A Preliminary Response to the Davenant Institute on Van Til and Natural Revelation

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

"The Davenant Institute (DI) is named for the irenic English Reformed scholar and Bishop of Salisbury John Davenant (1572-1641), who exemplified the Golden Age of English ecclesiastical learning. They are described as being committed to the system of doctrine contained in the Reformed Protestant family of confessions, represented chiefly by the Augsburg Confession (Variata), the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Confession, and the London Baptist Confession." [1]

The DI recently released a book titled, "Without Excuse: Scripture, Reason and Presuppositional Apologetics". This article forms the first in a series that will be responding to the new book by the Davenant Institute. We too are interested in expressing Van Til with clarity and engaging with his writings. Hopefully this series will be edifying for many of our brothers and sisters.

In the description of the book when they first announced it, they wrote: "Although Cornelius Van Til developed presuppositional apologetics as an attempt to remain faithful to timeless Christian truth as the Reformed tradition expresses it, he sacrificed the catholic and Reformed doctrine of natural revelation in the process." [2]

This statement sparked a reaction from those in the Van Tillian camp. James White noted regarding Van Til that "Of course, he did no such thing. He affirmed general revelation gets through. He simply accepted the reality that it gets suppressed as well. But he affirmed it, clearly, and unambiguously." [3]

Granted that this initial phrase stating that Van Til sacrificed natural revelation could have been misinterpreted as the book had not yet been released when White commented on it. The DI, however, released a new article that shed some light on their claim that Van Til sacrificed natural revelation:

Enter Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), one of John Murray’s colleagues at Westminster. Van Til famously maintained that unregenerate humans ought to be able to know something of the divine nature from creation, because God so clearly reveals himself in and through it, and because of the sense of divinity; but, he also argued,  humans do not have this knowledge, and cannot have it. Of course, Van Til also claims that all men, even the unregenerate, actually know that God is—such knowledge is inescapable—but they willfully suppress it. Van Til argues that some men may contrive arguments that demonstrate the existence of a god, but, unless it is the triune God of Christian scriptures, they have not demonstrated the existence of the one true God. For Van Til, the knowledge that God exists is buried deep within man; it is, essentially, a form of innate knowledge which humans constantly suppress. The “knowledge” of God which all humans hold in common, for Van Til, could be compared to a website that has been deleted by its owner. It has been supressed [sic], but still exists, somewhere, in the deep web, waiting to be “resurrected.” Van Til, however, frequently makes statements along the following lines, “On the other hand Reformed theology does believe in total depravity. In consequence, Reformed theology teaches that man by nature has no knowledge of God or of morality at all.” He then goes on to say, on the same page, “The Reformed confessions speak of small remnants of the knowledge of God and of morality possessed by natural man.” It is not possible, at this point, to untie all these knots. We simply wish to point out that Van Til seems to be sincerely attempting to maintain orthodoxy on this subject. Whether he succeeded is up for debate.

Davenant Institute, Without Excuse: Presuppositionalism and the Historic Christian Faith

We're quite confident that more qualified presuppositionalists will offer a commentary on the book as it is now officially released (in addition to our commentary), but for now we'd like to offer a few thoughts on these preliminary statements on Van Til. The DI did provide references for each of the statements we quoted above which we removed for styling reasons, but you can go check out the references yourself by following the link provided above. From here this article will address each of their preliminary statements in turn.

Remember that the main point of their preliminary statements are that Van Til tied himself up in a knot, meaning that he contradicted himself, or expressed himself in an irreconcilable manner. So we'll attempt to show that it is not the case, and that Van Til was consistent in what he wrote with regards to natural revelation (at least when looking at the references the DI provided to make their initial point).

Statement A

Van Til famously maintained that unregenerate humans ought to be able to know something of the divine nature from creation, because God so clearly reveals himself in and through it, and because of the sense of divinity; but, he also argued,  humans do not have this knowledge, and cannot have it. Of course, Van Til also claims that all men, even the unregenerate, actually know that God is—such knowledge is inescapable—but they willfully suppress it.

The references provided by the DI for this statement are:

  1. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, pg. 114.

  2. Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of the Faith, pg. 101-104

On this statement and their commentary on it in the footnote, a lot is said about univocal and analogical reasoning. It will do us well to define these two terms before we move on:

Univocal reasoning: William Edgar, commenting on Van Til writes, "we speak of all forms of reasoning in which man is assumed to be the final or ultimate reference point of predication as univocal reasoning."

Analogical reasoning: Edgar continues, "In contrast to univocal reasoning we speak of the form of reasoning employed by the Christian who recognises that God is the ultimate reference point of predication as analogical reasoning."

Van Til makes it clear that natural man in his sinful state can only reason univocally and because of this they (can) conclude that no god exists or that a god exists, but never that the true God exists. [4]

The following quote by Van Til is quite important:

By univocal reasoning man can, at most, find a God that is an extension of the universe [think of Aristotle's god]. Univocal reasoning starts with the assumption that man and the universe are entities from which, as ultimate starting point, we can reason to God. We believe, however, that not even Adam in paradise could do this. He could only do what Calvin speaks of in the first paragraph of the Institutes, namely, think of God and himself simultaneously, and think of God as ultimate and himself as derivative.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pg. 178, parenthesis added

We'd like to interject here and comment that a lot of quotations of Calvin are cited in the article by the DI, however it seems that people tend to forget how Calvin starts his Institutes in chapter 1 on the Knowledge of God, as Van Til points out above. Naturally we would need to read the rest of the Institutes in light of his highly important first chapter.

Anyway, continuing our reading on page 179,

We must rather reason that unless God exists as ultimate, as self-substinent, we could not even know anything; we could not even reason that God must exist, nor could we even ask a question about God. In order to do this, in order to negate himself as ultimate and as correlative, the natural man must first negate himself as normal. This he will not and cannot do. Paul speaks of this... in Romans 8:7.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pg. 179

It is at this point where we reach the section of Van Til's writing that is referenced in the article:

God has continued to reveal Himself in nature even after the entrance of sin. Men ought, therefore, to know him. Men ought to reason analogically from nature to nature's God.
Men ought, therefore, to use the cosmological argument analogically in order thus to conclude that God is the Creator of this universe. Men ought to realize that nature could not exist as something independent. They ought to sense that if anything intelligible is to be said about nature, it must be in relation to the absolute system of truth, which is God. Hence, they ought at once to see nature as the creation of God.
Men ought also use the ontological argument analogically. Men ought to realize that the word being cannot be intelligently applied to anything unless it is applied to God without limitation...
Men ought to reason that natural laws cannot exist in themselves. They ought to reason that that conception of law could never have been applied by the mind of man to the phenomena of nature unless there is a God who is in Himself absolute order or absolute system, and who has therefore implanted order upon his creation...
Because men ought to conclude that the sin of man is the source of the curse of God upon nature, they ought also conclude that it is by the grace of God that they live at all, and that nature is not fallen into complete disorder... The facts are there before them, and they ought to see the facts. Hence they ought to glorify their Creator.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pg. 180-181

You can almost sense that Van Til wrote this section with an immense passion and perhaps frustration with the sinful world. His zeal for the Christian faith as the only ground to stand on for any person springs forth in the preceding text.

Van Til then continues that the matter of fact is that men have not reasoned and interpreted as they ought to have reasoned and interpreted. They have reasoned univocally and not analogically (making themselves the ultimate starting point). He states that despite this rebellion, man has sensed that they have not been able to interpret reality satisfactory... he writes that the fact remains that all men seek a god, and that all this is eloquent testimony that God is, as a matter of fact, revealed in nature and in the mind of man, and that therefore, men ought to know Him. [5]

So what does Van Til mean by the preceding text? What does he mean when he says that men ought to know God? It's quite clear from the context. He means that no one is supposed (or consistently able) to say, "God does not exists" as some do. Does an atheist know God in the same way that Christians do? Of course not, they deny His very existence, but they ought not do so.

This is made clearer when Van Til moves on to discuss the revelation about God from man (that is from within ourselves). Consider also that the following directly follows Van Til stating that "therefore, men ought to know God":

Moreover, all men everywhere, deep down in their hearts know that the world is created by God. At bottom they know that by all their attempts at explanation of nature they are suppressing within themselves the testimony of the real Creator of the universe...

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pg. 182

From this it then becomes quite clear. All men know God deep-down. They ought to know God openly and give Him glory (quote on pg. 181), but they don't because they suppress the knowledge that they do have. At the end of the day, even the natural man's attempts to explain reality without ultimate reference to God also reveals the knowledge of God evident within them (Rom. 1). Van Til continues to explicitly state that the more self-conscious men become with respect to the real meaning of their own position (that is opposed to God), the more they realise that their systems are escape-mechanisms in which they seek to hide from the truth themselves. From what truth? The truth of (the true) God's existence without whom they are lost.

A final quote to close of this section before we provide the final commentary:

Both with respect to nature and with respect to man himself, men should have known God as Creator, as preserver and as Judge... they should have known Him as the one through whom alone all human predication, applied either to nature or to man has meaning. Instead of knowing him as such, men sought to interpret the universe by an exclusively immanentistic principle, as Paul says: "For they exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, Amen" (Rom. 1:25)... Yet as we have seen before, men have recognised something of the insufficiency of the immanentistic principle. They have demanded a beyond... Calvin says that the sensus deitatis has been deeply ingrained in men, that they have tried in vain to remove the knowledge of God from their hearts.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pg. 186

The misunderstanding from the DI seems to occur when they say that unregenerate men 'ought to be able to know something of the divine nature'. Van Til says that men 'ought to know God'. They ought to know him, yet suppress the knowledge and seek to hide from the truth revealed to them. Even their suppression ends up revealing God. The DI seems to be interpreting Van Til as saying that men should be able to know something of God but can't, yet they do, which is a contradiction. However, this is not what Van Til was saying at all. Rather, men ought to know (give glory to, worship) God, but in their rebellion suppress the knowledge of God revealed to them.

Van Til ends that with regards to the formulation of other gods that man make in suppression of the one true God, their basic differences and their formal similarities to the God of truth are evidence that God revealed himself to men. Both are given that men are without excuse.

So when the DI claims that Van Til said that "men do not have this knowledge, and cannot have it" (according to the very same citations from Van Til we discussed above), they're simply wrong. Van Til never said such a thing. Men do have the knowledge of God, but based on their univocal way of reasoning they cannot reason to the true God. Yet, their moral inability to regard the true God as ultimate is not something that is oblivious to them. Even their suppression of the truth and their incapability to accurately make sense of reality reveals the true God they know exists. If we were to make the DI statement more in line with what Van Til wrote, it would sound something like this:

Men do have the knowledge of God, and cannot do away with it.

Statement B

The “knowledge” of God which all humans hold in common, for Van Til, could be compared to a website that has been deleted by its owner. It has been supressed [sic], but still exists, somewhere, in the deep web, waiting to be “resurrected.”

Having spent a great deal of time engaging with Van Til and his students, especially Bahnsen, I'm struggling to figure out where this analogy would come from, and why they would use it over and above one that Van Til provided himself, especially when you're attempting to accurately portray what Van Til was saying. Van Til provided quite a few analogies in his writing, but never the one of a deleted website (Van Til wrote before the rise of the internet). Three analogies come to mind:

  1. The image of the girl sitting on her father's lap, slapping him in the face.

  2. The analogy of the man breathing air whilst denying it.

  3. The prodigal son.

Let's discuss each of them before moving the analogy of the DI.

First, the girl slapping her father:

The ultimate source of truth in any field rests in [God]. The world may discover much truth without owning Christ as Truth. Christ upholds even those who ignore, deny, and oppose him. A little child may slap his father in the face, but it can do so only because the father holds it on his knee. So modern science, modern philosophy, and modern theology may discover much truth. Nevertheless, if the universe were not created and redeemed by Christ no man could give himself an intelligible account of anything. It follows that in order to perform their task aright the scientist and the philosopher as well as the theologian need Christ.

Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism p.147-148

One's negation of God depends on the fact that God exists, has created and sustains all that is, including the predication of his supposed non-existence. This is the point of Van Til's illustration of the little girl that he saw, sitting on her father's lap, slapping him in the face. The slap itself could have its proper reference and meaning if and only if the father was holding up the little girl all the while. The little girl was "opposing" her father. In doing so, she was "presupposing" her father's support, even if she was unable or unwilling to affirm and articulate his support. Without that support, the slap was only a slap in the void. It had no referent, no meaning, no content.

Secondly, the man breathing air whilst denying it:

Arguing about God’s existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time. Or to use another illustration, God is like the emplacement on which must stand the very guns that are supposed to shoot Him out of existence.

Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, The Pamphlets, Tracts, and Offprints of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

The analogy speaks for itself. In both cases the point is that God is absolutely necessary to sustain even the rebellion against him. The unbeliever lives in God's world and even lives and moves and has his being in God, whether he acknowledges it or not (Ps. 24:1; Ac. 17:28). All of the contributions of the unregenerate in literature, science, mathematics, etc., are borrowed capital. [7]

Lastly, the prodigal son:

[Van Til] wrote, when the Prodigal left his father's house he could not immediately efface from his memory the look and voice of his father. How that look and that voice came back to him when he was at the swine trough! How hard he had tried to live as though the money with which he so freely entertained his friends' had not come from his father! When asked where he came from he