Chapters 3-5 – Christian Epistemology
Van Til says that the central question regarding Christian Epistemology in Systematic Theology and Apologetics is, “What is the place and function of reason in theology?” Attention here will be focused on chapter 3 as chapters 4 and 5 mainly serve to clarify and build on that. To answer this question Van Til begins with God as the source of all existence. He references God’s ex nihilo creative work and then says that what is true about existence is equally true about meaning. It is the absolute existence of God that determines the derivative existence of creation and so it is the absolute meaning that God has for himself that determines the derivative meaning of every created fact as being for the glory of God. Therefore for our created human minds to truly know any fact means that we must presuppose God’s absolute existence and his plan for the universe. These facts must be related to laws and so the particulars of our existence are known in relation to the universals (such as natural laws, laws of logic, moral laws, laws of mathematics, etc.).
The result of this is that we study the subjects of knowledge (the created facts of the universe) in light of its object (the absolute God). This means that the facts are only understood as they are brought into subordination to God as the ultimate interpreter. All human interpretation is derivative of God’s. So our interpretation is never comprehensive. This means that all mystery in the universe is only in light of our limited ability to interpret the facts. As Van Til says, “We hold that the atom is mysterious for us, but not for God.” (61) It is the comprehensive understanding on the part of God that gives validity to our partial understandings. The fact that we do not comprehend the atom does not mean that our knowledge of it cannot be true in light of general revelation and the mysteriousness that remains should only drive us to worship God. Van Til sums this up by saying:
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.
This draws Van Til into a discussion of the noetic (to the mind) effects of sin on our reasoning. He notes that true though not exhaustive knowledge is only possible for the mind that starts with the presupposition of the absolute God. Here he compares three different states of the human mind. The first is the Adamic consciousness. He says that human reason in this case was done in covenant obedience to God rather than in enmity. So Adam had a true conception of the relation of the particulars to the universals in God’s creation.
The second is the unregenerate consciousness, which is man dead in trespasses and sins. Van Til says:
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.
Finally, Van Til examines the regenerate consciousness. The regenerate man is restored so that like Adam before the fall he recognizes the absolute authority of God and sees himself as derivative. This is only because God has made the regenerate man alive. Van Til also acknowledges the already but not yet present in this restoration as we wait for glorification and the resurrection body (here the teaching of Geerhardus Vos is evident).
Van Til says this allows us to make several conclusions regarding the place of reason in theology:
1. We can only deal with the unregenerate and the regenerate consciousnesses. The Adamic consciousness was a temporary condition in God’s eternal plan that no longer exists after the fall.
2. Because all men are either covenant keepers in Christ or covenant breakers in Adam we cannot speak of human reason in general as it is either submissive to God or in open rebellion against him. We must always be aware of men’s basic alliances.
3. We cannot deal with the unregenerate consciousness on the basis of its own assumption of the right to judge. The Scriptures never appeal to the unregenerate as a qualified judge.
4. While Scripture treats the unregenerate consciousness as blind it still holds the unregenerate responsible for that blindness.
5. “Scripture teaches us to speak and preach to, as well as to reason with, blind men because God, in whose name we speak and reason, can cause the blind to see.” (69) Here we can see the practical concerns behind Van Til’s thought as his concern is how and why to do apologetics and evangelism.
6. After God has changed out minds and brought every thought captive to the obedience of Christ then we must use our reason to receive the revelation God has given of himself in Scripture. This is the only proper place of reason in theology. This means that there is no conflict between reason and faith as faith causes us to reason rightly. So the answer to the question asked at the beginning of the chapter is that faith receives the revelation of God and reason then reinterprets that revelation by thinking God’s thoughts after him and applying God’s revelation to individual situations and circumstances.
Chapters 4 and 5 involve Van Til providing a critique of the epistemologies of Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, and Valentine Hepp. These critiques lead to the same conclusions as Van Til’s positive formulation here in chapter 3 so I will leave you to picking up Van Til’s book and reading these chapters for yourself. In the next post I will deal with Van Til’s thoughts on general revelation.