God is the Source of Universals

The final question, then, when considering the object of knowledge, is whether the spatial-temporal universe exists by itself or whether we must presuppose the existence of God in order to think intelligently of the spatial-temporal world. We found that, according to Christian theism, every individual object of knowledge to be known at all must be known in its relation to God. Then if one spatial object is to be known in its relation to another spatial object, the connection must be thought of as made by God. In other words, the universals of knowledge have their source in God. Similarly, if one object of knowledge is to be known in its relation to other objects of knowledge that have existed or will exist at another period of time, we must think of the connection as being made by the plan of God.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.183


The Complexity of the Natural Man

Not as though he is in every sense self-conscious of his own adopted principle. In practice the natural man is much better than his principle. He does not fully live up to his principle. He is not a finished product. He is restrained by the non-saving grace of God from “being as bad as he can be,” and as bad as he will be when his principle has full control of him.

In practice, therefore, the man of the street is a complex individual. He is first the creature made in the image of God. He was represented in Adam at the beginning of history. In Adam he broke the covenant of God. He is now in principle opposed to God. He is dead in trespasses and sins. He is wholly polluted in all the aspects of his being. So far as he lives from this principle he will not because he cannot, and he cannot because he will not, accept the overtures of the grace of God unless by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit he is made alive from the dead. But he does not live fully from his principle. Therefore he does not react in the exclusively negative way that we would expect him to, if we look at the principle that ultimately controls him. Like the prodigal of the scriptural parable he cannot forget the father’s voice and the father’s house. He knows that the father has been good and is good in urging him to return. Yet his principle drives him on to the swine trough. On the one hand he will do the good, in the sense of that which externally at least is in accord with the will of God. He will live a “good” moral life. He will be anxious to promote the welfare of his fellow men. In all this he is not a hypocrite. He is not sufficiently self-conscious to be a hypocrite.

It is therefore of the utmost importance to distinguish between what the natural man is by virtue of his adopted principle and what he still is because of the knowledge of God as his creator that he has within him and because of the non-saving grace by which he is kept from working out his principle to the full and by which he is therefore also able to do the “morally good.”

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.225-226

The Work Will Accomplish Its Purpose

Since it is upon God’s command that the work must be undertaken, it is God’s command that gives one the assurance that the work will accomplish its purpose. Looking at matters by themselves, it would be worse than useless to undertake reasoning with unbelievers. But it is the deep conviction of the total depravity of man that makes one throw his whole reliance upon God in all respects, and not the least in this question of reasoning with unbelievers. It is only he who deeply believes in the total depravity of man that can really preach with conviction that his work will not be in vain. Since he is convinced that the ethical alienation has been against God and against nothing else, he also knows that God is able to remove the ethical alienation. He, therefore, trusts that the Holy Spirit to whom, in the economy of redemption, the task has been assigned of convicting the world of judgment, will use the means of rational argumentation to accomplish his task. This hope is not inconsistent with the conception of the immediacy of the work of the Holy Spirit. That immediacy is complete. Our arguments taken by themselves effect nothing, while the Holy Spirit may very well convict without the use of our argument as he may convict without the use of our preaching. Yet because God is himself a completely rational God and has created us in his image, there is every reason to believe that he will make argumentation effective.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.196-197

Calvin’s Starting Point

“Our wisdom in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as those are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes, and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves, nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.” – (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1.1.1)

John_Calvin_by_HolbeinFrom this quotation, certain things are clear. Calvin never did start a chain of reasoning about man’s nature and destiny by taking man by himself. He did not start with man as with an ultimate starting point. Calvin did start with a general a priori position. His position is as radically opposed to that of Descartes as it is to that of Hume. Most apologetic writers who have come after Calvin have allowed themselves to be influenced unduly by Cartesian philosophy on this matter. Calvin recognized fully that if man is to have true knowledge of himself he must regard God as original and himself as derivative. He did not place God and man as correlatives next to one another, but he recognized from the outset two levels of existence and two levels of interpretation, on the one hand the divine and eternal, and on the other hand the human or temporal. To him it is perfectly obvious that the endowments that we possess are not of ourselves, but of God. Hence he says that “not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him: and of which he is not the cause.”

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.156-157

The Only Possible Ontology

The non-Christian holds that pure chance and absolute fate are equally ultimate and mutually correlative limiting concepts or heuristic principles which man uses to explain the fact that we have learned much about the world, that there is order in the world, a uniformity, while there is also continual change and development. But the non-Christian’s “explanation” is no explanation at all. To say “it just happens” as an explanation of an event is really to say, “There is no explanation that I know of.”

The Calvinist, therefore, using his point of contact, observes to the non-Christian that if the world were not what Scripture says it is, if the natural man’s knowledge were not actually rooted in the creation and providence of God, then there could be no knowledge whatsoever. The Christian claims that non-Christians have made and now make many discoveries about the true state of affairs of the universe simply because the universe is what Christ says it is. The unbelieving scientist borrows or steals the Christian principles of creation and providence every time he says that an “explanation” is possible, for he knows he cannot account for “explanation” on his own. As the image-bearer of God, operating in a universe controlled by God, the unbeliever contributes indirectly and adventitiously to the development of human knowledge and culture.

… the Christian offers the self-attesting Christ to the world as the only foundation upon which a man must stand in order to give any “reasons” for anything at all. The whole notion of “giving reasons” is completely destroyed by any ontology other than the Christian one. The Christian claims that only after accepting the biblical scheme of things will any man be able to understand and account for his own rationality.

– Cornelius Van Til, My Credo (Jerusalem and Athens) p.17-18

The Antithesis in History

Augustine of course stood squarely for the Pauline principle, having told us that the whole of history consisted of one deadly, no-give, no-take combat between two “cities,” that of God and that of man, the “citizens” of the former kingdom being in basic disagreement with those of the latter on the respective questions of the beginning, the middle, and the end of history. To be sure, citizens of the kingdom of God must not press upon those of the kingdom of man what Jesus said to the Pharisees, namely, that they be of their father, the devil, since only Jesus knew the heart of man. Thus, His followers may speak only of the two opposing principles activating men. Similarly, it is not possible for them to predict in each instance whether a certain individual belongs to one kingdom or the other, as history is never and nowhere a finished product. Nonetheless, there are two main and exclusive tendencies in it: men are in their hearts either for or against the Christ whom Paul preached, and what is in their hearts will usually find expression in the sympathies manifested by their actions.

– Cornelius Van Til, Who Do You Say That I Am p.33-34

Van Til and the Philosophical Colloquy

Lillbackedit-small1In a lecture presented in 1981, Peter Lillback begins by telling the story of an imaginary philosophical colloquy. Gathered at the meeting are representatives from various schools of thought; Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, John Montgomery, Clark Pinnock, Josh McDowell, B.B Warfield, John Gerstner, and Cornelius Van Til.

Before Van Til arrives, those gathered seek to find common ground by presenting different ideas that they might all agree on. They make great progress and are able to come to a consensus just before Van Til enters the room. Hopeful for unanimous agreement they inform Van Til that they have all agreed that “the rational mind of man is able to interpret all of reality honestly and with full capability to discover the truth.”

Of course, to everyone’s disappointment, Van Til does not agree. Quoting from his works he presents his view of sinful man’s reasoning and the necessity of recognising the authority of Scripture. In the remainder of the lecture Lillback seeks to show that Van Til’s position is in reality the historic view of the Reformed church. Then in a following lecture Lillback presents the “exegetical and theological basis for presuppositionalism.” These lectures are highly informative and deserving of a wider audience.

Lecture 1: ‘Van Til’s Place in the History of Modern and Reformed Thought.’

Lecture 2: ‘The Exegetical and Theological Basis for Presuppositionalism.’

Plato and the Sophists


Naturally, Plato was “helpful” when he pointed out to the Sophists that, if reality were subject to universal flux, then human predication would cease to have meaning, and that relativistic theories were generally proposed with a claim of absolute truthfulness. But then, having said this, it would have been well to investigate the other half, namely, that the Sophists were, of course, equally capable of refuting Plato. His highest law, the absolute universal, was a purely empty form. Whatever else was to be said of it, it had still to be made correlative to the idea of pure contingency. But by merely speaking, Plato became a relativist; thus, he took pure contingency into his pure absolute. As with the Sophists, he had to, if he spoke at all, contradict himself with every word. For appearances of justification in predicating on any subject, it thus behooved the Platonist and the Sophist to take in each other’s washing. Pure form and pure “matter,” or pure contingency, are correlatives of each other. Possibly, Christians throughout history would have an emotional preference for the idealist thinking of Platonism, as over against all forms of sophism, as well as mechanism, materialism and pragmatism before or since. But, as to logical priority, neither was able to “make peace with the law of contradiction,” i.e., neither one could offer a positive foundation upon which the law of contradiction might have been employed at all. Only the Christian position, with its teachings of the triune God as the creator and redeemer of men, is the true starting-point for all argument without contradiction. Scepticism is defeated only by Christianity.

– Cornelius Van Til, Who Do You Say That I Am? p.17

Review: Muether’s biography of Van Til


Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, by John R. Muether

In his biography of Cornelius Van Til, John Muether notes that Van Til suffers the misfortune of either being rejected or misunderstood. Muether has provided a great resource for the church to help us to better understand who Van Til was, what motivated him, and the context in which he served the Lord. Having a better understanding of Van Til the man will hopefully lead many to a greater appreciation of his work.

The subtitle draws attention to the fact that Van Til was not just a theological academic, but most importantly, a dedicated churchman. Throughout the book Van Til’s love for the church is displayed as one of the central motivations of his life. His passion for the local church is clearly shown in the account of Van Til’s first pastorate and his reluctance to accept Machen’s call to join him at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Van Til’s concern for the doctrinal purity of the church saw him at the forefront of several major theological controversies. Muether explains the theological issues at stake and gives insight into the heart of Van Til and the personal toll that these controversies took on him. Though some times reluctant to be involved in controversy, Van Til stood boldly for the sake of the truth.

One of the more interesting aspects of the biography is the focus on Van Til’s Dutch heritage. Van Til was very deeply influenced by Dutch culture, having emigrated from the Netherlands at age 10 and being raised in a Dutch community in Indiana. Van Til’s upbringing in the Christian Reformed Church and his time at Calvin Theological Seminary also steeped him in the Dutch reformed tradition, being heavily influenced by the likes of Kuyper, Bavinck and Vos. Muether presents Van Til’s struggle to integrate into the American context, as he joined WTS and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is here where I believe that God’s sovereign hand is beautifully at work in the life of Van Til for the benefit of the church, by bringing together the strengths of the great reformed traditions of Presbyterianism and the Dutch reformed in the area of apologetics.

I highly recommend this biography to anyone with in interested in Van Til. Not only is it eminently readable, it is also a spiritually rich biography of a godly man who provides a model for Christian living. In his life and work Van Til strived to live up to his personal goal to be suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. Gentle in persuasion, powerful in substance.

The introduction can be downloaded as a sample from Westminster Bookstore