Monday, April 05, 2010

Van Til, Truth, the Smell Test, and Argumentation

In cleaning off my desk, I came across a piece of mail I had previously set aside for further thought. It is a mailer from the Trinity Foundation, reprinting a letter they had received.

As with much of what I see in the Trinity Foundation, this includes some comments on Cornelius Van Til, apparently one of their arch enemies.

This letter from a family looking for a church says,

“We learned that many Reformed churches were troubled by the fruits of the theology of a man named Cornelius Van Til. The elders of churches infected by Vantilianism tell their congregants that man’s logic is different from God’s logic and that man can’t know truth because man cannot know God’s thoughts.”

Now, I am no expert on Van Til, but this doesn’t pass the smell test to me. I think Van Til did affirm that man can know truth. Everything I have read from him indicates that man could know the truth because of revelation in Scripture. There are differences between Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til to be sure. But I don’t think the difference was about whether or not man could know the truth. It was about the type of knowledge that man has and how that relates to God’s knowledge. One of the 7 billion people in the world smarter than me can explain that better than I can.

I am reminded that sometimes people distort what someone actually believes in an attempt to defend their own position or to attack another person. We see this often, particularly of late it seems.

It reminds me of how argumentation in support of an position should be used.

First, it needs to accurately state the opposing position. Otherwise, it becomes a straw man argument, attacking something that no one really believes. This usually means that an argument needs to be stated in a way that the opponent would recognize as his argument, and agree with the statement of it. In other words, the opponent should (in most cases) be able to say, “That’s what I believe.”

I say “in most cases” because there are some instances in which someone states a proposition or holds a position that has implications that they do not recognize. For instance, take the discussion of “watering down the gospel.” Have you ever found any evangelical who says, “We should water down the gospel”? I haven’t.

But many times, I read someone say “We shouldn’t water down the gospel” when in fact they (probably unintentionally) do water down the gospel, or send confusing message, or some such. They simply do not recognize what they are doing. They do not recognize the implications of their position. So we need to carefully show how their position is different than what they affirm.

Secondly, the opposing position needs to actually be addressed. A recent fervor reminds me that sometimes people react vociferously against something that wasn’t actually said. So they commit the first sin of making up an opposing position, and the second sin of not addressing the actual opposing position.

This unfortunately doesn’t keep them silent. It just makes them look silly. And unfortunately, it too often confuses the unsuspecting and undiscerning who often don’t take time to find out for themselves.

So be careful how you oppose an argument. 

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