This is part 2 of an x-part series on Cornelius Van Til in which x is likely < 8. I’ve already posted once in this intermittent series on Van Til’s break (in some sense) with the ideas of Old Princeton, which you can read here.
As we noted earlier, Van Til wasn’t against using evidences for the truth of the Christian faith always and in all situations. Rather, he sought simply to rightly order them within the system of Reformed thought. This is at least in some sense a departure from the ideological soil in which he was reared at Old Princeton, whose faculty were supportive of using evidences to establish the validity of the Christian faith. However, this departure is less surprising when we consider that in addition to the evidentialism of Old Princeton, Van Til was also influenced by the rejection of these evidences which was characteristic of the Old Amsterdam school of thought.
Folks from the Old Amsterdam school, it is charged, subjected man’s reason to biblical revelation. While this is true to an extent, the Old Amsterdam school and its dons, guys like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Valentine Hepp, have been some of the most influential developers not only of a Reformed way to think through how men can know anything meaningful about God, but of a Christian way to engage with the culture at large. Indeed, Kuyper himself was the one who said that “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” B.A. Bosserman goes so far as to say that Old Amsterdam “went on to develop a full-orbed Christian worldview abounding with impressive insights on how biblical presuppositions must shape one’s understanding of the natural sciences, law, politics, art, and culture.”
It’s clear in Van Til’s work how indebted he actually is to the Old Amsterdam school. Though he breaks away in some important areas to be explored later, he himself advocated for something he called “The Reformed World-and-Life-View” which consisted of looking at all of life through the lens of the Christian faith. For Van Til, this meant studying history even in the post-New Testament period as a succession of moments which God Himself has ordained, or studying the laws of science as an expression of God’s providence, or the way He upholds and sustains the world from minute to minute.
In fact, it’s fairly intuitive to go ahead and trace the center of Van Til’s thought straight down from Kuyper and Old Amsterdam. Often called “Presuppositionalism,” Van Til’s thought can be summarized in the statement “Anti-theism presupposes theism,” or, put another way, in order for the non-believer to do the things he wants to do and have the grounding for those actions that he wants to have, he must place himself squarely on the borrowed capital of Christianity. Want objective morality? It has to have a Christian foundation to avoid being weighed in the scales and found wanting. Want to do science? Even that begins “with a faith-based certainty (Heb. 11:1) that perceptions and intuitions are reliable.” Or, so says Van Til and Old Amsterdam before him.
As we noted in part I, Van Til’s distrust of evidences has a lot to do with fallen man’s interpretation of them. If man, after Genesis 3, is completely fallen and unable to seek God on his own, then it is impossible for him to interpret fact and observation correctly, because he fails to realize that God has made this or that fact observable. For Van Til and the Old Amsterdam folks, the Gospel is “the basic message of God’s program for overcoming the disharmony and confusion that has infected creation. Because human reason has been hopelessly impaired by man’s lack of immediate communion with God, man must be confronted with an objective portrait of the true ideal of human thought and life from without. Thus, reconciliation with God cannot possibly be accomplished apart from the Incarnation of the Son of God.”
We, fallen men and women, never stumble upon ultimately true knowledge. Though we might go looking for it as if we’re on some grand metaphysical treasure hunt, we are never active participants in coming to finally true knowledge of propositions. Though we know that 2 + 2 = 4, we don’t know it truly and ultimately because we fail, in our fallen state, to acknowledge God, the Revealer and Creator of the facts which we take for granted every day. The issue with fallen reason, as Bosserman notes, is that we fallen men who exercise it are “given to grossly mistaken premises about [our]selves and [our] own authority."