Knowledge by Authority

We accept this God upon Scriptural authority. In the Bible alone do we hear of such a God. Such a God, to be known at all, cannot be known otherwise than by virtue of His own voluntary revelation. He must therefore be known for what He is, and known to the extent that He is known, by authority alone. We do not first set out without God to find our highest philosophical concept in terms of which we think we can interpret reality and then call this highest concept divine. This was, as Windelband tells us, the process of the Greeks. This has been the process of all non-Christian thought. It is from this process of reasoning that we have been redeemed. On such a process of reasoning only a finite god can be discovered. It has been the nemesis of the history of the theistic proofs that this has been so frequently forgotten. Are we then left with a conflict between Faith and Reason? Have we no philosophical justification for the Christian position? Or are we to find a measure of satisfaction in the fact that others too, non-Christian scientists and philosophers as well as ourselves, have in the end to allow for some mystery in their system?

To all this we must humbly but confidently reply by saying that we have the best of philosophical justification for our position. It is not as though we are in a bad way and that we must seek for some comfort from others who are also in a bad way. We as Christians alone have a position that is philosophically defensible. The frank acceptance of our position on authority, which at first blush, because of our inveterate tendency to think along non-Christian lines, seems to involve the immediate and total rejection of all philosophy—this frank acceptance of authority is, philosophically, our very salvation. Psychologically, acceptance on authority precedes philosophical argument; but when, as epistemologically self-conscious grown-ups, we look into our own position, we discover that unless we may presuppose such a God as we have accepted on authority, the Moment will have no significance. The God that the philosophers of the ages have been looking for, a God in whom unity and diversity are equally ultimate, the “Unknown God,” is known to us by grace. It has been the quest of the ages to find an interpretative concept such as has been given us by grace.

– Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel p.14

Philosophical Apologetics

Following on from The Foundation of Historical Apologetics:

yhst-81483472662466_2189_1292894“In addition to showing that Christ actually arose from the grave and that the facts recorded in the Scripture are as they are recorded as being, insofar as this can be ascertained by historical research, we must show that the philosophy of fact as held to by Christian theism is the only philosophy that can account for the facts. And these two things must be done in conjunction with one another. Historical apologetics becomes genuinely fruitful only if it is conjoined with philosophical apologetics. And the two together will have to begin with Scripture, and argue that unless what Scripture says about itself and all things else of which it speaks is true, nothing is true. Unless God as an absolutely self-conscious person exists, no facts have any meaning. This holds not only for the resurrection of Christ, but for any other fact as well.”

– Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology p.242-243

The God of the Philosophers

Men in general are, therefore, truth suppressors. They are not those who are first of all without knowledge of the truth. They are indeed such, if one thinks of the knowledge that must come from Scripture. But they are first of all truth possessors, or truth-knowers, who have, by sinning, become truth suppressors. Having taken to themselves the right to define the nature of God and of themselves, they have mingled the idea of their new god with that of the God they know by virtue of their creation. In their natural theology, that is, in what, as sinful men, they set forth as their view about God, they never state the truth without adulteration. They do not completely succeed in suppressing the truth, but they never assert the truth without an overwhelming admixture of error. The god of the philosophers is never their Creator and the Creator of the universe. He is always of necessity bound up with his creation. Hence sinful unregenerate men never worship the true God as they ought. In practice they do not know him because when they think of him they, of necessity, think falsely of him; they always degrade him to the level of the creature.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought. 

The Concrete Universal

It may be profitable at this juncture to introduce the notion of a concrete universal. In seeking for an answer to the one-and-many question, philosophers have admittedly experienced great difficulty. The many must be brought into contact with one another. But how do we know that they can be brought into contact with one another? How do we know that the many do not simply exist as unrelated particulars? The answer given is that in such a case we should know nothing of them; they would be abstracted from the body of knowledge that we have; they would be abstract particulars. On the other hand, how is it possible that we should obtain a unity that does not destroy the particulars? We seem to get our unity by generalizing, by abstracting from the particulars in order to include them into larger unities. If we keep up this process of generalization till we exclude all particulars, granted they can all be excluded, have we then not stripped these particulars of their particularity? Have we then obtained anything but an abstract universal?

As Christians we hold that there is no answer to these problems from a non-Christian point of view. We shall argue this point later; for the nonce we introduce this matter in order to set forth the meaning of the notion of the concrete universal. The notion of the concrete universal has been offered by idealist philosophy in order to escape the reductio ad absurdum of the abstract particular and the abstract universal. It is only in the Christian doctrine of the triune God, as we are bound to believe, that we really have a concrete universal. In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith p.48-49

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

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

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

The presupposition of God

The two positions are therefore basically opposed to each other on all scores. The question is not simply as to which one is in accord with fact and logic. The question is rather in terms of which presupposition fact and logic have meaning at all. On which position is there any intelligible application of logic to fact at all? The question therefore concerns the philosophy of fact and the philosophy of logic. Any argument between them that does not go back to the question of presuppositions begs the question. The Christian position seeks to make human experience intelligible in terms of the presupposition of God; the non-Christian position seeks to make human experience intelligible in terms of man who is conceived of as ultimate.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Dilemma of Education p.30-31

Choosing hats

Collins_Street_5_pm_Every system of philosophy must tell us whether it thinks true knowledge to be possible. Or if a system of philosophy thinks it impossible for man to have a true knowledge of the whole of reality or even of a part of reality, it must give good reasons for thinking so. From these considerations, it follows that if we develop our reasons for believing that a true knowledge of God and, therefore, also of the world, is possible because actually given in Christ, we have in fact given what goes in philosophy under the name of epistemology. It will then be possible to compare the Christian epistemology with any and with all others. And being thus enabled to compare them all, we are in a position and placed before the responsibility of choosing between them. And this choosing can then, in the nature of the case, no longer be a matter of artistic preference. We cannot choose epistemologies as we choose hats. Such would be the case if it had been once for all established that the whole thing is but a matter of taste. But that is exactly what has not been established. That is exactly the point in dispute.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.xiii-xiv

The Great Service of Hume

We can well understand then that the nominalism of Berkeley developed into the scepticism of Hume. Hume says that the empiricistic position furnishes no a priori or valid element for thought. Hume tried to work out the full implication of Descartes’ emphasis upon the human mind as the most ultimate foundation for knowledge. He concluded that upon such a basis no knowledge is possible. We cannot help but agree with his conclusions, though not with his premise. The scepticism of Hume is the best reduction to absurdity of the position that takes its start from the human individual. We shall find that later forms of Empiricism have added to the subtlety of the general point of view but that none have added any strength to the position. Hume’s thought remains as the simplest proof that if one takes his stand upon the sense world as such there is no knowledge possible of anything. Hume’s position works out Plato’s first method to the point of obvious absurdity.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.105