Saturday, August 14, 2010

Between Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth

Lewis B. Smedes was a Reformed theologian at Fuller Theological Seminary. He studied at Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, Free University of Amsterdam; received thorough Reformed education.

His accomplishment in the area of theology and ethics was widely recognized and honored by the establishment of the Lewis B. Smedes Chair of Christian Ethics to which Glen H. Stassen, an outstanding Christian ethicist whose book 'Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context' won the best book on theology and ethics in 2004, is currently occupying.

Smedes was personally acquainted with Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth. He described in his autobiography how Van Til was over-preoccupied with himself that he simply cannot read Barth appropriately (H/T: Kevin Davis):
"I was mesmerized for one semester by the boldness of Van Til’s thinking, but by the second semester I began to suspect that he was stretching a defensible theory of knowledge to the borders of absurdity. If true, it would mean that unless any two people had correct beliefs about God and about the world they could not have a genuine conversation about anything. How can two people talk respectfully together about interesting parts of reality — the economy, for instance, or the possibility of life on Mars — if one of them assumes that everything the other person says about anything is doomed to be dead wrong?

Van Til was convinced that if anyone’s assumptions about God are wrong, she cannot be trusted even when she says that she believes the gospel truth about Jesus. He wrote a book called The New Modernism in which he contended that the star theologian of the century, Karl Barth, was a modernist because, in Van Til’s view, he denied that Jesus was God in human form and denied as well that he had risen from the dead. The hitch was that Barth had affirmed these things over and over and, in fact, was largely to be credited with bringing the gospel back into the churches of Europe. But Van Til said that even if Barth shouted from the tower of St. Peter’s that Jesus was the Son of God, he could not believe what he was saying. His philosophical presuppositions would not let him.

Several years later, after I had finished my graduate studies in Amsterdam, I had occasion to put the question to Barth himself: “Sir, if you will permit me an absurd anachronism, let us suppose that a journalist carried a camera into Jesus’ tomb about eight o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and took pictures of every inch of the tomb, what would have showed up on his film?” Barth sighed. This again? He had been asked questions like this by every skeptical evangelical who got within shouting distance of him. But he was patient: “He would have gotten nothing but pictures of an empty tomb. Jesus was not there. He had walked out of the tomb early that morning.”

I told Van Til about this conversation. His answer was, for me, a final exhibition of intellectual futility. “Smedes,” he said, “you have studied philosophy, you should know that Barth cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Cannot! Not merely does not, but cannot believe what he said he believed. Conversation finished."
Just yesterday, a collegemate (whose email address bears the label "vantilian") told me that he recently bought two of Van Til's books. One being his famous work on apologetic 'The Defense of the Faith', while the other one on Barth. I did not ask my vantilian collegemate whether was it 'Christianity and Barthianism' or 'New Modernism'. If Van Til can't even allow Barth to be Barth without reading himself into Barth, as Smedes has so willingly pointed out, then one is left to wonder how reliable is Van Til's understanding of Barth?

Perhaps Ben Myer was not wrong in calling one of Van Til's works the worst book ever written on Karl Barth?

18 comments:

Andrew said...

I should add that it would be an ad hom for Smedes and Myers, etc. Its like a getting a bunch of UMNO leaders commenting about Anwar, would that be a fair assessment?

Btw, Smedes was a proponent of homosexuality is not a sin. Even his own students doubt his salvation at Fuller. His view of homosexuality should be discussed.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Andrew,

Thank you for commenting.

I don't know how do you come to the conclusion of ad hominem on the part of Smedes and Myers when all they did is to comment on Van Til's thoughts and not attacking his person.

Smedes' case is more like Zaib Ibrahim who had been with UMNO and found out how corrupt it is and eventually came out from it and condemn it.

Smedes' stance on homosexuality has no bearing on his thoughts on Van Til and Barth, both his teachers.

Andrew said...

Its hear say. I could just as well say, "Smedes told me in class that Jesus never existed." How do we argue or debate the issue when its hear say. None of his writings contain any arguments but you just have to trust me. Would that fly?

I never alluded to the fact that Smedes' view on homosexuality has any relationship with his view on Van Til. I specifically mentioned "his view of homosexuality should be discussed" in the last sentence.

Back to Van Til and Smedes assessment.

Did Smedes give any argument against the Transcendental argument for the existence of God from a philosophical point of view?

Did Smedes give an exegetical argument against Van Til's position on Romans 1.

NONE. Its hear say and its ad hom. Instead of giving an argument against Van Til's position he stoop to red herring on the conversation "Not merely does not, but cannot believe..." Any student of apologetics who has read Van Til would know that he is saying that the unregenerate's perspectives are wrong because his presuppositions are wrong. Wrong starting point leads to wrong conclusion.

Now, can the conclusion be true if the starting point is wrong? That is another issue. But the short answer is, the answer can be true because the unregenerate borrows the Christian worldview's conclusion without accepting the starting point. Happy inconsistency.

As for Myers, his piece on Van Til on Barth is pathetic for a "so called" scholar. Where is the scholarly review? He shows that Schaffer took everything Van Til had to say about Barth without ever thinking for himself and all the theology students in US simply believe Schaffer. Frankly, such piece is a disgraced, it should not be quoted or brought up.

Myers doesnt even know that there are much disagreement between Schaffer and Van Til.

The other scholars that Myers brought up against Van Til are from the opposing camp of WTS. Gordon Clark has nothing good to say about Van Til and Henry is Clark's student.

The best way to treat a dead man is to discuss his arguments and not hear say.

Agree?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Andrew,

The categorization of someone's expressed experience as "hearsay" is no discrediting the truthfulness of the person's expression. At best one can be agnostic over the truthfulness.

Your allusion to Smedes' view on homosexuality was drawn in the context with the sense to discredit his testimony of his experience with Van Til. Unless that is the case, the "by the way (Btw)" does not make sense at all in your first comment. That phrase connoted relatedness and connection with what you have written previously.

Why would Smedes need to give an argument against Van Til's Transcendental argument for the existence of God when that was not Smedes' concern at all in his perception on Van Til's engagement with Barth? Barth and Van Til both affirm God's existence!

There is no logical connection between the fact that Schaeffer and Van Til have disagreement, and the fact that Schaeffer's view on Barth is influenced by Van Til. One can be disagreeable on one topic while agreeable on other topic.

You are in an ironic position to try to discredit an expressed experience simply because it is 'hearsay'. (Another synonym is of course 'testimony' or 'witness account').

Why ironic? Because the best way to treat the dead St Paul and the other authors of the New Testament is to believe their written 'hearsay' known as the epistles and gospel accounts.

scruffy said...

wading into waters beyond my depth, but - correct me if i am wrong please - the ad hominem is not always logically fallacious right? Like in the case of Josh's recent blog on Marc Hauser, the validity of Hauser's research is rightly discredited on the basis of his personal conduct etc.

following that, could it be said that Van Til's close-mindedness toward Barth that bordered on being bigoted is itself one that supports a guarded reading of Van Til's critique of Barth? Just a thought, feel free to disagree here.

Finally, on "hearsay", frankly, without "hearsay" we would not even be arguing about whether or not Barth believed in Christ, simply because without accepting "hearsay" there would be no credible witness of Christ to begin with. In some cases, "hearsay" needs to be accepted as a truthful premise, if not no meaningful conversation can begin. Well at least that's my conviction.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi scruffy,

You are right that 'hearsay' by itself doesn't settle the truthfulness of the statement. And the gospel was very much spread through hearsay before we have the written accounts.

On 'ad hominem', I don't think Hauser's case is one. Neither do I think Smedes is being ad hominem on Van Til (as Andrew so mistakenly stated).

Examples of ad hominem would be something like this, I think:

"Marc Hauser is a liar. Hence his researches are falsified."

"Smedes is not a Christian. Therefore what that he said about Christians, like Van Til, are false."

Ad hominem starts with the premise of the person's personhood, and conclude by discrediting the person's argument based on the premise.

In Hauser's case, there is a build up of several sets of premises and conclusions.

For example, set 1: They have found discrepancy in his works, therefore these specific works are falsified.

Set 2: Because the discrepancy is considered as a wrong-doing, hence his credibility is questioned.

Set 3: Because his credibility is questioned, hence his other works are now more questionable than before (while this does not mean all his other works are unreliable. It just mean that we have to exercise more caution when we make reference to his works).

In Andrew's charge on Smedes, Andrew has not demonstrate how Smedes started his premise with Van Til's personhood and conclude from there that therefore Van Til's argument was wrong.

Smedes demonstrated the absurdity of Van Til's concept by giving an example of it. He did not argue by starting with a premise on Van Til's personhood and concluded from there that his thought was absurd.

“Smedes,” [Van Til] said, “you have studied philosophy, you should know that Barth cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Cannot! Not merely does not, but cannot believe what he said he believed.)

Smedes wrote the statement above with the assumption that his readers able to identify a particular genre of absurdity. With that assumption, he gave an example when Van Til used this particular genre. If the reader is aware of Smedes' assumption and agrees with that assumption, then he or she will recognize that Van Til's thought belong to this genre, and so conclude with Smedes that Van Til's thought is absurd. And this is far from ad hominem.

I think Andrew's disagreement is due to either he missed Smedes' assumption in his statement, or he disagrees with the particular genre pointed out by Smedes as a genre of absurdity.

And neither of these qualify Smedes' statement on Van Til an ad hominem.

Sze Zeng said...

To put it simply, Smedes is saying:

Premise 1: X is an absurd concept. Premise 2: Van Til has X.
Conclusion: Therefore Van Til has an absurd concept.

Not an ad hominem at all. I am not sure if Andrew understands what is 'ad hominem' himself. His haphazard usage of this fallacious category suggests that he doesn't understand.

Andrew said...

There are many issues on the table, lets break them into parts and focus on the main ones so not to detract from the main issues.

Primary issue - Smedes on Van Til.

Secondary issue - logical fallacies.

Major issue - equivocating Scripture and Smedes' account.

Minor issue - Myers, Schaffer, etc

Primary issue. It shows that you are unfamiliar with the issue. This is a particular point in theology between Van Til and Clark. The "knowing" of God or in philosophy, epistemology. The real issue is the starting point. Again, Smedes has no argument in writing or lecture refuting Van Til's presuppositions. I gave a paragraph that was not addressed instead focusing on minor points.

The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG from now on) is the dividing point in the argument. Not that Barth denied the existence of God, that was never suspected! Rather the arguments for or opposing TAG would lead one to agree or disagree with Van Til. Same with Romans 1. These two (TAG and Romans 1) are brought up when discussing epistemology with Van Til and anyone who doesnt agree with him.

I suspect that you have not read Van Til (I could be wrong) but from you statements on paragraph 3 shows that you haven't. Read his "Christian Apologetics" or "Defence of the Faith." All his critique on culture, Barth, etc stems from his Presuppositional perspective.

Again, the starting point for Presuppositionalists is what leads them to say what they say of the unregenerate's "knowing."

What I am saying is, Smedes view of Van Til would be better served if dealt appropriately on the real issue. The issues - TAG and Romans 1.

If the above statements still don't make sense, (other than my writing) please read Frame's The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.

Secondary issue. You quoted, "He described in his autobiography how Van Til was over-preoccupied with himself that he simply cannot read Barth appropriately."

I take issue with the "over-preoccupied with himself" and that led me to conclude ad hom. Attacking his character (over-preoccupied with himself)therefore conclusion faulty (cannot read Barth appropriately). Qualified ie. he is a liar therefore his research is faulty.

Notice in my writing that I never equivocate hear say and ad hom together. You did in your response to scruffy, that shows you are not reading carefully. Also, do show my other haphazard usage of logical fallacies.

Major issue - You said, "Why ironic? Because the best way to treat the dead St Paul and the other authors of the New Testament is to believe their written 'hearsay' known as the epistles and gospel accounts."

Are you saying that Smedes personal account with Van Til is equal to the NT's "testimony?" So that I understand where you are coming from, do you believe that the Bible is inspired, inerrant and authoritative?

Btw, hearsay is not to be equivocated with testimony. Hearsay (typically in English) has a negative connotation but not with testimony.

I CAN discredit anyone's personal account (usually I don't) because of the fallen state of man. The Scripture cannot be discredited because its inspired.

Minor issue - For Myers, Schaffer, etc, my comments stem from the comment section of Myers' blog. Not important at all.

Andrew said...
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Andrew said...

Sze Zeng,

Please delete the last three comments. I broke them down because I was told by blogspot it was too big to post. Thanks!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Andrew,

Smedes has an argument there but it is not the argument that you want to see. I stated the two possibilities that you disagree with Smedes:

I think Andrew's disagreement is due to either he missed Smedes' assumption in his statement, or he disagrees with the particular genre pointed out by Smedes as a genre of absurdity.

I think there is a third possibility for your disagreement: Andrew disagrees with Smedes because Smedes did not give the particular argument that Andrew anticipates.

I wrote, "He described in his autobiography how Van Til was over-preoccupied with himself that he simply cannot read Barth appropriately." Then I pasted Smedes' testimony there to demonstrate how this is so. And the "how" used here is more like 'how does it look like?', rather than 'how does it work?'

Hence that is not an ad hominem at all.

Exactly, that's my point. You interpreted Smedes' testimony negatively as 'hearsay' just because he disagrees with your hero Van Til. When it comes to the apostles' testimony, you interpreted it as reliable.

You want to draw a difference in nature between Smedes' account and the apostles' account with the doctrine of inspiration, inerrancy, and authoritative of scripture. But the thing is all these are testimonies first and foremost.

The Holy Spirit could be inspiring Smedes too. Neither of us are the Holy Spirit or command the Holy Spirit, hence we have to be careful to set boundary with his work. "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3.5)

Andrew said...

Sze Zeng,

Though Van Til is not my hero, I would have him anytime over Smedes and his homosexual agenda.

I am more than willing to deal with the arguments but there are no arguments other than assertions in private. Please give me an argument from Smedes and let us deal with it.

You wrote, "He described in his autobiography how Van Til was over-preoccupied with himself that he simply cannot read Barth appropriately." Then I pasted Smedes' testimony there to demonstrate how this is so. And the "how" used here is more like 'how does it look like?', rather than 'how does it work?' Hence that is not an ad hominem at all.

You cannot bait and switch here. Logical fallacies do not work this way. You have quoted the def. on ad hom and the meaning of it, I guess from some website.

The statement you quoted, "He described in his autobiography how Van Til was over-preoccupied with himself that he simply cannot read Barth appropriately" whether "how does it look like" or how does it work" (not sure what you mean) falls into the category in logical fallacy called ad hominen.

Please read your own comment in comment 6 (in your reply to scruffy) on ad hominen. The statement above fits into the category of ad hom. Instead, you now say it is not because it is not "how does it work" but "how does it look like." It looks like ad hom according to your definition.

There is a difference between Smedes account and the Apostle's account. Smedes is not an inspired author. Are you a theology student? You should know that the inspiration of the authors (NT or OT) is not the same as being inspired of the Spirit for believers.

If we play according to your definition, then I am inspired by the Spirit to correct you. You have been wrong and now you should listen to me. How's that for inspiration?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Andrew,

I didn't bait nor switch. As the entire Smedes' statement makes clear that his argument is not the one you anticipated.

You anticipate Smedes to engage Van Til's Transcendental argument for the existence of God. While Smedes in that statement was engaging through the way that I have described to scruffy:

Premise 1: X is an absurd concept. Premise 2: Van Til has X.
Conclusion: Therefore Van Til has an absurd concept.

You see my usage of the word "how" in the sense of 'how does it work?' is because you didn't understand at all Smedes' statement and his assumption underneath. As I said, you anticipated something which Smedes did not engage in.

And when I made clear Smedes' argument (directly to scruffy and indirectly to you), you cannot accept it because you had a totally different presupposition from that of Smedes. In Van Til's term, you have started with a presupposition which differ from Smedes, hence you can never have contact with Smedes' point.

You still think that I made an ad hominem is because you simply mistaken in your understanding of Smedes and my clarification of his statement. As I said, you anticipated something which Smedes didn't state. In fact you know that you anticipated something which Smedes didn't wrote about in your repetitive highlight that Smedes didn't engage Van Til in the way you wanted him to do in the statement he made.

As I said, on the level of testimony, both Smedes and the biblical authors are the same. They are sharing their experience in written form.

Even if played by my definition, it simply means that we ought to be slow in our discernment of the Spirit's working, and not your domestication of the Spirit's work only through you. There is no theological justification that the Spirit works in you even if one acknowledges that the Spirit works in believers. You made a logical leap.

By the way, when I clarify ad hominem to scruffy, I didn't copied from websites. I am just very familiar with such logical fallacies.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Andrew,

I really appreciate our discussion here, so please spare me the nonsensical rhetorical questions like "Are you a theology student?" and "You have quoted the def. on ad hom and the meaning of it, I guess from some website."

We are not kids playing throwing sands at each other here. If you want to play such things, do adjourn to other place where such childishness is accommodated.

If I were to join you in such incivility, I would have retorted with rhetorical nonsenses like "Do you have a brain to even understand Smedes' argument?"

So please spare me and yourself such frivolity.

And please don't take this in the wrong way.

scruffy said...

Hi Josh, (am I supposed to call you Sze Zeng on your blog, bro?)

thanks for the clarification. I'm currently reading "The Philosopher's Toolkit" and other introductions to philosophy in order to get up to speed with the structures and such of rhetoric/logic/philosophy etc. Appreciate your patience and effort to explain concepts that I might have misunderstood.

Hi Andrew, just a question, I noticed that your first comment on this piece and your latest comment explicitly mentions Smede's (as you call it) "homosexual agenda". As such, it seems to me that is ad hominem. I know you've already addressed it, but you said that you'd rather have Van Til anyday over Smedes homosexual agenda. Isn't that ad hominem? Or is it merely your personal bias against such leanings that causes you to dismiss Smedes the way Van Til dismisses Barth? Not trying to pick a fight, just wading into the discussion that admittedly I am not as equipped as you and Sze Zeng are.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi scruffy,

Either one is fine with me :)

By the way, I just posted Michael Horton (a well known theologian from the Reformed tradition) remark on Van Til's work on Barth. I shall copy and paste it here:

"Cornelius Van Til's Christianity and Barthianism in 1962 had a profound impact on wider appraisals [...] However, it also exhibits critical weaknesses. Tragically, Van Til's legitimate insights [...] seem sometimes to be obscured by sweeping generalizations and even caricatures of Barth's own stated positions. Although Van Til frequently cited G. C. Berkouwer's criticisms on Barth, the Amsterdam theologian distanced himself from the earlier analyses of Van Til and offered his own, more generous and careful critique in The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth."
(Michael S. Horton, 'A Stony Jar: The Legacy of Karl Barth for Evangelical Theology' in Engaging with Barth, ed. David Gibson and Daniel Strange [UK: Apollos, 2008], p.347. Italics original, bold added)