Presuppositionalism and the Abandonment of Old Princeton

A disagreement in apologetics between B. B. Warfield and Abraham Kuyper a generation prior sheds light on the origins of the Clark-Van Til controversy. Warfield followed a long line of Princeton professors in his apologetic approach. In fact, the Princeton approach itself was a continuation of Scottish Common Sense Realism philosophy, traceable to the eighteenth century. Warfield, like his precursors, held an evidentialist view of apologetics that appealed to general revelation to provide one with knowledge of God’s existence prior to building a case for accepting the validity of the Bible. He believed the existence of God was knowable through the evidence of general revelation—through what was seen in the world—and by this man was made inexcusable before God. Warfield also believed that by logic—the rules of logical inference—the consistency of the believer and the inconsistency of the unbeliever could be shown.

Where Warfield had an evidentialist approach to apologetics, Kuyper had a presuppositional (or proto-presuppositional) one. Rather than starting with general revelation, Kuyper began with special revelation, the Scriptures. He believed reason should not judge revelation. Kuyper saw the believer’s and unbeliever’s worldviews as completely separate, with no point of common ground. For Kuyper, all beliefs were relative to one’s worldview; there was no neutral item on which the worldviews could agree.

In the introduction to Francis Beattie’s Apologetics, Warfield calls Kuyper “a striking instance” of those mystics who have the tendency to “deprecate Apologetics because they feel no need of ‘reasons’ to ground a faith which they are sure they have received immediately from God.” Warfield then argued that in the face of rationalist attacks against Christianity, believers need better arguments for faith, rather than a retreat in the form of saying faith is an “immediate creation of the Holy Spirit in a man’s heart.” Clarifying his own position, Warfield wrote, “It is just as essential that grounds of faith should be present to the mind as that the Giver of faith should act creatively upon the heart” and “that faith is, in all its exercises alike, a form of conviction, and is necessarily grounded on evidence.”1 In short, Warfield saw Kuyper’s approach, lacking arguments for faith, as purely fideistic.

Owen Anderson, in B. B. Warfield and Right Reason, wrote, “Van Til attempted to formulate a third position that takes the best of both of these [Warfield and Kuyper] and yet avoids what he saw as weaknesses in each. Some, like R. C. Sproul, accuse Van Til of being a Kuyperian (see Sproul’s Classical Apologetics), but students of Van Til, such as Greg Bahnsen, denied this and pointed to explicit statements by Van Til to the contrary (see Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetics: Reading and Analysis).”2 W. Robert Godfrey, another student of Van Til, however, lends credence to Sproul’s view that Van Til was far closer to Kuyper than to Warfield. Godfrey wrote, “Van Til maintained the strong anti-Modernism and unmodified Calvinism of Old Princeton. But he did decisively change the apologetic direction of the seminary. He built not on the evidentialism of Warfield, but on the work of Abraham Kuyper.”3 Further, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Professor Morton H. Smith (b. 1923) wrote, “The apologetics of Dr. Van Til has come to be known as presuppositional apologetics, as opposed to the traditional evidential apologetics of Old Princeton.”4

Even Van Til’s strongly supportive biographer, William White, admitted to the significance of the change from Old Princeton to Van Tillian apologetics. He wrote, “Throughout the last hectic months at Princeton and the early segment of seminary life in Philadelphia, it is not clear how many of the Westminster men were aware of the basic and far-reaching revolution going on in the orbit of apologetics. Did Machen understand how far from the old Princeton apologetic the new Westminster apologetic really was? Did Machen realize that Van Til, R. B. Kuiper, and Ned Stonehouse had brought to Philadelphia the best of Amsterdam?”5

In Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith he confirmed “what has been advocated in this syllabus has in large measure been prepared under the influence of Kuyper” and argued that “it is only in Apologetics, Warfield wanted to operate in neutral territory with the believer. He thought this was the only way to show the unbeliever that theism and Christianity are objectively true.” But on one point—the usefulness of reasoning with unbelievers—Van Til sided with Warfield. He wrote, “I am unable to follow him [Kuyper] on the uselessness of reasoning with the natural man,” and “Warfield was quite right in maintaining that Christianity is objectively defensible. And the natural man has the ability to understand intellectually, though not spiritually, the challenge presented to him. And no challenge is presented to him unless it is shown him that on his principle he would destroy all truth and meaning.”6

Clark believed that Van Til’s (and Kuyper’s) apologetics went too far in rejecting logic as a common ground between the believer and unbeliever.7 Despite Van Til’s desire to avoid the use of logic to determine his worldview, he still had to employ logic. Clark, realizing the impossibility and hypocrisy of such a position, retained logic in his apologetics while Van Til denied common ground of any sort, including logic. Clark argued that all men, believer and unbeliever alike, shared the same logical mental structure because this structure was part of the image of God in which all men were created.8 In this respect, Clark continued part of the tradition of Warfield and Old Princeton, even if he rejected other aspects such as the thesis that general revelation necessarily preceded special revelation of the Bible.

Explaining Clark’s view, Dr. Gary Crampton wrote in The Scripturalism of Gordon H. Clark:

After demonstrating the internal incoherence of the non-Christian views, the Biblical apologete will argue for truth and the logical consistency of the Scriptures and the Christian worldview revealed therein. He will show how Christianity is self-consistent, how it gives us a coherent understanding of the world. It answers questions and solves problems that other worldviews cannot. This method is not to be considered as a proof for the existence of God or the truth of Scripture, but as proof that the non-Christian view is false. It shows that intelligibility can only be maintained by viewing all things as dependent on the God of Scripture, who is truth itself. This is the proper ‘presuppositional’ approach to apologetics.”9

Clark believed that because of the shared logical nature of all men, Christians can legitimately argue with unbelievers on two grounds; firstly, the Christian can argue that the unbeliever’s worldview is inconsistent, and secondly, the Christian can argue that Christianity is consistent.

Van Til diverged from the Old Princeton tradition further than Clark by largely accepting Kuyper’s formulations.10 Clark later pointed out the fact that Van Til was outside of the Old Princeton tradition. He wrote, “Machen was more opposed to the Van Til apologetics than I am. Machen accepted Hodge.”11 However, Clark was not in the Old Princeton tradition either and admitted such. “I never followed the Old Princeton apologetic. I certainly never had any sympathy with the Common Sense school.”12 In another place Clark criticized Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (which many at Princeton followed) as “one of the most incompetent types of philosophy in the history of the subject.”13 With neither party legitimately able to claim that they followed the Old Princeton apologetics, the Clark-Van Til controversy functioned to determine the new orthodoxy in the church’s apologetics.

Westminster Theological Seminary might have been friendly to Clark’s ideas in an earlier age—Princeton graduates from past generations would have appreciated his rigorous method, his uncompromising stance, his intellectualism, and his commitment to logical argumentation—but by 1944, the year of The Complaint, much of this had changed. WTS had lost many of its ties to Old Princeton. When Machen formed WTS in 1929, a number of professors left Princeton to join the new seminary. But by the time of The Complaint, all of the WTS professors who had significant experience at Princeton were gone. Robert Dick Wilson, an expert scholar of Biblical languages, had died in 1930; the independently wealthy Oswald T. Allis resigned in 1935 to focus on his writing, and Machen had died in 1937. These three had been long-time Princeton professors, steeped in “Princeton Theology.” With the departure of these professors, WTS was no longer Old Princeton. It was a new seminary, with new professors, mostly young and with lesser ties to Princeton. The younger professors at WTS (Cornelius Van Til, Ned Stonehouse, R. B. Kuiper, and Paul Woolley) had all been students at Princeton, but only Van Til had taught there, and even then, only briefly. John Murray also had taught at Princeton, but for only one year. The influence from Old Princeton remained, but it was mixed with and muted by other theologies, particularly those of the Christian Reformed Church in which Van Til, Kuiper, and Stonehouse had been raised. Influenced by the Dutch Reformed traditions, the WTS faculty had difficulty recognizing the fidelity to the Presbyterian tradition in Clark’s theology.

1 B. B. Warfield, “Introduction to Beattie’s Apologetics” in Benjamin B. Warfield Selected Shorter Writings Volume 2, ed. John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), 93-99.

2Owen Anderson, Benjamin B. Warfield and Right Reason (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005), 46.

3 W. Robert Godfrey, “The Westminster School,” Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development, ed. David F. Wells (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1985), 96.

4 Morton Smith, “The Southern Tradition,” Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development, ed. David F. Wells (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1985), 204.

5 William White, Van Til, Defender of the Faith: An Authorized Biography (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1979), 99.

6 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), 361-364.

7 “Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary has annoyed the empirical apologetes by insisting that there is no common ground shared by believers and unbelievers—that is if both are consistent with their principles. The empirical aim is to discover some point of agreement which they can use in convincing any man of the truth of Christianity. Dr. Van Til denies that there is such an agreement.” – Gordon H. Clark, Lord God of Truth (Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1986), 37.

8 Clark wrote to J. Oliver Buswell (a follower of the Warfield / Old Princeton’s approach), “It amuses me somewhat to compare what you say of my thought with what Dr. Van Til says. You complain that I do not allow for a ‘common ground’ while Dr. Van Til condemns me because I do. Probably I suffer from inability to express myself clearly. … I hold that Christ is the light and logos that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. I hold that every man is made in the image of God, and that every man has what may be conveniently be called an innate idea of God. All this is common ground between the Christian and the unbeliever. But there is no common ground between Christianity and a non-Christian system.” – GHC to JOB, 10 November 1947, SDCS Library, 1/52.

9 W. Gary Crampton, The Scripturalism of Gordon H. Clark (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1999), 44.

10 See: Owen Anderson, “Chapter 4: Benjamin B. Warfield and Cornelius Van Til…” in Benjamin B. Warfield and Right Reason (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005).

11 GHC to Michael A. Hakkenberg, 11 July 1980, provided by John Muether.

12 Ibid.

13 Gordon H. Clark, The Incarnation (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1988), 41.

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About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
This entry was posted in Notes on the thought of Gordon H. Clark. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Presuppositionalism and the Abandonment of Old Princeton

  1. Lloyd says:

    This is excellent. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Pingback: Presuppositionalism and the Abandonment of Old Princeton | Scripturalism

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