Method of Christian Theistic Epistemology

The Method Of Christian Theistic Epistemology

The following is the unedited unabridged Chapter Fifteen of “A Survey of Christian Epistemology”

by Cornelius Van Til

Having before us all the factors that enter into the knowledge situation, and having on the basis of them concluded in the preceding chapter that it is necessary to reason with those who believe differently than we do, we must turn to a consideration of the question of how we should reason with them.

In the second chapter we discussed some of the epistemological terms that have bearing upon the question of the method. We must now set that discussion into the more advanced context at which we have arrived. The thing that has gradually shown itself to be of momentous importance is this fact that all reasoning in the field of knowledge must take into consideration the difference between those who accept and those who reject Christian theism. Whatever method we employ will have to figure from the outset with this difference. The question is no longer how I may obtain knowledge of some object with which I come in contact. Nor is it only the question of how I may impart that knowledge to my fellow man in general. The question is rather how I may impart the knowledge that I have to those who by virtue of their opposition have no true knowledge and yet think that they have.

Something of this was brought out when we said that God’s knowledge of himself and God’s knowledge of the facts of the universe must be the standard of our knowledge. God is completely self-conscious and therefore knows himself and all things analytically. There is in God’s thought complete coherence. Keeping this in mind, we may say that if we are to have coherence in our thinking it will have to be a coherence that corresponds to God’s coherence. Accordingly, our coherence will never be completely inclusive in the way that God’s coherence is completely inclusive. Our coherence will be no more than an analogy of the coherence of God. Yet because it is based upon God’s coherence it will be true knowledge. Our coherence can constantly grow in comprehensiveness but it cannot grow in truthfulness. Those that have the least knowledge have true knowledge just as well as those that have the greatest knowledge, if only their knowledge is truly analogical, i.e., based upon the knowledge that God has of himself and of the world.

If this fundamental point is not forgotten, we can speak in the ordinary epistemological language. We may then say that we employ the methods of analysis and synthesis. What we mean by synthesis is not that which Bosanquet means by synthesis when he says that reality is essentially synthetic. Our conception of God maintains the reverse of that. But for us the time series brings forth that which is new for us. Accordingly, we have to synthesize the new facts with the old facts. Then when we have done that we must proceed once more to see what the new facts thus related to the old facts together reveal about God and reality in general. In this respect the process of knowledge is a growth into the truth. For this reason we have spoken of the Christian theistic method as the method of implication into the truth of God. It is reasoning in a spiral fashion rather than in a linear fashion. Accordingly, we have said that we can use the old terms deduction and induction if only we remember that they must be thought of as elements in this one process of implication into the truth of God. If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method. That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize.

The charges made against this type of reasoning we must turn upon those who made them. It will be said of this type of reasoning that it introduces the subjective element of belief in God, which all men do not share. Of this we can only say that all men should share that belief, and before the fall of man into sin man did have that belief. Belief in God is the most human attitude conceivable. It is abnormal not to believe in God. We must therefore hold that only the Christian theist has real objectivity, while the others are introducing false prejudices, or subjectivity.

The charge is made that we engage in circular reasoning. Now if it be called circular reasoning when we hold it necessary to presuppose the existence of God, we are not ashamed of it because we are firmly convinced that all forms of reasoning that leave God out of account will end in ruin. Yet we hold that our reasoning cannot fairly be called circular reasoning, because we are not reasoning about and seeking to explain facts by assuming the existence and meaning of certain other facts on the same level of being with the facts we are investigating, and then explaining these facts in turn by the facts with which we began. We are presupposing God, not merely another fact of the universe. If God is to come into contact with us at all it is natural that the initiative must be with him. And this will also apply to the very question about the relation of God to us. Accordingly, it is only on God’s own testimony that we can know anything about him.

Even in paradise it was God’s verbal self-disclosure, and the disclosure of his will for man’s activity in relation to the created cosmos, that was indispensable for man’s ability to identify any fact and to relate any fact properly to any other fact. Applying this to the Scripture, it is but natural that we should accept the Scripture testimony about itself. If we did anything else we would not be accepting Scripture as absolute. The only alternative then to bringing in a God who testifies of himself and upon whose testimony we are wholly dependent, is not to bring in God at all. And not to bring in God at all spells nothing but utter ruin for knowledge. In that case knowledge may be said to be reduced to the pass of drawing circles in a void. Hence we must return the charge of circular reasoning to those who made it. On the other hand, we are happy to accept the charge of circular reasoning. Our reasoning frankly depends upon the revelation of God, whose “reasoning” is within the internal-eternal circularity of the three persons of the Trinity. It is only if we frankly depend for the validity of our reasoning upon this internal circular reasoning in the triune God that we can escape trying in vain to reason in circles in a vacuum of pure contingency.

The charge has been made that it is an a priori procedure to bring in God at the beginning of the process of knowledge. This too is a charge that acts as a boomerang. A priori reasoning is reasoning that does not start with the facts. Now antitheism has arbitrarily taken for granted that God is not a fact, and that if he is a fact that fact does not have any bearing upon the other facts. This we must hold to be an a priori procedure. We hold that the so-called “facts” are wholly unintelligible unless the supreme fact of God be brought into relation with them. We are willing to start with any fact as a proximate starting point, but refuse to admit before the investigation has begun that there can be no such fact as God.

Summing up, we may observe that all the various methods of investigation that have been advanced may be used theistically or they may be used antitheistically, according as God is taken into or is left out of consideration at the outset. Perhaps the best way to bring out this point is to say that antitheistic thinking uses all these methods univocally, while theism uses all these methods analogically. We need not take much time to discuss what is meant by these terms. The meaning may be inferred from our discussion of the starting point of knowledge. There we saw how antitheistic thinking was constantly taking for granted that its position was correct. It did this by taking for granted that the object and the subject of knowledge exist apart from God and can come into fruitful relations with one another without any reference to God. Therewith antitheistic thinking reduced God, if he was later to be taken into consideration at all, to a quantitative addition to man. This quantitative addition may take any of three forms. First, God may be taken as one fact among others. It is this that the first method of Platonic reasoning, that is, the outspokenly empirical method of reasoning, allows for. In the second place, God may be thought of as a logical universal in the particulars. It is this that the second method of Platonic reasoning allows for. In the third place, God may be identified with the Whole of Reality inclusive of both the temporal and the eternal. It is this that the third method of Platonic reasoning allows for. In every case, it is taken for granted that God can, in the nature of the case, be no more than at most a correlative to man.

Since antitheistic thinking takes this univocal method of reasoning to be so evidently the only possible method of reasoning, since univocal reasoning is the reasoning of “the natural man,” which he will not and cannot forsake till he is no longer a “natural man” but a regenerated man, the one thing of importance to remember is that we must set over against this natural man not something that is a little modification of that which he already holds. We must hold before him the necessity of a total reversal of his attitude of mind. It is this that Paul did when he preached the gospel to the wise men of Athens, steeped as they were in Plato and Aristotle. The Christian epistemologists have been all too remiss in fearing to follow Paul’s example boldly. They have feared that they would have no results if they were thus fearless in their approach. Yet if anything would seem to follow from the Christian position as a whole, it is that we could expect no results at all unless bold measures be taken. If the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint, it is not a snuffbox that is needed, but a lively stimulant. If men are dead in their sins and trespasses they are dead epistemologically too, and no demonstration of health will do any good, but only the gift of new life. Accordingly, we must reason in such a way that the Holy Spirit can give life through our reasoning as an avenue.

Our reasoning then must always and everywhere be truly analogical It matters not whether we are reasoning inductively or deductively, whether we analyze or synthesize, whether we reason in a priori or a posteriori fashion, If we only reason analogically we are true to our principle and may expect results, and if we do not reason analogically we are not true to our principle and may not expect any results.

The necessity of reasoning analogically is always implied in the theistic conception of God. If God is to be thought of at all as necessary for man’s interpretation of the facts or objects of knowledge, he must be thought of as being determinative of the objects of knowledge. In other words, he must then be thought of as the only ultimate interpreter, and man must be thought of as a finite reinterpreter. Since, then, the absolute self-consciousness of God is the final interpreter of all facts, man’s knowledge is analogical of God’s knowledge. Since all the finite facts exist by virtue of the interpretation of God, man’s interpretation of the finite facts is ultimately dependent upon God’s interpretation of the facts. Man cannot, except to his own hurt, look at the facts without looking at God’s interpretation of the facts. Man’s knowledge of the facts is then a reinterpretation of God’s interpretation. It is this that is meant by saying that man’s knowledge is analogical of God’s knowledge.

We must now consider more fully the question how one who has thus become convinced that analogical reasoning is the only type of reasoning that gives us truth at all, must face one who is convinced that univocal reasoning is the only type of reasoning that can possibly bring one into contact with truth.

In the preceding chapter we have seen that the point of contact that we may presuppose is that man, as a matter of fact, never exists in such independence as he thinks he does. He remains accessible to God always It is this that gives us courage to proceed. And with this conviction we proceed with assurance of success. It is this that gives us courage not to condescend to any form of univocal reasoning.

When we approach the question in this way we should be willing to start anywhere and with any fact that any person we meet is interested in. The very conviction that there is not a single fact that can really be known unless it is interpreted theistically gives us this liberty to start anywhere, as far as a proximate starting point is concerned. If we thought that the fact of God’s existence had no significance for physics, we would have to seek to bring our opponents at once into contact with the more specifically religious problem. But that is exactly what we need not do. We can start with any fact at all and challenge “our friends the enemy,” to give us an intelligible interpretation of it.

Since the non-theist is so heartily convinced that univocal reasoning is the only possible kind of reasoning, we must ask him to reason univocally for us in order that we may see the consequences. In other words, we believe it to be in harmony with and a part of the process of reasoning analogically with a non-theist that we ask him to show us first what he can do. We may, to be sure, offer to him at once a positive statement of our position. But this he will at once reject as quite out of the question. So we may ask him to give us something better. The reason he gives for rejecting our position is, in the last analysis, that it involves self-contradiction. We see again as an illustration of this charge the rejection of the theistic conception that God is absolute and that he has nevertheless created this world for his glory. This, the non-theist says, is self-contradictory. And it no doubt is, from a non-theistic point of view. But the final question is not whether a statement appears to be contradictory. The final question is in which framework or on which view of reality—the Christian or the nonChristian—the law of contradiction can have application to any fact. The non-Christian rejects the Christian view out of hand as being contradictory. Then when he is asked to furnish a foundation for the law of contradiction, he can offer nothing but the idea of contingency.

What we shall have to do then is to try to reduce our opponent’s position to an absurdity. Nothing less will do. Without God, man is completely lost in every respect, epistemologically as well as morally and religiously. But exactly what do we mean by reducing our opponent’s position to an absurdity? He thinks he has already reduced our position to an absurdity by the simple expedient just spoken of. But we must point out to him that upon a theistic basis our position is not reduced to an absurdity by indicating the “logical difficulties” involved in the conception of creation. Upon the theistic basis it must be contended that the human categories are but analogical of God’s categories, so that it is to be expected that human thought will not be able to comprehend how God shall be absolute and at the same time create the universe for his glory. If taken on the same level of existence, it is no doubt a self-contradiction to say that a thing is full and at the same time is being filled. But it is exactly this point that is in question—whether God is to be thought of as on the same level with man. What the antitheist should have done is to show that even upon a theistic basis our conception of creation involves self-contradiction.

We must therefore give our opponents better treatment than they give us. We must point out to them that univocal reasoning itself leads to self-contradiction, not only from a theistic point of view, but from a non-theistic point of view as well. It is this that we ought to mean when we say that we must meet our enemy on their own ground. It is this that we ought to mean when we say that we reason from the impossibility of the contrary. The contrary is impossible only if it is self-contradictory when operating on the basis of its own assumptions. It is this too that we should mean when we say that we are arguing ad hominem. We do not really argue ad hominem unless we show that someone’s position involves self-contradiction, and there is no self-contradiction unless one’s reasoning is shown to be directly contradictory of or to lead to conclusions which are contradictory of one’s own assumptions.

It will be seen that when we reason ad hominem or when we say that we place ourselves upon our opponent’s position we are still reasoning analogically. We would not be reasoning analogically if we really placed ourselves upon our opponent’s position. Then we would, with him, have to reason univocally, and we would drown with him. We use the figure of drowning in order to suggest what it is that we really do when we say that we are placing ourselves upon someone else’s position. We may then compare ourselves to a lifesaver who goes out to save someone from drowning. Such a lifesaver must be bound to the shore to which he wants to rescue the other party. He may depend upon his power to swim, but this very power to swim is an invisible cord that connects him to the shore. Similarly, if we reason when we place ourselves upon our opponents’ position, we cannot for a moment do more than argue thus for “argument’s sake.”

When we reason thus we are not reasoning on the basis of some abstract law of self-contradiction. We have seen that the very question between theists and antitheists is as to the foundation of the law of contradiction. When they criticize our position and think they have reduced it to the place where it falls under the law of self-contradiction, we do not give in to defeat or appeal to irrationality in the name of faith, but we challenge their interpretation of the law of contradiction. We hold that they have falsely assumed that the self-contradictory is to be identified with that which is beyond the comprehension of man. But this takes for granted that human categories are ultimate categories—which is just the thing in question. We must maintain that we have the true conception of the law of contradiction. According to that conception, only that is self-contradictory which is contradictory to the conception of the absolute self-consciousness of God. If there were in the Trinity such a self-contradiction, there would also be in the matter of God’s relation to the world. But, since the Trinity is the conception by which ultimate unity and diversity is brought into equal ultimacy, it is this conception of the Trinity which makes self-contradiction impossible for God and therefore also impossible for man. Complete self-contradiction is possible only in hell, and hell is itself a self-contradiction because it feeds eternally on the negation of an absolute affirmation. Accordingly, we must hold that the position of our opponent has in reality been reduced to self-contradiction when it is shown to be hopelessly opposed to the Christian theistic concept of God. Yet in order to bring this argument as closely to the non-regenerate consciousness as we may, we must seek to show that the non-theist is self-contradictory upon his own assumptions, as well as upon the assumption of the truth of theism, and that he cannot even be self-contradictory upon a non-theistic basis, since if he saw himself to be self-contradictory he would be self-contradictory no longer.

Now when this method of reasoning from the impossibility of the contrary is carried out, there is really nothing more to do. We realize this if we call to mind again that if once it is seen that the conception of God is necessary for the intelligible interpretation of any fact, it will be seen that this is necessary for all facts and for all laws of thought. If one really saw that it is necessary to have God in order to understand the grass that grows outside his window, he would certainly come to a saving knowledge of Christ, and to the knowledge of the absolute authority of the Bible. It is true, we grant that it is not usually in this way that men become true Christian theists, but we put it in this way in order to bring out clearly that the investigation of any fact whatsoever will involve a discussion of the meaning of Christianity as well as of theism, and a sound position taken on the one involves a sound position on the other. It is well to emphasize this fact because there are Fundamentalists who tend to throw overboard all epistemological and metaphysical investigation and say that they will limit their activities to preaching Christ. But we see that they are not really preaching Christ unless they are preaching him for what he wants to be, namely, the Christ of cosmic significance. Nor can they even long retain the soteriological significance of Christ if they forsake his cosmological significance. If one allows that certain facts may be truly known apart from God in Christ, there is no telling where the limit will be. It soon appears that the elephant wants to warm more than his nose. He will soon claim that the truths of the religious consciousness may also be known apart from Christ, and may therefore become the standard of what is to be accepted of the Bible.

In this connection we must also say a word about the contention often made by Christians that we must be positive rather than negative in our presentation of the truth to those who have not yet accepted it. We have no fault to find with this statement if it be correctly understood. We must certainly present the truth of the Christian theistic system constantly, at every point of the argument. But it is clear that if you offer a new wife to one who is perfectly satisfied with the one he has now, you are not likely to be relieved of your burden. In other words, it is the self-sufficiency of the “natural man” that must first be brought under some pressure, before there is any likelihood of his even considering the truth in any serious fashion at all. The parable of the prodigal helps us here. As long as the son was at home there was nothing but a positive argument that was held before him. But he wanted to go out of the father’s house in order to indulge in “riotous living.” Not till he was at the swinetrough, not till he saw that he had made a hog of himself and that he could not be a hog because he was a man, did he at all begin to consider the servants of his father who had plenty of bread. The kingdom of God must be built upon the destruction of the enemy. God increases his plagues upon those that “dwell upon the earth” in order to make them think analogically. And though they cry for the mountains and the hills to fall upon them rather than turn to him that chastizes them, yet God continues to increase the weight of his plagues. Now this is more than an analogy. Univocal reasoning is itself a part of the manifestation of sin. Hence it too must be destroyed. And if it is destroyed the natural result is analogical reasoning. And it matters not how far may seem the way, once one reasons analogically one will arrive at the father’s house at last. The far country into which the prodigal had gone and where he thought he was beyond the father’s control was nevertheless the father’s country, and the father was “pulling the strings” there.

It is this, it will be noticed, that leads us to victory. If it were not true that it is the father who “pulls the strings,” we would reason in vain. For we need not flatter ourselves that even if the non-theist be shown that his position is self-contradictory in the sense that it contradicts his own assumptions and breaks to pieces his own law of contradiction, he will turn from his ways of himself. Instead, he will conclude that man must remain in such complete irrationality, rather than turn to analogical reasoning. The miracle of regeneration has to occur somewhere, and all that we are arguing for is that we must ask where it is that the Holy Spirit will most likely perform this miracle. And then there can be no doubt but that the likelihood is in favor of that place where the non-theist has to some extent seen the emptiness and vanity of his own position.

Similar to the contention that we must be positive rather than negative in our presentation of the truth to those who believe otherwise than we do, is the statement often made that we must present Christianity as an hypothesis which men are to try in the interpretation of the facts of experience. One form of this contention appears when preachers appeal to men to take Christ because he will satisfy them best. Now it goes without saying that a drunkard cannot be tempted into accepting Christ in this way if it be understood as meaning nothing more than that the drunkard is himself, as he is, to be the judge of what really satisfies him. But it is exactly this that the preacher does not want. He wants the drunkard to allow Jesus to tell him what satisfies him, and if he does, then Jesus will satisfy him. Similarly we may certainly present Christianity as an hypothesis if we do it while reasoning with our opponents in an ad hominem fashion, i.e., if we allow him to try what he can make of Christianity as an hypothesis among many by the process of univocal reasoning. He will then soon find that if he is going to accept Christianity he must give up the idea of treating it as an hypothesis and ask forgiveness for having done so. On the other hand, if he continues to regard Christianity as one hypothesis among many, it is a foregone conclusion that he will not accept this hypothesis rather than another. And if he did accept Christianity as the most likely hypothesis, he would not be accepting Christianity, but a substitute for it. To reason about anything as an hypothesis for the explanation of any fact or facts means that there may be other hypotheses that should eventually prove to be true. And if it is conceivable that an interpretation other than God should finally be given for the facts of the universe, then it is also true that these facts are now considered as being apart from God. So then our conclusion must be that if we present Christian theism as an hypothesis, it must always be done by us as a part of our analogical reasoning process, even if it be at that point where we are reasoning for argument’s sake.

One Response to “Method of Christian Theistic Epistemology”


  1. A Survey of Christian Epistemology by Cornelius Van Til « Presuppositionalism 101 - August 24, 2011

    […] of Reality by Cornelius Van TilCommon Grace and Witness Bearing by Cornelius Van TilThe Method of Christian Theistic Epistemology by Cornelius Van TilDownloads ← Christian Theistic Ethics by Cornelius Van Til Book Recommendation: […]

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