Van Til and Hermeneutics

What does Cornelius Van Til, a man often merely associated with apologetics, have to do with hermeneutics?

No Neutrality

How does your background affect your ability to interpret? This question leads right into the issue of neutrality. Are we neutral? Do we approach data objectively?

The first insight of Van Til is “no neutrality.” Both special and general revelation are objectively true, but no human can interpret neutrally. All people have bias.

Humans cannot be the ultimate authority on anything. There are two influences responsible for this: Sin and finitude.

Finitude means we can have no certainty on our own. We simply, by design, do not know everything. Our knowledge is finite, limited. We would need to know everything there is to know, in order to be sure about anything at all. As long as our knowledge is limited, we can’t be sure the small part we have isn’t completely altered (or refuted) by what we don’t know.

Sin means we can’t interpret general revelation properly. That small field of knowledge that we do have, we can’t even see it properly, as it should be seen. As McCartney and Clayton said in their book, sin is the “spoiler of understanding.”

Since we cannot have God-like certainty, is the only alternative uncertainty? Not at all.

So, what’s the answer to these problems? How are these two influences dealt with?

God knows everything and has revealed some ultimate answers to all through revelation. This solves the finitude problem.

God through the Word and Spirit has removed sin enough so that Christians can read correctly both special and general revelation. God made us to understand aspects of His world. This answers the sin problem.

Because that is the situation, the only way to correctly understand reality is to submit to God’s revealed perspective.

Robert Cara’s brilliant way of saying this is:

“Biases are not bad, bad biases are bad. It is a good bias to have God’s bias.”

Our ultimate presupposition is the Triune God speaking through His Word. There are no presuppositions behind this. The buck stops here.

This obviously has implications for biblical interpretation. We are not neutral, and our interpretation is inevitably affected. The question is, are we even aware of our bias? We can evaluate our presuppositions if we don’t even know they are there.


According to Cara, the bigger insight of Van Til is the consistent application of Reformed Theology to all areas of thought. If you claim to be “Reformed” (because that could mean anything to anybody), your view of anything should be consistent with Reformed systematic theology.

1. Reformed Theology has always been consistent in the view of personal salvation. Hence, those infamous five points. Salvation is what they’re about, by the way. That’s not even close to exhausting “Calvinism” (since that also seems to mean whatever, today).

2. Reformed Theology is also consistent with theology of Canon. It is, at least, when the “autopistic self-attestation” view is emphasized. That’s an intimidating way to say, basically, the Canon of Scripture is chosen by God and the Bible attests itself. Be aware, not all who profess to be Reformed have emphasized this, especially when it comes to apologetics.

Theology obviously has implication for our philosophy and methodology of interpretation. Imagine our hermeneutics actually contradicting what we believe the Bible teaches. Actually, we don’t have to imagine.

Is Christ Lord? Then, consistently, Christ is Lord over hermeneutics.

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Rules of Engagement

In the context of discussing beliefs, is it not widely assumed that to boldly represent your belief as the truth is arrogance? Is not having confidence in your beliefs interpreted as being disrespectful , since you are unwilling to accept all points of view as valid? Is it not unloving and hateful to tell others that what they believe is wrong, and that what you believe is right?

Sadly, those assumptions are the very air we breathe, today. What’s even more tragic is that it’s easy for Christians to uncritically absorb them into their thinking and live by them. However, Scripture does not see these things as opposites. The Apostle Peter tells us to be faithful to Christ as we give a defense, yet with gentleness and respect

but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect . . .

-1 Peter 3:15-16

Clearly then, those two are possible at the same time. In fact, we are commanded by God’s Word to do both: stand firm under Christ’s Lordship, and be gentle and respectful towards those we answer.

What about boldness? Isn’t that contrary to a loving manner? Christians are supposed to be “loving,” after all. Shouldn’t that mean we hold off on being bold when we engage with other people?

Pray also for me, that the message may be given to me when I open my mouth to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.

-Ephesians 6:19

proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with full boldness and without hindrance.

-Acts 28:31

Tsk tsk, Paul. That’s not very nice. You shouldn’t be bold in advancing your views on other people. You should be considerate of what they believe, and be tolerant and accepting of other views. And be “loving.” If you’re bold, someone might get offended.

growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ.

-Ephesians 4:13-15

Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

-Colossians 4:6

Impossible! To be bold must be unloving.

However, Paul himself has written about speaking the truth in love. The same Paul that boldly proclaimed the truth, also says to be gracious when you speak. Notice as well, speaking the truth in love is part of growing into Christ’s likeness, maturing. Look at what else is included: no longer being little children, “tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching.” So much for being accepting of all views. On the contrary, Paul is agreeing with Peter. Speaking the truth in love, with gentleness and respect, is not inconsistent with being bold and standing firm.

If this sounds like it cannot be, that we cannot be both at the same time, then I would say that we haven’t taken all of our thoughts captive to Christ. We are assuming a criteria, something that makes what these texts teach seem impossible or unlikely. Indeed, outside of Scripture the prevailing notion is that you are either firm or loving, either certain and arrogant or humble and open to everything. So the question becomes, what is your authority? According to what standard are you basing your manner when you discuss and engage with people? Who is determining the rules of engagement?

Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient because of these things. Therefore, do not become their partners. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light—for the fruit of the light results in all goodness, righteousness, and truth—discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.

-Ephesians 5:6-10

Uh oh, he’s doing it again. Looks like the Apostle Paul is exhorting Christians to hold tightly  to their convictions: he says don’t allow yourself to be deceived by empty arguments! Why? God’s wrath is coming down on the disobedient. Who sets the rules of engagement? Notice what else Paul said: “discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.” He is the one that we are accountable to. Indeed, this is God’s Word. Infallible, authoritative. God is one not only allowing the possibility for bold confidence and gentleness and respect to hold hands together, but is in fact commanding that we be that way. It should be a natural consequence of setting apart Christ as Lord in our hearts. He is Lord even over our conversations and debates. The Lord Jesus is the judge. We are not ultimately accountable to the people we talk to. They do not lay down the rules. They do not determine how we should think, speak, reason, and behave in the apologetic encounter. Rather, it is God himself. God speaking in Scripture is the authority. And it is he who says do it with gentleness and respect. We can deduce why: every human being is created in God’s image. And what is the matter of our conversation, of our defense? God’s Word. The Scriptures. The Truth. We have revelation from the Creator who knows everything. That the Word is God’s Word is why we not only can have confidence and certainty, but why we must. If we did not demonstrate confidence in what the Bible teaches, treating it as one among many optional views, then we would be misrepresenting the authoritative and self-attesting Word. And because we know that God’s Word is powerful, and that it is he by his Spirit that makes it effective, we must be bold as we engage. The assumed necessary connection between boldness and pride is a frank misunderstanding of the source. Indeed, it would be sinful if my source of confidence was myself. But that is not the believer’s source of confidence. Our confidence is in the Triune God speaking through Scripture, who has told us what his Word does.

since the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to obey Christ.

-2 Corinthians 10:4-5

To understate the matter: confidence in God’s Word is well placed. Here again is a fundamental principle: theology drives methodology. What God has said, what we are to believe, will determine our manner in apologetics.

We have the rules of engagement, regardless of any competing authorities that disagree. They may say you are arrogant for being certain of the truth. They certainly will accuse you as unloving and hateful for proclaiming the truth boldly, and identifying what is false. Those would be serious accusations, and would warrant us changing how we do things, if God had not already spoken on the matter. “I found it necessary to write and exhort you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3b). We contend, we speak the truth, we demolish arguments, we refuse to be swept to and fro, all under the Lordship of Christ. We are accountable to the Lord Jesus. He has laid down the ethics. In reality, revealed to us by divine revelation, there is no dichotomy or contradiction between holding fast and boldly speaking the truth, and being gentle, respectful, and gracious. Scripture is the principle that underlies how we argue.

May we all strive to first believe what God’s Word says about this, submitting how we think about these things to what he says about them, and then strive to obey it, trusting in the promise that God’s Spirit enables us. May we always acknowledge Scripture as the only foundation, interpreting everything through the lens of Scripture, and remaining conscious of Christ’s Lordship over apologetics. Since we are accountable to the Lord Jesus, let us constantly be “discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.”

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What you MUST affirm if you’re not presuppositional

Jesus Christ is coming again! (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again for the salvation of sinners. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Jesus Christ is God. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

The Triune God exists. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

God created the universe. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

All people are sinners and must repent. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

The Bible is the infallible Word of God. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Man is made in the image of God. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

All unbelievers will suffer eternal judgement. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

All Christians will dwell with God for eternity. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

God cannot lie. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

God is faithful. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Jesus will not lose anyone that the Father has given Him. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Christianity is true. (Probably. I could be wrong.)

Credit: Presbyterian Memes -
Credit: Presbyterian Memes –
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Richard Ramsay, Challenging the Inconsistency

Certainty of the Faith coverApologetics should be both offensive and defensive. We give answers to non-Christians, and we challenge them with questions to help them see the inconsistency of their position. Remember that Proverbs 26:4-5 teaches that we should sometimes avoid answering a fool “according to his folly,” so that we do not become like him (that is, we should defend the gospel on its own terms and not give in to non-Christian presuppositions), and at other times we should “answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (that is, we should take an offensive approach to apologetics, showing the non-Christian the error of his own thinking by carrying it out to its contradictory consequences). The non-Christian is confused . . . and he denies things he knows are true, just as the prodigal son was probably doing.

As we defend the Christian faith, we can ask non-Christians why they believe what they believe. When they explain why, saying, for example, that it is logical, we can ask why they trust logic. We can keep pushing them to their final answer. This is not a game. We need to do this with much love and respect. Otherwise, we will lose the opportunity to explain the gospel. But if we continue asking until there are no more questions, where does the non-Christian end up? What is his “final answer?” He will have to back up to something beyond which he has nothing more to say.

One way or another, that final answer for the non-Christian will be reduced to the fact that he believes it simply because he thinks it’s true. He may say something like, “I believe it because it just seems true to me,” or “I believe it, period,” or “I believe it because I want to.” In any case, the non-Christian essentially makes himself the judge of what is true and false and right and wrong.

This eliminates all certainty for the non-Christian, because to be sure of anything, he needs to know everything. It also eliminates consistency, because he knows deep down that he is not God and that he cannot simply decide for himself what the truth is.

The Christian alternative is to accept God as the judge and source of truth. . . . As a Christian, I cannot back up any further than God himself; I cannot elevate something above him. If I appeal to an authority superior to God, I have just contradicted my own worldview and destroyed the foundation underneath me.

-Richard Ramsay, The Certainty of the Faith, p. 149-150

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Richard Ramsay on Humility and Truth

Some people might think it seems arrogant to claim that we know the truth, but in reality it takes humility to admit that we depend completely on God to know anything. Furthermore, it would be a lack of faith, and it would offend God, to doubt what he has spoken. That is how the fall began in the mind of Adam and Eve. . . . to claim assurance of knowing the truth (not all truth, just what God has chosen to reveal) basically means we take God at his word. This should not be considered arrogant, and we must make sure that as Christians we do not become proud of it and that we do not communicate an attitude of superiority because of it.

-Richard Ramsay, The Certainty of the Faith, p. 149

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Van Til on Proof

Defense of the Faith cover. . . the argument for Christianity must . . . be that of presupposition. With Augustine it must be maintained that God’s revelation is the sun from which all other light derives. The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed there is no proof of anything. Christianity is proved as being the very foundation of the idea of proof itself.

—Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 396

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Why Apologetics? Pt. 2

Last time, we covered what apologetics is. I’ll summarize by repeating a quote from Greg Bahnsen, because it’s so good:

“apologetics becomes the vindication of the Christian worldview as a whole, not simply a piecemeal defense of isolated, abstractly defined, religious points.”

That brings us back to the question: Why do it? Why train and engage in apologetics? There are several motivations.

Firstly, Comfort

Apologetics provides much comfort to Christians. Many of us struggle with doubts and sincere questions about God and the Bible. We are believers but cannot consciously account for everything. And sometimes, we hear objections to Christianity that we don’t know how to answer. We sometimes wonder, “am I really certain that Christianity is true?” Training in apologetics deals with much of these issues, and as a result we are comforted and reassured.

Secondly, Encouragement

Also, training in apologetics encourages us in our faith commitment. The strengthening of our belief in Jesus not only reassures us in believing, but encourages us in telling others about it. It’s exciting to realize, even more, how certain Christianity is! And with that renewed confidence we are more eager to share it with other people.

Thirdly, Evangelism

This leads to evangelism. Not only are we more confident in spreading our more certain Christian faith, but when we share the Gospel to someone who raises objections, we are equipped to handle it. Have you tried to share Jesus with someone who responded with a statement about the Bible not being true, or some other objection that completely stopped you from sharing? Also, when anyone asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us, we can share the Gospel in such a way as to confront their unbelief; clearly communicating that trusting in Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness of sins and salvation is their only hope.

Fourthly, Defense

And, of course, defense. We want to be able to stand up to opposition. Whether it comes from professors, friends, or family, we want to know how to respond objections to the Christian worldview. We want to know how to answer the sincere and honest questions from those who want to know more about Jesus. Also, we want to know how to respond to those who are hostile to Christianity.

These are only a few reasons to learn apologetics. However, our chief motivation should not be what benefit we get or how useful apologetics is, but what God tells us to do. The primary answer to the question “why apologetics?” is: God’s Word says so.

We’ll go into that next time.

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