Establishing the Boundaries of a Biblical Worldview

Van Til

“Thus the first step that the current scientific method is asking you to take is to assume that the facts that you meet are brute facts. I say you are asked to assume the existence of brute facts. If you did not assume this you could not be neutral with respect to various interpretations given of the facts. If God exists there are no brute facts; if God exists our study of facts must be the effort to know them as God wants them to be known by us. We must then seek to think God’s thoughts after him. To assume that there are brute facts is therefore to assume that God does not exist.”

Cornelius Van Til, “A Calvin University,” in The Banner, November, 1939.

It is the Bible alone that speaks of such a God. And the Bible speaks of his absolute authority. This God always speaks with authority. This God of the Bible, who speaks authoritatively through his Word, is the presupposition of the intelligibility of human experience. He is recognized in the Reformed Faith as the final reference point for all human predication. In this respect the Reformed Faith really stands squarely opposed to all forms of non-Christian thinking. Non-Christian thinking takes man as the final reference point in predication. It places man where the Reformed Faith recognizes 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. On this basic matter we have seen how the Roman Catholic tries to straddle the fence by trying to interpret part of human experience in terms of man and part in terms of God. And the Fundamentalistic position makes a similar attempt with the same fatal results. There is therefore no orthodox position except the Reformed Faith that is really able to challenge Dewey or Plato.

Van Til, C. (1979). Essays on Christian Education. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, ch. 5.

“Righteousness is the sinews of the kingdom of God.”

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and Van Til is explaining what this means. He has already suggested that man’s greatest good — his summum bonum — is to be found in developing his will so that there is a spontaneous response to the will of God. In addition, suggests Van Til, man must develop the backbone and the momentum of his will in its response to God.

The realization of man’s chief end completely undercuts the notion that man is passive in his relationship to God. Rather, it asserts a constant activity on the part of man to become what God wants him to be, and in so doing he realizes the kingdom of God. Thus, when we pray “thy kingdom come” we are asking God to cause us to stand up on our own two feet and be counted. It is Joshua’s declaration, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This is the declaration each person must make about himself or herself in the first instance, and then also for those under the jurisdiction of the individual. It is he requirement of the Messiah that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

In other words, God requires us to stand up and take responsibility for our lives, for our actions. But at the time of the Fall, both Adam and Eve set a pattern of transferring responsibility to someone else. This man or this woman, these parents, this socio-economic status I was born into — can all become excuses to transfer responsibility away from ourselves. Thereby, it is an attempt to alleviate the responsibility God places on each one of us to “stand up and be counted.”

Van Til next takes us into a discussion of righteousness, as he links different aspects of Scripture into this mosaic of personal responsibility to develop our wills, our hearts, our minds, to conform spontaneously to God.

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In the first part of this series, we reviewed Van Til’s foundation of the difference between religion and ethics in order to understand how he presents his case for man’s chief end — his summum bonum. In this it seems Van Til is keen to expand the catechism answer that man’s chief end is to glorify God and offer some help on understanding how that is to occur. A key to understanding Van Til is to comprehend how he presents God as absolute rationality and absolute will. Man, made in God’s image may not have absolute rationality and absolute will, but he does have creaturely rationality and will. And it is these that man is called to use in glorifying God.

In an age where the individual and self-fulfillment are prominent, it is worth stepping back to see how Van Til presents the case not only for the individual, but for the individual’s self-realization. There is a rather subtle but sharp difference between self-fulfillment and self-realization. One involves making the self the center of everything, while the other causes an individual to find himself as he was truly created in God’s image.

Van Til, again.

The Individual

For the individual man the ethical ideal is that of self-realization. Let us first see why this should be so, and secondly, what it means in detail.

That the ethical ideal for man should be self-realization follows from the central place given him in this universe. God made all things in this universe for himself, that is, for his own glory. But not all things can reflect his glory self-consciously. Yet it is self-conscious glorification that is the highest kind of glorification. Accordingly, God put all things in this universe into covenant relation with one another. He made man the head of creation. Accordingly, the flowers of the field glorified God directly and unconsciously, but also indi­rectly and consciously through man. Man was to gather up into the prism of his self-conscious activity all the manifold manifestations of the glory of God in order to make one Central self-conscious sacrifice of it all to God.

If man was to perform this, his God-given task, he must himself be a fit instrument for this work. He was made a fit instrument for this work, but he must also .make himself an ever better instrument for this work. He must will to develop his intellect in order to grasp more comprehensively the wealth of the manifestation of the glory of God in this world. He must will to be an ever better prophet than he al­ready is. He must will to develop his aesthetic capacity, that is his capacity of appreciation; he must will to be an ever better priest than he already is. Finally, he must will to will the will of God for the whole world; he must become an ever better king than he already is. For this reason then the primary ethical duty for man is self-realiza­tion . Through self-realization man makes himself the king of the earth, and if he is truly the king of the earth then God is truly the king of the universe, since it is as God’s creature, as God’s vicegerent, that man must seek to develop himself as king. When man becomes truly the king of the universe the kingdom of God is realized, and when the kingdom of God is realized, God is glorified.[1]

So when the Messiah taught people to pray “thy kingdom come,” we begin to see the direction that Van Til’s understanding of the kingdom and man’s place in it is going to take us. The complete and thorough submission of our will and intellect to the realization of God’s kingdom because that is what we are designed to do: to bring glory to God.

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Footnotes    (↵back returns to text)
  1. Emphasis added.↵back

Suppose we think of a man made of water in an infinitely extended and bottomless ocean of water. Desiring to get out of water, he makes a ladder of water. He sets this ladder upon the water and against the water and then attempts to climb out of the water. So hopeless and senseless a picture must be drawn of the natural man’s methodology based as it is upon the assumption that time or chance is ultimate. On his assumption his own rationality is a product of chance. On his assumption even the laws of logic which he employs are products of chance. The rationality and purpose that he may be searching for are still bound to be products of chance. So then the Christian apologist, whose position requires him to hold that Christian theism is really true and as such must be taken as the presupposition which alone makes the acquisition of knowledge in any field intelligible, must join his “friend” in his hopeless gyrations so as to point out to him that his efforts are always in vain.

Van Til, C. (1955). The defense of the faith. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Philadelphia.

Comparison of Aquinas and Van Til on “Analogy”

The above sketches of Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy and Cornelius Van Til’s doctrine of analogy reveal that they are widely divergent. This difference is seen first of all in their respective presuppositions.

(1) Aquinas presupposes a partial autonomy of human reason, that man may know some things about himself and the world whether God exists or not. Van Til in presupposing only the God who has revealed himself in Scripture considers man to be completely dependent in his knowledge on divine revelation both general and special.

(2) Aquinas believes that all knowledge begins in sense experience, functioning quite apart from revelation. Van Til holds to the validity of human sense experience but only because by revelation man is known to be God’s image-bearer, the finite reinterpreter of the facts of the created sense world. Even sense-knowledge, therefore, functions in the context of revelation for Van Til. (3) Aquinas presupposes that being exists as a scale so that all creatures below God are involved to some extent in non-being as well as being. But for Van Til, there exist only two levels of being, the uncreated and the created, and on this created level the existence of an ant or a flea is as much genuine existence as that of man. Van Til considers such a polarization between being and non-being an inevitable conclusion of non-Christian thought.

In their views of the nature of analogy, Aquinas and Van Til also diverge. The basic difference is that for Aquinas analogy purports to be a middle way between univocal and equivocal predication of names or words to subjects. This is not the case for Van Til. For him analogy applies not to terms, but to the overall process of human thought: man is God’s created analogue in both his being and his knowledge. Man can know because as the image of God, he is ordained to mirror in a finite way God’s infinite knowledge of all things.

In conclusion, it must be adjudged that Aquinas and Van Til have quite distinct concepts in mind when they use the word “analogy.” Clark is guilty of the fallacy of equivocation in charging Van Til with the skepticism which is entailed by the Thomistic doctrine of analogy. On the other hand, it might be well if Van Til were to modify his terminology so as to eliminate the possibility of confusion. Instead of speaking of man’s knowledge as being related by analogy to God’s, it might be said that man’s knowledge bears an image-relationship to God’s knowledge, or that man’s knowledge is reflective of that of God.[1]

Footnotes    (↵back returns to text)
  1. Gilbert B. Weaver, “Man: Analogue of God” in E. R. Geehan, Ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical discussions on the theology and apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. 1971 ( Nutley, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971), pp. 326-327.↵back

The non-Christian scientist must be told that he is dealing with facts that belong to God. He must be told this, not merely in the interest of religion in the narrower sense of the term. He must be told this in the interest of science too, and of culture in general. He must be told that there would be no facts distinguishable from one another unless God had made them and made them thus. He must be told that no hypothesis would have any relevance or bearing on these same facts, except for the providence of God. He must be told that his own mind, with its principles of order, depends upon his being made in the image of God. And then he must be told that if it were not for God’s common grace he would go the full length of the principle of evil within him. He would finish iniquity and produce only war. His very acts of courtesy and kindness, his deeds of generosity, all his moral good is not to be explained, therefore, in terms of himself and the goodness of his nature but from God’s enabling him to do these things in spite of his sinful nature. “Will you not then repent in order to serve and worship the Creator more than the creature?”[1]

Footnotes    (↵back returns to text)
  1. Van Til, C. (1977). Common Grace And The Gospel. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Nutley, NJ. , p. 145.↵back

“How can man’s knowledge coincide with God’s? God knows the end and the beginning, and His sovereign purpose from all eternity in the creation of every fact. Man’s knowledge can never coincide with that. Not only does man have no ability to know anything exhaustively, he can never know anything creatively as God does, nor absolutely, nor in any other way have a coincidence of content. The difference between God and man cannot be bridged by the mind of man.

“But man the theologian wants to make an end-run around Scripture and Chalcedon. He wants some kind of “participation in the eternal,” or some kind of coincidence with the mind of God. If he is denied this, and is reminded of his creaturely status and knowledge, he reacts with dismay, as though the faith were denied. And indeed that faith is denied, the faith of the builders of Babel, who wanted to reach unto heaven and achieve a coincidence with the God they hated and denied. Not in his knowledge, being, politics, or anything else can man enter into the aseity or autotheotes of the three persons of the Godhead. …

“The mind of man cannot bridge that gap between God’s uncreated being and mind and itself. To know as God knows is impossible for man. Man knows as God ordains that man shall know, by His revelation in His word, and by His creation, which manifests His glory, order, grace, and law.

Rushdoony, R. J. (1994). Systematic Theology in Two Volumes: Volume I (189–190). Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books.

Post-Kantian science has not faced this fact [of brute factuality leading to skepticism]. It has simply reduced the idea of complete comprehension for human knowledge from an absolute to a limiting concept. It has taken for granted with Kant that it is up to the human mind as such, itself a brute fact, to arrange these brute facts into universals or laws as best it can. It has taken for granted that in this procedure it is on the way to truth, forgetting that the whole structure of ‘truth’ is then built upon brute facts. Thus modern science has virtually assumed that the addition of zeros will produce something more than zero.

The apparent success of modern science should not blind us to the fact that the whole structure is built upon sand. The success of modern science, we believe, is due to the fact that it really works with borrowed capital. If there really were brute facts, there would be no science. There can be no brute fact. All facts are, as a matter of fact, created and controlled by God. So too the mind of man is created by God. There are real universals in the world because of the creation of God. Even the mind of sinful man can see something of this in spite of his sin. Hence, though built upon a metaphysic which is basically false, the science of the non-Christian may reveal much of truth. When the prodigal son left home he was generous with his ‘substance.’ But it was really his father’s substance that he expended.[1]

Footnotes    (↵back returns to text)
  1. Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith, Vol. VI:Christian—Theistic Evidences (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1976), p.69↵back

a. The Question of Fact

The question of fact is the question of individuation. In any investigation it is important to know what it is that makes one fact differ from another fact. Without such knowledge there would be complete confusion. The distinction between mine and thine would disappear. To build the tower of science would be like building the tower of Babel.

Orthodox Christianity has a definite answer to the problem of individuation. It claims that in the last analysis it is God’s counsel or plan that causes distinction between one fact and another. God makes one blade of grass to differ from another blade; He makes one penguin to differ from another. God calls the stars by their names. Indeed, He names them before He makes them. He deals not merely with the genus nor even with the lowest species. His rationality penetrates down to the last particular of every individual thing. Not a hair shall fall from our heads without the will of our heavenly Father. The doctrine of election and reprobation is but the climactic expression of this general principle.[1]

Footnotes    (↵back returns to text)
  1. From The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co. [1946] 1973), p. 11.↵back