The last six chapters of Cornelius Van Til’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology deal with the doctrine of God. The first two of these chapters both focus on the incomprehensibility of God. We’ll look at those two chapters in this post.
Normally the doctrine of God is not addressed in theological Prolegomena (first principles). That is usually saved for a later volume on God and creation. Van Til believes that there are enormous apologetic benefits to having a proper doctrine of God and since the primary thrust of his Introduction is apologetic he addresses it here. Van Til wants to put forth a positive doctrine of God even though he begins with the incomprehensibility of God. So he says that the goal of his work in this doctrine is going to explain and apply the fourth question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. What is God?Van Til then goes into a brief survey of the history of philosophy when it comes to God. He notes that all non-Reformed/Calvinist philosophies about God always begin with man. This is done one of two ways. There are those, like Aristotle and Aquinas, who seek to build a doctrine of God by saying that his incomprehensibility means that we cannot know what God really is but we can know what he is not. This means that God is the opposite of what we are and know. Second, there are those, like Kant, who try to reason from man to God. Van Til argues that both of these cannot logically reach the transcendent God of Christianity described in the Westminster Shorter Catechism and revealed in his word but can only find an immanent God who is ultimately like creatures. One tries to define God only in terms of how he is different from man. The other tries to define him only in terms of how he is like man. Neither can reason to an absolute, self-existent God.
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable; in his being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
In contrast, Van Til argues that our doctrine of God must begin with God’s revelatory statements about himself. He says that human reason could never get to God apart from a self-conscious relationship to supernatural revelation. Van Til summarizes this as follows:
Thus the Reformed Christian has an effective answer for the modern man. His answer is that the capacities of the human mind would have no opportunity for their exercise except upon the presupposition that the most absolute God does exist and that all things in this world are revelational of him. We grant that it is only by the frank acceptance of the Scriptures as the infallible revelation of God that man can know this. But this only shows that unless one thus accepts the Scripture, there is no place for the exercise of reason. The most absolute God of the confession can only be presupposed. He cannot be proved to exist in the way that the idea of proof is taken by the Romanist-Arminian apologetics. But so far from this fact being unfortunate, it is the one thing that saves the idea of the reasonableness of the Christian religion. (267)Because of this we find that the incomprehensibility of God does not make him completely unknowable but means that we cannot comprehend him exhaustively and that our knowledge of him is dependent upon his revelation. So to say that God is incomprehensible ultimately presupposes that his revelation is comprehensible. Otherwise we would not have anyway to know that there was an incomprehensible God. Without that revelation, then, God would not be incomprehensible but inapprehensible. Because God has revealed himself, and has done so in an absolute and authoritative way, we can know that God is and can know something of what he is.
So how is it that we can know God even though we do not know him exhaustively? First, Van Til says that everything that man knows is already known to and interpreted by God. So man at each point is dependent upon divine revelation to interpret any fact rightly. Yet that revelation results in real knowledge and because God is an effective communicator, it results in real knowledge that is understandable to man. “All revelation is anthropomorphic.” (270) Second, Van Til argues that we do not know God according to his essence the way that he knows himself but we know himself in relationship with him and that relationship is covenantal. So Van Til argues that all of our knowledge of God is covenantal knowledge as it presupposes that the transcendent God has come near to his creation. Third, this is closely related to the absolute distinction between Creator and creatures. We cannot ever know as God knows as God’s knowledge is an attribute of being God. We are not God and so we do not know the same way that he does. God knows the way he does because he is the way he is. We know only on the basis of prior revelation of God. Fourth, this is the only doctrine that makes knowledge possible for man. Man is mutable and so is always subject to change. He cannot find in himself the basis for timeless logic. If a fact is not timeless then it cannot be true and cannot be known. Our knowledge depends on the incomprehensibility of God. (Note: the rest of this chapter is a long discourse on the difference between Van Til and Clark on epistemology. This difference is rooted in the third point in this paragraph. Because this is a highly technical discussion I will not go through Van Til’s critique of Clark here.)
Chapter 14 is about the apologetic value of the incomprehensibility of God. Van Til starts by going back to where philosophy independent of revelation leaves us. Here we are stuck trying to define God apart from how he has described himself to us. We also are still reliant upon point four above where our knowledge depends on God’s incomprehensibility. Here Van Til discusses rationalism and irrationalism. Rationally, the non-Christian is aware that logically he must know something in exhaustive detail in order to understand and legislate reality. Yet he also knows that he cannot know anything in exhaustive detail and so he is forced to confess that chance must rule all things. This is irrationalism. Because man cannot live in an irrational universe he is driven back to rationalism. Van Til argues that the unbeliever constantly and unavoidably moves back and forth between these two positions because he refuses to presuppose the God of Christianity which is the only true standard of rationality.
With this in mind, Van Til believes that the incomprehensibility of God, rooted as it is in God as absolute and self-existent, is the ultimate theodicy and apologetic for the Christian. This means that there is no power that is against God or that can thwart God’s will. To admit that there was such a power would be to allow chance and revert to irrationalism again. Thus Van Til argues that we should not tone down our claims that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass but instead we should proclaim it even louder. Here Van Til spends a great deal of time arguing with J. Oliver Buswell Jr. and others. Instead of dealing with those arguments in detail I will only summarize the main reasons that Van Til believes that we need to emphasize God’s sovereignty.
- Man’s deeds and thoughts only have significance because they take place within the context of an all-inclusive and all-controlling plan of God. Apart from this man’s thoughts and deeds take place in a void and because man is finite they have no real meaning or significance.
- God has decreed whatsoever comes to pass on the basis of his own person and not according to some impersonal nature. Therefore we know that no matter what occurs it is ultimately good on the basis of God’s plan and God’s character. God’s will, God’s nature, and God’s freedom cannot ever be in conflict with each other. God is good and all his works are necessarily good thus all that he wills according to his own freedom to will that which his nature desires is also good. Therefore his plan is necessarily good though we may not understand it perfectly now. This calls for faith.
- This also confesses the limits of our knowledge. Because God has told us in his word that he is omniscient we can say and know that he is omniscient. But this does not mean that we truly know or understand what it is to be all-knowing. God can and does comprehend that even though we do not. Similarly we know that God is eternal and we can echo his word in describing him that way. Yet when God says that he is eternal and we say God is eternal it is clear that God knows everything that it means to be eternal but we do not. Yet it is precisely because God is omniscient, eternal, and free that we can presuppose things are knowable to man. Only the Christian system allows for real human knowledge.
- We must emphasize these difficult but essential doctrines of Christianity in apologetics because it is impossible to win anyone to the Christian position if we choose not to distinguish the Christian position from that of its opponents. Both Romanists and Arminians given in to secular epistemologies when they hold that the relationship between God and the human mind is like that of a teacher and a pupil. The teacher may know more than the pupil but there is at least the idea that the pupil is capable of eventually knowing as much as the teacher. There is not any proposition that the teacher can set forth that will not eventually become clear to the pupil. Thus in these systems man is not really dependent on God. Instead the Christian position is that even if God were to make all the revelational propositions that he will ever make to man about himself even then man will not have the same content in his mind about God that God has about himself unless man were also divine. The finite cannot experience the experience of the infinite. Instead we insist that God is ultimate and man’s knowledge is at every point dependent upon God’s.
Van Til then turns to what he calls the irrationalism of the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. Barth and Brunner sought to show that the “wholly other” (divine and timeless) was completely separate from the “wholly revealed” (things that are). In doing this Van Til says that they deny the revelational character of all reality. Barth often spoke about the “actuality of the book.” In this he wanted to say that the Bible, belonging to what was wholly revealed, was actually there as a revelation of the wholly other. Yet the problem is that our rational minds can only encounter the book through an irrational and subjective encounter. In other words the book does not really provide us with a consistent view of life and the world but instead we can read the book to find the words of God in back of and behind the words in the book and thus we make ourselves the test of all things.
In contrast to this subjective confusion, the Reformed faith asserts that rather than interpret the book in light of ourselves we interpret ourselves in light of the book. The Bible tells us who and what we are. We do not tell the Bible what it is. Thus the apologetic requirement is to assert plainly that unless non-Christians interpret facts as what the Bible says they are then they cannot know the facts at all.