Understanding and Then Faith
Imagine that the Apostle John approached you and said, “Believe in Jesus. Later I will tell you who he was and what he did.” What would be the content of your belief?
Faith must be in something. A level of understanding precedes faith. Faith then opens the door for greater understanding.
As ridiculous as it may sound when framed as it was above, versions of the idea of “faith preceding understanding” are somewhat common within the stream of purportedly Christian thought.
The famous 20th Century theologian, Cornelius Van Til, created an entire apologetic method based around the supposed necessity of faith preceding understanding.
Van Til claimed that, unless God exists, no understanding can be possible to man. He wrote, “The non-existence of God cannot be conceived if we are to retain meaning for our words” (Van Till, Evidences, 1935, pg. 13). He rejected any form of reasoning which “assumes the knowability of this universe whether or not God exists” (pg. 36).
From the above kinds of claims, which are found throughout his work, Van Til seems to believe that questions about whether God exists should be thrown out as logically absurd. On his view, anyone who does not already grant that God does, in fact, exist will be incapable of thinking correctly about evidence for God.
Van Til writes: “The God spoken of in Scripture cannot be proved to exist by any other method than the indirect one of presupposition” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 1967, pg. 108). His position seems little different from the old slogan of the evasive mystic: “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”
In Van Til’s mind, does his indirect method of “presupposition” constitute a proof? If so, then it seems odd that Van Til’s best student and best interpreter, when teaching Van Til’s method, would claim, “God makes a radical demand on the believer’s life which involves never demanding proof of God or trying Him” — and again — “They preached the resurrection without feeling any need to prove it to the skeptics” (Bahnsen, The Impropriety of Evidentially Arguing for the Resurrection, 1972).
But, if what Van Til and his followers are doing is not proving, then what do they think the discipline of apologetics is designed to do? Is apologetics simply a matter of issuing moral condemnations against those who do not already assume the same things the apologist assumes, backed up by arguments that amount to begging the very question?
Does Van Til believe God’s existence is subject to being demonstrated? Does he even believe God’s existence is subject to being known? If Van Til does believe that God’s existence is subject to being known, but not subject to being demonstrated, then he is implying that something can be known without any demonstration. This is a shocking position to take.
But, if Van Til does believe that God’s existence is subject to being demonstrated, then how does he intend to demonstrate this fact to any God-denier, given his insistence that God-deniers are incapable of thinking correctly about evidence for God? His apologetics ministry has devolved into a denouncing ministry.
It is troubling that Van Til seems so adamantly to require that others assume God’s existence, apart from demonstration, as if demonstration were unimportant, or as if knowledge itself could be possible apart from demonstration. But there is something even more troubling: Van Til does not merely lack the ability to demonstrate the existence of God; he also lacks the ability to demonstrate the validity of his own method.
With his indirect method of “reasoning by presupposition,” Van Til assumes (and does not demonstrate) God, and when challenged, he proceeds to assume and (and not demonstrate) the validity of his own method of assuming. He assumes (and does not demonstrate) that assumptions are necessary to knowledge. He presupposes Presuppositionalism.
Let’s return to reality. Knowledge does not start with presuppositions; it starts with observation. Man learns about the world inductively, one observation at a time. A man does not need to make an assumption about the existence or non-existence of God in order to know the plain facts given to him by his senses. As with the Apostle John, we must look at the data. We should understand the facts, and then believe.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).