Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cornelius Van Til versus Francis Schaeffer

There is always a lot of discussion about the feud between Rev. Van Til and Rev. Gordon Clark. This is probably because of all the actions taken by each man to fight with the other including causing Clark to move to a different denomination. There is a great deal of bitterness between the two groups still today, although some want to sweep their dispute under the rug by saying that the two men just talked past each other, but really agreed, something I highly doubt. This conversation is always raging somewhere. Right now one can find it at Greenbaggins, and it will also always be in play over at the Trinity Foundation.

However, lesser known is the dispute between Van Til and Francis Schaeffer. Much like the previous dispute both these men used the term ‘presupposition’ to describe their own apologetic approach. While I cannot find a place where Schaeffer deals directly with Van Til, I have found Van Til’s view on Schaeffer. In summary, Van Til believed Schaeffer to be following the Classical Approach of Thomas Aquinas. Van Til vehemently argues that Schaeffer is not a Presuppositional Apologist. Van Til critiques The God Who Is There:

Schaeffer allows that the modern man, though not a Christian, has the right problematics but that he needs the Christian answer. But no man has the right probelmatics unless he formulates it in terms of the Christian answer. No man emerging from a bottomless ocean of chance can even ask who he is and what the world is. He simply cannot identify himself. (page ii of The Apologetic Methodology of Francis Schaeffer)

Van Til dislikes Schaeffer’s starting with man in himself. Schaeffer advocated a method that started with man in his own idea of himself and then would ‘blow the roof’ off of that system by showing him how it does not fit in the world, and it cannot be held to coherently. This for Van Til is not starting with what the Bible says about man, how he is a sinner standing in need of Christ. Van Til argues that this position cedes too much by thinking that a non-Christian man can see his problem at all. And that it implicitly sets up a test for the truth or validity of the Christian faith, namely the test of coherence (which is similar to the problem he had with Clark). Van Til calls Schaeffer’s method a “some sort of synthesis between Descartes and Calvin” (ibid. pg. 9).

Thus, Van Til claims Schaeffer’s use of presupposition really has the same meaning as hypothesis (pg. 11). Thus, according to Van Til, Schaeffer has committed the error of Thomism and has given too much place to logic and not enough place for God’s Word. Schaeffer assumes a common ground that does not exist for Van Til.

Apologetics is something that has occupied a bit of my time lately. Specifically, how do we put feet to the theories that are so often debates, especially in this post-modern world. I would like to take a closer look at this disagreement and examine some biblical evidence. I very much hope to have feedback on this as it is much more a work in progress and thinking out loud than a real argument or solid position.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. In regard to Schaeffer's view of Van Til's apologetics, please see the Schaeffer article posted on the PCA Historical Center site at http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/schaefferreview.html

This article by Schaeffer appeared in the context of a larger series authored primarily by J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. in which Buswell critiqued the presuppositionalism of Van Til.

[Also of note in that series is the admission by Buswell that it was Dr. Allan A. MacRae who coined the term "presuppositionalism".]

Anonymous said...

I wish you luck in studying apologetics and the two giants of "Presuppositionalism." Just a few suggestions.

1) Van Til never sees himself as a Christian Philosopher but rather a "consistent Reformed Theologian that wishes to supply a consistent Reformed Apologetics."

2) The new biography of Van Til, I think, is the best one done on Van Til by far. Yes I would say better than John Frame's book on Van Til. It is written by John Muether.

ReformedSinner (DC)