Van Til’s “True Knowledge” & Classical Apologetics

The conscience of this position is that here too we meet with the same basic alternative between Christian and non-Christian methodology. As Christians we hold it to be impossible to interpret any fact without a basic falsification unless it be regarded in its relation to God the Creator and to Christ the Redeemer. On the other hand, the current methodology takes for granted that at best redemption is one among several independent facts that must be taken into consideration when we interpret facts. For us there can be no true interpretation of facts without miracle; for our opponents, miracle is at best a somewhat unruly fact.[1] –– Cornelius Van Til


As we continue to travel down the deep, complex abyss of apologetic methodology, it has been my purpose to point out an inconsistency in the most prolific of the presuppositional writers––Cornelius Van Til. In this article, I will point out yet another instance of this inconsistency and then attempt to point out why I believe Van Til is forced into this dilemma by necessity of what he’s trying to do––escape the classical method while at the same time trying to propose an apologetic method. It is my contention that the classical method of apologetics, coming out of classical Christian theism, is the only consistent method when it comes to reasoning with unbelievers.

True Knowledge

We have discussed Van Til’s notion of true knowledge in this prior article. I have since been accused of misunderstanding Van Til’s use of the term. That is just fine, but for the sake of clarity, I want to point out that I was only assuming Van Til’s very own usage in ch. 3 of Reformed Epistemology.[2] This accusation is really inconsequential since Van Til and his disciples continuously do this, and the present work in question is no exception.

It appears here that Van Til is saying that if facts, that is facts in general, are not considered (by the fact knower) in light of Christ, then they are false. That is what he means when he says, “As Christians we hold it to be impossible to interpret any fact without a basic falsification unless it be regarded in its relation to God the Creator and to Christ the Redeemer (emphasis mine).” This sounds very much like saying, “If one does not believe in God and Christ the Redeemer, then any fact he thinks he knows is falsified.” K. Scott Oliphint, in a footnote, confirms our interpretation here when he says:

True knowledge of any fact, therefore, must include its relation to God as Creator, and to Christ, whose work is universal in scope.[3]

This is quite a perplexing conclusion both Van Til and Oliphint have come to. We have to ask, What’s the point of reasoning with an unbeliever if they can’t know anything without first presupposing and believing the God of the Bible? The whole point in apologetics is to demonstrate the existence of this God!

Yet, we know elsewhere that Van Til walks backwards and insinuates the unbeliever can have true knowledge. It’s a delicate balancing act Van Til has been forced to engage in, and it necessitates he falls to one side or the other. Here’s why…

The Reason for the Paradox

It’s been my opinion that Van Til’s rejection of the classical method paired with his very biblical desire to defend the faith has forced him into a contradiction. Van Til must necessarily hold that unbelievers can know true things, that they can know God and indeed do know God through nature (Rom. 1:18-20). With this the classical apologist agrees. However, Van Til also rejects the classical method on the basis of his conviction that classical apologetics, or the theistic proofs as they’ve been used historically, assumes the unbeliever can judge the evidence rightly. It is this tension which has caused Van Til to claim all true knowledge was lost after the fall and for his followers, like Dr. Oliphint, to repeat the same assertion. Yet, since Van Til wants to defend the faith, and since he needs intelligent interlocutors in order to do so, he also says that unbelievers can have true knowledge.

Notwithstanding what Van Til supposedly meant, this is a contradiction in terms if words have any meaning whatsoever. More than this, why complicate things in this manner? What’s the use? This is a good question since [Reformed] classical apologists do not believe the unbeliever will do the right thing with the evidence. They have an ethical bent against God, being fallen in Adam. Rather, the proofs are simply seen as ways to expose the folly of one’s unbelief in hopes God will use that exposure to draw sinners unto Himself. Here, we agree with Van Til, who staunchly believed we ought to reason with unbelieving people about the Christian faith.

Van Til was an innovator and his apologetic method is very confusing because of the terms he dragged into the discussion. He introduced several, unhelpful, words such as true knowledge. Prior to this line of thinking, knowledge was always understood as being factual or else it wasn’t knowledge at all. Knowledge is true by its very definition (justified true belief). So, true knowledge is a tautological and, therefore, unhelpful term. He writes:

If the image of God in the wider sense includes the ability to reason from man to God then that ability remained, to an extent at least, in the unregenerate consciousness of man. If even Adam could not climb to heaven unless the ladder was let down to Him then natural man will not be able to do so either. To escape from the first alternative one might say that though the image of God in the wider sense is left to man it is not left to him unmarred, so that even if Adam could reason form man to God, perhaps man today cannot. On the other hand, to escape the second alternative one must assert the truth of what the Genesis account informs us; God created man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life.[4]

Here we see Van Til wrestling with the tension. The classical theist claims that we can reason from man to God. In fact, we claim that there is no other choice but to do so. We cannot begin with God without first using our reason to distinguish God from anything and everything else. Van Til suggests that, since Adam could not reason without revelation so too man today cannot reason without revelation. But this completely misses the point of Reformed natural theology as articulated by the Reformers and Puritans. No orthodox Protestant philosopher or theologian thought for a moment that man could reason apart from revelation. Natural theology, for the Reformed, is the intellectual exercise of interpreting God’s natural revelation. The question of Van Til’s opponents would be useful to answer at this point.

Kees interacted with liberal theologians and orthodox theologians alike. It is possible, therefore, that Van Til had a certain person’s philosophy in mind, and that he was responding accordingly. Yet, it would be difficult to see how that would’ve been the case since Van Til was really just writing about those “who make much of the Christian theistic arguments.”[5] One has to ask who his opponents were with regard to statements like the one above. Not even Thomas Aquinas denied that man reasons within the context of God’s revelation. The Reformers and Puritans picked up on the same cue and recognize a natural revelation about which the people of God can have a natural theology. Thus, the historical brunt of classical theism and its apologetic has been characterized by a robust understanding of natural revelation that leaves man without excuse.

Why the Opposition to Classicalism?

Van Til believed that the notion of man reasoning from himself to God was ethically offensive. It leaves, he thought, man in authority rather than God. In other words, man is left to judge for himself whether or not God exists based on his interpretation of the evidence which will never be favorable due to the noetic effects of sin. But the idea of man beginning with himself and reasoning to God has nothing to do with questions of authority or ethics. It has everything to do with the natural priority of man’s discursive reasoning.

Man reasons by way of process, no one denies this and Van Til Wouldn’t have either. It is, therefore, important that we make a distinction between what man does with information he receives and in what way information is received by man. How has God made us to receive the revelation around us? We are bombarded with revelation, even within ourselves (think natural law). We reason by way of process simply because that is how God has made us to reason. This is not controversial. But if we reason by way of process, the process must begin somewhere. If we say the reasoning process begins with God, then we have violated a law of nature (i.e. the law of non-contradiction). We cannot begin with God without first presupposing (1) the basic reliability of reason and (2) the law of non-contradiction. To say we presuppose God before these two things would be to say we have no way of discerning God from not-God, since the law of non-contradiction wouldn’t be assumed until after our assumption of God. Moreover, if we don’t first presuppose the validity of our own reason in our interpretation of the expression “God,” then we have no reason to believe it’s a meaningful expression in the first place.

Therefore, it can be seen that man, epistemically, begins with his own reason by way of necessity, not because of ethical rebellion, per se. But, Van Til admitted this. He says, “Even if in our psychological experience we know ourselves and the universe about us before we speak self-consciously of God, we have all the while known God if we have truly known anything else.”[6] Then, in what sense does man begin with God epistemically? Man begins with himself proximately, or psychologically. Yet, ultimately, he begins with God.

But how does man begin a single thought process at two different places and at the same time? To assert such a perplexity would violate the law of identity. Man either begins with himself or he begins with God. There is no beginning with both in a single intellect. His thinking either starts in his reason, or it starts in God. But it could only start in God if man were God, and this, Van Til would agree, is certainly not the case. So, in what sense does the distinction between proximate and ultimate epistemic starting points actually mean something? I suggest we simply go back to classical categories at this point––it’s much less burdensome and much more common sensical. In classical philosophy, man begins with himself epistemically. Yet, ontologically, man is ultimately reliant on the one true God for any and all thinking he does, since God is the foundation of all reality––the first Cause of the universe.

Conclusion

Rather than make a distinction within the one philosophical category of epistemology between proximate (or psychological) starting points on the one hand and an ultimate starting point on the other, we recognize that epistemically man begins with himself as a matter of necessity––not having anywhere else to begin. Yet, ontologically, God is the foundation of our epistemology (and indeed everything else). However, the question of what is different than the question of how.

How do we know the what?

Classical apologists answer that question with the theistic proofs. If I make the claim, “the Christian God is the ultimate foundation of all reality,” I must give reasons for that claim. Now, my reasons could be anything from the transcendental argument to Leibniz’s argument from contingency. The point here is that I’m giving the unbeliever reasons for what I believe to be true. These reasons point out to him that he is without excuse before a just and holy God, Who is coming on the clouds of judgment unless he, the unbeliever, repents and believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in which case he will dwell with the King of kings for eternity.


[1] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Evidences, 94.
[2] This is unfortunately not available anymore on Amazon, not even for Kindle. But you may download a PDF of it here.
[3] Christian Theistic Evidence, 94, f.n. 9.
[4] Van Til, Cornelius. Reformed Epistemology (Kindle Locations 1006-1012). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
[5] Ibid., Kindle Location 1003.
[6] Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 41-42

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