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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The Ethics of Belief (Review)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  John Locke and the Ethics of Belief.  Cambridge.

Locke’s goal is simple: to offer a rational, objective, public account of reason that will heal the warring factions of society.  His method, at least in the broad strokes, is fairly straightforward: believe in accordance with the evidence the things of “maximal concernment.”  In other words, not only should you believe things on the basis of evidence, the strength in which you believe something should be proportional to the evidence.

It is to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s credit that he shows us a different picture of Locke:  sure, the empiricist is in the background, but Locke’s account of knowledge in Book IV of his Essay is far more nuanced than a mere empiricism.  And so we begin:

For Locke Knowledge is perception (Book IV).  What does it mean to see/become aware that a proposition is true? The classic answer:  One is aware that one and another proposition are true and that certain relationships that follow are true.

Whenever we say we “just know” something to be true, we usually attach to it the ocular metaphor that we “see” it to be true. Thus, for Locke, we perceive facts. Perception for Locke is immediate awareness (Wolterstorff 43).  That which comes short of certainty is not knowledge (Letter to Stillingfleet, Works III: 145). Does this mean we can’t know anything, given such limited criteria?  Not necessarily, for perception and certainty comes in degrees.  

Knowledge = act or state of mind (45).  It is not the same as belief. For Locke believing is a mental state; assenting is a mental act.  Problem: We all believe things that aren’t present to the mind.

Knowledge = not only awareness of some fact, but the relationship between facts (59)

Will Locke’s proposal work?  No.  It could not survive the hammer blows of Hume (or Reid).  Let’s take the claim that “Reason should be our guide.”  Locke’s view of empiricism and “the association of ideas” demands induction, and as Hume pointed out, that demands a formal fallacy.

But that’s not the biggest problem with Locke.  The problem is quite simple:  How are we to tell when the evidence is satisfactory (167)?  Not all evidence is simply a collection of apples and oranges on the ground and we count which side has the most.  Here is a sample of Locke’s argument (pp. 169ff):

P1: I note a correlation between a certain noise and a car going by
P2: The noise I am presently hearing is of that sort
C:  Hence it is highly probably a car is going by.

The main problem is that the correlations aren’t necessarily representative of reality.  We need another premise:

P1*. I note a correlation between a certain noise and a car going by
P2*. My sample of the correlation of events was and is representative of all tokens of that sort.

P3*. The noise I am presently hearing is of that sort.

But as Hume points out, P2* is not a necessary truth.  It is not intuitive.  Indeed, Hume doubts any real connections between past and present.

But Locke is still important.  His form of classical foundationalism remained more or less in play until the late 20th century.  Indeed, one can tease out connections between Locke’s epistemology and his ethics.  Further, one wonders about such ethics, the Anglo tradition in philosophy, and the current (if waning) dominance of neo-liberalism in politics.

The book is a hard read.  Locke isn’t necessarily an easy read and Wolterstorff’s analyses are very technical.  One other point:  Both Locke and Wolterstorff draw attention to the correct insight that knowledge has ethical dimensions.

Bavinck and the Beginning of Knowledge

This is a modified review of his Prolegomena.

Bavinck’s project consists of drawing upon the strengths of the Magisterial Protestants while formulating theology in response to the modernist crisis of his day.  To do so, he realized he could not slavishly mimic older platitudes and simply “hope for the best.”   Bavinck represents a very exciting yet somewhat embarrassing hero for modern Calvinists.  Exciting, because his work is simply awesome and coming into English for the first time ever.  Embarrassing, because modern Calvinists generally dislike the movement “neo-Calvinism,” yet Bavinck is the unofficial godfather of it.

Bavinck takes the traditional terminology of principia, yet in the background is an ever-present urgency to respond to modernism.   Therefore, he takes the terminology and reframes it around the neo-Calvinist slogan, “Grace restores Nature.”  There is an antithesis and dualism, to be sure, but it is not between nature and grace, but sin and grace.

Principia

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.

Circular Reasoning and First Principles

Bavinck does not try to hide the fact of circular reasoning.  He asserts, quite rightly, that first principles in any science are by definition circular.  If they were proven by other principles, they would not be first principles!

Towards the Future of Reformed Epistemology and Apologetics

It’s obvious that Van Til read Bavinck.  It is also obvious, if perhaps less so, that the Reformed Epistemologists follow in Bavinck’s train.   It’s interesting that while Van Til drew heavily from Bavinck, I don’t think they are always saying the same thing on apologetics.   Bavinck used the categories of presuppositionalism, but he knew when to stop the train.  I think he kept himself from many of what would later be some of Van Til’s errors, or at least weak points.

Criticisms

The book isn’t always easy to read.  If the reader does not have a background heavy in European Rationalism, many of Bavinck’s sparring partners will be over one’s head.  Conversely, if one does have such a background in those disciplines, then there is little point to read Bavinck on them, since he is merely given a cursory reading of them.

Meditation on Meditation in a Toolshed

I picked up my old copy of CS Lewis’s God in the Dock and reread “Meditation in a Toolshed.”  He explains the difference between looking at something and looking alongside it.  One sentence caught my eye,

You can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another (215).

It’s interesting that a classical apologist acknowledges there is no God’s-eye view of the world.  All of our knowing is already embodied in a network of experience.

Presence and Thought (Balthasar)

Von Balthasar’s Argument: our being is rooted in time and is a “becoming in infinity,” or creaturely infinity. This doesn’t mean the creature is infinite, but has the capacity for endless growth. Since we can never fully “grasp” God, “there arises Being itself” (von Balthasar 22). Out failure to grasp it conceptually brings “a feeling of presence” (Gregory In Cant. II; 1, 1001 B).

gregory nyssa

There are two infinities for Gregory. One is the infinity proper of God, which can never be applied to the creature. The other is the “infinity of growth in man.” In heaven, the soul is always moving towards God, yet because God will always be “beyond” the soul in heaven, the soul will always be growing. The self “perpetually surpasses the self” (Balthasar 45).

Spirit and Matter

This section is hard. Throughout this chapter von Balthasar will say things like “sensory knowledge is the foundation of spiritual knowledge.” As it stands, besides the statement being laughably false; no early Christian (or pagan) thinker would have said something like that. So he must mean something else. What I think he means is that the divisions between spirit and matter become so porous that they can be switched. We can almost speak of a materialization of the soul (which Balthasar says explains ghosts in cemeteries–those people who had given themselves over to matter).

Our knowledge is rooted in time and “the creature can never go outside itself by means of a comprehensive knowledge” (Gregory, Contra Eunomius 12; II, 1064 CD). We know the logos of a thing by an ascensional movement towards the logos (Balthasar 93). It is ana-logical (upward-to-the-logos).

Every limit involves an essence beyond it (98). This means the soul can only rest in the infinite. Knowledge by representation takes us right to the limit. One can never be face-to-face with God because that would place the knower “opposite” to God, and anything opposite to the good is evil (102). Therefore, in order to see God we must see “the back parts of God.”

Gregory sees our knowing God as imaging God and he sometimes sees the image as an active mirror, “whose interior activity is entirely ‘surface’” (115). Indeed, “image-mirror-life” are the three terms that “designate the whole created medium that allows the soul to see God” (116).

Balthasar has the interesting suggestion that Gregory rejected the distinction between image and likeness, since image for Gregory was dynamic (117-118).

The Incarnation reconciles the opposites and contraries of human nature. Becoming, to be sure, is contrary to Being, but it is not negatively so anymore. Now, notes Balthasar, we can summarize this book in three points:

1) The immediate communication between God and man is now rendered accessible (147).
2) This fact is a social fact; our nature is “common.”
3) This dynamism requires a free response on man’s part.

This is a rich and learned work. Von Balthasar captures the nuances of Gregory’s thought. Some passages are exquisite in their beauty.

Key Terms

Spacing: the exterior limit–finite being’s being “enveloped” by the infinite. It is the receptacle of the material being (29ff). Spacing is the mode of creaturely being. It is the same thing as diastesis/diastema.

Time: a progress by alteration (31). It is a tension directed towards its end but always within “the bounding limit” of spacing.

Concrete universal: priority of genus over individual (65).

Epinoia: subjective representation which does not reach the essence of a thing (91). It is an “inventive approach to the unknown.” It is the middle term between dominance and ignorance.

Dianoia: human intelligence in its entirety; no distinction between inferior and superior reason.

Being and Time (Heidegger)

In one sentence:  Being is always being-there. Heidegger is examining the question of the meaning of Being.  If we ask “What is Being?” we have already presumed some understanding of the meaning of being by our use of the word is in the question.  Heidegger lists three common answers:

Heidegger uses Husserl’s category of “intentionality.”  We are always intending-towards or -about something.  We don’t simply “think.” We think about something.  Consciousness is consciousness about something.  

There are different modes of intentionality.  We don’t simply “think.”  We are “involved” (what Heidegger called “care”). Heidegger shifted the discussion from the cognitive to the sub-cognitive level, from the head to the kardia.

Dasein manifests itself in falling, thrownness, and projection (329ff). Care–my being-in-the-world is wrapped up/alongside with others’ being-in-the-world.  I exist in the world within an already-existing-network-of-relations. (2) Thrownness: my Dasein in the world is already-in-a-definite-world.  This world has facticity.  Its boundaries are fluid. (3) Projection: we can only understand Dasein in terms of the world. You can’t transcend yourself to understand yourself.  You are finite. (4) Being-as-falling: this is the threat to being. Dasein has to face flux, uprootedness, and anxiety.

Death and Time

“Ahead-of-itself” = in Dasein there is always something still out-standing which has not yet become actual (279).  Death reveals this limit of Dasein.  Death is the end to which Dasein is thrown.  The possibility of death releases us from the illusions of the “they” (311).

Death reveals the contingency and flux of all that is.  Death manifests finitude.  Grasping this finitude “snatches one back from the endless multiplicity of possibilities…and brings Dasein into the simplicity of its fate” (435).

In the second section Heidegger revisits many of his main points in his analytic of Being (care, mood, falling, etc), but now he situates them within temporality.  If being is always a being-there, then it is always a being-there-in-time.  Temporality establishes our horizon.

In conclusion Heidegger is important because he shows how the truth found in Plato’s forms is manifested in everyday experience.

Notes on Matt Johnson’s take on Herder

This is a highlight of Matthew Raphael Johnson’s “Some Thoughts on Johann Herder and Modernism” (originally available at www.rusjournal.com/herder.html; accessed 19 February 2009.  That website is now defunct and Johnson is slowly moving his material to the new and highly-recommended www.rusjournal.org).

These posts will try to show why the GOP utterly failed to account for the rise of  Trump and ultimately on why neoconservatism/neoliberalism not only is politically shallow, but probably mentally alienated.

  1. Herder’s Critique of the Enlightenment: the study of man is different from the study of empirical science.
    1. Peoples are distorted if they are abstracted from their whole.
  2. The idea of social contract is a false bill of goods.
    1. For such a contract to exist the civilizational apparatus would have to already be in place.
    2. This is why attempts to spread “democracy” universally fail.
  3. We are born into community and cannot exist apart from it.  Thus, the idea of autonomous man is false.
  4. Epistemological premise of Herder: the conceptualization of data must always use poetry and memory as valid modes of knowing.
    1. Epistemology is intensely social.
    2. If we divorce it from the social life in which we find it–and the historical consciousness–then we divorce knowledge from reality.
    3. We cannot remove “romance” from reason.
    4. The spirit of loyalty and tradition is what maintains loyalty, not mathematical and economic equations.  (This is why Donald Trump won the nomination.)  
      1. These are relations of family, church, village.
      2. These relations are immediate because it is these relations that make conceptual mediation (i.e., reason) possible.
  5. Aesthetics: to aestheticize nature is to imprint the general will upon it and place it within the cultural vortex.
    1. Language, tradition, memory must all form a unified whole.
    2. Failure to do this results in alienation.
  6. Organic is not pantheistic
    1. What does “organic” mean?  
    2. Simply that the whole is manifest in the part.
  7. The nation is not the State.
    1. Custom, tradition, and nationality are not things one “consents” to.
    2. They are the conditions for one to consent to anything.
    3. “Liberal” consent is a fraud.  No one consents to be economically ruled by George Soros.