A La Carte (November 20)
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As Christians, then, we believe that human knowledge of the world and of God is (a) not exhaustive and yet (b) true. We are created in God’s image, and therefore our knowledge cannot be exhaustive; we are created in God’s image, and therefore our knowledge is true. (61)This understanding is the key to Van Til’s epistemology. As we’ve seen before, Van Til is very focused on preserving the Creator-creature distinction in all areas. God is glorified as Creator and as such he is the ultimate knower, interpreter, and revealer. Human beings are creatures and so can only know as things are revealed and as they think God’s thoughts after him. So because we are creatures we can never interpret and reason as the absolute standard and so our knowledge cannot ever be comprehensive or exhaustive. However because we are creatures that are made in the image of the Creator we can truly know things through the effective revelation of God. In Van Til’s theology it is precisely this Creator-creature distinction that forbids autonomy and comprehensive knowledge on our part that at the same time makes true knowledge possible.
The natural man wants to be something that he cannot be. He wants to be “as God,” himself the judge of good and evil, himself the standard of truth. He sets himself as the ideal of comprehensive knowledge. When he sees that he will never reach this ideal, he concludes that all reality is surrounded by darkness.” (63)Van Til says that the fallen mind is in “absolute ethical antithesis” to God. So while we see that the unregenerate person may know a lot of things about the world he cannot ever know them truly because he does not know them as he ought to know them. He is basically mistaken in his ideas about natural things because he cannot truly found any universal laws in an absolute and so he is never justified in believing something to be true (as knowledge is defined as justified true belief). Even so, the unbeliever does know something of God and not the bare existence of God but something of his divine character (Rom. 1:18-21). Van Til says that this is because God impresses his presence on man’s attention through nature and man’s own consciousness and therefore the unregenerate man can never escape knowing God. This will come up again in Van Til’s discussion of general revelation.
Our presupposition of God as the absolute, self-conscious being, who is the source of all finite being and knowledge makes it imperative that we distinguish the Christian-theistic method from all non-Christian methods. (27)Here Van Til uses idealism as a negative example. He quotes Charles Hodge who argued that there was both an a priori (“from the former” meaning deductive) and an a posteriori (“from the latter” or inductive) side to Christian theological methods. Van Til cannot leave it at this because idealism (that reality is fundamentally mental in nature) makes the same claim. Yet the problem is that the Christian and the idealist do not mean the same thing by deduction and induction. The idealist can only work deductively by assuming that the temporary state of things has a permanent aspect ultimately meaning that all of his conclusions are inductively reached as he has to look at what he can perceive and then presuppose that what he perceives is eternal. The Christian deductively works from the fact of an absolute, self-conscious God who creates all the things that are to be perceived. Thus inductive reasoning for the Christian arrives back at the same starting point as all the facts that we can sense are created and controlled by the same absolute, self-conscious God.
Christians believe in two levels of existence, the level of God’s existence as self-contained and the level of man’s existence as derived from the level of God’s existence. For this reason, Christians must also believe in two levels of knowledge, the level of God’s knowledge, which is absolutely comprehensive and self-contained, and the level of man’s knowledge, which is not comprehensive but is derivative and reinterpretative. (32)Here those who are somewhat familiar with the Clark-Van Til controversy may recognize elements of their disagreement. Van Til calls all knowledge that is not comprehensive analogical. By this he means that it is a reinterpretation of knowing as God knows and only God knows things perfectly as only he knows facts in their relation to all other facts. So for Van Til to truly know something requires knowing it comprehensively, which in turn requires omniscience. Van Til’s goal in this argument is to preserve the Creator-creature distinction in all facets of life. He does not want to say that we cannot truly know anything though so he wants to say that believing knowledge is analogical and so we know things only in terms of how we interpret them based on God’s revelation.
A rationalistic method, that is, a method in which the a priori predominates, is in itself no worse than an exclusively empirical or a posteriori method. Both are equally unacceptable if they do not have the Christian conception of the a priori and a posteriori. So, also, no combination of rational and empirical aspects will produce a method that is better than either a rationalistic or an empirical method. If we add ever so many zeros to zero, we have zero still. (44)Ultimately this means that we are obligated to accept the Christian method of presupposing the absolute God in order to proceed to any knowledge of facts. All non-Christian systems are equally false and equally incoherent because they do not begin with this presupposition. The unbeliever will fight this presupposition as much as possible. But the unbeliever remains created in God’s image and surrounded by a world that manifests God’s power and divinity in every fact. So their resistance to the knowledge of God, whose image-bearers they are, is an ethical resistance.
We have to speak as if sin would have destroyed the work of God. That was certainly its ethical intent. But we know that this was not an ultimate metaphysical possibility, for it was already, from all eternity, a part of the plan of God that sin should be defeated through the work of Christ. (48)So the sinner continues to know God (Rom. 1:18-21) even though he tries to suppress this knowledge. He knows this even as he is created in God’s image to think rationally just as God is ultimate rationality. So, as an example, theoretically the unbeliever holds to the law of non-contradiction. Yet the unbeliever claims the right to determine for himself what is and is not contradictory. This is irrational as a finite creature cannot be the ultimate judge of anything. So Van Til wants to show that all non-Christian thinking is rational because of being created in the image of God in God’s world but is irrational in rejecting the existence of God and claiming to the be ultimate authority. This will lead into Van Til’s discussion on epistemology in the next three chapters.
So that everything may revive and may become again what it ought to be and can be, the Gospel tests all things--all circumstances and relationships--against the will of God, just as in the days of Moses and the prophets, of Christ and the apostles. It considers everything from a moral point of view, from the angle in which all those circumstances and relationships are connected with moral principles that God has instituted for all of life. Precisely because the Gospel only opposes sin, it opposes it only and everywhere in the heart and in the head, in the eye and in the hand, in family and in society, in science and art, in government and subjects, in rich and poor, for all sin is unrighteousness, trespassing of God's law, and corruption of nature. But by liberating all social circumstances and relationships from sin, the Gospel tries to restore them all according to the will of God and make them fulfill their own nature.
So I am very grateful to receive this honor, and I can stand here before you and say, “Hey, look at me, look at what I did.” But if I’m going to boast, I’m going to boast today in the Lord, for it’s because of him that I’m here and I give him thanks and glory and honor for all that he has done for me.You can read a transcript of the whole speech along with some thoughts from fellow Redskins fan C.J. Mahaney here: