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Presuppositional Apologetics and the Trinity: A Review

   Before digging into Van Til’s teaching on the Trinity and how it applies to his argumentation for the existence of God, it will do us well to review the fundamental principles of Presuppositional Apologetics. Okay, I know you have heard a lot about PA recently, but you know the old teaching addage: the more you hear something, the more likely you are to remember it. So, once again, ladies and gentlemen, let’s take a look at what PA is about at its core.
   The popular model of apologetics today is one where you present evidence, and use logic and reason to argue for the existence of God, the truthfulness of the Bible, the historicity of Christ and the resurrection, etc. This model assumes that everyone, no matter what their religious or philosophical viewpoint, agrees on principles of logic and reason, and can use these to evaluate evidence. In other words, on these principles we all share “common ground,” since these are assumed to be neutral standards by which all claims can be weighed.
   Van Til objected to this saying that to set anything above God and His Word, whether it be a man, a false god, or a set of principles, is a violation of Scripture and an undermining of the ultimate authority of God and His revelation. God’s Word, if it is has supreme authority, cannot be held accountable to a higher authority. If we believe the Bible is “God-breathed,” that it is God speaking to us, then to subject it to evidence, reason, and logic to validate it is to say that it really has no authority on its own, and requires an external authority to verify it. Not only this, but it is to say that it needs man to apply this external authority and use it to verify what God has said, whether or not it is true. Since when does man have the right to tell God whether He is speaking truth? How we know Scripture is true without engaging in circular reasoning is, perhaps, a subject for another time. But for now, suffice to say that the Christian can do no other than to hold Scripture in the highest regard. In fact, Van Til would argue that we need Scripture, God’s special revelation to us, to be able to properly apply logic, reason, and evidence.
   When God originally created man, He gave him natural revelation (the world around him, its complexity and order, etc.) as a demonstration of His existence, and special revelation (instructions, commands, etc.) so he would know how to properly live in the universe God had made with the rules that govern it, and know how to honor and serve his Creator in a way that most pleases Him. However, in Genesis 3 we are told that man disobeyed God and fell into sin (Romans 5:12-14). From that time on, man has been suppressing natural revelation (Romans 1:18-32), and unable to receive and accept special revelation due to his spiritual estrangement from his Creator. To this day, man is in a state of denial regarding God’s existence and truth, and is trying to live in this world according to his own understanding. God, in His mercy, permits man to understand certain truths: morality, ethics, laws, justice, etc. that come from being made in His image. Without these, man would not survive long in this world; his life would be intolerable (as would life for those around him). Yet, given man’s natural understanding, unaided by that understanding that comes from either natural or special revelation, these truths are not consistent with his understanding of the world. And it is his understanding of the world, or his presuppositions that will always ultimately lead him to the conclusions he makes, which will invariably be wrong or misguided.
   If the unbeliever is looking at the world through different presuppositions than the believer, it stands to reason that, apart from the work of the Spirit giving him eyes to see, he will not come to the same conclusions as the believer regarding evidence, no matter how good and sound that evidence is. He does not share “common ground” with the believer, because the unbeliever and the believer are operating on diametrically opposed presuppositions. Knowing that the unbeliever is suppressing the knowledge of God, however, the Christian apologist can appeal to that knowledge of God to call the unbeliever to repentance so he can see the world as God intended it to be seen. The apologist could even take the approach of having the unbeliever assume Christian presuppositions (for the sake of argument), and he assume non-Christian presuppositions (again, for the sake of argument) to help the unbeliever see which is consistent with the universe as we know it–which of them makes the world around us and its laws intelligible.
   That’s PA in a nutshell. One point that Van Til was insistent on was that any defense of the Christian faith cannot simply be a defense of one aspect of it. In other words, it is not simply a defense of the fact of God’s existence, or the fact of Christ’s divinity, or the fact of the resurrection. Christian apologetics is a defense of the entire Christian worldview. Hopefully, from the foregoing it is clear why this is the case. Without a Christian worldview, the evidence is meaningless. The unbeliever can accept the bare evidence for the resurrection saying, “Okay, so something strange happened,” without ever proclaiming saving faith in Christ as a result. That conclusion requires seeing the evidence for the resurrection with Christian presuppositions; only then can it have any meaning.
   This is where Van Til’s teaching on the Trinity comes in. He argues that we are not presenting mere theism, but we are presenting Christian theism, and we have to. To present any other kind of theism is to argue for a God that doesn’t exist, and, in fact, undermines everything you then say to affirm the truth of the Christian worldview. We will explore this in the next installment.

Don’t forget, if you want to read the entire article upon which this series is based, you can do so at my website, under the “Papers” section.

Presuppositional Apologetics and the Trinity

   If you have been following the blog over the past month, you will have seen Jamin Hubner’s series of posts on apologetic methodology and particularly on Presuppositional Apologetics. Hopefully, as a result of Jamin’s sterling work, you are all now fully conversant with Presuppositional Apologetics (or the “Transcendental” argument as Van Til preferred to call it) such that you are freely discussing presuppositionalism vs. evidentialism with your neighbors, and you plan to give a copy of Van Til’s Christian Apologetics to all your relatives for Christmas. Well done, Jamin!
   One aspect of presuppositionalism that Van Til (and those that followed him) was quite insistent on was the fact that when arguing for the existence of God, it is insufficient to simply argue that there is such a thing as a divine being. Most apologists start here, and then have an uphill battle once this premise is assumed to then jump from deism or theism to the Christian God. For Van Til, it was pointless even beginning to discuss God, His existence, His nature, His works, etc. if you are not prepared to argue for the Christian God. In his famous debate against Gordon Stein, Greg Bahnsen in his opening statement made it plain that he was not there to discuss the existence of any other deity–it would be pointless because he would agree with Stein regarding their non-existence. Rather, the point of the argument begins with Christians on the Christian God.
   Naturally, one of–if not the–key doctrines of Christian theism is that of the Trinity. It is the doctrine of the Trinity above all other doctrines pertaining to God that sets Christianity apart from other religions. It has often been said, and as far as I can tell this is generally true, that all heretical offsprings of Christianity share a denial or a perversion of this central teaching. For Van Til, however, the Trinity was also important to his apologetic argument. Over the next few blog articles, I plan to sketch what Van Til taught regarding the Trinity (which has often been misunderstood, opening him up to charges of heresy), and how he understood the Trinity to figure into the presuppositional argument for God’s existence.
   These blog articles are based on a paper I wrote a while back on the subject “Van Til and the Trinity: The Centrality of the Christian View of God in the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.” If you want to read this paper as a pdf, you can do so by going to the “Papers” section on my website. What will follow in these blogs will not be a simple cut-and-paste of the paper. I will attempt to present the basic arguments in a blog-friendly format. For some people, that’s as much as you want or need. For others who want more, read the paper, or check out Jamin’s Van Til/Presuppositional Apologetics Reading Recommendations.

PS: If you have been hunting around for my blog articles on the Islamic concept of Predestination (Qadar), you can now find that as a single article in pdf format on my website, along with an overview of the Qur’an.

Free Theological Papers!

For those who might be interested, I have started posting papers that I have written for my Th.M. on my website. As Dr. White has often said in the past (and I agree with him), the value of a theological education is not where you get it, but what you do with it. It is my hope and prayer that the work that I do is of use to the church, and that the Lord will be pleased to bless His people through it. I have re-formatted the papers slightly (reduced the line spacing and some other minor tweaks), and saved them in PDF format. There are only a handful out there at the moment, but I will add more as time permits. The link to my site is http://www.colindsmith.com–just follow the “papers” link.

Evangelical Atheists and the Gospel

   It seems the Fundamentalist Atheists are at it again. According to this news story, they are planning a campaign to plaster pro-atheist ads around New York subway stations. I’m not objecting to them doing this; it is, after all, their Constitutional right to exercise free speech. However, I think it is instructive to observe the Christian message (sure, they don’t say they are counter-Christian, but let’s not be fooled) they are seeking to address. According to the article, the posters say “A million New Yorkers are good without God.” How many times have you heard Christian evangelists tout the benefits of becoming a Christian? “Jesus will make you happy, give you peace, restore your marriage, give you a healthy bank account, etc. etc.” Perhaps you have found yourself pleading the same case with an unbeliever. The fact of the matter is that there are many happy, healthy, rich, atheists with good marriages that are contributing members of society. The problem is, this message of peace and prosperity is not the gospel. Sure, with Christ as Lord of your life, you might find peace, happiness, and other physical benefits. But this message would not have gone down very well in the first few centuries of the Christian church, when believers often found themselves persecuted, beaten, and humiliated for their faith. Faith in Christ often meant a loss of worldly privileges. Jesus Himself even promised persecutions to those that follow him (Mark 10:28-30); He even said that following Him would stir family rivalry (Matthew 10:34-35). Becoming a Christian is not a favor we do for God. Salvation is not an option on your health benefits. It is something that we must do if we are to have the only peace that really counts: peace with God. Yes, you can be happy, healthy, and prosperous as an atheist; but you will continue to be an enemy of God, which will profit you nothing in the end (Matthew 16:26).
   I found it interesting that the group sponsoring the ads calls itself “the Big Apple Coalition of Reason.” How many atheists have stopped to consider what reason is? Where did reason come from? How is it man can reason? This is not a skill we learn; and there are certainly no other animals on earth that are able to reason as man is able to. The glaringly obvious answer, which atheists (for obvious reasons) ignore, is that reason is a gift of God. As creatures made in His image, we have the capacity to think, to draw conclusions, and to express opinions founded on rationally-derived information. It is ironic, therefore, that a group founded to promote the denial of God would use in its name one of the strongest evidences of His existence.

The True State of the Reprobate

   One of the obejctions Arminians like to throw against the Reformed teaching regarding election is the fact that one cannot speak of a sovereign God electing without at least implying, if not directly approving, “double predestination”–that is, that God both elects to salvation and to damnation. The Arminian objection is largely emotional: the thought of a good and loving God condemning countless masses of people to eternal torment should grieve your soul and make you wonder how a God of love could ever do anything so heinous. That God would gather millions of people and select only some to be saved is supposed to be seen as equivalent to terrorists rounding up villagers and condemning them all to die, except for some random, fortunate souls that are picked out. Just imagine the poor, depraved non-Christians being dragged into hell against their will, kicking and screaming all the way to the fiery pit shouting “Why me? Why me?” and you get the idea.
   Of course, this is quite an unbiblical representation of the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation. The Reformed view starts with the fact that we are all sinners, every last one of us (Romans 3:23). And not just that we are guilty of getting angry at our kids, or jumping in line at McDonald’s, or saying something mean about a co-worker. No, we are guilty of outright rebellion against our Creator. We are all God haters, actively suppressing the knowledge of God and ignoring Him and His claims upon us (Romans 1:18 ff.) When Romans 3:11 says that there are none who seek after God, we must understand that this is saying that no-one is actively pursuing the things of God. There is no-one who desires from the bottom of his or her heart to be pleasing to God (Hebrews 11:6). No-one wants to do God’s will; it takes a work of God’s regenerating Spirit to change the heart so that we are able to believe and desire to please God (John 3:3). This is what happens when God elects to save. Those God does not choose are left in their rebellion; they have no desire to do God’s will, no love for God, and feel absolutely no remorse at not being of the elect.
   I am a vegetarian, and I have been for nearly 20 years. Prior to being a vegetarian, I loved chicken and would drool over a juicy steak like the next carnivorous person. Now, such things do nothing for me. I have sat at the dinner table with people sharing stories of the fabulous cuts of meat they have enjoyed, salivating and causing other to salivate as they describe tender pork roasts, or succulent prime ribs, all of which has no effect on me whatsoever. I have no desire for meat, and the thought of a juicy steak does as much for me as the thought of moldy bread. People have tried to entice my taste buds with their favorite dishes of animal flesh, but I simply have no desire to eat meat, so they are left frustrated. When the turkey is being passed around at Thanksgiving, I do not feel in the slightest bit offended when the platter is passed over me. My feelings are not hurt when someone else is offered the turkey leg. Indeed, I am grateful that people are considerate enough not to pour gravy on my plate. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything.
   The Reformed position teaches that the reprobate attitude to God is akin to my attitude to meat. They don’t want God. They have no desire for God. The last thing they want is to hear the gospel message and be told of Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. It is not glorious to them; it is foolishness and a waste of their time (1 Corinthians 1:18). In fact, you would not be dragging them kicking and screaming into hell; you would be dragging them kicking and screaming into heaven! Unless God changes his heart, taking out the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), the reprobate would be pleased to know that he has been passed over for election, and grateful that he will not have to tolerate God’s presence for all eternity.
   So, in answer to the Arminian who says, “if you believe in election, that means you believe in double predestination.” I say, “yes and amen!” If by “double predestination” you mean that God has elected some (a multitude, if we accept what Revelation 7:9 says) for salvation, and purposefully left the rest to their just and deserved condemnation, I say, “indeed, that’s exactly what I believe.” That’s not to say I don’t grieve over the lost; they truly don’t know what they are missing, and how severe their punishment will be. However, we need to be sure we recognize that God is ultimately just in all His ways, and He does not condemn to eternal death anyone a) who doesn’t want to go there, and b) whom He has not determine will go there, for the greater purpose of His will, to the ultimate glory of His name. I close this article with the words of Loraine Boettner:

   The condemnation of the non-elect is designed primarily to furnish an eternal exhibition, before men and angels, of God’s hatred for sin, or, in other words, it is to be an eternal manifestation of the justice of God.. This decree displays one of the divine attributes which apart from it could never have been adequately appreciated. The salvation of some through a redeemer is designed to display the attributes of love, mercy, and holiness. The attributes of wisdom, power, and sovereignty are displayed in the treatment of both groups. Hence the truth of the Scripture statement that, “Jehovah hath made everything for its own end; Yea, even the wicked for the day of evil,” Prov. 16:4… This decree of reprobation also serves subordinate purposes in regard to the elect; for in beholding the rejection and final state of the wicked, (1) they learn what they too would have suffered had not grace stepped in to their relief, and they appreciate more deeply the riches of divine love… (2) It furnishes a most powerful motive for thankfulness that they have received such high blessings. (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, pp. 121-122)