Van Til’s Epistemology

“Van Til’s theory of knowledge is based on his metaphysics. For there to be any validity to man’s knowledge, Van Til believes we must presuppose the triune God revealed in the Bible. He believes that if the question of knowledge is made independent of the question of being, we are in effect excluding the Christian answer to the question of knowledge.

Starting with God’s knowledge, Van Til argues that God’s knowledge of himself and of the created universe is exhaustive. In other words, there can be no new knowledge for God about himself or the universe. God’s knowledge is analytic in that he is himself the source of all that can be known. He does not add to his knowledge, which is eternal, analytic, comprehensive, and inexhaustible.

From God’s knowledge of himself, Van Til advances to God’s knowledge of the universe. God’s knownledge of the universe depends on his knowledge of himself. He made the universe in accordance with his eternal plan, so its very existence depends on his knowledge. As a creature made in the image of God man can and does have true knowledge. God’s knowledge is the standard of man’s knowledge. “The one must be determinative and the other subordinate.” Van Til, however, is careful to point out that although man’s knowledge of God must be true, it is not and cannot be exhaustive. Creatures cannot have comprehensive knowledge.

Since man can know God truly it follows that he can also know the world truly. Van Til uses the doctrine of creation as the basis for his assertion. Since both the subject (man) and the object (created reality) of human knowledge are created by God, there must be objective knowledge. Subject and object are adapted to one another according to the plan of God. This is seen in the fact that man (subject) was given a mandate to interpret the world of objects under God. Without this interpretation of the universe by man, Van Til believes, the world would be meaningless. The objectivity of knowledge, therefore, rests on the doctrine of creation. If this doctrine is relinquished, the particulars or facts of the universe would be unrelated and could not be in fruitful contact with one another.

Seeing, then, that the objects of knowledge are brought into relation with the human mind according to God’s creative purpose, these objects will not be truly interpreted if they are not brought into relation with the divine mind. God being the  ultimate category of interpretation, the things in the universe must be interpreted in relation to him…

The doctrine of revelation is important to Van Til’s concept of epistemology. Since it is according to God’s plan that finite things are made, Van Til insists that all knowledge that any finite creature would have must rest upon the revelation of God. Thus the knowledge that we have of the simplest objects of the physical universe is based upon the revelational activity of God.

Van Til follows both Kuyper and Bavinck in stressing the fact that Scripture is the objective principle of knowledge for the Christian. This means that the truths of the Scriptures must be taken as the light in which all the facts of experience are to be interpreted. It follows necessarily that if Scripture holds such a crucial position its pronouncements about reality cannot be subject to the scrutiny of reason but must be taken on their own authority. Van Til is aware that such a position will be criticized as authoritarian but he maintains that God’s revelation is always authoritarian.

All the objections that are brought against such a position spring, in the last analysis, from the assumption that the human person is ultimate and as such should properly act as judge of all claims to authority that are made by anyone. But if man is not autonomous…then man should subordinate his reason to the Scriptures and seek in the light of it to interpret his experience.

…Van Til of course, believes in innate knowledge but not in the Cartesian sense since it has no place for revelation. He sees innate knowledge as having a certain thought content, although it is involuntary and appears most clearly at the intuitional level of man’s consciousness. This innate knowledge does not work independently of acquired knowledge. They are correlative to one another. Van Til’s approach to epistemology, then, is neither inductive nor deductive, a priori nor a posteriori, as these terms have been historically understood.”

(Wells, Reformed Theology in America, 122-24)


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