A Christian Theistic Theory of Reality

by Cornelius Van Til

Copyright © 1931, The Banner Vol 66, Christian Reformed Church in NA. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


We saw the last time that the first main foundation stone of a true philosophy is such a theory of knowledge as is involved in the conception of a God who knows all things. We must now see that the second main foundation stone is once more the conception of an absolutely self-conscious God. At once you object and say that then there are not two foundation stones but only one. Exactly so. The two agree in one. The two are one. The reason for this is that in God knowledge and reality are identical. This point is fundamental as we shall see. Let us here note that because of this identity a true theory of knowledge implies a true theory of reality and vice versa. On the other hand a false theory of knowledge is not an innocent plaything, but involves a false theory of reality and vice versa. It really makes very little difference where you begin your course of reasoning as long as you take God into consideration from the beginning. An absolutely self-conscious God is the presupposition of a truly theistic philosophy of life.

The reason that we must presuppose God is that we cannot have Him in any other way. To be sure you can have a god without presupposing him but it cannot be more than a finite God. The kind of God we need must be presupposed. If you are very “scientific” you cannot afford to begin with a presupposition. But I cannot afford to be without an absolute God. Is it then much as two men one of whom prefers a home for his money and the other an automobile? No, we must reason together till we die. I will continue to maintain that your position ends in hell and mine in heaven. I do this boldly because I do it humbly as one who has received by grace.


In theology we speak about the attributes of God. If now we take all these attributes together and bring them into one concentrated thought we may take that thought as the foundation stone of our theory of reality. That thought itself cannot be expressed in any other word than God. In our theory of reality the most important thing to maintain is that God has reality of Himself. We hear much about “ultimate reality.” God is our ultimate reality. As such He must be eternal; everything temporal is derived. As such He must be completely self-conscious; everything not completely self-conscious is derived. As such He must be self-sufficient; everything not self-sufficient is derived.

The Universe

The term “universe” is often taken as inclusive of God and the world. We take it as expressive of all reality not identical with God. Theism holds that the universe is temporal. For a genuine theism the term “dependence” when applied to the universe does not mean “logical dependence” only. It implies the inherent temporality of the universe in distinction from the eternity of God. Rome may be satisfied to say that philosophically we need not and cannot maintain anything more than “logical dependence,” as Protestants we cannot but hold that the doctrine of temporal creation is a constitutive element of Christian theism.

The relation between time and eternity we cannot fathom. As Christian theists we frankly admit this fact. If anyone feels that he cannot accept a philosophy unless he can fully understand all its concepts he cannot be a Christian theist. Our only answer to him is that we cannot afford to do without God. If we cannot have both cake and bread we would rather have bread than to have neither of the two. But our opponents make light of our inability to do without God. They think it an “evident token of perdition” intellectually. To them our view of temporal creation is the high-water mark of mental incompetency. Let us see what they say.

The God Of Antitheism

They say that our God is as useless as a minister on pension is said to be. Our God is said to have no “value” for the “religious consciousness.” On the contrary He attracts a great deal of energy from men that were better directed toward the uplift of the slums.

For our “useless” God they substitute a useful god. To be really useful a god must not be “aloof” from the world. He must be a “God in the dirt.” He must not sit as an oriental monarch sits but must be “the President of a Great Commonwealth.” Accordingly He is placed in office by popular vote; He must be “the Idealized Common Will” and “the Democrat.” Such a God is said to be truly useful because He will do all He can to help us as well as to help himself; He is “the Great Toiler.” If we feel discouraged He is at our side and if He is discouraged He may “draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity.” This God is a good mixer. He is not as that “bickering monopolist who will have no other gods but Me,” of which we read in the Scriptures.

This God will allow us to be “scientific.” He is really himself a pioneer scientist. He is truly “open-minded.” He is always looking for new facts. His youth is constantly renewed as is the eagle’s. “Now deity is always the next higher empirical quality to the one presently evolved.” He is a “variant” instead of a constant. He is the product of Becoming instead of the Source of Being. He is intimately united with the universal flux of things. Hence He can be and is the true scientist.

The Universe Of Anti-theism

For us God is the source of the universe. For our opponents the universe is the source of God. For them Space-Time precedes Deity; Process is prior to Reality. God “is in the strictest sense not a creator but a creature.” Or again if we prefer we may say that God is an aspect instead of a product of the process of the universe. He is “only the ideal tendency in things.” In each case the universe is more original than God; God and man are citizens in the universe which exists independently of them both.

About the origin of the universe no one really knows anything. But no matter. Accidents will happen. If you set six monkeys to strumming on so many typewriters they would eventually produce all the books of the British museum. The rational somehow proceeds from the non-rational; the greater proceeds somehow from the lesser; bare possibility somehow produces reality.

The future of this universe is equally a matter of chance. There may be purpose in the world but if there is, that purpose is at any rate self-generated; God has not placed it in there. All in all we must say that the universe has bought out God and has publicly announced the merger. While the transition is being made men can still write checks on the old bank and they will be honored by the new. Soon, however, new stationery will be printed and men’s religious commerce will be carried on exclusively with the universe. Why not buy some shares in the new “venture of faith?” Religion does not need the old God. For a while you may still think it does. You have been used to your old God as you have been used to your old hat. And as you became used to your new hat after wearing it a while so you will become used to your new God. He really looks much better than the one. He will last much longer. It is time to change.


Have we made a caricature of our opponents position? No, we have not. There are many philosophers who believe in just such a God as we have described. You need not look in dusty volumes but in the most popular books of the day to find such a God and such a universe as we have spoken of described. It is not unfair then to say that the God portrayed is the god of a great deal of current literature. It is true that there are idealistic thinkers who would not use the crass terminology of their more pragmatic brethren. Yet if they were to work out to the bitter end the implications of their own position they would end exactly where the Pragmatist ended. The Idealists as well as the Pragmatists take for granted at the outset of their thinking that the “universe” or as they constantly speak of it “reality” is a larger and a more fundamental concept than the concept of God. They may not say that in so many words but it amounts to that just the same.

They include both God and man in their term “reality.” Thus their position is monistic at the outset. And if God is thus bound up with or a part of the universe at the outset, God can be finite only. More than that, if God is thus bound up with the universe he must become an evolving or temporal god since the universe is temporal. When the one moves the other also moves just as with Ezekiel’s wheels. We may conclude then that the God we have outlined above is the only alternative to the God we serve. You must serve either of these two Gods. Every human being actually serves the one or the other.

The completeness and the exclusiveness of this alternative should be pointed out in season and out of season. Joshua said that it made very little difference which gods the people served of all the gods available. All idols, he maintained, were at bottom the same no matter what their name or what their form. Nor did Joshua try to hide these gods from the people. He displayed all the idols before the eyes of the youth and told them to make their choice. His policy was to display all these idols in order that their hollowness might appear. Is such a policy dangerous? It certainly is. But every other policy is more dangerous than this one. Safety cannot be found in trying to hide from our youth what is going on in the world. They will find out anyway. The only question is how they will find out whether with us and under our guidance or be themselves. So we must seek in the development of a true Christian philosophy to show to our young men and women that every position but the theistic one leads to the utter and final destruction of all human experience. If we are faithful in this our task we may with confidence expect that the Spirit of God will use us as instruments for the establishment of His kingdom in the hearts of men.


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