I’ll begin this mini-series, lest I get cooking and forget, with a word of gratitude. Christian Humanist listener Chen Bu Lei contacted me a while ago asking if I’d be willing to write a bit about Van Tillian theology, given my mentions of Cornelius Van Til on some episodes of the podcast. I agreed, and immediately he not only purchased the book for me and had it sent to my office but sent a thank-you card for my efforts before my efforts were even visible. As we often say on the Christian Humanist Radio Network (because it’s true), our listeners really do make this project worthwhile.
I became aware of Van Til and of his esteem largely by listening some podcasts over at Reformed Forum. Those guys cite Cornelius Van Til with a frequency that matches my own rate of invoking Alasdair MacIntyre, so I knew that he must be important within their circles. Several years ago I acquired a copy of Van Til’s Christian Apologetics, and what I found in that book was not so much an account of the Christian faith shaped for the sake of unbelievers as a theological polemic against, among others, modern Catholicism, Karl Barth, and liberal Protestantism. Such polemics might have their place, but when I finished the book, I came to think of Van Til largely as a Calvinist attack dog who didn’t have much to say to folks who look around in the early twenty-first century and decide that, given the decline of Christian prominence in the world, try to do Christianity in something like an ecumenical key. Since I do think of my place in the big Christian story that way, I figured that I had pretty well finished with Cornelius Van Til.
Then Chen Bu Lei sent this book, and I came to realize that considering Van Til’s broader corpus as a response to a particular moment in the Church’s engagement with western philosophy at least raised some more interesting questions, even if I continue to answer those questions differently from the ways that Van Til does. Since this line of questioning begins with Van Til’s historical background, this mini-series of posts will start with some of his conversation partners and outline the ways in which he distinguished between his own project and theirs.
Old Princeton and Old Amsterdam
Princeton Seminary in the nineteenth century had its work cut out for it in the realm of apologetics. David Hume and Immanuel Kant, the great skeptic and the great post-skeptic response of the eighteenth century, had demonstrated, to many people’s satisfaction, that human reason had definite limits, and those limits kept propositional content about God from being much else but nonsense (9). Charles Hodge, one of Princeton’s apologetics writers, suggested as a response, that the inner workings of things like the Trinity and the relationships between divine providence and the existence of evil might elude comprehensive understanding but that such limits did not rule out genuine knowledge of God’s work in the world (13).
The source of such reliable but not comprehensive knowledge, according to Hodge and his school of thought, resided in something like Thomas Reid’s Common Sense: since claims about Trinity and Providence find their roots in reliable sources such as Biblical revelation and the long history of their confession, they were ultimately more likely true than untrue (20).
When Cornelius Van Til began to engage with this system, as Bosserman tells the story, he realized fairly quickly that the Princeton divines were not taking seriously enough Kant’s strong philosophical critiques of such common-sense approaches to knowledge (23). To say that many reliable people have said that God is Father and Son and Holy Spirit is not to overcome the Critique of Pure Reason‘s arguments that the soul, the cosmos, and the freedom of rational beings are themselves not data to be discovered in the world “as it is” but logical structures necessary for intelligible thought but not verifiable beyond the boundaries of the mind’s own processes (30). Moreover, taking Kant’s critique seriously, Van Til realizes that treating confessions of divine nature and activity as empirical data to be received and processed after the manner of Thomas Reid means that God becomes not the metaphysical ground for world and knowledge of the world but merely one truth among the universe’s truths as human beings seek out truth (34). To put things in Internet terms, Common Sense approaches to apologetics do a fair job of accounting for Christianity’s historical persistence but don’t have much of a defense against the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
When Bosserman writes about Amsterdam’s theology relative to Van Til’s, he mainly focuses on the work of Abraham Kuyper. Unlike Charles Hodge, Kuyper allowed Kant a certain grudging respect (40), so much so that one of Kuyper’s signature theological moves was to name the business of theology not as talking about God but talking about God’s self-disclosure (44). Moreover, Kuyper grants Kant’s epistemological universalism to a degree, conceding that the structures of reason and perception can grant the believer and the unbeliever agreement on basic matters (cause and effect, measurement, empirical properties) but still insisting that a human being’s global interpretation of phenemona will be a function of being regenerate or unregenerate (46). Finally, simple coherence of a system is not sufficient to call a system of knowledge true; like Kant, Kuyper insists that some relationship to events and things that appear across competing systems must have something to do with judging between them (51).
Cornelius Van Til Contra Hegel
I learned the most in this first segment of the book from the third chapter, in which Bosserman discusses G.W.F. Hegel as a significant influence on Van Til’s theological project. Hegel, working in the wake of Kant’s strong distinction between reason and things-in-themselves, insists that reason and reality are in fact part of one system, not two distinct ways-of-being that only darkly connect (61). Rather than separating the absolute freedom that characterizes things-in-themselves from the unbreakable chains of cause and effect that reason, with its tendency to unify reality, imposes on the world, Hegel sees reality both as unitary (both mind and things) and as contradictory (free and unfree). That contradiction, ultimately, is the engine that drives forward the work of reason (64). When reason generates a new thought, that new one envelops and encompasses previous contradictions (68), and within that new thought what was once contradictory becomes a non-fatal paradox (68). Knowing that Van Til found Hegel’s post-Kantian project as impressive as I do certainly helps me to see him more favorably; at the very least we agree that Hegel’s philosophical work presents a vision of world and mind that’s compelling and worth addressing.
Another point of harmony is that Van Til does not stop with Hegel: without some source of knowledge beyond reason’s maneuvers, he insists, reason cannot help but reach points of self-destruction, becoming irrational in its pursuit of autonomy (74). Where Hegel regards Christianity as merely a step on the way to a truly philosophical way of being (70), Van Til insists that the revealed doctrine of the Trinity allows human beings to have true but not exhaustive or comprehensive knowledge of reality. So ultimately, Hegel and any other thinker that does not acknowledge Trinity can only borrow the cohesion that Trinitarian doctrine offers (79).
Because the Van Til material I’ve encountered before this has mainly come from podcasts (which tend to be occasional conversations) and from the one book of intra-Christian polemics (which I still think shouldn’t have been called Christian Apologetics), I never had occasion to situate him in the history of philosophy, and the first segment of The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox helps me to appreciate that Van Til’s claims, whose context I’ve mainly seen and heard as anti-Barthian and anti-Catholic, in fact start their career doing real Christian apologetics, engaging with a thinker that Van Til and I share a respect for and likewise share concerns over. Moreover, knowing that for Van Til the Trinity is a real philosophical datum rather than mere decoration for a more plain-vanilla “universal” reason makes me respect him as an earlier forebear of thinkers like David Bentley Hart and John Milbank, folks from whom I’ve learned greatly.
As this review continues (it’s going to take three parts to get in all of this material), I’ll turn next to Bosserman’s distinction between contradiction and paradox as it plays out in Van Til’s work. Then, for the third part, I’ll explore and critique Bosserman’s application of Trinitarian thought to questions of freedom and determination, good and evil, and other such questions.