Chapters 6-9 – General Revelation
These four chapters on general revelation are further divided into eighteen sections. The major division is between general revelation before the fall and general revelation after the fall. Van Til makes this distinction because the effects of sin affect both the natural created order in revealing and human beings in receiving that revelation. Beyond this, Van Til notes that there are three sources of general revelation and three objects of general revelation. So he argues that there is antelapsarian and post-lapsarian general revelation that comes about and through nature, man himself, and God. In chapter 6 Van Til deals with general revelation before the fall and in the next three chapters he addresses general revelation after the fall with the object of revelation examined from each of these three perspectives. I’m going to try to be brief here and just get at the focus of each section.
As a quick reminder, Van Til definition of knowledge is comprehensive knowledge. This means that to know a fact requires knowing the meaning of that fact in the eternal plan of God. Since only God knows this plan only God knows comprehensively and therefore only God truly knows anything independently. At the same time, Van Til does argue that creatures have true real knowledge. Accordingly this knowledge is dependent on God’s revelation therefore revelation is necessary for any creaturely knowledge.
Antelapsarian revelation about nature from nature – Van Til’s centers this revelation in the particulars of natural phenomenon as revelatory of universals. As he has argued earlier in the book, it is irrational to hold to a universal apart from an absolute, self-existent Creator. So Van Til says that understanding of nature through observation of phenomena can only be reached through Christian presuppositions as all non-Christian views reduce to either empiricism or irrationalism, both of which lead to skepticism.
Postlapsarian revelation about nature from nature – Van Til draws a distinction between natural and general revelation. He says that general revelation is available to all people though unbelievers suppress it in unrighteousness. Natural revelation describes where that revelation is held. On the basis of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-31 Van Til says that natural revelation places several moral imperatives on men. (1) Man ought to think of God as the Creator. (2) Man ought to believe in the providence of God. (3) Man ought to think of God’s non-saving grace and that evil is only through man. (4) Logic ought to have driven man to see the truth of original tradition of perfect creation and then fall. (5) Men should have concluded that there was somewhere evidence of God’s special grace. (6) Men ought to know that their failure to serve the Creator would be condemnation to eternal punishment. Van Til does distinguish that man’s failure to interpret natural revelation rightly is not itself the condemnation but confirms the condemnation of being sinners in Adam.
Antelapsarian revelation about nature from self – Van Til argues that all knowledge of nature is necessarily anthropomorphic as our minds assign human traits to non-human things. Again, this requires the presupposition of an absolute Creator who has made man in his image to think his thoughts after him. Van Til points out that if we follow Descartes and make the self the ultimate starting point of this reasoning then we fall back into skepticism because we cannot ground any universals. It is only by presupposing an intelligent Creator that we can know anything of nature from the study of self.
Postlapsarian revelation about nature from self – Van Til wants to stress that man’s reasoning about nature from the self after the fall is always ultimately false because it sets man himself up as the ultimate interpreter rather than being derivative of God. Here he follows Calvin who acknowledges that fallen man may know something more about the natural realm than he does about God but that he does not know nature rightly because he only knows it in rebellion in the context of a system of unbelief.
Antelapsarian revelation about nature from God – Van Til here bases his argument on the fact that even in the Garden man was not meant to reason about nature apart from divine revelation. Adam knew not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil because of God’s word rather than because of his autonomous study of that tree in comparison to other trees. Van Til says that the foundational fact about nature is given to us in Genesis 1:1 as nature is the creation of God.
Postlapsarian revelation about nature from God – Because of the noetic effects of sin Van Til says that man should never reason about nature apart from God’s special revelation in Scripture. This helps to explain the above point about unbelievers’ knowledge of the natural realm as that knowledge is built on “borrowed capital.” In other words any real knowledge they have is only by taking it from the Christian worldview and therefore revealing unbelieving rationalism in trying to interpret nature and irrationalism in trying to do so while rejecting God.
Antelapsarian revelation about self from nature – Van Til says that this is the reverse of revelation about nature from the self (so man sees things in himself that correspond to traits he sees in nature). It must be held that Van Til is still dealing with general revelation before the fall here as after the fall this kind of revelation would not tell man about the immortality of the body or about sin after decay is introduced into the natural order.
Postlapsarian revelation about self from nature – Because man know longer reasons in terms of “cosmic history” what he can know about himself from nature is limited. Van Til illustrates by pointing to Plato’s attempts to explain immortality. Because Plato does not start with the cosmos created without sin and death he cannot explain how either the body or soul of man might be immortal as everything in nature dies. So while man might learn much about himself from nature if he sees both as sustained by the providence of God in rejecting God as the ultimate he rejects any real knowledge of himself from nature.
Antelapsarian revelation about self from self –Before the entrance of sin man knew himself to be derivative and to be created to think God’s thoughts after him in interpreting things about himself. In other words he knew himself to be a creature in the image of God.
Postlapsarian revelation about self from self – Van Til goes back to the first five chapters of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion here. Calvin says that there are two things that man needs to have, knowledge of self and knowledge of God. Yet these two are closely related because it means knowledge of God as ultimate and knowledge of self as derivative. Van Til and Calvin both hold that the problem is that fallen man seeks to make himself ultimate. In doing so man eliminates knowledge of himself and knowledge of God and his purposes are ultimately self-frustrating. This is because if man truly knew God as absolute then he would know that God could never be replaced on his throne. Similarly if he truly knew himself as derivative then he would know that he could never be an ultimate standard. Yet because he suppresses the knowledge of God’s eternal power and godhead he seeks to elevate himself to a position that he cannot ever hold. So man’s moral rebellion means that he cannot know himself or God rightly. Knowing God rightly would mean knowing that God cannot ever be anything but God and that man cannot ever become God. So long as man seeks to be the ultimate standard he cannot ever know himself rightly through study of self.
Antelapsarian revelation about self from God – Van Til again centers this revelation in the prohibition from eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Because man received this command from God he knew that his authority was derivative and subject to that of the Creator.
Postlapsarian revelation about self from God – Van Til again reminds the reader that every fact is meaningless apart from God. This includes every fact about man that presupposes the absolute, self-existent Creator. Therefore God cannot ever be avoided by man but his person confronts man in every fact. So Van Til writes:
But a God who can thus escape to the moon or to Jupiter is not inconveniencing the atheist at all. On the contrary, he shows himself to be so finite, so insignificant, that the atheist can cover the whole earth without being confronted by him. This is the exact reverse of the teaching of Calvin, based on Paul, that God is divinity and power, being always and everywhere so present that he who says there is no God is a fool. The foolishness of the denial of the Creator lies precisely in the fact that this Creator confronts man in every fact so that no fact has any meaning for man except it be seen as God’s creation. (174)Antelapsarian revelation about God from nature – Before the fall, Van Til argues that man would have rightly reasoned from nature to nature’s God. This is because man rightly knew that God was the Creator and was absolute whereas all created things were derivative. After the fall natural theology is flawed as it makes either man or another creature ultimate.
Postlapsarian revelation about God from nature – Here again it needs to be understood that man cannot know God from nature by reasoning univocally. This would only lead to an immanent God and not the absolute and self-existent God of Scripture. It would reduce God to being like natural things rather than saying that natural things are made to reveal something about God. This means that the natural things are derivative and not ultimate. So we ought to realize that nature could not exist outside of God and that words like being have no meaning unless they are understood in God as the ultimate being.
Antelapsarian revelation about God from self – Van Til says that this extends from natural theology. Natural theology is limited in what it can learn of God because all other creatures are impersonal and are not made in God’s image. As human beings are created in the image of God they are personal and so general revelation of God from the self gives greater real knowledge of God than revelation from nature.
Postlapsarian revelation about God from self – Similar to the revelation of God from nature, this means seeing that words such as being, cause, and purpose do not have any meaning apart from God as ultimate. So men as beings point to God as the only independent being. A cause or a purpose for men means that God must have caused men and given them a purpose. Van Til asserts that any human rationality presupposes God as ultimately rational. So everything that man knows about himself reveals something about God as ultimate.
Antelapsarian revelation about God from God – Van Til’s key thought on this is that whatever was not already revealed to man of God as absolute is revealed to him directly by God. So God’s revelation of himself was revelation of himself as the absolute and self-existent Creator.
Postlapsarian revelation about God from God – Van Til will largely take this subject up in his discussion of special revelation. He does this because the original loving communication from God to man in theophany necessarily stopped after the fall. When God spoke directly to men after the fall it was for the purpose of judgment on sin or mercy in the removal of sin. So only the tradition of the original direct revelation of God to man remained until God’s special revelation of his saving purposes came.