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

The Omniscient Teacher

It becomes increasingly apparent that the teacher in Dewey’s schools must somehow know that these teachings of Christianity cannot be true. They must protect their pupils from the evil influences of such disintegrating and miseducative doctrines. So they must be sure that these doctrines are not true. They must know that it is impossible that they can be true. They must be able to assure the pupils that there cannot be a judgment coming. They must be able to make universal negative assertions about all future experience. And they must make such assertions on the basis of present experience as it is intelligible without reference to anything beyond itself. In other words Dewey’s teachers must first assert that man knows nothing of a transcendent realm. But they must also assert, in effect, that they know all about it. They must assert that nobody knows anything about it. This means that they who claim to know about it must be mistaken. And then they themselves, nonetheless, presume to know all about it. They must be omniscient in order to know that no one can rightfully claim to know anything about God.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Dilemma of Education p.5

Knowing All or Nothing

The difference between a Christian system that seeks to be consistently analogical and one, like that of Romanism and evangelicalism, that does not, is that only in the former is the false ideal of knowledge of the unbeliever rejected. If one does not make human knowledge wholly dependent upon the original self-knowledge and consequent revelation of God to man, then man will have to seek knowledge within himself as the final reference point. Then he will have to seek an exhaustive understanding of reality. Then he will have to hold that if he cannot attain to such an exhaustive understanding of reality, he has no true knowledge of anything at all. Either man must then know everything or he knows nothing. This is the dilemma that confronts every form of non-Christian epistemology. The Romanist or evangelical type of argument for Christianity is not able to indicate this fact with clarity. The only way by which this dilemma can be indicated clearly is by making plain that the final reference point in predication is God as the self-sufficient One.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.17

God has exhaustive knowledge

Following on from ‘They must have exhaustive knowledge,’ Van Til now gives the Bible believer’s response. 

In believing the Bible and its teachings as they do, traditional believers humbly offer their interpretation of life in the name of God, whose mind and thoughts are higher than man’s mind and thoughts. They do not claim to understand one fact in the phenomenal world exhaustively. They do not claim to understand the facts of nature exhaustively any more than they claim to understand miracles exhaustively. But they appeal to the Creator and Controller of the world as the One who, because of His creation and control of the world, does understand all things in it exhaustively. They admit the existence of mystery in all things for themselves but they do not admit the existence of mystery in anything for God. Accordingly, they do not pretend that they can reduce the relation of God to the world to a system that they themselves can exhaustively understand. They recognise gladly that all things end in mystery for them. But they hold that unless they may believe in the Bible and, therefore, in the God of the Bible, who controls whatsoever comes to pass, all things would end in ultimate mystery for them. They would rather admit relative mystery from the start and with respect to everything than claim virtual omniscience at the beginning and end with ultimate mystery at the last. They fear that such will be the case with those who claim to know the laws of the phenomenal world so well as to be able to say that God cannot have created it and does not control it.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel p.27-28

They must have exhaustive knowledge

On what positive ground, we ask, do men stand when they, with such confidence and assurance, reject the traditional view of Scripture? The confident rejection of this view is unintelligible unless those who make it have themselves offered something better. More than that, such a rejection is without meaning unless men can show that they themselves have a final interpretation of the facts of the phenomenal world to offer. How do men know that the doctrine of creation out of nothing is not true unless they themselves can take us back of ‘history’ and tell us what is there? Or unless they can assure us that nothing is there. Karl Barth may assure us that he cannot believe in a speaking serpent any more than can anyone else. How does he know that God has not created the physical and animal world? How does he know that the phenomenal world works according to impersonal laws and is therefore not accessible to special intervention on the part of God? Again, Barth may assure us that the idea of temporal creation must be rejected because it is not possible to think of it in a logically coherent fashion. In doing so he rejects historic Christianity because it does not meet the false test of eighteenth-century rationalism. As for his own system, he would not for all the world have its truth or falsity tried by such a test. But more important than this inconsistency is the point that men who say that creation cannot have happened, that Christ cannot have passed into the clouds toward heaven, must themselves claim omniscience. They must have such an exhaustive knowledge of the facts of the phenomenal world, and of the possibilities behind these facts, as to enable them to understand all their relations to all other facts both past and future. They must be sure of what does happen in ‘ultimate reality’ in order to be able to say that God does not have anything to do with the origin and control of the phenomenal world.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel p.26-27

Continued in ‘God has exhaustive knowledge.’

Challenging the Wisdom of this World

It is thus that God has made foolish the wisdom of this world in the modern day no less than He did in the day of Paul. Instead of accepting the favours of modern man, as Romanism and Arminianism do, we should challenge the wisdom of this world. It must be shown to be utterly destructive of predication in any field. It has frequently been shown to be such. It is beyond the possibility of the mind of man to bind together the ideas of pure determinism and of pure indeterminism and by means of that combination to give meaning to life. Either modern man will have to admit that he knows everything or else he will have to admit that he knows nothing. The only alternative to this is that he claims both absurdities at the same time.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel p.40

Christian and Non-Christian Views: Facts

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

Both Christian and non-Christian claim that their position is “in accord with the facts of experience.”

a. The Christian claims this because he interprets the facts and his experience of them in terms of his presupposition. The “uniformity of nature” and his knowledge of that uniformity both rest for him upon the plan of God. The coherence which he sees in his experience he takes to be analogical to, and indeed, the result of, the absolute coherence of God.

b. The non-Christian also interprets the facts in terms of his presuppositions. On the one hand is the presupposition of ultimate non-rationality. On such a basis, any fact would be different in all respects from all other facts. There could be no “uniformity,” the foundation of all science. Here is “Chaos and Old Night” with a vengeance. On the other hand is the presupposition that all reality is rational in terms of the reach of logic as manipulated by man. On such a basis the nature of any fact would be identical with the nature of every other fact, or, in short, only one big universal fact. There then could be no experience, because there could be no change. All would be a static unity. The non-Christian tries somehow to balance these contradictions. While in the first place he tells us he can never as much as discover any fact, or know anything of its nature, he in the second place after he has discovered what he cannot discover, turns around and tells us everything about it. On his principles he knows everything if he knows anything, though at the same time he cannot know anything; but he does know something, which means he knows everything.


– Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought
   (Variations in The Defense of the Faith p.304-305, and Jerusalem and Athens p.20)