What Epistemology is Not

I am not a philosophy expert.

Most of what I know comes from two courses in philosophy and a bunch of self-motivated research I’ve done at home. That being said, philosophy is a complicated subject. You are probably asking, “What does he mean by ‘philosophy’ here?” Case-in-point, philosophy is complicated because almost everything has at least some something to do with philosophy. Or, philosophy has something to do with everything. Which is it? See what I mean by complicated? I mean, I’m taking advantage of a particular philosophy of language in this post; my reasoning is philosophical, and my motivations for writing this are largely philosophical.

Philosophy, philosophy, philosophy.

We all do philosophy to some extent. The natural sciences, contrary to popular claims, are philosophical at least when it comes to method. We do philosophy, implicitly, when we do things like scientific research and experimentation. We have motives, we make assumptions, etc.

Four Branches of Philosophy

Traditionally, philosophy has been broken up into four very broad categories: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.

Metaphysics, in very basic terms, is the study of being. For example, “What caused the universe to come into existence?” is a metaphysical question. “How can we know what caused the universe to come into existence?” is an epistemological question.

Epistemology is the study of human knowledge and how it is apprehended.

Ethics is the study of moral duty. The question, “Ought the United States go to war with Syria?” is ethical in nature.

Aesthetics is the study of beauty. Art and the evaluation of art and what “art” is falls under the category of aesthetics.

Philosophy in Defending the Gospel

When we defend the faith we make use of philosophy, especially in terms of our reasoning processes. Argumentation is driven, generally, by philosophical method (e.g. a priori/a posteriori; deductive/inductive, etc). What kind of argumentation we use is usually decided upon a theological and philosophical basis, taking both into consideration as mutually inclusive requisites to the Christian’s line of reasoning.

Since Immanuel Kant, the famous 18th century philosopher, the way in which Christians defend the gospel has undergone several, what I would call, post-Kantian adaptations. This is really a result of Kant’s philosophy which divided existence into two basic realms: the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm.

The phenomenal realm is the realm of human experience. The phenomenal realm consists of the physical world as we perceive it. The noumenal realm is the realm in which God is (if there is a God) and where things as they really are reside. We experience things in the phenomenal realm perceptually. In other words, our experience is not necessarily representative of things as they really are (in the noumenal realm).

For Kant, we cannot know God or things in general, as they truly are because we cannot apprehend the noumenal realm. We can only know things insofar as our human experience allows us to know things (phenomena). Kantian philosophy has had a seriously negative impact on the church and how we think about the defense of the gospel. Almost every area of contemporary western thought is affected by Kantian philosophy in some way.

The church has responded in several ways to this Enlightenment way of thinking. One way has been for people within the church to give up the discussion of metaphysics altogether. The significance of the classical argumentation for the existence of God was diminished in light of Kant’s philosophical construct of reality. Deism became popular, and many within the church shrunk back into a Fideistic mindset. The gospel, it was thought, doesn’t need a defense. The Christian religion, so it was thought, is an exercise of ignorant faith rather than a faith rooted in objective fact.

Another response came in the form of a different apologetic methodology pioneered by men like Herman Dooyeweerd, James Orr, Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til. These men were not uniform in their beliefs about method, but the rudiments binding them together consisted in a post-Kantian response to unbelief. These men were arguing for the gospel in the context of Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers. The issue, however, was in their willingness, to some extent, to grant Kant’s way of thinking.

God, Kant thought, cannot be known because He is in the noumenal realm. Van Til, for example, would have no problem arguing against this not because he could so easily rebut it, but because the truth Christian faith is not dependent upon the reasoning from what we know in the phenomenal, a sure problem in Kant’s view.

Rather, because God has revealed Himself in us (sensus divinitatus) and around us, we can have true knowledge of the world around us (Rom 1:18-21). But, to be consistent with this fact, we must begin with God—epistemologically—in our thinking. That is to say, we must presuppose God before we presuppose or begin with anything else (i.e. our own reason).

For Van Til, if we know anything at all, we know God. And we can know things because we know God before we know anything else. This, in and of itself, is not problematic from a Reformed scholastic perspective. What is problematic is the foundational assertion (to Van Til’s thinking) that we must begin with God epistemologically. Of course, we should all agree that Being precedes our knowing, and that God is back of the universe, to use Van Til’s own wording (cf. The Defense of the Faith). But that is a metaphysical proposition, not an epistemological one. In the order of being, God comes first. But, is this true in the order of knowing?

It cannot be true in the order of knowing because we are creatures. We apprehend knowledge of ourselves logically prior to the apprehension of knowledge of God (we must be aware of ourselves before we are aware of God). The only way we could be aware of God before we are aware of ourselves is if we ourselves were God. This Van Tillian priority of epistemology is a simple confusion of the order of being with the order of knowing.

Of course, we “start” with God metaphysically (Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Calvin, Turretin, etc., would have all believed this), but we must start with ourselves epistemologically because we are creatures and God is Creator. The only way we could rationally begin with God—epistemologically—would be if pantheism were true. We would have to be identified with God in order to begin with God in our knowing.

In trying to thwart Kant’s philosophy, Van Til bowed to it. He should have rejected, outrightly, the idea of an unintelligible noumenal realm. Moreover, if he would have bucked Kant’s model the way he should’ve, Van Til would have been able to proceed on the proper distinction between metaphysics and epistemology.

Clarifying Remarks

In order to avoid confusion, I want to be clear that Van Til did not formally agree with Kant. In fact, he thought Kant’s philosophy was totally antithetical to the Christian system. But, I (and others; cf. R. C. Sproul & John Gerstner) see an implicit allowance of Kant’s philosophy because Van Til’s method adapted to (rather than being contradictory to) Kantian philosophy. This is to be expected from men who lived within a particular context. I, for example, have been influenced by this same way of thinking, probably in ways I’m not even aware of at present.

This inevitable contextualization shouldn’t always be allowed. One of the things history and a constant study of the Scriptures does for us is it allows us to have more of an external perspective on our current philosophical context. I can, for example, evaluate Kant’s worldview in terms of Aristotelian thought, but only if I’m familiar with the philosophical categories preceding Kant.

If all I know is Kant forward, I am in trouble!

In my personal opinion, I think Van Til was reacting to Roman Catholic philosophy & theology and, in doing so, cast out the baby with the bathwater. He wanted to do away with secular philosophy, but I believe he actually synchronized Christian theology (or aspects thereof) with Kantian philosophy in a very implicit, and perhaps unnoticed, way. The scholasticism of the middle ages helped the church in terms of responding to critics. This, I believe, was due to rigorous metaphysical discussion, something that is lacking in Van Til’s method.

Categories: philosophy

1 reply »

  1. Go for it. Van Til was indeed Kantian in a modified way. We need to revive emphasis on Classical Christian Theism and its rational apologetic method. Here is a recent post I did on critiquing ‘Van Til’s Apologetic’ by Greg Bahnsen. It’s part of a series. Good work. Keep it up.

Leave a Reply