One Circle People v. Two Circle People
The One and the Many
Great Chain of Being
Two Story House
exceedingly dangerous to confuse the orthodox concept of the
incomprehensibility of God with the ultimate mysteriousness of the
universe as held by modern thought. Modern thought in
general, and modern logic in particular, holds . . . that God is, at
most, an aspect of Reality as a whole. Hence, God is himself
surrounded by darkness or mystery, just as man is surrounded by
darkness or mystery. In other words, modern thought believes in
Christianity believes in an ultimate
It is difficult
to think of two types of thought that are more radically opposed to one
another. It is the most fundamental antithesis conceivable
in the field of knowledge. . . . The very foundation of all
Christian theology is removed if the concept of the ultimate
rationality of God be given up."
However, we can add more detail to Van Til's chalkboard diagrams based on his vivid illustrations of the atheist worldview in his writings. In the atheist's circle I have added an island of reason that has arisen out of the bottomless and shoreless sea of an ultimately non-rational universe:
The grids in the these diagrams represent rational structure. The Christian worldview begins with a triune God who is absolutely rational; and He creates a rational world. "Reason" in the atheist worldview is depicted as similar to the Christian God in these diagrams because the atheist claims that the human mind is autonomous, as Christians claim for God. The atheist says that the only autonomous minds are finite human minds. There is no autonomous Absolute Mind. Thus any rational structure in the world is imposed by the human mind. The human mind is a finite island of rational structure that floats in the dark, meaningless ocean of an ultimately non-rational world. There is a formal similarity between the two worldviews in that in both there is an acknowledgment by humans of a mystery that is greater than the human mind, and the human mind originates from that realm of mystery. But the similarities should not blind one to the profound difference between the worldviews: The Christian appeal to mystery is an appeal to an ultimate rationality, while the non-Christian appeal to mystery is an appeal to an ultimate non-rationality. Atheist faith and Christian faith are formally similar, but substantively different.
Here are samples of Van Til's illustrations on which the above diagrams are based:
Non-Christian worldview: An island of human rationality in a shoreless sea of pure contingency:
"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.
Or human reason as a clearing in an infinite 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.
Many atheists may disagree with some aspects of the characterization of atheism in the above diagram. In particular, they may dispute that they believe that the non-rational should be equated with the subjective rather than being associated with science and objectivity. It should be noted that Van Til believes Kant's philosophy to be one of the most logically consistent with the atheistic presupposition of the autonomy of the human mind, so the diagram most accurately reflects Kantian atheism. Atheists who believe that there is an objectively knowable world beyond what the human mind has rationalized are borrowing from the Christian worldview rather than being as consistent with the idea of human autonomy as Kant was in declaring things-in-themselves to be unknowable.
The One and the Many
Van Til also often explained the difference between Christian and non-Christian worldviews in terms of the One and the Many:
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.
"[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.
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 ), 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 ), 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 ), pp. 102 & 104. * Summa Theologica, I, Q.49, A.1.
The Faith - Reason Two Story House