Presuppositional Metaphysics: An Oxymoron?

In the book Van Til’s Apologetic, author Greg Bahnsen presents a lengthy, 750 page exposition of the presuppositional apologetics as taught by his mentor, Cornelius Van Til. Bahnsen must have had a great deal of respect and admiration for Van Til, for such a lengthy work took quite a bit of effort to present.

In the book, Bahnsen presents a sequential explanation of Van Til’s thought. Each section begins with Bahnsen expanding on the topic, then presenting lengthy quotes of Van Til’s writings that support the point. Perhaps half the book is made up of long passages of Van Til.

While there is not space here to compare classical apologetics with presuppositional apologetics, we can deal with one important foundational issue. Bahsen periodically sprinkles explanations of philosophical topics in support of his various points. While he does not directly have a section on metaphysics, he does deal with the issue briefly in several places. Unfortunately, Bahnsen appears to drastically misunderstand the metaphysical traditions he is critiquing.

On page 333, we find Van Til saying “The Thomistic notion of the mind of man as potentially participating in the mind of God, leads to an impersonal principle that is purely formal, and as such is correlative to brute factual material of a non-rational sort. ” Bahnsen’s footnote to this sentence says that “In the gradation of being from ‘pure actuality’ at the top–as Aristotle would put it, God as “thought thinking thought”–and “pure potentiality” or matter at the bottom, there are different levels or degrees of reality and intelligibility.” On page 193, Bahnsen has another note that describes nature as something that “participates in nonbeing or chaos (matter).” In the next footnote, Bahnsen summarizes Van Til’s explanation of Aquinas’ view of man, saying that Aquinas taught that “Man is a mixture of form (Being) and matter (non-Being). Except for his participation in God (Being), a participation which God himself sustains, man would be wholly absorbed into matter or pure Chaos (non-Being), which is the polar opposite of God and therefore evil. It is, however, equally ultimate with God. (By ‘equally ultimate’ we mean that neither in any way is dependent on the other for existence.)”

Now I realize that Thomas Aquinas’ writings are often difficult, and he writes assuming that the reader is thoroughly well read in Aristotle’s metaphysics. But I cannot think of how either Bahnsen or Van Til could have gotten the explanation so muddled. Leaving aside the rather amazing claim concerning participating in the mind of God, we find Bahnsen using some rather unusual claims about being. He manages to get the part correct about matter being potentiality, but how in the world pure potentiality is considered part of the “gradation of being” is left to the imagination. Nor do we have any explanation for what a gradation of being might be.

While I do not claim to be a Thomistic scholar, I do not recall Thomas using the term chaos to explain anything. I did a text search of the entire Summa Theologia and found the term used but once, and that in an objection, not in Thomas’ explanation. But apart from that, how can anything be ‘absorbed into non-being?’ Non-being is nothing, and no thing can be absorbed into it. A thing can cease to be, in which case we would then have non-being, but it is not the case that non-being is a state in which something can be absorbed.

One reason this is so confusing to the Thomistic ear is that being to Thomas is a participle — be-ing, as in running, jumping, sleeping, being. Being is an act of an object. How such an act could be in grades is not a Thomistic concept. Further confusion is when Bahnsen equates form with being and matter with non-being. This is major confusion, as I will attempt to summarize below.

But even if we set aside the difficult metaphysics for the moment, how could there be levels or degrees of reality? This is not a concept that comes from Aquinas. Reality is just reality, it is what it is, and is not somehow made up of degrees, where part of reality are less real. Such thinking is borderline nonsense.

There is no way to summarize Thomistic metaphysics in a few sentences that make any sense to those new to the subject, but here goes. We are dealing with being as an essence that has an act of existence. Essences consist of substances and accidents, substances consist of form and matter. Form is that which makes a thing what it is, and matter is the limiting potential. Form is not to be equated with being. Non-being cannot be said to be anything, for non-being is nothing. Matter is the limiting potential that limits the substances and accidents in their act of existing.

For a more lengthy, and perhaps more clear, explanation of metaphysics, see An Introduction to the Philosophy of Being by Klubertanz, or Elementary Christian Metaphysics by Joseph Owen. Do not start with either Bahnsen or Van Til, for their metaphysic is confusion.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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5 Responses to Presuppositional Metaphysics: An Oxymoron?

  1. If there is a God then God is all – matter, non-matter, us, thoughts, rocks, dirt, universe… the lot. Any separation into God and not-God makes no sense and makes God not God.

  2. mercadee says:

    But, while theology thus derives assistance from metaphysics, there can be no doubt that metaphysics has derived advantages from its close association with theology. Pre-Christian philosophy failed to arrive at precise metaphysical determinations of the notions of substance and person. This defect was corrected in part by Origen, Clement, and Athanasius, and in part by their successors, the scholastics, the impulse in both cases being given to philosophical definition by the requirements of theological speculation concerning the Blessed Trinity. Pre-Christian philosophy failed to give a coherent, satisfactory account of the origin of the world: Plato’s myths and Aristotle’s doctrine of the eternity of matter could not long continue to satisfy the Christian mind. It was, once more, the Alexandrian School of Christian metaphysics that, by elaborating the Biblical conception of creation ex nihilo, gave an explanation of the origin of the universe which is satisfactory to the metaphysician as well as to the theologian. Finally, the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, as discussed by the scholastics, gave occasion for a more definite and detailed determination of the metaphysical conception of accident in general and of quantity in particular.

    • humblesmith says:

      I’m less familiar with the metaphysics of the pre-scholastics, so I’ll have to take your word for it. But by the time we get to Thomas Aquinas, he presents a thoroughly robust metaphysic, one that aligns well with the modern view of reality. In the Summa, Thomas assumes the reader is well-versed in metaphysics from the start, and deals with the metaphysical issues in earnest in explaining the nature of God and man in parts I and II, well before he gets to transubstantiation in part III. His master strokes are analogy of being, essence/existence distinction, and noting that God’s essence is existence.

      And I’m afraid I’d fall on the side of Zwingli on the transubstantiation question, and deny it entirely. It does make an interesting way to explain metaphysics, though.

      Too bad our friends Bahnsen and Van Till not only missed the boat, but came to the wrong dock entirely on this whole issue.

  3. “I AM WHO I AM” is the translation of this phrase in the NASB and NJKV. For all its brevity, it is perhaps one of the most powerful in the Bible relevant to philosophy. “Being,” as metaphysics and/or ontology, is one of two major divisions in philosophy. (The other is epistemology.) While “being” appeared before Plato, “being” or “Being” was central to his philosophy or as he sometimes called it, “The Philosophy.” It has been a major focus of many philosophies since Plato down to the 21st Century. It is a subject that needs a long treatise, even a book, on its relationship to philosophy, but in keeping with shorter themes here, I can only introduce it. John Calvin in his Commentary on Exodus is on target both theologically and philosophically. I have italicized to emphasize certain of his comments.

    • humblesmith says:

      There have been many good books written on metaphysics. See Joseph Owen’s “An Introduction to Elementary Christian Metaphysics” or Klubertanz’ An Introduction to the Philosophy of Being.”

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