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The Philosophy of Dr. William Young: The Early Years, Changes, and Relation to Today

By Rev. Michael Ericson

We will not be developing much of anything pertaining to his biography; I’ll assume either the reader has some familiarity with it or can access it readily enough nor will we be offering a critical analysis of either his views regarding philosophy or theology, although the reader may rightly infer my approbation of both his Reformed scholastic theology and as to where he ended up with his view pertaining to the discipline of philosophy.

Our consideration picks up with “Toward a Reformed Philosophy,” which was his 1944 Ph.D. dissertation. This was published in the Netherlands in 1952 as Toward a Reformed Philosophy, with the subtitle “The Development of a Protestant Philosophy in Dutch Calvinistic Thought since the Time of Abraham Kuyper.” Dr. Young observes:

“So far as we have found philosophy in the great Reformers, it did not appear as a separate

discipline but rather as embedded in their theological construction. As theology was developed

into more formalized systems by the successors of the Reformers, philosophy came into play as

an instrument of theological systematization.”  (Toward a Reformed Philosophy, 28-29)

As can be seen from the title itself and the above comment, ‘toward’ a Reformed philosophy, at the time of his writing, he believed it had not as of yet been developed. That is, philosophy as a technical discipline, with a body of knowledge distinct from theology, from a particularly Christian viewpoint and a distinct content differentiating it from non-Christian philosophy, was yet to be. He speaks, furthermore, of a time coming when a particularly Christian logic will be developed, the content of which is distinct. For example, when it comes to the law of non-contradiction, that it is not the case that P is both true and false at the same time in the same way there would be a new way of stating the proposition (rudely put in this sentence) which would be the result of a recast set of logical rules or law based on a Christian worldview or a Christian understanding of philosophy as a technical discipline. Since it had not yet been developed, he was not able to state the new proposition, formerly articulated many centuries before by the likes of Aristotle. He believed, however, that if Christians continued in the pursuit, they would one day do so.

At this point in his life Dr. Young is a 99.9% epigone of Herman Dooyewaard (almost as much so of C. Van Til as well). He shared in Dooyewaard’s criticism that the late 16th and 17th century Reformed Scholastics were syncretistic regarding philosophy and were at fault in not developing their own. Rather than a distinctly Christian philosophy (again, not to be confused with a philosophy of life, etc., but as a technical, formal discipline), they simply made use of a formal set of rules of inference, deduction, syllogism, etc. that had been developed by the world, such as Aristotle. Furthermore, rather than running parallel to theology and having its own content autonomous from theology (theology as a formal, technical discipline, not as in ordinary language or understanding of God gained from the Scriptures), the Reformed scholastics viewed philosophy as serving systematic theology as a tool, of which he and Dooyewaard were critical.

At the same time, however, deeply immersed in the stream from Augustine unto the Reformed scholastics, Dr. Young’s reference pertaining to Gisbertus Voetius is telling as to the influence such men would continue to have: “Calvinistic Scholasticism was represented at its highest point in the Netherlands of the 17th century by Gisbertus Voetius.” (Toward a Reformed Philosophy, 29)

During these years Dr. Young was very involved in what has become known as the Clark-Van Til Controversy. While there is much that could be taken up at this point, we continue to trace the trajectory of Dr. Young’s view regarding philosophy, including the philosophical justification of knowledge and theory. Among other aspects, he was tasked by the OPC General Assembly to be on a study committee and report on “The Effect of Regeneration on Intellective Activities of the Soul” OPC report (1948). Dr. Young submitted a minority report titled “The Effect of Regeneration on Intellectual Activities of the Soul,” authored by himself alone (also a second Minority Report signed by himself, Hamilton, and Clowney, which included sin in the title). He points out the difference between valid proximate grounds and valid ultimate grounds in the justification of knowledge. Only a spiritual understanding in relation to those ultimate grounds provides the full and proper justification on what ones knows. He rejected the idea that the natural man can know spiritual truth but just from a natural perspective. Only a regenerate man can know in relation to the ultimate ground. To speak of epistemological justification in relation to proximate grounds appears as a bit of a departure from certain aspects of Van Til. However, he never came to believe that a full and proper epistemological justification was possible apart from the ultimate ground of truth, namely, God.

Dr. Young went on to be a colleague of Gordon Clark’s. He taught at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, from 1947-1954. Dr. Gordon H. Clark was the chair of the Philosophy Department; he was Clark’s junior. My assessment is that, coupled now with a personal association in a positive way, while Dr. Young did not buy into much of some of the main principles of Clark’s epistemology, he came to appreciate more fully an exactness in logic. He also came away from the controversy and became thoroughly unimpressed with a sloppy use of terms and logic in some of the main arguments formed.

And yet, he continued to be enamored with Dooyeweerd. In 1951, he collaborated with Dr. David H. Freeman in the translation of Volume I of Herman Dooyeweerd’s philosophical work A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. It is not long after, however, that his following the Dutch philosopher ends; he never finished the other volumes.

Dr. Young’s studies at Oxford in the 60s culminated into two works: Foundations of Theory, published in 1967, and Hegel’s Dialectical Method, in 1972. Both were published in the University Series: Philosophical studies by Craig Press. The series editor was none other than Gordon Clark. During in and around his time at Oxford, Dr. Young intensely pursued studies in logic, especially modal logic, Wittgenstein, and Hegel. The effect on Dr. Young, as I perceive it, was that the loose and novel use of terms employed by Dooyeweerd, such as ‘ground-motif’ (or the numerous ways in which Van Til used ‘presupposition’ rather interchangeably), and a less than strict employment of logic, coupled with the rigors to hold one’s own with, and hopefully best, the likes of Wittgenstein and Hegel, and not being able to develop that distinctly Christian logic, propositionally or symbolically, led him to move away from the Dooyeweerdian-Kuyperian notion of worldview (with a purported distinctly propositional-epistemological proximate content for all the ‘spheres’ of culture) and the idea there could be such a thing as a distinctly Christian propositional-epistemological proximate logic.

This shift is clearly seen in his work in Foundations of Theory. He continues to hold a line of demarcation between theoretical and non-theoretical thought. Theoretical thought is the systematic reasoned explanation, with a precision of terms, distinctly and logically to express propositions.  He gives an illustration of the difference using time (in a different work I believe). It appears quite evident that everyone knows what time is. However, as soon as one attempts to define precisely what it is, it slips away from our epistemic grasp. What he is wrestling with in this work is whether or not it is necessary and then possible to have a metaphysical justification of knowledge — i.e. an appeal to God, or something akin, of course to be made with logical, systematic human language (this, by the way, shows the difference between the act of knowing in epistemology and the justification of it, which is on the borderland between apologetics; the same is seen in knowing time but then giving the epistemological rationale in a systematic way and then the justification of such). In this work he backed away from the thesis of moving toward a Reformed philosophy. Again, this is not to say there are not general, Scriptural principles that inform all thought but the idea of a distinct, systematic, propositionally content uniquely Christian in the discipline of philosophy, coupled with the ability to show the necessity of such and logically demonstrate the metaphysically ultimate ground being God himself and to do so with current language and terms. He states:

“…this is not to deny the possibility of a metaphysical justification of theoretical thought as

autonomous in the strongest sense. Such a justification, to the present writer’s knowledge,

has not been produced. Without it, the autonomy of theoretical thought remains

problematic.” (Foundations of Theory, 88)

However, which is still part of a transcendental critique, he declares that the agnostic attempt at justifying the autonomy of theoretical thought is non-defensible (Foundations of Theory, 98).

The closing paragraph is telling:

“If meaning depends on God and the original awareness of God is non-theoretical,

the presupposition of God as the origin of meaning may be reckoned to be the

ultimate non-theoretical factor in the foundation of theoretical thought.” (Foundations of Theory, 117)

Thus, while from a theological standpoint he holds this to be true, the ability to demonstrate using philosophy as a self-contained discipline has, thus far, proved unattainable. In other words, while he gives a very strong and able tour-de-force ontological argument in the work, masterfully employing modal logic, such an epistemological justification of itself cannot theoretically stand alone in philosophy. Similarly, Dr. Young saw a parallel to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and his conclusions in the area of philosophy, including logic, namely philosophy cannot be a self-contained axiomatic system nor offer an independent justification of knowledge. Philosophy, as a systematic, theoretical discipline, moves to a rear seat.

This is also clear in his work/lecture “Theory and Theology,” delivered on April 8, 1968, at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia [chapter 25 in Reformed Thought: Selected Writings of William Young (2012)]. This is basically the layman’s version of Foundations of Theory but with greater interaction with theology. A key Reformed tenant is upheld — reason is not made void but established by faith (opposite the Enlightenment thesis that reason is independent of or rules over faith).

Dr. Young states, “Philosophy can contribute to the clarification of theological concepts, but may neither create nor destroy them” (Reformed Thought, 328). And immediately following is this:

“We stressed the dangers of overestimating the role of reason in matters of faith, and

particularly the dangers of an improper influence of philosophy on theology. We must now

call attention to the danger of underestimating the role of reason in matters of faith.” (Reformed Thought, 328)

Theology as a technical discipline of reasoning (as contrasted with truthful thinking about God, theology, etc. in a nontechnical manner) rests on and arises from a knowledge of God, special revelation. Theology, as theoretical thought, does and must makes use of rules of reasoning.

“Theology is also theory, and a theological justification of theoretical thought is not

non-theoretical as to its methodology, even though it sets forth non-theoretical religious

factors as the basis of theory. Theological justification thus involves the same problem of

circularity as philosophical justification. Theology as a science presupposes the validity of

theory, and particularly of logical rules. What is to be justified is thus presupposed.”

(Reformed Thought, 332)

For a rule to be used in such a presuppositional manner, say the law of non-contradiction, is not the same thing as a foundationalist approach in building all truth claims from these rules. The same may be said by the way regarding the use of evidences.

In the closing paragraph, the employment of reason harmonizing with divine revelation in our systematic theology in the light of faith shines through:

“As the obscuring of human responsibility on the pretext of magnifying divine

sovereignty is an un-Reformed and unbiblical extreme, verging on antinomianism, so the

disparaging of rational knowledge, of logical method and of scientific theory, on the pretext of

subjecting theoretical thought to divine revelation, is an un-Reformed and unbiblical extreme

verging on irrationalism. As the law is not made void, but established by grace, so reason, is by

faith.”  (Reformed Thought, 334)

This concluding paragraph follows warning against hyper-Calvinism (hyper-Kuyperianism) and its loose language of terms like ‘ground-motif,’ etc., moving toward a disparagement of the use of reason, in too far a separation of the ‘spheres’ of philosophy and theology.

A key issue is whether special revelation is supreme over reason. Philosophy is viewed as the science of theoretical thought, the theory of theories; systematic theology is a branch of theoretical thought. Scripture is an object of theoretical thought, which unaided reason alone is not able to comprehend. Does Dr. Young maintain then that Scripture is the object of philosophical thought and philosophy? Yes — truth contained in the Word “that theologians and Christian philosophers make the object of their loftiest contemplations” (Reformed Thought, 332).

The above survey shows the rejection of Dooyeweerdianism and along with it the rejection of the near divorce of philosophy and theology; he now states “I do not know where to draw the boundary line between Christian philosophy and theology” (1969 lecture, “What Is Truth,” Reformed Thought, 316). He also rejects a particular version of worldview in which every particular of general revelation will have a uniquely Christian propositional form (so much so that he rejected and distanced himself from the term ‘worldview’). However, this is not such to suggest that, while rejecting a hyper-Kuyperian form of worldview, the pendulum swung so far as to reject a functional worldview with Scripture as supreme.

Dr. Young continued to maintain his rejection of the autonomy of human reason, “With Anselm we may say, ‘I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.’”   (Foundations of Theory, 102). And “Anselm stands out as a genius whose contributions to both philosophy and theology are penetrating and permanent” (“Theology and Theory,” Reformed Thought, 327). Thus, he rejected the nature grace dichotomy and continued to hold that the transcendent, God, is the precondition for any knowledge and its justification: “… God as the ultimate presupposition of theoretical thought” (Foundations of Theory, 114). With a touch of Edwardian idealism, he notes:

“The Christian philosopher can advance beyond these propositions which do not have

existence. In the light of revelation, with the aid of Augustinian theology, he may maintain

that propositions are eternal truths or falsities, eternal objects in the mind of God.”

(“What Is Truth,” Reformed Thought, 316)

In other words unless you see in God’s, light you will not see light, and unless you have reference to God, you can have no justification for holding what you hold in your thoughts. Thus, it is that special revelation that gives general principles to understand and govern our understanding of natural revelation. “Truth is one, because God is one” uniting the book of nature and the book of Scripture (“What Is Truth,” Reformed Thought, 322). What a man like Dr. Young would consider general principles would be an encyclopedia to the average thinker. In fact, standing in the line of Augustine and Calvin, it would also be the case that special revelation is necessary to understand natural revelation, hence Calvin’s illustration of the spectacles.

It may help to illustrate Dr. Young’s wedding of philosophy and reason under the service of special revelation, with reason being established by faith, by contrasting it with some current practitioners of philosophy. Without going into great detail here, and multiplying citations (the reader can readily search this out), there are two men who are identified with what is known as Reformed epistemology, namely, Alvin Plantiga and William Lane Craig. While seeing some need for faith to help contribute to reason, they seem regularly to define reason as unaided knowledge, gleaned from general revelation and faith as knowledge from the Bible (to be sure, the term faith can be used as a body of knowledge in relation to the Christian religion; this is not, however, its main use nor does that speak of its role in relation to reason; both are instrumental functions of the soul). Also, when wrestling with the difficulty of harmonizing divine sovereignty and human freedom, they both adopt the Jesuit Molinist line of the scientia media, the theory of middle knowledge (i.e. paraphrased as ‘God looked down through the corridor of time and saw what we would freely choose and then predestinated that to occur’).  It seems clear to me that they are exemplary of reason and philosophy ruling over and supreme to faith and theology.

Another interesting contrast is that of R.C. Sproul. While I will say that I have a great affection for Dr. Sproul, having had him for some classes (since the delivery of this lecture and working on the draft for publication, Dr. Sproul has breathed his last here on earth, and he is in glory looking upon the face of the Savior he served so faithfully for many years), including one on apologetics, his take on Descartes can hardly be considered standard Reformed thinking, which is symptomatic of his general approach. Even though nearly thirty years ago in class I attempted to persuade him that Descartes’ enthymeme ‘I think, therefore, I am’ is a blatant petitio principia (begging the question in which the conclusion is already contained in the initial premise); it appears I was not successful. He writes:

“From that premise of indubitable doubt, Descartes appealed to the formal certainty yielded

by the laws of immediate inference. Using impeccable deduction he concluded that to be

doubting required that he be thinking, since thought is a necessary condition for doubting.

From there it was a short step to his famous axiom, cogito ergo sum,

‘I think, therefore I am.’”  (“Descartes and the Anatomy of Doubt,” May 31, 2017)

More troubling is the healthy and necessary role he sees for doubt and thus the function of reason in relation to faith. Without going into great detail, the reader is reminded of Gisbertus Voetius’ and other Reformed scholastics, vigorous opposition to Cartesian doubt, considering it to be the root of atheism, not reasonable and opposed to faith. Doubting Thomas is not to be commended. I would suggest Voetius is exemplary and typical of Reformed theology’s approach to such matters and philosophy in general, hence Reformed scholasticism. If not familiar with this, a good place to start would be B. Hoon Woo’s “The Understanding of Gisbertus Voetius and René Descartes on the Relationship of Faith and Reason, and Theology and Philosophy,” Westminster Theological Journal 75, no. 1 (2013): 45-63.

I suggest that, while at the beginning Dr. Young was critical of the Reformed scholastics for not developing philosophy as a technical discipline with a specific Christian content but were eclectic in the employment of philosophy and viewed is as useful and necessary rules for reasoning, particularly in the service of systematic theology, toward the midpoint and to the end he gravitated toward and adopted this very thing. Thus, he stands in line and very much akin to the Reformed scholastics, of whom he held Voetius, as we pointed out, as the highest point in Calvinistic scholasticism. Thus, philosophy is considered as a set of tools for reasoning, inference, etc., not as a distinct body of knowledge beyond that; philosophy as a method rather than metaphysic. Dr. Young was a modern Reformed scholastic with philosophy serving theology.

Dr. Young was an expert laborer in both philosophy and theology. In our age which is seeing the death of systematics, we would do well to emulate such an approach and example as he has left us. In The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (1645), a candidate for the ministry is to be examined as to “whether he hath skill in logick and philosophy.” There is a connection between the systematic theologies or various biblical, systematic treatises that we love so much from the late 16th and through the 17th century and this type of rigorous approach to both philosophy and systematic theology. Theology is king; philosophy serves as a tool and submits all thought and findings to it as the fountain of knowledge and wisdom.

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