Van Tillian Presuppositional Theonomic Ethics

Cornelius Van Til was a 20th century protégé of the Dutch Reformed theologian and president of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper. Van Til created a school of Christian apologetics and an ethical system based on Kuyperian presuppositionalism. Although Van Til had some disagreements with Kuyper, the two systems are similar.

According to Van Til, presuppositionalism is the idea that all philosophical reasoning is ultimately circular. Every argument begins with an unprovable premise. Given a true premise, one can arrive at a valid conclusion that is equally true. The problem is that one can never be absolutely certain that the premises of an argument are true. Van Til said that scriptural presuppositions are true because the Bible is God’s Word. To Van Til, any other rationalist system was untrustworthy because it must be based on the presuppositions of human beings corrupted by the Fall of Adam.

A “true” premise implies the sufficiency of human reason. One may attempt to prove a premise through argumentation. Yet these arguments will be supported by equally unprovable premises. A true premise implies that one has either consciously or unconsciously arrived at a foregone conclusion. Circular reasoning is inescapable. Furthermore, this is always the reasoning of an imperfect mind. Therefore, only premises that come from a perfect mind, such as those originating from the inscripturated Word of God, are trustworthy and reliable.

Van Til’s system of apologetics states that the Christian ought not to use rational argument to attempt to prove the truth of God’s Word to non-believers. The Christian ought to start all argumentation with scripture as a presupposition. Van Til did not deny that there are rational arguments that prove the validity of the Word of God. On the contrary, nothing exists except proof. Yet human beings have a problem with comprehending the Word of God as truth. The problem is not philosophical in nature, but rather moral. The problem is that our understanding is clouded by original sin and therefore we have a problem with comprehending the truth.

This way of thinking cuts across the grain of modern rational thought which proposes that one must prove something in order to believe it to be true. However, Van Tillian logic has had many forerunners in the medieval and ancient world.

St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury wrote, “For I seek not to understand in order that I may believe; but I believe in order that I may understand, for I believe for this reason: that unless I believe, I cannot understand.”

This is the opposite of the famous maxim, “I think therefore I am.” Rationalists such as Descartes have always wanted to “understand it” or “prove it” in order to believe it. However, Anselm’s statement is undeniably true. All truth is based on certain unprovable presuppositions. We must first have faith in order to know anything.

Van Tillian Ethics: The Myth of Neutrality

It is necessary to first understand Van Tillian apologetics in order to grasp the ethical system based on presuppositionalism. The foundational idea in Van Tillian ethics is a dialectic that pits the moral commandments of God against all ideas held by non-believers. According to Van Til, no belief or action is without moral consequences. There are no morally neutral ideas. Ideas always have consequences. Since ideas are intrinsically moral in nature, they will either glorify God or they will glorify human beings in their fallen, sinful state. Ideas that do not glorify God are a product of human autonomy or self law. Moral commandments that come from God himself may be termed as “theonomy” or God’s law.

Van Til taught that because of original sin “every one of fallen man’s functions operates wrongly” (Christian Apologetics 43). The unconverted will always be biased against God’s truth because they presuppose human autonomy. Van Til argued against the various Christian schools of thought that try to protect self-sufficiency. Descartes, Locke and Hume declared the autonomy of human reason. Van Til stated that a Christian apologetic must make its beginning from the presupposition that “the Lord Christ speaks to man with an absolute authority” (My Credo).

The fallacy of philosophical systems, such as rationalism or existentialism, is bound up in the feigned existence of human autonomy. If human beings are autonomous, then they have no Creator to which they are accountable. If human beings are products of chance, then there is no possibility of knowing anything to be true. Charles Darwin recognized this problem when he wrote in a letter: “The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Darwin).

Van Til did not refute the possibility of rational argument only the possibility of rational argument that does not presuppose the existence of God. He argued that all human thought would be impossible if God does not exist, because then we would know nothing to be true. So in a sense even the atheist is a theocrat because he unknowingly borrows theological capital in order to disprove God’s existence. First, the atheist must presuppose God to exist in order to argue anything at all to be true even God’s nonexistence.

This is similar to Anselm’s famous ontological argument: “And, indeed, we believe that thou [God] art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak a being than which nothing greater can be conceived understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding…. Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived…. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater” (Anselm).

Theonomic Ethics: Two Schools of Thought

The system of government resulting from theonomy is called a theocracy: literally, “God’s government.” When theonomists speak of a theocracy, it is not a state run by a national church; nor an ecclessiocracy, such as the Holy Roman Empire; nor the totalitarian military dictatorships in Muslim fundamentalist states. In a true theocracy, the state does not control the church, nor the church the state, but both spheres of society are under the government of God. Spheres of society are separate and distinct, but under the ethical law of God. This is a Kuyperian idea. There is a decentralization of power with representation in a Christian republican form of government.

There are two schools of theonomic ethics derived from three of Van Til’s students. Even as Van Til was a protégé of Kuyper and took his ideas to new heights, three of Van Til’s students saw the implications of presuppositionalism in the area of Christian ethics. Rousas John Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen coined the term “theonomy” to describe the antithesis of autonomy. This school of thought is also called Christian Reconstructionism because theonomy provides the blueprint by which Christians should seek to reconstruct society. Christian Reconstruction includes several prolific Christian authors including Gary North, Gary DeMar, David Chilton and Kenneth Gentry.

Another of Van Til’s students, Dr. Francis Schaeffer has had an even wider influence. Schaefferism is not “theonomic” in the strictest sense, but resembles some of the ideas of Rushdoony and Bahnsen. Schaeffer’s philosophy is sometimes called “soft theonomy.” Schaeffer’s protégés have included Christian ministers, authors, well-known politicians and social activists including Jack Kemp and C. Everett Koop. He has also greatly affected the thinking of the so-called “Christian Right” especially Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Chuck Colson, Cal Thomas and Randall Terry.

The main difference between the two schools of thought is that the Christian Reconstructionists see an immediate application of the laws of Moses and the penal sanctions of the Old Testament as applicable to modern society. For this reason, the Christian Reconstructionist movement is controversial. The latter group influenced by Francis Schaeffer tends to be more oriented toward a campaign for Christian social ethics to have an equal place in public debate. These thinkers take principles from the Bible and apply them to social and political ethics, but do not necessarily advocate imposing the sanctions of biblical law on offenders.

Of the two schools, Reconstructionism is known mainly among Presbyterian and Reformed scholars. The latter group has a larger following and makes up a huge portion of conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic social activism in the United States. A quick search for “theonomy” on the Internet yields tens of thousands of web sites. Some of these are articles written by theonomists, but many more are critiques written by social liberals who are threatened by the idea of biblical law becoming the basis for political and social ethics. They are especially fearful that the so-called “soft theonomists” might be Reconstructionists in disguise. They fear that a theocracy may be looming around the corner. Ironically, the most ardent Reconstructionists admit that this is a world that even their grandchildren may not live to see, but believe that in God’s predestinated plan, this type of society is inevitable.

Personal Reaction and Opinion

In my vocation as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with literally hundreds of people who may think of themselves as being either hard-core or soft-core theonomists. My opinion is that a nation run under the premise of biblical law or by principles derived from biblical law would be the freest nation imaginable.

When I traveled to Russia and Ukraine, I had the opportunity to see a nation that was governed for over 70 years by atheistic presuppositions. Nations that are built on the foundation of a Christian ethic are freer and more tolerant of other religions and philosophies than nations built on the ethics proposed by atheism, secularism, or non-Christian faiths.

If theonomy is compared to governments of past history, I find the closest similarities with the Puritans and the Scottish Covenanters of the 1600s. Kuyper’s tenure as president of the Netherlands is also an example. However, Kuyper did not have a dramatic, long-lasting effect on that nation.

At first glance, some theonomic republics of the past seem oppressive and out of skew with today’s egalitarian societies in the West. However, one must remember that the Puritan experiment with constitutional government later became the model for the United States Constitution. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the model for the Bill of Rights. Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon, Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers became the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence. In fact, “John Adams considered Mayhew’s sermon the spark that ignited the Revolution” (Jonathan Mayhew’s Inflammatory Sermon).

In short, no human government is perfect since human beings are fallible, but experiments with Christian republics built on theonomic presuppositions led eventually to the freest society in history.

I discovered in my conversations and debates with theonomists that most of the initial objections people have are unfounded. I found that many well-known and respected Christians hold a theonomic view of ethics, but do not like to label themselves as “theonomists.” I suspect that this is due to the distortions presented by detractors who paint a caricature. Many Christian social and political activists hold a viewpoint that approximates theonomy. Many are becoming more in tune with God’s law as they study the Bible as it applies to civil government.

It should be emphasized that theonomists do not believe that the civil law is based solely on the laws of Moses. None of the major theonomists believe the Mosaic law alone should be applied as the standard for civil government. Theonomists believe that biblical law in its entirety is the standard. The history of Israel and the New Testament are read together with the Law of Moses. In many cases, these scriptures enlighten or alter the application of a strict reading of the Mosaic law. For instance, some theonomists would apply capital punishment to the cases mentioned in the Old Testament. But most agree that these would be the “worst case scenario” offenders. All agree that the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament have specifically altered certain aspects of Old Testament law.

To use a Van Tillian argument, one cannot claim that the penal sanctions of the Old Testament were harsh or barbaric without impugning God himself to be harsh and barbaric. If God’s Word is truth, then God’s law is the best possible form of justice. The question lies not in God’s character, but in which laws may have been altered by New Testament teachings.

Theonomy is applying biblical law to give society maximum freedom and peace. Theonomists believe that biblical law is the ethical standard for governing families, churches, businesses, schools and not just the policies of civil government.

Most of our civil laws today come directly from biblical law. Many civil laws that are not direct applications of biblical law are derived in principle from a biblical ethic. To use another Van Tillian argument, any law that approximates God’s law is theonomic, whether or not it was self-consciously derived from the Bible. In other words, all truth is God’s truth no matter where it is found.

In many cases, biblical law is already the norm. Rape is illegal in all western societies (Deut. 22:25). Incest is illegal (Lev. 18:6). Until recently, public nudity, pornography (Ex. 32:25), homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), bestiality (Ex. 22:19) and adultery (Deut. 22:22) were illegal. The civil punishments applied did not always mirror those in biblical law. However, sexual morality was fostered in western nations through civil laws based on biblical commandments.

Opponents of theonomy, including even many Christians, have charged that the law of God is joyless, loveless and lifeless. The Bible patently contradicts this. The law of God expresses His character, nature and holiness. To love God and desire His mercy is to delight yourself in the law (Ps. 119:77).

“Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye harken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee” (Deut. 7:12,13 KJV).

Now let’s apply this to today. How should we rule our lives? What laws should we have? God has spoken already. He has given a whole body of laws in history to a people that He loved and liberated and adopted as His own. He gave them laws, not to put them into bondage, but to keep them in freedom. It makes sense that we should go to those laws to see how it applies to our culture today.

There will be some difficulties in understanding how to do this. There are some differences between us today and ancient Israel. But in principle we should expect that given the wisdom of God, we should find those laws which will lead to maximum freedom, peace and prosperity. National prosperity comes from obeying our Father in heaven in what He tells us to do. If we do what He says, in time He will bless us.

Works Cited

Anselm, Proslogion, chapter II.

Darwin, Charles, 1881. Letter to W. Graham. In F. Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1905.

“Jonathan Mayhew’s Inflammatory Sermon,” Christian History Institute.

Van Til, Cornelius, Christian Apologetics, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1976.

Van Til, Cornelius, “My Credo.”

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