Cornelius Van Til,  John Hick,  Religious Pluralism

Van Til vs Hick

John Hick is most well known for his argument for religious pluralism. He argued that, given that so many people are religious and believe in some kind of divinity, there must be something that all religions refer to. That thing Hick called the “real,” a kind of incomprehensible reality that best explains the existence of all religions. Religion is the human appropriation of the “real” in the phenomenal realm. The fact that they are different only goes to show that the real is unknowable in itself and only empirically expressed in human culture.

How would a presuppositionalist like Van Til respond? First of all, the Christian presuppositional approach to a philosophy of religion is also a theological approach. Since the analysis of arguments proceeds by way of presupposition it is self-consciously Christian in approach. Cornelius Van Til writes “To argue by presupposition is to indicate what are the epistemological and metaphysical principles that underlie and control one’s method.”1 Consequently, the scriptures are treated as authoritative for all knowledge of religion and worldview. The Christian presuppositionalist considers the correct analysis of world religions to be only possible on the basis of what has been revealed about the nature of reality in the Bible.2 Therefore, philosophy, theology, apologetics and evangelism are not dichotomized in a Christian presuppositional approach. Van Til argued against making each an independent field of discourse as Bahnsen suggests:

Van Til rejects each of these dichotomies in order that our thinking and scholarship will not be divided into two phases, the first being autonomous and religiously neutral, and the second being submissive to Christ and Biblically faithful. For Van Til, like Augustine, reason is not the platform (precondition) for faith, but vise versa.3

While every person remains under God’s sovereign authority, we, as Christians, are exhorted to, “sanctify Christ as Lord” in our hearts (1 Pet 3:15) as the prerequisite to all reasoning, all defenses of the faith and all givings of account for our hope.

Since a presuppositional approach to the philosophy of religion is conscious of its own epistemological starting point, its method is concerned with the unearthing of the epistemological starting point of unbelief. In our case, we are concerned with the epistemological starting point for John Hick’s religious pluralism. Just what does Hick assume as his starting point? It will be our task to “seek to draw out into the open the details of the worldview that comes to expression in the non-Christian’s method of reasoning, making the unbeliever epistemologically self-conscious as well.”4 In other words, what does Hick put his faith in, from which he builds his system of thought and conception of reality?

Our approach will also seek to demonstrate the antithetical nature of the two worldviews. A Christian view of a reality is not merely different by degree to the pluralist position of John Hick, but antithetical at every point.5 There is, in other words, no epistemological common ground to be found between the two systems of thought. As we shall see, every interpretation of reality made by an unbeliever is made from a viewpoint entirely hostile to God’s viewpoint.

Some might argue that this means that there can be no discourse between the two views. However, the kind of common ground assumed in our discussion will be of a metaphysical nature. Van Til writes, “we no longer make an appeal to ‘common notions’ which Christian and non-Christian agree on, but to the ‘common ground’ which they actually have because man and his world are what scripture says they are.”6 He stated this slightly differently in The Defense of the Faith by saying that the common notions are common “by virtue of creation in God’s image, men as men all have in common.”7 We might summarize this by saying that there is one world, even while there are multiple worldviews. Consequently, our engagement with John Hick’s material will demonstrate the antithetical nature of his thought to Christian thought and, at the same time, demonstrate that it can only operate on a Christian basis. In other words, Hick will have to borrow from the Christian worldview in order to create his own.

Finally, the presuppositional approach seeks to demonstrate the impossibility of the contrary. That is to say that all systems of thought built upon presuppositions antithetical to the revealed truth of scripture are assumed to be, in principle, incoherent, inconsistent and irrational. As Van Til argues, “The claim must be made that Christianity alone is reasonable for men to hold. And it is utterly reasonable. It is wholly irrational to hold to any other position than that of Christianity.”8 Since reality is how the Bible describes it and interprets it, any system which attempts to explain reality on other terms will ultimately turn out to be irrational.

Let us begin our analysis of John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis at the point where Hick begins – the simple observation that there are many religions. Religion is a difficult term for Hick to define. He does, however, allow that religions are concerned with an ultimate commitment.9 This definition shall suffice for our discussion. An ultimate commitment is a certain commitment that acts as the presupposition by which other commitments are deemed reliable. Such ultimate commitments are unconditional to any worldview as they determine the validity of other options of belief.

Hick suggests that, given that the universe is open to multiple interpretations–both religious and naturalistic–it is rational for all religious believers to trust their experiences. Hick calls this the “principle of critical trust” – it is rational to trust one’s experience except when one has reason to doubt it. Experience, however, ranges from more binding sensory experiences (of, say, a tree) to less preinterpreted experiences. The latter kind are religious, experiences of God, Brahman, spirits etc. For Hick, religious experiences are subject to greater freedom in human interpretation. Since divinity keeps a greater epistemic distance than a tree there can be a wider set of religious interpretations than interpretations of a tree.

If there is a diverse set of human interpretations, suggests Hick, what is it that is interpreted? Hick’s postulate is that an incomprehensible “real” exists that transcends rational categories, but that explains all religious experience.

It might be easy to agree with Hick’s observation—that there are multiple diverse religions—and to move on with him to his explanation, but let us pause for a moment and ask what we mean by observation. To observe is to assume an epistemology, a theory of knowledge. We should ask, then, what is the principle of knowledge we should use to determine what we mean by observation? What is it to observe anything and to report that observation to others? Hick might want us to assume that the Christian God is less clearly known than a tree, but do we have to assume this?

Let us begin with sensory observation. The Christian presuppositionalist does not distinguish between a report and an interpretation. Van Til writes, “Description is itself explanation.”10 What does he mean? Surely anyone can point to a tree and say, “that is a tree.” There appears no reason to say that if an unbeliever and a Christian point to the tree and say, “that is a tree,” that either has explained anything at all. They have merely reported the observation. However, Van Til’s argument is that neither the unbeliever nor the Christian observe the tree from a neutral point of view. The tree and the observer of the tree are creations of the personal triune God of the Bible. The unbeliever cannot allow for such speculation about the origin of the tree nor the one who sees it. An appeal to an uninterpreted piece of observable data cannot be made by one who does not already interpret that data. Consequently, inherent in the description, “tree,” is an interpretation of the tree and of the one who says, “tree.” “It is indeed impossible for any man to make any statement about any fact of experience without doing so in terms of all-inclusive worldview.”11

It might be replied that the observation of a tree is a different thing entirely than a religious experience. Hick speaks of a scale of description/interpretation, the least interpreted being the experience of sense perception and the most interpretation being applied to the religious experience. According to Hick’s critical realism, in religious experience, “the element of interpretation plays an even larger part than it does in sense perception.”12 The experience of the tree requires less interpretation than the experience of the divine even whilst both rely on the impinging of reality to some extent. A religious experience is then judged to be veridical on the same basis as the experience of the tree: “This… is the way in which belief in the existence of God is to be justified. It is justified in the same way as our beliefs about ‘what there is and how things are’ in our total environment: namely, by the impact of that environment upon us, our consciousness of which is our experience of it.”13

If perception is interpreted, it is always interpreted according to something. Even if we allow for sense perception to be less interpreted, it is never interpreted neutrally. Since, in order to interpret anything, one must interpret according to an interpretive framework. A Buddhist cannot climb out from himself and travel to neutrality from whence he can look again at the tree. At the very least, the Buddhist cannot be neutral about the Christian God even if he takes agnosticism to be neutral.

Hick might respond to this by saying that our kind of thinking is as a result of cultural conditioning. If we had been born in an Islamic country, our worldview would have been Islamic. Isn’t the religion that we ascribe to a matter of the culture into which we are born? One might be born in rural Pennsylvania while another might be born in rural India. Presumably, both do not choose their respective worldviews, but are fostered by them within the environment they are brought up in. How, then, can one claim a knowledge of reality that excludes the other? Isn’t it all a matter of cultural conditioning? Hick writes: “It is evident that in some ninety-nine percent of cases the religion which an individual professes and which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth.”14

Van Til agrees that he is conditioned by his own Christian upbringing. Furthermore he insists that this is the case for everyone.15 However, Van Til argues that conditioning is not accidental, but part of the plan of God. The God of the Bible is the “All Conditioning one.”16 Furthermore, God, and his conditioning of all that is, is the only rational explanation for all human experience:

The whole of history and civilization would be unintelligible to me if it were not for my belief in God. So true is this, that I propose to argue that unless God is back of everything, you cannot find meaning in anything. I cannot even argue for belief in Him, without already having taken him for granted. And similarly I contend that you cannot argue against belief in Him unless you also take Him for granted.17

In order to see what Van Til means, let us ask what is assumed and what follows from Hick’s notion of the accident of birth. If I am told that I believe what I believe due to the conditioning I received due to the accident of birth, I presume two mutually contradictory ideas about reality. Firstly, I assume that my birth place, time and culture was an accident. Secondly, I presume that conditioning works, that there is order to be made out of accident. Actually I am saying both – reality is accidental and orderly. If I conclude that birth, and all that follows, is accidental I cannot then think that meaning can be derived from existence. Yet Hick proceeds as if there is indeed order to the universe. It is not clear how he could account for such order without presupposing the ordering of God.

Such order can be explained, but only within the system of thought derived from the Orderer. And thus we have reached the final circle – “everything turns on God.”18 If I maintain irrationality and rationality as equally ultimate, I can only leap from one to the other in order to avoid the Orderer. I use God’s order to explain Him away and all the while I am pointing to the accident at the back of all events.

Van Til argues that the notion of rationalism-irrationalism found within sinful humanity is a result of the fall. Bahnsen interprets Van Til as saying,

The fall, in which all of Adam’s posterity participated by their representative, as a rejection of the sovereign, personal authority of the self-sufficient Creator. All men thus reject the counsel of God as foreordaining whatsoever comes to pass; they are irrationalists who say everything is contingent, unplanned, and a matter of chance. At the same time, all men are rationalists who reject the authority of God expressed in His verbal revelation (e.g., of what happens if they rebel against Him), arguing that such claims could not be true or authoritative for them. Because of the nature of sin, then, all men are rationalistic-irrationalistic in perspective.19

Is this rationalism-irrationalism not precisely what is at work in the accusation that belief is an accident of birth? Not only can the Christian explain the order, the rationalism implied in the problem, but she can also explain the reason one might propose the problem in the first place. First, the order of creation is based on the order given by the Creator who determines all that comes to pass including the geography of every person’s birth (Acts 17:26). Second, it is due to the fall that sinful humanity refuses to acknowledge the all-ordering personal God of Christian Theism while maintaining a rationalistic system of ultimate order which is imposed on reality. There is, in reality, no meaning to the problem unless one presupposes the Christian God.

The Christian presuppositionalist can account for ordering of the physical realm. This is because it is assumed that all creation is under the sovereign rule of God. According to Van Til, if a person stands in front of a tree and says “tree,” he is immediately “face to face with the requirement of God.”20 This is because all reality, including his own body, and thought is revelational of God. In order to interpret the tree against God, the person must deny this knowledge. As he does this he, at the same time, denies the Lordship of God. As Paul puts it, he “suppresses the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18).

The consequence of this idea is that there is no innocent starting point for knowledge. The Christian presuppositionalist denies that there is an epistemic neutral ground from which to know anything: “There can be no neutral ground, no area which fails to exert revelational pressure upon the sinner. Wherever he looks the sinner finds himself confronted by the God with whom he has to do. There cannot be a safety zone where the sinner can flee for refuge… there is no escape from God (Ps. 139:7-8).”21

In contrast, according to Hick, the universe is open to interpretation because the human has cognitive freedom: “it is the interpretive element within religious experience that enables us to enter into an uncompelled, though always necessarily limited and mediated, awareness of the Real.”22 Hick sees the emergence of increased freedom for individuals in the axial age, producing the “autonomous human person.”23

It is quite logical, then, for Hick to say that faith is a “response to a mysterious ambiguity”25 since the “intrinsically ambiguous universe” necessitates a “cognitive decision” in order to interpret it. Religious faith is, according to Hick, the “uncompelled subjective contribution to conscious experience which is responsible for its distinctively religious character.”26 Since, according to Hick, both empirical observation and rational thought can lead to no more than an ambiguous universe, open to both a naturalistic and religious interpretation, human freedom lies in the ability to contribute to reality a freely offered interpretation.

Human autonomy is the idea that the human is charged with self-government. But, the Bible has no such human being. The Bible depicts God as ruler of all the earth, sovereignty governing every part according to his own purpose. Van Til writes: “the sinner will not of himself recognize that he is abnormal in his interpretation of life. Hence he also refuses to recognize that God is the ultimate while he himself should be nothing but the immediate starting point in the knowledge situation. The sinner seeks to be autonomous. He will, therefore, seek to set himself up as a judge over that which presents itself to him as revelation”24

Such a presupposition, says Van Til, lies at the heart of all non-Christian philosophy and its consequent religions. However, Van Til made sure to point out that autonomy is only a virtual autonomy. Since only God is absolutely self-contained it cannot be that the human is also. Autonomy is really the human desire for divinity: “The natural man virtually attributes to himself that which a true Christian theology attributes to the self-contained God.”27

Let us turn to consider the notion that the Real is a postulate, a hypothesis. Hick’s conclusion, therefore is a probable conclusion. According to Hick it is the more probable explanation of religious experience and to be accepted since it does the best job of explaining diverse religious experience.

Van Til, in contrast, argues that God cannot be subject to a hypothesis since in order for God to be God there can be no higher standard by which to judge the God-hypothesis.28 Accordingly, Van Til argues that one cannot present Christianity as one hypothesis among many. When placed side by side, pluralism and Christianity cannot be evaluated with the view to seeing which one might be the most reasonable, the most verifiable. To do that is to assume the pluralistic hypothesis – that multiple interpretations of reality are possible. The presuppositionalist does not step out of the faith in order to test it by another standard. Since the highest of all standards is what God thinks, there can be no higher standard. The Christian presuppositionalist is committed to the being of God as self-conscious, self-contained and self-sustaining who precedes all human being and thinking. She is committed to the presupposition that what makes all human thought possible is that same God who created her and who governs all that is.

How, then, does a Christian presuppositionalist explain the origin of the pluralistic hypothesis. Van Til suggested that at the fall of man, “Eve was obliged to postulate an ultimate epistemological pluralism and contingency before she could even proceed to consider the proposition made to her by the devil.”29 Eve accepts an offer from the devil to take on the role of judge. She was compelled to put God to the test since to make a judgment, one requires a hypothesis. This compulsion is based on a denial of an absolute knowledge in God and, according to Van Til, leads to the notion of neutrality: “Eve was compelled to assume the equal ultimacy of the minds of God, of the devil, and of herself. And this surely excluded the exclusive ultimacy of God. This therefore was a denial of God’s absoluteness epistemologically.”30 The temptation of Eve was tantamount to the offer of thought free of the dependance on revelation from God. Interpretation was now possible from a virtual neutral space. Indeed, the fall of mankind meant the possibility to deny revelation from God as possible.

It is the denial of direct communication of the Real in the phenomenal realm which leads Hick to dismiss any possibility of direct revelation of God to man: “we cannot even speak of this as a thing or an entity.”31 No verbal revelation is possible since the Real is unknowable and remains silent. As the Real is beyond description (we cannot know it as it is in-itself), revelation, in a verbal, and thus in the “it” world, is impossible. Hick calls the Real the “anti-concept”32 because it is unknowable and only presupposed. The Real is, therefore, a “regulative idea.”33 A verbal revelation would be intrinsically exclusivist in that it would claim to reveal something about the Real to a particular person or group of people.

To see what is behind this rejection of revelation we must return to Kant. Kant writes, “rational faith can be believed in and shared by everyone.”34 And, “each individual can know of himself, through his own reason, the will of God which lies at the basis of his religion.”35 In other words, revelation excludes the universal moral concepts as it applies only to the particular peoples who have received it. Thus, “the legislation of His will ought to be solely moral; for statutory legislation (which presupposes a revelation) can be regarded merely as contingent and as something which never has applied or can apply to every man, hence as not binding upon all men universally.”36 Scripture, then, is a useful instrument employed to achieve such a goal; it is not, according to Kant, a direct revelation from God of divine law. Kant concludes: “There is only one (true) religion; but there can be faiths of several kinds… a church dispenses with the most important mark of truth, namely, a rightful claim to universality, when it bases itself upon a revealed faith. For such a faith, being historical, can never be universally communicated so as to produce conviction.”37

Following Kant, religions of the world, according to Hick, have epistemic parity. That is to say, no religion can claim to be epistemically superior to another. It is just as reasonable to be a Buddhist as to be a Christian. What is misguided, according to Hick, is to retain the notion of exclusivity when it comes to either knowledge or to ethics.

Hick’s presupposition is that all humans are epistemologically equal and should not have one up on one another. The pluralistic hypothesis is a profoundly social, perhaps even Marxist,38 proposal at its core. Certainly it is enlightenment thinking applied rigorously to the religious realm. No one can know any better than anyone else. So we all start from the same basic point as innocent onlookers who are conditioned to believe in a certain religious system of thought about reality. People can believe strange things and even things in error which most people don’t like. They must however remain equally able to know.

But why do we have to hold to this? According to the exclusivist Christian, in some sense no one is able to know God due to sin. This inability has to be made up for by God’s work of regeneration for a particular people who are chosen by God. In another sense, Hick is right to say that everyone knows, but this kind of knowledge is the knowledge of the God of Christianity denied in the suppression of the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18).

At root, Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis is no mere suggestion for a description of reality, but a prescription for society. Consider how one might arbitrate between the multiple claims of religion given the pluralistic hypothesis. What one really needs is a dictatorship that would insist that all are equally valid and that no one religious group can know the Real in itself and has sole grip on the truth. This, I think, is at the heart of Hick’s prescription:

That there is not just one but a plurality of such historical channels is prominent among the facts for which an interpretation of religion must account. In doing so it will inevitably have to go beyond the dominant self-understanding of each tradition. For each has come over the centuries to regard itself as uniquely superior to others, seeing them either as lying outside the sphere of salvation, or as earlier stages in an evolution of which it is the culmination, or as less full and authentic versions of itself. But this cannot be sustained on impartial grounds. A genuinely pluralistic hypothesis will thus inevitably call, at least by implication, for further development within each of the traditions… insofar as each of the world religions comes, in today’s global city, to see itself as one among many it will use these methods to de-emphasize its own absolute and exclusive claim, allowing this to fall into the background and eventually to become absorbed into its past history.39

I must admit that I feel oppressed by this proposal. For good reason Alistair McGrath argues. McGrath calls Hick’s proposal, “tantamount to intellectual Stalinism”40 since it is rooted in the modernist totalitarian urge to organize the raw material of culture, language and ritual according to human desires: “In making this assertion, I am deliberately pointing up the common modernist agenda and roots that underlie prescriptive pluralism, Nazism, and Stalinism.”41

However, according to Paul such a judge as is required to arbitrate between truth claims has already been established. In Paul’s address to the Areopagus, Paul asserts that Christ has been established as the judge of all religion, all worldviews (Acts 17:31). Truth will not be self-attesting, but attested by Christ in whom is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).

The pluralistic hypothesis is not merely a way in which to make sense of the existence of multiple religions; it is, rather, the Satanic root of all rebellion against God. It is Satan’s greatest ploy to put God to the test. Satan persuaded Eve to make God’s interpretation of reality a hypothesis, he even attempted to make Jesus do the same in the wilderness (Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:1-8; Luke 4:1-13). Thus the pluralistic hypothesis of Hick and those who follow him must be challenged at its root, its presuppositions. The Christian presuppositional approach demonstrates the irrational premise to religious pluralism. I think that the Christian presuppositional response to the pluralistic hypothesis succeeds in demonstrating the clarity and rationality of the Christian faith and the impossibility of the contrary.

1Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2003), 128.
2That is not to say that the presuppositionalist does not use logic or evidences. It is to say that logic and evidences are used in accord with the presuppositions of those using them.
3Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1998), 54.
4Ibid., 104.
5This is not to pass a judgment on the status of John Hick before God, but only to state that the system of thought espoused in his writings is antithetical to Biblical Christianity.
6Cornelius Van Til, “My Credo” in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E.R. Geehan, 1980,
7Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2008), 380.
8Ibid., 381.
9John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 3-5.
10Van Til quoted in Van Til’s Apologetic, 642.
11Ibid., 101.
12Hick, 175.
13Ibid., 221.
14Hick, 2.
15In our times we have introduced neurological determinism to explain what culture cannot. See David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011).
16Cornelius Van Til, “Why I Believe in God,” in Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1998), 122.
18Ibid., 143.
19Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1998), 392-393, footnote 253.
20The Defense of the Faith, 158.
21Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches: Covenant Media Foundation, 2009), 43.
22Hick, 162.
23Ibid., 164.
24Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2007), 225.
25Hick, 159.
26Ibid., 160.
27Defense of the Faith, 167.
28A Survey of Christian Epistemology, x-xi.
29A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 21.
31Hick, 246.
33Ibid., 243.
34Immanuel Kant, “Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone” in Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 2, ed. William Placher (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988), 103.
35Ibid., 104.
36Ibid., 104-105.
37Ibid., 106.
38I say this partly because Hick is so favorable towards Marxism, even implying that it is a kind of religion. He does not pay the same tribute to any other political ideology such as fascism. Cf. An Interpretation of Religion, 5.
39An Interpretation of Religion, 2-3.
40Alistair McGrath in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Stanley Gundry, Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 206.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.



    Nice article, is this going to be a chapter for your thesis? I like how you brought out the rational/irrational dialectic in Hick's thought. That's a Van Tillian motif that I don't see often among Pop Presuppositionalists. The scariest thing I learn about Hicks is McGrath's observation which quotation you cited: "In making this assertion, I am deliberately pointing up the common modernist agenda and roots that underlie prescriptive pluralism, Nazism, and Stalinism." I'm curious, as a side note, have you read any of Rushdoony's work?

  • Ben Holloway

    Thanks Slimjim. Yes, this will form part of my thesis. Although it needs a little rework to make it fit. I think there will be quite a few upcoming posts that will be part of my thesis. The two more recent posts on atheism are also points I'd like to make. I have read Rushdoony's essay in Jerusalem and Athens on the one and the many (I may need to revisit it for my thesis). Do you have any other works of his in mind?

  • Slimjim

    Hey Ben,
    I didn't have any particular work of Rushdoony on my mind, just a general observation that whenever he critiques something he's often seeing it's political ramification, given that you quoted MacGrath that Hick's ideology underlie Nazism and Communism. God bless you brother!