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Buswell on Van Tillian presuppositionalism, part 1

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Buswell begins with a distinction between presuppositionalism and "inductivism", which is used synonymously with inductivism. He distinguishes between presuppositionalism and inductivism by arguing that presuppositionalism consists of the advancement of the negative, universal thesis. This thesis is that the unbeliever and the believer have no common ground. On the contrary, Buswell argues that his inductivist thesis is both positive and partial. Buswell holds that the believer and unbeliever do have some common ground. Indeed, for Buswell, for the unbeliever and believer to even voice disagreement with one another, there must be at least some common ground between both parties. Apart from this basic common ground, the believer and the unbeliever would not even be able to understand one another in their antithetical dialogue. Indeed, for Buswell, as for Murray, it is precisely what they regard as the truth of common grace which necessitates some sort of common ground. It is by virtue of God's common grace that the unbeliever can have knowledge of the truth of the content of what the believer means when he speaks of Law and Gospel. Van Til is an ardent defender of common grace, though he does not accept that it necessitates what Buswell believes it does. For Murray, Buswell notes, common grace not only makes knowledge of the truth of the content of the preached Law and Gospel possible, but is preparatory for conversion of the unregenerate elect.

Buswell notes that an extremely important part of understanding Van Til's presuppositionalism is understanding his concept of a paradox. For Buswell, a paradox is something which at first glance appears to be a contradiction, but at second glance, is no contradiction at all. Van Til holds that the solution to the philosophical problem of the "one and the many" is resolved only in the Christian worldview, and that it is the Triune nature which alone resolves this problem. Interestingly enough, Buswell seems to take issue with the notion that the one and the many is a legitimtate philosophical problem with which the believer, or anyone else, ought to be genuinely concerned:

Professor Van Til's feeling that (1) the doctrine of the trinity is apparently self-contradictory, and (2) that we must accept it as an apparent paradox, is partly explained by his peculiar notion of the “one and many.” He says, “In the ontological trinity there is complete harmony between an equally ultimate one and many.” (p. 8) He frequently makes reference to this “one and many” problem as though there were some powerful compulsion requiring our minds to believe that “one” and “many” are “equally ultimate.” This is a problem however, which, in my judgment, is confined to the minds of those who have been affected by non-Christian monistic philosophy. For the simple Bible believer, and the one who sees the truth of created dualistic realism as Charles Hodge does,5 it is no problem at all. Whatever exists, exists, and that is that. We thank God that he exists and that he has revealed himself. He has also revealed that we exist as persons /p. 44/ created in his image, and that the non-personal created material world exists. We accept the fact of the created universe as fact regardless of the question of “one” or “many.” God of his own will, of his own good pleasure, not because of any rational necessity, chose to create His universe which he chose to create. It actually exists since he has created it, so we call it realistic. It has an important distinction within it, that between personal and non-personal existences, so we call it dualistic. Its manifold aspects are not derived from its unity, and its unified aspect is not derived from its manifold character. The created universe is not a necessary logical deduction from God's reason but is an ontological, existing thing because of an act of his will(Buswell).

While Buswell concedes that the Triunity of God is incomprehensible, he does not believe that the Bible, or any creedal statements, declare that it is paradoxical. He rejects the Van Tillian notion that the Trinity is genuinely paradoxical at all.

The Bible and the great Biblical creeds of the church say nothing of the kind. God is clearly revealed as one God. He is also clearly revealed as three persons, each of whom is in the fullest sense, God. This is indeed incomprehensible, beyond our intelligence, magnificent beyond all description, but it is not even apparently contradictory. What little we know about personality (and God has chosen to reveal himself in terms of human language) indicates that personality is a very complex matter. Persons are not material entities like bodies. There are nuclei of consciousness within individual persons, as James Orr has pointed out, following a suggestion of Augustine.6 Moreover personal beings are capable of mutual exhaustiveness and interpenetration in a way in which material bodies are not. The Biblical doctrine is that God is one self-conscious person, infinite in all of his perfections and revealed attributes, and that at the same time, without contradiction, this one personal deity subsists as three persons, each of whom is fully and completely deity. There is every reason why such a doctrine should be beyond our full comprehension, but there is no reason why such a doctrine should appear contradictory(Buswell).

Another element of paradox which Van Til finds in Christian theology has to do with the notion that God derives glory from His creation. If God is already self-sufficient, and yet He derives glory from His creation, it is like adding water to a full bucket. How can this be? Van Til argues that it is paradoxical. Equally paradoxical, for Van Til, is the notion that the elect, it would appear, must find the threat of condemnation unreal to them, and that the reprobate must consider the Gospel call impossible to them. Buswell, however, though he acknowledges that such realities are incomprehensible, nonetheless denies that they are genuinely paradoxical. Indeed, although such realities seem strange to us, they do not constitute genuine paradoxes.

As to the other apparent contradiction reflected in the last quoted passage from Professor Van Til, the same recognition of the dynamic self-consistency of the God of the Bible, for me, removes the last vestige of any shadow of appearance of contradiction from the genuine offer of salvation to all mankind. This offer is perfectly consistent, in my mind, with the fact that, “not of him that willeth, but of God that showeth mercy,” God has chosen from all eternity to save a people, and that he has not chosen to save all people. This offer is consistent with the fact that he has chosen to permit some to reject his only begotten Son (John 3:18, 19); and he has—“yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established,”—he has determined to permit these to perish “for their sins.”8

I confess that I have the deepest sympathy for those sincere and honest men to whom it seems paradoxical that God should offer salvation to all, knowing that many will certainly perish. But for me, there is no contradiction. Even in the appearance of the matter, paradox there is none(Buswell).

Van Til does not believe, of course, that anything in God's self-revelation is truly contradictory, as Buswell notes. Instead, although elements of God's self-revelation may appear contradictory to us, their resolution is known (only to) God. Perhaps more disturbing, Van Til lists among these so-called 'paradoxes' God's predestination of sin. Since God is the "ultimate cause" of all things, Van Til notes, one might suggest that God is the cause of sin. Buswell denies that God is the ultimate cause of all things but instead that God "has foreordained" all things(cf. Eph. 1:11). Buswell argues that Van Til comes to this conclusion because he rejects the distinction between God's will of permission and His will of decree, and cites Charles Hodge's point that the concept of certainty does not depend upon necessity. Though all things be certain, therefore, it is not the case that all things are necessary. W.G.T. Shedd makes the same point, although we follow Mark Carpenter's points on such a distinction (though we do not thereby endorse everything on his website):

Here is one who would dare deny this essential truth. It is the Calvinist W.G.T. Shedd, in his book entitled Calvinism: Pure & Mixed: A Defence of the Westminster Standards, published by the Banner of Truth, which is one of the biggest publishers of Calvinist materials: "When God predetermined from eternity not to restrain and prevent 'Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and all the people of Israel', from crucifying his beloved Son, but to leave them to their own wicked inclination and voluntary action in the case, he made this crucifixion a certainty, but not a necessity as is evinced by the 'woe' pronounced upon them by the Son of God. Luke 22:22. Men with hearts and dispositions full of hatred toward the Saviour of the world, if left to themselves are infallibly certain to cry, 'Crucify him; crucify him'. John 19:6-15."

Shedd says that the crucifixion of Christ was "a certainty, but not a necessity." This is nothing more than double-talk. He says that God did not restrain or prevent them from crucifying Christ but left them to their own wicked inclination and voluntary action. How, then, was the crucifixion a certainty? Shedd answers this by saying that "[men] with hearts and dispositions full of hatred toward [Christ], if left to themselves are infallibly certain" to want Christ to be crucified.

The point is simple, and is summarized ably and concisely by Paul in Rom. 9:19-23: For God to predestine sin is not the same as God committing sin. God's righteousness, in the ultimate instance, resides in God's will to predestine whatsoever He desires, provided that He does not contradict His righteous and holy nature; and God's predestination of sin does not entail such a contradiction, as Paul explicitly says (Rom. 9:14ff). Buswell, unfortunately, accepts a distinction between God's will of permission and His will of decree, and argues that it is God's will of permission that is operative in Romans 9:22:

But this truth does not require us to stop short of the clarification of the twenty-second verse in which Paul so simply explains that God's attitude to Pharoah was that of having brought him into existence, having stirred him up, and having “endured with much long-suffering,” in order that God's power, name, wrath, ability and glory might be the more clearly revealed in the earth. It is Paul who makes the distinction between God's permissive decrees and his compelling decrees, and I do not find anywhere in Calvin's Institutes or commentaries anything which suggests the opposite. Truly God has decreed “whatsoever comes to pass,” but within his decrees the Scripture makes a distinction between that which he decreed to permit, namely sin, and all those glorious works which he decreed to bring to pass, himself being the responsible cause. Only a failure to accept in all simplicity Romans 9:22 could cause one to see an apparent contradiction, a paradox, in the fact of sin within the created world(Buswell).

That he cites Calvin here is very strange, since Calvin, following Augustine, explicitly rejects such a distinction.

Augustine writes, "Nothing, therefore, happens but by the will of the Omnipotent, He either permitting it to be done, or himself doing it” (Enchiridion 95). "His permission is not unwilling, but willing" (Enchiridion 100). So also Calvin:

FROM other passages, in which God is said to draw or bend Satan himself, and all the reprobate, to his will, a more difficult question arises. For the carnal mind can scarcely comprehend how, when acting by their means, he contracts no taint from their impurity, nay, how, in a common operation, he is exempt from all guilt, and can justly condemn his own ministers. Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute his judgments. The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture. What we formerly quoted from the Psalms, to the effect that he does whatever pleases him, certainly extends to all the actions of men. If God is the arbiter of peace and war, as is there said, and that without any exception, who will venture to say that men are borne along at random with a blind impulse, while He is unconscious or quiescent? But the matter will be made clearer by special examples. From the first chapter of Job we learn that Satan appears in the presence of God to receive his orders, just as do the angels who obey spontaneously. The manner and the end are different, but still the fact is, that he cannot attempt anything without the will of God. But though afterwards his power to afflict the saint seems to be only a bare permission, yet as the sentiment is true, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; as it pleased the Lord, so it hath been done,” we infer that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and wicked robbers were merely the instruments. Satan’s aim is to drive the saint to madness by despair. The Sabeans cruelly and wickedly make a sudden incursion to rob another of his goods. Job acknowledges that he was deprived of all his property, and brought to poverty, because such was the pleasure of God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of his judgments. God wills that the perfidious Ahab should be deceived; the devil offers his agency for that purpose, and is sent with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets, (2 Kings 22:20.) If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a judgment from God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers. The Jews purposed to destroy Christ. Pilate and the soldiers indulged them in their fury; yet the disciples confess in solemn prayer that all the wicked did nothing but what the hand and counsel of God had decreed, (Acts 4:28,) just as Peter had previously said in his discourse, that Christ was delivered to death by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, (Acts 2:23;) in other words, that God, to whom all things are known from the beginning, had determined what the Jews had executed. He repeats the same thing elsewhere, “Those things, which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled,” (Acts 3:18.) Absalom incestuously defiling his father’s bed, perpetrates a detestable crime. God, however, declares that it was his work; for the words are, “Thou didst it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”1 The cruelties of the Chaldeans in Judea are declared by Jeremiah to be the work of God. For which reason, Nebuchadnezzar is called the servant of God. God frequently exclaims, that by his hiss, by the clang of his trumpet, by his authority and command, the wicked are excited to war. He calls the Assyrian the rod of his anger, and the axe which he wields in his hand. The overthrow of the city, and downfall of the temple, he calls his own work. David, not murmuring against God, but acknowledging him to be a just judge, confesses that the curses of Shimei are uttered by his orders. “The Lord,” says he, “has bidden him curse.” Often in sacred history whatever happens is said to proceed from the Lord, as the revolt of the ten tribes, the death of Eli’s sons, and very many others of a similar description. Those who have a tolerable acquaintance with the Scriptures see that, with a view to brevity, I am only producing a few out of many passages, from which it is perfectly clear that it is the merest trifling to substitute a bare permission for the providence of God, as if he sat in a watch-tower waiting for fortuitous events, his judgments meanwhile depending on the will of man(Calvin).

Buswell notes that Van Til employs the notion of the "limiting concept" in order to deal with the apparent contradiction operative in paradox. Buswell is quite critical of the notion of the notion of a limiting concept, and associates it with patently unorthodox epistemologies such as Barthianism and pragmatism. Something is either true or it is not true, yet the notion of the limiting concept seems to attempt a kind of "sort-of-but-not-really" notion of the finite, human comprehension of truth.

The term “limiting concept” will be discussed below. In this passage it is equivalent to “as if” and is declared to be “for the time being.” This nest of confusion requires attention. It seems that Professor Van Til is telling us that common ground which exists “for the time being” is unreal. It is only “as if.” /p. 47/ Does this mean that which really exists “for the time” is unreal or is only an illusion? What kind of doctrine is it which a non-Christian syllogism would call dishonesty? We Calvinists reject “double truth” when it calls itself frankly by the names Ritschlianism, Barthianism, pragmatism, instrumentalism, neo-orthodoxy. Is double truth which incorrectly calls itself by the name Calvinism any more acceptable?(Buswell)

Buswell comes to the defense of a univocal predication of knowledge when he insists that God's self-revelation in the Bible consists, contra Van Til, of a "definite and positive correlativism between God and man"(Buswell). Here again, the incommensurability between the truth about who God is in Himself, and what God knows in Himself, and man's knowledge of God, comes close, Buswell argues, to Barthianism. Buswell is careful, of course, to properly distinguish Barth's epistemology (and also his metaphysics) from that of Van Til:

There is of course a great and obvious difference between Van Til and Barth. Van Til believes that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and that revelation is historically conveyed by Biblical testimony. Barth does not so believe, but teaches that the Bible contains the Word of God, or that it is the Word of God if it conveys the Word of God to me, otherwise it is not. Another contrast between Barthianism and Professor Van Til's philosophy, not as easy to make plain, but a true contrast nevertheless, is in the fact that for Barth the contradiction of theological paradoxes is real and ultimate, whereas for Van Til, the contradiction is vigorously declared to be only apparent(Buswell).

Nonetheless, Buswell argues that Van Til comes uncomfortably close to Barth. Once the univocity of correlativism is rejected, Buswell notes, it becomes difficult to distinguish Van Til's position from that of Barth. In the case of Barth, "everything which is true for man in material history, is false from the view of eternity", and for Van Til, "vast areas of human historical matter are merely "limiting concepts" or "as if" to God"(Buswell). One is left with what appears to be a distinction without a difference.

Buswell next takes issue with Van Til's use of the Hegelian concept of the "concrete universal" of God. Van Til uses it in order to affirm the equal ultimacy of God's oneness and His plurality. Buswell agrees with Van Til's description of the Trinity here, though he reaffirms that he does not believe this equal ultimacy is genuinely paradoxical. Buswell regards Van Til's apparent attempt to import pagan philosophy into Christian theology as a serious problem. He explains the Hegelian concept of the concrete universal thus:

In Hegelian philosophy such class names as man, book, church, ordinarily called “universals” or “abstract universals,” are contrasted with names denoting a totality such as “mankind,” “literature,” “the church.” A concrete universal is thus a totality. The supreme concrete universal is the totality of being, reality or the universe as a whole. Can it be possible that this is what Professor Van Til means? I must say that I believe the context requires an affirmative answer, but I must hasten to add that I do not believe that Professor Van Til is conscious of the implications of what he has said(Buswell).

What makes Buswell nervous, then, is that Van Til seems to be importing some sort of Hegelian, pantheistic idealism into Christian theology. If each class of abstract universals is a concrete universal, and the totality of the universe is the ultimate concrete universal, it would seem to follow that God is equal to the totality of all things. If this is what Van Til means by his usage of the term, the obvious danger is that of some sort of pantheism.

Likewise, when Van Til declares that "thought and being are coterminous" in God's mind, the obvious danger is in conflating our being with God's thought, such that the two lose their metaphysical distinction. This sounds dangerously Hegelian, and as Hegelian, dangerously pantheistic. True, we do depend for our existence on being in God's thought, but it is only when God wills to create us as distinct entities that we have being. God does necessarily think of us, but we are not identical with God's thought. Only a Hegelian, or someone inordinately influenced by Hegel's Absolute Idealism, would argue such a thing.

From another angle this doctrine of concrete universal is extremely poisonous. If thought and being are coterminous in God, what becomes of fulfilled prophecy past and future? What indeed becomes of the act of creation in time, as distinguished from the eternal purpose to create? What becomes of the incarnation? No! The God of the Bible had the thought of the incarnation from eternity; He revealed it to Abraham as something not as yet in being. In the fullness of time and in due time, He brought the incarnation into being. It had not previously been in being(Buswell).

Buswell likewise draws a parallel between Hegel's notion of the concrete universal as the synthesis of contradictories, and Van Til's doctrine of paradox.

Buswell next turns to the previously mentioned notion of the "limiting concept." He notes that Van Til derives this notion from Kant, and that it is related to Kant's distinction between our experience of phenomena and an unknowable noumenal reality. Thus, for Kant, the "limiting concept" refers to our pragmatic use of language which does not necessarily correspond to things in themselves. Indeed, our pragmatic use of language to speak of our phenomenal experience might be radically mistaken with respect to noumenal reality. The family resemblance between Kant's "limiting concept" and the Thomist concept of analogical thinking, taking up repackaged as the archetypal/ectypal distinction of the Reformed scholastics, is obvious. Likewise, all of this seems very similar to the notion of the "as if" of the neo-Kantians, where it "signifies thinking which is not taken as true, but only "as if" it were true"(Buswell). While Van Til insists that he does not take up such concepts in unmodified form, Buswell denies that Van Til adequately distinguishes his usage of these concepts from the philosophers from whose writings he takes them.

Instead, Buswell argues, "One has the impression of a priest giving a Christian name to a pagan idol"(Buswell). Instead of seeing reality in general as basically incomprehensible, as the non-Christian user of the limiting concept does, Van Til applies the notion of the limiting concept to God. And yet, if God's knowledge is the ultimate truth, and it is so radically discontinuous with our own that our knowledge is merely "analogical" to God's, the only difference between the Christian who believes in the limiting concept and the non-Christian who believes in it is that the Christian knows there is a God but lacks knowledge of who He is in Himself, whereas the unbeliever simply believes this of the world. Part of Van Til's motivation in using this notion, Buswell points out, is that Van Til wants to safeguard the fact that the unbeliever and the believer cannot occupy neutral intellectual ground. Thus, if the apparent logical problems of Christianity are merely apparent, the believer and the unbeliever have identical conceptions of logic, then both occupy neutral territory. Yet Van Til seems to thus make communication between the unbeliever and the believer impossible, as Buswell has pointed out in the beginning of this article.

Perhaps more difficult to deal with is Van Til's application of analogical thinking to divine immutability.

In these sentences we have several dangerous tendencies combined. If God is absolute in the sense of Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, or Thomas Aquinas' Fully Realized, then his attitude cannot actually change, but then the objective element in the atonement, propitiation, is only an illusion! On the other hand, if the immutability of God is an immutability of His character, it is not in the least inconsistent to say that the dynamic immutability of God includes a specific change in His attitude when the sinner is regenerated and cleansed by the blood of Christ. Only so can propitiation have ontological significance, true meaning in reality(Buswell).

Thus, for Buswell, when God's anger towards us is changed to favor through our reception of the salvific benefits of the atonement, this represents a real change in attitude on the part of God. Buswell will not allow Van Til to argue that these are mere analogies which represent something radically discontinuous with who God is in Himself.

Buswell next turns his attention to Van Til's philosophy of science. He notes that Van Til takes the modern scientist to be a creator of facts, a la the pragmatists, rather than an impartial describer. Buswell certainly is correct when he notes that this is at odds with the self-understanding of the modern scientist, though it is possible that Van Til is describing what modern scientists do from a biblical perspective regardless of their self-understanding.

Buswell takes issue with Van Til's apparent belief that the so-called law of non-contradiction is a truth created by God's arbitrary fiat rather than one which inheres in God'ds very thought.

Professor Van Til does not realize that the source of the abstract law of non-contradiction as we know it, is the immutable character of God rather than the free-will of God. If this were not the case, to say that God is true would have no meaning. In fact, no revealed /p. 54/ attribute would have any significance. The words “God is Holy” would be a mere tautology. Contrary to such a view, how careful the Scripture writers are to declare the fact that God's character has certain specifiable attributes(Buswell).

Indeed, the law of non-contradiction inheres in God's thought and is presupposed in God's self-revelation, rather than aritrarily ordained. God has possessed definite attributes from eternity past, with definite meanings. "God is holy", Buswell notes, has always been true of God, and "God is unholy" has always been untrue, absurd and blasphemous. The law of non-contradiction is thus eternal, not a mere creation of God.

Buswell, J. The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism. 42, no. 2 (Nov. 1948):41–65. Retrieved from: http://www.rosetree.com/ccog/presupp/f_presupp1.html

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