Van Til's Limiting Concept

"A 'limiting concept' for Van Til is one that needs another if it is to be properly understood. It implies a complementarity. For example, one part of the Bible will not be properly understood without the other parts." - Ref21

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

A challenging read. 

Part of the difficulty of studying philosophy is that philosophers make extremely fine distinctions between concepts, usually in a foreign language we interact with via translation. 

The more I learn about Van Til, the more intrigued I am by him. Kant... not so much.

GregH's picture

I don't know Van Til and want to read him soon.

I do have an appreciation for Kant because I actually see him as creating a framework that allowed Christianity to coexist during the Scientific Revolution. It is a framework that I used myself long before I knew of Kant. And, it is easy to see how Kant influenced Van Til. Even his distaste for the dialectic is a Kant thing. Kant defined the term as debate about things that could not be known and therefore sort of worthless. Van Til is sort of saying the same.

What I see Kant doing was drawing a line between what could be known and what cannot be known. While philosophers before him more took the position that if something could not be known, it should not believed (Descartes being the obvious example), Kant not only acknowledged that things could not be known but "gave permission" to people to believe them anyway. In fact, he went a step further and stated that it was good for society to believe in things that could not be known because it was in that realm that foundationalism rested, including objective moral behavior. In other words, while Kant was not a Christian, he most definitely believed in God.

So why was this significant? I think it probably gave Christians a tool to hold their faith when faced with new science that contradicted what they had been taught. I can imagine this was a very very big deal during Kant's time. Even today, I think many Christians use that framework including myself. In other words, we can wall off some beliefs and say that regardless of what science may say now or in the future, those beliefs have to be based on faith.

I am to this day not sure how valid it is to have this separation between faith and reason. I am not sure how logical it is. Many would say it is very illogical. But Kant believed that it was logical and that is saying something since he is a top three philosopher of the modern age.

It would be interesting to have a discussion on whether the framework is valid for Christians or not. I don't think that would be what Kant/Van Til would consider a time-wasting dialectic...

Larry's picture

Moderator

I don't know Van Til and want to read him soon.

I heard someone say long ago that Greg Bahnsen is the one who made Van Til intelligible. So before you read Van Til, read Bahnsen, particularly Always Ready.

josh p's picture

Larry is right. Trueman said when he asked Oliphant what Van Til he should read he responded “Bahnsen.” There is a great Van Til class on apologetics on iTunes U if you have an apple device. I was amazed at how clear it was and how actually engaging and funny he was as a speaker. I’ve only read one Van Til book but I get the impression he may have been a better oral communicator than writer.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I am to this day not sure how valid it is to have this separation between faith and reason. I am not sure how logical it is.

I'm pretty committed to rejecting this separation, though I feel I have a ways to go to fully work it out in my own thinking. 

The reason I want to reject it is that it seems to make faith irrational and to create the kind of upper story vs. lower story discontinuity Francis Schaeffer lamented.

Schaeffer's take resonates with me because that kind of dualism seems to destroy the prospect of any kind of coherent system of truth.... which ends up with no useful view of truth at all.

So I should read Bahnsen on Van Til I guess... soonish. 

GregH's picture

In theory, there should be no separation. But here is the problem as I see it: if we try too hard to eliminate the separation, we end up with the Kent Hovinds of the word. In other words, we end up accepting bad and sometimes fraudulent thinking, trying to twist history, science, etc to match our faith.

The question I have to ask myself is whether trying to make faith rational does more harm than good. The creation debate is a good example. If one accepts far-out science from Christians trying to prove YEC because he thinks that faith has to be completely rational, what happens when that science is proven to be nonsense? 

 

AndyE's picture

So, Greg, my solution is that Christians need to stop using science to try to prove supernatural events.  And, we shouldn't be surprised if science yields results incongruous to faith if we do. 

For something to be rational, coherent, and logical, it must conform to God's thinking  and his wisdom.  Faith is rational because (and if)  it aligns with God and his revealed truth.  

Paul Henebury's picture

Greg,

Look, I agree we don't need any more Kent Hovind's, but what you dub "far-out science" trying to prove YEC is, I would guess, because your faith is divided between what the Bible says and what mainstream scientists say.  "Science" is what it is, and we must attain to it.  It is rational because God is rational.  Faith is the height of rationality because it believes God!

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

there is quite a lot of ignorance about Van Til revealed on this thread.  That is not a sin, but if a person hasn't read Van Til it is best not to put words in his mouth.  E.g., Van Til used the jargon of the idealists that he was taught at Princeton, which included "limiting concept" (which the article distinguishes well) and "transcendental."  However, Van Til disagrees with Kant on about everything.  One only has to read his "God and the Absolute" in Christianity and Idealism to see this.

Van Til certainly would not separate faith and science.  That would be the opposite of what he taught.  He held that everything is revelatory, but that (proper) science is not possible outside a Christian-theistic framework.    

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Haven't read Van Til. Heard his writing is wooden and awkward. Don't really plan to read him; don't care enough to. I've read Bahnsen and Frame on presuppositional apologetics, and that's good enough for me.

Arguments about who is the "true follower" of Van Til (or, "insert theologian here") are meaningless to me. The essence of presuppositional apologetics makes sense to me, and that's enough. Jason Lisle's "The Ultimate Proof for Creation" is basically a primer on this method, and he's a follower of Bahnsen. Didn't even mention Van Til.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

GregH's picture

Paul, if you are referring to me when discussing ignorance about Van Til, I plead guilty to knowing little about Van Til which is why I was discussing Kant, not Van Til. However, it appears to me that Kant did open a door to presuppositional apologetics or at least take a step in that direction from the earlier modern philosophers. Perhaps I am wrong but that is how it appears and a quick Google search indicates I am hardly the only one that thinks that. It seems to be an issue of some debate.

In regards to the issue of science vs faith and what you said about me personally, I really don't know how to respond to that thought but I will say this. A person that accepts an issue by faith in God while knowing that prevailing science contradicts it is, in my opinion, exercising more faith than a person who needs some pseudo-science to prop up their faith in God. 

I am not trying to be difficult. Just a few thoughts.

Larry's picture

Moderator

"The True VanTillian" debate is an interesting one for apologetic geeks. John Frame is typically accused of being a soft-presuppositionalist (along with a soft RPW'ist ... or whatever that should say). I found the Defense of the Faith to be hard to read, but like someone above said, Van Til is much easier to listen to.

Paul Henebury's picture

I used you as an example, but I was not aiming specifically at you in my comment re. ignorance of Van Til.  My apologies if I offended you.  As for your Google search, it shows that many others haven't read Van Til either.  It has always astonished me that even well read scholars (e.g. Robert Reymond, Doug Groothuis, R.C. Sproul) misrepresent Van Til (and Bahnsen). 

As for your second paragraph, well you now speak of "pseudo-science" in regard to (it appears) YEC, which is what I believe.  I think you might provide some examples for me at least.  

Finally, how are you defining "faith"? 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Yes, the "true Van Til" thing is out there. I found it interesting that Lisle doesn't even reference Van Til; he was influenced by Bahnsen (the second generation). Frame' s "Apologetics to the Glory of God" was good, I thought. He's softer than Bahnsen, though, to be sure. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

GregH's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

I used you as an example, but I was not aiming specifically at you in my comment re. ignorance of Van Til.  My apologies if I offended you.  As for your Google search, it shows that many others haven't read Van Til either.  It has always astonished me that even well read scholars (e.g. Robert Reymond, Doug Groothuis, R.C. Sproul) misrepresent Van Til (and Bahnsen). 

As for your second paragraph, well you now speak of "pseudo-science" in regard to (it appears) YEC, which is what I believe.  I think you might provide some examples for me at least.  

Finally, how are you defining "faith"? 

Paul, if you can do it easily, I would like you to ask you to interact with my point about Kant and presuppositionalism. Do you really not see any connection between Kant and presuppositionalism? I am not saying that Van Til was a Christian version of Kant or believed much of what Kant believed. It just seems hard to believe that he was not influenced by Kant when you consider what presuppositionalism is and compare it to what Kant introduced.

Here is an example of pseudo science: trying to claim that carbon-14 dating is bogus because of a random mistake on some board in the past, when in fact, carbon 14 dating has been proven to very accurate. Or, trying to discredit carbon 14 dating while ignoring the other 30-40 dating methods that scientists use to date the earth that show the earth older than 6000 years. 

I am not stating that science is rational or even grounded in correct metaphysics. I am not stating that YEC is false. I am not stating I don't believe in YEC. I am not stating anything except that the example I gave is not an honest attempt at using science and is likely to do more harm than good when teaching YEC. By the way, the carbon-14 example I gave above was used by Ken Ham in that Bill Nye debate.

Paul Henebury's picture

Van Tillian Presuppositionalism is, among other things, the theological approach which asserts that revelation is primary, and that there is no knowledge without it.  All truth is original to God and some truth is revealed (through Scripture and nature) to us.  The limits of revealed truth then are the "limiting concepts" of Van Til.

Kant held that to get past the rationalism/empiricism impasse one had to argue transcendentally.  For Kant this meant starting with the human mind as "over" the world.  But Kant's philosophy imposed a world upon us that "in itself" is not knowable, since the mind organizes what we perceive.  Thus, the autonomous mind is the transcendental.  The "thing in itself" is off-limits because of this, yet what is presented to us by the mind can be categorized and structured and become the basis of our knowledge. 

Of course, much more should be added, but Van Til's notion of transcendental argumentation will have none of this.  Since we are dependent creatures who are reliant upon revelation we cannot start with ourselves, we must begin with God the Revealer.  Since what can be known in the world (general revelation) can be subject to man's sinful distortion (due to the effects of the Fall upon our reason), the benchmark of knowledge must be found in what God has spoken to us in His Word.  Hence, for Van Til, the transcendental is Scripture, especially the self-attesting Christ.  This "starting-point" of knowledge must be ours, for without it we can know nothing.  In order to receive this revealed knowledge we have to exercise dependence (i.e. faith!)  

For Kant, reality cannot be known for what it is (idealism).  For Van Til, reality is upon to our five senses (realism), but it is greater than our five senses.  Thus, the starting point of knowledge, and the content of knowledge are different for Kant and Van Til.  Kant and Presuppositionalism are at odds all the way through.  If you want more on this you can ask and I will try to respond.

As per your example from the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate, I confess that I was disappointed with Ham's performance (though his content was superior).  Still, I stand to be corrected, but I believe that well nigh every fossil in existence has C-14 in it.  C-14 is untraceable after circa 100,000 years, so this is good scientific evidence that the old earth numbers are greatly exaggerated.  The RATE Project done by ICR found C-14 in diamonds as well!  

Yes, there is pseudo-science in YEC materials.  But it finds a very hospitable nesting place in old-earth and evolutionary materials too.            

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

GregH's picture

Thanks Paul for the interaction. I am enjoying my studies of these things.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

 everything is revelatory, but that (proper) science is not possible outside a Christian-theistic framework.    

This is pretty much where I'm at, but I feel like, on my personal journey, my convictions on that aren't well enough thought through. Too much feels assumed... and like I can't really fully explain it. I feel like I don't really know something until I can teach it!  (Or, sometimes, until I actually have taught it.)

So this whole conversation helps me quite a bit. (If only I had a couple of days a week to just read!) Bahnsen and Frame have moved up my backlogged reading list.

Can someone link again to where audio of Van Til speaking is available? I'm sure I'd benefit from hearing that.

josh p's picture

The one I found is in ITunes U and I don’t know how to link to that. I believe it was Westminster or RTS that put it up.

dgszweda's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

Van Til certainly would not separate faith and science.  That would be the opposite of what he taught.  He held that everything is revelatory, but that (proper) science is not possible outside a Christian-theistic framework.    

I would be interested in how he defined science.  Science is definitely possible outside a Christian framework.  You do not need to have Scripture or a biblical understanding for a scientist to invent a light bulb.  In my opinion a Christian-theistic framework is important as it relates to science on those areas where Scripture touches on science.  But that is not too much as Scripture is not a science text book but a religious text.

Paul Henebury's picture

Understandably, this question shows a failure to comprehend what the transcendental argument of Van Til is asserting.  Yes, a person can do science without being a Christian.  But could a monistic Buddhist or Hindu who basically believes the sensory world to be an illusion, give an explanation of material science or a foundation for pursuing it within their worldview?  The answer is no.  They are false worldviews which cannot therefore provide the pre-conditions needed for doing science.

What about a materialist atheist?  Same thing.  Many of them are physicalists who deny the reality of the soul (never mind God).  Therefore, they believe the mind is just the firing of neurons in the brain.  This leads many of them to a non-realist worldview (i.e. the "mind" does not think for truth but for survival value).  A materialist conception of the universe cannot account for laws of thought, number and scientific laws (nor our ability to recognize them).  Ergo, that worldview cannot account for science.

Can Buddhists, Hindus and Atheists do science?  Surely. but their belief system can't provide the necessary things which the scientific enterprise needs (e.g. the reliability of our sense perceptions, our knowledge of the extended world beyond our brains, realism, immaterial laws and numbers, a principle of uniformity, normativity, etc).  Only the Judeo-Christian worldview can do these things (in its stride).  Therefore, advocates of non-Christian worldviews must borrow from Christianity what their own worldviews fail to produce.

Do they know or acknowledge this borrowing?  Not usually, any more than a person denying the existence of air will think about the fact that he is breathing air (Bahnsen's illustration).  

The light bulb could not have been invented if the world was not the way the Bible says it is.  That is Van Til's argument.  I hope that answer helps.        

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The borrowing phenomenon is what Francis Schaeffer talks about in God Who Is There, and Nancy Pearcy fleshes out more practically in Finding Truth. They explain that the genuinely Christian worldview is the only one that fully accepts all of reality as it is. So the upper-story vs. lower-story metaphor illustrates how people with non-Christian worldviews can be very high functioning (but with cognitive dissonance, Pearcy calls it). On the lower story they may maintain that humans are just bundles of extremely complex chemical processes, and there is really no right or wrong, no meaning to life, no hereafter, no love (in the sense of anything more than chemicals and physics)... no objective truth. But we're all forced to live as though there were such a thing as right and wrong, as though individual lives matter, as though there is such a thing as truth--in short, as though reality is real. That's the upper story. Several prominent non-Christian thinkers acknowledge the problem and more or less accept the fact that they look at the world in two fundamentally incompatible ways, depending on the situation. (Can't name any at the moment, but Pearcy does. Schaeffer is a bit more abstract about it in what I've read somewhat recently... and what sticks in memory for me is more of an emphasis on how the lack of coherence in worldviews tormented some thinkers to the point of extremes of despair.)

Paul Henebury's picture

...Schaeffer and Pearcey do not teach Van Til's position of the impossibility of the contrary.  Rather, they teach that the biblical worldview is the best hypothesis.

Van Til taught that  "the Christian worldview fully accepts all of reality as it really is", but rather that things must be the way the Bible says they are.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.