In my earliest days of Christian thinking, I became aware that there was a field of serious study called Apologetics that dealt with the defense of the Faith against arguments of unbelievers. I came to understand that there were divisions and controversies among the adherents to different approaches to apologetics. I sat on the sidelines and watched some of the debates, read some of the books, and only rarely attempted to engage in the more sophisticated issues at stake.
Central to all of this was the apologetic methods of Cornelius Van Til. From his writings and teachings, the term Presuppositional Apologetics was the signifier of a Van Tilian position. Of course, there was also Gordon Clark whose apologetic methods and philosophy resembled Van Til. The differences between those two great intellects for God is not within the range of this post. (Again, I recommend Douglas Douma’s excellent biography of Gordon Clark, titled The Presbyterian Philosopher.)
My main area of study was, from 1976 to 1996, history. After 1996, I branched off more and more into literature. Through all of those years, I was also a vociferous reader of theological books. Theology and Bible study became even more important during the years 1994–2014 when I was a pastor/elder in a Presbyerian church.
Concerning the great apologetic war, I cannot actually identify myself as a Van Tilian. To do so would entail much more serious reading and study of Van Til himself. I have read several of his books and have lifted, studied, quoted, and applied numerous Van Til quotes and ideas in my own work. But to describe myself, I would have to say that I am a Van Tilian-ian.
That term is awkward, but it accurately tells what I am. I am a student of the students of Van Til. Two of the key proponents and users of his thought were R. J. Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen. I met Rushdoony several times. I have read many of his books. I have listened to his lectures for hours on end. Greg Bahnsen preached my ordination sermon, spent a couple of night in my log home back in the early 1990s, and fed me through his books and lectures.
Along with those men, I have read and profited from John Frame (who I met), C. Gregg Singer (a favorite Christian historian), Gary North, Gary DeMar, Francis Schaeffer (who somewhat followed his teacher CVT), and many others who have favorably noted, quoted, and referenced Van Til.
Without Excuse: Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics, edited by David Haines, is published by the Davenant Press. This collection of 13 scholarly essays is a refutation, critique, and counterpunch to the teachings of Van Til. The battle over Van Til’s apologetic is not a new one. It began at least as early as the time he first stepped foot into a classroom at Westminster Theological Seminary.
John Frame wrote an insightful essay some years ago titled “Machen’s Warrior Children.” It surveyed dozens of theological conflicts that have arisen within the ranks of the Presbyterian and Reformed folks, particularly those associated with Westminster and the theological battles of the 1920s-1930s. Van Til and his views has been one of the sources of these many conflicts.
I have read what seems like a dozen or more books that directly or indirectly weigh in on Van Til, presuppositional apologetics, and related issues. I have, without enough effort and consistency, read Van Til himself. Perhaps more pertinent to the Christian life, I have attempted to appropriate teachings and concepts of CVT into my sermons (in the past) and my classroom teachings (alas, also in the past). I have borrowed heavily from those who have been labeled as Christian Reconstructionists or Theonomists who have themselves built upon CVT’s foundational ideas.
Without Excuse seeks to dismantle and redirect Christian thinking from the CVT model. The essays are not for the faint of heart or those lacking background in Van Tillian thought, philosophy, and theology. These essays are finely honed iron implements seeking to clash with other finely honed iron implements. At this point, I am past the 100 page mark (the book is over 300 pages) and five chapters into the work.
I have found four of the first five chapters readable, although I would really need a second or third reading to adequately evaluate them. “Moderate Realism and the Presuppositionalist Confusion of Metaphysics and Epistemology” by J. T. Bridges is a sheer cliff that I cannot begin to climb without my meager mountain climbing equipment. In contrast, chapters dealing with some the roles of reason and logic, the teachings of Reformed pillars such as Turretin and Hodge, and Bible passages that raise questions about CVT’s apologetics are much more digestible (to change my metaphor).
What difference does all of this theological wrangling make? If I, after 20 years of pastoral experience and 40 plus years of reading and studying these things, am limping along and struggling to follow, what about the rest of the Christian world? And what about the pastor and the Christian teacher?
First, there are always priorities based on the day by day circumstances. A person drowning does not need a course in oceanography or even something more practical like swimming lessons. I would not expect on this Saturday for a preacher to chunk his notes on Hebrews 1:1-4 and prepare a sermon on the issues of metaphysics and epistemology.
Second, ideas have consequences, however. Everyday for the pastor or teacher is not D-Day, Minus 1 before the sermon or lecture. And not everyone standing on the sea shore is going to be drowning or rescuing those drowning today. Van Til was well known for street preaching, visiting the sick, and telling people the gospel. But in the classroom, he was training minds. In Joseph Minich’s wonderful preface to Without Excuse, he lauds the presuppositionalist Christians for various areas of faithfulness and dedication to the faith.
Every event that is on the news today, every meme on Facebook, every battle cry in the streets of every city is a reflection of some set of philosophical ideas that were and continue to be discussed in quiet, book laden, academic surroundings. Every verse of Scripture teaches or implies some series of philosophical ideas that either conform to our understanding of reality or jolt us away from our falsely contrived views.
Christians who are going to enter the world of thought, academia, ideas, philosophy, and theology must engage. Some will engage more, others less, but all are called into active service if they/we are going to love God with all our minds. There is no justification for surrendering vast areas of God’s world, which includes the world of thoughts, ideas, and philosophy.
Third, I am, as stated above, something of a Van Tillian-ian. Perhaps I have already invested too much mental capital into following Cornelius and company into my teachings and experiences. Maybe I have lost too much of the plasticity of mind to be able to reform my thinking around a different apologetic paradigm. Perhaps I am too loyal to Greg Bahnsen, who preached my ordination sermon, and R. J. Rushdoony, who impacted my mind radically, to jettison what I learned from them. Perhaps, I just don’t have the philosophical mindset to follow the arguments.
Those are all possibilities, but I would still affirm the importance of the issues and the value of a book like Without Excuse. I rejoice that God’s truth remains unchanged and unchanging, but that our way of grasping God’s truth is not fixed. I rejoice in knowing that there are ranks and files full of young, budding scholars who are reading, writing, pursuing degrees, and taking captive every thought for Christ.
Davenant Institute and the Davenant Press continue to produce some really challenging, cutting edge works. We don’t just have to pray for reformation, for we are experiencing it.