own works, rather than via one of his better known students, such as Bahnsen, Frame, or Oliphint. One can obviously find there way into Van Til’s thought via any of the published works of those three men, but from a pedagogical point of view, doing so produces a host of complications. For instance, how accurately have Bahnsen, Frame, or Oliphint represented Van Til’s thought? By becoming acquainted with Van Til via one of his students, an unnecessary layer is added to the process; better to follow the Reformation cry of ad fontes and imbibe the draught of presuppositionalism directly from the source, at least in my opinion.

As promised, today I want to return to the books I recommended yesterday and explain why I recommended those volumes in particular, and why I recommend reading them in the order I provided.

I’ll start by reproducing the list of works, though without including links for purchase which can be found in yesterday’s post:

  1. Why I Believe in God.
  2. Christian Apologetics (2nd edition).
  3. Christian–Theistic Evidences (2nd edition).
  4. A Survey of Christian Epistemology.
  5. The Defense of the Faith (4th edition).
  6. Common Grace and the Gospel (2nd edition).
  7. Why I Believe in God.

Why these books, rather than others? And why in this particular order? Let me answer both questions simultaneously for each of the volumes that I’ve listed.

  • Why I Believe in God.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome when introducing the concept of presuppositionalism is that there are so many works available that focus completely on the theoretical aspect of the system without spending an equal amount of time (if they spend any at all) on the practical aspect. By starting with Why I Believe in God, you begin your introduction to presuppositional apologetics by seeing the argument presented in a practical, rather than theoretical, manner. This is very helpful, because all of the pieces of Van Til’s method are present in this little 16 page pamphlet, and seeing the argument in action allows you to get a feel for Van Til’s method in a way that diving straight into the theory side of things just doesn’t allow.

  • Christian Apologetics (2nd edition).

Having seen the argument in action, the next step is to get a succinct overview of the inner workings of the theory behind the argument. Van Til wrote other works that are more polished, and you’ll be reading one of them later, but you absolutely need to start your theoretical education in presuppositionalism here. This is Van Til’s most concise statement of the theoretical aspect of his system; the presentation here is very stream-lined, which will help build a foundation for the more complicated presentations that follow. It also introduces you to Van Til’s criticism of what he calls the “block-house method” of apologetics without being too detailed. Most importantly, it orients you to the theological underpinnings of Van Til’s thought. Without this, almost everything else he has to say is incomprehensible. Van Til argues very forcefully that our theology must precede our apologetic. The what comes before the that, which means that our theology drives our method in apologetics.

  • Christian–Theistic Evidences (2nd edition).

Now that you’ve read Van Til’s Apologetics, and you have a solid overview of the theoretical side of his system—especially his criticism of the “block house method” of apologetics—you’re ready for Van Til to present a more detailed critique of the classical method of apologetics, which he does in Christian-Theistic Evidences. However, apart from having read Christian Apologetics, a good bit of the reasons for Van Til’s scathing critique of Bishop Joseph Butler will be mystifying at best, and completely impenetrable at worst. This book also helps the new student of Van Til recognize that Van Til’s problem with the classical method isn’t with the evidences themselves, but rather with the method used to present the evidences, which has traditionally honored man’s supposed autonomy, and explains why that is such a massive problem.

  • A Survey of Christian Epistemology.

If you have read and understood the preceding volumes without too much difficulty, you’re ready to read A Survey of Christian Epistemology, which delves into the issues that are at the heart of Van Til’s apologetic concerns. Starting here would be a lot like getting thrown into a violent sea without having learned to swim at all first; you might survive, but you’re more likely to drown. This work offers a simultaneous survey of the history of epistemology that touches on major figures in philosophy beginning with the Greeks, and defense of a Christian epistemology that is truly worthy of being called Christian. Here you will find Van Til dissecting the problems of epistemology with a finely-honed razor, and providing a forceful defense of Christianity in the face of unbelieving philosophy. This is some of Van Til’s best work, as well as one that is most in need of being re-typeset and having K. Scott Oliphint provide his helpful annotations.

  • The Defense of the Faith (4th edition).

Thus far, with Why I Believe in God being the only exception, all of the works that we’ve examined were sylabusses for Van Til’s classes at Westminster, and, in his words, “are not to be regarded as published books.” When Van Til finally decided to present his statement of his method in apologetics to the world, he produced The Defense of the Faith. A good bit of Christian Apologetics is reproduced in The Defense of the Faithwhich means that you’ll be retreading some familiar ground. However, in his Defense of the Faith you’ll find Van Til interact with contemporary critics of his viewpoint. Most of them are not nearly so well known now as they were when this work was published, but this added material (which is fully restored in the 4th edition) is a little like the chrome on a old Cadillac. You still have a Cadillac without the chrome, but it isnt’…bossyou know? Attempting to read this without having read Van Til’s Survey means that you won’t be able to see the connections that Van Til draws between his modern critics and some historic figures in the field of epistemology, and your understanding will suffer for it.

  • Common Grace and the Gospel (2nd edition).

In my opinion, Common Grace and the Gospel is one of two massively overlooked and underestimated works by Van Til. If all you ever read of Van Til’s works on apologetics ends with the previous book, you’ll have a pretty solid grasp of his system, but it will be lacking some important pieces that are supplied in Common Grace and the Gospel. To give you an idea of just how significant this work is, when I’ve been asked “What two books should I read by Van Til?” my answer has invariably been, “Christian Apologetics and Common Grace and the Gospel.” If you read all of Van Til’s other works, but never read Common Grace, your understanding of Van Til will be very imbalanced, and I think this explains the host of issues that have arisen in the presuppositional community in the last forty years. A significant part of these problems have arisen because people have seen Van Til as a philosopher rather than a theologian—an assessment that Van Til himself would have profoundly disagreed with. Thus you ought to end your reading on the theoretical side of Van Til’s thought with this work, since it puts the intensely theological basis of Van Til’s thought on full display.

  • Why I Believe in God.

Now that you have a full-orbed acquaintance with the theory of presuppositionalism, it’s time to go back to where you began, and reacquaint yourself with the practice. You’ll appreciate Van Til’s argument in Why I Believe in God much more this time around; the difference will be a lot like watching an expert judoka demonstrate their art when you’re thoroughly acquainted with the intricacies of judo as a martial art. There are details you’ll notice this time through that you couldn’t appreciate at the beginning, and your understanding of the mechanics of what Van Til is doing will be light years ahead of where they were to start.

There you have it. I hope that these two posts have whetted your appetite for Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic and helped provide you with a path to become familiar with his work. Happy reading!

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