Limits of Human Understanding

To say that Scripture testifies to itself and therefore identifies itself is to imply that it also identifies every fact in the world. That is to say the God of which the Scriptures speak is the God who makes the facts to be what they are. There can therefore be no fact which is ultimately out of accord with the system of truth set forth in Scripture. Every fact in the universe is what it is just because of the place that it has in this system.

Moreover, to say that every fact in the world is what it is because of its place in the system of truth set forth in Scripture, is to establish the legitimacy of the Christian principle of discontinuity. The system of truth set forth in Scripture cannot be fully understood by the creature. The point here is not merely that creatures who are sinners are unwilling to believe the truth. The point is further that man as finite cannot understand God his Maker in an exhaustive manner. As he cannot understand God exhaustively, so he cannot understand anything related to God in an exhaustive way, for to understand it we would have to penetrate its relation to God and to penetrate that relation we would have to understand God exhaustively.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.35-36


The Final Reference Point

vtStress has been laid on the fact that the Bible speaks of the Word of God as self-contained. That is, the Bible is the Word of him who, as Creator-Redeemer alone can identify himself. God in Christ identifies himself in terms of himself because he exists exclusively in terms of himself. There is no non-being over against him that influences him. There are no laws of logic above him according to which he must measure his own internal consistency. This God of the Bible is, therefore, the final reference point for predication of his rational creatures. They, and with them all things in the universe, must be explained in terms of him, and he is never wholly comprehensible to them. Therefore no fact in the universe is ever wholly comprehensible to them.
They therefore need to live by authority. They have to be told who they are and what the things of the universe mean in relation to themselves and finally in relation to God. God’s supernatural revelation is presupposed in all successful rational inquiry on the part of man.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.41

All knowledge rests on revelation

As indicated in an earlier connection, man’s creation in God’s image involves (a) the fact that man’s ideal of knowledge should never be that of the comprehension of God, and (b) the fact that man’s knowledge is nevertheless true.

What we have now spoken of as the presuppositions of revelation are nothing more than the presuppositions of a truly Christian theistic theory of knowledge. God had in himself all knowledge from all eternity. Nothing could be added to his store of knowledge in any process of time. In accordance with his plan, or, as we may say, in accordance with his interpretation, all finite things were made. Hence, all knowledge that any finite creature of God would ever have, whether of things that pertain directly to God or of things that pertain to objects in the created universe itself would, in the last analysis, have to rest upon the revelation of God.

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.119

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

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

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