Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics

Article by   September 2007

A.N. Whitehead famously remarked that 'The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato'. This volume of 'New Essays' (some, in fact, are not new) is avowedly footnotes to Cornelius Van Til. I suspect that some of the contributors believe that all that remains as far as 'Reformed Apologetics' is concerned is the writing of footnotes .

The essays have not simply been thrown together (a reviewer's nightmare) but have an admirable structure: Exegetical Foundations: (essays by Richard Gaffin, Lane Tipton [twice], Scott Oliphint, and Moises Silva). This is followed by Theological Foundations (essays by John Frame, Michael Horton, Thom Notaro, Jeffrey Jue and William Dennison). Finally, Methodological Implications, (essays by Scott Oliphint, Michael Payne, William Edgar and Don Collett). There is an Appendix by Scott Oliphint.

As there are different kinds of footnotes, so in this collection there are different kinds of essays footnoting the master. Part of the fascination of the book lies in categorising these. Some seem to share the self-effacing triumphalism of CVT himself, while others are more interrogative and unsure. Some are attempts at elucidation and reconstruction. Others operate at some distance from the particularities of CVT's apologetics. Still others, a few others, such as that by Jeffrey Jue on CVT's attitude to Reformed Scholasticism, are mildly critical.

Jue's essay is not a total success, for he claims that CVT mistakenly held that Reformed Scholastic theologians maintained the viability of natural theology. The references to Turretin provided on 180-1 are given inaccurately and Jue omits from his quotation from Muller the definition (172) of theologia naturalis as 'the knowledge of God that is available to reason through the light of nature'. These lapses apart, despite what the author claims, Turretin certainly advocates the use of such natural theology against atheism (Inst. III.1), rather in the spirit of what nowadays is called 'negative apologetics'. 'Can the existence of God be irrefutably demonstrated against the atheist? We affirm'. On this point, CVT is surely correct. As Muller has shown, the Reformed tradition has had a variety of views regarding the issue of natural theology, and it still does.

There is much excellent material collected here to interest the aficionado of CVT's apologetics, and others besides. But reading through it I began to wonder whether a volume like this best helps the cause that it sets out to serve. The health of 'presuppositional apologetics' and of Christian thought more generally would, I imagine, be better served by essays which attempt a little more probing. That by Don Collett, republished here with some changes, is admirable for the way that it addresses the question of what a presupposition is and how it relates to the idea of a transcendental argument. But it stands almost alone.

Here are some areas where probing might be rewarded. It is obvious that CVT was deeply influenced by the idealism of the early part of the twentieth century. How deep does that influence go? Is his thought welded to it, so that it becomes impossible to state, and impossible to understand, without a good dose of Josiah Royce? Or is the influence merely at the linguistic level, so that his thought can be detached from the lingo of analytic philosophy

In this connection there is surely much more work to be done by the disciples of CVT (and others, of course) to relate his thought to the 'Reformed' epistemology of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and others. The one brief attempt to do this cannot be regarded as a success, because it fails to make clear that Plantinga's later work, his work on warrant, is not a species of foundationalism.

As another example of where more probing would be welcome, take a sentence like 'Logic, like all else save God himself, is created'' (285, emphasis in the original.) This claim is reckoned to be a part of presuppositional apologetics. It is stated without the proverbial batting of an eyelid, as if its meaning and its implications are at once clear to us, and its truth obvious once it has been stated.

But what on earth could it mean? Does it mean, for example, that God himself is before logic, or beyond logic? That God himself is inaccessible by means of the logic that he has created? That logic is merely for us, the creatures, and so is a mode of divine accommodation? Are CVT and 'presuppositional apologetics' more generally, in alliance at this point with Descartes who wrote that God did not 'will the three angles of a triangle to be equal to two right angles because he knew that they could not be otherwise. On the contrary.... It is because he willed the three angles of a triangle to be necessarily equal to two right angles that this is true and cannot be otherwise; and so in other cases'. (Reply to Objections to Meditation VI)

Could God not have created the logic that we use? Could he have created some other logic, according to which, say, a part could be greater than a whole, and three less than one? What would that do for the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity? What would it do to modal claims about God that seem to be integral to Reformed theology, such as God is necessarily good, or God is necessarily triune or (one of CVT's favourites, as John Frame points out), God is (necessarily)self-contained? Is God only necessarily self-contained in terms of the logic he has created for us, and not otherwise? Maybe in truth he is beyond that logic, and so is neither self-contained nor not-self-contained. Or both.

God's relation to the 'eternal truths' is, to be sure, a difficult and fascinating area. Yet one sometimes gains the impression from the disciples of CVT that he was, somehow, exempt from, or insulated from, the rich tradition of debate of such questions in Christian culture, to look no further. And even if the idea of God's creation of logic could be satisfactorily clarified, what of the further claim that seems to be implied, that such extreme voluntarism, as an essential part of 'Reformed Apologetics', is also an essential part of the Reformed faith? Or is this an inference only of our all-too-human logic?

Edited by K Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton / P&R: Phillipsburg, 2007                         Review by Paul Helm, Professor Emeritus of the University of London


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