Reformed Theology and Presuppositionalism:
Glued on or Grown Out of?
For some time now Christians from various non-Reformed Christian traditions have sought to use the “presuppositionalist” apologetic in their defense of the Christian faith. On the one hand I want to commend and encourage use of what I consider to be the best and most biblical form of Christian apologetics, but on the other hand I know for a fact that the method presupposes its theology. Therefore, non-Reformed Christian uses of the presuppositional apologetic method are ultimately creating a theological mismatch or dare I say it, an apologetic Frankenstein.
I want to be more precise at this point. There are various forms of presuppositionalism within a broadly conceived Reformed Christianity. My concern here is with the revelational presuppositionalism that owes its existence to the teaching of the late great Cornelius Van Til of Paleo-Westminster fame. Dr. Van Til owes his insights to many Reformed sources: Old Princeton, Old Amsterdam, and especially the influence of his favorite old Princeton professor, Geerhardus Vos. Vos taught at what today is called Calvin Theological Seminary before joining the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey to teach a Reformed form of biblical theology. While at Calvin in Grand Rapids, Vos authored a five volume Reformed Dogmatics in which he formulated a key idea for his own thinking, but especially for the thinking of his student Kees Van Til: the “deeper Protestant conception.”
The “Deeper Protestant Conception” (hereafter referred to as the DPC) was intended by Vos to encompass and encapsulate what made Reformed theology distinct from other forms of Christian theology. The DPC focused upon the difference in the Reformed view of God, man, Christ, and redemption as over against, say, the deeper Roman Catholic (DRCC) and deeper modernistic conceptions (DMC) on these interlocking doctrinal topics. To take anthropology as one example, the deeper Roman Catholic conception of man as originally created involved a rather intricate doctrine of the super added gift (donum superadditum) whereas the deeper Protestant conception of Adam saw him as created holy, righteous, and knowledgeable about the Triune God and his will for his life (commonly called the covenant of works in Reformed confessional theology). To offer a quick and dirty summation of the difference: for the DRCC Adam was created neutral but with the need for a supplement to enable him to commune with God and for the DPC Adam was created in communal fellowship with God and the covenant would extend and expand that relationship into eternity.
In reality, as I’ve already noted, the differences between the DPC and the DRCC and the DMC ran the whole gamut of theological topics. But for simplicity we can note that significant differences arise between the DPC on the one hand and the DRCC and the DMC on the other, regarding the Trinitarian God of the Bible; the nature of man as created, fallen, redeemed, and consummated; the nature of the person and work of Jesus Christ; and the application of redemption to man by the Holy Spirit. In a nutshell, the DPC affirms and exposits the Creator-creature distinction and the Creator-creature relation and denies any sort of pantheism or quasi-pantheism (what Van Til often calls “correllativism”). Other forms of Christianity run afoul of this biblical yardstick. The nature of redemption reflects the nature of God, man, and the God-man Jesus Christ. A Reformed theology has an absolute, self-contained Trinitarian God who does not develop or change, man created in fellowship with this God, a Savior who is both God and man with the divine person exhibiting the characteristics we have already considered regarding the Triune God, and a sovereignly administered salvation.
The proper kind of apologetic defense of the Reformed Christian faith grows out of its theological soil reflecting its organic roots in that foregoing Reformed theology. The attempt to either use a foreign apologetic method with the Reformed faith or the Reformed apologetic method (ie, revelational presuppositionalism) with a non-Reformed Christian tradition is the equivalent of slapping together irreconcilable parts with errant theological wonder glue at best or ends in the creation of an apologetic Frankenstein. In short, the theology determines the method. I do not deny that non-Reformed Christian apologists have gained and will continue to gain benefits from adopting a formal or skeletal “presuppositional” method, but ultimately it will be a very different apologetic method that has been jury-rigged or amounts to a theological house that Jack built.
Personally, I pray that my non-Reformed Christians friends will succeed in their apologetic endeavors by leading others to the great and glorious Triune God of Scripture. However, I think they have created for themselves an impossible task.*
*Here is an excellent lecture by my good friend Lane Tipton that introduces a series that fills out the point I am trying to make here about the integral relationship between Reformed systematic theology and Van Tillian revelational presuppositionalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndm30VBql2E