Philosophy against Misosophy


Gregory Bahnsen


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, edited by Gary North, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 1979, 191-239.

November 2, 2011 

The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics

The Basic Question of Method

The Socratic Outlook

The Christian Perspective

Paul’s Apologetic Method: Acts 17

An Overview of the History of Apologetics

The Reformation of Apologetics 

Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics (continued)

Greg Bahnsen


The Reformation of Apologetics

It is highly fitting that just one year after the appearance of the acknowledgment of apologetics’ bankruptcy, the first extensive work of Cornelius Van Til should appear, for it is in the approach which Van Til takes to the defense of the faith that apologetics is called back from its Socratic bondage and restored to solvency and full wealth.  Van Til fully realizes that an irradicable, principial antithesis exists between the outlook of Socrates and the perspective of Christ, and thus he seeks to set his apologetic self-consciously over against the autonomous and neutralistic methodology of Socrates and correspondingly to align his apologetic strategy with that of Scripture.

If Socrates be regarded as the highest product of the Greek spirit, this only points up the striking character of Paul’s words: “Where is the wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the disputer of this world?  Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:20,21) . . . . The ideal or perfect man of Greece is the perfect covenant-breaker; the ideal man of Scripture is the perfect covenant-keeper.210

Van Til is conscious of the fact that the failure to bring every thought into captivity to Christ, even in the area of apologetic argumentation, is itself a violation of the covenantal obligations under which all men live as the creatures of God.  Thus while so many schools of apologetics are more than willing to assume the philosophic perspective of Socrates in order to gain men to Christ, Van Til declares that the principle of Socrates (an honorary saint of the Enlightenment spirit) stands antithetically over against every principle of the Christian position.211

The attitude assumed in the Euthyphro epitomizes for Van Til man’s intellectual rebellion against God; it is the same attitude that was assumed by Adam and Eve in the garden.  If revealed truth is to be accepted by man’s mind, then it is to be accepted, not because it is authoritatively revealed from God, but because man can independently satisfy himself that it passes his tests for truth.  This subordinates revelation to speculation.  To the contrary effect Van Til teaches that we must adopt

. . . the presupposition that revelation is primary and that human speculation is, when properly conducted, the attempt of covenant-redeemed man, man in Christ, to submit his every thought, his every conceptual thought, captive to the obedience of his Lord.  If this approach is not taken from the outset, the subordination of revelation to speculation is a foregone conclusion.  And with this subordination goes the destruction of human speculation.212

The “perfect man” (the perfect covenant-breaker) in the Socratic perspective is the autonomous intellectual, unfettered by the authority of his Creator; yet Van Til is aware that such a thinker brings about the ironic effect of destroying that very rationality in which he prides himself.  In suppressing the truth of God, he professes to be wise, but in reality becomes a fool.

The bankruptcy of apologetics stems from an overlooking of this fact.  By allowing even a small measure of autonomy into his thinking at the outset, the traditional apologist cannot prevent his system from sharing the crucial defects, rootlessness, and dialectical tensions of unbelieving thought.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

The Christian revelation is imperious in its nature.  Christ wants to be Lord of the conceptual thoughts of men as well as of every other aspect of their personality.  And the autonomous intellect and moral consciousness of man is equally imperious.  It seeks to withdraw the realm of conceptual thought from the Lordship of Christ by claiming the honor of its origination in man instead of in God.213

The Christian apologist must not halt between two opinions; because the Lord is God, the apologist must serve Him—with his whole heart, strength, and mind.  His argumentation must reflect the crown rights of Jesus Christ, not the usurping claims of autonomous reason.  For no man (not even the apologist) can serve two masters.  Van Til is acutely conscious that for apologetics the choice is clear: Socrates or Christ.  The two cannot be synthesized, as traditional apologetics had vainly attempted to do.

When Socrates assumes the autonomy of the moral consciousness and when in modern times Kant does likewise, they are finding their absolute, their absolute ideal, their absolute criterion and their self-sufficient motive power in man as autonomous.  Neither the Socratic nor the Kantian position can ever be harmonized with the Christian position, no more in ethics than in the field of knowledge.214

It is because of the clarity of this insight that Van Til has been able to activate a momentous reformation in the field of apologetics.  The incisive and decisive analysis of apologetics which was lacking in Warfield’s day was being supplied a generation later by a young scholar who realized that he was standing on the shoulders of his Reformed fathers: Calvin, Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, Bavinck.  From that vantage point, he could more clearly see the fundamental need for a Reformed apologetic—that is, an apologetic true to the fundamental insights of Reformed theology.  The absolute sovereignty of God in epistemology, as in every other order, led Van Til to repudiate the influence of Socrates (as well as his historical and implicit disciples) in the defense of the Christian faith.  The methods of Socrates could not be harmonized with the teachings of Christ.

Van Til answered the basic question of methodology in apologetics by propounding a presuppositional defense of the faith.  The foundation of Christian scholarship was taken to be the presupposed truth of God’s inspired word.  This presupposition stands over against the autonomous effort of the unbeliever.  “In the last analysis we shall have to choose between two theories of knowledge.  According to one theory God is the final court of appeal; according to the other theory man is the final court of appeal.”215  The former approach holds that there are two levels of thought, the absolute and derivative, and thus that man must think God’s thoughts after Him in a receptively reconstructive manner; the latter approach holds to the ultimacy and normative quality of man’s mind, and thus that he should seek to be creatively constructive in his interpretation of reality.216  “The essence of the non-Christian position is that man is assumed to be ultimate or autonomous.  Man is thought of as the final reference point in predication.”217  In contrast,

The Protestant doctrine of God requires that it be made foundational to everything else as a principle of explanation.  If God is self-sufficient, he alone is self-explanatory.  And if he alone is self-explanatory, then he must be the final reference point in all human predication.  He is then like the sun from which all lights on earth derive their power of illumination.218

The presuppositionalist must challenge the would-be autonomous man with the fact that only upon the presupposition of God and His revelation can intelligibility be preserved in his effort to understand and interpret the world.  Christian truth is the transcendental necessity of man’s epistemological efforts.

Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument. . . . Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. . . . A truly transcendent God and a transcendental method go hand in hand.219

Van Til’s presuppositional defense of the faith allows him to start with any fact whatsoever and challenge his opponent to give an intelligible interpretation of it; the presuppositionalist seeks to show the unbeliever that his epistemology reduces to absurdity.  Nothing less will do.  Standing firmly within the circle of Christianity’s presupposed truth, “We reason from the impossibility of the contrary.”220  This is the most fundamental and effective way to defend the faith.

How then, we ask, is the Christian to challenge this non-Christian approach to the interpretation of human experience?  He can do so only if he shows that man must presuppose God as the final reference point in predication.  Otherwise, he would destroy experience itself.  He can do so only if he shows the non-Christian that even in his virtual negation of God, he is still really presupposing God.  He can do so only if he shows the non-Christian that he cannot deny God unless he first affirms him, and that his own approach throughout its history has been shown to be destructive of human experience itself.221

Van Til’s Reformed, presuppositional defense of the faith requires us to repudiate the assumed normative character of the unbeliever’s thinking as well as his supposed neutrality.  In this Van Til is simply applying the scriptural perspective of Paul, as examined earlier.

To argue by presupposition is to indicate what are the epistemological and metaphysical principles that underlie and control one’s method.  The Reformed apologist will frankly admit that his own methodology presupposes the truth of Christian theism. . . . In spite of this claim to neutrality on the part of the non-Christian, the Reformed apologist must point out that every method, the supposedly neutral one no less than any other, presupposes either the truth or the falsity of Christian theism.

The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct.  The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to the debate.  The question is rather as to what is the final reference point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible.222

It is only within the theological school of Reformed interpretation of Scripture that the strength of presuppositional apologetics could develop.  By their compromising stands on man’s depravity and God’s total sovereignty, Romanism and Arminianism are hindered from issuing the transcendental challenge of presuppositionalism.

Roman Catholics and Arminians, appealing to the “reason” of the natural man as the natural man himself interprets his reason, namely as autonomous, are bound to use the direct method of approach to the natural man, the method that assumes the essential correctness of a non-Christian and non-theistic conception of reality.  The Reformed apologist, on the other hand, appealing to that knowledge of the true God in the natural man which the natural man suppresses by means of his assumption of ultimacy, will also appeal to the knowledge of the true method which the natural man knows but suppresses. . . . He suppresses his knowledge of himself as he truly is.  He is a man with an iron mask.  A true method of apologetics must seek to tear off that iron mask.  The Roman Catholic and the Arminian make no attempt to do so.  They even flatter its wearer about his fine appearance.  In the introductions of their books on apologetics Arminian as well as Roman Catholic apologists frequently seek to set their “opponents” at ease by assuring them that their method, in its field, is all that any Christian could desire.  In contradistinction from this, the Reformed apologist will point out again and again that the only method that will lead to the truth in any field is that method which recognizes the fact that man is a creature of God, and that he must therefore seek to think God’s thoughts after him.223

A covenantal theology of sovereign grace absolutely requires this kind of presuppositional method; no measure of human autonomy can be permitted, since man, as a covenantal creature, has been created to glorify God and subdue all of creation under the direction of his Creator, and also since man’s restoration from the effects of his fall into sin can be accomplished and applied solely by the work of Christ and the Spirit.

Underlying this covenantal theology of sovereign grace is the presupposed authority of God’s inspired, infallible word.  For Van Til, Scripture is our most basic authority, which means that there is nothing higher by which it could be proven.

We have felt compelled to take our notions with respect to the nature of reality from the Bible. . . . We have taken the final standard of truth to be the Bible itself.  It is needless to say that this procedure will appear suicidal to most men who study philosophy. . . . To accept an interpretation of life upon authority is permissible only if we have looked into the foundations of the authority we accept.  But if we must determine the foundations of the authority, we no longer accept authority on authority.224

At the end of every line of argumentation there must be a self-evident or self-attesting truth, or else we are committed to either an infinite regress or question-begging.  The basic authority for the Christian must be God’s word.  In the very nature of the case, then, this word must be self-attesting; it must be accepted on its own authority.

It is impossible to attain to the idea of such a God by speculation independently of Scripture.  It has never been done and is inherently impossible.  Such a God must identify himself. . . . Such a view of God and of human history is both presupposed by, and in turn presupposes, the idea of the infallible Bible. . . . It thus appears afresh that a specifically biblical or Reformed philosophy of history both presupposes and is presupposed by the idea of the Bible as testifying to itself and as being the source of its own identification. . . . It was against such a specific self-identification that man sinned. . . . Thus the Christ as testifying to the Word and the Word as testifying to the Christ are involved in one another . . . . It is of the utmost apologetical importance.  It is precisely because God is the kind of God he is, that his revelation is, in the nature of the case, self-attesting.  In particular, it should be noted that such a God as the Scripture speaks of is everywhere self-attesting. . . . Objectively the Scriptures have on their face the appearance of divinity while yet none will accept its self-attestation unless the Holy Spirit, himself divine, witness to the Word which he has inspired the prophets and apostles to write.225

According to Van Til only Christ can testify to himself and interpret His acts and words.  This avoids the dual problem of spiritual subjectivism (irrationalism) and intellectual autonomy (rationalism); one does not approach divine truth through the Spirit apart from the word, nor does one first interpret himself and his world, only then to add Christ’s word to his own (as though his problem were merely a lack of information).  Fact, logic, and personality must be interpreted by Christ, not vice versa, or else Christ’s testimony would be subordinated and absorbed into man’s self-testimony and self-sufficient interpretation.  Consequently, the word of Christ must be its own authority; it must be self-attesting.  One cannot reason up to the authority and truth of Christ’s word from a point outside of that position.

Complementing this understanding of the authority of God’s word is Van Til’s insistence on the necessity, sufficiency, and clarity of God’s revelation, both general and special.226  The sinner has no excuse for rebelling against the truth.  He recognizes the voice of his Lord speaking in Scripture, and that which may be known about God is continually being manifested unto him by God through the created order.

Whatever may happen, whatever sin may bring about, whatever havoc it may occasion, it cannot destroy man’s knowledge of God and his sense of responsibility to God.  Sin would not be sin except for this ineradicable knowledge of God. . . . This knowledge is that which all men have in common.227

However, sin does explain man’s refusal to acknowledge his Creator, his suppression of the revelation of God within and without him, and his rejection of the salvation found in God’s Son. Thus, Van Til is aware that the success of apologetics finally depends upon the work of God’s sovereign Spirit in the hearts and minds of men.  In addition to the transcendental necessity of presupposing the existence of the Creator God, the self-attesting authority of Christ the Son speaking in Scripture, and the concrete biblical understanding of man as both possessing yet suppressing the knowledge of God, Van Til should be known for his apologetical dependence upon the powerful work of God’s Spirit in bringing men to renounce their would-be autonomy (which is in principle destructive of all experience and intelligible understanding) and bow before Christ as He commands them to in His inspired word.

As for the question whether the natural man will accept the truth of such an argument, we answer that he will if God pleases by his Spirit to take the scales from his eyes and the mask from his face.  It is upon the power of the Holy Spirit that the Reformed preacher relies when he tells men that they are lost in sin and in need of a Savior.  The Reformed preacher does not tone down his message in order that it may find acceptance with the natural man.  He does not say that his message is less certainly true because of its non-acceptance by the natural man.  The natural man is, by virtue of his creation in the image of God, always accessible to the truth; accessible to the penetration of the truth by the Spirit of God.  Apologetics, like systematics, is valuable to the precise extent that it presses the truth upon the attention of the natural man.228

By refusing to follow a presuppositional approach to defending the faith, apologists throughout history have seen their witness absorbed into the autonomous schemes of unbelief; indeed, the very position of those who profess to defend the faith has been both compromised by, and transformed into, the perspective of unbelief.  If one’s theology is not to be made over into the image of autonomous man, then his theology must ground his apologetic and inform its argumentation with respect to starting point, method, and epistemological standard.  In contrast to Warfield (as well as the rest of traditional apologists), who held that apologetics must establish the presuppositions of theology, Van Til has reformed the field of apologetics by unashamedly holding that theology must supply the presuppositions of apologetics.  The biblical truth of Reformed theology requires a specific approach to defending the faith; just as Reformed theology alone proclaims good news which fully and actually saves men, so a Reformed apologetic alone can remain faithful to the faith and be successful in defending the good news before Christianity’s cultured despisers.

If there is not a distinctively Reformed method for the defense of every article of the Christian faith, then there is no way of clearly telling an unbeliever just how Christianity differs from his own position and why he should accept the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.229

The faith is best defended by that method of argumentation which does not entail an alteration of the faith defended.  By allowing his Reformed theology to guide his presuppositional apologetic, Van Til has signalized the crucial difference between the Socratic outlook and that of Christ.  He has done for apologetics what Calvin did for theology.  By aiming to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic has triggered the reformation of Christian apologetics.  The foundation of Christian scholarship is to be found in the rigorously biblical epistemology to which Van Til adheres in his defense of the faith.

Although he undoubtedly intended it as a compliment, C. F. H. Henry inaccurately designated Cornelius Van Til as one of three “men of Athens” in his dedication of Remaking the Modern Mind.  We may be thankful that this has not been the case.  The Lord has given Dr. Van Til a love and dedication for that city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  Van Til’s citizenship as a Christian apologist belongs, not to Athens, but to the New Jerusalem.  He has been a loyal follower of Christ rather than Socrates; in his extensive writings, his unceasing personal evangelism, and his loving counsel, he has continually demonstrated that “unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.”  May God grant that his presuppositional apologetic will indeed signalize the remaking of the modern mind.



210 Christian Theistic Ethics, p. 219.

211 Ibid., p. 184; cf. Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 144.

212 Ibid., p. 209.

213 Ibid., p. 210.

214 Ibid., p. 209.

215 The Defense of the Faith, p. 51.

216 Ibid., pp. 64-66.

217 Christian Theory of Knowledge, pp. 12-13.

218 Ibid., p. 12.

219 A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 11.

220 Ibid., pp. 204,205.

221 Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 13.

222 The Defense of the Faith, pp. 116-117.

223 Ibid., pp. 118-119.

224 Ibid., p. 49.

225 Christian Theory of Knowledge, pp. 28,30,31,32.

226 Ibid., pp. 52-71; cf. “Nature and Scripture,” The Infallible Word, ed. Paul Woolley (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, reprinted 1967), pp. 263-301.

227 The Defense of the Faith, p. 173.

228 Ibid., pp. 121-122.

229 Ibid., p. 335.


Return to beginning of

Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics


Greg L. Bahnsen page