Van Til's Critique of Human Thought

William D. Dennison

New Horizons: October 2004

Remembering Cornelius Van Til

Also in this issue

Van Til the Controversialist

Van Til Made Me Reformed

Educators have always been concerned about how information is transferred from the teacher to the pupil. Specifically, does the student acquire a sufficient understanding of a subject in order to apply it to life? Over the years, students have voiced this concern with regard to Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987)—they find his language difficult to understand and difficult to apply to apologetic situations.

One reason for this is that they are not trained in philosophy. Even so, their failure to comprehend and apply Van Til's philosophical language has not diminished their enthusiasm for his apologetic starting point, which is the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. For them, the authority of God's Word and the preeminence of Jesus Christ transcend their own ignorance of philosophy. They know that the apologist is not to compromise the Christ of Scripture with any principle or system of secularization! Even if Van Til's philosophical language is unclear, his students support his initial commitment to the gospel found in the infallible Word of God.

These students, while applauding Van Til's starting point, struggle to apply the truth of the self-attesting Christ of Scripture to secular thought, Christian thought, and their own thought. Perhaps their efforts are impeded once again by Van Til's philosophical language, for he asks them to employ the "transcendental critique." For Van Til, this critique is the method of examining a principle or system of thought in order to uncover the central presupposition (idea, belief, Archimedean point) that shapes it. In this case, the term transcendental refers to the one principle that is foundational to the whole system of belief. For a Christian who is committed to Van Til's apologetic, that basic principle is the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. Non-Christians offer such principles as reason, experience, imagination, power, and dialectic. Contrary to what many think, the basis for Van Til's transcendental critique is not obscure or theoretical. His critique of human thought merely employs Christ's teaching that out of the heart flow the issues of life (cf. Matt. 12:34-35; 15:18-19; Mark 7:21; Luke 12:34; 16:15). By participating in Christ's words, the apologist is to uncover and expose the heart of humanity. For Van Til, no one is exempt from this critical analysis. The transcendental critique reveals the deep roots of sin in the heart of man, and it demands the purity of biblical truth in the church as well as in the individual Christian.

How It Works

How does the transcendental critique work? Let's say, for example, that I believe that all disputes between nations can be resolved through discussion (negotiation) and experience. The transcendental critique attempts to figure out why I hold that position. As you begin your analysis of my thought, as a Christian apologist, you must have a self-conscious understanding of God's revelation from Genesis to Revelation. Specifically, you must participate self-consciously in Christ's message to the church (the Bible) as you attempt to disclose the foundation (root) of my system. By participating in the biblical text, theory and practice are brought together. With a biblical consciousness of God's revelatory truth in place, you are ready to begin your analysis and critique of my thought.

Your transcendental critique functions like a drill penetrating the earth in order to find coal. You begin at the surface—with the statement that I have placed before you. The drilling process begins by asking questions graciously in order to uncover the various layers of my thought (1 Pet. 3:15-16). A drill removes layers of dirt and rock as it makes its way to the coal; likewise, you will ask me questions that reveal the layers or "structures" of my thought as you make your way toward my most fundamental belief. In Van Til's apologetic, this part of the transcendental critique is known as "structural analysis." For example, your questioning should reveal that one of the structures of my thought is the belief that people are basically good. Moreover, you should discover my belief that people desire to live at peace with one another.


With these structures before us, the question still remains: Why do I hold these beliefs? At this point, the drill seems to be approaching the coal—my core belief. You begin to realize that my convictions that people are basically good and that people wish to live in peace are dictated by my fundamental concept of human rationality. You have exposed the central presupposition of my thought—the assumption that all minds basically embrace inherent goodness and peaceful coexistence. Diplomatic negotiations will solve conflicts between nations, in my view, because all humanity shares a common desire for goodness and peace. This concept of human rationality is my core belief.

One might react to my illustration by recalling Augustine's (354-430) conception of man as the image of God. In his City of God, Augustine writes that man's goodness and desire for peace are central elements of that image. So, is my view of human rationality secular or Christian? At this point, the Christian apologist has to be very perceptive as he applies the transcendental critique to the structures of my thought. He has to connect the dots of each response that I give to his questions. Moreover, he is responsible to construct my worldview honestly as I disclose my various beliefs. (That is, the apologist must endeavor to understand his opponent's position better than his opponent understands it.)

In our example, let us say that as your investigation advances toward my core belief, it becomes apparent that my view of rationality is shaped by the tenets of modernity—for example, I do not believe in God, nor do I accept the biblical view that man is God's image. Neither the Bible nor Augustine is determining my understanding of the role of goodness and peace in the arena of diplomacy. Rather, enlightened humanism, as it came to expression in John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), has conditioned my conceptions of goodness and peace.

In his essay On Liberty (1859), Mill sounded the alarm that in a democratic state the majority could become tyrannical. In order to prevent this abuse of power, Mill maintained that people must put all differences aside and appeal to the collective constitution of human reason. By doing this, all parties (majority and minority) are capable of resolving their problems through "discussion and experience." All conflicts can easily be resolved in the confidence of rational discourse, as each side invokes the experience of history and human collectivity. Mill's position is dependent upon what he calls the "quality" and "respectability" of the human mind to construct an intellectual and moral society—that is, a society that is dependent upon the goodness of man, and man's ability to create an environment of peace and harmony. If the biblical doctrine of man's fall into sin is rejected, as Mill did, a human utopia would seem to be within man's grasp if Mill's political philosophy is embraced and executed. For those committed to classic democratic liberalism, Mill's principle of utility—"discussion and experience"—became the solution to all human conflict.


After the Christian apologist has uncovered the central presupposition of his opponent, he is in a position to move on to the next step: to demonstrate that his opponent cannot live consistently from his own presupposition(s). Keep in mind that, according to Van Til, apologetics is not a battle between competing presuppositions. The object of apologetics is not to show that my presupposition is better than your presupposition. Rather, for the Christian apologist, the presupposition of the absolute authority and truth of the self-attesting Christ of Scripture calls all men to repentance and faith in Christ as their presuppositions and systems of thought are brought into the open. For Van Til, there is an antithesis between the Christian presupposition and all others presuppositions.

To see this, let us return to our illustration. Two examples are sufficient to show the folly of the secular view of rationality that I espoused (Mill's view). First, we know that dictators and tyrants have invoked Machiavelli's (1469-1527) The Prince in order to justify their evil behavior. History is full of instances in which "discussion and experience" had no impact as these ruthless "princes" terminated the lives of millions. Second, since my (Mill's) perspective of utopian idealism is grounded in the Enlightenment's view that rationality would lead to the cessation of war, its folly is exposed by the two world wars of the twentieth century—and the continuing strife of our day. Although many continue to give blind allegiance to this ideal, there is no evidence, as we enter the twenty-first century, that "discussion and experience" will pacify man's evil quest for power over others.

By using these counterarguments, the Christian apologist has shown the absurdity of my core belief and my inability to consistently apply my view of rationality to the affairs of humanity. The counterarguments affirm the antithetical instruction of the psalmist to put no confidence in princes. Instead, we are to put our confidence in the sovereign providence of God, who has reserved the inheritance of the nations for his Son (Pss. 118:9; 146:3; 2:1-12). The apologist will place before his rival this statement of the psalmist in the hope of seeing repentance and faith in Christ.

I want you to see from my illustration that it is not necessary to know someone's thought thoroughly in order to critique it. I tried to demonstrate this point by not revealing Mill's name until the transcendental critique had uncovered his basic presupposition. In other words, my aim was to show that a competent understanding of Van Til's critique is sufficient for pastors and laymen to expose the starting point and structures of a rival's thought. A competent use of the critique does not require a knowledge of the history of philosophy. No doubt, as I also attempted to show, a knowledge of the history of philosophy will add context and substance to the critique, but such knowledge is not imperative for the pastor or layman. Indeed, competency in the method enables one to effectively combat the secular presuppositions of the world, as well as to withstand the invasion of secularism into Christ's church and the believer's life.

Christian Self-analysis

Although my example was taken from the arena of secular thought, I do not want to overlook the responsibility of the church and the believer to employ the method in self-analysis. For a church that proclaims the truth of the gospel, and for the believer who loves Christ, apologetics is not only the defending of the Christ of Scripture in the world, but also the constant cleansing of our union with Christ from the pollution of sinful thought. Through the power of Christ's Spirit, we are to live out our self-conscious identity in Christ (Gal. 2:20). As pastors prepare to preach, the transcendental method will need to be employed. As the church makes decisions about her philosophy of ministry, the method will need to be employed. As believers watch TV, view a film, read a book, counsel a friend, listen in the classroom, and hear a political candidate, the method will need to be employed. Simply put, church, pastor, and believer must critically analyze everything that passes through the brain. As the Holy Spirit maintains our participation in the self-attesting Christ of Scripture, such analysis thwarts the evil one!

The author, an OP minister, teaches at Covenant College and the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2004.

New Horizons: October 2004

Remembering Cornelius Van Til

Also in this issue

Van Til the Controversialist

Van Til Made Me Reformed

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