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


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

Removing the enemy’s foundation

We have already indicated that the best apologetic defense will invariably be made by him who knows the system of truth of Scripture best. The fight between Christianity and non-Christianity is, in modern times, no piece-meal affair. It is the life and death struggle between two mutually opposed life and world-views. The non-Christian attack often comes to us on matters of historical, or other, detail. It comes to us in the form of objections to certain teachings of Scripture, say, with respect to creation, etc. It may seem to be simply a matter of asking what the facts have been. Back of this detailed attack, however, is the constant assumption of the non-Christian metaphysics of the correlativity of God and man. He who has not been trained in systematic theology will often be at a loss as to how to meet these attacks. He may be quite proficient in warding off the attack as far as details are concerned, but he will forever have to be afraid of new attacks as long as he has never removed the foundation from the enemy’s position.

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.23-24

Various Disguises

The self-authenticating man has various disguises. He will appear as the “rational man” and demand that the Christian story must make peace with the laws of logic, as these are based on his vision of Goodness above God and man. He will appear as the “moral man” and demand that the Christian story make peace with the laws of morality, as these are based on his vision of Goodness above God and man. He will appear as the “scientific man” and demand that the Christian story must make peace with the facts of science. For these facts must be what the vision of the self-authenticating man says they can be. But in whatever guise he may appear, the self-authenticating man assumes that he is to be the judge…

We dare not curry favor with the self-authenticating man. We dare not claim that the Christian story is “in accordance with logic” and “in accordance with fact” in terms of the vision of the self-authenticating man. We must rather call him to repentance. We must insist on his unconditional surrender to the self-authenticating Christ. But we must do that in the interest of his finding himself, of his finding meaning in science, in morality, and in religion. We must do that in the interest of his participation in the victory of the all-conquering Christ.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism p.135, 142

All light derives from the sun

In short, our pastor noted that Calvin, with Augustine, would think of God as one thinks of the sun. All other lights in this world are derived from the sun. One does not first think of other lights as though they shone in their own power, in order after that to investigate open-mindedly whether the sun exists. So one cannot first think of the facts of the universe, and especially of the mind of man, as though they were possibly not God-dependent but self-sufficient as so many self-powered light bulbs, in order then to inquire whether God exists. One just does not look at light bulbs to find the sun. Knowledge of the sun must precede, and be the foundation of, light bulbs. So one does not look at creation to find a Creator, but rather the latter is the foundation of the former. Therefore true knowledge of creation demands a true knowledge of the Creator.

All the facts of the universe are of necessity God-created, God-dependent facts. Therefore men ought to see that God is man’s Creator and his Judge. “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:20).

– Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought

Our knowledge must depend on God’s knowledge

A corollary from the doctrine of the Trinity is that human knowledge is analogical. Human knowledge must always depend upon divine knowledge. Anything that a human being knows must first have been known to God. Anything a human being knows he knows only because he knows God. For that reason too man can never know anything as well and as exhaustively as God knows it.

The fact that man’s knowledge must always remain analogical is applicable to his knowledge of God as well as to his knowledge of the universe. God will never be exhaustively understood in his essence by man. If he were, he would no longer be God. In that case there would be no solution for the problem of knowledge.

A third corollary from the doctrine of the Trinity is that man’s knowledge though analogical is nevertheless true. Or to put it more specifically, man’s knowledge is true because it is analogical. It is analogical because God’s being unites within itself the ultimate unity and the ultimate plurality spoken of above. And it is true because there is such a God who unites this ultimate unity and plurality. Hence we may also say that only analogical knowledge can be true knowledge.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p. 48

Christian and Non-Christian Views: Logic

Christian and Non-Christian Views:
1. Reality
2. Epistemology
3. Facts
4. Logic

Each claims that his position is “in accord with the demands of logic.”

a. The Christian claims this because he interprets the reach of logic as manipulated by man, in terms of God’s revelation of the relation of man to the world and therefore in terms of his presupposition of God. Genesis tells him that nature is made subject to man, and both are subject to God and his purpose. Thus his logic is in gear with reality, but it does not claim to control God himself and therewith all possibility.

b. The non-Christian claims that his position is logical but cannot put any intelligible meaning into the claim. If he works according to his presupposition about the ultimate non-rationality of facts, then all logic operates in a void. It has no contact with the world. If he works according to his presupposition of the ultimacy of all facts, then all facts are reduced to logic and thereby destroyed because they lose their individuality; logic has a validity that is, therefore, purely formal. It could only be a logic of identity, merely saying A is A, for all would be one.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought.
   (Variations in The Defense of the Faith p.305, and Jerusalem and Athens p.20)

Christian and Non-Christian Views: Reality

Christian and Non-Christian Views:
1. Reality
2. Epistemology
3. Facts
4. Logic

Both Christians and non-Christians make presuppositions about the nature of reality.

a. The Christian presupposes the self-contained God and his plan for the universe as back of all things and therewith the absolute distinction between Creator and creation.

b. The non-Christian presupposes “Chaos and Old Night,” or the self-existence of matter in some sense.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought.
   (Variations in The Defense of the Faith p.304, and Jerusalem and Athens p.19)

Absolute Personality

What we have discussed under the attributes of God may also be summed up by saying that God is absolute personality. The attributes themselves speak of self-conscious and moral activity on the part of God. Recognizing that for this intellectual and moral activity God is dependent upon nothing beyond his own being, we see that we have the Reformed doctrine of the personality of God. There were no principles of truth, goodness or beauty that were next to or above God according to which he patterned the world. The principles of truth, goodness, and beauty are to be thought of as identical with God’s being; they are the attributes of God. Non-Christian systems of philosophy do not deny personality to God, at least some of them do not, but, in effect, they all agree in denying absolute personality to God. As Christians we say that we can be like God and must be like God in that we are persons but that we must always be unlike God in that he is an absolute person while we are finite persons. Non-theists, on the other hand, maintain that though God may be a greater person than we can ever hope to be yet we must not maintain this distinction between absolute and finite personality to be a qualitative one.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith p.33

The Incomprehensibility of God

… The church has embedded into the heart of its confessions the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. God’s being and knowledge are absolutely comprehensive; such knowledge is too wonderful for man; he cannot attain unto it. Man was not created with comprehensive knowledge. Man was finite and his finitude was originally no burden to him. Neither could man ever expect to attain to comprehensive knowledge in the future. We cannot expect to have comprehensive knowledge even in heaven. It is true that much will be revealed to us that is now a mystery to us but in the nature of the case God cannot reveal to us that which as creatures we cannot comprehend; we should have to be God ourselves in order to understand God in the depth of his being. God must always remain mysterious to man.

The significance of this point will appear more fully when we contrast this conception of mystery with the non-Christian conception of mystery that is current today even in Christian circles. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian conception of mystery may be expressed in a word by saying that we hold that there is mystery for man but not for God while the non-Christian holds that there is either no mystery for God or man or there is mystery for both God and man.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith p.35