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Friday, June 01, 2007

Presuppositions - Van Til and Philosophical Hermeneutics

Vern Poythress (left) is a Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. I came across his review of Anthony Thiselton's Two Horizons. This is one of Thiselton's major works and one of his more widely read and accessible books where he analyzes the hermeneutics of Wittgenstein, Gadamer, and Heidegger in relationship to New Testament interpretation. It is an excellent work.

Here is an excerpt from Poythresses review (The bold type is mine):

Now, it seems to me, we need a further book that will integrate Cornelius Van Til’s work with the developments delineated by Thiselton. Why do I mention Van Til? Well, Van Til’s idea of presuppositions is in fact closely related to Heidegger’s “pre-understanding” and Wittgenstein’s “scaffolding of our thoughts,” “form of life,” “grammatical utterances.” Van Til focuses on only one area of pre-understanding: religious commitment. By contrast Heidegger, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein are interested in the entire spectrum of presuppositions, basic commitments, assumed verities, priorities of interest, attitudes, and tone of life. Both Van Til and the others stress how basic commitments, many times unconscious, pervasively influence interpretation. In one sense, then, Van Til represents only a special case of the problem. Superficially he seems to be aware of only one aspect of the interpretive horizon. But this one aspect is also the “one thing needful.” The crucial missing element in the hermeneutical spectrum that Thiselton covers is a stable, transcendent, personal, accessible source of authority. Without this, Heidegger, Gadamer, Wittgenstein, and the lot are one step away from pure relativism. One can always point out that their own analysis of the entire hermeneutical circle is rooted in their historical and cultural horizon. They are, of course, well aware of this. But how can they know that they are right about anything? They must presuppose (arbitrarily?) the possibility of finding truth by autonomous reflection within their own horizon. And how can they claim to be descriptive and not evaluative? What they put forth as descriptive rather than evaluative contains an implicit negative evaluation of (say) positivism, Platonism, animism, Islamic fate, Christian science, out-of-body experiences, and the disappearance of stable world and ego in the writings of Philip Dick and Jorge Borges. They presuppose a cultural horizon that has excluded or made marginal such “forms of life.” On what grounds do they give these evaluations? By what authority? Within their own “forms of life,” there is no genuine transcendent reference point, hence no answer to these questions.

The above quotation is of interest to me because some of my first philosophical reflections several years back were on Cornelius Van Til's Presuppositional Christian Philosophy. From there my interests eventually gravitated to hermeneutical philosophy, and from there I quickly found myself reading the above book by Thiselton (Two Horizons) that Poythress has reviewed.

As Poythress indicates Van Til's idea of "presuppositions" does show similarities to Heidegger/Gadamer/Wittgenstein. In this sense, I always thought that Van Til was close to being something of a Christian forerunner to postmodern thought. But then Van Til makes a very rationalistic (small "r") move, what some refer to as Onto-Theology. For Van Til what we need to make sense of all of our experiences is a transcendent ground. That transcendent is God, and even more specifically the revelation of Scripture. We must ground the cause-and-effect in the character of God or else we have no assurance of its ongoing reliability. We take things like cause-and-effect or "truth" for granted - we are presupposing their reliability. For Van Til, only the Christian worldview has the presuppositions that can bring rationality or make any sense of any aspect of human experience. We presuppose a transcendent Creator that binds it all together, even if we do not acknowledge the transcendent Creator.


samlcarr said...

Van Til's approach is interesting but i wonder how it squares with the NT. Paul argues that the presuppositions that we need to recognise and respond to God have been built in to all human beings. in this sense, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer and Thiselton are all exploring the structure of our built-in ability to share horizons and therefore generate meaning from the interaction with another (or another's thoughts). i think Ven Til's approach limits or even denies this basic oneness. I have not read Van Til for quite a while so this may just be a faulty recollection or an over generalization...

Jonathan Erdman said...

That's a good question about the NT and Paul....In the NIV Romans 1:19 reads:
since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

That last phrase "made it plain to them" was interpreted by Van Til and successive followers as "within them." In other words, God has in some sense created human beings with a sense of God's existence. In this way, Van Til followed Calvin's idea of the sensus divinitatis from the Institutes (this is the quote that I list in the header of my blog):
There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, and awareness of divinity. God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.

So, in this regard a Presuppositionalists in the Reformed/Van Til tradition would say that we all posses the ability to share a "horizon" with God such that we can know that God exists. Following Romans 1 the Presuppositionalist would say that the reason that people do not recognize God is a moral issue.

Romans 1:18-23
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-- his eternal power and divine nature-- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

samlcarr said...

"the reason that people do not recognize God is a moral issue" Yes, that is the 'standard' reading of ROmans and it is what I had in mind. My question is really what one can lose when the recognised refferent is no longer God. I don't think that one then loses that innate balance and so one cannot argue that a conscious denial of god results in complete relativism. The ability to share horizons with people and with God doesn't somehow mysteriously withdraw from our beings.

I actually think that Romans 1:28f is Paul being very tongue-in-cheek with his intended Roman readers.

samlcarr said...

Sorry for the typos, the main one being Rom 1:18f

Jonathan Erdman said...

What do you mean by Paul being "tongue-in-cheek" in Romans 1???

chris van allsburg said...

I wonder if samlcarr is thinking about Van Til's idea of "no common ground" between the believer and unbeliever (theist vs. anti-theist). My understanding is that Van Til does assert that there is no common ground in one sense, but with the concept of common grace, Christians do have a shared horizon with unbelievers in another sense. Classic example: both parties interpret a rose as a rose, but in the ultimate sense, only the Christian has the correct interpretation of the rose--it is created by the Lord God. However, through common grace, God allows the unbeliever to recognize much of what the rose is: a beautiful flower. The shared horizons here would be a congruency in aesthetics and biology, among others. But ultimately, the unbeliever has an unshared horizon: the rose is the result of random chance or impersonal force, or someting else.
Van Til's idea of the unbeliever is that he is schizophrenic in his interpretation of reality: He suppresses the truth in unrighteousness.

samlcarr said...

Yes indeed, common grace does take us a long way, but I think that the 'other things' in reformed, particularly Calvinistic, thinking also contribute to narrowing down 'common grace' to an extent that Paul would have been uncomfortable with.

I tried to do a bit of a narrative analysis of Romans some time back and the one conclusion that I did get to is that Paul's thinking is never simplistic.

In the intro to the letter to the Romans, Paul indicates some areas of conflict that have necessitated his writing this letter. The interplay of the voices that he assumes is very instructive. Just try following the I, we, you, they, through the first 10 chapters, it's fascinating.

Somewhere in 1:16-18, Paul switches to an assumed 3rd person and then in 2:1 he comes abruptly and emphatically to "you". I think it's a rhetorical device where he may be reminding the readers that he does not like being quoted out of context, or at the very least he is setting up a straw man and then knocks it down, that being that God's wrath is not only revealed against "them' and 'those' but very much includes the unrighteousness of those to whom the Law has been given.

Sorry, but I'm now way off the main point of your post...