Review of Dennison on Van Til

Dennison, William.  In Defense of the Eschaton.  Wipf and Stock, 2015.

This is a collection of essays dealing with Van Til and Education, with a few other themes thrown in.   Some essays are quite good, particularly the one on Genesis 2:15.  Unfortunately, it manifests all the weaknesses of Van Tillian thought:  inability to interact with recent developments in philosophy, attacking other schools because they don’t use the same jargon, refusing to understand what other Christian thinkers are getting at.

Some flaws aren’t as serious.  In the chapter on Plato, much of it was good but I am not sure what the pay-out was.  We got a good summary of Plato’s view on the soul, and we saw that some philosophers weren’t “Platonic” (though he never says who).  But all of this could have been found elsewhere.  Other flaws are found in most Van Tillian works: broad-brushing all of the opposition as “autonomous thought” without always spelling out how it is bad.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note. Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult. So we commend Dennison for that. Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought? Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that. For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story. So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic? I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom. So what does this have to do with Vos? I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts. However, hee takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23). I’m not so sure. Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig. Where do they fit? They do not belong to either category. Even more, what does “Possible Worlds Semantics” have to do with Wittengstein or Vienna? Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach. Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some perceived problems with Reformed Epistemology. It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69). Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either. He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function. But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214). Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?. Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism. Okay, so what is the problem exactly? In fact, what is Common Sense Realism? How are beliefs formed? That’s the issue. Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed. And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.

Criticisms

His review of Keller’s book was fine and I agree with most of his concerns. It was odd at a point. Dennison attacks Keller for holding to the “neo-Calvinist” scheme (168ff). What is this scheme? It is the story-line of Creation-Fall-Redemption. So what is bad about this? I think he wants to say that it makes us lose sight of heaven as our homeland? Let’s look at it.

Neo-Calvinist: Creation-Fall-Redemption and Jesus came to put the world to right.

Puritan Pietist: Heaven is our true homeland.

As it stands there is no contradiction between the two statements. Maybe all he is saying is that some Neo-Calvinists denigrate heaven. I guess. That’s an entirely different argument.

I would take it a step further: what or where exactly is heaven? Is “heaven” the final destination? How does this tie in with the New Earth? Elsewhere Dennison says that we are already in the age to come of a sorts (107). I agree. If that’s so, then there is no contradiction between Neo-Calvinism and Vosian eschatology.

The Good

Despite my criticisms, several essays are quite valuable. His notes on anthropology highlight man as an image-bearer (39). The imago dei is often missing from treatments on man’s essence.

He has some outstanding suggestions on the role of the Reformed apologist in light of his eschatological existence (107ff).

Conclusion:

This collection of essays is strong where Van Tillians have always been strong: eschatology, piety, and culture. It is weak where Van Tillians have always been weak: interacting with recent philosophy, fleshing out their views, etc. This is actually a three-star book, but Dennison’s essay on Genesis 2:15 was so good I bumped it up a star.

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Van til and analytic philosophy

This is from the first chapter of William Dennison’s In Defense of the Eschaton.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note.  Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult.  So we commend Dennison for that.  Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”  

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought?  Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that.  For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story.  So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic?  I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom.  So what does this have to do with Vos?  I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts.  Sadly, he went on.  He takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.  

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23).  I’m not so sure.  Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today:  Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig.  Where do they fit?  They do not belong to either category.  Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach.  Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some problems with Reformed Epistemology.  It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69).  Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either.  He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function.  But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214).  Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?.  Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism.  Okay, so what is the problem exactly?  In fact, what is Common Sense Realism?  How are beliefs formed?  That’s the issue.  Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed.  And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.  

Calming down on Neo-Calvinism, to all

The evangelical/Calvinist resurgence in American life is properly termed “New Calvinism.”  The Dutch intellectual tradition from 1880 to sort of today is Neo-Calvinism.  Admittedly, new and “neo” are the same thing, but they are applied differently at different times in history.

So, some in the Reformed world are saying that Dutch Neo-Calvinism (or any of its American variants) is the bad kind and Westerminster Calvinism is the good kind. There is a WTJ article floating around somewhere to the same effect.

I think that’s a bit simplistic.  So here are some pros and cons to Dutch Neo-Calvinism.  I include the following in the survey:  Bavinck, Kuyper, Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd, Stoker, Knudsen, sort of Van Til, and the legacy of Calvin College.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff are wild cards.

The Good

These guys are strong on creation.  Bavinck is simply sublime, Van Til more forcefully so.  Al Wolters’ little monograph begs to be reread.  Jamie Smith noted that God creates in “plurals.”  This is about as close and forceful a break with the Platonic ontology as one can get.  When you read the Prophets on New Creation and eschatology, you can hear a Dutch accent in the background.

The Bad

As is probably typical of Dutch American existence, these guys can get insular and clannish.  Orthodoxy isn’t the only church with a claim on phyletism (whatever that is).  But maybe Scottish Americans like myself are also clannish.  I’m not aware that I am, but it is possible.

Do some Neo_Calvinists denigrate philosophy?  Maybe.   But if you read Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Bavinck, that’s just not so.  Bavinck’s theological and philosophical reasoning is as astute as any.  See below.

God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi). Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi). The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge. This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book: there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation. This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.

Do some denigrate piety?  Probably, and this seems to be a recurring theme among culture-reclaimers (see modern day Reconstructionism).  But it doesn’t logically hold that because some denigrate piety, Neo-Calvinism as a whole must.  What the pietist Calvinist needs to show is that the Neo-Calvinist’s commitment to Christ’s Lordship in all spheres logically entails skipping my prayers tonight.  I don’t think it can be done.

Internalism/Externalism notes

Some notes on internalism and externalism

I made a bad mistake and tried to discuss philosophy with some Christian Reconstructionists.  I couldn’t get them to move beyond sloganeering and cliches.   While this post will do nothing to help them, for those who want to grow and mature it should prove helpful.

Internalism in epistemology sees warrant as justification.

    • justification is necessary for warrant.
      • satisfaction of epistemic duty.
      • Descartes: epistemic deontologism.

 

  • formation of belief; hence, internal

 

  • involves a view of cognitive accessibility (36).

 

  • Proper Function
    My belief-forming apparatus must be free from cognitive malfunction (Plantinga 4).
    They must be in their proper environment (hence, externalism?) .  However, functioning properly is not the same thing as functioning normally.  

 

    1. The environment in which my cognitive faculties are functioning must be similar to that for which they have been designed (11).
  1. The Design plan
    1. When our organs function properly, they function in a particular way (13).  Our faculties are highly responsive to circumstances.

Warrant: Objections and Refinements

  • Gettier:  knowledge cannot be just justified, true belief.  A fourth condition is necessary.  Internalist accounts of warrant are fundamentally wanting, thus the continuing epicycles added to the Gettier problem (32).
    • an externalist account of warrant would also take in the “epistemic credentials the proposition you believe has from the person whom you acquired it” (34).
    • credulity is valid when it operates under certain conditions:
  • Gettier’s problems show that even if internalism meets all of its conditions for knowledge, it can still fail to give knowledge.  If my internal cognitive faculties are working, and they arrive at a belief, there are still a number of counters- (ala Gettier) that show it can’t reach knowledge (36-37).  As Plantinga notes, “Justification is insufficient for warrant” (36).

Knowledge of the Design Plan

  • Knowledge of myself:  Any well formed human being who is in an epistemically congenial environment and whose intellectual faculties are in good working order will typically take for granted at least three things:  that she has existed for some time, that she has had many thoughts and feelings, and that she is not a thought or feeling(Plantinga 50).
  • This can malfunction, however.   The cognitive design plan also includes, especially as it relates to testimony, the cognitive situation of the testifiee (83).  If they are deluded et al, yet are telling me the truth, do I have warrant?  Maybe, maybe not.  Plantinga calls these semi-Gettier cases, since Gettier was only trying to show that justification is insufficient for knowledge.
    • Further, in the case of testimony, a testimony, particularly one in which knowledge of X is passed down, the last member of the testimony chain will only have warrant if the previous members do (84).
    • Therefore, if there is a cognitive malfunction early on in the chain, then the following links in the chain will be suspect.

Is TAG a Variety of Internalism

TAG is the transcendental argument for the existence of God.  It asks (among other things) “What are the preconditions of intelligibility?” In other words, in order for you to have knowledge, what must be true?  Here we need to clarify that last clause.  Is the presuppositionalist asking, “In order for you to have knowledge, what must you account for to be true”?  This would make the argument thus:  how can your worldview account for logic, science, and morality?

Knowledge as Justified, True Belief.

Without using all the religious-ese in the statement, it is another way of stating knowledge as “justified, true belief.”  This means that knowledge is I believe something to be true and am justified in that belief.  In other words, I have to give internalist (intellectualist) accounts for knowledge.  Greg Bahnsen clearly holds to this position.  He writes, “To put it traditionally, knowledge is justified, true belief” (Bahnsen 178).  He glosses justification as “sounds reasons (good evidence” for a belief.  At this point Bahnsen is in line with the traditional models of epistemology.

It seems, moreover, that the TAG-ist is asking the skeptic (or whomever; TAG works better on skeptics than it does on adherents of other theistic systems) to account for justifications (or preconditions) within his own worldview. Bahnsen writes, “The Christian claim…is justified because the knowledge of God is the context and prerequesite for knowing anything else whatsoever.  Furthermore, the unbeliever is asked to account for any “theoretical sense” of “any kind on the subject” (262).   It is here I suggest that Van Tillian presuppositionalism–at least in the extreme TAG variety–is a form of internalism.

Justification seeks the satisfaction of epistemic duty.  Applied to the Van Tillian case, the person must fulfill an epistemic duty in order to have true knowledge; namely, the duty is to “establish the preconditions of intelligibility.”  Further, since it involves the formation of a belief, it is internal (hence, internalism).  Internalism also involves a view of cognitive accessibility (Plantinga 36), but this isn’t relevant to the above discussion.

The Gettier Problem

Edmund Gettier suggested a number of scenarios that show where someone can know something yet not really have justification.  A fourth criterion is needed.  For example, I look at a field in the early morning fog and see what I think is a sheep.  As it happens, it wasn’t a sheep but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Unbeknownst to me, there was indeed a sheep in the field behind the wolf.  Technically, I was correct.  I saw something in the field that I thought was a sheep.  It was true belief and I was justified in holding it, yet it wasn’t knowledge (Plantinga 32).  While this may not be the most powerful Gettier problem, the reader can consult here for more examples.

Externalism, by contrast, notes that many people have knowledge of situations s…z without being able to give ultimate justifications for their knowledge.  They would say, rather, with Thomas Reid and Alvin Plantinga, “ Any well formed human being who is in an epistemically congenial environment and whose intellectual faculties are in good working order will typically take for granted at least three things:  that she has existed for some time, that she has had many thoughts and feelings, and that she is not a thought or feeling” (Plantinga 50).

Conclusion

This paper does not try to show whether TAG is in fact false (I think it is).  Rather, that it rests upon improper foundations.  Furthermore, the challenge given by hard presuppositonalists (e.g., can you account for the preconditions of intelligibility? OR such-and-such thinker is in error because he did not challenge the unbeliever’s foundation) is itself a non-starter.  This paper, in conclusion, merely stated the view of externalism and did not seek to prove it to be true or false, as it is not used by TAG presuppositionalists.

Works Cited

Bahnsen, Greg. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis

Plantinga, Alvin.  Warrant and Proper Function.

Possible Worlds Semantics

Loux gives a great discussion on the topic of “possible worlds.”  This might seem irrelevant and arcane, but it is a powerful tool that helps us in discussions on the problem of evil, ontological argument, God’s foreknowledge, and human nature.  And it helps us understand Plantinga.

Modal notions: notions of necessity, possible, impossible, and contingent.

The empirical and nominalist traditions view modalities with suspicion (177).

  1. Leibnizian idea of possible worlds.
    1. To say that a proposition is true is to say that it is true in that possible world that is the actual world (181).
    2. Possible World (PW): the way the world might have been.
      1. De dicto: necessity or possibility applied to a proposition taken as a whole. A proposition has a certain property, the property of being necessarily true.
      2. De re: modal exemplification.  It is not talking about propositions, but about a property’s modal status (184).
      3. As propositions can be true or false in possible worlds, so can objects exist or fail to exist.
      4. To say that an object, x, has a property, P, necessarily or essentially is to
  2. Possible Worlds Nominalism
    1. David Lewis. Other possible worlds are “more things of that sort.”
      1. They are just further concrete objeccts.
      2. No causal relations tying objects from distinct worlds.  Hence, no transworld individuals.
      3. World-indexed property: a property a thing has just in case it has some other property in a particular possible world.
        1. Only world-bound individuals.
        2. It’s nonsensical to say, “That could have been me, had this happened” (as usual, nominalism goes against all prephilosophical notions).
  3. Possible Worlds Actualism: Alvin Plantinga
    1. A PW is part of the network of modal concepts and it can be understood only in terms of that network.
    2. We need concepts like de re and de dicto.
      1. Propositions are the subjects of de dicto modality.
    3. We must distinguish the existence of a property from its being exemplified.  We must distinguish the existence of a state of affairs from its obtaining (203).
      1. PWs are just states of affairs (SoA) of a certain kind.
      2. All SoA are necessary beings, so the PWs for them actually exist.  Not all of the PWs, however, obtain.
    4. A PW is a very comprehensive–maximally comprehensive SoA.
      1. One SoA may include or preclude another.
      2. PWs are SoA with a maximality property.
        1. The various PWs are abstract entities.
        2. It could have failed to obtain, but not failed to exist.
    5. Propositions have a property that no SoA does–that of being true of false (206).
      1. To say that a thing exists in a PW is not to say that it is physically contained or literally present in the world.  
      2. It is merely to make the counterfactual claim that had the world been actual, the thing would have existed.
    6. All of this is just another way of saying, “Things could have gone otherwise.”
    7. Leibnizian Essentialism: there are individual essences.
      1. A thing’s essence: the property such that the thing has it essentially and necessarily that nothing other than the thing has it.

A Tale of Two Metaphysics

To wax hippie and postmodern for a moment, this is a “journey” of a post, more than a philosophical one.  Every year I go back and forth between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.  This seems to correlate with my reading of Barth.

Ultimately, I don’t care which school is right.  They are tools, not goals.  Which one advances the kingdom better?  Which one gives a better picture of God (oops, Wittgensteinian slip)?

And I don’t have a good answer. But maybe I can point out strengths and weaknesses and show where the church can be spiritually bettered.

Continental Philosophy

To navigate modern discussions, you have to deal with Hegel.  Plain and simple.  This doesn’t mean you are a “liberal” or a “pantheist.”  It just means you are doing responsible scholarship. And it means you have to engage a certain vocabulary (the “Other,” “positing,” etc).  Nothing wrong with that but not necessarily easy.

One of the advantages is that Continental Philosophy seems to merge easily with other disciplines, like literature.  This gives it an immediate relevance that analytic philosophy seems to lack.  On the other hand, I am not always sure I know what they are saying.30665548

Analytic Philosophy

Analytic philosophy is clear, precise, and similar to doing mental exercise. I just feel sharper when I am done reading guys like Plantinga.  And I didn’t always know that analytic philosophy of today is not the same thing as of earlier generations.  Earlier analytic models thought reality (or clarity or meaning) was obtainable simply by asking the question, “Well what do you mean by that?”  Ask it enough and you arrive at meaning (or get punched in the face).

The more dangerous implication is that things are truly knowable only in the abstract and not in systems of relations.  This is deleterious for Christian theism.

But even guys like Ayer realized that was a dead-end.

After the Plantinga revolution, Christian philosophers started using many of the tools of analytic philosophy, without necessarily committing themselves to earlier conclusions–and the results are often amazing.  See especially Plantinga’s Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom, and Evil.

One of the problems, though, is that analytic guys are perceived (whether this is fair or not) as having a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to the history of doctrine.  I will come back to that point.

Biola and Calvin College:  Can They Meet?

I single out Biola and Calvin as two respective representatives of the above tradition.  Biola boasts of luminaries like JP Moreland and William L. Craig.  The “Calvin tradition” is represented by James K. A. Smith.  And both streams have done outstanding work. Even more, analytic guys like Moreland are able to tie philosophical analysis in with the “spiritual disciplines” movement, Renovare.  Here is great promise but also great danger.

Renovare

This is the brainchild of Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline.  On a practical level, much of it is quite good.  The idea that bodily disciplines break bad habits is just good, practical psychology (I got accused by a powerful Gnostic Magus on Puritanboard of denying the gospel for that sentence).

But…there is almost zero discernment in these guys.  They will take handfuls of Pentecostal, Quaker, Catholic, and Reformed spirituality and just mix ’em together.

Nevertheless…My prayer life improved from following Moreland’s advice.

Calvin Cultural Liturgies

James K. A. Smith has found himself the sparring partner of what is known as the “Biola School.”  Smith’s thesis–which I think is fundamentally correct–is that we aren’t simply “brains on a stick.”  We are embodied and liturgies, to be effective, must engage the whole person.  (I also got accused of denying the gospel on Puritanboard for that statement.  )

We will come back to that statement.

Smith, however, takes his apologetic in a different realm.  While I agree with Smith that “postmodernism” doesn’t just mean “Denying absolute truth” (what does that statement even mean?), I fear that Smith’s cultural applications do not escape the worst of postmodern, low-brow culture. Further, Smith is weak on the doctrine of the soul (in some of his cultural liturgies books he uses “brain” when he should be saying “mind”).

Is that evident at Calvin College?  Rumors abound that Calvin is gutting some of its biblical language programs, and Calvin has invited homosexual speakers in the past.  Make fun of Vineyard and Biola all you want, but I don’t think that has happened.

It is not that Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project is wrong.  I think much of it is quite insightful and I eagerly await his volume on Augustine, but I am nervous where the applications are going.

To be fair to Smith, though, and to Continental Philosophy, they have been more attentive to the history of philosophy (and perhaps, history of doctrine)

Possible Overlap

I do see some areas of overlap with Smith and Moreland

  1. Both believe in Jesus’s Kingdom Power for today
  2. Both believe in the body’s importance in spiritual disciplines

What should we do?

In the end, I side with Moreland.  We need analytic philosophy’s discipline and precision.  While both Smith and Moreland believe in Kingdom Power and bodily disciplines, the latter’s “cultural” applications are far more responsible.

A nonexistent interview I did a while back

This interview never happened.  It is between me and myself.  On a more serious note, I have noticed that my philosophical readings do not fit into any specific category.  That is good, I suppose, since “joining a school” is not the best start.

Question: You have read Van Til, doesn’t that make you a Van Tillian?

Answer:  Not really.  I don’t find all of his apologetics convincing, but I do appreciate his reading of Greek and medieval theology.  I think he has a lot of promise in that area.  More importantly, Van Til, better than anyone else at his time, showed the importance of God as a Covenantal, Personal God.

Q.  But didn’t you used to promote Thomas Reid’s Scottish philosophy?  All the Van Tillians I know reject it.

A. There are two different “Van Tillian” answers to that question, and his reconstructionist disciples only knew one of them.  In Survey of Christian Epistemology (p. 132-134) he notes that if the Scottish school takes man’s cognitive faculties as a proximate starting point and not an ultimate one, then there is no real problem.  Further, we see Thomas Reid and Alvin Plantinga saying exactly that.   Elsewhere, however, Van Til was not as careful in his reading of Reid, and the reconstructionists read him as condemning Common Sense Realism.

Q.  So, is there a contradiction between the two schools?

A.  If the above distinction is made, I am not convinced there is.

Q. You keep mentioning Alvin Plantinga.  Are you a Reformed Epistemology guy?

A. I’ve read quite a bit of Wolterstorff and Kelly James Clark.  I like what they have to say.  I am not an expert on Plantinga so I have to demur at that point.  I do think there is a dovetailing between Thomas Reid and Plantinga, and if that convergence holds there is an exciting opportunity to unite Reformed guys along different epistemological and even geographical lines.

Q. What do you mean?

A. The guys in Westminster (either school) claim Van Til.  There is a debate on how well they understand him, but that’s beside the point. I think I have demonstrated above that there is no real contradiction between the two at least on the starting point.  This means that guys who hold to some variant of Common Sense epistemology and/or Van Tillian presuppositionalism do not have to be at loggerheads.

Q.  There is still one other Dutch giant you haven’t mentioned.

A.  You mean Herman Dooyeweerd, right?

Q. Correct.

A.  If you trace the development of the Reformed Epistemology school, you can find something like Dooyeweerd at the very beginning.  When Wolterstorff and Plantinga edited Faith and Rationality, they were at that time strongly influenced by Dooyeweerd. I am not saying that’s where they are today.   However, I do believe that Dooyeweerd’s contention that all men have a pre-theoretical “faith commitment” from the heart is in line with what Kelly James Clark and Van Til say about pretended neutrality.