Without Excuse: Presuppositionalism and the Historic Christian Faith

By David Haines

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”[1] Why are they without excuse? Who are “they” in the first place?

In his homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, John Chrysostom places these verses within the biblical context of Psalm 19:1 (“The heavens declare the glory of God”) and so proclaims: “For what will the Greeks say in that day? That ‘we were ignorant of Thee?’ Did ye then not hear the heaven sending forth a voice by the sight, while the well-ordered harmony of all things spake out more clearly than a trumpet? Did ye not see the hours of night and day abiding unmoved continually, the goodly order of winter, spring, and other seasons, which is both sure and unmoved, the treatableness of the sea amid all its turbulence and waves? All things abiding in order and by their beauty and their grandeur, preaching aloud of the Creator?”[2] God has revealed Himself clearly in His works, and, says Paul to the church at Rome, it is because God has so revealed Himself in nature, and because fallen man represses this knowledge, that “they are without excuse.” But Chrysostom adds “it was not for this God made these things, even if this came of it. For it was not to bereave them of all excuse, that He set before them so great a system of teaching, but that they might come to know Him. But by not having recognized Him they deprived themselves of every excuse.”[3]

Chrysostom’s understanding of these verses is representative of the early and medieval church’s understanding of the biblical teaching on natural revelation and the human capacity to know something of God from nature (typically called “natural theology”). Indeed, though they frequently railed against the philosophers for their errors, they happily acknowledged the truths that they had discovered—especially those about the divine nature. It was precisely this interpretation of scriptures and approach to philosophy that the early Reformers also adopted;[4] John Calvin proclaimed that, although Paul does not detail all that can be known of God through nature by the unregenerate, “he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity; for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself. When we arrive at this point, the divinity becomes known to us, which cannot exist except accompanied with all the attributes of a God, since they are all included under that idea.”[5] That knowledge of God which can be acquired through our observations of nature, says Calvin in his Institutes, “is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church.”[6]

“That knowledge of God which can be acquired through our observations of nature, says Calvin in his Institutes, ‘is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church.’”

Some have thought that the noetic effects of sin were so grievous, so debilitating, however, that the unregenerate were rendered blind, even to the light of God in creation. To this Calvin says, “We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness. We conceive that there is a Deity; and then we conclude, that whoever he may be, he ought to be worshipped: but our reason here fails, because it cannot ascertain who or what sort of being God is…we are prevented by our blindness, so that we reach not to the end in view; we yet see so far, that we cannot pretend any excuse.”[7] We are blind as a bat, but even a bat can distinguish between the light and the dark. The little bit of sight that we have, according to Calvin, is sufficient for us to recognize that there is indeed a God and that he is worthy of worship. That humans repress this knowledge, leaves them “without excuse.”

The theologians who continued the work of the first Reformers maintained this traditional interpretation of Romans 1:19-20, going so far as to declare that it was required for orthodoxy,[8] clearly stating it in almost every one of the great Reformed confessions and catechisms written between 1550 and the 1700s.[9]  An interesting example can be found in the Commentary on Romans written by John Murray, former professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, “We must not tone down the teaching of the apostle in this passage. It is a clear declaration to the effect that the visible creation as God’s handiwork makes manifest the invisible perfections of God as its Creator, that from the things which are perceptible to the senses cognition of these invisible perfections is derived, and that thus a clear apprehension of God’s perfections may be gained from his observable handiwork.”[10]

For whom is this natural knowledge of the divine available? Who is able to know something of God through the rational perception of the sensible world? Almost the entire interpretative tradition of the historic church, both pre- and post-Reformation, agrees with Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Francis Turretin, and all of the Puritans,[11] among others, in the thinking that even the unregenerate are able to know something of God and His nature through their rational observations of the universe. Murray, in agreement with the traditional interpretation, states that, though some have argued that humans only possessed this “knowledge” prior to the Fall, there are many important elements in the text which demonstrate that “this knowledge is conceived of as belonging to them in the state of abandoned degeneracy.”[12] This natural knowledge of the divine is, in fact, the basis of the claim that “they are without excuse.”

Enter Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), one of John Murray’s colleagues at Westminster. Van Til famously maintained that unregenerate humans ought to be able to know something of the divine nature from creation, because God so clearly reveals himself in and through it, and because of the sense of divinity; but, he also argued,  humans do not have this knowledge, and cannot have it.[13] Of course, Van Til also claims that all men, even the unregenerate,[14] actually know that God is—such knowledge is inescapable—but they willfully suppress it.[15] Van Til argues that some men may contrive arguments that demonstrate the existence of a god,[16] but, unless it is the triune God of Christian scriptures, they have not demonstrated the existence of the one true God.[17] For Van Til, the knowledge that God exists is buried deep within man; it is, essentially, a form of innate knowledge which humans constantly suppress.[18] The “knowledge” of God which all humans hold in common, for Van Til, could be compared to a website that has been deleted by its owner. It has been supressed, but still exists, somewhere, in the deep web, waiting to be “resurrected.”[19] Van Til, however, frequently makes statements along the following lines, “On the other hand Reformed theology does believe in total depravity. In consequence, Reformed theology teaches that man by nature has no knowledge of God or of morality at all.”[20] He then goes on to say, on the same page, “The Reformed confessions speak of small remnants of the knowledge of God and of morality possessed by natural man.”[21] It is not possible, at this point, to untie all these knots. We simply wish to point out that Van Til seems to be sincerely attempting to maintain orthodoxy on this subject. Whether he succeeded is up for debate.

“Though there is much in Van Til that is excellent and fully in line with Reformed orthodoxy and the historic Christian church, major elements of his thought were destined to create controversy. . . In this book, a number of contemporary Protestant scholars have come together with the purpose of interacting with the thought of Cornelius Van Til and his contemporary defenders.”

In fact, though there is much in Van Til that is excellent and fully in line with Reformed orthodoxy and the historic Christian church, major elements of his thought were destined to create controversy. Part of the controversy may be due to his abstruse prose, which leaves many of his central claims open to various interpretations; however, many Protestant theologians and philosophers have thought that there was something fundamentally wrong with Van Til’s approach to a number of important issues. In 1971, the edited volume, Jerusalem and Athens, was published under the direction of E. R. Geehan. In this book, Van Til and a number of his contemporaries engaged a number of key elements of Van Til’s thought. Since then, there have been a plethora of articles and books written by those who would critique Van Til’s thought (such as R. C. Sproul,[22] Norman Geisler, J. V. Fesko,[23] Keith Mathison, and Richard Howe), and those who would defend forms of Van Til’s thought (such as K. Scott Oliphint,[24] John Frame, William Edgar, and James N. Anderson).

In this book, a number of contemporary Protestant scholars have come together with the purpose of interacting with the thought of Cornelius Van Til and his contemporary defenders. Not content to consider any single aspect of Van Til’s views, these authors have taken a multi-faceted approach to the subject, showing how Van Til and contemporary presuppositionalists have not only misconstrued a number of historical theological doctrines, but have also deviated from the historic Reformed views on the nature of reality, the natural light of reason, the role of presuppositions in intellectual discourse, natural theology, natural law, the historic attitude and use of philosophers (such as Aristotle) and pre-reformation theologians (such as Aquinas), and even questions related to the doctrine of God and the Trinity. We hope that these articles will contribute to the current discussion by subjecting Van Tillian methods to rigorous critical analysis, clarifying key terms, and properly situating contemporary presuppositionalism in its relation to the historic Christian faith. We offer these essays in the spirit of Christian brethren, in the hope of generating light, and with the prayer that any controversy generated by them will be for the greater good of God’s Church.

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[1] Romans 1 :19-20 (ESV). All Bible quotations will be from the ESV unless otherwise noted. Italics are mine.

[2] John Chrysostom, The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. J. B. Morris (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 36.

[3] Chrysostom, HEPR, 36.

[4] Cf. Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (1976; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1979), 43. William Tyndale, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, in vol. 1 of The Works of William Tyndale, ed. Henry Walter (Cambridge: The University Press, 1849), 114-115. Johannes Brenz, Le Catechisme, 57. Heinrich Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: the first and second decades, trans. H. I., ed. Thomas Harding (Cambridge: The University Press, 1850), 196-97.

[5] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1849), 70.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, ch. 5, §6, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 20.

[7] Calvin, CPER, 71. Theodore Beza agrees emphatically with Calvin. Cf. Theodore de Bèze, Questions et Responses Chrestiennes (Eustace Vignon, 1584), 1 : 42-43.

[8] See, for example, the statements of Francis Turretin concerning natural theology and orthodoxy, “The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).” (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 1: 6.

[9] Both the Belgic confession (1561, revised 1619, in article 2) and the Canons of Dordt (1619, under the 3rd and 4th heads of doctrine, article 4) clearly articulate the traditional understanding of natural theology and natural law. The French Confession of Faith (1559), prepared by John Calvin himself, delivered by Beza to Charles IX, and accepted by the Synod of La Rochelle (1571), clearly teaches this doctrine (Article II). See also The Westminster Confession (1647), ch. 1, a. 1., The Westminster Larger Catechism (1647), q. 2., and The London Baptist Confession (1647, revised 1688, 1689), ch. 1, a. 1. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) though not mentioning natural theology, does mention natural law in chapter 12. For more on this, see my article “Natural Theology in Reformed Orthodoxy,” in Joseph Minich, ed., Philosophy and the Christian: The Quest for Wisdom in the Light of Christ (Lincoln, NE: Davenant Press, 2018), 250-91.

[10] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 40.

[11] For a summary of the views of the Puritans, on natural theology, see Wallace W. Marshall, Puritanism and Natural Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016).

[12] Murray, ER, 51.

[13] Cf. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of the Faith (1974; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1982), 101-104. Cf. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 114. Van Til repeatedly affirms what man “ought” to know but does not. Man cannot know that God exists through nature, according to Van Til, for two reasons: (1) humans reason univocally rather than analogically. The only way they could actually do what they ought would be to reason analogically (making God the norm, and man the derivative), instead of univocally (making man the norm, and God the derivative), but they can only reason analogically if they first accept the truth of Christian Scriptures and the existence of the Triune God. (2) They can only “read nature aright,” and by the right reading of nature know that God exists and something of His nature, if their reading of nature is lit by supernatural revelation. In other words, natural revelation can only inform man of God if God reveals Himself to man by supernatural revelation (this is as true of pre-fall man as of post-fall man, regenerate or unregenerate). “If then even man in paradise could read nature aright only in connection with and in the light of supernatural positive revelation, how much the more is this true of man after the fall.” (Van Til, DF, 128. Cf. Van Til, IST, 44, 57, 61, 66, 69, 71, 84, 197. Cf. Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed., ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 80-81.).

[14] Van Til, DF, 72.

[15] Van Til, DF, 114-15. Cf. Van Til, DF, 253.

[16] He allows that some philosophers, such as Aristotle, have demonstrated the existence of a god, but then qualifies this: “If therefore men would only reason analogically they should be able to reason from nature to nature’s God. But sinners until saved by grace do not reason analogically. They reason univocally. And because they reason univocally about nature they conclude that no god exists or that a god exists but never that the true God exists.” (Van Til, IST, 101.) Cf. Van Til, IST, 57.

[17] Cf. Van Til, DF, 34. Van Til, IST, 104, 106. Cf. Van Til, CA, 98.

[18] Cf. Van Til, DF, 116, 175-76, 198. Van Til, IST, 104. According to Van Til, it is this innate but suppressed sense of deity, which is “beneath the threshold of his working consciousness” (Van Til, DF, 120.), which is the only point of contact for the Reformed apologist. It is, in fact, to this buried innate sense of deity that Van Til refers when he says that man actually does know God and that God exists. One must not be tricked by the term “actually” into thinking that man is “conscious” of this knowledge, thinking about it, or actively supressing it.

[19] The question we might ask, however, especially in light of what we have already seen, is: is this the “type” of natural knowledge of God that Christian theologians have historically thought to be available to both the regenerate and the unregenerate?

[20] Van Til, DF, 187. K. Scott Oliphint notes in a footnote: “‘By Nature’ here does not mean according to one’s created character, for then we would have to affirm that all men know God (Rom. 1:18f). Rather, ‘by nature’ means by means of our autonomous reasoning from nature.” Without this crucial intervention by Oliphint, one would be tempted to read Van Til as apparently meaning in the strongest possible terms what he literally wrote, namely, that “man by nature has no knowledge of God or of morality at all.” Cf. Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 2nd ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 63.

[21] Van Til, DF, 187.

[22] R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984).

[23] J. V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics : Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).

[24] K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics : Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013). K. Scott Oliphint, Cornelius Van Til and the Reformation of Christian Apologetics (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, 2015). K. Scott Oliphint, The Consistency of Van Til’s Methodology (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, 1990).