Reflections of a Broken Man

On “The Defense of the Faith” – Part III: Christian Philosophy by StephenMac

**Currently listening to Transatlanticism – Death Cab for Cutie**

It’s chapters like this that make me cry…

The argument so far: Cornelius van Til was a lecturer in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary. After receiving much criticism for his perspectives on “presuppositional apologetics” within the “Reformed Tradition”, he writes “In Defense of the Faith” to settle the issue once for all. Part I of this series looked at the premise of the argument, but highlighted the nature that we are Reformed Christians. Part II argued that for us to do apologetics, we must begin with what we believe: i.e. Doctrine. But not just theism, nor even Christian theism, but Reformed Christian theism is what we believe and what we are defending.

In Part III, we look at philosophy. Apologetics is about evangelism. We want to express our faith to those who don’t believe. Chances are, they won’t understand the “theological” jargon that we use (go figure), so we must speak their language. Now for van Til, this was the educated man (and woman if we must be PC about it), and their language was philosophy. And so we must express our faith using philosophical words, phrases and concepts. Yet, for the most part, philosophers are not Christian, and in using their language and concepts, we are threatened with the possibility of importing non-Christian problems and worldviews into our own worldview. So the challenge for van Til (and us to a point) is to use the language of philosophy, but redefine it for our use.

**DISCLAIMER: Hate philosophy? Do big words and insane concepts send shivers down your spine, make you throw up, cry, want to hang yourself with your small intestine and other involuntary reflexes? Do you find Vogon poetry more palatable? Scroll down to NON-PHILOSOPHY SECTION**

Problem #1: The One and the Many (or the Thing amongst other things)

What’s more important to you: details or the big idea? This problem in philosophy is Cornelius_Van_Tilunderstanding how we can understand the immense amount of data around us. In philosophical terms, what is the relationship between the universal(the big idea – the Thing) and the particular (the detail – things). The problem for philosophers is that if there is no relationship between the universal and the particular. If there are only particulars, then all we are left with is independent things. We could never understand them, because each thing is unique and there would be no way of describing it or  conveying information about it. You could never talk about a “car” because each individual “car” is unique and independent and has no relation to any other “car”. We are left with an “abstract particular”.
The use of the word “car” illustrates a universal. If there are only “universals” or big ideas, then again, we would never be able to understand the world around us. Try, for example, describing to someone what you did today using only the word “thing” in place of every noun (or if you are feeling adventurous, replace every adjective with “thingish” and every verb with variations on “thinged”):

Hey thing, thing thinged at the thing, thing was thingy thing, but thing thingingly thinged against the thing, and thing thinged.
(yes… I know, “was” can technically be a verb, but pfft…)

This is the problem of the universal. By abstracting everything further out, til all we are left with is “being” (a rose is a flower is a plant is a living organism is a being): we have the abstract universal.

To stop the world from collapsing into oblivion (or meaninglessness… or an Arts degree if you think about it…) philosophers created the concrete universal. No-one is exactly sure what this entails, but it just stops the world from ending.

Enter van Til and Christian philosophy: First, we begin with the eternal one-and-the-many, and the temporal one-and-the-many. We enter the one-and-the-many debate with God, who is central to the Christian worldview. In God, the one and the many are equally ultimate. The universal conception of God and the particular conception of God are equally important. In English, this means that when we talk about God, we cannot talk about the Trinity as being more or less real than God’s unity or oneness. In other words:

In his being, God exists as God and also as three persons, and neither is more real than the other. His attributes are co-extensive with his being — that is, if you could understand any one attribute fully, you would understand God fully. He isn’t chopped up into love bits and justice bits and wisdom bits — they’re all intertwined.
(Thanks Pat!)

van Til points out that many of the heresies in Church history have come about from misunderstanding this point, emphasising one over the other, or “subordinating” one to the other. In philosophical terms, God is a real concrete universal. In God, there are no particular details about God that have no relation to the overall picture of God, and likewise, there is nothing universal about God that is not expressed in the particular details of God.Defense_of_the_Faith

The temporal one and the many is the created universe. It was created by God, created out of nothing and created into nothing. In other words, “before” the creation of everything, there was not God and “not-God”, but only God (kinda bends the mind…). Anyhow, the created things were placed in order and in relation to the created Thing. The Thing”, the universals, are the generalisations about the order that God has used to arrange the things, the particulars. The “laws of nature”, “the laws of science” blah blah blah are merely the generalisations of how God has ordered creation. Hence, should God choose to place certain things in a different order, he could: and *bang* we have miracles. In the presence of God, the things and the Thing are equal, the one and the many are equally real. Yet, there is a subordination of the things to the Thing, as created by God. van Til argues that there is a subordination of certain “laws”:
mechanical (the way things work or cause/effect) >>> teleological (why things work or purpose). So miracles are explained by God rearranging facts and placing them in the order that conforms to the teleological, rather than the mechanical (or something like that…).

van Til then points out that this conception of reality is placed within God’s plan to deal with the problem of sin. Sin has affected the ordering of the temporal one-and-the-many, and so God’s plan for salvation centred on the redemptive work of Christ is in fact the re-ordering of the world: its the re-establishment of the order of the temporal one-and-the-many, it is regeneration, the renewal of all things.


For van Til, apologetics was to the educated, more specifically, the philosophically educated (poor, sad people that they are: myself included now I guess). But the principle must remain the same, when we evangelise, when we do apologetics, we must be grounded in the Reformed Theology, but we also must speak their language. And so apologetics is the discipline of translation. We must be able to use their language, be on guard against importing non-Biblical, non-Reformed ideas into our language, and thus distorting the message that we proclaim.

*my brain hurts…*


On “the Defense of the Faith” – Part I: An Introduction by StephenMac

**Currently listening to Champagne from a Paper Cup – Death Cab for Cutie**

So I thought it time that I blog something productive. I’m currently reading The Defense of the Faith by Cornelius van Til. This series will hopefully become a summary and reflection on the ideas that are raised by van Til.

The first thing to note is that this book is a polemic. As the title suggests, it is a defensive response by van Til to critics of his work. However, it was both eye-opening and interesting to read that what van Til is defending is the “reformed” faith, and not the faith in general. So often in today’s apologetics, and evangelism, we think of bringing people to faith in Christ, but usually in general “Christianity” terms. When we chat about Christ, we may speak in reformed terms, but rarely are we conscious of it. I have never considered myself as “reformed” (by this, I mean that I am never consciously thinking of myself by that label, though I am wholeheartedly reformed in my theology), but van Til’s book raises the point that the reformed faith is what we should stand up for. For example, when we evangelise, we evangelise people into the reformed faith, and not some other form of the Christian faith. How often are we conscious of this?

Second idea in the first chapter is that van Til is very conscious of using secular philosophical terms and redefining them. We’ll discuss this further next time, but I was interested to see that most of the criticism that was levelled against van Til was because he describes himself as doing reformed faith apologetics, or for using secular philosophical terms with Christian meanings.

It is with these two themes in mind that van Til writes. Part II discusses the “reformed” theology, and how this forms the basis for apologetics.