Van Tilian or Van Tillian? The Debate Settled

Cornelius Van TilScholars have long debated the proper pronunciation of the name ‘Augustine’. Should it be aw-GUS-tin, as argued here, or AW-gus-teen, as argued here? (For the record: the former is correct.)

Equally important, if not more so, is the debate over whether one who follows the apologetic method of Cornelius Van Til is properly labeled Van Tilian or Van Tillian. Here I offer three arguments for the former. Taken together these arguments surely provide a decisive answer to this longstanding dispute.

1. Argument from Statistics

Standard Google searches for the relevant phrases turn up the following counts:

  • VanTilian — about 1,600 results
  • Van Tilian — about 11,600 results
  • Combined — about 13,200 results
  • VanTillian — about 4,760 results
  • Van Tillian — about 7,970 results
  • Combined — about 12,730 results

The winner, by a nose: Van Tilian.

2. Argument from Analogy

Consider:

  • Brazil → Brazilian
  • Civil → Civilian
  • Virgil → Virgilian

Therefore:

  • Van Til → Van Tilian

3. Argument from Parsimony

“Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” (William of Ockham)

A second L is obviously unnecessary, therefore: Van Tilian.

Q.E.D.

Trueman on the Ahmari-French Dust-Up

Carl Trueman has a good take on the latest intramural debate among American conservatives. I’d quibble with a few minor points, but the conclusion is spot-on:

So while I agree with Ahmari that French’s strategy of politeness is unlikely to prove politically successful, I still believe it is worth considering. If the Middle Ages are not the analog to the church in the twenty-first century, the second century might be. At that time, the church was a misunderstood minor sect in a vast empire.  It was not subject to widespread, coordinated persecution but it was often suspected of subverting the public good. So the Greek Apologists of that time taught Christian doctrine and ethics, and they made it clear to the pagan authorities that they intended to be good citizens and should therefore be allowed to function as members of Roman society. They spoke respectfully of emperors and made sure that any offense caused was demanded by the gospel, and not by some other ambition or agenda.

This captures the New Testament emphasis on blessing when cursed, turning the other cheek, and speaking well of those who speak evil. Of course, Paul was capable of polemical sharpness (typically directed against enemies within the church, not the secular authorities) and he was quite happy to use the civil rights that he possessed as a Roman citizen. But at no point does he say that it is legitimate for Christians to be as brutal and ferocious in opposing pagan enemies as those enemies are in opposing the church.

French’s strategy of decency and politeness may well be doomed, as Ahmari indicates. But Christians do not do things because they think they will succeed. They do them because the New Testament tells them that this action or this way of speaking is the right way to reflect the character of God to the world.

Just so.

Of course, none of this implies that doing the right thing won’t succeed, but at the same time we need to calibrate our understanding of ‘success’ to the goals and priorities emphasized in the New Testament by Christ and the apostles.

Perhaps one (admittedly reductionistic) way to view the present debate is in terms of the difference between a consequentialist conservatism (Ahmari) and a deontologist conservativism (French). The former prioritizes securing results (in this case, something like a society where Judeo-Christian moral values are respected, protected, and reflected in the law) even if that means adopting new rules (or breaking the old ones), whereas the latter places the priority on following rules (in this case, principles of proper conduct in the public sphere) even if that doesn’t secure the desired results, at least in the near term. On French’s view, one could “win the culture” but lose one’s soul in the process. Results at the expense of rules is a de facto defeat for the Christian conservative.

BTW, Trueman’s take on Brexit is also a must-read for Americans who are trying to make sense of current political events across the Atlantic.

Reforming Apologetics (Introduction)

J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics seems to be drawing a lot of attention. Since folk keep asking me about it, I’ve decided to blog through the book over the summer months. Here’s the publisher’s summary:

Challenging the dominant Van Tillian approach in Reformed apologetics, this book by a leading expert in contemporary Reformed theology sets forth the principles that undergird a classic Reformed approach. J. V. Fesko’s detailed exegetical, theological, and historical argument takes as its starting point the classical Reformed understanding of the “two books” of God’s revelation: nature and Scripture. Believers should always rest on the authority of Scripture but also can and should appeal to the book of nature in the apologetic task.

Reforming ApologeticsSome preliminary comments:

1. This won’t be a formal book review, which would normally be written after reading the entire book. It will be more like a running commentary: I’ll read a chapter at a time, summarize its contents, and offer various comments. Some of the points I raise or questions I pose may turn out to be addressed in later chapters; if so, all the better.

2. I should declare my biases at the outset. I come to the book as a card-carrying Van Tilian presuppositionalist. I believe Van Til was basically correct about Reformed theology demanding a distinctively Reformed approach to apologetics which honors the sovereignty of God and the self-attesting nature of Scripture, recognizes the proper relationship between general and special revelation, and takes into account the in-principle antithesis between believing and unbelieving thought. I’ve set out my views on apologetic methodology in various publications and in my RTS course lectures.

3. There are, however, differences of opinion among Van Tilians, just as there are differences among Reformed Thomists and other classical apologists. For example, I agree with John Frame that presuppositionalism doesn’t rule out the use of the classical theistic arguments (e.g., versions of the cosmological and teleological arguments) and evidential arguments (historical, scientific, etc.). I suppose that puts me at odds with some other Van Tilians. On the other hand, I agree with Greg Bahnsen (over against Frame) that there’s something distinctive about the transcendental argument which sets it apart from the classical theistic arguments, and that it ought to be the centerpiece of a presuppositional apologetic. I mention these things only to lay my cards on the table at the outset.

4. I also have to confess that I find intramural Reformed debates over apologetic methodology a bit tiresome. I’ve been involved in these discussions for over two decades now; after a while, you just keep hearing the same arguments back and forth. It’s also wearisome having to correct the same old misrepresentations of Van Til over and over again. So I will be interested to see if Dr. Fesko brings anything new to the table that will move the discussion forward. I hope so!

5. I previously commented on an article by Dr. Fesko which makes some criticisms of Van Til and some of his followers, so that serves as part of the backdrop to this series of interactions with his book (which I trust will reflect a collegial spirit!).

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Still Not Living in a Computer Simulation

A couple of commentators on a previous post pointed me to an Arc Digital article by Thomas Metcalf which contends that the Simulation Argument (SA) ought to be taken more seriously. (Metcalf’s article wasn’t written in response to mine, although it appeared a week or so afterward: post hoc sed non propter hoc.)

I don’t think there’s anything in the article that poses any problems for the arguments I gave in my post. Rather than respond to every point, I’ll just quote a few sections and make some comments.

Brain in a Vat

Metcalf observes that the SA has two key premises:

The Empirical Premise: Most of the “people” who think they’re real, flesh-and-blood humans are actually conscious computer programs.

The Indifference Premise: If most people are simulated, then you are probably simulated.

As I explained in my earlier post, I think the first premise is false, and necessarily so. It’s not metaphysically possible for a computer program to be conscious, assuming that the computer in question is a purely physical mechanism. (I think Metcalf actually commits a category error in his statement of the Empirical Premise. A computer program is abstract in nature; it’s a set of instructions that can be run by one or more physical computers. So a computer program wouldn’t be conscious; it would be the computer running the program, if it were possible for a computer to be conscious.)

The second premise looks problematic too. Metcalf elaborates:

The idea behind the Indifference Premise is simple: If most people have some feature, then absent other evidence, you should guess that you probably have that feature.

Most people have the following feature: not being me. Should I therefore guess that I’m probably not me too? Perhaps the “absent other evidence” clause is supposed to foreclose such trivial counterexamples. But what kind of evidence is in view here? Observational evidence? Surely that’s not the kind of evidence that would confirm my self-identity. Self-identity is known a priori. Couldn’t I also know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation? Well, if I can know a priori that no purely material object can be conscious, then I can know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation. All this to say, both premises of Metcalf’s SA seem to hang on the controversial notion that a computer can be conscious.

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The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God

For those interested, the lecture I gave last October on the theological foundations of modern science has been published in the May 2019 issue of Reformed Faith & Practice. Go here to read it.

Two Countries Separated By a Common Signal

After 10 years of living and driving in the US, it’s finally dawned on me that, despite outward appearances, the British “indicator” and the American “turn signal” don’t mean the same thing at all.

Indicator / Turn SignalFor Brits, the flashing light basically means: “I’m terribly sorry to be a bother, but I just want to let you know that I’m about to make a turn any second now. Stand by…”

For Americans, on the other hand, the flashing light means something along these lines: “Hey! Check out this turn I’m already halfway through making! Woo-hoo! DON’T TREAD ON ME!”

At least, I think that’s how it works. I’m still trying to crack the code.

If I’m right though, I’m very thankful that my American friends occasionally make use of their “turn signals” to draw attention to partially completed vehicular maneuvers that I might otherwise have missed.

What’s Your Worldview? Kindle edition $2.99

Heads-up: the Kindle edition of What’s Your Worldview? is on sale at $2.99 this week (until Star Wars Day — if that’s your worldview).

Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

(Spoiler: Betteridge’s law applies.)

I’ve been asked several times recently how I would respond to the claim that we are (or might well be) living inside a computer simulation. I don’t think the folk who pose the question to me are themselves worried the claim might be true; rather, they recognize it as a new kind of skeptical challenge and they’re curious to know how Christians might respond to it. Also, I suspect they’ve encountered some unbelievers who use the simulation hypothesis as a kind of nuclear option to derail serious discussions about the evidence for Christian claims. (“How do you know you haven’t been brainwashed into believing Christianity? How do you know you’re not being deceived by a malevolent demon? How do you know you’re not in a dream right now? How do you know the entire universe isn’t just an elaborate computer simulation? Huh? Huh?”)

As it happens, there are some smart people who take the simulation hypothesis seriously: Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Scott Adams, among others. They don’t necessarily believe it, but they don’t think it’s implausible. So what can be said in response? Can the hypothesis be refuted?

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Grudem’s Christian Ethics and Other Themeliana

My review of Wayne Grudem’s Christian Ethics appears in the latest issue of Themelios. (In case you’re left wondering: yes, I actually used a set of scales.)

The April 2019 issue is quite a treat. Some highlights:

Something for everyone!

Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?

I’ve been asked by several folk to share my thoughts on J. V. Fesko’s article, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos.” (Side note: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Fesko as a colleague following his recent appointment to the faculty at RTS Jackson! The following comments are offered respectfully and in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17. Semper reformanda!)

Geerhardus VosA great deal could be said in response to the various points Fesko raises in his essay, but I’ll restrict myself to some remarks on his core argument and a few other related matters. Fesko’s main target is the “Vosian Van Til thesis” which maintains that “Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology,” that there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Vos and Van Til,” and that “Van Til learned a unique epistemology from Vos.” Fesko readily concedes that Van Til was significantly influenced by Vos, but he wants to challenge the stronger claim that Van Til adopted a distinctive epistemology from Vos which served as a kind of course-correction for Reformed philosophy and apologetics.

Fesko’s central argument can be easily summarized:

  1. Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
  2. Van Til rejected both of the above.
  3. Therefore (contra the Vosian Van Til thesis) there’s significant discontinuity between Vos and Van Til. Vos stands in line with the historic Reformed tradition; Van Til does not.

There’s also a subsidiary argument, which I won’t assess here:

  1. Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  2. Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  3. Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.

Some comments:

1. It’s important to recognize the scope and nature of Fesko’s argument. It’s really an argument against the claims of certain Van Tilians. It isn’t a refutation of any distinctive element of Van Til’s thought. (I don’t mean to suggest it was intended to be, but some might fail to recognize what the argument, if sound, would actually prove.)

2. Along the same lines, we should acknowledge that the article is an exercise in historical theology: it concerns the intellectual relationship between two Reformed thinkers (and also their relationship to earlier Reformed theologians). Historical claims do not establish philosophical or theological theses. Fesko’s argument tells us little if anything about whether Vos’s position, Van Til’s position, or some other position is the right position to hold. The mere fact that Theologian A’s position aligns with Theologian B’s position, or stands in continuity with Tradition C, doesn’t as such give us any reason to agree with A, B, or C.

3. Some readers will take (and have taken) the article to provide support for Reformed scholasticism or Reformed Thomism. But again, I think that misses the scope of the argument. Nothing in the article constitutes a defense of scholasticism or Thomism as such. For example, there’s nothing here that vindicates the use of Aristotelian metaphysics or Aquinas’s nature-grace scheme.

4. The article refers to “Van Tillians” as though that’s a homogeneous group partly defined by a commitment to the Vosian Van Til thesis. But there have been considerable disagreements among self-described Van Tilians about how to interpret Van Til’s claims and implement his apologetic program. Van Tilians are no more a homogeneous group than Thomists. Fesko takes the claims of William Dennison and Lane Tipton to be representative of all Van Tilians. But on what grounds? Why think they speak for everyone who endorses a Van Tilian approach to apologetics (especially with respect to historical theses about lines of intellectual influence)?

Moving to matters of more substance:

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