Presuppositionalism in the Dock: A Review Article

James Anderson
Carl W. McMurray Professor of Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and debates over Cornelius Van Til. For many, the Dutch professor is a hero of the Protestant tradition—a brilliant reformer in the mold of John Calvin who sought to further the work of the Reformation in the areas of Christian philosophy and apologetics. For others, he is more of a villain—an innovator beguiled by unbiblical idealist philosophy who led a large faction of the Reformed church in a dubious if not dangerous direction. And then there are those who fall somewhere between the two wings, acknowledging that Van Til was on the side of the angels, and that he made some positive contributions to Christian thought, but nevertheless finding significant faults in his more distinctive and provocative claims about natural theology, philosophy, and apologetic methodology.

Without Excuse, a multi-contributor volume edited by David Haines, professes to align for the most part with the third camp.[1] The book is the fruit of the Davenant Press, the publishing arm of the Davenant Institute, which, according to its own mission statement, “seeks to retrieve the riches of classical Protestantism in order to renew and build up the contemporary church.” The Davenant Institute is well known (and well regarded) as an advocate for the classical Thomist stream of the Protestant tradition, and this volume is no exception. Without Excuse is pitched primarily as a critique of the presuppositionalism of Van Til and his followers, and secondarily as a defense of natural theology in the Thomist tradition. As the back cover explains:

Although Cornelius Van Til developed presuppositional apologetics as an attempt to remain faithful to timeless Christian truth as the Reformed tradition expresses it, he sacrificed the catholic and Reformed understanding of the use of natural revelation in theology and apologetics in the process. … Without Excuse seeks to grapple with [the apostle Paul’s indictment in Romans 1:20] and show how Van Til’s presuppositionalism fails as an account of natural revelation in light of Scripture, philosophy, and historical theology.

Fourteen authors are marshalled for this endeavor, supplying a preface and thirteen main chapters. Notably, while the Davenant Institute itself is committed to confessional Reformed Protestantism,[2] fewer than half of the contributors to this book (as best I can ascertain) would ascribe to confessional Reformed theology. I mention this not to poison the well—after all, a cogent criticism will be cogent regardless of its source—but only to observe that Reformed critics of Van Til share more theological common ground with him than non-Reformed critics, and the latter are less inclined to appreciate how Van Til’s presuppositionalism is motivated by distinctively Reformed doctrines of God, revelation, and the noetic effects of sin. The book would have been strengthened had that point been given its due weight.

A great deal could be said about the arguments offered in Without Excuse, but life is short, and thus this review will be limited in its aims. In what follows, I will summarize the main argument of each chapter and offer a few critical comments in response, before concluding with some remarks on whether the work as a whole succeeds in its goals.

The book opens with a short preface by Joseph Minich that establishes an admirably irenic tone. Although the volume is “quite critical” of Van Til’s philosophy, the various authors offer their criticisms “in the spirit of theological sons to a father,” acknowledging Van Til’s positive influence on them and the wider church. Minich proceeds to summarize ten ways in which “the Van Tillian movement served the church during the complex twentieth century” (viii).[3] Despite its critical emphasis, then, the book is offered as an in-house iron-to-iron sharpening exercise.

Dan Kemp (“The Bible, Verification, and First Principles of Reason”) launches the first volley with an argument that “if the Christian Scriptures constitute or form the basis for all human knowledge, attempts to verify the Christian Scriptures are not epistemologically profitable” (1). Kemp restates the target of his argument throughout the chapter: “Scripture forms the basis of all knowledge” (2); “the Bible is the source and standard of all knowledge” (3); “the Christian Scriptures are the first principle of reason” (7); “the Bible is the first principle of all knowledge” (9); and so on in the same vein. Kemp’s main argument can be summarized as follows: first principles of knowledge must be self-evident and indemonstrable, but the Bible itself teaches that its claim to be the Word of God can be tested and verified on the basis of extra-biblical sources (Exod. 4 and Deut. 18); therefore, the Bible cannot be the first principle of knowledge. The argument is problematic in various respects; for example, Kemp’s strictures about first principles of knowledge cannot be justified on their own terms and invite skepticism about the external world. But the main shortcoming is that the argument targets a view that Van Til doesn’t hold. Van Til nowhere says that the Bible is the source of all knowledge or that the Bible is the (sole) first principle of reason. If he had, he would have been conspicuously at odds with his own confessional standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith.[4] Rather, he holds that all knowledge is based on divine revelation—which includes both natural and special revelation. What Van Til emphasizes is that these two forms of divine revelation are complementary, mutually dependent, and equally authoritative.[5] There’s nothing idiosyncratic about that view within the Reformed tradition. Van Til clearly affirms that there are multiple sources of knowledge, some ‘natural’ and some ‘supernatural’, which work together to give us a saving knowledge of God and the gospel. Kemp’s argument is aimed at an uncharitable caricature of Van Til’s epistemology. (Similar points apply to Kemp’s criticisms of John Frame, who also affirms multiple basic sources of knowledge in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.)

Kurt Jaros (“Faith and the Natural Light of Reason: How Van Tillian Anthropology Fails”) takes aim at Van Til’s doctrine of man, more specifically, his “doctrine of inability.” Van Til purports to offer a third way between the positions of Abraham Kuyper and B. B. Warfield on the question of apologetic methodology, but in reality (so Jaros argues) Van Til ends up in the same place as Kuyper, denying that there is sufficient epistemological common ground for believers to reason fruitfully with unbelievers. Jaros is certainly not the first to be perplexed by the strong statements Van Til makes about the epistemological antithesis between the believer and the unbeliever.[6] But Jaros himself isn’t clear about what he takes Van Til’s actual position to be. For example, he writes:

Van Til says that man’s rebellion is ethical, not intellectual. He believes there are no metaphysical differences between the natural man and the believer, only epistemological differences. (43)

So, Van Til believes there is an epistemological antithesis, but no intellectual rebellion? That hardly sounds right. Jaros proceeds to argue that Van Til does in fact think there are “metaphysical differences” between the unbeliever and the believer, namely, that unbelievers are “literally, unable to reason about the things of God” (47). Yet even that is not the whole story, Jaros acknowledges, because Van Til says that in practice the unbeliever isn’t consistent with his anti-Christian interpretation of the world, and thus the believer can reason with him (48). At this point, Jaros thinks there are grounds to charge Van Til with an explicit contradiction, namely that his method is “both effective and ineffective for reasoning with the natural man” (51; cf. 47).

This is uncharitable to say the least. An explicit contradiction involves affirming both P and non-P in the same sense. Does Van Til ever do that? Does he explicitly say that his method is “both effective and ineffective” in the same respects? Of course not. As John Frame has noted, Van Til’s view of the knowledge and reasoning abilities of the unbeliever is “actually very complex,” and though he is fond of “extreme antithetical formulations,” these are tempered by various concessions and qualifications that he makes.[7] Frame is critical of some of Van Til’s statements on this front, but at least he recognizes there are plausible readings of Van Til that avoid attributing “explicit contradiction” to him. Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic includes a lengthy chapter on “The Psychological Complexities of Unbelief,” noting Van Til’s oft-applied distinction between “speaking epistemologically” and “speaking psychologically” about the unbeliever’s position.[8] In any event, no one could read Van Til fairly and conclude that he denied the utility of apologetics, the existence of meaningful common ground between believers and unbelievers, and the ability of unbelievers to reason and acquire knowledge of the world. Before charging an author with outright contradiction, one ought to make a good-faith attempt to find a plausible consistent reading of his claims. Regrettably, no such attempt is made by Jaros, who seems eager to secure a first-round knockout. One is reminded of those critics who charge Calvinists with logical inconsistency for saying both that “unbelievers are unable to come to Christ” and that “Christ invites unbelievers to come to him.”

John DePoe (“The Place of Autonomous Human Reason and Logic in Theology”) targets Van Til’s repudiation of “autonomous human reason.” DePoe argues that Christians should affirm the use of autonomous reason in apologetics for three reasons: first, the Bible itself endorses it; second, it’s self-contradictory to deny it (because one must employ autonomous reason to argue against it); and third, there are real-life examples of unbelievers who have accepted Christianity “as a result of their intellectual endeavors” (63). The fundamental flaw in the presuppositionalist position is that in practice “all apologetics must appeal to autonomous human reason, and thereby it cannot be avoided even in following the presuppositional method” (63). The triumphalist tone of the chapter is rather off-putting: the presuppositionalist stance is “undeniably mistaken, as this essay will show” (55) and is afflicted with a “glaring internal contradiction” (59). DePoe’s critique is peppered with cartoonish depictions of presuppositionalism.[9] But the main problem is that the entire argument deploys a bait-and-switch: having been told that presuppositionalists reject “autonomous reasoning,” we’re then presented with arguments that establish only (i) that the Bible endorses the exercise of human reason and discernment, (ii) that one would have to use reason to argue against reason, and (iii) that apologetic arguments can be effective in leading unbelievers to faith. Of course, presuppositionalists can and should accept all three points. None of this counts as an argument against autonomous reasoning as Van Til conceived of it, viz., treating fallen human reason as an independent and ultimate epistemic authority that can stand over God’s Word as a judge of its veracity. It doesn’t seem to occur to DePoe that he might be attacking a caricature of the position he purports to refute.

Nathan Greeley (“The Structure of Knowledge in Classical Reformed Theology: Turretin and Hodge”) sets his sights not on Van Til directly but on Scott Oliphint’s criticisms of Aquinas’s understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology. I have little to say about this chapter, directed as it is at the specific claims of one author rather than Van Tilian presuppositionalism in general. I will merely note that the few direct references to Van Til in this chapter reflect the simplistic misrepresentations that typify the volume as a whole, such as the notion that Van Til denies that unbelievers possess any genuine natural knowledge of God or the world. Indeed, in the section outlining Turretin’s position on the unbeliever’s knowledge, I could not identify any claim that Van Til does not also affirm in his own writings. The attempt to drive a wedge between Van Til and the Reformed tradition is unsuccessful.

The chapter by J. T. Bridges (“Moderate Realism and the Presuppositionalist Confusion of Metaphysics and Epistemology”) is a curious inclusion, not least because the reader will search in vain for any demonstration of “the presuppositionalist confusion of metaphysics and epistemology” (as the title promises). The bulk of the chapter is taken up with a defense of a “systematic realist theology” based on “existential Thomism,” the Thomism in question having been decoupled from Roman Catholic ecclesiology and recoupled with a Protestant doctrine of Scripture. Although Bridges’ argumentation is obscure, it’s clear that Cartesian dualism and contemporary analytic metaphysics are the principal whipping boys. Just as one begins to wonder what any of this has to do with presuppositionalism, a section appears with criticisms of Scott Oliphint’s book on Aquinas, his use of Ralph McInerny’s interpretation of Étienne Gilson, and his analysis of divine simplicity. There are no citations of Van Til or any other presuppositionalists, or indeed of any of Oliphint’s writings that speak more directly about apologetic methodology. The chapter closes with a summary of “the connection between a moderate-realist metaphysics, direct realist epistemology, classical theism, and evangelical theology” (129). How any of this serves as a critique of presuppositionalism as an apologetic methodology is anyone’s guess. One suspects that the chapter is largely repurposed material with the section on Oliphint’s Aquinas inserted to justify its addition to the volume.

Winfried Corduan (“Presuppositions in Presuppositionalism and Classical Theism”) attempts to get to the root of the disagreement between the approaches of presuppositional and classical apologetics.[10] The first two thirds of the chapter are taken up with a discussion of presuppositions and systems, the conclusion of which is that the division between the two camps does not lie in the fact that presuppositionalists alone recognize the necessity of presuppositions in reasoning and the need to contrast Christianity with competing systems of thought. Classical apologists can agree with presuppositionalists on these points to a significant extent. Rather, the difference lies “in the degree to which it is possible for two people with different systems to communicate, and, more specifically, for a Christian to communicate with a non-Christian” (147). Accordingly, Corduan contrasts the two approaches as follows:

The presuppositionalist believes that he is looking at a theological impasse. There is, as we said, neither neutrality nor common ground between Christian and non-Christian. Thus, it is impossible to build up a case for Christianity step by step. (148)

The classical apologists [sic] may accept the fundamental theological truths mentioned above, but does not believe that, therefore, apologetics has to be limited to presenting the entire system alone. … Whether [the classical apologist] wants to describe the connection between Christian and non-Christian as “common ground,” “common grace,” or “general revelation,” he finds that two people with different world views can communicate. (151)

If Corduan imagines that presuppositionalists deny any common ground or communication between the believer and the unbeliever, it’s no surprise that he favors the alternative of classical apologetics. But those familiar with Van Til’s writings will immediately recognize this as a caricature of the presuppositionalist position. Corduan—like so many of Van Til’s critics—makes the mistake of conflating common ground and neutral ground, interpreting Van Til’s repudiation of the latter as a rejection of the former. Van Til doesn’t deny common ground or make the absurd claim that Christians cannot communicate with non-Christians. He does deny, however, that the common ground can be religiously neutral ground. On the contrary, the common ground must be understood as Christian ground—more precisely, as Christ’s ground—and the task of the apologist, through a presuppositional critique of the unbeliever’s position, is to show that the non-Christian has been depending on the truth of a biblical worldview all along. Had Corduan said that the distinction between the two approaches lies in whether the argument for Christianity can proceed from a religiously neutral starting point, he would have been on safer ground. As it is, Corduan doesn’t seem to grasp the distinctive claims of Van Tilian presuppositionalism and thus ends up tilting at windmills.

Thomas Schultz (“Presuppositionalism and Philosophy in the Academy”) focuses on “the academic philosophical impact on the development of presuppositionalism,” and seeks to counter the claims of some presuppositionalists that their methodology is rooted in Scripture and theology rather than philosophy. Schultz identifies “three ways of connecting a later thinker to an earlier source”: (i) direct connection, (ii) indirect connection, and (iii) “parallel thinking” connection. He then proceeds to apply these three “methodological tools” in an attempt to show multiple lines of “linkage” between Van Til’s apologetic system and various philosophers: Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, and Søren Kierkegaard. It would take a separate essay to document all the missteps and misrepresentations in Schultz’s argument.[11] But the entire strategy is flawed at the outset. Schultz can demonstrate virtually no points of direct influence, and therefore relies heavily on the second and third kinds of “linkage.” His “parallel view” arguments are extremely weak and inconclusive; the mere fact that two thinkers hold similar views on some issue is not enough to establish influence from one to the other, let alone a problematic kind of influence. Moreover, his general scheme for identifying indirect connection (157) is fallacious: if A influenced B, and B influenced C, it doesn’t thereby follow that A influenced C in any significant or interesting fashion. It depends on the form and content of the influence in each case.[12]

In any event, after claiming to show that Van Til’s presuppositionalism “has some direct, indirect, and parallel linkage to some important schools of thought in the philosophical academy,” Schultz’s somewhat anticlimactic conclusion is that this “does not necessarily show presuppositionalism to be wrong” (182). Indeed so. As best I can tell, there is nothing in this chapter that begins to show that Van Til’s apologetic program is flawed or misguided. If the considerable influence of Aristotle upon Aquinas does not discredit Thomistic classical apologetics—as the contributors to this volume presumably hold—then why think that the insights Van Til draws from Kant should count against presuppositional apologetics? One can plunder the Egyptians without embracing their gods.

Manfred Svensson (“The Use of Aristotle in Early Protestant Theology”) aims to set “the record straight about the role played by Aristotle in earlier Protestant thought” (184). Van Til is known for being fiercely critical of Aristotelian philosophy and of Thomism for its appropriation of Aristotle. While Luther and other early Protestants appear very hostile toward Aristotelianism, subsequent Protestant scholars took a more moderate and nuanced view, Svensson argues, neither rejecting Aristotle outright nor embracing his philosophy uncritically. Evaluating Svensson’s claims is beyond my expertise, and I have no reason to doubt his analysis. But how it bears on the virtues or vices of presuppositional apologetics is left unaddressed. It’s a shame that neither Svensson nor his co-authors engage with Van Til’s specific criticisms of Aristotelian philosophy or Thomas’s use of it. Furthermore, historical claims about Protestant thought are (from a Protestant perspective!) descriptive rather than normative. The evaluative question remains: Were the Protestant scholastics correct in their stance toward Aristotelianism?

The contribution by editor David Haines (“The Use of Aquinas in Early Protestant Theology”) also turns out to be only tangentially related to the volume’s advertised concern. After noting that Francis Schaeffer and Scott Oliphint follow Van Til “in his criticism of Aquinas as the Catholic theologian who introduced the autonomy of reason in Christian theology,” Haines launches into a qualified defense of “Reformed Thomism.” As he declares:

Our purpose is not to prove that [the early Protestant theologians] were Thomists, but to show (1) that there was not as much overt opposition to Aquinas as has been suggested, and (2) that many of their doctrinal claims agreed with distinctively Thomist positions. (203)

Haines argues that “a thinker may be broadly classified as a Thomistic thinker when their approach to philosophy and theology is molded by broadly Thomistic categories” (207). With this definition in place, Haines surveys the “philosophical positions” and “theological positions” of a selection of Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinist scholars before concluding that “many early Protestant thinkers not only adopted positions which are clearly in agreement with the distinctive claims of Thomas Aquinas, but that some of them actually turned to Aquinas as both an inspiration and an authority” (233). Thus, we should recognize the place of “Reformed Thomism” in the history of Protestant thought.

Much could be said about Haines’ argumentation in this chapter, but I will restrict myself to a few observations. In the first place, “Thomist” is defined so elastically, and the bar set so low, that it’s hardly surprising that many Protestant thinkers turn out to be “Thomistic.” If one is a realist rather than a nominalist about natures, that’s evidence of Thomism (215). If one distinguishes between essential and accidental properties, that’s evidence of Thomism (216). If one thinks that natural reason is “not entirely effaced by the fall” and is capable of discerning truths about God and morality, that’s evidence of Thomism (225). By this reckoning, many presuppositionalists—including your humble reviewer—turn out to be closet Thomists. But even if one concedes (as one should) that there was significant Thomist influence on early Protestant theologians, how would that bear on the case for or against Van Tilian presuppositionalism? Would it follow that Van Til’s criticisms of Thomism are mistaken or misguided? Not at all. Why not interact directly with Van Til’s critique of Aquinas, rather than defending historical claims that are only tangentially related to the questions of theological and apologetical method? Haines’ chapter is an example of the lamentable tendency in Thomist circles to treat historical theology as a proxy for systematic theology and philosophical theology.

Andrew Payne (“Classical Theism and Natural Theology in Early Reformed Doctrines of God”) argues that Aquinas and Calvin were in substantial agreement regarding the doctrines of God, man, and predestination. Calvin was not hostile toward classical theism and natural theology; indeed, “classical theism resides at the very heart of Calvinism” (256). Once again, a presuppositionalist could grant all this while wondering how it functions as a critique of Van Til, who (it will come as no surprise) also concurs with Calvin on those points. Like many of the contributors to Without Excuse, Payne appears to labor under the misapprehension that Van Til was hostile to classical theism as such. The problem here may be that Thomists have been strongly conditioned to suppose that classical theism just is Thomism, and that anyone who deviates from the Thomistic package is ipso facto rejecting classical theism. But that needs to be argued, not merely assumed.

John R. Gilhooly (“Van Til’s Transcendental Argument and Its Antecedents”) offers one of the more interesting and thoughtful contributions to the book. According to Gilhooly, Van Til claims that his “transcendental argument” (TA) for Christian theism offers a “unique methodology” for defending the faith. However, Van Til’s argument turns out to be structurally similar to transcendental arguments offered by prior thinkers such as Aristotle and Kant. Gilhooly argues that the distinctiveness of Van Til’s TA lies not in its structure or form, but in the boldness of its “transcendental premise,” viz., that the existence of God is a necessary precondition of the rational intelligibility of the world. Yet there are problems here, Gilhooly suggests. If Van Til’s TA is construed as a deductive argument it begs the question, because the only reason Van Til has for thinking the transcendental premise (TP) is true is his conviction that Christianity is true (271). Van Til needs to provide an independent argument in support of TP, but fails to do so (270). The alternative route would be to construe Van Til’s TA as an abductive argument—an inference to the best explanation—but this would downgrade the argument’s conclusion to mere probability rather than absolute certainty, thus raising the concern that it isn’t a genuine transcendental argument after all.[13] Gilhooly closes by noting what he takes to be a major difference between Kant’s transcendental argument and Van Til’s: Kant’s TA assumes a “shared sphere of activity” or “shared territory” between the arguer and his opponent, whereas Van Til denies any such common ground between the Christian and the atheist (276–77).

Gilhooly is to be commended for seeking to grapple seriously with Van Til’s use of transcendental argumentation in defense of Christian theism. I agree with him that there is nothing unique about the structure or form of Van Til’s TA.[14] He is also correct about the ambitious nature of Van Til’s TA. He is mistaken, however, in his claim that Van Til offers no philosophical justification for the transcendental premise of the argument.[15] One might conclude on examination that his proffered justification falls short, but to think that he makes no effort at all to explain why biblical theism is a necessary precondition of the rational intelligibility of the world would be to overlook almost everything Van Til wrote about the history of Western philosophy and the failures of non-Christian epistemologies. I also note that Gilhooly—like several of his co-authors—mistakenly conflates common ground with neutral ground. Van Til’s transcendental argument doesn’t deny common ground; on the contrary, it presupposes common ground, specifically, the premise that the world is indeed rationally intelligible (an assumption shared by both believer and unbeliever).

Bernard James Mauser (“A Tale of Two Theories: Natural Law in Classical Theism and Presuppositionalism”) addresses presuppositionalist criticisms of the Thomistic natural law tradition. Mauser argues that natural law has held an important position in the Christian tradition and rebuts three “popular arguments” against natural law (none of which, it transpires, are sourced from the writings of presuppositionalists). Mauser then turns his sights on John Frame, responding to nine reasons Frame gives for thinking that natural law alone is insufficient to govern culture. Unfortunately, many of Frame’s points are misunderstood or misrepresented in this section. (Readers can confirm this for themselves by reviewing the two Frame articles cited by Mauser.) In any case, Mauser’s essay makes no reference to any of Van Til’s writings and offers no criticisms of Van Tilian presuppositionalism. The reader is left to discern how these topics are to be connected.[16]

Finally, Travis James Campbell (“Van Til’s Trinitarianism: A Reformed Critique”) levels two charges at Van Til’s explication of the doctrine of the Trinity: first, it departs from Reformed orthodoxy in its provocative claim that God is “one person”; and second, it abandons “sound reason” by implying that the doctrine of the Trinity is “formally contradictory.” Consequently, Van Til’s trinitarianism “leaves the Christian bereft of a sound apologetics for the faith” (296). Scott Oliphint, though a follower of Van Til, is summoned as a witness for the prosecution because he takes Van Til “to his logical conclusion” by “explicitly affirming the Kantian gulf” between the reality of the triune God and the “phenomenal world” of divine revelation (312). Campbell drives home his critique by reproducing an example dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim from Oliphint’s Covenantal Apologetics and extending it to show how the Muslim could wield Van Til’s claims about the Trinity to vindicate his own unitarian theism.

Van Til’s “one person” statement is undoubtedly a hard saying and naturally invites questions about its orthodoxy at first glance. Moreover, I would take issue with some of Oliphint’s claims about the relationship between God and logic. Even so, it is not easy to capture in measured words quite how uncharitably Van Til and Oliphint are treated in this chapter. The opening sentence of the chapter serves as an omen of what follows:

For reasons of which we are not quite sure, Cornelius Van Til believed it was necessary to depart from the understanding of the Trinity traditionally expressed in the Reformed tradition. (295)

Not only is this highly prejudicial (Van Til did not consider his views a departure from Reformed orthodoxy) it also invites little confidence in Campbell’s analysis. How can one reliably evaluate Van Til’s claims without appreciating the rationale for them? Despite quoting Van Til at length (material in which Van Til explains the meaning of his “one person” claim and the justification for it) Campbell makes no good-faith attempt to engage with the reasoning behind Van Til’s statement. Since this review is already lengthy, I will simply offer brief rejoinders to each of Campbell’s two main charges.

Concerning the charge of deliberate departure from Reformed orthodoxy, I would point out (again) that Van Til subscribed to the Westminster Confession, including its statements on the triunity of God (WCF 2.1–3). Nowhere in his writings does Van Til deny or dispute any point of that orthodox trinitarian theology. He affirms the standard formula: God is “one in substance” and “three in person.” What he does argue, however, is that more needs to be said about the unity of the Godhead; specifically, we should affirm that this unity is a personal rather than an impersonal unity. The reason is not merely that Scripture and the ecumenical creeds are comfortable using singular personal pronouns to refer to the Godhead (although that surely counts for something). Since interpretations of reality can only be grounded in a personal source, and the ultimate basis for the unity of reality is the unity of God, it follows that there can only be a unified interpretation of all reality if the unity of God is a personal unity. As Van Til explains (in the very sections quoted by Campbell):

We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person. … We are compelled to maintain this in order to avoid the notion of an uninterpreted being of some sort. In other words, we are bound to maintain the identity of the attributes of God with the being of God in order to avoid the specter of brute fact. … Over against all other beings, that is, over against created beings, we must therefore hold that God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity. And even within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective “personality” may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality; He is absolute personality. Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences.[17]

Now, one might argue that Van Til’s position here is mistaken or misguided, but to depict it as a deliberate abandonment of Reformed orthodoxy is simply unfair. Ironically, Campbell goes on to criticize Van Til for saying that God is “tri-consciousness” because that seems to imply “three centers of self-awareness” in God and “veers in the direction of Tritheism” (307–8). Campbell is happy to affirm with Charles Hodge that “God is one consciousness” (307). As it turns out, he is just as concerned as Van Til to insist that the unity of God is a personal unity; he just doesn’t care for the way Van Til expresses that point. But the real objection here, as the chapter’s footnotes reveal, is that Van Til doesn’t fall neatly in line with the Thomist explication of the Trinity.

What about the second charge, that Van Til’s trinitarian theology is “formally contradictory”? Let us first note that Van Til never uses the term “formal contradiction” with reference to the Trinity. Moreover, the term itself is ambiguous. It could refer to a contradiction merely at the verbal level, i.e., in the form of a set of claims as opposed to their substance. In that sense, there is indeed a “formal contradiction” in Van Til’s position: God is “one person” but also “three persons.” Yet a contradiction at the verbal level need not be a real contradiction at the logical or metaphysical level. As Campbell acknowledges, Van Til explicitly renounced the idea of real contradictions (312). Hence the most charitable reading of Van Til is that he believed the doctrine of the Trinity to be a merely apparent contradiction—a theological paradox arising from divine incomprehensibility. Nevertheless, Campbell proceeds to employ the term “formal contradiction” as though Van Til considers the Godhead to be genuinely illogical (303, 305, 307). Once again, a more generous interpretation of Van Til is well within reach, but for some reason is left untouched. [18]

As the foregoing chapter summaries indicate, Without Excuse is a mixed bag in terms of content and quality of argument. It seems the book can’t decide whether it’s primarily a critique of Van Tilian presuppositionalism or a defense of Thomistic natural theology, and consequently it fails to satisfy on either point. Some chapters hardly interact with Van Til at all, while those that do engage directly with his writings misunderstand and misrepresent them in ways that could have been easily avoided by more careful attention to primary and secondary sources.[19] The strongest contributions turn out to be those with least relevance to the central thesis of the book. No serious effort is made to understand the driving motivations behind Van Til’s presuppositional methodology and to evaluate it charitably on its own terms. This is not to suggest that Van Til is beyond criticism, or that his work does not need refinement, correction, and even rejection at points. Like any original and provocative thinker, Van Til’s ideas invite criticism—indeed, they deserve criticism. But they also deserve more rigorous scrutiny that one will find, for the most part, between the covers of this book.

[1] David Haines, ed. Without Excuse: Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics. Landrum, SC: Davenant Press, 2020.


[3] Page numbers in parentheses refer to the book under review.

[4] See WCF 1.1.

[5] See, e.g., Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, ed. N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1946), 263–301.

[6] For a helpful discussion, see John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995), 187–213.

[7] Frame, 207, 210.

[8] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 405–60.

[9] One illustrative example: “In other words, presuppositionalists are asking people to draw the conclusion that they shouldn’t draw their own conclusions” (59).

[10] The chapter title is indicative of an error represented throughout the volume, viz., conflating classical apologetics with classical theism. All classical Thomists are classical theists, but not all classical theists are classical Thomists. Van Til was clearly a classical theist insofar as he affirmed the historic Reformed doctrine of God as reflected in the Westminster Standards.

[11] A couple of examples. First, it is erroneously implied that Van Til shared David Hume’s skepticism about causal reasoning (168). Second, a “linkage” is suggested between Van Til’s apologetic and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “language worlds” (170) even though Van Til was teaching his approach at Westminster Theological Seminary as early as 1929, while Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations was not published until 1953.

[12] A simple example will illustrate the point. Ite Van Til (Cornelius’s father) influenced Cornelius Van Til, and Cornelius Van Til influenced me. By Schultz’s lights, there turns out to be an “indirect connection” between Ite Van Til and me. I doubt that much of interest follows from that conclusion.

[13] Gilhooly also discusses whether Van Til’s argument is supposed to be indirect rather than direct. I will merely register my agreement with John Frame that any “indirect” or “negative” argument can be reformulated as a “direct” or “positive” argument, and thus the direct/indirect distinction is a red herring when it comes to Van Til’s transcendental argument. John M. Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, ed. Joseph E. Torres (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 83–84.

[14] There should be nothing surprising about this, for if a transcendental argument is a distinctive type of argument, then Van Til’s TA must fall under that type, and therefore it must share the typical features of other TAs.

[15] James N. Anderson, “If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til,” Calvin Theological Journal 40, no. 1 (2005): 49–75.

[16] As Mauser himself remarks, “I will leave it to another to decide whether the reason for [Frame’s skepticism about the sufficiency of natural law] lines up with other tenets of presuppositional apologetics” (289).

[17] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974), 229–30, emphasis added. Note that in this section Van Til unequivocally affirms not only monotheism but the doctrine of divine simplicity. Campbell’s complaint that Van Til “veers in the direction of Tritheism” is entirely without merit. Indeed, it seems that Campbell cannot quite decide whether Van Til is guilty of modalism (“one person”) or tritheism (“tri-consciousness”).

[18] For a more responsible discussion of Van Til’s trinitarianism, see Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 63–78. For an extended defense of the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is paradoxical but not really contradictory, see James N. Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status, Paternoster Theological Monographs (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007). The latter is not a direct defense of Van Til’s position, but reflects a plausible interpretation of it. I would also argue that Campbell’s view of the Trinity turns out to be as paradoxical as Van Til’s, since he embraces “the real distinction between the divine persons sans any real distinction between the divine persons and the divine essence” (295). If there is a “real” identity between each divine person and the divine essence, Campbell has to deny the transitivity of identity (in the face of our basic logical intuitions) to avoid the conclusion that there is a “real” identity between any two divine persons.

[19] Campbell’s chapter stands alone in citing John Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought. It’s regrettable that the other authors didn’t engage with—or even show familiarity with—Frame’s sympathetic but critical assessment of Van Til’s contributions.