Van Til and Plantinga, Comparison and Contrast

Appendix 1 – Van Til and Plantinga, Comparison and Contrast

Our book examined the work of Van Til and Plantinga as it specifically intersected the major epistemological questions of our book, but their enormous contribution to Christian philosophy, and indeed philosophy generally, warrants some further comment as to their work and relationship.

Overviews and Criticisms

For Plantinga and his programme in his own words see Plantinga (1985), pp.3-93 and Plantinga (2015).  For a mid-period critique, see Sennett (1992).  It is unclear whether Plantinga considered Sennett’s critique as devastating as Sennett believed (pp.179-184) though he certainly acknowledged its force (backmatter, Sennett (1992)).  Sennett later edited The Analytic Theist – An Alvin Plantinga Reader (1998); at the time of the publication of that reader, Plantinga had published 128 academic papers and authored 7 books.  He published a further two books and further technical papers, continuing active participation in academic teaching until 2015.  He received the Tempelton prize in 2017.  Sennett subsequently seems to have subsequently moved beyond any post-Plantingian perspective to favour a defence of Christian belief along evidential lines of the traditional arguments of natural theology though altogether revisited and strengthened, addressing Hume’s deconstruction of them (Groothis & Sennett (2009)).  Thus, in brief, this suggests Sennett remained unconvinced Plantinga had addressed his criticisms and Plantinga does not mention Sennett’s criticisms in his later work suggesting he was unconvinced on reflection that Sennett’s arguments were ‘defeaters’ [1] for his positions.

Plantinga (2016), as representative of his later position, is somewhat more sympathetic to the possibility of natural theology as advanced by Swineburne, recognising the latter to have advanced natural theology further “than the world has seen before” but in that self-same work gently demonstrated some substantial problems with it.  Thus, Plantinga, though softening his attitude towards natural theology in this later period, maintained the Reformed rejection of natural theology in contrast with natural revelation.  As mentioned in the main body of the text, both Van Til and Plantinga denied that the study of nature could ever bring one to an accurate theology (as in knowledge of God) but it could provide evidential support to a theology founded on God’s word.  Here a key line of our argument in this work is maintained, systematic theology must provide a foundation for apologetic philosophy and not vice-versa.

For Van Til summarising his programme see Van Til (1980).  Van Til was the founding professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and remained there for 50 years from 1929 to 1979.  From writing a critical review of Whitehead’s Religion in the Making (1927) as a Master’s student, he defended the same basic position for over fifty years in print penning over 30 books and 220 articles, pamphlets and reviews.  Van Til actually taught apologetics for 51 years, a preceding year was spent at Princeton Theological Seminary where J B Green (the emeritus professor of apologetics) had recommended he be offered a chair just one year after completing his doctorate, following J G Machen declining the same chair because of his conflict with the denomination and seminary over Liberalism.  Along with many other conservatives, Van Til resigned with Machen after one year during the period of reorganisation of the seminary by the denomination which moved it away from its traditional conservative position.  After initially taking a pastorate, he was eventually persuaded by Machen to join what was to become Westminster Theological Seminary which was initially a conservative shadow faculty to Princeton.[2]

Van Til’s corpus was spread broadly amongst class syllabi (which he explicitly labelled ‘not to be considered a public work’) and in responses to critics rather than a systematic statement of his views.  Van Til (2008) is considered the closest to a systematic statement of his position in his corpus in his own words.  As asserted by Butler (2002) the ‘definitive’ guide to Van Til is found outside of Van Til by his best student, Dr Greg Bahnsen (d.1995) who alone had the honour of Van Til indicating he was the authority on his own position, and he was keen to see Bahnsen replace him as professor of apologetics at WTS.[3]  Bahnsen’s commentary on Van Til (Bahnsen, 1998) and (Bahnsen, 2008) are both a statement and development of Van Til’s position.  A lesser known but important commentary on Van Til by another one of his students (who also taught Bahnsen) is Frame (1995), who draws substantially different conclusions to Bahnsen.[4]

We have seen that both Plantinga and Van Til answered our methodological question about the requirement for a distinctively Christian philosophy emphatically in the affirmative even though their characteristic philosophical orientations were very different.  Van Til was trained as an idealist and never engaged significantly with the analytic school which came to dominate Anglo-American philosophy and philosophical theology.  This was not the case with Plantinga, his influence was felt throughout Anglo-American mainstream analytic philosophy, being President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) for the 1981-2 session.  In the words of one of his intellectual biographers, Plantinga was the catalyst for the renewal of analytic philosophy within the Christian community.[5]  Sennett, though trenchantly critical of Plantinga, complemented his method thus, which perfectly captures the method of his philosophising:

“It is clear from the responding literature that Plantinga’s penchant for accuracy is having a healthy influence on the writings of many philosophers.  In fact, as a result of studying [Plantinga] I find myself easily frustrated and disturbed by the lack of clarity and precision that sometimes makes its way into philosophical print”.[6]

Plantinga in an intellectual autobiography described his method thus:

“[we practised] searching and powerful criticism, high standards for clarity, rigor, and argumentative cogency – these form a necessary condition of high philosophical endeavour and an excellent first step towards it”.[7]

This latter point is one of the reasons why they have seldom been considered together outside of the Reformed world,[8] Van Til’s influence was far more parochial with Salazar offering the commentary that “Plantinga’s influence is primarily in philosophy while Van Til’s influence is primarily in theology”.[9]  This I believe is a serious (but common) over-simplification for Van Til argues that philosophy and theology are contiguous with one another for much of the same reasons that Quine stated that science and genuine philosophy were contiguous – their vocabulary and audience might differ, but it is the level of generality or abstraction in which they are different rather than a fundamental, qualitative difference.  However, it must be admitted that Van Til, owing to his long tenure at WTS, tended to publish only in the WTS journals.  It was left to the second generation of Van Tillians to extend his influence beyond the Reformed world into evangelical Christianity generally,[10] but it has little impact beyond the Christian world or even in Christian philosophy generally where he is pointedly ignored.[11]  Hopefully this book has done something to correct that.

Plantinga and Van Til in Context

The relationship of Plantinga to Van Til is both simple and complicated.  I would say it warrants detailed examination if for no other reason to demonstrate the principial connections between their work.  Whilst I had originally wanted to do a better job of showing this connection in this work, it was not possible as this relationship is oblique to the main theme of the philosophical questions.  However, owing to the disdain that some analytically minded Christian philosophers have expressed for Van Til, to the degree some do not even acknowledge him as a philosopher, I believe it is important to justify my basic position that both are equally as philosophically significant for Christian philosophy and should be considered as such.  There is a substantial, basic agreement between them regarding the purpose of and the manner in, which philosophy should be undertaken.

Biographically, there was substantial overlap, though they are near contemporaries rather than contemporaries.  Van Til was established as a tenured professor whilst Plantinga was still a student.  However, both were taught by William Harry Jellema (1893-1982) at Calvin College Philosophy Department.  Jellema was almost alone during the period of the 1920s-1940s [12] within the American philosophical scene as to putting faith right at the centre of the philosophical enterprise.  Plantinga had been awarded a scholarship to Harvard but during a recess had attended lectures by Jellema and promptly transferred; by all accounts Jellema was remarkably influential and a formative influence on those he taught.[13]  Van Til seemed to have adopted his Socratic dialoguing, note-free teaching style, Plantinga his belief that understanding philosophy requires doing philosophy whilst studying the history of philosophy.  However, despite this common heritage, their basic perspectives are very different.  Plantinga is an analytic philosopher, Van Til was trained in idealism and was a transcendentalist.  Plantinga went on to have a general influence in the wider philosophical scene, Van Til’s work had virtually no impact beyond the Reformed world.

The latter is partially explained by G.E. Moore’s repudiation of idealism in the closing years of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century.  Idealism lost out dramatically to the various forms of realism championed by Moore and Russell.  The approaches remain substantially inimical to one another, and some modern analytic Christian philosophers have been naively dismissive of Van Til simply on the basis of his perceived idealism.  However, it is easy to push this perspective too far, Van Til himself stated that he used the language of idealism but applied its logic in a way that the idealists could not because of their rejection of a theistic starting point.  Van Til is worthy of consideration because his use of transcendental reasoning was unique, he undertook “worldview apologetics”.  It is a straw man representation of Van Til to understand him in this fashion and to then dismiss him on that basis.

It must be noted though, that Plantinga’s single reference to Van Til’s apologetics is hardly a ringing endorsement and Greg Bahnsen reports a personal conversation with Plantinga where Plantinga clearly dismisses Van Til’s apologetic as implausible.  However, Bahnsen gives us enough information to make it clear that it seems Plantinga could never have actually read Van Til for he seemed to reproduce a frequently repeated but inaccurate caricature of his work that Van Til believed non-believers “could not know anything”.[14]  We have demonstrated in detail that Van Til never held that position, he argued rather that unbelievers could never give an account of what they clearly know; they could not give a rational justification for their knowledge (which is also a thought repeatedly found in Plantinga).  This is conceptually different altogether from the claim that we cannot know anything.  Only by misquoting and misrepresenting Van Til and ignoring his transcendentalism, can we arrive at that caricature of his approach to knowledge.

However, let us consider this caricature briefly as some of the biggest names in Christian apologetics have accused Van Til on this basis.  There is a sense in which Van Til is seen to argue that the Christian worldview is a transcendental for knowledge and indeed, scripture tells us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”.  In the strict sense, a Christian might want to assert we cannot truly know the objects of knowledge unless we interpret them according to God’s presupposition. Thus, the more sophisticated critic might still want to argue that Van Til is asserting unbelievers cannot have knowledge.  However, this seems to be a linguistic dispute rather than a philosophical one as the very basis of apologetics accepted by Van Til was the value of reasoning with the unbeliever.[15]  The sense of the word “knowledge” is not being properly regarded.

The sense is that unbelievers cannot “know” if they reject God’s interpretation of the facts for God’s interpretation of the facts is the objective standard for those facts and makes them what they are.  However, following the thought of the Reformation, to the degree they implicitly, often unconsciously agree with God’s objective interpretation of the facts, they do indeed possess genuine knowledge of the object.  There might be a qualitative difference between God’s knowledge and human knowledge, but it is still genuine knowledge of the same object.  Van Til made an argument regarding the qualitative difference between human thought and God’s thought, never denying that human knowledge was possible.  This was explicitly shown to be the case during his career during what was known as the “Clark-Van Til controversy” during the 1930s, where Van Til disputed Clark’s logicism, demanding that Clark recognise the qualitative difference as well as the quantitative difference accepted by Clark between human knowledge and God’s knowledge.

As I have endeavoured to indicate in the main body of this work, there is a principial connection between their basic orientation to the practice and purpose of philosophy as primarily the business of the Christian community and to be interpreted in Christian terms.  They can both be viewed as apologists in very different arenas but of enormous competency.  Jellema inspired a generation of students to become Christian philosophers, rather than attempting to be philosophers first.  Both Plantinga and Van Til seemed to have picked up from Jellema that same passion for philosophy – Plantinga his utter relentless rigour and examination, Van Til his method of wide philosophical vistas encompassing the justification of the full breadth of the human disciplines rather than narrow analytic slices.  These in some respects are almost opposite characteristics but both seemed to be owed to Jellema.  Jellema, rather like Wittgenstein, was known more as an exceptional teacher and never published a book[16].

The “RE” Project

Plantinga’s middle period was characterised by what was known as the development of “Reformed Epistemology” where “basic belief” is used in the sense of a belief that is legitimately held without supporting evidence from other beliefs; RE asserts this is legitimately applicable to belief in God. He summarises it succinctly in Quinn and Taliferno (1999).  He expresses some reticence over the term in the introductory paragraph (explaining it in terms of its history and connection to Calvin college) and others from within the Reformed community like Butler (1997) contest whether it deserves that label at all.  Interestingly, Plantinga mentions fellow traveller Alstom (who is generally associated with the RE movement, having been a fellow at the Calvin College Center for Christian Scholarship with Plantinga) preferring the designation ‘Episcopalian Epistemology’ perhaps indicating there is some distance from the sola scriptura of traditional Reformed theology but nevertheless influenced by Reformed thought (foregoing the vexed question of the status of the Episcopalian church with regards to its present ultra-Liberal theology).

There is also the issue of geography – only the US and Scotland have Episcopalian churches although the worldwide Anglican communion and one arm of the Catholic communion are episcopalian in the formal sense, i.e., they believe in church government by the bishops.  Many of the Protestant denominations would have the same struggle with nomenclature should there be epistemologists in their midst as capable as Plantinga and Alstom.  Alstom’s distinct perspective can be said to have been stated by him after close to four decades of work in his Perceiving God (1991) which he was still actively defending against critics in 1994 and was involved in a debate with Evan Fales in 2004 on similar lines.  He was far more psychological and empirical in orientation, having published first on perception in 1951.  He specialised on that topic, seeing much resonance with (and some improvement over) Plantinga (hence his becoming associated with RE), he published his final paper Perception and Representation four years before he passed on in 2009.  A great resource and repository of Alstom’s work is found at .


[1] ‘Defeater’ was a term used extensively by Plantinga (2011) to indicate the level of epistemic necessity attached to an epistemological proposition.

[2] See Bahnsen (1998), pp. 7 – 23 for the most thorough biographical sketch of Van Til available.

[3] It is notable that this never happened because of denominational politics and the controversy surrounding what was originally Bahnsen’s own Master’s thesis which was later published as Bahnsen (1977/2002).  The discerning reader would be justified in concluding that the latter sections of this work owe much to the theonomical position developed by Bahnsen.

[4] Frame’s views were later critiqued by Bahnsen, and it is notable that Frame accepted that Bahnsen’s criticism had some force.  The recordings GB1457 – GB1460 (Bahnsen, 1988) of Bahnsen critiquing Frame are notable in that Frame himself attended one of the four sessions and offered a defence.  Frame and Bahnsen remained good friends and Bahnsen frequently expressed his appreciation of Frame in a number of his lectures.

[5] Sennett, J. F. (1998). The Analytic Theist: An Appreciation. In A. Plantinga, The Analytic Theist – an Alvin Plantinga Reader (pp. xi-xviii). Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co.,

[6] Sennett, J. F. (1992). Modality, Probability and Rationality. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., p.vii.

[7] Plantinga, A. (1985). Self-Profile. In J. E. Tomberlin, & P. van Inwagen (Eds.), Profiles: Alvin Plantinga (Vol. 5). Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, p.29.  Interestingly, this was written in the height of what might be called his “Reformed Epistemology” (RE) period (see later in this appendix) which was a highly novel and influential movement which demanded the attention of the wider world of epistemologists.  Both Audi (2003) and Everitt (2004) in their undergraduate introductions to epistemology devoted substantial space to it.

[8] Two significant attempts within the Reformed world though are Anderson (2005) and Salazar (2008).

[9] Salazar, D. J. (2008, October 10). A Comparative Analysis of the Philosophical Views of Alvin Plantinga and Cornelius Van Til: Metaphysics and Epistemology. UMI Microform 1469022. Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest LLC., p.1

[10] Macneil, M. (2016, June 1). Dominion Theology – Its Origin, Development and Place in Christian Thinking. Retrieved from Planet Macneil:, pp.52ff.

[11] For example, the undergraduate textbook Christian Philosophy (Bartholomew & Goheen, 2013) clearly intended for a Reformed leaning audience and written by authors within the Reformed communion, does not so much as mention Van Til despite spending substantial time on what they call “Reformational Philosophy” which they link with the Dooyeweerdian philosophy.  Van Til in his early period was happy to endorse the “philosophers” Dooyeweerd and other Dutch neo-Calvinists such as Vollenhoven and Stoker (Van Til (2008), p.237).  He also conducts a review of what he called “recent” philosophy in some of his early syllabi in the 1930s and 1940s but as primarily idealist in training, paid little attention to developments beyond the personalist period.  His critique however, remained just as forceful for any unbelieving innovation.

[12] He was officially ‘retired’ from Calvin College in 1963 but continued working with Grand Valley college designing programmes near to the time of his death at 89 in 1982.

[13] Plantinga, A. (1985). Self-Profile. In J. E. Tomberlin, & P. van Inwagen (Eds.), Profiles: Alvin Plantinga (Vol. 5, pp. 9-13; 16-17). Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

[14] Twenty years later, Michael Butler when meeting Plantinga asked him the same question and received the same answer.  Butler commented “there had been no progress in 20 years”.

[15] It should be noted here that this is one of his important distinctions in Van Til’s thoughts from Kuyper’s stated position on apologetics that “polemics between [believer and non-believer] could serve no purpose and this is why it always fails to produce results”.  As Van Til is often labelled a “Kuyperian” owing to his agreement with the Kuyperian positing of absolute “antithesis” between believer and non-believer, this is an important qualification.

[16] However, I believe he did co-edit a book with Plantinga during the 1960s which was one of the earliest attempts to formulate a defence of Christian faith as fully rational.

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