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.  

The tin-ear of analytic theology

I’ve mentioned before that analytic theologians are usually on safer grounds confessionally than continental theologians.  Not that the former is superior in and of itself.  Just that these guys don’t as easily embrace the culture of the world.

But there is a drawback.  Excluding Plantinga and the like, few of these guys are able to have a conversation.  Here is how it goes:

Me:  Question 1

Analytic Theologian: logicalproof1

Me: Question 2

AT: logicalproof2

And honorable mention:

Math-Generalized-Bayes-Theorem

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.