A Christian Theistic Theory of Reality

A Christian Theistic Theory of Reality

by Cornelius Van Til

The Banner
1931
Volume 66, Pages 1032ff

We may say that there are six foundation stones that underlie a true theory of knowledge and a true theory of reality; namely, a correct concept of God, of man, of Christ, of salvation, of the church and of the last things. These, you say are the things that I heard about in he catechism class. These, you say, are the ordinary concepts with which theology deals. Does philosophy then deal with these same concepts too? Yes it does. There are no concepts besides those mentioned with which any human being can deal. On the other hand every human being, if he thinks at all, must think about these concepts. Whether one be a scientist, a philosopher, a theologian, or all of these combined as most people are, one must say something about these concepts either explicitly or implicitly. It is for this reason that the distinction between “layman” and “professional” must not be drawn too sharply. All the departments of knowledge deal from a certain point of view with the totality of possible human knowledge.

Among all these departments of human knowledge it is philosophy that stands closest to theology. Both theology and philosophy deal with knowledge as a whole while the other branches of knowledge limit themselves largely in their explicit statements to certain aspects of experience. Why then have both theology and philosophy? I shall not try to answer that question fully. Just one consideration may suffice in this connection. The “world” has no theology. It has only philosophy. Should we for that reason reject philosophy? Rather the contrary! We must set over against the false philosophy of the world a true Christian philosophy. If we are to preserve a true theology there is scarcely anything more important than that we should cultivate a sound philosophy.

Now in order to do so it is first of all necessary that we reduce the concepts of theology to those of philosophy. This too we cannot do fully but we may say that there are two main philosophical concepts underlying the six concepts of theology spoken of above. These two main concepts are a true theory of knowledge and a true theory of reality. Everyone must know what he thinks the nature of God, of man and the world to be. Such knowledge gives us a theory of reality. But even before we have such a theory of reality we must be sure that we really know that our knowledge of reality is not an illusion. Accordingly we must first of all have a theory of knowledge.

It is all important that these two foundation stones be solid and correctly laid. The big guns of the attack of a false philosophy and a false science are directed against them. We need not flatter ourselves that our theological structure will stand if these foundations should be destroyed. In two brief articles we shall try to see what these foundation stones are and why we consider them to be immovable.

The Believer’s Theory Of Knowledge

I see a cow. I say it is an animal. But what is an animal? To answer that question fully I should be able to say what life is for a cow is living. I watch the cow eat grass. Does the grass live too? Yes it does. The grass grows out of the ground. Does the ground live also? No it does not. But some say that it does. At any rate I see that the lifeless is indispensable for the living. Hence I cannot say what life is unless I can also say what the ground is. I cannot really say what a cow is until I can tell what the whole of physical reality is.

But now comes a still greater difficulty. We are ourselves a part of this reality. That might seem at first sight to give us the advantage of inside view. But it would certainly have the disadvantage of only an inside view. We usually have only an inside view of ourselves. Others have an “outside” view of us. And how much more correct they usually are than we!Suppose then that there is a God. He will have the best “outside” view of us. Our idea of ourselves would be wholly wrong unless it corresponded to God’s outside knowledge of us. Thus we begin to see that if we are to have an answer to the question what the cow is we must first know all about God and man. In other words we may say that we must know all about all things if we are to know anything about anything.

We must answer then that we do not know what a cow is. But such an admission does not seem to be so serious. Even if I do not know what a cow is I can milk it anyway. But the question becomes more serious when I am asked whether I know myself. I must know a good deal about myself. There are those who claim to have an outside view of me and they say that I am a sinner and damnation-bound. Is that true? I ask them how they know? They tell me that the revelation of God tells them about it. Is there such a revelation? Perhaps there is not. But am I sure that there is not? I ought to know all about myself; that is, I must know all about what is going to happen to me in this life and in the future, if there is one, before I can be certain that those prophets of evil are mistaken. I grow desperate. I must know here and now whether I know.

In despair I look again at that revelation of which my accusers speak. The Scriptures tell me that God knows all about all things. Suppose that this claim is true, would that help me? Would that make me know all things? No, it would not make me know all things but it would help me just the same. A child does not need to know all about the road he is to travel if only his father does. So also we may say that if God knows all about all things we can know all we need to know about ourselves. If God knows all things He must have created all things. God could not know all if all were not dependent upon him. God could not know this world if his rationality were not stamped upon it. Then too all knowledge that any human being has and possibly could have must be from God. It must be true then that we are created in the image of God. God’s rationality is stamped upon me. Hence, if God exists, the knowledge that I seem to have, must be from God and therefore true.

But does God exist? We have till now been asking what would be true if God exists. Is it nothing but a fine vision that we have seen? Our answer is that God must exist or the very questions that we have asked about Him would be meaningless. We have seen that God must know all things if we are to know anything. Hence it is also true that my asking about His existence would have no meaning unless He does actually exist. In other words, I must presuppose God’s existence for my experience to have any significance. My belief in God is as necessary as breath to me; He is “nearer than hands and feet.”

Faith

The position outlined above may be called the position of faith; it is the believer’s positions. When the believer is asked to give a reason for the faith that is in him he reasons as we have reasoned above. It then becomes clear that the believer’s position is a reasonable position. It is reasonable for a mere human being to be a believer. It is very scientific to be a believer. The only unscientific position is an unreasonable position. If science today does not believe in the existence of such a God as we have spoken of we can only say that “science” is unscientific.

Faith then is not the thoughtless acceptance of something that we like to think of as true. On the contrary faith comes only in answer to fathomless agony of soul. The deepest faith is due to the deepest thought. Only when the prodigal is brought to bay will he believe.

Faith implies the recognition of God’s absolute priority and originality. Faith allows noaspect of the human personality to escape subjection to God. It does not set aside the intellect to God. It is only thus that the intellect is truly free; only thus is there an atmosphere in which it can operate. Thus too faith becomes the source of all true science.

The Unbeliever’s Theory of Knowledge

John sees a cow. He calls it an animal. But what is an animal? Webster fails him. He turns to the philosophers Plato tells him that this cow is all imitation of cowness in the eternal world of ideas. But is there such a world of ideas? What did Plato know about it? What can any human being know about anything that is eternal? But Plato was an ancient Greek. Perhaps a modern American knows more about it. So John asks William James. James tells him in effect that nobody knows anything about anything. James tells him to forget about all this mad chase for a knowledge of reality. “Milk your cow and have done with it” says James. “Be practical.”

John tried to be “practical.” So did the prodigal at the swinetrough. But how could John be sure that it was unpractical to speculate about a judgment day? Even Methusaleh died. Likely John would too. And then what? Who can tell him? He cannot help but ask such questions again and again. Yet he may not accept the answer of Scripture for Scripture is on this basis no more than a collection of human opinions. It were an insult to his intelligence to accept anything on authority. He wants to be his own authority. He grows desperate. He grows insane. He commits suicide. Or other wise he gives up thinking and denies his manhood.

Reason

The position outlined above may be called the position of human reason and one holding it may be called a rationalist. The rationalist pretends that man can without the aid of God solve all the problems that face the human mind. Fearlessly he meets the Sphinx. Boldly he spurns all God-proffered. “He paweth in the valley and rejoiceth in his strength; he goeth on to meet the armed man ”

When failure comes again and again he is not dismayed. He persists in his efforts and calls such a persistence true scientific patience. We would call it stubbornness and conceit. The rationalist would rather change the “we do not know’’ which he must readily confess into the “we shall not know” of his faith (therefore admitting final and utter failure) than allow that there may be a God who knows all things. He would rather attempt to harvest the wheat of the world with a scythe than admit that there may be such things as binders and tractors.

What then is our complaint? That the rationalist does not want to set aside his intellect? On the contrary we charge him with refusing to use his intellect sufficiently. Are we afraid that in public colleges and universities men will learn to think and therefore reject the faith of their fathers? Not at all. Our only fear is that they will not learn to think soberly as men ought to think. Do we fear that young men and women will criticize our concepts of revelation and inspiration? Not in the least? We only fear that they will stop half way. If thought goes far enough and criticism deep enough it has to admit that man because of his finitude needs God and because of his total depravity needs Christ, and that neither can be known except through the Spirit.

Our Task

What then is our task? Our task is to wrestle with our faith. We must make the psalms our own. It is well to make holiday with the multitude as we go with it to the house of God but we must also learn to make dialogue with ourown souls. When alone in the land of the Hermonite, when dwelling on the hill Mizar, when surrounded by scoffers who sneeringly say, “Where is now thy God,” we must learn to respond, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him for the help of his countenance.” To be alone and think makes us strong. By meditation we gain such confidence as David had. To wrestle with God before we can meet Esau.

Once more, what is our task? To bring the gospel to all men? Surely it is that. But woe unto us if we proselyte all nations as the Pharisees did. And yet our preaching and our teaching and our missionary effort is constantly in danger of becoming Pharisaic. We hold our position all too easily ofttimes. We struggle so little with ourselves and for that reason make so little headway in our struggle with unbelief.

Is it wrong to be sure of the truth of our position? Do we preach too apodictically at times? Not at all. We should teach and preach with more conviction still, but with conviction that is more deeply grounded. No one can work effectively if he works apologetically. We are on the Lord’s side. “Wherefore the nations rage”? Let them kiss the Son even now lest one day they cry to the mountains and the hills to cover them from the face of Him who sitteth to judge the peoples.

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  1. Collection of Articles From 1920-1939 by Cornelius Van Til « Presuppositionalism 101 - August 23, 2011

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