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Wednesday, August 24, 2005 

A Van Til in the hand is worth a Kant and Hume in the bush

Justin Taylor points out a helpful site over at Reformation 21 (the blog of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals). I thought I would make much of the material available here as well. It deals with Cornelius Van Til.

Van Til is widely known in the Reformed world as an arch-philosopher/apologist. His work on ideas such as presuppositional apologetics, the Transcendental Argument for God, his views on the creator/Creature distinction, etc., have all made his theories a force to be reckoned with by antagonists of the Christian faith and Christians who hold to various forms of epistemology and apologetics.

This shows how Van Til would diagram the Christian and non-Christian worldviews in his class lectures, as a former student recounts:

"Van Til . . . always taught that a Christian worldview should be represented by two circles (for Creator and creature), clearly distinct from one another, with the larger one (representing God) on top. One circle alone referred to the non-Christian worldview, in which man and God (if he exists) are on the same level, part of one reality."
-- John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1995), p. 27

By taking more of what Van Til thought, we can fill out the circles to form this picture.

Here are some priceless quotes by Van Til on the fixed antithesis between these two fundamental worldviews. (This was a concept that I learned from, among others, Van Til. There are only, and can ever be only, two distinctions amongst humanity. We cannot divide people by conservative/liberal, moral/sinful, Republican/Democrat, or Iowegians/the rest of us; there is only one division that the Bible makes: the seed of the Woman and the seed of the Serpent.)

"The Pragmatist thinks it quite possible to ask: 'Who made God?' Back of God lies mere possibility. Possibility is a wider concept than actuality. God and man both dwell on the island called Reality. This island is surrounded by a shoreless and bottomless ocean of possibility and the rationality that God and we enjoy is born of chance. The Theist thinks it impossible to ask: “Who made God?” God is for him the source of possibility: actuality is a wider concept than possibility. The little island on which we dwell rests upon the ocean of the reality of God; our rationality rests upon the rationality of God. Pragmatism maintains a thorough metaphysical relativism, while Theism will not compromise on the conception of God as a self-conscious absolute personality."
-- Christianity and Idealism (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), p. 8

"Kant’s phenomenal realm is but an island, and that a floating island on a bottomless and shoreless sea. After all, the human mind can furnish at most a finite schematism or a priori. We do not admit that the human mind can furnish any a priori at all unless it is related to God. But suppose for a moment that it could, such a schematism could never be comprehensive."
-- Christian-Theistic Evidences (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), p. 37.

"It is upon the basis of this presupposition alone, the Reformed Faith holds, that predication of any sort at any point has relevance and meaning. If we may not presuppose such an "antecedent" Being, man finds his speck of rationality to be swimming as a mud-ball in a bottomless and shoreless ocean."
-- Christianity and Idealism (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), p. 138.

"Modern science boldly asks for a criterion of meaning when one speaks to him of Christ. He assumes that he himself has a criterion, a principle of verification and of falsification, by which he can establish for himself a self-supporting island floating on a shoreless sea. But when he is asked to show his criterion as it functions in experience, every fact is indeterminate, lost in darkness; no one can identify a single fact, and all logic is like a sun that is always behind the clouds."
-- Christian-Theistic Evidences (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), pp. 147-48.

Here is a quote about the idea of human reason being a clearing in the middle of a forest:

"If we compare the realm of the phenomenal as it has been ordered by the autonomous intellect to a clearing in a large forest we may compare the realm of the noumenal to that part of the same forest which has not yet been laid under contribution by the intellect. The realm of mystery is on this basis simply the realm of that which is not yet known. And the service of irrationalism to rationalism may be compared to that of some bold huntsman in the woods who keeps all lions and tigers away from the clearing. This bold huntsman covers the whole of the infinitely extended forest ever keeping away all danger from the clearing. This irrationalistic Robin Hood is so much of a rationalist that he virtually makes a universal negative statement about what can happen in all future time. In the secret treaty spoken of he has assured the intellect of the autonomous man that the God of Christianity cannot possibly exist and that no man therefore need to fear the coming of a judgment. If the whole course of history is, at least in part, controlled by chance, then there is no danger that the autonomous man will ever meet with the claims of authority as the Protestant believes in it. For the notion of authority is but the expression of the idea that God by his counsel controls all things that happen in the course of history."
-- The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), p. 143.

Another area of thinking, this time classic philosophy, that has lent to Van Til’s immortal relevancy, is his work on the One and the Many.

Particulars and universals are eternally related in God. Creation is a finite reflection of God.
Allegedly, a string with no ends (unity abstracted from all particulars) combines with beads with no holes (particulars abstracted from all unity) to create the intelligible world.

Philosophers of all stripes have always tried to reconcile these two tensions found in nature.

The non-Christian assumes that unity and diversity, law and fact, are originally independent of each other. The universe furnishes the diversity, and the mind furnishes the unity. But each apart from the other cannot be an object of knowledge; they amount to chaos (particulars with no unity) and a blank (unity with no diversity). Either way, the irrational is ultimate. And these two irrational elements cannot come into positive relation and create rationality because, by hypothesis, they exclude each other—as if one tried to string beads without holes onto a string with no ends.

The Christian view is that God is the source of all unity and diversity, all laws and all facts. The One and the Many never exist in complete abstraction from each other. God is an eternally existing "concrete universal." God's plan for the world is comprehensive of all individual facts that ever exist. He is omniscient. The absolutely rational is ultimate.

More quotes:

"[I]t may be said that for the human mind to know any fact truly, it must presuppose the existence of God and his plan for the universe. If we wish to know the facts of this world, we must relate these facts to laws. That is, in every knowledge transaction, we must bring the particulars of our experience into relation with universals. So, for instance, we speak of the phenomena of physics as acting in accordance with the laws of gravitation. We may speak of this law of gravitation as a universal. In a similar way, if we study history instead of nature, that is, if we study the particulars of this world as they are related to one another in time as well as in space, we observe certain historical laws. But the most comprehensive interpretation that we can give of the facts by connecting the particulars and the universals that together constitute the universe leaves our knowledge at loose ends, unless we may presuppose God back of this world. . . . As Christians, we hold that in this universe we deal with a derivative one and many, which can be brought into fruitful relation with one another because, back of both, we have in God the original One and Many. If we are to have coherence in our experience, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition."
-- An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 22-23.

"If then, on Kant’s basis; science is to be saved from having to do with, on the one hand, an infinite number of unrelated particulars—like beads that have no holes in them and, on the other hand, having to do with pure abstract logic—like an infinitely long string which has no ends and certainly no end that can be found by man—then science must be saved by this very same man who does not understand himself and who never will understand himself."
-- The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), p. 17.

"A scientific method not based on the presupposition of the truth of the Christian story is like an effort to string an infinite number of beads, no two of which have holes in them, by means of a string of infinite length, neither end of which can be found."
-- The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), p. 2.

"[A]ccording to all non-theistic thinking, the facts and the laws that are supposed to bind the facts together into unity are first thought of as existing independently of one another and are afterward patched together. It is taken for granted that the temporal is the ultimate source of diversity. Accordingly, Reality is said to be essentially synthetic. The real starting point is then an ultimate plurality. And an ultimate plurality without an equally ultimate unity will forever remain a plurality. It is this that is especially apparent in all forms of pragmatic thought."
-- A Survey of Christian Epistemology
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1969), p. 217.

Alright, enough from me. I'll let the good doctor finish out on two more subjects: the idea of "The Great Chain of Being," and the relationship of faith and reason.

The Great Chain of Being

"Arthur Lovejoy speaks of this hierarchy as The Great Chain of Being. Lovejoy points out the internal contradiction that lies at the heart of this idea. On the one hand, the world of the Absolute is said to be wholly other than the world here below. The idea of the Absolute is obtained by the process of negation. The Absolute is therefore a timeless, static something of which man can only say that it is not this and not that. On the other hand, the Absolute is thought to be the originating source of all that takes place in our world of change."
-- The Great Debate Today (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971), pp. 22-23.

"The Thomistic notion of the mind of man as potentially participating in the mind of God, leads to an impersonal principle that is purely formal, and as such is correlative to brute factual material of a non-rational sort. It follows that it is only by abstraction from individuality that the facts can be known. The whole scheme of the philosophy of nature is made into a 'Chain of Being' idea, fitted into a pattern of ever-increasing universality. Inasmuch as anything is higher in the scale of being than something else, it is to that extent less individual. All knowledge is of universals. And, as already observed, it is the mind conceived of as ultimate and as correlative to these facts, that has to abstract from particularity in order to know them."
-- The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980 [1971]), pp. 89-90.

"The Greek view appears clearly in the philosophy of Plotinus, the last of the great Greek thinkers. On the view of Plotinus man as an individual hovers between a world of pure abstract rationality and a world of pure abstract non-being or contingency. To be himself, man must, on this view, be constantly torn in opposite directions. He is drawn upward toward pure rationality, lest his individuality, derived as it is from pure non-being, lead to his annihilation. But he is, at the same time, drawn down toward non-being, lest his individuality be swallowed up into abstract impersonal rationality and he thereby lose his identity."
-- Is God Dead? (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1966), 3.A.

"I know what the analogical being of Aristotle is. I know that it is based on a supposed interaction of pure form and pure matter on a continuum of levels, a chain of being. I know that, with his idea of being as analogical, Aristotle tried to mediate between the abstract eternal essences of Plato’s thought and the utterly unrelated particularism of Sophistic thought. I know that the effort of Aristotle was a failure. His lowest species was still of the same nature as was the highest essence of Plato. For Aristotle, as well as for Plato, knowledge is of universals only. Aristotle’s concept could do nothing but drift on a bottomless and shoreless ocean of chance that was pure matter. Holding firmly with Plato and with Parmenides to the adequation of thought and being, Aristotle was unable, for all his supposed empiricism, to attribute any significance to history and its individuality."
-- The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980 [1971]), p. 217.

"Evil is thus mere negation, non-moral in character, found as it is within the realm of those things that are possibles by the law of logic. It is by making of man a moral amoeba near the bottom of the scale of being that Thomas hopes to escape the charge of determinism. It is by thinking of the will of God as pure identification with abstract rationality, and by making man’s will the principle of moral indeterminacy, and then bringing both of these concepts to bear upon the moral acts of man that Thomas hopes to escape both determinism and indeterminism. If, when deciding to act morally, man places before himself the ideal of the vision of deity, he will more and more participate in the being of God. And on his part, God, by spreading abroad his goodness widely but thinly at the bottom of reality and more narrowly and heavily toward the top of reality, opens the way of opportunity for man to approach God himself in intensity of being and goodness, and enables man to do what of himself without such grace he could not do. . . . "Looking at the doctrine of the will in man as Thomas develops it, we see at once that real freedom for him is absence of being. On the other hand, nothing but being can be a cause of anything. “But only good can be a cause, because nothing can be a cause unless it is a being, and every being as such, is good.” * To the extent that man has being he participates in the being of God and as such is good. According to the extent that he has being, man may be said with God to be the giver of the rule, the lawgiver. Here again is the principle that the moment the individual speaks, this individual has lost his individuality."
-- The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980 [1971]), pp. 102 & 104. * Summa Theologica, I, Q.49, A.1.


"All too often it has been presented as though there is, first of all, that which Christianity has in common with all non-Christian ethics, and then there are special requirements that pertain to Christianity alone. The first may be spoken of as the first story of a house. So Roman Catholicism argues as though Christianity took the four cardinal virtues of Greek ethics as a first story, and merely added to it the three virtues of love, hope, and faith as a second story. But this is not true. The structure of Christian ethics is something that is different from all other systems of ethics. The first story of Christian ethics is built of different material from that of which non-Christian ethics is built, as well as is the second story. And it is to the difference of the first story that we must turn first. . . . This difference is clear as far as the standard of ethics is concerned if only we keep in mind that, according to Christian ethics, the moral consciousness of man has never functioned apart from God, while according to all non-Christian ethics, the moral consciousness has always functioned apart from God."
-- Christian-Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 127-28.

"Looking back we recall that we started our discussion of the Protestant doctrine of Scripture by an analysis of the views of Warfield and of Bavinck. Both men view the place of Scripture as imbedded in their total outlook on life. They do not build the first story of their house by reason in order then to add a second story built by faith. Their outlook on life is a living whole. For convenience we speak of this total outlook on reality as a world and life view."
-- The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), p. 103.

"How then is the Christian believer to proceed as he seeks to win sinners to accept the Christian point of view? Roman Catholicism answers this question as follows. . . . Christians must offer their own position as something additional to what the non-Christian already believes. The Christian must tell the non-Christian that there is no defect in what he says about life but that he has not said enough. The Christian must tell the non-Christian that he has only half of the orange and that Christianity has the whole orange. On this view Christianity is presented as though it were the second story of a house, the first story of which has already been built and built well, by the Greeks."
-- "Scripture And Reformed Apologetics," from The New Testament Student and Theology, edited by John H. Skilton (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976), 3:150–59

"On the other hand faith for Kant pertains to what he calls 'the noumenal realm.' Of that realm man cannot intellectually know anything. If there is to be any contact with what is in that realm, it must be by irrational or non-rational means. In general, it is said to be faith by which we know what is there. And God is said to be there. But then the God who is there is indeterminate. The contact between the two realms is, from both directions, a partially rationalist and partially irrationalist affair. The idea that God has made man in his image, that Adam at the beginning of history knew God by direct revelation in his own constitution and in his environment as well as by direct communication is, on this basis, impossible. Nothing that happens in history, on the days and weeks and years of the calendar, can bear a direct revelation of God. The Son of God cannot come into history on a certain day and die or be raised from the dead on a certain day in ordinary history and thereby effect the reconciliation of man to God."
-- The Theology of James Daane (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959), Ch.4, § 5

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That is great to hear, thank you for reading!

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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