The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til (Tipton)

Tipton, Lane G. The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til. Libertyville, IL: Reformed Forum, 2022.

Greg Bahnsen explained Van Til’s apologetic method.  John Frame touched on broader theological issues.  Lane Tipton gives us something quite new: a whole book on Van Til’s Trinitarian theology.  He clears up misunderstandings and explains some of Van Til’s rather unique phrases. Tipton’s thesis is that every error concerning God comes from either having God participate in man or man in God (Tipton 16).

Self-Contained Trinity

When Van Til uses words like “self-contained God,” he means that “God does not exist in correlation to the universe, with each side of the relation characterized by mutual change” (17).  This is excellently put.  In other words, he means that God is a se.  One minor theme in the book is that creation does not participate in the substance of the Godhead.  I agree.  I would like to point out, however, that there is an ambiguity here that neither Tipton nor some Thomists seem to be aware of.  What does “participation” actually mean?  No one really defines it. Even when I finished reading through all of Plato, I had only a vague idea of what the word meant.  This means there are two errors to avoid.  One is to define participation in such a thick way that one becomes part of the substance of the Godhead.  The other is to weaken it where 2 Peter 1:4 is all but meaningless.

Whatever participation means, Van Til posits, not a participation of the divine essence, but a finite replication of it to covenant man (19). This leads to another key point of Tipton’s: Rome’s view of the analogia entis entails theistic mutualism.  Theistic mutualism says that God and creation are in a correlative relationship. We will return to that claim later.

Tipton’s chapter on the Triune Creator is a fine presentation of some of God’s attributes.  He even suggests how these attributes, some of them anyway, safeguard our understanding of God and the universe.  Immutability, for example, precludes any form of pantheism (25). On this point Tipton rightly rebuts John Frame.  Frame, by contrast, “advocates for a species of theistic mutualism when he posits two modes of existence in God” (32 n.21; cf John Frame, Doctrine of God, 572).

The heart of this book, maybe surprisingly, is not Van Til on the Trinity, but Van Til on the image of God.  Van Til simply expounds the standard Protestant view that man was created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Adam was already disposed for communion with God.  Rome, by contrast, says something is needed to raise man above his created nature.  This means that man’s position is already defective before the fall.  Scripture, by contrast, says that any conflict in the being of man is a result of sin (44).

The Trinity

This is where problems arise, all of them self-inflicted for Van Til. I note up front that I do not believe Van Til was a heretic on the Trinity.  I know what he was trying to say (see below).  Rather, he simply chose the absolute worst way to express his views on the Trinity.  Tipton says Van Til is misunderstood on this point.  He alludes to Keith Mathison, R. C. Sproul, and John Gerstner. There are two problems with that.  One, those men did not really attack Van Til on the Trinity. They attacked him on apologetics and his reading of Reformed sources.  Two, it is not clear that they actually misunderstood what he was saying.  When someone says the Trinity is both One Person and Three Persons, it is not the critic’s fault that he misunderstands what you are saying.  

So what is Van Til saying?  He begins well.  Tipton notes that the “divine essence has no existence outside of each Trinitarian person” (63). Moreover, the unity in the Trinity is a numeric, not a generic unity.  The persons of the Trinity are not members of a genus called “Godhead.” And in one area where I think Van Til did make a valuable advance in Trinitarian theology, he says that each person “exhausts” the divine essence.  Whatever it means to be God, a divine person is it.  Each person is “interior” to the other persons.

One Person and Three Persons

Following Bavinck, there is “absolute personality” in the Trinity (74; cf Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, 304). This absolute personality entails self-consciousness and self-determination.  This absolute personality “opens itself up organically in a threefold existence.”  God’s being is a “personal unity” (Tipton 76). It works like this:

Absolute personality → threefold, self-differentiated existence (77)

Now we can proceed to Van Til’s infamous claim. When he says “one person” and “three persons,” what he means is “absolute personal being/personality” and “three persons.”  The word person shifts in meaning. At this point he is simply guilty of the fallacy of equivocation, not heresy.  Tipton tries to rescue the phrasing, saying “the terms ‘person’ and ‘personality’ [are used interchangeably] to refer to God in his unity” (83). This does not sit right with me.  If we front load divine unity with personality, then we muddle the distinction between nature and person. To this Van Til would reply that we cannot, ala Gordon Clark, make the divine essence a “mute” essence. I agree.  The older fathers noted that the concept person can already do that.  A person is a mode of subsistence.  As a mode it modifies the divine essence.  It is a mode of existence (tropos hyparxeos). The divine essence is never free-floating in the abstract.

The book ends with a good discussion of perichoresis and autotheos.  We will spend some time on the latter term. Autotheos means the Son’s essence exists of himself and not with reference to the Father (112). The Father communicates the person, not the essence to the Son. In fact, “one subsistent person is not sustained in his essence by another Trinitarian person, since all persons subsist equally as the entire underived essence of God” (117).

Van Til ties all of this together with the idea of “mutual representation.” Tipton explains that “each person represents the whole of the divine essence (in the relations of subsistence) and the other Trinitarian persons (in the relations of coinherence” in the Godhead” (132). In fact, mutual exhaustion correlates with mutual representation (133).

Conclusion

Is Thomas Aquinas a theistic mutualist?  He might be.  Tipton, like Van Til, does not engage in actual analysis with primary sources.  To be sure, he references learned works by Thomists on this topic, but we still do not know what Thomas actually said.  There are problems with Thomas’s account in places, and I agree with Tipton on the donum. I admit that some Thomists do indeed speak of a sharing (or at least, seeing) the essence of God.  If Thomas said something like that, we would need to see where and to see what he means by it.  We see neither. Thomas probably held to the chain of being ontology, but did he mean that there is just one being and God has more of it than we do?  That seems more of a criticism of Scotus. My own reading of Thomas, no doubt largely shaped by men like Norman Geisler and Mortimer Adler, suggests something like the following: God and man have being analogically, not univocally. We can say our concepts of being are univocal, but our judgments of it are analogical.  

Following Norman Geisler, I would say that unless we have something like an analogy of being, we will not be able to escape Parmenides’s challenge. Parmenides said if we think being is univocal, then all being is one.  If we say it is equivocal, then we would differ from other objects and God by not-being, or nothing.  In which case, being is still one.  The solution, then, is that we have our being analogically of God.

That’s not crucial to this review, though. What is crucial is that we are still not sure of what Thomas said.  I can even grant Tipton’s claim for the sake of argument, but we would at least need to see it.

Notwithstanding the above criticism, the book is excellent. Tipton has done what Van Tillians normally do not do: he explains some of Van Til’s unique phrases. I do wish he would tell us what “concrete universal” meant for Van Til.  I do not think anyone should criticize Van Til on the Trinity without at least reading that section in this book.  It may not necessarily convince you, but you will at least have seen what Van Til does and does not mean.

(Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary copy by the publisher. I was under no obligation for a favorable review.  My thoughts are entirely my own.)

Classical Apologetics (RC Sproul)

I want to thank Tim Enloe for providing me with a copy. Please go by his site and check it out. He knows more about education and church history than I ever will.

Sproul, R.C., Gerstner, John., Lindsley, Arthur. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984.

There are several main challenges in responding to presuppositionalism. There is no easy way to begin. Another difficulty is that the book is somewhat out of date. For one, Van Til never formalized the Transcendental Argument (hereafter TAG). Bahnsen and Frame fully developed it a decade or so after this book’s publication. Another difficulty is that key Reformed sources weren’t translated at this time. Even though the classical position is correct and matches what one finds in Turretin, Turretin wasn’t yet translated. The same goes for Junius, Olevianus, etc. Yea, even Muller had not yet published his opus.

On a positive note, if presups would make one or two adjustments, their system isn’t very different from classical systems. This leads to probably the most important point in the book. Historic Reformed Christianity distinguished between the order of knowing and the order of being. From such a view, logic is first in man’s order of knowing. God is first in man’s order of being. Some classical authors have used this correct point to say they have refuted presuppositionalism. I don’t see why presups cannot practically use this. They’ll have to change (or better yet, drop) some of their rhetoric on “autonomous” starting points, but much of the system can be salvaged.

Part 1 is the authors’ case for natural theology. It’s not different from any historic Reformed prolegomena. Key idea: “Natural theology refers to knowledge of God acquired through nature…natural theology is dependent upon divine revelation for its content” (Sproul et al, 25).

Key idea 2: “The pagan’s problem is not that he does not know that God is, but that he does not like the God who is” (39). You might be thinking, “This is exactly what presuppositionalism teaches.” That is true, and if that were all presuppositionalism taught, we would be on board. As Sproul will develop the argument later, presuppositionalism wants to say that the pagan knows God but doesn’t have any knowledge of God. He has false knowledge of God. The problem there is that if he has false knowledge of God, then why would he try to suppress it (49)?

Part 2 is the authors’ case for the theistic arguments. This section is good, but almost all of it has been better stated in recent years. Their view of the ontological argument is important for the doctrine of God, so we will spend some time looking at it.

Most forms of the ontological argument begin with the innocent premise, “A necessary being may exist” (Sproul 100). Moreover, there is no logical contradiction in our being able to think about a necessary being. “If we can think of God at all, we are compelled to think that He is. God is being. It is undeniable that we do think of being…We cannot not think of being” (100).

It feels that Gerstner went too fast on this point, for as it stands he has merely proven pantheism. What he does later is distinguish God’s being from our being, but if we can’t help but think about being, then are we thinking about God’s being or ours? This is why Anselm is safer than Jonathan Edwards, and it is to Anselm that we now turn.

Key idea: God is that which none greater can be conceived. If a perfect being has “necessary existence” as one of its properties, then this perfect being has to exist. On a formal level, it works. Anselm’s disciples, of whom I am one, will have to rebut Kant’s criticism, but the argument itself is fairly stable.

Regarding the section on miracles, I just want to deal with Hume’s critique. When Hume attacks miracles as violating natural law and the instances of conformity, he not only gets rid of miracles, he gets rid of anything unusual (151). As the authors note, “Uniformity itself rests upon repetition, a series or sequence of some or similar events. But the series can never be established because before there can be two such similar events there must be a first one. The first, however, would be unique and therefore incredible.”

The Critique of Presuppositionalism

The heart of the matter is this: is the traditionalist sinning by starting with the self instead of God? Van Til will occasionally admit that we can start with temporal facts (CVT: SCE, 120). If he would have consistently worked this into his system, we wouldn’t have much of a problem.

The next problem is that “Van Til confuses the sinner’s rejecting sound knowledge with not having knowledge” (Sproul et al, 216). If the sinner didn’t have any knowledge, then how could we use the TAG with him? He at least has some reason. Unfortunately, Van Til says there is “no logic or reality” between the two (CVT: Reformed Pastor, 199). Here CVT collapses the various kinds of knowledge into knowledge as loving and obeying God. Sproul and Gerstner deliver their first coup de grace: “We cannot even presuppose God except logically. In other words, even to think of the God who can validate logic, we must first think logically or rationally” (Sproul 220). Even more, “the presuppositionalist cannot even use the word God without assuming the law of noncontradiction” (224).

Here is the pastoral danger in rejecting the distinction between order of knowing and order of being: if we don’t have knowledge unless we presuppose God, then how can the sinner even get to the point where he can accept (or reject) the offer? “Van Til has cut off the bridge to knowledge” (228). This is the heart of the critique. The rest of the book is a variation on it.

I am pastorally willing to grant the presuppositionalist almost everything except this one point. I’ve seen in my life and the lives of others were presuppsitionalist young Turks have become either nihilists or sacerdotalists because they had no consistent knowledge.

In any case, and this isn’t that fatal a point to the system, Van Til doesn’t actually begin with God. He begins with the supposition that we should be able to predicate” (233). By his own standards (by what standard?) he is as autonomous as the traditionalist.

Before we end this review, I want to make a somewhat ironic and amusing point on today’s presuppositionalists regarding miracles and charismatic claims. Rushdoony says “to accept miracles on any other ground is in effect to deny their essential meaning” (Rushdoony, By What Standard, 17). The church, by contrast, has always thought of a miracle as corroborating the Gospel. Think about the standard cessationist criticism of miracles: they were used in the early church to certify the apostles’ message. I personally think that is a bad argument, but it gets the idea of miracle correct. Rushdoony, and by implication, presups in general, reverse the process. We presuppose miracles. A miracle is now an empty concept. In any case, you can’t be a cessationist on miracles and accept the presuppositionalist view on miracles.

Final point: the traditional Reformed view says that the Holy Spirit illuminates the unregenerate’s heart (Jonathan Edwards, A Divine and Supernatural Light). On Van Til’s view there is no knowledge to illuminate (CVT: Jerusalem and Athens, 243).

This book has some value in responding to Van Til. It is of limited use concerning later presuppositionalists (Bahnsen, Frame) and the academic ones of today (James Anderson).

Addendum:

This is an introductory response to Bahnsen’s review of Sproul’s Classical Apologetics. I plan a more detailed one later. I left my copy in another town. There are many weaknesses in CVT’s approach, but I have to have my copy in front of me in order to do a full analysis. Lord willing, I should do that in a few weeks.

Response to Bahnsen’s Review

(The original review is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SS4qpV8uFlIoWxWrrOo3dGL9vhW14Roj/view)

Bahnsen: He criticizes their attack on secularism because, given their def. Of secularism as limiting reality to the temporal order, the secularist won’t agree with any proof they offer (p. 2).

That’s an odd criticism to make. Presumably, the authors, like every other apologist, Bahnsen included, will attempt to show that the secularist is wrong on that point.

Bahnsen: they cannot legitimately appeal to “natural theology” since on their terms natural revelation assumes special revelation, which assumes the existence of God (2).

The second part of that claim is true, though I don’t see why it is necessarily a problem. Sproul et al admit bias. I think Bahnsen’s target here is probably JW Montgomery.

Bahnsen: their use of Scripture (Ps. 19) doesn’t prove their case, for if natural theology is man’s reflection on natural revelation, then Scripture isn’t doing that.

This isn’t entirely true. Part of the problem is the tendency among presupps to reduce natural theology to nature itself. If that is what natural theology is, then we don’t see the psalmists doing that. On the other hand, natural theology as used by Sproul and the historic Christian tradition includes legitimate inferences from logical foundations, even at times drawing upon non-Christian wisdom. The most notorious point is Paul’s quoting a pantheist philosopher. Evidently, that philosopher had at least one legitimate reflection.

Bahnsen on noetic effects: He takes issue with apologetics as pre-evangelism, as the sinner won’t even agree to an assensus of faith to the propositions without the Holy Spirit (3).

This is simply false. Anyone who has done evangelism has been in situations where an unbeliever will say, “Yeah, that makes sense or I can agree with that but I don’t want to change my life.” Moreover, it is not true in Scripture that one needs the Holy Spirit for intellectual assent. Demons, for example, give intellectual assent to the most important proposition one can make about God.

Bahnsen: he attacks their use of causality (i.e., every effect has a cause) and points to Hume.

Aside from implying Hume’s criticism of causality, Bahnsen gives no reason to believe Sproul is wrong.

Bahnsen on cosmological argument: I’ll grant Bahnsen a point here. I don’t like how Sproul phrased it: if something exists now, then something exists necessarily. There are much better presentations of the cosmological argument and I never liked how Sproul phrased this one. Bahnsen attacks the claim that this cause has the power of being in itself as incoherent. That’s just standard Christian theism. Beings have energia. That’s almost true by definition.

Bahnsen: the authors give us no reason to believe that the world can’t be an infinite regress.

Response: yes they do. The explanation for a cause must be outside that cause itself. If this is true, and Bahnsen has given us no argument on why it isn’t, then the cause will be outside the temporal order.

That’s more or less Bahnsen’s review. He devotes the last page to rescuing Van Til from the charge of fideism. Even if that attempt is successful, it ignores all the real criticisms of Van Til. Consider: does the sinner have false knowledge of God? If he does, then why is he suppressing it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that he has knowledge of God and that is why he is suppressing it?

Response to Bahnsen’s Review of Sproul

This is an introductory response to Bahnsen’s review of Sproul’s Classical Apologetics.  I plan a more detailed one later.  I left my copy in another town.  There are many weaknesses in CVT’s approach, but I have to have my copy in front of me in order to do a full analysis. Lord willing, I should do that in a few weeks.

Response to Bahnsen’s Review

(The original review is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SS4qpV8uFlIoWxWrrOo3dGL9vhW14Roj/view)

Bahnsen: He criticizes their attack on secularism because, given their def. Of secularism as limiting reality to the temporal order, the secularist won’t agree with any proof they offer (p. 2).  

That’s an odd criticism to make.  Presumably, the authors, like every other apologist, Bahnsen included, will attempt to show that the secularist is wrong on that point.

Bahnsen: they cannot legitimately appeal to “natural theology” since on their terms natural revelation assumes special revelation, which assumes the existence of God (2).   

The second part of that claim is true, though I don’t see why it is necessarily a problem.  Sproul et al admit bias.  I think Bahnsen’s target here is probably JW Montgomery.

Bahnsen: their use of Scripture (Ps. 19) doesn’t prove their case, for if natural theology is man’s reflection on natural revelation, then Scripture isn’t doing that.

This isn’t entirely true.  Part of the problem is the tendency among presupps to reduce natural theology to nature itself. If that is what natural theology is, then we don’t see the psalmists doing that.  On the other hand, natural theology as used by Sproul and the historic Christian tradition includes legitimate inferences from logical foundations, even at times drawing upon non-Christian wisdom.  The most notorious point is Paul’s quoting a pantheist philosopher.  Evidently, that philosopher had at least one legitimate reflection.

Bahnsen on noetic effects: He takes issue with apologetics as pre-evangelism, as the sinner won’t even agree to an assensus of faith to the propositions without the Holy Spirit (3).  

This is simply false. Anyone who has done evangelism has been in situations where an unbeliever will say, “Yeah, that makes sense or I can agree with that but I don’t want to change my life.”  Moreover, it is not true in Scripture that one needs the Holy Spirit for intellectual assent.  Demons, for example, given intellectual assent to the most important proposition one can make about God.

Bahnsen: he attacks their use of causality (i.e., every effect has a cause) and points to Hume.  

Aside from implying Hume’s criticism of causality, Bahnsen gives no reason to believe Sproul is wrong.

Bahnsen on cosmological argument:  I’ll grant Bahnsen a point here.  I don’t like how Sproul phrased it:  if something exists now, then something exists necessarily.  There are much better presentations of the cosmological argument and I never liked how Sproul phrased this one.  Bahnsen attacks the claim that this cause has the power of being in itself as incoherent.  That’s just standard Christian theism.  Beings have energia.  That’s almost true by definition.

Bahnsen: the authors give us no reason to believe that the world can’t be an infinite regress.

Response: yes they do. The explanation for a cause must be outside that cause itself.  If this is true, and Bahnsen has given us no argument on why it isn’t, then the cause will be outside the temporal order.

That’s more or less Bahnsen’s review.  He devotes the last page to rescuing Van Til from the charge of fideism.  Even if that attempt is successful, it ignores all the real criticisms of Van Til.  Consider: does the sinner have false knowledge of God?  If he does, then why is he suppressing it?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that he has knowledge of God and that is why he is suppressing it?

Intro notes to Bahnsen

One of my goals this summer was to do an analytical outline to Bahnsen’s Van Til reader.  That demands more energy than time left in the summer.  But I didn’t want the project to hang suspended between heaven and earth, so here you go.  Maybe this will help some seminarian or licensiate.

Van Til’s Metaphysics (58)

  1. Ontological, self-contained Trinity
  2. Predestinating eternal counsel
  3. Creation is the origin of all temporal facts
  4. Providence
  5. Miracles

Covenantal Knowing

The unbeliever knows God in unbelief and covenantal curse (42).  The covenant shapes everything.  In all things, all created facts, man is brought face-to-face with God.  There are only two types of men in the world: covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers (Bahnsen 66, CVT: Apologetics, 25ff).

Chapter 2: The Task of Apologetics

  1. Apologetics defends Christianity as a whole (Bahnsen 34).
    1. “To interpret a fact of history involves a philosophy of history,” but that involves a metaphysics (CVT: Apologetics, 23-24).
    2. Systematic Theology is necessary:  organizes our thoughts into an organic whole.  (JA: One could really develop some Vosian themes).
  2. We can’t make absolute separations between apologetics, evangelism, and theology.  Paul refuses to do so in Acts 17.
  3. The Aim of Apologetics:
    1. The Gospel as intellectual challenge.  1 Corinthians asserts the bankruptcy of Greek thought.

Chapter 3: A Simple Summary and Illustration

  1. Apologetics as a conflict between final authorities.
    1. Our reasoning is itself an ethical matter (Bahnsen 90).
    2. We all use some ultimate standard.  
      1. Not only do we say that reason isn’t neutral.  Appealing to reason is simply appealing to an abstraction.
      2. Who authorizes God’s authority (95)?  
  2. Implicit clash of worldviews (101).
  3. Refutation of the unbeliever’s presuppositions. We must remove the foundation of the unbeliever’s argument (108).

Chapter 4: The Epistemological Side of Apologetics

  1. Apologetics as epistemological disagreement.  We cannot appeal to “reason” since reason in the abstract doesn’t exist.  
    1. Epistemology is ethical in character: either we know as covenant-keepers or we know as covenant-breakers.
    2. Different theories of truth:
      1. Correspondence: usually emphasizes that the world is made of separate and discontinuous things. Thinking occurs in the mind (147). The problem is explaining how independent minds “correspond” with independently existing objects outside the mind.
      2. Coherence: usually emphasizes world as unity (of more or lesser degree).  Thinking as itself is the mind. The problem, however, is how a finite mind can have a wide enough system to include all (or a lot) of reality.
      3. The problem isn’t simply coherentism vs. correspondence.  You will find both covenant-breakers and covenant-keepers on both sides
      4. Van Til passage from Survey:
        1. Contra the Greeks, the idea of creation implies a certain concept of “being” and a certain concept of “becoming.”
        2. Eve in the garden: by not being committed to God intellectually from the outset, she granted Satan “equal ultimacy” (CVT 152).  To borrow the language of Heidegger, Even was already “thrown” (Geworfenheit) into a realm where God was ultimate.  It was sin to think otherwise.
      5. Van Til passage from Defense (154).
        1. We always deal with concrete individual men.  They are sinners.  They have an axe to grind.
        2. The work of Christ:  Christ’s work as priest, king, and prophet organically relates (157).
  2. Knowing as having belief, truth, and evidence.

Bahnsen on Shepherd on Justification

This is from his tape set on Calvin’s Institutes.  I think it is tape GB449b.

“I think [this] is rather convoluted. Let me very briefly point out, some people will say James can’t mean the word justify in a forensic sense, because then he would contradict Paul. Paul says we are justified by faith, not works. James says we are justified by works. So if they both mean ‘justify’ in the forensic sense, there is a contradiction. Well, I don’t think so, because in Galatians 5:6 Paul teaches exactly what James does. Paul says we are justified by faith working by love. We are justified by working, active, living faith. I think that’s what James is teaching. They mean exactly the same thing. But nevertheless some people have insisted-and this has been a bone of controversy in my denomination even, because a professor at Westminster Seminary insisted James means this in the forensic sense. Now. people who don’t like that say, It is to be taken in the demonstrative sense.

The problem is, the demonstrative sense of the word justify means “to show someone to be righteous,” and that doesn’t relieve the contradiction between James and Paul, because Paul in Romans 4 looks at Abraham as an example of how God justifies the ungodly. James is saying, Look at how God justifies someone demonstrated as godly. The contradiction is not relieved. And so what you really get–and this is crucial, this is a crucial point–modern interpreters who don’t like what I am suggesting and what Professor Shepherd is suggesting end up saying that to justify in James 2 really means “to demonstrate justification,” not to “demonstrate righteousness.” That is, they make the word to justify mean “to justify the fact that I’m justified.” And the word never means that. That’s utterly contrived. It means either “to declare righteous” or “to demonstrate righteous.” It does not mean “to justify that one’s justified.” Am I making myself clear? I’m suggesting that the reason Paul and James are not contrary to one another is because the only kind of faith that will justify us is working faith, and the only kind of justification ever presented in the Bible after the Fall is a justification by working faith, a faith that receives its merit from God and proceeds to work as a regenerated, new person.

I think, as David Bahnsen makes clear, Greg was a defender of Norman Shepherd.  The Morecraft-types simply can’t get around that.   From Greg’s other writings and debate with Catholics, he held to the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, something Shepherd was more reluctant to do.

Internalism/Externalism notes

Some notes on internalism and externalism

I made a bad mistake and tried to discuss philosophy with some Christian Reconstructionists.  I couldn’t get them to move beyond sloganeering and cliches.   While this post will do nothing to help them, for those who want to grow and mature it should prove helpful.

Internalism in epistemology sees warrant as justification.

    • justification is necessary for warrant.
      • satisfaction of epistemic duty.
      • Descartes: epistemic deontologism.
  • formation of belief; hence, internal
  • involves a view of cognitive accessibility (36).
  • Proper Function
    My belief-forming apparatus must be free from cognitive malfunction (Plantinga 4).  They must be in their proper environment (hence, externalism?) .  However, functioning properly is not the same thing as functioning normally.  
    1. The environment in which my cognitive faculties are functioning must be similar to that for which they have been designed (11).
  1. The Design plan
    1. When our organs function properly, they function in a particular way (13).  Our faculties are highly responsive to circumstances.

Warrant: Objections and Refinements

  • Gettier:  knowledge cannot be just justified, true belief.  A fourth condition is necessary.  Internalist accounts of warrant are fundamentally wanting, thus the continuing epicycles added to the Gettier problem (32).
    • an externalist account of warrant would also take in the “epistemic credentials the proposition you believe has from the person whom you acquired it” (34).
    • credulity is valid when it operates under certain conditions:
  • Gettier’s problems show that even if internalism meets all of its conditions for knowledge, it can still fail to give knowledge.  If my internal cognitive faculties are working, and they arrive at a belief, there are still a number of counters- (ala Gettier) that show it can’t reach knowledge (36-37).  As Plantinga notes, “Justification is insufficient for warrant” (36).

Knowledge of the Design Plan

  • Knowledge of myself:  Any well formed human being who is in an epistemically congenial environment and whose intellectual faculties are in good working order will typically take for granted at least three things:  that she has existed for some time, that she has had many thoughts and feelings, and that she is not a thought or feeling(Plantinga 50).
  • This can malfunction, however.   The cognitive design plan also includes, especially as it relates to testimony, the cognitive situation of the testifiee (83).  If they are deluded et al, yet are telling me the truth, do I have warrant?  Maybe, maybe not.  Plantinga calls these semi-Gettier cases, since Gettier was only trying to show that justification is insufficient for knowledge.
    • Further, in the case of testimony, a testimony, particularly one in which knowledge of X is passed down, the last member of the testimony chain will only have warrant if the previous members do (84).
    • Therefore, if there is a cognitive malfunction early on in the chain, then the following links in the chain will be suspect.

Is TAG a Variety of Internalism

TAG is the transcendental argument for the existence of God.  It asks (among other things) “What are the preconditions of intelligibility?” In other words, in order for you to have knowledge, what must be true?  Here we need to clarify that last clause.  Is the presuppositionalist asking, “In order for you to have knowledge, what must you account for to be true”?  This would make the argument thus:  how can your worldview account for logic, science, and morality?

Knowledge as Justified, True Belief.

Without using all the religious-ese in the statement, it is another way of stating knowledge as “justified, true belief.”  This means that knowledge is I believe something to be true and am justified in that belief.  In other words, I have to give internalist (intellectualist) accounts for knowledge.  Greg Bahnsen clearly holds to this position.  He writes, “To put it traditionally, knowledge is justified, true belief” (Bahnsen 178).  He glosses justification as “sounds reasons (good evidence” for a belief.  At this point Bahnsen is in line with the traditional models of epistemology.

It seems, moreover, that the TAG-ist is asking the skeptic (or whomever; TAG works better on skeptics than it does on adherents of other theistic systems) to account for justifications (or preconditions) within his own worldview. Bahnsen writes, “The Christian claim…is justified because the knowledge of God is the context and prerequesite for knowing anything else whatsoever.  Furthermore, the unbeliever is asked to account for any “theoretical sense” of “any kind on the subject” (262).   It is here I suggest that Van Tillian presuppositionalism–at least in the extreme TAG variety–is a form of internalism.

Justification seeks the satisfaction of epistemic duty.  Applied to the Van Tillian case, the person must fulfill an epistemic duty in order to have true knowledge; namely, the duty is to “establish the preconditions of intelligibility.”  Further, since it involves the formation of a belief, it is internal (hence, internalism).  Internalism also involves a view of cognitive accessibility (Plantinga 36), but this isn’t relevant to the above discussion.

The Gettier Problem

Edmund Gettier suggested a number of scenarios that show where someone can know something yet not really have justification.  A fourth criterion is needed.  For example, I look at a field in the early morning fog and see what I think is a sheep.  As it happens, it wasn’t a sheep but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Unbeknownst to me, there was indeed a sheep in the field behind the wolf.  Technically, I was correct.  I saw something in the field that I thought was a sheep.  It was true belief and I was justified in holding it, yet it wasn’t knowledge (Plantinga 32).  While this may not be the most powerful Gettier problem, the reader can consult here for more examples.

Externalism, by contrast, notes that many people have knowledge of situations s…z without being able to give ultimate justifications for their knowledge.  They would say, rather, with Thomas Reid and Alvin Plantinga, “ Any well formed human being who is in an epistemically congenial environment and whose intellectual faculties are in good working order will typically take for granted at least three things:  that she has existed for some time, that she has had many thoughts and feelings, and that she is not a thought or feeling” (Plantinga 50).

Conclusion

This paper does not try to show whether TAG is in fact false (I think it is).  Rather, that it rests upon improper foundations.  Furthermore, the challenge given by hard presuppositonalists (e.g., can you account for the preconditions of intelligibility? OR such-and-such thinker is in error because he did not challenge the unbeliever’s foundation) is itself a non-starter.  This paper, in conclusion, merely stated the view of externalism and did not seek to prove it to be true or false, as it is not used by TAG presuppositionalists.

Works Cited

Bahnsen, Greg. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis

Plantinga, Alvin.  Warrant and Proper Function.