Book Review: The Certainty of Faith – By Herman Bavinck

Bavinck Certainty of Faith.pngletter-aAs Bavinck says in his second chapter: “When our highest interests, our eternal weal or woe is at stake, we must be satisfied with nothing less than infallible, divine certainty. There must be no room for doubt.”

The title of this book, The Certainty of Faith, seemingly has two different connotations. At a glance, the title seems to refer to a discussion on how it is that the Christian comes about having certainty in their faith; in actuality, the book is an answer to that self-same question. The book is not primarily a discussion on how to obtain certainty in faith, but a discussion of the differing types of certainty, one of which is faith.

There is no question that in the wake of the Enlightenment that the quests for certainty became a major theme in academia, a quest which ironically made doubt the key theme of thought from that point onward. Certainty for the author is that point at which “the spirit finds complete rest in its object of knowledge.”

As outlined by Bavinck there are various forms of certainty: there is the certainty that comes through science and observation; the certainty that comes through rational thought; and the certainty that comes through faith. The first two types of faith, Bavinck notes, while being more universal, lack the strength of the tie to the soul brought by the certainty of faith – it is admittedly more objective, but in this case it is the subjective note that is striven for, the note that touches the soul of the individual. As the author says: “Scientific certainty can’t stand up to the torch and stake.”

Even within religion this certainty has been sought in a variety of ways: through works, through rationalism, through pietism, through experience. Often individuals have look outward or inward, seldom upward. The certainty of faith is one built on revelation (“Revelation is the presupposition, the foundation, the flip-side, the necessary correlate of religion. A religion that no longer dares to come forward in God’s name and authority loses its very essence. It has become mythology or philosophy of religion.”) and “a knowledge gained from a reliable witness.” Thus, “Just as knowledge only occurs when the known object and the knowing subject agree, so true knowledge of God is possible only through faith, which He Himself quickens in our hearts.”

The certainty of faith as outlined by Bavinck comes through the inward work of the spirit, not through works, through arguments, or through experience. Being divinely given, this certainty has the infallibility sought by Bavinck and in being divine is thereby the only certainty worthy of the complete trust of the soul’s destiny.

In terms of significance I think the distinction being made here by Bavinck is an important one, and I’ll admit that I went into the book with the wrong mindset, thinking it was about something that it wasn’t. The book is not an apologetic arguing about how to have certainty in our faith, but rather a discussion on a type of certainty, the certainty of faith. I don’t think this is a distinction or even an idea that is very prevalent in the church today, and when the church is constantly searching for an apologetic by which to bring certainty to faith, it is of immeasurable importance to realize that faith, in itself, is a type of certainty.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Just as faith cannot be undermined by scientific argument, it cannot be convincingly established by it. It always rests on revelation, authority, a divine word, whether true or presumed, and is therefore always only a fruit of faith, a faith that – for whatever reason – recognizes this authority and bows before it in obedience.”(p24)

-“Proofs come after the fact in every religion; they don’t lead the way but trail behind. They are conceived for those who don’t believe… Apologetics is the fruit, never the root, of faith.”(p22)

-“Truth always brings certainty, but certainty is no proof of truth.”(p33)

-“All proof presupposes a starting point common to those for and against, a foundation recognized by both. It is impossible to reason with someone who denies all principles. Both the proofs as well as the presuppositions on which they rest vary from science to science.”(p54)

-“In order to study the religions, compare them, judge them according to their true, distinct values, we require a standard, an idea of religion, no mater how vague and general, which precedes such study and evaluation, and which guides and rules it.”(p56)

-“Certainty became the goal rather than the starting point of all his striving. To be saved was the object of all his desires.”(p94)

Specific Criticisms

Perhaps my only criticism is that the system set forward by Bavinck seems to be circular at some point, at least when he speaks of the doubt that sometimes accompanies faith. At one point he states that “As long as we aren’t certain and firm in our faith and we still doubt, we will continue to experience anxiety and fear and will not have the boldness and trust of children of God… But if in faith we fasten immediately onto the promises of God and take our stand in His rich grace, then we are His children and receive the Spirit of adoption.”(p92)

As I read this, it seems to essentially be saying that if we aren’t firm in our faith, the remedy is to strengthen our faith. He essentially says “If we aren’t certain in our faith, we will continue to be uncertain in our faith… but if in faith we fasten onto the promises, then we will receive faith (since faith is the work of God in our hearts to those who he elects as his children).”

Yet if a lack of faith is the problem, then a call to strengthen your faith cannot be a solution, given that faith is the work of God. An uncertainty in faith, on this system, must be remedied by God. To suggest an attempt by man seems to come out saying “increase your faith by increasing your faith”, which is hardly useful.

Pascal: Faith & Reason


Letter TThe question of the relationship between faith and reason is one of the perennial questions within Christian philosophy.

Nearly every major Christian thinker down through the ages has said something on the topic of faith and reason, especially those with some sort of apologetic in mind. The greats of these ranks include those such as Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas in the ancient and medieval church, and those such as Kierkegaard, Van Til, and Bavinck in the more modern world.

Coming closer towards the beginning of the modern period stands Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher of the 17th-Century perhaps best known for his famous assertion that “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” In the preface to his commentary on Pascal’s Pensées, Peter Kreeft asserts that “God in his infinite mercy struck Pascal dead at the tender age of thirty-nine, before he could complete the greatest book of Christian apologetics ever written.”

Being a work of apologetics the Pensées naturally discusses the relationship between human reason and the Christian faith, indeed epistemology is the topic of the very first chapter and Pascal spends the bulk of the book elaborating on the topic.

His first paragraph begins with a discussion of the difference between the strictly rational and the intuitive minds, and it is this distinction which serves to undergird the majority of his arguments throughout the text. In making the distinctions that he does Pascal is often approached with some hesitation by those within Christianity for seemingly removing the sphere of faith from that of reason.

These critics label Pascal at best as a fideist, or at least as having fideistic tendencies, at worst as a mystic. There thus arises the question of what the relationship between faith and reason is for Pascal and in what category this view places him in.

His aforementioned assertion regarding the reasons of the heart as well as the statement in his wager that neither the proposition “God is” nor the one that “He is not” can be defended according to reason certainly seem to demonstrate a clear hostility to the things of reason. Yet Pascal asserts that there are actually two excesses: “to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

Pascal as an apologist was not hostile to reason, rather, he saw the proper place for reason in its relation to the things of faith; Pascal recognized the limits of reason, and rather than assert that faith is contrary to the ideal of reason he asserted that it is beyond and above reason, specifically reason as it is in fallen man.

pascal.jpegIn examining this position it will be helpful to examine his view of epistemology, specifically his distinction between the rational mind and the intuitive mind, to examine his view of apologetical proofs, and finally to take a look at some of the arguments that Pascal does actually provide for the Christian faith.

Pascal and Epistemology

In discussing the relationship between faith and reason it is only natural to begin with a discussion of epistemology.

As has already been mentioned Pascal begins his Pensées by discussing the difference between the ‘mathematical’ or ‘geometric’ mind – that is, the mind of pure reason – and the intuitive mind, which is roughly the realm of ‘feeling’ or of the heart. The former is the aspect of thought “which uses principles and demonstrations”; it is that part of the mind which uses premises to arrive at conclusions, and thus by ‘reason’ Pascal here means discursive or logical reasoning. The latter is the aspect of thought through which “we know first principles,” it is that aspect which discerns the premises. This includes both logical principles like the law of non-contradiction as well as ethic principles like doing good and avoiding evil.

A good summation of this division comes in Pascal’s statement that “Principles are felt [intuited], propositions proved, and both with certainty though by different means.”

This statement is also of importance because in it one can observe that Pascal once again does not wholly dismiss the validity of reason, he notes that propositions can indeed be proven with certainty. Where Pascal separates himself from the great thinkers of his day – the rationalists – is in maintaining that there is something which can create certainty apart from the reason.

It is this rebellion against the Cartesian method that is the initial thrust of Pascal’s apologetic, to assert that discursive reasoning is not the sole authority for arriving at knowledge and understanding.

The tendency of Pascal’s contemporaries who also rebelled against rationalism was to side with other great thinkers of the day – the empiricists – yet Pascal was careful to avoid this as well.

Thus while both the reason and the senses do convey knowledge, there is something else which also conveys knowledge, that is, the intuition of the heart – thus the heart may have ‘reasons’ which are not arrived at (known) by the reason. This intuition of the heart is not strictly opposed to reason or to the senses, rather it is above them, beyond them (and given that it provides the first principles on which reason functions, it is ‘before’ them): “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.”

This realm of the heart which is above and beyond reason is for Pascal also the realm of faith, hence “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”

For those who would define fideism pejoratively as a faith which is against reason this would seem to clear Pascal of the charge. Yet for those who define fideism as any epistemology which sets its foundation outside of reason, Pascal still stands firmly within that realm. It is also of great importance here to note another division, or clarification – though one which is more implied by Pascal than it is stated outright – that is the division between the ideal of reason and the fallen reality of reason.

If by reason one refers to the latter then Pascal indeed states that faith is opposed to this sort of reason.

Thus Pascal states that “There no doubt exist natural laws, but once this fine reason of ours was corrupted, it corrupted everything” so that “nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself.” On the one hand this is a simple observation along the same lines of the one C.S. Lewis makes in his book The Abolition of Man, where he states that “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved.”

On the other it is an acknowledgement of the noetic effects of sin. The division is between the ideal of reason and the reality of reason, where the former may be perfectly in line with – even if above – faith and the latter may be against it.

The implication of this division can be seen again in such statements asAll mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear eyesight” and “One of the ways in which the damned will be confounded is that they will see themselves condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion,” which implies that in the final days when all eyes have clear eyesight then the reasonableness of the Christian faith will be clearly seen.

To say that the fallen reason is opposed to faith in this sense is not to say that it is merely opposed to faith, but that it is opposed to the intuitions of the heart in general, which in this context means to be opposed to first principles.

Therefore Pascal says “It is through the [heart] that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them.” It is because of this that “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.” Yet submitting everything to reason will not only leave the faith with nothing supernatural, but trying to found everything to reason will also leave morals defunct so that “whoever carries it back to its first principles destroys it.”

It may therefore be observed that there are two chief divisions in Pascal’s epistemology: the first is between the intuitive mind (the heart) which discerns first principles directly, and the rational mind which uses principles in order to arrive at conclusions; the second is between the rational mind as it would function ideally and the rational mind as it functions in fallen humanity.

As regards the first division, faith stands as a work of the intuitive mind, a work of the heart and of clear eyes, above reason. As regards the second division, faith stands in accord with reason as it would operate ideally (although it is not a product of this reason), yet in opposition to reason as it operates in the fallen human mind.

Thus faith must be instilled into man from above by God through a reorientation of the heart and a clearing of the eyes.

For Pascal this reorientation may or may not be accompanied by proper reasoning, therefore he states that Christians should “not be surprised to see simple men believe without reasoning” although generally religion is put “into the mind by reasons, and into the heart by grace.” It may thereby be observed that Pascal would maintain that in some cases the reason may be bypassed.

A final restatement may need made at this point for clarification. That is, while Pascal may imply that Christianity is in accord with the ideal reason, this is not to say that salvation is simply a matter of fixing the reason that it may recognize the truth of Christianity.

As Pascal states many times in multiple ways, it is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. Unless the heart perceives and the eyes are directed at Christ, then even the ideal reason would work in vain. Afterall, the reason works from premises and principles, and these principles must be discerned by the heart and the eyes.

If the principles are not discerned, then even perfect reason cannot come to a correct conclusion; thus, the need of the nonbeliever goes far beyond simply the correcting of a cognitive defect, their heart must be turned by the cross.

Pascal and Apologetics: Proofs

This division between the ideal reason and the fallen reason leads well into the discussion of Pascal’s approach to the use of rational arguments in general and proofs from nature and reason specifically.

While Pascal sees the insufficiency of rational arguments to produce faith he still notes that the apologist must nonetheless make use of them, saying “to those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reasoning, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation.” The reasoning which Pascal believes to be proper will be explored in the following section, though here it is of note that while Pascal believed that apologist must make use of reasons, he was not in favor of the traditional proofs; one of Pascal’s most direct statements on this topic is that “It is a remarkable fact that no canonical [Biblical] author has ever used nature to prove God.”

Thus not only does Pascal use Scripture as his precedent for not employing proofs but he also views them as generally ineffective: “The metaphysical proofs for the existence of God are so remote from human reasoning and so involved that they make little impact,” going on to state that even if they do help some people it will only be for the moment that the demonstration is in front of them.

Pascal acknowledges that such proofs are not only removed from the grasp of the general populace, but also that he did not believe they would convince a hardened atheist, especially because “such knowledge, without Christ, is useless and sterile.” It is important to note here that as Peter Kreeft points out “Pascal does not say that the traditional philosophical proofs of the existence of God are logically weak,” but merely that they are not permanently convincing or able to convert the heart from pride to humility.

Pascal and Apologetics: Reasons

Despite Pascal’s lack of confidence in proofs and his acknowledgement that reason is insufficient for producing faith (given that faith is a gift from God, beyond reason), he still maintained – as was mentioned above – that the Christian must still provide reasons until God moves in the unbelievers heart.

Yet the reasons that Pascal provides are not general reasons which may lead to a deistic god just as easily as to the Christian God, for Pascal views deism as being just as opposed to Christianity as is atheism.

He – like Cornelius Van Til – is not content to prove the god of mathematical truths, but only the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

Thus the reasons which Pascal provides for the faith are reasons which derive from Scripture; therefore he argues from miracles, from prophecies, from the uniqueness of Christianity in these ways as well as in how it is the only religion to “propose to men to hate themselves.” Following from this aspect of its uniqueness, Christianity is also the only religion which can “please those who hate themselves, and who seek a Being truly lovable.” Thus for Pascal it is in Christianity that men find true happiness. Pascal again argues from the improbability of the apostles plotting to say that Christ had risen and then dying for conspiracy.

It can be seen in this that Pascal uses a wide variety of reasons for defending the Christian faith, yet his reasons are founded on and unique to Christianity – they are not proofs which could be used to prove any general deity, thus Pascal’s quarrel is “not with those who seek to make a rational case for faith, but with those who seek to know God as a philosophical abstraction or theoretical entity.”

Classifying Pascal

It has been observed thus far that Pascal sets the intuition of the heart as a thing which is beyond reason. Faith is a work of the heart for Pascal, and thus without a work in the heart by God faith will not be accomplished, regardless of whatever reasons may be provided to the rational mind.

While for Pascal it may be possible to have faith without reasoning, on the whole he posits that God changes the heart and the mind upon salvation, thus it is possible for Christianity to make sense within its own system (according to the ideal of reason rather than its fallen state).

For the rationalist, this removes faith their sphere.

From the outside the Christian faith is seen as having a gap which cannot be passed by reason alone, hence Pascal notes that the faith appears foolish since even though there are apparent reasons “it is not all this which makes people belong to it.”

It is this gap which motivates Pascal to posit such arguments as that in his wager, stating that since [discursive] reasoning is neither for or against Christianity that one should simply wager. Kierkegaard later on makes a similar sort of assertion with his leap, which is to “accept in faith that which indeed cannot be thought.”

Some would term this sort of stance as fideism while others such as Peter Kreeft would tselliot.jpgobject, although he offers no alternative classification. Some even bring up the charge of mysticism, though as T.S. Elliot points out in his introduction to the Pensées “Pascal was not a mystic… but what can only be called mystical experience happens to many men who do not become mystics.”

Elliot’s idea accounts both for the fact that a mystical (supra-rational) experience occurs, and yet the system itself is not mystical, yet Elliot also provides no category. Perhaps the best category which might be provided is that provided by C. Stephen Evans, positing that “Perhaps we should call fideism that can be rationally defended responsible fideism.

In this view as in Pascal faith is “beyond reason rather than against reason, since there is no necessary conflict with reason, but only a conflict with reason that has suffered damage but refuses to recognize this” resulting in a scenario of ‘faith seeking understanding’ similar to that of Anselm, where “To understand is to know the truth in the way it should be known.”

This responsible fideism would therefore be to acknowledge the actual state of the Christian faith as being something that although reasonable within its own system (according to the rectified reason rather than the fallen reason), yet also as something which cannot be reached through reason. It acknowledges that the problem is one of the heart rather than one of the mind.

This does operate at the risk of taking on the baggage of the term fideism, but if the Christian is to be intellectually honest this may be a necessary risk – there is a certain mystical or existential element to the Christian faith which cannot be denied, a moment of decision where “the individual needs divine assistance.”

Modern Relevance

As it was observed in the beginning the question of faith and reason is one of the perennial questions in Christianity, and this is just as true today as it was in Tertullian’s, in Anselm’s, in Pascal’s or in the modern day. On the one hand the Enlightenment desire for rationalism still pervades areas of thought today and many refuse to believe if concrete logical reasons cannot be provided to them. For these individuals Pascal reminds them of the logical reality that reason cannot produce its own principles and presuppositions, it reminds them that reason standing alone can only tear down principles, not establish them.

On the other hand there is also the great distrust logic which has reacted against the Enlightenment ideals and has gravitated towards emotion. For these individuals Pascal provides reasons as to how the Christian faith renders individuals “intelligible to ourselves and offers us a way to attain the self-completion that our hearts naturally and most deeply desire.”

For the Christian apologist who is faced with confronting these two groups as well as others, Pascal reminds them that the work of salvation is not in human hands, but rather that it is a work of God in the heart: “we cannot procure it for them by reasoning” but in the final call must wait “till God himself impress it on their hearts.”

Pascal centers his apologetic entirely on the need for the work of Christ, and therefore although he spends little time on the gospel as such he still provides an apologetic which takes the need for the gospel as its primary foundation. In the debate of which apologetic to use it is good to remember that the arguments of man are not the final producer of faith, that the work of God through Christ is ever the vital element.

As Pascal says, “What makes them believe is the cross.”



Book Review: God and Philosophy – By Etienne Gilson

Gilson God and Philosphy.pngletter-god and Philosophy is author Etienne Gilson‘s history of philosophy as regards its relationship with the idea of God and the demonstration of his existence. The text is divided into four sections: God and Greek Philosophy, God and Christian Philosophy, God and Modern Philosophy, and Contemporary Thought, roughly following the progression of thought from the Milesians through Augustine and Aquinas to Descarte, Spinoza, and finally Kant, Comte, Einstein and Huxley.

The history of philosophy presented by Gilson is very well done, yet it is the analysis and critique found within each of the sections which makes the text truly worthwhile. Here we see the tension of the Greeks between philosophy and religion, the medieval wrestling with metaphysics that they borrowed from the Greeks, the Enlightenment in turn borrowing from the scholastics in reconciling their science, and finally the scientists disregarding metaphysics and wondering why their science cannot answer questions that it is no designed to ask.

All in all Gilson’s text is a lucid, insightful and fairly accessible text regarding the way that the world has approached the notion of God, the difficulties in reconciling him with the philosophies of the day, and the shortcomings of the various systems in confronting the question. I’ve chosen a rather large number of memorable quotes as I feel they can better sum up the position and the merits of this text than I can through summation.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The great curse of modern philosophy is the almost universally prevailing rebellion against intellectual self-discipline. Where loose thinking obtains, truth cannot possibly be grasped, whence the conclusion naturally follows that there is no truth.”(pXV)

-“The Greek gods are the crude but telling expression of this absolute conviction that since man is somebody, and not merely something, the ultimate explanation for what happens to him should rest with somebody, and not merely with something… Mythology is not the first step on the path to true philosophy. In fact, it is no philosophy at all. Mythology is a first step on the path to true religion: it is religious in its own right.”(p22)

-“Human reason feels at home in a world of things, whose essences and laws it can grasp and define in terms of concepts; but shy and ill at ease in a world of existences, because to exist is an act, not a thing.”(p67)

-“Modern philosophy has been created by laymen, not by churchmen, and to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to the end of the supernatural city of God.”(p74)

-“The essence of the true Christian God is not to create but to be.”(p88)

-“The true reason why this universe appears to some scientists as mysterious is that, mistaking existential, that is, metaphysical, questions for scientific ones, they ask science to answer them. Naturally, they get no answers. Then they are puzzled, and they say that the universe is mysterious.”(p123)

“Why should those eminently rational beings, the scientists, deliberately prefer to the simple notions of design, or purposiveness, in nature, the arbitrary notions of blind force, chance, emergence, sudden variation, and similar ones? Simply because they much prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility.”(p130)

-“Yet the fact that final causes are scientifically sterile does not entail their disqualification as metaphysical causes, and to reject metaphysical answers to a problem just because they are not scientific is deliberately to maim the knowing power of the human mind.”(p132)

-“We do not need to project out own ideas into the economy of nature; they belong there in their own right. Our own ideas are in the economy of nature because we ourselves are in it. Any and every one of the things which a man does intelligently is done with a purpose and to a certain end which is the final cause why he does it… Through man, who is part and parcel of nature, purposiveness most certainly is part and parcel of nature. In what sense is it arbitrary, knowing from within that where there is organization there always is a purpose, to conclude that there is a purpose wherever there is organization?”(p134)

Specific Criticisms

I don’t really have any criticisms of this text. There are a few random bits that I either failed to understand or disagreed with, such as the assertion that science has been successful in coming to a “perfectly consistent philosophy of the mechanical universe of modern science” and this somehow shows that the pure philosophical positions are somehow found more truly in science than Christianity.

Book Review: Faith Beyond Reason, A Kierkegaardian Account – By C. Stephen Evans


faithbeyondreasonAll throughout history, and especially since the Enlightenment, the question of how we know what we know has been a big question. Within Christianity this has played out in the debate of how faith and reason interact – is one to have precedence over the other, and if so, how does this work itself out practically.

In his book – Faith Beyond Reason, A Kierkegaardian Account – C. Stephen Evans provides his contribution to this discussion. Tracing the history of his thought through Aquinas to Kant to Kierkegaard (with special focus no the latter), Evans formulates an account of what he calls ‘responsible fideism’, that is “fideism that can be rationally defended.”

The primary theme of Evans is the outworking of this responsible fideism, discussing the ways in which faith is both above reason and the ways in which it is against reason. The first aspect is framed in a discussion of whether there are limits to reason and whether we can come to know these limits – Evans concludes that there are and that we can, and in lie with Aquinas and Kant asserts that there are many aspects of faith which are beyond the scope of reason.  The second aspect is primarily built upon Evans’ reading of Kierkegaard, and is set in the context of the Christian doctrine of the fall (and thus the noetic effects of sin). In this latter discussion Evans distinguishes between reason as it works in its ideal state and reason as it works in its concrete state (that is, in its actual workings in the fallen human); it is only reason in it’s concrete state, it’s state of fallenness, that faith may be said to be properly against reason.

Evans conclusion is that “perhaps it is best to describe such a faith as faith beyond reason rather than against reason, since there is no necessary conflict with reason, but only a conflict with reason that has suffered damage but refuses to recognize this. The metaphor of ‘beyond’ aptly conveys the thrust of the historic Augustinian view of faith seeking understanding. What is sought is in some sense beyond, or one would not need to seek it… to understand is to know the truth in the way it should be known. From the fideistic perspective, faith that seeks this understanding is also the faith that heals reason so as to make it possible to move towards understanding. Faith both seeks and enables understanding. Faith enables human beings to move beyond the limitations of finite, fallen human reason.”(p153)

All in all Evans book is a very good read. Despite taking on a topic that is usually bogged down with dense philosophical language and obfuscation, Evans is very readable and his thought very accessible. While his book might not make for a great introduction to the discussion of epistemology and the relationship between faith and reason, it will make for a great resource in grasping this issue once the basic terms are understood. All in all it’s a good, refreshing light read given the subject matter covered.

Memorable Quotes:

-“There is a kind of circularity present when I ask myself how I know what I know. I cannot certify that this knowledge is genuine without assuming some knowledge of the same general sort. I could not, for example, test my sensory faculties to see if they are reliable without employing those very sense faculties and thus assuming they are reliable. There is no internal guarantee that I am not mistaken, and my belief that I have knowledge reveals my already-present commitments.”(p46)

-“Furthermore, it is hard to see how a logical contradiction could serve as the ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’ of reason as the incarnation is supposed to do. To recognize a ‘square circle’ as a formal contradiction one must have a fairly clear grasp of the concepts of ‘square’ and ‘circle’. In one sense at least, therefore, such a concept falls within the competence of reason. The point of the incarnation, according to Kierkegaard, is that it is a concept that reason cannot understand. This is so not because reason has a perfectly clear grasp of what it means to be God and what it means to be human and properly judges that the two concepts are logically contradictory. In fact, just the reverse is the case. Human reason is baffled both by human nature and by God. It is further baffled by the conjunction of the two concepts, but not because reason has a real understanding of either what it means to be human or what it means to be God. The incarnation may appear or seem to human reason to be a logical contradiction, but it is not known to be such, and the believer does not think that it is a formal contradiction.”(p83)

-“We accept as reasonable what we are taught as reasonable, and those who control society also control what is transmitted through teaching.”(p94)

-“Objective evidence may be neither necessary nor sufficient for faith. However, it doe not follow from this that objective evidence is simply irrelevant for faith, or that the believer will have no concern for evidence.”(p110)

-“… hence religious truths are not only above but go against human reason as it concretely functions, even though such truths may not be against reason as it ideally functions. On this view faith requires the transformation of the person so that the damage done to reason can be repaired or at least alleviated.”(p152)

Specific Criticisms

While on the whole I did enjoy my reading of this book, it is far from being perfect. Perhaps the first and most annoying thing that I came across in the book is Evans’ misrepresentation of some of the thinkers in the book (such as Cornelius Van Til). While Evans does preface his discussion of the various thinkers with the statement that he may not be discussing the final thought of these individuals, it’s still annoying when he then proceeds to misrepresent them. I do not think that this is by any means intentional on his part, I still found it bothersome.

The second, and perhaps more important, criticism is that of his argument against irrationality. In his second chapter ‘Fideism as Irrationalism’ Evans states that “I shall argue that these particular claims are irrational and indefensible…”(p17) and then at various points through the rest of the book mentions how he has proven in Chapter 2 that this sort of fideism is irrational. The problem here is that this sort of fideism is asserting itself as irrational – it is hardly an argument against an irrationalist system to say that it is irrational.

Book Review: Apologetics – By Cornelius Van Til

Van Til Apologetics.pngLetter WWithin the realm of 20th Century apologetics few thinkers dominate the sphere as strongly as Cornelius Van Til. No list of Christian apologists would be complete without him being listed as one of the biggest movers within the field. His thought has come to dominate Reformed apologetics, carried on by scholars such as Greg Bahnsen, Scott Oliphint, and John Frame.

Apologetics is Van Til’s brief outline of his thought as conceived in the system of presuppositional apologetics, specifically as it opposes the apologetical methods of Roman Catholicism and Arminian Protestantism. The central tenant of this apologetic may be understood as follows: “Christians are interested in showing to those who believe in no God or in a God, a beyond, some ultimate or absolute, that it is this God in whom they must believe lest all meaning should disappear from human words.”

In beginning his endeavor Van Til does not set out as many apologists would, that is, by jumping into the fray and discussing the logicality of God and pointing out with clever diction why the non-believer should accept his system. In this even the structure of his book is a mirror of his apologetical method, for Van Til’s goal is not the acceptance of some general idea of God, but rather a very specific idea of God – that is, the very specific idea of God as presented by Christianity. Thus Van Til does not start out with nature or logic and reason his way up to God; rather, he begins by laying out Christian orthodoxy, from which place he may explain exactly what it is he means to defend before he goes about defending it.

Following his outline of Christian orthodoxy Van Til goes on to explain Christianity (or, theology) in its relation to philosophy and science. This chapter, along with the third which discusses the ‘point of contact’ which may be made between the non-believer and the apologist, lay out Van Til’s epistemology (that is, his theory of knowledge and how we come about it). The basis of this epistemology is that all human knowledge (indeed the mind of man) is derivative of God’s mind and His knowledge. Furthermore, ‘facts’ are only such in relation to God’s ordination; they exist as part of the system he has set in place, the system of his providence, and apart from that system they are meaningless (from which he may base his argument on the lack of meaning in science and philosophy apart from Christianity).

This idea is expressed by Van Til in stating that: “Thus there is one system of reality of which all that exists forms a part. And any individual fact of this system is what it is primarily because of its relation to this system. It is therefore a contradiction in terms to speak of presenting certain facts to men unless one presents them as parts of this system. The very factness of any individual fact of history is precisely what it is because God is what he is. It is God’s counsel that is the principle of individuation for the Christian man. God makes the facts to be what they are.”

The point of contact for Van Til is not a shared logical mind interpreting nature or the common grace shared by all men (as is usually employed by classical apologists), rather his point of contact is the suppressed knowledge of God residing in all men. His methodology is one which attempts to overthrow the entirety of autonomy within human thought, which leads to the final discussion of authority, namely, the authority of Scripture versus the authority of the human mind (or the Catholic church, we sees as analogous to the former). The light of Scripture takes precedence to the light of man.

Overall Van Til’s Apologetics is a concise discussion of an apologetical method which seeks to bring God back to his proper place of authority over the minds of men. Coming in at just under 100 pages it may no doubt serve as an excellent introduction to presuppositional apologetics and the thought of Cornelius Van Til. Furthermore it will give the reader an excellent foothold in better understanding how to better defend their faith.

Memorable Quotes:

[These tend on the long side, but they’re good, and cutting them down just wouldn’t do them justice…]

“…Truth [ultimately consists] in correspondence to the internally self-complete nature and knowledge that God has of himself and of all created reality.”

“But real redemption has not been fully wrought for us till it is wrought also within us. Sin being what it is, it would be useless to have salvation lie ready to hand unless it were also applied to us. Inasmuch as we are dead in trespasses and sins it would do us no good to have a wonderful life-giving potion lad next to us in our coffin. It would do us good only if someone actually administered the potion to us.”

-“But Reformed theology, as worked out by Calvin and his recent exponents such as Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper and Bavink, holds that man’s mind is derivative. As such it is naturally in contact with God’s revelation. It is surrounded by nothing but revelation. It is itself inherently revelational. It cannot naturally be conscious of itself without being conscious of its creatureliness. Fore man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness. Calvin speaks of this as man’s inescapable sense of deity.”

“We do not use candles, or electric lights in order to discover whether the light and the energy of the sun exist. The reverse is the case. We have light in candles and electric light bulbs because of the light and energy of the sun. So we cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of Scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason because it is reason itself that learns its proper function from Scripture…. All the objections that are brought against such a position spring, in the last analysis, from the assumption that the human person is ultimate and as such should properly act as judge of all claims to authority that are made by any one. But if man is not autonomous, if he is rather what Scripture says he is, namely, a creature of God and a sinner before his face, then man should subordinate his reason to the Scriptures and seek in the light of it to interpret his experience.”

Specific Criticisms

On the whole I don’t believe there is much that I may critique concerning Van Til. On the superficial level he is not quite as easy to read as some of his students (ie, Bahnsen and Frame); this should by no means discourage the reader, Van Til is not difficult, he’s simply not as concise as he could be. Another minor criticism may the time he spends addressing specific thinkers, thinkers which modern readers may not be familiar with – but again, this doesn’t really detract from the text.

One greater criticism of Van Til’s system (at least as presented in this text alone) is that he offers no rebuttal against the ideas of existentialism, absurdism, or nihilism. Van Til’s position is that in order to give meaning to anything one must adopt the Christian worldview, yet this does nothing to address those who are content with the world having no meaning (or with that meaning being completely subjective/absurd/relative). Perhaps this can simply be chalked up to the outline nature of the book (that is, it is not all-inclusive of Van Til’s thought).

A few more minor nitpicks might consist in the following. Van Til states that “[If obedient to God] The controlling and directing power of his will would be the will of God. ” To me this statement reads as a contradiction. The ‘if obedient’ presumes an autonomy on the part of man which is not present if ‘the controlling power of his will’ is the will of God. One might be able to escape this by interpreting ‘if obedient’ in terms of ‘if God grants obedience’, but this is not set out in the text.

A similar contradiction in terms is found in the statement that “Any other sort of God is no God at all and to prove that some other sort of God exists is to prove that no God exists.” If the word ‘prove’ here is taken in its hardest meaning, that is, if the opponent did indeed prove that some other god existed, this would negate Christianity. Van Til’s apologetic gets the better of his semantics; in allowing the possibility of “some other sort of God” to be proven he undermines the presupposition that no such other God can be proven (even if that other God should prove to be meaningless or impotent). One would think his argument could be made without asserting the notion that proving some other God is even possible.

Chesterton’s Apologetic & The World Today

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G.K. Chesterton – despite his great girth – is somehow often overlooked in contemporary discussion. Yet if you should take up most any book of his and read you will find that he is still a wonderful treasure trove of insight into the world.

Chesterton was a massive influence on Christianity during the early 20th century, at least within the context of England. He was his generation’s version of C.S. Lewis, with an extra serving of wit. This made him the chief candidate for being the popular defender of Christianity during his day, and his method of defending the faith is one that we would do well to learn from today. But before we can learn from Chesterton’s methods, we must first determine what those methods were.

In undertaking this task it is helpful to first look at what types of strategies are out there, there are at least five different approaches:

  1. the Classical Method, which includes using natural theology and pure reason to establish theism, that is, a belief in God or gods
  2. the Evidential Method, which uses miracles, the historicity of Jesus, etc. to argue its case
  3. the Cumulative Case Method, which says Christianity makes the best sense of the data
  4. the Presuppositional Method, which argues that only through God can one make sense of the world and have a basis for reason and ethics, and also that the opponent’s views all end in absurdity
  5. the Reformed Epistemology Method, which tends towards fideism (that is, a stance which “refuses to offer any arguments or evidence for Christian claims”) and is mostly defensive rather than offering any real argument.

With this cursory survey given we can look at where Chesterton’s arguments fall in this schema.

Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy is perhaps his most iconic work in defense of the faith, and it is therefore ideal for discerning his method. As one reads Orthodoxy the feeling is given that Chesterton’s apologetic is one of common sense, with his chief enemy being skepticism. First Chesterton argues positively for certain evidences which may be found within Christianity, including what he calls guessing ‘illogical truths’ – truths that would be thought illogical if not for their being true – or that the division between man and animal is in need of an explanation. The view that evolution fails to account for the vast differences between man and animal can also be seen in his book The Everlasting Man, where he argues that:

A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.

Both of these show signs of a sort of evidentialist method, where the argument is made by looking at the outside world and asking for explanations of what is seen.

But more than just presenting arguments for Christianity, Chesterton also offers many arguments against the opponents of Christianity. The opponents he primarily tackles include skepticism, materialism, and pantheism; skepticism being the view that human knowledge is impossible in some field or another, materialism the view that the material world is all that there is, and pantheism the view that everything that exists is part of God. His primary argument against these opposing views is that they result in a ‘suicide of thought’, which is  the name of the chapter in which he states “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

Through this method – similar to reductio ad absurdum – Chesterton greatly imitates the method of presuppositionalism, yet in this he has a similarity to the cumulative case method as well; on the one hand arguing that the opposing views end in absurdity, and on the other that it is only Christianity that makes sufficient sense of the data.

G.K. Chesterton employs a variety of apologetical methods in order to argue his case for Christianity. Yet apart from just looking at the arguments that he presents, we can also look at how he views the relationship between faith and reason.

This relationship forms a pivotal part of any apologetic method, for it is this relationship which determines whether the arguments presented will have any practical effect on the nonbeliever.

In looking for his view on this matter it is perhaps best to look once again back to Orthodoxy, in which he provides his arguments for Christianity and against its critics. Chesterton may be found stating here that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith.” It might thus be concluded that Chesterton places faith above reason, for reason itself falls under the purview of faith.

The relationship between faith and reason is further expounded in Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he condones Aquinas’ view where he “was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.”

The point here is that for Chesterton faith and reason are two methods for arriving at the one truth. Chesterton therefore has no outright contention with science or reason (such as the proofs of Thomas Aquinas) because he is sure that if reason arrives at any truth that truth could not contradict the truth of Christianity.

This not only demonstrates Chesterton’s view of the relationship between faith and reason, but it also shows his endorsement of the classical method of apologetics through his approval of Aquinas, who formulated most of the classical proofs. Thus, it may be said that Chesterton pulls his argumentation from all of the apologetical methods combined – classical, evidentialist and presuppositional –  rather than simply relying upon one or the other.

Chesterton’s was of course greatly defined by his era, by the onset of modern liberalism – that is, the movement to make Christianity compatible with science – as well as the fact that presuppositionalism was just coming into play during his time period. Modern liberalism was just starting to take hold during Chesterton’s time, hence the attacks against it in texts such as Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies.

This period also saw the development of a new type of apologetic, that of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is best known for its attack on the epistemology of the opponent, a strategy not seen before the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and therefore we may assume that Chesterton was also influenced by this trend.

Perhaps one of the greatest insights to be drawn from Chesterton is that one is not limited to any one view of apologetics, indeed, he drew from just about all of them.

Furthermore, many of the same heresies that Chesterton fought against are still prevalent. We can still see skepticism in the world today, as well as materialism, as well as pantheism. It is by analyzing how our ancestors battled untruth that we can better understand how to do it ourselves. The truth never changes, therefore it may still be truly said that “there is nothing new under the sun.”


[Originally posted on]