Van Til on Agnosticism

cvtstreet1“With such as these it would seem that the point we should be most anxious to drive home is that in trying to be agnostic, and in trying to say that they have no need of metaphysics, they have already given one of the two possible answers to every question of epistemology that may be asked. They have, as a matter of fact, said that all the facts—or, in epistemological language, they have said that the object and the subject of knowledge—exist apart from God and are able to get along without God. They think they have said nothing at all about ultimate matters, while as a matter of fact they have in effect said everything that could be said about them, and, we believe, more beside. They have tried to be so modest that they did not dare to make a positive statement about anything ultimate, while they have made a universal negative statement about the most ultimate consideration that faces the mind of man. That this charge is fair is apparent from the consideration of the opposite. Suppose that the object and the subject of knowledge do not exist apart from God. Suppose, in other words, that the Christian theistic conception of philosophy is true. In that case, it is not only possible to know something about ultimate things, but in that case the knowledge of proximate things depends upon the knowledge of ultimate things. In that case, not a single fact can be known unless God is known.

What the present-day agnostic should do then is to make his position reasonable by showing that God does not exist. The burden of the proof is upon him. He claims, of course, that the burden of the proof is upon us when we hold that God exists. Yet this is clearly not the case, since his own position, to be reasonable, must presuppose the non-existence of God. If God does exist, man can know him, for the simple reason that in that case all knowledge depends upon him. Hence an agnostic position must first prove that God does not exist.

From these considerations it follows that agnosticism is completely self-contradictory. And it is self-contradictory not only upon the assumption of the truth of theism, but it is self-contradictory upon the assumption of the truth of antitheism, which is the assumption of agnosticism.”

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.212-213

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The Two Systems

087552480X“The two systems, that of the non-Christian and that of the Christian, differ because of the fact that their basic assumptions or presuppositions differ. On the non-Christian basis man is assumed to be the final reference point in predication. Man will therefore have to seek to make a system for himself that will relate all the facts of his environment to one another in such a way as will enable him to see exhaustively all the relations that obtain between them. In other words, the system that the non-Christian has to seek on his assumption is one in which he himself virtually occupies the place that God occupies in Christian theology. Man must, in short, be virtually omniscient. He must virtually reduce the facts that confront him to logical relations; the “thingness” of each thing must give up its individuality in order that it may be known; to be known, a thing or fact must be wholly known by man…

The system that Christians seek to obtain may, by contrast, be said to be analogical. By this is meant that God is the original and that man is the derivative. God has absolute self-contained system within himself. What comes to pass in history happens in accord with that system or plan by which he orders the universe. But man, as God’s creature, cannot have a replica of that system of God. He cannot have a reproduction of that system. He must, to be sure, think God’s thoughts after him; but this means that he must, in seeking to form his own system, constantly be subject to the authority of God’s system to the extent that this is revealed to him.”

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.15-16

Dependence upon God

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“Reformed theology holds to the self-sufficiency of God without compromise. It therefore rejects every form of human autonomy. Only on the assumptions of divine self-sufficiency and man’s complete dependence upon God can the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian points of view be clearly made out. Only thus can the issue be clearly drawn. The non-Christian assumes that man is ultimate, that is, that he is not created. Christianity assumes that man is created. The non-Christian assumes that the facts of man’s environment are not created; the Christian assumes that these facts are created. The Christian has derived his convictions on these matters from Scripture as the infallible Word of God. As self-explanatory, God naturally speaks with absolute authority. It is Christ as God who speaks in the Bible. Therefore the Bible does not appeal to human reason as ultimate in order to justify what it says. It comes to the human being with absolute authority. Its claim is that human reason must itself be taken in the sense in which Scripture takes it, namely, as created by God and as therefore properly subject to the authority of God.”

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.14-15

Presuppositions Accepted by Faith

That is to say, Kant’s supposed advance upon earlier forms of philosophy is found merely in the fact that he has combined an abstract rationalism such as that of Parmenides or Spinoza with that of an equally abstract brute factualism such as that of the most extreme process philosophers of history. This is all that anyone who does not start his thinking on the presupposition of the God of Christianity and his revelation through Christ speaking in Scripture can do. All men do their thinking on the basis of a position accepted by faith. If your faith is not one which has God in Christ speaking infallibly in Scripture for its object, then your faith is in man as autonomous. All of one’s reasoning is controlled by either of these presuppositions.

. . . Only if one presupposes God as the one in whom rationality and being are coterminous and coextensive can he use the laws of logic at all. And if he does this, he knows better than to attempt to determine what is possible or impossible in reality by means of these laws. The Christian has a God whom he as a creature cannot fully comprehend. God says I am and is able to fully justify this assertion. He is able to make it stand because only on the basis of this assertion does the thinking and willing activity of man have any possible meaning at all. The Christian gladly accepts the idea that he cannot logically penetrate the idea of man’s responsibility and his place in the plan of God. But Kant has brought God as well as himself down into utter darkness. He has no foundation on which he can make any assertion stand.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism p.128-129

Philosophers who Crucify Reason

Non-christian thinkers have for centuries usurped the term philosophy. They claimed to be the only ones that followed the facts and operated by principles of reason. They pretended and still pretend to do that which every honest man who opens his eyes and uses his intellect ought to do. As a matter of fact on any but the Christian, and more specifically the Calvinist view, facts are meaningless and reason operates in a vacuum. On any but the Christian basis man, using this reason, is a product of Chance and the facts which he supposedly orders by the “law of contradiction” are also products of Chance. Why should a “law of contradiction” resting on Chance be better than a revolving door moving nothing out of nowhere into no place? Only on the presupposition that the self-contained God of Scripture controls all things, can man know himself or anything else. But on this presupposition the whole of his experience makes good sense. Thus a truly Christian philosophy is the only possible philosophy. Other philosophies are or should be called such by courtesy. Those who crucify reason while worshipping it; those who kill the facts as they gather them, ought not really to be called philosophers.

Insisting upon “reason” as the test of truth they have completely divorced the operation of “reason” from the turmoil of fact. They cannot find coherence in anything on their principle. Fear, nothing but fear in the dark, remains.

– Cornelius Van Til, Christian Philosophy

Examining the Basement

[The following quote is taken from Van Til’s short pamphlet ‘Why I Believe in God‘ in which he develops an imaginary conversation with an atheist.]

Now in presenting all your facts and reasons to me, you have assumed that such a God does not exist. You have taken for granted that you need no emplacement of any sort outside of yourself. You have assumed the autonomy of your own experience. Consequently you are unable—that is, unwilling—to accept as a fact any fact that would challenge your self-sufficiency. And you are bound to call that contradictory which does not fit into the reach of your intellectual powers. You remember what old Procrustus did. If his visitors were too long, he cut off a few slices at each end; if they were too short, he used the curtain stretcher on them. It is that sort of thing I feel that you have done with every fact of human experience. And I am asking you to be critical of this your own most basic assumption. Will you not go into the basement of your own experience to see what has been gathering there while you were busy here and there with the surface inspection of life? You may be greatly surprised at what you find there.

– Cornelius Van Til, Why I Believe in God.

The Elephant of Naturalism

If one maintains a soteriological theory in which the “natural man” is conceived of as able of his own accord to seek the truth because he has a true insight into his sorrowful condition, one cannot but become antitheistic epistemologically, in the sense that he must think of certain facts as existing in such a way that man can have knowledge of them without having knowledge of the true God. If no one can come to the Father but by Christ, and no one can say Christ to be Lord except through the Spirit, it is equally possible or equally impossible for man to come into contact with the Father or the Son or the Spirit. If one maintains that he can approach Christ of his own accord even if he is a sinner, he may as well say that he can approach the Father too. And if one can say that he knows what the fact of sin means without the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, he may as well say that he can know other facts without reference to God. In fact he may as well say that he can know any and every fact without reference to God. If one fact can be known without reference to God there is no good reason to hold that not all facts can be known without reference to God. When the elephant of naturalism once has his nose in the door, he will not be satisfied until he is all the way in.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.77

Man’s Stamp of Approval

The traditional method had explicitly built into it the right and ability of the natural man, apart from the work of the Spirit of God, to be the judge of the claim of the authoritative Word of God. It is man who, by means of his self-established intellectual tools, puts his “stamp of approval” on the Word of God and then, only after that grand act, does he listen to it. God’s Word must first pass man’s tests of good and evil, truth and falsity. But once you tell a non-Christian this, why should he be worried by anything else that you say. You have already told him he is quite all right just the way he is! Then the Scripture is not correct when it talks of “darkened minds,” “wilful ignorance,” “dead men,” and “blind people!” With this method the correctness of the natural man’s problematics is endorsed. That is all he needs to reject the Christian faith.

– Cornelius Van Til, My Credo (Jerusalem and Athens) p.11

The See-saw of Autonomous Man

Rationalism - Irrationalism

It is, in fact, thusly quite appropriate that, when apostate man discovers that his purely rationalistic ideal of knowledge—complete adequation of thought and being—leads to the loss of his own identity, he should turn, in desperation, and instinctively, to the idea of pure irrationalism, asserting that no one may know ultimate reality anyway. By claiming to know ultimate reality, or even anything about it, we are then told, would signify bringing this ultimate reality down into the realm of flux.

Such “pure irrationalism,” however, cannot be maintained, except as the dialectical counterpart of “pure rationalism.” To say, with the irrationalist, that no man may know anything about ultimate reality is, in effect, to claim absolute knowledge of absolute reality. Thus it is that the apostate man see-saws back and forth between pure rationalism and pure irrationalism without ever coming to rest.

. . . The fulcrum for both the modern and the Greek dialectical see-saw, between pure rationalism and pure irrationalism, is, as earlier, noted, the would-be autonomous man. If man refuses to see himself as a creature of God, or, more pertinently, as a sinner rescued by Christ, then he will quite naturally continue to go up and down, up and down, on this see-saw. When the rationalist is up, he proposes to have defeated the irrationalist. When the irrationalist is up, it is the reverse. But, if this spectacle were not enough to frighten you, then think of the fact that “the rationalist” and “the irrationalist” are really not separately existing entities at all, but rather, opposite, co-existing aspects of the one and indivisible would-be self-sufficient homo sapiens.

– Cornelius Van Til, Who Do You Say That I Am? p.24

Apostles of deduction and induction

By the deductive method as exercised, e.g., by the Greeks, was meant that one begins his investigations with the assumption of the truth and ultimacy of certain axioms, such as, for example, that of causal relation. The question whether these axioms rest in God or in the universe was in that case not considered to be of great importance. Not as though the question was not raised. Plato did consider the question whether God was back of the ideas or whether the ideas were back of God. Yet this question was not given the importance that we give to it. We must put the point more strongly. The question was, in effect, given the wrong answer. It was assumed that the true, the beautiful and the good rest in themselves, and that God is subordinate to them. For us the question is all-important. If the axioms on which science depends are thought of as resting in the universe, the opposite of the Christian position is in effect maintained. The only rationality they know of in the universe is then the mind of man. Hence the alternative may be stated by saying that according to the Christian position, the basis of human investigation is in God, while for the antitheistic position the basis of human investigation is in man.

Similarly with the more modern method of induction. What is meant by induction as a method of science is the gathering of facts without reference to any axioms, in order to find to what these facts may lead us. Many scientists claim this method to be the method of science. But we have already seen that the usual assumption underlying this method is the antitheistic one, that there may be any kind of fact. Hence the difference between the prevalent method of science and the method of Christianity is not that the former is interested in finding the facts and is ready to follow the facts wherever they may lead, while the latter is not ready to follow the facts. The difference is rather that the former wants to study the facts without God, while the latter wants to study the facts in the light of the revelation God gives of himself in Christ. Thus the antithesis is once more that between those for whom the final center of reference in knowledge lies in man, and those for whom the final center of reference for knowledge lies in God, as this God speaks in Scripture.

Accordingly, we pay scant attention to the historic quarrel between the apostles of deduction and the apostles of induction. Our quarrel is not with either of them in particular but with both of them in general.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.8-9