I have written before of how much Cornelius Van Til can surprise me and even break my brain. That pattern continues in the recently republished A Christian Theory of Knowledge, edited by K. Scott Oliphint. Let me summarize why I find the work so brilliant before offering twenty of my favorite quotes.
FOUNDATIONS AND THEMES
A Christian Theory of Knowledge (CTK) is built on a single truth: the self-sufficiency of God. That may not sound so groundbreaking, but Van Til keeps bringing it up throughout the book (“the self-contained triune God,” “the self-sufficient Christ,” “the self-attesting Scriptures”). I had to ask myself why. And here’s the big answer: If God is self-sufficient, then we are fully dependent on him to reveal himself and fully responsible for not trusting in his authority. Again, theology students won’t be surprised by that. But Van Til uses this to dissect and critique the entire history of human thought, which is nothing less than astounding. He takes a theological truth so basic and shows how overlooked and abused it has been throughout the sinful saga of humanity. Readers emerge with a clear sense of just how much difficulty we have submitting to the Lordship of a self-sufficient God. This comes out in a few key themes along the way, each related to how we know things about God, ourselves, and the world (epistemology).
If God is self-sufficient, then we are fully dependent on him to reveal himself and fully responsible for not trusting in his authority.
The Creator-creature distinction. Van Til fronts the Creator-creature distinction constantly. And he does that so we’re forced to relate anything we claim to know to God himself. In short, there is no sense in which we can know anything if we claim to know it in isolation from the self-sufficient God on whom we depend. “If God is self-sufficient, he alone is self-explanatory. And if he alone is self-explanatory, then he must be the final reference point in all human predication. He is then like the sun from which all lights on earth derive their power of illumination” (p. 2). Put differently, a claim to know anything is simultaneously a claim to know something about the God who grounds all things! At no point in our process of acquiring knowledge can we leave out the “God-relation.” When you know anything, you know it as a creature, in reliance on the self-sufficient Creator.
Autonomy. The stitch in the side of humanity has always been our futile claim to our own self-sufficiency: our autonomy. Van Til sees this as the bane of secular thought. “The fact that the assumption of human autonomy is the root and fountain of all forms of non-Christian thought is more apparent than it has ever been in the past” (p. 13). Amen to that. When people try to know anything on their own, in isolated rebellion against God’s Lordship, they are left with dangerous distortions and confusion, unable to even know the difference between right and wrong. If you want a contemporary example, just look at the three Ivy League presidents who refused to say that calling for the genocide of Jews was a violation of their school’s policy on harassment and bullying. This is the end of the line for those who refuse to submit their thinking to the authority of the self-sufficient God, who revealed how evil it is to take the life of any image-bearer (Exod. 20:13), or to threaten to do so. Claiming autonomy in the realm of knowledge leads to dark and ghastly places.
Secular and Impure Christian Thought. The fundamental problem with all forms of secular thought—from Plato and Aristotle to Hume and Kant—is that autonomy has slipped through the gates. At some point, there is a rejection of the self-sufficient God, his self-sufficient Christ, and the self-attesting Scriptures. Some other authority or validation rises to the surface (rationalism, empiricism, dualism, human experience). I was particularly appreciative of Van Til’s critiques of Aristotle, a figure who has so deeply influenced Western thought and Christendom and yet who rejected both the Creator-creature distinction (stating that creation is eternal) and the possibility of our communion or friendship with God. Choosing to follow any strand of secular thought over against God’s revealed will in Scripture leads to what we might call noetic pollution—a sickness of the mind that has turned away from God and finds only darkness and wandering.
If you want more, you’ll have to read the book for yourself. But here are twenty of the most potent quotations for me.
- “The Protestant doctrine of God requires that it be made foundational to everything else as a principle of explanation. If God is self-sufficient, he alone is self-explanatory. And if he alone is self-explanatory, then he must be the final reference point in all human predication. He is then like the sun from which all lights on earth derive their power of illumination. You do not use a candle in order to search for the sun. The idea of a candle is derived from the sun. So they very idea of any fact in the universe is that it is derivative. God has created it. It cannot have come into existence by itself, or by chance. God himself is the source of all possibility, and, therefore, of all space-time factuality” (p. 2).
- “As self-explanatory, God naturally speaks with absolute authority. It is Christ as God who speaks in the Bible. Therefore the Bible does not appeal to human reason as ultimate in order to justify what it says. It comes to the human being with absolute authority. Its claim is that human reason must itself be taken in the sense in which Scripture takes it, namely, as created by God and as therefore properly subject to the authority of God” (p. 5).
- “If everything happens by virtue of the plan of God, then all created reality, every aspect of it, is inherently revelational of God and of his plan. All facts of history are what they are ultimately because of what God intends and makes them to be. . . . In identifying the facts of the universe he sets these facts in relation to one another” (pp. 19–20).
- “Through the fall of Adam man has set aside the law of his Creator and therewith has become a law unto himself. He will be subject to none but himself. He seeks to be autonomous. He knows that he is a creature and ought to be subject to the law of his Creator. He knows that his Creator has made him to be his image; he knows that he ought therefore to love his Maker and bountiful Benefactor. He knows that the light of knowledge depends for him upon his walking self-consciously in the revelation of God. Yet he now tries to be the source of his own light” (p. 34).
- “In the last analysis the ‘facts of experience’ must be interpreted either in terms of man taken as autonomous, or they must be interpreted in terms of God. There is no third ‘possibility.’ The interpretation which takes the autonomous man as self-interpretive is an ‘impossible possibility’” (p. 36).
- “The sort of system the natural man requires is one in which every part is penetrable by human logic. In other words the natural man . . . will not submit himself to a God whose thoughts are essentially higher than his own. . . . What he objects to is the idea of the mind of God as inherently incomprehensible to man because it is self-sufficient and therefore independent” (p. 62).
- “It is one of the great blunders of Christian apologetics that it has sought to answer lower forms of non-Christian thought by higher forms of non-Christian thought” (p. 132).
- “The absolute authority of the Creator-Redeemer God speaking directly to man through the words of Scripture has virtually been replaced by the self-sufficient, autonomous man putting his own ideal self on a pedestal and bowing down before it” (p. 188).
- “Man as the interpreter of Scripture must first be interpreted by Scripture” (p. 203).
- “The essence of non-Christian methodology is to appeal to rationality that is above God and man as well as to possibility that surrounds them both” (p. 206).
- “It were quite legitimate and true to say that the foundation of all personal activity among men must be based upon the personality of one ultimately person; namely, the person of God, if only it be understood that this ultimate personality of God is a triune personality. Within the Trinity there is completely personal relationship without residue. For that reason it may be said that man’s actions are all personal too. Man’s surroundings are shot through with personality because all things are related to the infinitely personal God” (pp. 210–211).
- “All of man’s acts must be representational of the acts of God. Even the persons of the Trinity are mutually representational of one another. They are exhaustively representational of one another” (p. 211).
- “When the idea of autonomy in man is accepted in any measure the Protestant view of Scripture is to that degree compromised” (p. 221).
- “The Bible must be presented to men as the principle in terms of which the whole of human life is to be explained” (p. 225).
- “The gospel of God’s grace to sinners comes to creatures who know God but who have rebelled against God and therefore do not know God lovingly” (p. 230).
- “For the birth of faith in the soul, it is just as essential that grounds of faith should be present to the mind as that the Giver of faith should act creatively upon the heart” (p. 241).
- “Men cannot look at any fact whether within or about them but they must see in it the presence of God. Even when men have fallen into sin they cannot eradicate their sense of the presence of God. Sin is what it is precisely because it is a negative ethical reaction to God’s inescapable presence” (p. 247).
- “A theism that is merely said to be more probably true than its rivals is not the theism of the Bible. It is the God who cannot but exist that is the one who is clearly and unavoidably present to every man created by this God. Man’s sense of deity speaks of this God, not of a god who probably exists and probably does not exist” (p. 255).
- “Every fact of the space-time world is what it is, in the last analysis, because of its relation to the activity of the triune God of Scripture. Man himself, as the subject who knows, knows himself and his universe for what they are only if he sees himself and his universe in their relation to the triune God of Scripture” (p. 267).
- “The God of Scripture tells us that he cannot possibly not exist. He presents himself as the self-referential source of all that exists in the universe” (p. 268).