Interacting with Ligonier’s “Christianity and Van Tillianism” (Part 7)

Dr. Mathison’s next concern begins here:


We have already observed the noncontroversial fact that Van Til uses terms and concepts borrowed from idealist philosophy. As we have seen, this is one of Van Til’s practices that render his writing quite ambiguous at times. However, the more significant question is whether Van Til allowed Kantian and idealist philosophy to influence his thought at a deeper level. Did elements of Kantian and idealist thought seep into his thinking? Some of the earliest critiques of Van Til, including those by J. Oliver Buswell, Cecil De Boer, and Jesse De Boer, argued that Van Til’s epistemology borrows from idealism.180 The criticism has been repeated up to the present day.181 Significantly, the claim is found not only among critics of Van Til. At least one contemporary Van Tillian explicitly argues for a strong idealist influence on Van Til’s thought.182

Van Til wrote critically of both Kantianism and idealism and published an entire book dedicated to responding to those critics who had accused him of promoting idealist philosophy.183 He consistently critiques idealism as a false system of thought. The only charitable way of reading what Van Til has written in these explicit statements is to conclude that Van Til had no intention of being either a systematic Kantian or idealist. On the other hand, a charitable reading of his critics and the Van Tillians who agree with them on this point would lead us to conclude that there is something in Van Til’s thought that has at least the appearance of idealism. We are forced, therefore, to consider whether there are things in Van Til’s writing that would lead critics to conclude that Van Til had been influenced by idealist or Kantian thought.

As we have already noted, Van Til regularly uses idealist terminology. What are some of the terms and concepts that Van Til uses that can be traced back to idealist sources? As Timothy McConnel observes, the most obvious Kantian influence is found in Van Til’s adaptation of the transcendental argument.184 He explains, “Kant had sought in the first critique to find what conditions must be presupposed in order for us to have experience and knowledge of that experience.”185 To a certain extent, Van Til borrows the transcendental type of argument from Kant and adapts it to Christian ends. According to Van Til, “A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.”186 Is Van Til’s use of the transcendental argument sufficient by itself to prove systematic Kantian influence on the content of Van Til’s thought? No, but there are more things for us to consider beyond his use of the transcendental argument.

Van Til also borrowed the idea of the limiting concept (Grenzbegriff), a term used by Kant. In Kant’s philosophy, this term is related to the limits of human knowledge. Human beings can have knowledge of the phenomenal alone, not the noumenal.187 Van Til confusingly refers to the limiting concept as a “Christian notion,” as if it has a long history of use in the church.188 He uses the term frequently, but since he doesn’t use the term in a precisely Kantian sense, this seems to be more an example of his attempt to use the language of his philosophical contemporaries than an example of Kantian thought. Of course, because he is not using it in a Kantian sense, neither his Christian readers nor his philosophical contemporaries are able to understand him easily.

Van Til’s identification of God as “our concrete universal” is another example of his use of idealist concepts, and a more problematic one.189 In Hegel’s philosophy, the concrete universal is “the universal that ‘contains’ or comprises its particular instances.”190 This concept is a key element in Hegel’s thought used by him to explain universals and particulars.191 Van Til borrows the concept, claiming that only God explains the relation of universals to particulars. Although Van Til’s definition of God as “our concrete universal” by itself does not prove that he is a Hegelian, it raises questions. If Van Til uses the concept in the same sense as Hegel and applies it to God, it appears impossible to avoid some form of pantheism or panentheism. On the other hand, if he is not using it in the same sense as Hegel, why use it at all? Critics of Van Til have pointed out more idealist terms and concepts borrowed by Van Til (e.g., God as the Absolute). It is not necessary to examine each in detail. These examples should be sufficient to understand why readers of Van Til have often wondered about idealist influences.

Although the mere use of terms does not prove that Van Til has adopted significant elements of the systems of Kantianism or idealism, there is an important aspect of his thought that, if interpreted in one way, does require more careful consideration. When Van Til speaks in a more unqualified manner about the knowledge of unbelievers in terms of the antithesis, significant similarities with Kantian and post-Kantian thought become more evident. According to Van Til’s stronger unqualified statements, the unbeliever never has true knowledge of the external world as it really is. His “colored glasses” shape the form and content of his knowledge. In other words, Van Til’s doctrine of the antithesis at times causes him to speak of the knowledge of unbelievers in a way that is very similar to Kantian and post-Kantian thought.192 Because Van Til sometimes qualifies these statements and grants that unbelievers have true knowledge of the external world, these similarities with post-Kantian thought are not sufficient to demonstrate that Van Til has adopted the systems of either Kantianism or idealism. They do indicate, however, that the stronger unqualified version of the doctrine of the antithesis is philosophically problematic.

The doctrine of the antithesis forces us to look at one additional issue, and that is the question of indirect Kantian and idealist influences. Van Til repeatedly notes the influence of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd on his thinking.193 The influence of Kuyper is most evident in Van Til’s teaching on the antithesis, and the influence of Dooyeweerd is most evident in Van Til’s structuring of the history of philosophy and in his use of a transcendental argument.194 However, what is significant is that both Kuyper and Dooyeweerd are known to be heavily influenced by Kant and by idealism. James Bratt, for example, notes that Kuyper combined “Reformed Christian and German Idealist sources.”195 Bratt observes “how deep and permanent was the impact of German Idealism on his thinking.”196 Dooyeweerd’s thought as well was heavily influenced by Kantianism.197 If there are traces of Kantianism and idealism in Van Til’s thought, and if they are related to the doctrine of the antithesis, they may to some extent have been mediated through Kuyper and Dooyeweerd.

In conclusion, although Van Til himself did not adopt either Kantianism or idealism as a full-fledged system of thought, it is difficult to deny some idealist influence on his thought. In fact, some of what Van Til says could be interpreted as indicating a strong idealist influence. If this is the case, it would not be surprising. Van Til was so immersed in this philosophical context from his college years onward that, at the very least, he seems to have allowed post-Enlightenment philosophy to dictate his apologetic agenda. The result of allowing the idealism of his educated contemporaries to dictate his agenda (and much of his philosophical language) has been extensive confusion and disagreement on the part of his readers. The result of allowing any “cultured despisers” to dictate a theological agenda has the potential, however, to be much worse.198

Mathison, Keith. “Christianity and Van Tillianism.” Tabletalk, August 29, 2019.

As I did in another blog post in this series, I quoted Dr. James Anderson who is well worth hearing. He just responded to a similar concern from Dr. Fesko’s recent book, “Reforming Apologetics”.

1. The first charge against Van Til is that he unfairly accuses others of “synthesis thinking” when he is guilty of the same thing. Aquinas co-opts Aristotelian philosophy in order to engage with the unbelievers of his day; Van Til co-opts idealist philosophy for the same end. Both apologists are, in effect, drawing out common grace insights from unbelieving philosophies.

There’s some truth to Dr. Fesko’s observations here. On one level Aquinas and Van Til are engaged in the same kind of project, and some Van Tilians have overstated the extent to which Aquinas is guilty of “synthesis thinking” while insisting that Van Til is “synthesis free”. Even so, there are some crucial differences here. Aquinas doesn’t merely adopt a method from Aristotle; he adopts substantive metaphysical categories and assumptions. In other words, he incorporates both method and content into his own Christian theology and apologetics. What’s more, as I argued in a previous installment, some of these imported goods are inimical to a consistent Christian worldview. That’s Van Til’s concern with Thomism — not simply that insights are being drawn from non-Christian philosophies.

In contrast, while Van Til certainly co-opts Kant’s transcendental method (i.e., seeking to expose the preconditions of human knowledge), as well as some Kantian terminology, it’s far from clear that he incorporates any Kantian content into his own theology and philosophy. Van Til’s metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are radically different from Kant’s. Van Til is posing many of the same questions as Kant, but his answers are antithetical to Kant’s. The similarity between the two thinkers is formal rather than material.

At any rate, I’m not persuaded that Dr. Fesko has shown Van Til to be guilty of the specific kind of “synthesis thinking” that he attributes to Aquinas. The charge of double-standards hasn’t been sustained.

Anderson, James. “Reforming Apologetics (Transcendental Arguments)” January, 2020.

Dr. Mathison, this sword cuts both ways. If I were to critique Evidential Apologetics, couldn’t I have a section titled, “A Monstrous Synthesis of Unbelief and Christ?” Since Evidential Apologetics begins by reasoning outside of God and Scripture (although, we Presuppositional Apologists insist you are standing on God and His word!), aren’t you synthesizing unbelief? It would be fair to contend you are indeed doing just that.

The previous post in this series can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Interacting with Ligonier’s “Christianity and Van Tillianism” (Part 7)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s