Why Van Til Believed in God

Inheritance and the Inception of Belief

In his essay Why I Believe in God [1], Dr. Cornelius Van Til presents his case for belief in the Christian deity by fusing autobiographical testimony with the so-called “transcendental reasoning” of the presuppositional approach to apologetics. He begins by reminiscing an event in his childhood which was decisively pivotal in the religious direction which he would pursue for the remainder of his life. That occasion was when he sought to spend a night, presumably alone, in his father’s hay-barn, and during that night he was frightened by the sounds of the chains restraining the cattle which were also in the barn or near to it. He heard the chains, “but after a while [he] was not quite certain that it was only the cows that made all the noises [he] heard.” He began to imagine a person “walking down the aisle back of the cows, and… approaching [his] bed,” making his so-desired slumber a nightmarish experience. Terrified out of his wits, it was at this point when young Cornelius decided to embrace the Christian religion fully, to escape his immediate fears, which were clearly based on his imagination, not anything he had rationally discovered and identified in reality.

He then tells us how the environment at his home and his schooling all worked together to provide the kind of “conditioning” which reinforced and sealed his commitment to god-belief. This was the indoctrinating, indeed brainwashing influence of his parents, teachers and peers, a great majority (if not all) of whom were similarly aligned. This conditioning, which Van Til openly admits to enjoying throughout his youth, enabled the young man to remain committed to the decision he had made during a point of emotional trauma as a young boy. Surprisingly, Van Til seems to think all of these things are indicators of the supposed truth value of his god-belief, when in fact the situation which he describes bears remarkable similarity to people all over the world who are born and raised in differing religious settings and who as adults remain committed to the religious beliefs with which they were raised. Thus, the title to the second section of his essay, “The ‘Accident of Birth’,” is more apropos than Van Til himself probably realized: had he been born in Mecca, he would probably have had the same commitment to Islam.

Van Til took his god-belief into his adulthood, then, on the unchecked momentum of childhood and adolescent beliefs, beliefs to which he was committed emotionally, beliefs which he later learned to rationalize and defend as if they were genuinely rational. His religious bias was not principally the result of deep philosophical reflection and an understanding of objective fundamentals. Instead, it was primarily something chosen for him by those who were influential in his upbringing. As he writes, “I was ‘conditioned’ in the most thorough fashion. I could not help believing in God – in the God of Christianity – in the God of the whole Bible!” Interpreting the experiences of his youth according to this religious bias, Van Til claims that the conditioning forces of his upbringing were the result of the guiding hand of the Christian god.

Thus treating the sum of his experiences as if they were some kind of uniform confirmation of the supposed truth of his religious beliefs and eager to further instill them, Van Til explains that he had enrolled in what is described as an intensive Christian school in which all subjects were taught “from the Christian point of view!” Here he could be marinated in Christian mysticism from every possible angle, and surrounded by likeminded individuals whose presence could help shield him from secular influences which might challenge his beliefs and consequently “rob” him of his beloved faith. In such an insular setting, one can safely and effectively suppress any doubts he may have in order to carry on the pretense that he is a strong believer and that all his religious teachings are in fact true. No doubt maintaining this orientation is a never-ending process for the believer, because doubts can be suppressed only so long until they resurface and find themselves on the radar scope again. After all, why else do serious Christians meet every Sunday morning? Indeed, why the need for a whole system of apologetics to defend religious belief?

Van Til explains how, when he was a student at Princeton Seminary and at Chicago Divinity School, he was “presented with as full a statement of the reasons for disbelief as [he] had been with the reasons for belief.” He claims to have “heard both sides fully from those who believed what they taught.” So apparently a few non-believing professors made it past the sieve and into the halls of Princeton Seminary. In the first few paragraphs of his essay Van Til’s own words suggest that he was under the impression that there was only one argument against god-belief in existence. He writes,

I don’t deny that I was taught to believe in God when I was a child, but I do affirm that since I have grown up I have heard a pretty full statement of the argument against belief in God. And it is after having heard that argument that I am more than ever ready to believe in God. (emphasis added)

Indeed, depending on what that one argument was, and how it was presented, how could Van Til fail to be “more than ever ready to believe in God,” especially given the indoctrinating nature of the environment of his childhood and teenage years? Besides, are we to expect that a person who rejects reason should abandon a confessional investment on the basis of logical proofs demonstrating the invalidity of religious beliefs? Facts, evidences and arguments which are contrary to the religious belief program are easily suppressed and ignored. As Michael Martin points out, “religious attitudes often foster uncritical belief and acceptance” since “uncritical belief is often thought to be a value and doubt and skepticism are considered vices.” [2] In such a way the details of Van Til’s own testimony only serve to undermine any claim to credibility he may have regarding the case for the truth of the Christian worldview.

Defending the Whims of Inheritance

After discussing some of the relevant details of his early life, Van Til then turns to addressing objections against his god-belief. Thus he goes from explaining that he acquired his god-belief as an innocent (i.e., philosophically naïve) child and then turns to responding to criticisms which one might raise against such a belief. Thus he ignores the need to present any adult reasons to think that his religious views are valid and immediately turns his focus to warding off the specter of dissent and negative appraisal which can lead to or be used to justify non-belief. He says to the non-believer,

if, after hearing my story briefly, you still think it is all a matter of heredity and environment, I shall not disagree too violently. My whole point will be that there is perfect harmony between my belief as a child and my belief as a man, simply because God is Himself the environment by which my early life was directed and my later life made intelligible to myself.

Unfortunately, the points which he attempts to make to this end suggest that his approach to apologetics is philosophically uninformed and afflicted with ulterior motives.

For instance, nothing Van Til says suggests that his system of apologetics is prepared to deal consistently with the issue of metaphysical primacy, i.e., the metaphysical relationship between consciousness and its objects, and the implications this relationship has for all of philosophy, an

insuperable issue to rational thought. Like so many other thinkers, Van Til takes this issue completely for granted, having failed to identify the nature of this relationship in explicit terms and not developing his philosophy in any consistent manner with regard to this fundamental concern. Of course, this negligence he inherited from Christianity, which intentionally blurs this relationship at its very foundations. To identify the relationship in objective terms is to obliterate theism as such. So, although it is no surprise that Van Til does not address this matter, it is a fatal problem for his worldview. [3]

Additionally, Van Til gives no good reasons why one should believe the claim that a god exists, let alone the god which he prefers. He says the god he believes in is “the God who created all things, Who by His providence conditioned my youth, making me believe in Him, and who in my later life by His grace still makes me want to believe in Him.” And while it’s clear that Van Til wants to believe that this god exists, as he so clearly admits, he gives no reason why one should accept this view if he does not already accept it. Van Til claims that “without the God of the Bible, the God of authority, the God who is self-contained and therefore incomprehensible to men, there would be no reason in anything.” But while it is clear that this is the position Van Til wants to promote, he provides nothing other than his own testimony, which amounts to the fact that he believes for essentially no better reason than that he was raised with this belief, as support for it. In essence, Van Til provides no rational basis to compel the belief which he says he is defending.

Instead of focusing on presenting positive reasons for why one should believe his religious claims, Van Til directs his attention to undermining reasons offered for not believing. Consequently it appears that Van Til’s apologetic, especially as it is used by his popularizers such as Greg Bahnsen, can justly be considered a species of negative apologetics, an approach to defending religious belief that “does not provide us with reasons for supposing that theistic belief is true.” [4] I am by no means alone in sensing this. So-called “Reformed epistemology,” the theory of knowledge which is associated with the presuppositional apologetic method of Van Til, “has frequently been criticized on the grounds that it favors or is exclusively committed to negative apologetics.” [5] As such, presuppositionalism appears to be nothing more than a device geared toward discrediting non-Christian worldviews than one suited to establishing the supposed truth of Christianity itself. It seems as though this “truth” is simply “presupposed.”

So, on top of the fact that Van Til’s apologetic fails to offer good reasons for believing that Christianity is true, Van Til admits that he wants to believe in the Christian god, that “it is exactly that sort of God that I need,” while also confessing that “there are some ‘difficulties’ with respect to belief in God and His revelation in nature and Scripture that I cannot solve.” Driven perhaps out of acute self-consciousness of the inadequacy of his worldview’s claim to reasonableness, Van Til’s apologetic occupies itself with a more or less offensive strategy in order to discredit particularly non- theistic worldviews. This approach may be affective for non-Christians who are caught off guard by the apologist’s interrogative strategy, which is intended to focus attention on undermining the non- Christian’s criticisms of Christianity and reasons which he may give for not believing, while neglecting any attempt to present good reasons for believing Christianity.

Philosophical Oversights Enlisted to Discredit Non-Belief and Non-Believers

One of the hallmarks of Van Til’s approach to apologetics along this line is the intent to show that non-Christian worldviews are unable to prove certain fundamental and non-negotiable points in terms provided by their own context, and thus must tacitly “borrow” from the Christian worldview to make use of the point in question. But this tactic can readily be seen to be subterfuge and not a concern borne of genuine philosophical understanding. It is an attempt to discredit non-Christian thought by accusing it of some imaginary failing.

For instance, it is claimed that an atheistic worldview cannot “account for” the uniformity of nature, even though one must assume this in order to justify his rejection of the Christian conception of God. Van Til couches this clever accusation in subtle terms when he says “I see the strong men of logic and scientific methodology search deep into the transcendental for a validity that will not be swept

away by the ever-changing tide of the wholly new, only to return and say that they can find no bridge from logic to reality, or from reality to logic.” This is a non-problem typically made into a problem in the presuppositionalist’s hands, and it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of rational proofs. The challenge to “account for” something turns out to be simply another name for the call to provide a “logical proof.” [6] But to construct a proof, we need nature to be uniform, otherwise the proof would have no force; it could not be expected to reliably apply to anything in nature. In other words, the expectation that one should “account for” the uniformity of nature is a call to prove something that is not in the realm of proof. Thus, such a challenge is nothing more than an invitation to beg the question and an attempt to goad the non-Christian into trapping himself. Perhaps a crafty tactic in some people’s minds, such a measure in no way proves that a god exists or that the assumption that nature is uniform is based on faith. Moreover, when it is shown that the assumption that nature is uniform has an axiomatic basis, as Objectivism demonstrates, the apologist’s debating point is shown to be wholly impotent. [7]

But the devious nature of Van Til’s apologetic strategy does not stop there. The supposedly unmet call for proof is augmented with the accusation of unjustified assumption on the part of the non- believer. Paraphrasing Van Til’s points, Bahnsen explains that “unbelievers argue in a way which assumes the very thing they should be proving (that this God does not exist).” [8] As Van Til himself states, “in presenting all your facts and reasons to me, you have assumed that such a God does not exist.” On the basis of this accusation, presuppositional apologists take license to accuse non- believers of begging the question.

There are two points to be made in response to this accusation. First of all, a non-believer has no burden to prove that a god does not exist. The burden of proof lies with those who a) assert the positive (e.g., “God exists!”), and b) want others to take that assertion seriously (e.g., “you must believe!”). If those who do make this claim and expect others to accept it as knowledge fail to meet this burden, non-believers are more than justified in discarding that claim; their non-acceptance of unsupported and prima facie incredible claims needs no further basis. Apologetic protestations to the contrary take the risk of simply raising suspicions.

Secondly, this accusation makes the assumption that argument for the non-believer proceeds from the basis of a negative foundation (i.e., the belief that something is not the case) rather than from one which is informed by positive assumptions (i.e., from the view that something is the case). But this assumption is misguided. The non-believer does not argue from the premise that the Christian God does not exist any more than he does from the premise that Allah, Blarko, or Geusha the supreme being of the Lahu tribesmen of northern Thailand does not exist. By making such an accusation, presuppositionalists show that they simply want to stack the deck in favor of their god- belief while ignoring any and all rival candidates. Clearly this charge is borne out of antagonistic bias and serves to generate more heat than light (i.e., it appears to be intentionally inflammatory).

What non-believers are advised to keep in mind, however, is the presuppositionalists’ complete or nearly complete abandonment of the project of proving that a god exists in preference for tactics which are clearly designed to discredit non-believers and non-believing thought as such. While it is the case that their principal argumentative strategy bears the name “the transcendental argument for the existence of God,” it makes no attempt to establish the existence of a god by inference from previously validated premises which are said to support this conclusion. Rather, God’s existence is simply taken for granted (“presupposed”) and, on top of this wishful assumption, the apologist insists that intelligibility, rationality, and meaningfulness are impossible without God’s existence being assumed or, at the very least, necessarily implied.

What Van Til has created in presuppositional apologetics, then, is a device for those who are already converted to further entrench their commitment to god-belief. Van Til himself anticipates that “I shall not convert you at the end of my argument” even though he has the impression that “the argument is sound.” Van Til’s approach to apologetics, then, is one which “takes apologetics, as a discipline, completely out of the business of trying to convince or to evangelize unbelievers.” [9] Non-Christians who have the “pleasure” of encountering a persistent presuppositionalist may justifiably ask just who is it that the apologist is trying to convince.

Attacking Non-Believers Personally

What appears to be Van Til’s own frustration on this or other matters spills over into his attempt to deal with possible objections against theism, and compels him to resort to personal slurs against non-believers. This is an effect of his tendency to lump all non-believing worldviews together (i.e., to deny their fundamental distinctions) and to view them in the most negative light possible. The dialogue which he envisions with his imaginary conversant throughout his essay – a non-person whom we are obviously expected to assume to be a non-Christian – suggests that Van Til thought not only that atheism as such pigeon-holed thinkers into certain self-defeatingphilosophical quandaries, but also that they were deserving of nothing but contempt. After all, isn’t this what Christians believe the atheist will receive from their god? To be sure Van Til attempts to restrain his personal disdain for those who will not lend themselves to validating his god-belief, but it pokes through regardless.

First there is that signature “Vantilian presumptuousness” which pretends to penetrate deep into the psyche of the non-believer, as if his mind were an open book before the apologist, ready for instant access. At one point Van Til says to his imaginary conversant, “Deep down in your heart you know very well that what I have said about you is true. You know there is no unity in your life. You want no God who by His counsel provides for the unity you need.” However, this is not the result of the apologist’s clairvoyance or evidence of transmissions from an omniscient cosmic source, but an expression of the desire to speak for the non-believer in a manner which facilitates the effort to discredit him. Statements such as these should cause no concern to non-believers, as they are merely a bluff on the apologist’s part; for all the presumptuousness he musters, he cannot possibly support it without resorting to the claim to mystical insight. Unfortunately, though, many presuppositionalists have taken Van Til’s example as a model and have developed similar presumptuous habits. [10]

Additionally, there is a kind of weakly veiled spite which is present in Van Til’s projection of the non- believer’s condition. To the imagined non-believer to whom he addresses his apologetic, he says, “you have made nonsense of your own experience” and that “with the prodigal [son] you are at the swine-trough.” We should not forget that these are statements coming from someone who believes in a talking snake (cf. Genesis 3:1-5), a burning bush which is not consumed and which also speaks to men (cf. Exodus 3:2-4), reanimated corpses (cf. Matthew 27:52-53), and miracle cures for congenital blindness (cf. John 9:1-41).

Elsewhere he accuses the non-believer of certain philosophical commitments to which he may not have made any claim, but which are nonetheless easy to put in disparaging terms. For instance, he writes

You have taken for granted that you need no emplacement of any sort outside of yourself. You have assumed the autonomy of your own experience. Consequently you are unable — that is, unwilling — to accept as a fact any fact that would challenge your self-sufficiency. And you are bound to call that contradictory which does not fit into the reach of your intellectual powers. You remember what old Procrustes did. If his visitors were too long, he cut off a few slices at each end; if they were too short, he used the curtain stretcher on them. It is that sort of thing I feel that you have done with every fact of human experience

Apologists take comments like these, which are not infrequently encountered in the writings of Van Til and his more prominent interpreters, as license to do likewise, and thus mischaracterize the non- believer’s worldview. Indeed, does the apologist expect the non-believer to accept a claim “which does not fit into the reach of [his] intellectual powers” as one that is consistent with the sum of his knowledge of reality? On what basis should he do this? In the end, the effect of such maneuvering is to groom a target for easy ridicule. Were they to take what some relatively more studied non- believing thinkers say more seriously (and perhaps more charitably), presuppositionalists might stand to learn a little more than the caricatures which their teachers willfully promulgated.


So, in short, the reason why Cornelius Van Til believed in God was not because it was rational to do so, for rationality had nothing to do with it. Indeed, he nowhere speaks of such concepts. Instead, he believed essentially because he was told to believe it, because he was literally frightened into believing it, and because he learned to interpret his experience on the illicit assumption that his god- belief was true. The apologetic method which he devised and for which he is famous, principally encourages the believer first to think his god-belief is true for no better reason than that he believes it, and second to set out on the enterprise of discrediting non-believing thought (and often non- believers themselves) in order to make god-belief seem rationally justified in his own mind. It should be no surprise then, that Van Til’s apologetic is so frequently accused of begging the question by unsympathetic believers and non-believers alike, for it mirrors his orientation to his own god-belief: something is claimed to be true because it is assumed to be true fundamentally, and all other concerns are rationalized as its epistemological dependents. Sadly, what apologists affiliated with this tradition offer in the attempt to make these beliefs seem reasonable is, ironically, not argument, but gimmickry. If this is the fiercest that Christian apologists can offer in defense of their religious ideas, non-believers should breathe easy, for they are certainly justified in rejecting them.

Dr. Van Til, you have been answered.


[1] All statements attributed to Cornelius Van Til are taken from this essay. Definitive comments about Van Til’s method of argumentation and its content are based on the presentation which he put forth in this essay.

[2] The Case Against Christianity, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), p. 154. [3] I develop this criticism of presuppositionalism in my essay TAG and the Fallacy of the Stolen

Concept. [4] Michael Sudduth, Reformed Epistemology and Christian Apologetics.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robinson Mitchell, RE: Apologia the vacuum of theism, June 17, 2001.

[7] Leonard Peikoff points out that the term ‘nature’ as employed philosophically by Objectivism “denotes existence viewed from a certain perspective. Nature is existence regarded as a system of interconnected entities acting and interacting in accordance with their identities.” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 31.) Since the concepts ‘existence’ and ‘identity’ are axiomatic in nature, that nature so-defined itself has identity is implicit in sense perception.

[8] Van Til’s Why I Believe in God.

[9] Edmund D. Cohen, The Mind of the Bible-Believer, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p.31n.

[10] Incidentally, this tendency towards extreme presumptuousness is one of the hallmarks of presuppositionalism which had struck me the most when I first encountered apologetics from this line of argument.


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