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Buswell on Van Tillian presuppositionalism, part 2

Buswell notes that Van Til rejected the epistemologies of Kuyper and Bavinck as inordinately welcoming of non-Christian habits of thought. Both thinkers, it is alleged, allowed a certain credence to empiricism. For Van Til, the theory-ladenness of all observation is an unavoidable fact. There is no such thing as a bare fact. Rather, all facts are necessarily interpreted according to specific frameworks. For Van Til, Buswell notes, to attempt to argue on neutral ground is either to appeal to abstract principle or bare, empirical fact. Such abstraction, as we have seen in our look at Van Til's "A Survey of Christianity Epistemology", is typical of apostate thought, and Van Til sees such argumentation by Christian apologists as the importation of pagan thought into Christianity. Buswell distinguishes between brute facts and abstract law:

What are “brute facts,” and what is “abstract law”? The latter term can be defined more easily than the former. The laws of the multiplication tables, of abstract geometry, and of classical logic, are generally spoken of as abstract laws. “Two plus two equals four,” is a common and simple example. Are such laws to be regarded as external to God and superior to him, laws to which he is obliged to conform? The Christian answer must be “No.” God is supreme above all. Are these laws then to be regarded as created by his will and subject to his choice in such sense that it was purely indifferent to him whether he should call evil good or good evil, whether he should create a universe in which it was good for one to bear false witness against his neighbor, or not? To this question Van Til would reply in the affirmative, but the whole impact of the Bible, as illustrated by hundreds of proof texts appealing to God's character, would answer in the negative. The laws of abstract truth are of the very character of God. When the Scripture declares (Heb. 6:18) that it is impossible for God to lie, and when Paul speaks of him as being “just and the justifier of the one who believes,” appeal is taken to his immutable, holy and true character which his will expresses, and which cannot conceivably be violated by any act of his(Buswell).

But I think Buswell is misunderstanding Van Til here. Van Til is not saying that we cannot reason from the truth of the God of the Bible. What he is simply saying is that evidentialists, in employing argumentation not directly warranted by Scripture, risk using the same habits of thinking as pagans, who reduce all of reality to abstract laws of the universe:

It will be found upon careful scrutiny that all three of these characteristics just enumerated (a) a tendency to identification of the human mind with the laws of the universe as a whole, (b) a tendency toward depersonalization and abstraction, and (c) a tendency toward intellectualism, will be found to be characteristic of all non- or antitheistic thought. We shall attempt to point this out at a later stage. And if this opinion is correct it is apparent that it will repay us to see these principles in operation in the case of Plato.


In the second place it should be remarked that Greek philosophy as a whole tends to depersonalization and abstraction. Not as though this was consciously the case. It could not have been done consciously because the modern concept of personality was unknown to the Greeks. What is meant is that though there was in the instance of Plato an advance from materiality to spirituality this was itself abstractly understood. One aspect of the universe is thought of as material and the other aspect is thought of as spiritual, and the soul finds its home in the spiritual aspect. But of this spiritual aspect of the universe, the soul is at most an individuation. Paul Elmer More has argued at length that abstraction first set in with Aristotle, but it may be doubted whether he has made his point. It was characteristic of the genius of the Greek mind to run into abstractions. It is inherent in all apostate thought to think abstractly(Van Til, "A Survey of Christian Epistemology").

This is quite opposed to Christian presuppositionalist argumentation, which Van Til says is "concrete":

In the preceding paragraph we have considered the necessary consequences of the relativism inherent in the very bedrock of Greek epistemology. We must now add that an inherently relativistic epistemology is also of necessity and inherently abstract. On the other hand, we believe that the method of implication or the process of transcendental reasoning as employed by Christian theism is of necessity and inherently concrete.


Augustine, we know, was almost exclusively engaged in seeking to know God and himself. How then did he know himself? How would he argue for immortality? He would argue that he would naturally be immortal inasmuch as God planned him to be so. He would not believe in the soul’s preexistence, since that would imply his participation in the essence of eternity itself. In that case he would be once more a charter member of an original plurality without the Being of God, which conception he, by definition, had excluded. On the other hand, he would be equally sure that the evil within him was not due to the indwelling of something of the eternal Idea of evil. For if evil were eternal it would once more exclude the notion of an ultimate unity. Hence the warfare within him between good and evil was not a tug-of-war affair in which two parties were about equally matched. The principle of evil must be finite and the principle of the good must be infinite. If then he was only identified in purpose with the power of the infinite good, he would not only be immortal, but also be blessed. And even if not identified in purpose with the plans of the infinite, he would still be immortal, but immortal in misery. In either case the unity of God’s plan could not be broken. And put once more in philosophical terms, this would mean that Augustine is reasoning in such a way as to make the categories of eternity to be determinative of his thought. His method is all of one piece instead of a mixture, as was the case with Plato. There was not the least danger that Augustine would at last end with an abstract logical argument as Plato had done. In the Trinity, Augustine found his Concrete Universal. It is the earmark of what Idealism means by a concrete universal that unity and difference should be equally fundamental. But since Plato never succeeded in making unity and difference equally basic, it is fair to say that Plato’s thought remained abstract. He reasoned first on the basis of a physical world which he tried to abstract from the Ideal world. Then he reasoned on the basis of an Ideal world which he tried to abstract from the world of sense. But when he reasoned upon the basis of the sense world, he nevertheless took for granted the existence of the Ideal world with its claims, and when he reasoned in his second method upon the basis of the laws of the Ideal world, he nevertheless took for granted the existence of the world of sense with its claims. He did not have the courage to be either exclusively empirical or exclusively ideational. Hence his reasoning was in each case nothing but a temporary extraction of one aspect from the other aspect. He lacked the courage to abstract God from the sense world to such an extent that he really becomes self-supporting and therewith Concrete(Van Til, "A Survey of Christian Epistemology").

By "concrete universal", Van Til refers to the equal ultimacy of unity and plurality inhering in the Person of the Triune God. Indeed, for Van Til, this is precisely what makes Christianity so unique, and the way in which it solves the problem of the one and the many. Apostate thought tends to favor either the ideal/abstract or the concrete and the sensible, but all such thought collapses in antinomies which are inevitable for any worldview other than the Christian worldview, since non-Christian worldviews do not base their thought in the concrete universal of the Triune God, in whom, according to Van Til, inhere equally ultimate plurality and unity. For Van Til to speak of the concrete universal is simply for him to speak of the equal ultimacy of plurality and unity in God's Triune nature. On the one hand, Hegel, as we have seen in our previous article, spoke of "abstract universals" such as "man", as contrasted with totalities such as "mankind." I think all Van Til is saying is that it is only by virtue of the equal ultimacy of God's Triune nature that concrete individuals, constitutive of the world's plurality, and "mankind", constitutive of the world's unity, to use one example, and universals such as "all of mankind", can be accounted for in one worldview. This is in stark contrast to worldviews which are either monistic and therefore unable to account for plurality, or pluralistic, and therefore unable to account for unity. So when Buswell says "'A concrete universal is thus a totality. The supreme concrete universal is the totality of being, reality or the universe as a whole", what I think Van Til means here is simply that only the Christian worldview, whose God possesses a Triune nature, is capable of accommodating the plurality of the concrete and the unity of the universal.

But what about "brute facts"? We have seen before that what Van Til means by this is simply something that is "uninterpreted." For Van Til, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted datum. So John Frame:

Theology is simply the application of Scripture to all areas of human life. On this matter, Reformed writers have often been unhelpful. They have talked about theology as a study of God or Scripture, as an ordering of biblical data, as a process of theory construction from the facts of the Bible, etc. But they have not seriously asked the question, “Why do we need theology if Scripture is sufficient?” Often they have talked as if theology is necessary for us to obtain the truth about God, forgetting for the moment that God has already told us the truth about himself in Scripture. Sometimes they have suggested that the scriptural account of the truth is somehow defective–in form if not in content–and that theology is needed to remedy that defect, to put the Scripture into proper form, perhaps. Such options are not open to a follower of Van Til. Scripture is not lacking in truth, order, rationality. It is not a brute fact which stands only as data for human interpretation. It is interpretation-divine interpretation. We need theology not because of any defect in Scripture, but because of defects in us, because of our inability to relate the clear revelation of Scripture to our own lives. We need theology–not to restructure or improve upon Scripture, but to apply Scripture to our lives(Frame).

For Frame, God's self-revelation in Scripture is a divine interpretation of reality. Theology is likewise man's interpretation of God's revelation. Such theological interpretation (or perhaps interpretative theology) is not required because of any defect in scripture, but because of our own defects. Therefore, for the student of biblical theology, there is no such thing as a brute fact. Instead, all theological doctrine is only ever interpretation. This is not to advocate a relativistic hermeneutic. There are indisputably good and indisputably bad interpretation of biblical revelation. Good or correct interpretation corresponds to God's interpretation of reality, and bad interpretation does not. However, Buswell tackles the notion that there is no such thing as a brute fact:

What then are “brute facts”? The term simply means facts which we cannot /p. 55/ see as directly derived from rational principles, but which are regarded as facts merely because they exist. Of course every Christian regards facts as the result of God's act of creation. Can a Christian then regard any of the facts of creation as brute facts? The answer should be given in two stages, (1) there are certainly some facts which cannot be regarded as brute facts, but which must be regarded as inevitably derived from the very character of God himself. God must be holy, he must be true,—not by any outside compulsion but because of himself. Since God must be holy, he must hate sin, he must take the attitude of consuming wrath toward all which violates his holy character. God's wrath against sin, then, is not a brute fact, but is a fact which is derived by the very nature of the truth itself in God, from the nature of holiness itself in God.

(2) On the other hand, there are certain facts which must necessarily be regarded as free expressions of God's will, not derived by any rational necessity or any other necessity from his character. One of these facts is creation. To regard the eternal God as under any necessity to create the universe would be a form of pantheism. His plan to create must be regarded as eternal. His act of creation must be regarded as temporal and free. In the technical sense of the word, a “brute fact” is certainly not irrational. Neither is it rationalistic in the sense of being rationally necessitated. Creation as a fact must be regarded as a free act of God's will, not contrary to, but not necessitated by the truth which characterizes his nature.

Another fact which must supremely be regarded as the result of God's free will, and not in any sense necessitated, is the fact of salvation through Christ. “Of his mere good pleasure” not because of any rational necessity he chose to save a people. Grace is then, technically called a “brute fact” and through all eternity it will be more and more amazing to us that God should have chosen, of his own freedom, to save sinners through the sacrifice of Calvary.

Another fact which must be recognized as non-necessitated, is the very fact of God himself. God simply is an eternal Being, infinite and perfect in specified revealed attributes. One of the chief fallacies of Kant in discussing the doctrine of God, was his confusion of “necessary Being” with actual being. He should have perceived that if God exists by any necessity, then the necessity would seem to be at least logically prior to God. As Kant argues, there is no logical contradiction in conceiving of the existence of nothing at all. He should have reached the conclusion that God's existence is not a necessity of reason, it is simply so. God is.

Now comes the question crucial to Professor Van Til's presuppositionalism: If abstract laws are of the character of God, and if created facts are produced, or have been produced, by the will of God, is it inconceivable that a lost sinner existing as a created fact might apprehend something of abstract truth, not knowing that it is derived from the character of God himself, might also apprehend certain brute facts in God's creation, and might, for a time at least have a certain limited area of truth in common with the redeemed from among men? The answer to this question will depend upon further study including topics presented below.

Van Til actually explicitly addresses this issue in his "A Survey of Christian Epistemology":

True human knowledge corresponds to the knowledge which God has of himself and his world. Suppose that I am a scientist investigating the life and ways of a cow. What is this cow? I say it is an animal. But that only pushes the question back. What is an animal? To answer that question I must know what life is. But again, to know what life is I must know how it is related to the inorganic world. And so I may and must continue till I reach the borders of the universe. And even when I have reached the borders of the universe, I do not yet know what the cow is. Complete knowledge of what a cow is call be had only by an absolute intelligence, i.e., by one who has, so to speak, the blueprint of the whole universe. But it does not follow from this that the knowledge of the cow that I have is not true as far as it goes. It is true if it corresponds to the knowledge that God has of the cow(Van Til, "A Survey of Christian Epistemology).

To answer Buswell's question as to whether or not a human can possess the "truth" of a brute fact: well, only Christians can have true knowledge of a fact of creation. The unbeliever, according to Van Til, cannot have true knowledge of a fact of creation precisely because Van Til is working with a coherence theory of truth rather than a correpsondence theory of truth. For Van Til, only Christians can have true coherence, and therefore, only Christians can have true knowledge: "It is our contention that only the Christian can obtain real coherence in his thinking. If all of our thoughts about the facts of the universe are correspondence with God’s ideas of these facts, there will naturally be coherence in our thinking because there is a complete coherence in God’s thinking"(Van Til).

Van Til notes that the idealists like Hegel made true knowledge impossible for all but the absolute mind. Only God has exhaustive knowledge of the world because only God understands how all facts relate to all other facts. Thus, only God's thinking is ultimately coherent, and therefore, only God's thoughts are ultimately true. But we can have a degree of true knowledge insofar as we affirm that God's knowledge of a fact is a true conception of the fact. Note, however, in our quotation of Van Til concerning the cow, he refers to us having knowledge of the cow "as far as it goes." This is quite the notorious Van Tillianism, and refers to the distinction between archetypal and ectypal knowledge. The former refers to God's knowledge of all things in relation to Himself, and the latter refers to human knowledge, which lacks understanding of the relation of God's knowledge to Himself because it lacks understanding of God's incomprehensible nature. In any case, the unbeliever, it would seem, cannot have any true knowledge of creation, and the believer can only have a faint glimmer of a qualitatively different archetypal knowledge residing in God alone.

Buswell, J. The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism. 42, no. 2 (Nov. 1948):41–65. Retrieved from:

Van Til, C. "A Survey of Christianity Epistemology." Volume 2 of the series. In Defense of Biblical Christianity.vPresbyterian And Reformed Publishing Co.vPhillipsburg, New Jersey 08865.vCopyright 1969.vBy den Dulk Christian Foundation

Frame, John. Van Til: The Theologian. Retrieved from:

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