On Circular Reasoning

Van Til Quotes on Circular Reasoning

“Before proceeding to the development of the scriptural doctrine of inspiration, it may be w ell to refer briefly at this point to the charge of circular reasoning implied in such a method. It is said that we cannot fairly go first to Scripture to see what it says about inspiration and then say that the Scripture is true because it is inspired.

In order to avoid this charge of circular reasoning, orthodox theology has often offered the following: In the first place, it is proved by ordinary historical evidence that Christ actually arose from the dead and that he performed miracles. This is said to prove his divinity. Secondly, it is noted that this divine person has testified to the Old Testament as the Word of God and that he himself promised the gift of the Holy Spirit who should lead the apostles into the truth and thus be qualified as authors of the New Testament.

Historical apologetics is absolutely necessary and indispensable to point out that Christ arose from the grave, etc. But as long as historical apologetics works on a supposedly neutral basis it defeats its own purpose. For in that case-it virtually grants the validity of the metaphysical assumptions of the unbeliever. So in this case, a pragmatist may accept the resurrection of Christ as a fact without accepting the conclusion that Christ is the Son of God. And on his assumptions he is not illogical in doing so. On the contrary, if his basic metaphysical assumption to the effect that all reality is subject to chance is right, he is only consistent if he refuses to conclude from the fact of Christ’s resurrection that he is divine in the orthodox sense of the term. Now, though he is wrong in his metaphysical assumption, and though, rightly interpreted, the resurrection of Christ assuredly proves the divinity of Christ, we must attack him in his philosophy of fact, as well as on the question of the actuality of the facts themselves. For on his own metaphysical assumptions the resurrection of Christ would not prove his divinity at all.

In addition to showing that Christ actually arose from the grave and that the facts recorded in the Scripture are as they are recorded as being, insofar as this can be ascertained by historical research, we must show that the philosophy of fact as held to by Christian theism is the only philosophy that can account for the facts. And these two things must be done in conjunction with one another. Historical apologetics becomes genuinely fruitful only if it is conjoined with philosophical apologetics. And the two together will have to begin with Scripture, and argue that unless what Scripture says about itself and all things else of which it speaks is true, nothing is true. Unless God as an absolutely self-conscious person exists, no facts have any meaning. This holds not only for the resurrection of Christ, but for any other fact as well.

If this is done, it will be seen that redemption must have come into the world as soon as sin came into the world, because the world, to exist at all, must exist as a theistic world. This redemptive process could originate with no one but God. Accordingly only God himself can testify to the revelation that he has given of himself. Special revelation must, in the nature of the case, be self-testified. Christ did, to be sure, appeal from himself to the testimony of John the Baptist, etc., but, in the last analysis, this was not an appeal to someone else, because John the Baptist and all other prophets were nothing but the emissaries of Christ. With these things in mind, we need not apologize for going to Scripture in order to see what it says about inspiration, in order then to say that the Scriptures are true because they are inspired. The existence of God is the presupposition of all human predication and the idea of biblical self-testimony is involved in this presupposition.

The only alternative to “circular reasoning” as engaged in by Christians, no matter on what point they speak, is that of reasoning on the basis of isolated facts and isolated minds, with the result that there is no possibility of reasoning at all. Unless as sinners we have an absolutely inspired Bible, we have no absolute God interpreting reality for us, and unless we have an absolute God interpreting reality for us, there is no true interpretation at all.

This is not to deny that there is a true interpretation up to a point by those who do not self-consciously build upon the self-conscious God of Scripture as their ultimate reference point. Non-believers often speak the truth in spite of themselves. But we are not now concerned with what men do in spite of themselves. We are concerned to indicate that the absolute distinction between true and false must be maintained when a self-consciously adopted monotheistic and a self-consciously adopted theistic point of view confront one another.

We may now first show what the Scripture says about personal revelation, then what it says about scriptural revelation, in order to see that plenary inspiration is involved in these two.” – Cornelius Van Til, Systematic Theology Chapter 12 The Inspiration of Scripture

“The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. The question is as to what the “facts” and “laws” really are. Are they what the non-Christian methodology assumes that they are? Are they what the Christian theistic methodology presupposes they are?

The answer to this question cannot be finally settled by any direct discussion of “facts.” It must, in the last analysis be settled indirectly. The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position the “facts” are not facts and the “laws” are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do “facts” and “laws” appear intelligible.

To admit one’s own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting-point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another.” – Cornelius Van Til, Apologetics, Chapter 4 The Problem of Method

“Let us first look briefly at a typical sample of procedure generally followed in conservative or evangelical circles today. Let us, in other words, note how Mr. Grey proceeds with an analysis of Mr. Black. And let us at the same time see how Mr. Grey would win Mr. Black to an acceptance of Christianity. We take for this purpose a series of articles which appeared in the January, February and March, 1950, issues of Moody Monthly, published by the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Edward John Carnell, Ph.D., author of An Introduction to Christian Apologetics and Professor of Apologetics at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, wrote this series. Carnell’s writings are among the best that appear in evangelical circles. In fact, in his book Carnell frequently argues as we would expect a Reformed apologist to argue. By and large, however, he represents the evangelical rather than the Reformed method in Apologetics.

When Mr. Carnell instructs his readers “How Every Christian Can Defend His Faith,” he first appeals to facts and to logic as independent sources of information about the truth of Christianity. Of course, he must bring in the Bible even at this point. But the Bible is brought in only as a book of information about the fact of what has historically been called Christianity. It is not from the beginning brought in as God’s Word. It must be shown to Mr. Black to be the Word of God by means of “facts” and “logic” Carnell would thus avoid at all costs the charge of reasoning in a circle. He does not want Mr. Black to point the finger at him and say: “You prove that the Bible is true by an appeal to the Bible itself. That is circular reasoning. How can any person with any respect for logic accept such a method of proof?”

Carnell would escape such a charge by showing that the facts of experience, such as all men recognize, and logic, such as all men must use, point to the truth of Scripture. This is what he says: “If you are of a philosophic turn, you can point to the remarkable way in which Christianity fits in with the moral sense inherent in every human being, or the influence of Christ on our ethics, customs, literature, art and music. Finally, you can draw upon your own experience in speaking of the reality of answered prayer and the witness of the Spirit in your own heart.… If the person is impressed with this evidence, turn at once to the gospel. Read crucial passages and permit the Spirit to work on the inner recesses of his heart. Remember that apologetics is merely a preparation. After the ground has been broken, proceed immediately with sowing and watering.” 10

It is assumed in this argument that Mr. Black agrees with the “evangelical,” Mr. Grey, on the character of the “moral sense” of man. This may be true, but then it is true because Mr. Grey has himself not taken his information about the moral sense of man exclusively from Scripture. If with Mr. White he had taken his conception of the moral nature of man from the Bible, then he would hold that Mr. Black, as totally depraved will, of course, misinterpret his own moral nature. True, Christianity is in accord with the moral nature of man. But this is so only because the moral nature of man is first in accord with what the Bible says it is, that is, originally created perfect, but now wholly corrupted in its desires through the fall of man.

If you are reasoning with a naturalist, Carnell advises his readers, ask him why when a child throws a rock through his window, he chases the child and not the rock. Presumably even a naturalist knows that the child, not the rock, is free and therefore responsible. “A bottle of water cannot ought; it must. When once the free spirit of man is proved, the moral argument—the existence of a God who imposes moral obligations—can form the bridge from man to God.” 11

Here the fundamental difference between Mr. Grey’s and Mr. White’s approach to Mr. Black appears. The difference lies in the different notions of the free will of man. Or, it may be said, the difference is with respect to the nature of man as such. Mr. White would define man, and therefore his freedom, in terms of Scripture alone. He would therefore begin with the fact that man is the creature of God. And this implies that man’s freedom is a derivative freedom. It is a freedom that is not and cannot be wholly ultimate, that is, self-dependent. Mr. White knows that Mr. Black would not agree with him in this analysis of man and of his freedom. He knows that Mr. Black would not agree with him on this any more than he would agree on the Biblical idea of total depravity.

Mr. Grey, on the other hand, must at all costs have us point of contact in the system of thought of Mr. Black, who is typical of the natural man; just as Mr. Grey is afraid of being charged with circular reasoning, so he is also afraid of being charged with talking about something that is “outside of experience.” And so he is driven to talk in general about the ‘free spirit of man.’ Of course, Mr. Black need have no objections from his point of view in allowing for the “free spirit of man.” That is at bottom what he holds even when he is a naturalist. His whole position is based upon the idea of man as a free spirit, that is, a spirit that is not subject to the law of his Creator God. And Carnell does not distinguish between the Biblical doctrine of freedom, as based upon and involved in the fact of man’s creation, and the doctrine of freedom, in the sense of autonomy, which makes man a law unto himself.

Of course, Mr. Black will be greatly impressed with such an argument as Mr. Grey has presented to him for the truth of Christianity. In fact, if Christianity is thus shown to be in accord with the moral nature of man, as Mr. Black himself sees that moral nature, then Mr. Black does not need to be converted at all to accept Christianity. He only needs to accept something additional to what he has always believed. He has been shown how nice it would be to have a second story built on top of the house which he has already built according to his own plans.

To be sure, the Evangelical intends no such thing. Least of all does Carnell intend such a thing. But why then does not the “Evangelical” see that by presenting the non-Christian with Evangelicalism rather than with the Reformed Faith he must compromise the Christian religion? And why does he not also see that in doing what he does the non-Christian is not really challenged either by fact or by logic? For facts and logic which are not themselves first seen in the light of Christianity have, in the nature of the case, no power in them to challenge the unbeliever to change his position. Facts and logic, not based upon the creation doctrine and not placed in the context of the doctrine of God’s all-embracing Providence, are without relation to one another and therefore wholly meaningless.

It is this fact which must be shown to Mr. Black. The folly of holding to any view of life except that which is frankly based upon the Bible as the absolute authority for man must be pointed out to him. Only then are we doing what Paul did when he said: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20).

As a Reformed Christian Mr. White therefore cannot cooperate with Mr. Grey in his analysis of Mr. Black. This fact may appear more clearly if we turn to see how Mr. Black appears when he is analyzed by Mr. White in terms of the Bible alone.

Now, according to Mr. White’s analysis, Mr. Black is not a murderer. He is not necessarily a drunkard or a dope addict. He lives in one of the suburbs. He is every whit a gentleman. He gives to the Red Cross and to the Red Feather campaigns. He was a boy scout; he is a member of a lodge; he is very much civic minded; now and then his name is mentioned in the papers as an asset to the community. But we know that he is spiritually dead. He is filled with the spirit of error. Perhaps he is a member of a “fine church” in the community, but nevertheless he is one of a “people that do err in their heart” (Ps 95:10). He lives in a stupor.12 To him the wisdom of God is foolishness. The truth about God, and about himself in relation to God, is obnoxious to him. He does not want to hear of it. He seeks to close eyes and ears to those who give witness of the truth. He is, in short, utterly self-deceived.

Actually, Mr. Black is certain that he looks at life in the only proper way. Even if he has doubts as to the truth of what he believes, he does not see how any sensible or rational man could believe or do otherwise. If he has doubts it is because no one can be fully sure of himself. If he has fears it is because fear is to be expected in the hazardous situation in which modern man lives. If he sees men’s minds break down he thinks this is to be expected under current conditions of stress and strain. If he sees grown men act like children he says that they were once beasts. Everything, including the “abnormal” is to him “normal.”

In all this Mr. Black has obviously taken for granted that what the Bible says about the world and himself is not true. He has taken this for granted. He may never have argued the point He has cemented yellow spectacles to his own eyes. He cannot remove them because he will not remove them. He is blind and loves to be blind.

Do not think that Mr. Black has an easy time of it. He is the man who always “kicks against the pricks.” His conscience troubles him all the time. Deep down in his heart he knows that what the Bible says about him and about the world is true. Even if he has never heard of the Bible he knows that he is a creature of God and that he has broken the law of God. 13 When the prodigal son left his fathers house he could not immediately efface from his memory the look and the voice of his father. How that look and that voice came back to him when he was at the swine thought How hard he had tried to live as though the money with which he so freely entertained his “friends” had not come from his father! When asked where he came from he would answer that he came “from the other side.” He did not want to be reminded of his past. Yet he could not forget it. It required a constant act of suppression to forget the past. But that very act of suppression itself keeps alive the memory of the past.

So also with Mr. Black. He daily changes the truth of God into a lie. He daily worships and serves the creature more than the Creator. He daily holds the truth in unrighteousness. 14 But what a time he has with himself! He may try to sear his conscience as with a hot iron. He may seek to escape the influence of all those who witness to the truth. But he can never escape himself as witness bearer to the truth.

His conscience keeps telling him: “Mr. Black, you are a fugitive from justice. You have run away from home, from your father’s bountiful love. You are an ingrate, a sneak, a rascal! You shall not escape meeting justice at last. The father still feeds you. Yet you despise the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not recognizing that the goodness of God is calculated to lead you to repentance. 15 Why do you kick against the pricks? Why do you stifle the voice of your conscience? Why do you use the wonderful intellect that God has given you as a tool for the suppression of the voice of God which speaks to you through yourself and through your environment? Why do you build your house on sand instead of on rock? Can you be sure that no storm is ever coming? Are you omniscient? Are you omnipotent? You say that nobody knows whether God exists or whether Christianity is true. You say that nobody knows this because man is finite. Yet you assume that God cannot exist and that Christianity cannot be true. You assume that no judgment will ever come. You must be omniscient to know that. And yet you have just said that as man declares about ‘the beyond’ must be based upon his brief span of existence in this world of time and chance. How, then, if you have taken for granted that chance is one of the basic ingredients of all human experience, can you at the same time say what can or cannot be in all time to come? You certainly have made a fool of yourself, Mr. Black,” says Mr. Black to himself. “You reject the claims of truth which you know to be the truth, and you do that in terms of the lie which really you how to be the lie.”

It is not always that Mr. Black is thus aware of the fact that he lives like the prodigal who would eat of the things the swine did eat, but who knows he cannot because he is a human being. He is not always thus aware of his folly—in part at least, because of the failure of evangelicals, and particularly because of the failure of Reformed Christians to stir him up to a realization of his folly. The Evangelical does not want to stir him up thus. It is in the nature of his own theology not to stir him up to a realization of this basic depth of folly. But the Reformed Christian should, on his basis, want to stir up Mr. Black to an appreciation of the folly of his ways.

However, when the Reformed Christian, Mr. White, is to any extent aware of the richness of his own position and actually has the courage to challenge Mr. Black by presenting to him the picture of himself as taken through the X-ray machine called the Bible, he faces the charge of “circular reasoning” and of finding no “point of contact” with experience. And he will also be subject to the criticism of the evangelical for speaking as if Christianity were irrational and for failing to reach the man in the street.

Thus we seem to be in a bad predicament. There is a basic difference of policy between Mr. White and Mr. Grey as to how to deal with Mr. Black. Mr. Grey thinks that Mr. Black is not really such a bad fellow. It is possible, he thinks, to live with Mr. Black in the same world. And he is pretty strong. So it is best to make a compromise peace with him. That seems to be the way of the wise and practical politician. On the other hand, Mr. White thinks that it is impossible permanently to live in the same world with Mr. Black. Mr. Black, he says, must therefore be placed before the requirement of absolute and unconditional surrender. And surely it would be out of the question for Mr. White first to make a compromise peace with Mr. Black and then, after all, to require unconditional surrender! But what then about this charge of circular reasoning and about this charge of having no point of contact with the unbeliever?” – Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, Chapter 10 The Believer Meets The Unbeliever

“But the charge will finally be made that I accept all this because the Bible tells me. The Bible tells me that its God and its Christ are absolute and the sole source of interpretation. The Bible tells me that obedience is a covenant obligation because a creation-implication. But whence my belief in the Bible? If my reply is that an absolute God and an absolute Christ need an absolutely authoritative Bible in a sinful world, the logic is granted. Such is surely the case. If sin is what Scripture says it is, a denial of man’s receptivity of heart and mind, if God is what Scripture says He is, an absolute God, and if Christ is what Scripture says He is, the restorer of man to God, then only an infallibly inspired Scripture can help true? If I say that it accords with my experience, I do not escape the charge of circle-reasoning, because admittedly my experience has been moulded under the influence of the Scriptures. If I say that Scripture accords with a Theism that I find more satisfactory than any other philosophy, I again do not escape the charge of circle-reasoning because I have just stated that my Theism, too, comes from the Scriptures. How then shall I escape the charge of circle-reasoning when men ridicule me because as an educator I assume the authority of Scripture?

The answer is that I shall in no wise seek to escape it but boldly affirm it as the only alternative to self-destruction. What I shall do is first show clearly on the one hand that an absolute God, creation, and man’s original receptivity of thought that is Theism is indissolubly connected with and restored by Christ and Scripture, that is, by Christianity; and on the other hand that a finite-God, an uncreated universe and the essential creativity of human thought, that is Anti-theism is indissolubly connected with a denial of Christ’s divinity and the authority of Scripture, that is with Anti-Christianity. Then, when I have done this, I gladly admit and avow that I am a Theist and a Christian because the Holy Spirit has made me so, but I equally maintain that all men should be Theists and Christians because only Theism and Christianity can offer meaning to experience at all. Circular reasoning is the most reasonable form of reasoning for a finite personality. No other form of reasoning is possible.

When as Christian educators we have thus seen things as a whole and have seen them through, we make no mean apologies for teaching children with authority. Nor do we fear that Biblical criticism and evolutionism may tomorrow make our position untenable. Nor yet do we wildly dash for a would-be-up-to-dateness in methods of pedagogy and psychology. What shall we teach and how can we teach at all if not with the authority of God and Christ? How shall the facts of Scripture or nature ever disprove the existence of an absolute God if only an absolute God could make such facts? Or how can modern psychology tell us of the needs of the human being unless it ask of Christ and God what these needs may be? A certain independence of spirit we need in our Christian education. Not, of course, the independence of those who ridicule us. That is the independence of pride. And such independence of spirit is the denial of our whole position. But yet, an independence we need. An independence we need that has cast out crouching fear. We are right, not by our wisdom but through God. And because we are right through the work of the Spirit it behooves us to be humbly bold. If God is for us who can be against us?” – Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education Appendix 1The Education of Man – A Divinely Ordained Need

“H.1. With respect to your theory of knowledge you rightly distinguish between the starting points and methods of Christian and non-Christian pursuits of science (taking “science” in a wide sense). We have already considered the question of starting point and I restrict my exposition of method 44 to a few remarks relevant to your view of the problem of method.

H.2.1. You rightly stress that a Christian pursuit of science is presuppositional. To this I would add that a non-Christian pursuit of science is presuppositional as well. After all, science has historically and principially its origin in pre-scientific life and world view (including religious convictions), and this fact holds good for non-Christian science as well. In section C.1. I have mentioned pre-scientific assumptions of, for instance, the theory of universal evolution. To this may be added your demonstrations of the presuppositions of chance and of the autonomy of human reason in the cases of the philosophical and empirical scientific theories, which you have penetratingly criticized. The differences between a Christian and a non-Christian pursuit of science are in this context, among others, that in a Christian pursuit of science the ultimate presuppositions are (a). obtained from God’s Word-revelation, (b). in submission to the authority of God’s Word, and (c). are explicitly stated and answered for, whereas in a non-Christian pursuit of science (a). the ultimate presuppositions are unbiblical, (b). the authority of the Holy Writ is radically rejected, and (c). the presuppositions are more often than not covertly, i.e., only implicitly, present and not accounted for. At any rate, both pursuits are necessarily presuppositional. But the difference of the presuppositions implies that there is basically no neutral pursuit of science. The issues concerning ultimate presuppositions cannot be settled by a direct appeal to facts, insofar as their interpretations presuppose the presuppositions concerned. The ultimate reference points determine the stand taken. What you contend concerning a Christian pursuit of science, namely that a circular reasoning is implied in the mutual involvement of starting point, method, and conclusions, holds good for a non-Christian pursuit of science as well.

H.2.2. However, the radical difference between the two pursuits of science—as you rightly contend—is that Christian knowledge and non-Christian knowledge is not analogical. Christian knowledge is analogical because of the dualities it presupposes (see section G.5.1). God and his creation differ radically; God’s knowledge is original, whereas man’s knowledge is derivative; man’s knowledge is not identical with but analogous to God’s knowledge; man must creaturely and receptively constructively think God’s thoughts after him. As opposed to this, non-Christian pursuit of knowledge (and science) is not analogical, because its basic presuppositions are but absolutizations of something created; they thus cannot appeal to a revelation of a personal reality that is radically different from their experience. That is why they, in a circular fashion, can generalize and extrapolate something of created reality to a universal or absolute principle, thereby making it a lengthening-piece of created reality, as so many isms in philosophy and particular sciences do. 45 As you formulate it in another context, the god of the non-Christians is but a projection or a limit; the possibility of this projection or conception of a god or a limit goes back to the pre-scientific presuppositions concerned. All this too implies, as you contend, that in a basic sense there is no neutral pursuit of science and that there can be no compromise on ultimate issues.” – Cornelius Van Til, Jerusalem and Athens, H. On Method

“In contrast with Kuitert, Zuidema begins his thinking about any and every problem with the Christ of the Scriptures. The Christ of the Scripture identifies himself directly in the Scripture. Belief in Scripture lies, as Calvin points out, above and beyond all reasoning of men. This is the case, not because it is faith but because it is faith in Scripture.

People may tell us that such a position commits us to reasoning in a circle. For you men will say: the “Bible is the Word of God, because it is the Word of God, and because the Word of God is the Word of God.” We reply that in believing the Bible as self-attesting we do not engage in circular reasoning because we do not engage in reasoning at all. The Bible does not stand on the level with the logical principle of identity. In short we accept the Bible on authority. 368

Of course, Zuidema argues that the acceptance of Christ as attesting to Scripture, and of Scripture as attesting to Christ, are involved in one another. And, of course, the acceptance of Scripture is not a formal principle that operates regardless of the content of Scripture, and therefore regardless of the purpose of Scripture. Scripture is God’s interpretation of himself and of his relation to man and his world. “There are no naked facts.” We are confronted with an “amazing reality, in which man and the world participate—.” According to the revelation of Scripture this reality is under the judgment of God because of the fall of Adam. The power of sin permeates the deepest movements of our human existence. It affects our knowledge of ourselves, of our fellow-man, and of the reality in which we have been placed as God’s creatures. Above all this power cuts the ties that bind us to God. We are now marked by lovelessness, by revolutionary hate, by indifferent negation, by self-love sought in a humanness without God—by an unwillingness to listen to the voice of God as it calls “My son, give me thy heart.” With all our enmities, we never show enmity against sin. 369

How then can we, of ourselves, understand who Christ is, and what he came to do? And how can we really understand any problem in any field properly? Jesus said: “The world hates me because I witness of her that her works are evil” (Jn 7:7). None of us can tolerate Christ as he unmasks us in our sin, as he diagnoses our disease as being “unto death.” Christ knew that no man would accept him for what he was and had come to do unless by his Spirit he gave them a new heart, a heart to love instead of to hate. 370 But then to give men only light but also, with it, the power of sight, to give men love instead of hate was part of the work he came to do. He gives to men a joy in proclaiming the fact that there is no other name given under heaven by which they must be saved? They now rest assured that the powers of hell cannot prevail against the kingdom Christ has come to establish on earth. With Augustine they now see that the kingdom of Christ consists of his control of all the course of history by the power of his redeeming work.

Thus there is no preaching of Christ, no preaching of salvation, and no preaching of the gospel except it be preaching in consonance with Scripture-teaching.“ – Cornelius Van Til, The New Hermeneutic, Chapter 3, Reaction of some Orthodox Theologians

“One more point should be noted on the question of method, namely, that from a certain point of view, the method of implication may also be called a transcendental method. We have already indicated that the Christian method uses neither the inductive nor the deductive method as understood by the opponents of Christianity, but that it has elements of both induction and of deduction in it, if these terms are understood in a Christian sense. Now when these two elements are combined, we have what is meant by a truly transcendental argument. A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is. An exclusively deductive argument would take an axiom such as that every cause must have an effect, and reason in a straight line from such an axiom, drawing all manner of conclusions about God and man. A purely inductive argument would begin with any fact and seek in a straight line for a cause of such an effect, and thus perhaps conclude that this universe must have had a cause. Both of these methods have been used, as we shall see, for the defense of Christianity. Yet neither of them could be thoroughly Christian unless they already presupposed God. Any method, as was pointed out above, that does not maintain that not a single fact can be known unless it be that God gives that fact meaning, is an anti-Christian method. On the other hand, if God is recognized as the only and the final explanation of any and every fact, neither the inductive nor the deductive method can any longer be used to the exclusion of the other. That this is the case can best be realized if we keep in mind that the God we contemplate is an absolute God. Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument. A deductive argument as such leads only from one spot in the universe to another spot in the universe. So also an inductive argument as such can never lead beyond the universe. In either case there is no more than an infinite regression. In both cases it is possible for the smart little girl to ask, “If God made the universe, who made God?” and no answer is forthcoming. This answer is, for instance, a favorite reply of the atheist debater, Clarence Darrow. But if it be said to such opponents of Christianity that, unless there were an absolute God their own questions and doubts would have no meaning at all, there is no argument in return. There lie the issues. It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or in affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence. Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. It does not seek to find whether the house has a foundation, but it presupposes that it has one. We hold that the anti-Christian method, whether deductive or inductive, may be compared to a man who would first insist that the statue of William Penn on the city hall of Philadelphia can be intelligently conceived of without the foundation on which it stands, in order afterwards to investigate whether or not this statue really has a foundation.

It should be particularly noted, therefore, that only a system of philosophy that takes the concept of an absolute God seriously can really be said to be employing a transcendental method. A truly transcendent God and a transcendental method go hand in hand. It follows then that if we have been correct in our contention that Hegelian Idealism does not believe in a transcendent God, it has not really used the transcendental method as it claims that it has.

Now at this juncture it may be well to insert a brief discussion of the place of Scripture in all this. The opponent of Christianity will long ago have noticed that we are frankly prejudiced, and that the whole position is “biblicistic.” On the other hand, some fundamentalists may have feared that we have been trying to build up a sort of Christian philosophy without the Bible. Now we may say that if such be the case, the opponent of Christianity has sensed the matter correctly. The position we have briefly sought to outline is frankly taken from the Bible. And this applies especially to the central concept of the whole position, viz., the concept of an absolute God. Nowhere else in human literature, we believe, is the concept of an absolute God presented. And this fact is once more intimately related to the fact that nowhere else is there a conception of sin, such as that presented in the Bible. According to the Bible, sin has set man at enmity against God. Consequently it has been man’s endeavor to get away from the idea of God, that is, a truly absolute God. And the best way to do this was to substitute the idea of a finite God. And the best way to accomplish this subordinate purpose was to do it by making it appear as though an absolute God were retained. Hence the great insistence on the part of those who are really anti-Christian, that they are Christian.

It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. So also it makes very little difference whether we begin with the notion of an absolute God or with the notion of an absolute Bible. The one is derived from the other. They are together involved in the Christian view of life. Hence we defend all or we defend none. Only one absolute is possible, and only one absolute can speak to us. Hence it must always be the same voice of the same absolute, even though he seems to speak to us at different places. The Bible must be true because it alone speaks of an absolute God. And equally true is it that we believe in an absolute God because the Bible tells us of one. 1

And this brings up the point of circular reasoning. The charge is constantly made that if matters stand thus with Christianity, it has written its own death warrant as far as intelligent men are concerned. Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? Our answer to this is briefly that we prefer to reason in a circle to not reasoning at all. We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning that is possible to finite man. The method of implication as outlined above is circular reasoning. Or we may call it spiral reasoning. We must go round and round a thing to see more of its dimensions and to know more about it, in general, unless we are larger than that which we are investigating. Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about him any other way, than by a transcendental or circular argument. The refusal to admit the necessity of circular reasoning is itself an evident token of opposition to Christianity. Reasoning in a vicious circle is the only alternative to reasoning in a circle as discussed above.” – Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Chapter 1, 11 Transcendental

“Having before us all the factors that enter into the knowledge situation, and having on the basis of them concluded in the preceding chapter that it is necessary to reason with those who believe differently than we do, we must turn to a consideration of the question of how we should reason with them.

In the second chapter we discussed some of the epistemological terms that have bearing upon the question of the method. We must now set that discussion into the more advanced context at which we have arrived. The thing that has gradually shown itself to be of momentous importance is this fact that all reasoning in the field of knowledge must take into consideration the difference between those who accept and those who reject Christian theism. Whatever method we employ will have to figure from the outset with this difference. The question is no longer how I may obtain knowledge of some object with which I come in contact. Nor is it only the question of how I may impart that knowledge to my fellow man in general. The question is rather how I may impart the knowledge that I have to those who by virtue of their opposition have no true knowledge and yet think that they have.

Something of this was brought out when we said that God’s knowledge of himself and God’s knowledge of the facts of the universe must be the standard of our knowledge. God is completely self-conscious and therefore knows himself and all things analytically. There is in God’s thought complete coherence. Keeping this in mind, we may say that if we are to have coherence in our thinking it will have to be a coherence that corresponds to God’s coherence. Accordingly, our coherence will never be completely inclusive in the way that God’s coherence is completely inclusive. Our coherence will be no more than an analogy of the coherence of God. Yet because it is based upon God’s coherence it will be true knowledge. Our coherence can constantly grow in comprehensiveness but it cannot grow in truthfulness. Those that have the least knowledge have true knowledge just as well as those that have the greatest knowledge, if only their knowledge is truly analogical, i.e., based upon the knowledge that God has of himself and of the world.

If this fundamental point is not forgotten, we can speak in the ordinary epistemological language. We may then say that we employ the methods of analysis and synthesis. What we mean by synthesis is not that which Bosanquet means by synthesis when he says that reality is essentially synthetic. Our conception of God maintains the reverse of that. But for us the time series brings forth that which is new for us. Accordingly, we have to synthesize the new facts with the old facts. Then when we have done that we must proceed once more to see what the new facts thus related to the old facts together reveal about God and reality in general. In this respect the process of knowledge is a growth into the truth. For this reason we have spoken of the Christian theistic method as the method of implication into the truth of God. It is reasoning in a spiral fashion rather than in a linear fashion. Accordingly, we have said that we can use the old terms deduction and induction if only we remember that they must be thought of as elements in this one process of implication into the truth of God. If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method. That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize.

The charges made against this type of reasoning we must turn upon those who made them. It will be said of this type of reasoning that it introduces the subjective element of belief in God, which all men do not share. Of this we can only say that all men should share that belief, and before the fall of man into sin man did have that belief. Belief in God is the most human attitude conceivable. It is abnormal not to believe in God. We must therefore hold that only the Christian theist has real objectivity, while the others are introducing false prejudices, or subjectivity.

The charge is made that we engage in circular reasoning. Now if it be called circular reasoning when we hold it necessary to presuppose the existence of God, we are not ashamed of it because we are firmly convinced that all forms of reasoning that leave God out of account will end in ruin. Yet we hold that our reasoning cannot fairly be called circular reasoning, because we are not reasoning about and seeking to explain facts by assuming the existence and meaning of certain other facts on the same level of being with the facts we are investigating, and then explaining these facts in turn by the facts with which we began. We are presupposing God, not merely another fact of the universe. If God is to come into contact with us at all it is natural that the initiative must be with him. And this will also apply to the very question about the relation of God to us. Accordingly, it is only on God’s own testimony that we can know anything about him.

Even in paradise it was God’s verbal self-disclosure, and the disclosure of his will for man’s activity in relation to the created cosmos, that was indispensable for man’s ability to identify any fact and to relate any fact properly to any other fact. Applying this to the Scripture, it is but natural that we should accept the Scripture testimony about itself. If we did anything else we would not be accepting Scripture as absolute. The only alternative then to bringing in a God who testifies of himself and upon whose testimony we are wholly dependent, is not to bring in God at all. And not to bring in God at all spells nothing but utter ruin for knowledge. In that case knowledge may be said to be reduced to the pass of drawing circles in a void. Hence we must return the charge of circular reasoning to those who made it. On the other hand, we are happy to accept the charge of circular reasoning. Our reasoning frankly depends upon the revelation of God, whose “reasoning” is within the internal-eternal circularity of the three persons of the Trinity. It is only if we frankly depend for the validity of our reasoning upon this internal circular reasoning in the triune God that we can escape trying in vain to reason in circles in a vacuum of pure contingency.

The charge has been made that it is an a priori procedure to bring in God at the beginning of the process of knowledge. This too is a charge that acts as a boomerang. A priori reasoning is reasoning that does not start with the facts. Now antitheism has arbitrarily taken for granted that God is not a fact, and that if he is a fact that fact does not have any bearing upon the other facts. This we must hold to be an a priori procedure. We hold that the so-called “facts” are wholly unintelligible unless the supreme fact of God be brought into relation with them. We are willing to start with any fact as a proximate starting point, but refuse to admit before the investigation has begun that there can be no such fact as God.” Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Chapter 15 The Method of Christian Theistic Epistemology

“So you see when I was young I was conditioned on every side; I could not help believing in God. Now that I am older I still cannot help believing in God. I believe in God now because unless I have Him as the All-Conditioner, life is Chaos.

I shall not convert you at the end of my argument. I think the argument is sound. I hold that belief in God is not merely as reasonable as other belief, or even a little or infinitely more probably true than other belief; I hold rather that unless you believe in God you can logically believe in nothing else. But since I believe in such a God, a God who has conditioned you as well as me, I know that you can to your own satisfaction, by the help of the biologists, the psychologists, the logicians, and the Bible critics reduce everything I have said this afternoon and evening to the circular meanderings of a hopeless authoritarian. Well, my meanderings have, to be sure, been circular; they have made everything turn on God. So now I shall leave you with Him, and with His mercy.” –  Cornelius Van Til, Why I Believe in God

“It would therefore do the orthodox Christian no good at all if he should drop the high view of Bavinck about Scripture as the direct and divinely authoritative word of God in Christ and fall back on the idea of the general trustworthiness of Scripture. The orthodox Christian might take a position that is one step lower than that of Bavinck. Let us say that he is anxious to clear himself of the charge of circular reasoning involved in the position of Bavinck. So he tells Collingwood that he is, to begin with, merely taking the gospels as historical documents testifying to the life and labors of Jesus Christ. Will not many of the critics themselves allow that several of these documents are trustworthy as sources of historical evidence? Then let the critics pick out of these documents those words which they will admit to have been the words of Jesus. In this process we may forget for the moment that now all rests on “probability” and that there is no full agreement between the critics. Supposing then that we have the actual words of Jesus. Suppose we were as certain for ourselves that we had these words as we would be if we had been able ourselves to hear them. Then suppose that these words of Jesus contain assertions about his own divinity, and about his death as a ransom for many.

What would Collingwood do with these statements of Jesus? He would say that they cannot be considered from the point of view whether they are true or not. That question would for him be irrelevant. He could not take these statements as directly indicating the state of affairs about which they speak. To do so would be for him to follow a scissors-and-paste method of history. To be truly scientific as an historian he would use such statements as evidence. When the question is asked, “Who killed John Doe?” and the rector’s daughter says that she killed John Doe, the scientific historian does not take this as a true or false account of the murder, but as a fact that she makes this statement as a true account of the murder, and this fact may be of service to him. 62 When Jesus Christ says he is the Son of God and has existed from all eternity with the father, but has now become incarnate in order that he might save men from their sins, the scientific historian must not take this at face value. If he did he would disqualify himself as a scientific historian. For then man would be reduced to a puppet of this God, and of this Christ. To retain his autonomy the scientific historian therefore, in effect, must, on the position of Collingwood, assume that the universe, including God, is one of the process altogether.

From all this it appears that there are two mutually exclusive and eternally consistent positions: first, that which is represented by Bavinck, and second, that which is represented by Collingwood. Those who sympathize in their views with Bavinck follow a mistaken policy if, in order to win men to an acceptance of their position, they take a lower stand than he on the Scriptures. Any position lower than that which simply identifies the Scriptures in the original documents with the Word of Christ spoken by himself or spoken on his behest but with his authority through prophets and apostles, and in terms of these Scriptures interprets the whole of history, will eventually be forced to follow Collingwood and land with him in the virtual denial of God in Christ as the creator and redeemer of man.” – Cornelius Van Til, Triumph of  Grace – The Heidelberg Catechism, Chapter 4

“But if Christian apologetics is to make its appeal to a standard of common objectivity with unbelief, then its reason for existence has disappeared. It will then become the victim of the subjectivism it seeks to escape. This has already been indicated above. It is best illustrated by the position of Kant. Kant has a religious conviction underlying his view of the states of affairs about him and his views of the transcendental method with which he established the nature of those states of affairs. This religious conviction is the ultimate autonomy of man. The only way Christianity has of opposing this sort of interpretation of both method and fact is to show that unless we presuppose the truth of the Christian framework of things centering in Christ, there is no fruitful interrelation between logic and fact at any point.

Berkouwer even speaks of a “calling (roepingsbesef)” that the unbeliever and the believer have in common with respect to the analysis of reality over against subjectivism. But the only calling the Christian has is to keep the covenant and, therefore, to call covenant-breakers to repentance. This implies that the Christian must show that reality is what the Christian scheme of things says that it is and that it can be nothing else.

Is this circular reasoning and must the Christian seek to escape circular reasoning? It is circular reasoning if by that is meant that it returns to its starting-point without ever having left it. Christ says I am. Christians prove that this is true by pointing out that the very idea of proof not based upon this I am of Christ amounts to an operation in the void on the part of would-be autonomous man. The only alternative to starting with the I am of Christ is to start with the I am of man in some such way as is done by Kant. Thus false circular reasoning stands over against true circular reasoning.” – Cornelius Van Til, Christianity in Conflict, Chapter 9

“Our method of implication into the interpretation given us in Scripture has an inductive and a deductive aspect. The inductive and deductive aspects of our method of implication must be seen as opposite in meaning from what has “historically been known by the deductive and inductive methods … 43 As historically developed the inductive and deductive methods of research are aspects of a view of “human investigation that rests in man.” Our opponents often “thoughtlessly identify our method with the Greek method of deduction.” 44 “We have purposely chosen the name implication for our method because we believe that it really fits in with the Christian scheme while it fits in with no other scheme.” 45

Closely related to the terms inductive and deductive are the terms a posteriori and a priori. We need only to observe that a priori reasoning and a posteriori reasoning are equally anti-Christian if these terms are understood in their historical sense. 46

The type of argument that goes with the Christian method of implication is the transcendental argument. “A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be in order to make it what it is.… Any method, as was pointed out above, that does not maintain that not a single fact can be known unless it be that God gives that fact meaning is an anti-Christian method.” 47

The “position we have sought to outline is frankly taken from the Bible.” 48 This “applies especially to the central concept of the whole position, viz. the concept of an absolute God.” 49 From the non-Christian point of view our position with respect to God and Scripture is the product of “circular reasoning.” Or, we may call it spiral reasoning. “Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about him any other way than by a transcendental or circular argument.… Reasoning in a vicious circle is the only alternative to reasoning in a circle as discussed above.” 50

Having thus set Christian methodology of knowledge squarely over against the non-Christian methodology of knowledge we have a criterion by which to judge the various views of epistemology that meet us in history” – Cornelius Van Til, Herman Dooyeweerd and Reformed Apologetics, Part 1, The First Syllabus


10 Moody Monthly, January 1950, p. 313.

11 Idem, p. 343.

12 Rom 11:8.

13 Rom 1:19-20, Rom 2:14-15.

14 Rom 1:18.

15 Rom 2:4.

44 Cf. B en M, and DSM.

45 On the one hand because of the dualities mentioned in sections G.5.1 and because of the analogous nature of man’s knowledge—as we understand it—it is intelligible that the P-A (or A-P) and the P-C approaches differ (i.e., that they intersect one another at right angles). On the other hand, whereas, for instance, absolute idealism does not accept the dualities mentioned and therefore neither the analogous nature of human knowledge, the relevant distinction between the approaches mentioned falls away.

368 S. U. Zuidema, De Christus der Schriften en oecumenische theologie</it (Amsterdam: Buijten en Schipperheijn, 1965), pp. 11–12.

369 Ibid., p. 69.

370 Ibid., p. 71.

1 In some of his recent publications—particularly in his work De Heilige Schrift, 1966–1967—Dr. G. C. Berkouwer warns orthodox Christians against having a formal view of Scripture. He stresses the fact that the content of biblical teaching and the idea of the Bible are involved in one another. It is this point that the syllabus made in 1939.

62 p. 275.

43 p. 8.

44 p. 9.

45 p. 9.

46 p. 10.

47 p. 10.

48 p. 10.

49 p. 10.

50 p. 12.

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