The ABC's of Reformed Apologetics
During the later part of the 20th Century, the Dutch Reformed apologist, Cornelius Van Til, sought to pave a way for a consistently Reformed apologetic method. Though building upon Reformed theological giants such as Warfield and Bavinck, Van Til did not believe that their apologetic methods were consistent with their theological system on the whole. Thus, while Van Til embraced the theology of Old Princeton and Old Amsterdam, he sought to bring a reformation to Christian epistemology and apologetics. Van Til saw this as a dire mission for consistently defending biblical Christianity before a watching world. Toward the end of his magnum opus, The Defense of the Faith, he wrote:
"When Warfield makes the high claim that Calvinism is 'nothing more or less than the hope of the world,' he is speaking of the Reformed system of theology and of the Reformed point of view in general. Other types of theology are supernatururalistic in patches. To some extent they yield to the idea of autoseterism, the idea that man to some degree is saved by his own effort. Therefore, argues Warfield, “Calvinism is just Christianity.” But then, precisely by the same reasoning, Reformed apologetics is the hope of the world."
The point is simple: If Christians are to bring the Gospel to the world they should do so through a Reformed apologetical method. This is what Van Til sought to do in his own day in his responses to modern philosophy.2 It is only through a truly reformed, presuppositional apologetic that we may adequately challenge the wisdom of the world. What exactly, then, are the central theological tenets of a reformed apologetic? Ultimately, the central tenets of a Reformed apologetic rest on the same central truths of Reformed Theology. Consider the following:
- Covenant Theology: Without a historic Reformed Covenant Theology, this apologetic method does not work. Covenant theology is an essential—all men are in covenant relation to God Himself. Because of this, man encounters the Triune God everywhere he goes. Van Til writes, “To speak of man’s relation to God as being covenantal at every point is merely to say that man deals with the personal God everywhere.”3
- Covenant of Works: According to Van Til, there are only two types of people: covenant keepers and covenant breakers. In the Garden, Adam represented all mankind. He was to perfectly obey. Adam, and all in him, transgressed the covenant of works. By way of the fall of Adam, all men are now “covenant breakers." We must tell others that both we and they are sinners,, by nature, without God and without hope.
- Noetic effects of sin: Original sin has touched even the human mind and reason. Because of sin, man’s reason is spiritually darkened (Eph. 4:8). Fallen man cannot be expected to reason his way into faith; rather, the Lord must remove the spiritual blindness of his heart and mind (Eph. 2:1-4).
- Covenant of Grace: Adam broke the covenant of works and brought divine curse down on all mankind. Christ came to undo what Adam did and to do what Adam failed to do. Where Adam failed, Christ has succeeded. As a result, Gods’ people are now partakers in the covenant of grace. All men are either in Adam or in Christ. When Christ redeems, he transfers his people from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
- Regenerate reason: In order to embrace Christ, God must give men a regenerate heart. This includes the regeneration of man's reasoning. When man is born again, he is shown the error of his own thinking and driven to acknowledge Christ. One of the common misunderstandings of this tenet of Van Til’s thought is that he taught that non-believers cannot reason at all or that non-believers cannot know true facts. However, Van Til did indeed teach that unbelievers can know true facts and that believers can even learn much from unbelievers in many fields. Rather, he taught that until God removes the blinders from the heart of man, the unbeliever will not be able to see the fact for what it truly is. At bottom, facts are part of the greater system of God’s truth. Until one grasps that, there remains a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact.
- Sufficiency of Scripture: Scripture is the primary tool God has given his people with which to defend the faith. Though Van Til was not opposed to the use of evidence in apologetics (as is often charged against him), he taught that Scripture is sufficient in the apologetic endeavor. Since men are in covenant relation to God and created in His image, they know deep down that they are covenant breakers. They possess a knowledge of the true and living God, yet they do not honor Him as such (Romans 1:18-21). Thus, Scripture is sufficient in the task of apologetics. God works by His Spirit through His Word. Evidence is useful so long as it is seen in its proper place—in God’s greater system of truth.
The task of defending the faith is not finished. Until Christ returns we are called to “always be prepared to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15). Therefore, it is desirable to see advancements in the field of apologetics. Van Til laid out foundational principles and longed to see others after him take forward a truly reformed method of apologetics. Reformed writers ought not shy away from challenges such as postmodernism or humanism; rather, we should go forward with confidence in the Scriptures. We stand on the truth of the Creeds and the Reformed Confessions. It is this truth that must be heralded in our own day.
In this short series of posts, I hope to detail in simple terms the basics of Van Til’s apologetic approach. The subsequent articles will include an interaction with contemporary continental philosophy of religion in an effort to demonstrate how this method of apologetics may be employed in our own day; and, will hopefully be a source of edification.
1. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith: Fourth Edition (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing,2008), 309.
2. See for example Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Idealism (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955).
3. Van Til, C. (1977). Common Grace And The Gospel. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Nutley, NJ.