Van Til Diagrammed

Ultimate Reality
Ultimate Reality

Two Faiths
One Circle People v. Two Circle People

One and Many
The One and the Many

Two Basic Views with Three Non-Christian Varients

Chain of Being
Great Chain of Being

Two Story
Two Story House


Taking in Each Other's Washing

God - the Missing Link in Knowledge and Ethics

A Transcendental Argument is Like a Diving Board

 Man Made of Water Trying to Escape an Infinite Sea of Water


Introduction:  Van Til's Copernican Revolution

"It is 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 an ultimate irrationalism, while Christianity believes in an ultimate rationality.  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."
-- Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1995), p. 13 (latter emphasis added).


Christian Worldview


Atheist Worldview

        Van Til's characterization of the Christian and non-Christian worldviews is a radical challenge, a virtual Copernican Revolution, to the understanding of religion that dominates modern culture.  It is common to hear in our day that faith and reason are mutually exclusive areas of life.  The famous Marxist evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard called it the doctrine of NOMA, or non-overlapping magisteria ("magisteria" means teaching authority).  "The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap. . . .  To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven." (Gould,
"Nonoverlapping Magisteria")  Gould's essay is focused on science but this division of authority is often conceived more broadly as the distinction between reason and faith.  On this view, the realm of reason has no need of, and cannot co-exist with, divine authority.  Reason is the realm of science, politics, law, and objectivity.  Faith is the realm of the non-rational, emotion and pure subjectivity.  Thus a person can, and should, participate in the rational areas of life without any concrete direction from God.  A person operating in the realm of reason can rely on God for emotional support, for a "sense of purpose," but that is all.
        This means that as human reason advances, the need for faith should diminish.  Faith is an explanation for things that reason cannot explain.  Faith was more needed when man was more primitive and faced a world of overwhelming mystery and terror.  Freud taught that the origin of the idea of God is as a projection of primitive human minds that a loving father was in control of the fearful mysteries of the universe in order to give comfort to those primitive people.  But as human reason advances, the need for God should fade away like the smile on the Cheshire Cat.
        Framed in such a manner, the issue of the truth of Christianity versus atheism is a simple one.  Atheism is the rational belief and Christianity is devoid of rationality, because reason has been defined to exclude faith.  End of discussion.
       But that was too easy.  Who came up with the definition?  The definition of faith as a leap beyond reason makes sense in terms of the atheist worldview because in that view an Absolute Mind is denied, making the world ultimately non-rational.  The ultimate mind in the universe is the finite human mind (or maybe a finite alien mind); thus anything beyond the finite human mind is beyond reason.   This means that the argument above for atheism begs the question of atheism.  When Freud characterizes religion as a leap beyond reason, he is describing the irrationalism that is inherent in the atheist worldview because irrationalism is ultimate in the atheist worldview.  Faith that is a leap beyond reason is atheist spirituality, not Christian spirituality!  Freud assumes the materialistic evolutionary worldview when he describes primitive human consciousness emerging through purely non-conscious, non-rational, materialistic evolutionary forces.  He assumes rather than proves that human minds thinking about God and the forces beyond their control are thinking about the non-rational realm from which their minds emerged, and thus are only self-delusionally God-dependant. 

       The Christian faith in things beyond human reason is not an appeal to the non-rational but to the absolutely rational.  
The Christian trusts in God, who is absolutely rational and is sovereign over all that exists.  Humans are created in the image of God; thus they originally exist in personal relationship with God, not inventing the idea of God to make up for their ignorance.  Christianity represents the dominion of the Logos (John 1:1), the Word, the Reason.

       With this understanding, the tables are turned on the atheist.  The debate between atheism versus Christianity is not a matter of reason versus faith.  As Cornelius Van Til points out in the quote above, the debate is between a worldview in which the non-rational is ultimate (atheism) and a worldview in which the rational is ultimate (Christianity).  There is a formal similarity between the two worldviews.  Both include an appeal to faith, mystery and spirituality; but these similar words hide a substantial difference between the two—that the atheist is expressing belief in an ultimately non-rational universe when he uses these words, and the Christian is expressing belief in an ultimately rational universe.

       With the atheist view that the finite mind of man is the ultimate mind in the universe, the universe becomes philosophically anthropocentric (and geocentric, since humans live on earth).  As Copernicus overturned the geocentric view with the heliocentric view, Van Til has overturned the atheist view that man's mind is autonomous with the view that God's mind is autonomous.  The universe is theocentric rather than anthropocentric.

Atheists, Polytheists, and Arminians as Fellow Believers in Naturalism

        "Atheism" here does not exclude other intelligent beings in the universe, whether they be like space aliens or Greek gods.  The worldview of Greek mythology can be called "atheistic" or "naturalistic" because ultimate reality is impersonal - not a personal God.  Chaos or some material substance was the ultimate source of existence that gave birth to gods according to Greek mythology.  While they may differ on epistemology, there is a significant philosophical agreement between those who believe in intelligent but finite gods and those who believe in only intelligent finite humans because both views affirm an ultimately impersonal, non-rational world.  In either case, they share the same fundamental philosophical problem - explaining how the rational and moral arose in an ultimately non-rational, amoral universe.

     This shows that atheists have a superficial understanding of theism, atheism and polythiesm when they claim that monotheists deny all gods but one and they are just taking the logic of monotheism one step further by denying all gods.  The picture they paint is of a continuum with atheism on one end, montheism in the middle, and polytheism on the other end of the continuum.  But atheism and polytheism should be seen as different varieties of naturalism.  The latter just has a more robust imagination.  In terms of philosophy of ethics, a human concensus as the ultimate source of ethics, as atheists often tout, is no better than the council of gods touted by Euthyphro.  (See here for more on Plato's Euthyphro.)


Christian Worldview


Atheist Worldview

           Even schools of Chrisitan theology that are considered conservative can be included in the "atheist" worldview as Van Til has divided the intellectual landscape here.  If God's absolute soveriegnty is denied, that is, a denial that everything that happens in history happens according to God's eternally predetermined plan, then God's rationality is not ultimate.  God becomes finite, and some impersonal principle outside of God originally determines what happens in history.  This would include the denial that God predestines who will be saved.  (This answers the claim that Van Til's apologetic can only answer those who deny divine revelation.  The nature of the God who reveals is all-important.)

"Yet both Romanism and Arminian Protestantism leave the root assumption of the modern man untouched. And they leave this root assumption unchallenged because the root assumption of their own theology partakes in a measure of the root assumption of the foes of the Christian religion. Romanism, and in a lesser degree Arminianism, cannot challenge the heresy of those who worship and serve the creature more than the Creator because they themselves are not willing to serve the Creator exclusively. Only in the Reformed Faith is full justice done to the idea that man is the creature of God and that he must therefore live exclusively by the revelation of God."
--  The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 19.

"The main point that we are concerned to make in this section is that Arminians, though in distinction from Roman Catholics they claim to stand firm upon the Bible as the final revelation of God, are yet unable to challenge effectively the methodology of modern man. Their doctrine of free will makes them a ready prey to the modern notion of contingency. Their refusal to accept the doctrine of the all-controlling plan of God is itself of a rationalistic character; it assumes that that cannot be true which man cannot penetrate exhaustively by logic. Thus it is to be expected that they will also fall prey to the modern idea of rationalism."
--  The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 23.

One Circle People v. Two Circle People

Van Til Chalk Diagram

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.

If a person believes in a god, but that god is subject to the forces of history or something else beyond itself (like the god of modern process theology), then that is a one-circle worldview no less than atheism.

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:

Two Faiths

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.

"In the case of Kant the application of the law of contradiction to the facts of space and time results in the reduction of the body of scientific knowledge to something that resembles a floating island of ice on an infinitely deep and extended boiling cauldron of change."
--  Christianity in Conflict (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1995 [1962]), p. 118.

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:

Two faiths - one and 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.

    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.

          There are two basic options regarding the One and the Many:  1) The One and the Many are eternally related (the Christian/Biblical view), or 2) they are not, meaning the One and/or the Many exists in abstraction from the other.  This second choice allows three possible alternatives:  1) Only the One exists; no divesity exists. 2) Only the Many exists; there is no unity.  Or 3) the One and the Many originally exist in abstraction from each other, and then combine to form the intelligible world.  The Christian view begins with an intelligible world, or more precisely an absolutely rational triune God who creates the world.  The non-Christian view begins with the unintelligible, and can only end there.
          While innumerable different beliefs can be appended to either the Absolute view of the Abstract view, for the issue of the original relation of the One to the Many, this covers all the possibilities.  In terms of this issue the "impossibility of the contrary" can be established.  The Absolute view allows for the possibility of knowledge.  The Abstract view does not.  And there are no other options on this issue.  In other words, the nature of God as He eternally relates the One and the Many to each other and all doctrines that are logically entailed by that are established as necessarily true by the transcendental argument.  Other aspects of God's nature and other doctrines of man, the world, and salvation have to be specially revealed by God.  Empirical proofs are part of the verification of whether they are revelations truly from God, and thus that the content of any particular revelation is true (e.g. miracles and/or fulfilled prophecy accompanying the revelation).  For more on this, see my essay, "
The Scope and Limits of Van Til's Transcendental Argument:  A Response to John Frame"
         Since the Abstract view asserts an ultimately impersonal universe, and this ultimate authority is mute since it is impersonal.  Man becomes the ultimate being who speaks; therefore, man becomes, for all practicle purposes, the ultimate authority in such a worldview.  The rebel against God asserts the ultimate impersonalism of the universe in order to assert his own ultimate, autonomous authority.  Thus the two views can be described as asserting God as the ultimate authority versus asserting Man as the ultimate authority.


Two Basic Views with Three Non-Christian Varients

Only two basic views:

"There is no other alternative, as far as theories of reality are concerned, than that between Christianity which regards man as a creature of God, and non-Christian thought which regards man as a product of impersonal forces in a universe that is somehow, accidentally, here."
--  Christian Theistic Ethics
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 71.

"However restricted the debate between the believer and the non-believer may be at any one time, there are always two world views ultimately at odds with one another. On the one side is a man who regards himself as being unable to find an intelligible interpretation of experience without reference to God as his Creator and to Christ as his Redeemer. On the other side is the man who is certain that he cannot find any such an interpretation. He assumes that there resides with him the power to make a universal negative statement about the nature of all reality."
--  The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), pp. 5-6.

"We are now prepared to state the issue between the basic principle of interpretation of human life and experience that thus comes to expression in modern theology, philosophy and science and that which comes to expression in the idea of an infallible Bible as set forth by Warfield. That issue may be stated simply and comprehensively by saying that in the Christian view of things it is the self-contained God who is the final point of reference while in the case of the modern view it is the would-be self-contained man who is the final point of reference in all interpretation."
--  "Introduction" to B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authorityof the Bible
(Phillipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948), p. 18.

"So then the situation is always mixed. In any one’s statement of personal philosophy there will be remnants of his old man. In the case of the Christian this keeps him from being consistently Christian in his philosophy of life and in his practice. In the case of the non-believer this keeps him from being fully Satanic in his opposition to God. But however true it is that non-Christians are always much better in their statements of philosophy and in their lives than their own principle would lead us to expect and however true it is that Christians are always much worse in the statement of their philosophy and in their lives than their principle would lead us to expect, it is none the less also true that in principle there axe two mutually exclusive systems, based upon two mutually exclusive principles of interpretation."
--  "Introduction" to B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authorityof the Bible
(Phillipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948), pp. 24-25.

Three possible views from the negation of the absolute God:

          "The third and last position of Plato mentioned in the preceding paragraph needs some further elucidation, because it represents the high-water mark of Plato’s thought and, we believe, has exhausted the possibilities of all antitheistic thought, whether ancient or modern.
          "This third position of Plato was the result of the recognition that the acceptance of either the first or the second position would involve the acceptance of an abstract method of reasoning, which Plato was most anxious to avoid. It was impossible to approach the whole of truth if one should reason on the basis of empirical facts only. On the other hand, one could never seek to account for the reality of the world of senses (sensuous world), if one would limit his knowledge to the standard of the Ideal world only. These could not be kept separate. And what was most important, Plato had the true insight that unless one could relate the two worlds in one comprehensive scheme of knowledge, one could not expect to know anything about either of the two worlds. He felt that in the human soul the two worlds were somehow united, and one would have to understand this union to understand either the soul itself or anything else. . .  
          "Plato was glad to admit that his argument was abstract when he was at his first and second positions. But we must now observe that his thought had not lost any of its abstract character even when he maintained his third position. Plato’s logic remained an either or affair. An ultimate interdependence of the categories of time and eternity leads to just the same abstraction as that to which an ultimate independence of these categories leads. The reason for this is that an ultimate interdependence eventually amounts to a victory of the one type of category over the other. Plato could not stop his ice cubes from becoming water unless he would freeze all the water into ice. Or, to use the marriage illustration once more, there was harmony 'ever after' because the husband never disputed the wife’s opinions but took them for granted as final authority."

--  A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), .pp. 38, 42-43

         "If the abstract rationalist principle of continuity were to be taken by itself, it would obviously destroy all individuality and all history, and therewith all human predication. To prevent this calamity, apostate thought employs the irrationalist principle of discontinuity. By means of it, as correlative to form, the reality of time, of change and therefore of history, is supposed to be preserved. But if the principle of pure discontinuity were employed by itself, it would destroy all rational connection between the facts of time. And human predication would cease once more.
          "To prevent the calamity of the destruction of human predication by the exclusive use of either the principle of pure form or pure matter, the two principles are put into correlativity with one another.
         "Will this idea of the correlativity between an abstract or formal principle of continuity, and an equally abstract principle of discontinuity, save human predication? The answer must be in the negative. Each of the two principles are, in the nature of the case, destructive of one another. Each claims the whole of reality exclusively for itself. Nowhere can the contact between them be that of supplementation. On the contrary, any contact must always be that of a death-struggle."

--  Christianity and Barthianism  (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1962), pp. 204-05.

"There seems to be no escape from the consequence that 'God' must be (a) one of the members of the pluralistic universe in which case he is finite, or (b) the universal nature within the members of the Pluralism in which case this transcendence has disappeared, or (c) the combination of these in which case God is identified with the Universe or Whole, so that there is no more need of speaking of 'God' at all." 
--  Christianity and Idealism
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), pp. 22-23.

The Great Chain of Being

The Greeks often expressed their view of the world in terms of the Great Chain of Being.  The concept was brought into Christian theology through Thomas Aquinas, as well as others who tried to combine Greek philosophy with Christian theology.  Here I have illustrated the relationship between the Great Chain of Being and the Greek view of the One and the Many.  Pure being, which is also pure unity, is at the top of the chain.  Pure non-being, out of which arises matter, the principle of diversity, is at the bottom of the chain. Diversity dissolves and unity increases the higher up the chain of being, until a pure blank is reached at the top.  Man is in the middle, pulled in two directions.  He has a material body from below, but a soul from above; and the soul yearns to escape from matter into the pure unity from which it originated.  This has something of a Christian sound to it when God is equated with the One; but this One is a pure blank, an empty concept, not the living, historically active God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Also, this view denies the Creator-creature distinction because man's soul is one being with God; and it poses an irresolvable dialectic tension between the one and the many, which undermines the possibility of human knowledge.

"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 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.

The Faith - Reason Two Story House

Faith and Reason Two Story House

The foremost theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas, held to a distinction between faith and reason that is often expressed as a two-story house.  Reason is the first level.  It is a realm of religiously neutral common ground shared between the Christian and the non-Christian.  On top of this religiously neutral first story the Christian adds the second story of faith.  Aquinas said that the knowledge of God is an area of reason, common between the Christian and non-Christian.   His philosophical evidence for this was Greek philosophers who taught that an abstract principle of reason, called the "unmoved mover" by Aristotle, provided the source of unity for the world.  Because this universal being was achieved by excluding all plurality, the universal being has no content.  Aquinas said, therefore, that by means of reason we can know that God exists, but not the nature of God.  Faith in supernatural revelation tells us the nature of God.  Kant pressed this abstraction of the one and the many to its logical conclusion and said that we cannot not know God at all, because there is nothing to know about a concept without content.  Neither can there be propositional revelation from God because it would have no content.  "Concepts without percepts are empty," Kant famously said.  On Kant's view, religion is not rationally meaningful; it is only emotionally meaningful.  Only an absolutely rational God escapes Kant's criticism—a God who is the source of all the diversity in life as well as all unity, one who is a concrete universal, not an abstract universal.  There is no religiously neutral lower story.  All ground is God's ground.  All of life is religious.  Nothing is secular, except as a false interpretation of life.

"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.

Taking in Each Other's Washing

         Since both unity and diversity are necessary for knowledge, the rationalist and the irrationalist refute each other, and they must steal from each other.  They both can point out that the other needs what he has to make his opponent's view reasonable; and they each must surreptitiously make use of the other one's principle in some way in order to make each of their own views have some appearance of being reasonable.  
         The phrase "taking in each other's washing" had been used by Mark Twain and others before Van Til to mean that people can't earn a living washing each other's dirty clothes - just swapping dirty laundry, washing it and then swapping back.  They make a show of being economically productive but are not really making any progress.  That applies to the issue of the rationalists and irrationalists in that they may have an appearance of making sense of human knowledge and reason but are not really making progress toward that goal by borrowing the ideas of their opponent within their anti-theistic worldview.  My cartoon of athletes taking the article of clothing that they are missing from their outfit goes beyond the original saying, but it further illustrates Van Til's philosophical critique of unbelief.

"Naturally, Plato was 'helpful' when he pointed out to the Sophists that, if reality were subject to universal flux, then human predication would cease to have meaning, and that relativistic theories were generally proposed with a claim of absolute truthfulness. But then, having said this, it would have been well to investigate the other half, namely, that the Sophists were, of course, equally capable of refuting Plato. His highest law, the absolute universal, was a purely empty form. Whatever else was to be said of it, it had still to be made correlative to the idea of pure contingency. But by merely speaking, Plato became a relativist; thus, he took pure contingency into his pure absolute. As with the Sophists, he had to, if he spoke at all, contradict himself with every word. For appearances of justification in predicating on any subject, it thus behooved the Platonist and the Sophist to take in each other’s washing. Pure form and pure 'matter,' or pure contingency, are correlatives of each other. Possibly, Christians throughout history would have an emotional preference for the idealist thinking of Platonism, as over against all forms of sophism, as well as mechanism, materialism and pragmatism before or since. But, as to logical priority, neither was able to “make peace with the law of contradiction,” i.e., neither one could offer a positive foundation upon which the law of contradiction might have been employed at all. Only the Christian position, with its teachings of the triune God as the creator and redeemer of men, is the true starting-point for all argument without contradiction. Scepticism is defeated only by Christianity."
--  Who Do You Say That I Am? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975),  p. 17.

"All non-Christian positions have equal rights with respect to one another just because none of them have any right to their views. If any of them are going to say anything definite about any fact in this world in relation to any other fact in this world, they must flatly contradict themselves in every sentence which they utter. They must use a static principle of continuity and a purely contingent principle of discontinuity in everything that they say about anything." 
--. The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), p. 17.


God - The Missing Link

A.   Between the Object and Subject of Knowledge:

          Denial of an absolute Creator results in the problem of explaining how the subject of knowledge (the human mind) and the object of knowledge (the facts of the external world) can work together to give the human thinker knowledge of facts.  The history of philosphy has shown that philosophers vacilate between the view that facts speak for themselves, leading to a facts being seen as isolated particulars without order, or the mind of man is said to impose order on a less-than-real world of facts.  The solution to the delimma is to see an absolutely rational Creator as the source of both individual facts and the concepts that man imputes to the facts, with the relationship between the two sides existing for all eternity in the mind of God.  The following quote includes Van Til quoting Valentine Hepp, but it is an accurate reflection of Van Til's own view on this point and is a good way to describe Van Til's view:

         "Hepp then turns to a criticism of these two alleged grounds of certainty. He raises objections to seeking the ground of certainty in the subject on the ground that subjectivism always leads to scepticism. Then he adds: 'Above all, however, to see the ground of certainty in the subject itself is in conflict with Christian principle. It leads, as we saw, to self-sufficiency of human thought. Just because we are creatures we cannot in any sense, no more on the question of certainty than on any other question, be sufficient to ourselves.' In a similar manner, Hepp finds that certainty cannot be found by subjecting the subject of knowledge to the laws of the object.  'Thus there is a serious lack found in the field of epistemology. There is here a missing link.… Neither the subject nor the object can afford us the last ground for certainty.'
        " If no ground for certainty is found in the creature it is reasonable that we should seek it in the Creator. Philosophy has to an extent been aware of this fact. Many idealist philosophers have recognized the necessity of the existence of God. They have virtually admitted that our certainty must rest on transcendent grounds. The only solution for the problem is the notion of the general testimony of the Spirit."

--  An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979), p. 51.

"Our argument for the objectivity of knowledge with respect to the universe can never be complete and satisfactory unless we bring in the relation of both the object and the subject of knowledge to God. We may debate endlessly about psychological problems without fruitage if we refuse to bring in the metaphysical question of the nature of reality. If the Christian position with respect to creation, that is, with respect to the idea of the origin of both the subject and the object of human knowledge is true, there is and must be objective knowledge. In that case the world of objects was made in order that the subject of knowledge, namely man, should interpret it under God. Without the interpretation of the universe by man to the glory of God the whole world would be meaningless. The subject and the object are therefore adapted to one another. On the other hand if the Christian theory of creation by God is not true then we hold that there cannot be objective knowledge of anything. In that case all things in this universe are unrelated and cannot be in fruitful contact with one another."
--  The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), p. 60.

B.   Between Law and Love in Ethics:

          An abstract view of the one and the many has a similar effect on ethics as it does on epistemology.  An absolute God is the missing link to bring the one and many together in a way that makes ethics possible.  Obeying God's law has the best consequences in history and eternity because God controls both.  God's law never becomes outdated because God rules over history.  Although there is not perfect justice in history, God rewards and punishes in history in terms of obedience of disobedience to His law in a way that gives people, individually and corporately, time to repent or confirm their unrepentant rebellion.  (I have used "love" here in the sense that is popular and that fits with how a utilitarian would view "love," as doing what has the best consequences for people regardless of what some "impersonal" law would say.  Defined biblically, love can be equated with law.  God commands love, and obeying God's commands results in the best consequences.  Cf.  Lev. 19:18, Matt. 7:12, Luke 10:25-37, Rom. 13:10.)

"We have indicated that all the contrasts between various schools of non-Christian ethics, such as those between intellectualistic and voluntaristic, between national and international, between individual and social, between selfish and altruistic, between happiness and goodness, between usefulness and virtue are all due to the assumed correlativity of God and man [i.e. that reality is bigger than God and man - the one circle view - M.W.]. This assumed correlativity of God and man, this assumed denial of the creation doctrine, this assumed ultimacy of evil allows for no ethical ideal other than that of a give and take, of a “claims and counterclaims” between individuals who must live together and who yet must live at the expense of one another. . . .  All forms of non-Christian ethics rest on the assumption that man has within himself the principle by which he can truly know himself, set the proper ideal for himself, and that he has the spiritual power to make progress in working his way toward the realization of that ideal."
--  Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ.:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980), p. 72.

 "It is well known that Kant has severely criticized Christianity’s conception of moral sanctions. He said that we intuit what is right and should obey the right, no matter what the consequences. We should not be good because we do not wish to go to hell or because we wish to go to heaven. This problem is immediately related to the question of the externality or the internality of the law. Kant claims, and many after him claim, that if we have an internal conception of the moral standard instead of an external one, we shall live on a much higher plane. Much as a child has to be coaxed into being good by rewards or punishments, while a full grown man does the right because it is right, so many hold that Christianity’s conception of eternal weal or woe is indicative of a lower and earlier underdeveloped stage of ethical speculation.
         "It is plain that if we may believe the Genesis account, God, at the beginning of history, began by offering to man a reward and by threatening punishment. The whole of Scripture is in perfect accord on this matter, from the earliest part to the latest part of the history of revelation. But we are now more directly concerned to point out that this Scripture principle is nothing but what we would expect if we were to try to work out a consistent theistic scheme of interpretation. In the first place, the kingdom of God could not be envisaged in all its length and breadth without a special revelation with respect to it. Accordingly, God gave to man something of a vision into the remote consequences of his every ethical deed. Moreover, the rewards and the punishments were a part of the ethical program itself. It would simply be impossible for man to intuit ethical conceptions of right and wrong without seeing them in relation to rewards and punishments, because these rewards and punishments had been made a part of the created ethical situation by God. Hence the attempt to intuit ethical laws without rewards and punishments is only another evidence of the persistent effort on the part of man to get God out of the picture. Still further, the reason why ethical laws were a part of the created ethical situation is that the whole created ethical situation was meant to be a finite replica of the infinite glory of God. If we separate the idea of rewards and punishment from doing good or evil, it would mean that a man who did good might be rewarded with evil. And this would be contrary to the moral glory of God."

--   Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ.:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 135-36.


 A Transcendental Argument is Like a Diving Board

          Hume said that all knowledge arises from experience.  Kant replied that we should also accept that which is necessary for the possibility of experience, even though it is never experienced.  This type of argument is called a "transcendental argument."  Specifically, Kant argued that the autonomous human mind imposes order on experience to make experience intelligible.  Van Til replies to Kant that starting with the autonomous human mind to explain the possibility of intelligible experience fails.  Beginning with the autonomous, sovereign, self-sufficient Creator, who is the source of both the unity and diversity of experience, is necessary for the possibility of experience.  But by "starting point" here, Van Til means the ultimate source of knowledge, that which must be presupposed to account for the possibility of knowledge.  It (He) is the ultimate starting point of knowledge.  But he says that this is not necessarily the proximate starting point.  We can deduce the necessity of God as the ultimate starting point from examining our proximate starting point - the facts of our experience.  That should lead us to conclude that God exists.

          "We cannot be too careful about asking what the starting point of any one’s argument is. It is of the utmost importance that we find our way through the maze of confusion that prevails on this subject.
          "As a help to clarification of this subject we may perhaps suggest a distinction between an immediate and an ultimate starting point. By an immediate starting point is meant the place where the knowledge of facts must begin. It is of course quite consistent with a theistic position to say that we must start with the “facts” as that term is understood ordinarily. Neither Augustine nor Calvin would have objected to saying that knowledge of self was their immediate and temporary starting point. But when the question of an ultimate starting point is raised the matter is different. In that case Augustine and Calvin would both have to say that their ultimate starting point is God. That is, they could intelligently think of their own non-existence but were unable to think intelligently of God’s nonexistence. The difference may perhaps be brought out by the analogy of a diving board. Suppose a diver was standing on the tip of a diving board and that all that he could see of the diving board was the very tip on which he was standing. Suppose further that all that he could see around him was water. Now if he should say that the very spot from which he was about to make his leap is his starting point he might mean either of two things. If we thought of him as unaware of the connection of the point on which he was standing with the foundation on which it rested he would be speaking of that particular spot as the permanent or ultimate starting point. On the other hand, if he were fully aware of the fact that the tip of the diving board is only a tip of a board that rests upon a solid rock under water, he might speak of that tip as a starting point but only as an immediate starting point. The real and ultimate starting point for him would be the foundation on which the whole diving board was resting. Similarly we may say that the question at issue is not that of what is the immediate starting point. All agree that the immediate starting point must be that of our everyday experience and the “facts” that are most close at hand. But the charge we are making against so many Idealists as well as Pragmatists is that they are taking for granted certain temporal “facts” not only as a temporary but as an ultimate starting point. . . .  Yet the very point in question is whether any statement can be made about any appearance at all without reference to the fact of God."

--  A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 119-21.

Or like beams under a floor:
"But the best and only possible proof for the existence of such a God is that his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world. We cannot prove the existence of beams underneath a floor if by proof we mean that they must be ascertainable in the way that we can see the chairs and tables of the room. But the very idea of a floor as the support of tables and chairs requires the idea of beams that are underneath. But there would be no floor if no beams were underneath. Thus there is absolutely certain prod for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. Even non-Christians presuppose its truth while they verbally reject it. They need to presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to account for their own accomplishments."
-- The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), p. 120.

Man made of Water Trying to Escape an Infinte Sea of Water

         Van Til compares the atheist's attempt to explain human rationality to a man made of water attempting to escape from an infinite sea of water.  Since the atheist universe is ultimately non-rational (the naturalistic worldview), the athiest cannot explain how humans could be rational.  Specifically in terms of modern empiricism, which begins with changing sense experience as the source of all knowledge, no unity can be found.  The necessity that connects causes with effects is not itself a sensation.  Even if, in Kantian fashion, the mind is said to impose order on the diversity of sense experience, that mind and the logical categories that it imposes are wholly products of the disorganized world of non-rational particulars. This illustration does not address the problem with a Parmenidean or Platonic view in which changless unity is the only reality and the diversity of experience is an illusion.

 "An illustration may indicate more clearly what is meant. 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.
         "It will then appear that Christian theism, which was first rejected because of its supposed authoritarian character, is the only position which gives human reason a field for successful operation and a method of true progress in knowledge."

-- The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), p. 119.


By Michael H. Warren
Email:  mike @christianciv.com
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This web page last modified April 19, 2014.