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Van Til Apologetic Chapter 4 – The Epistemological Side of Apologetics

4.1 Bahnsen tells us, ‘a person’s epistemological behaviour and commitments are ethical in character’.  Give an example.

The first example we encounter in the chapter – from the pen of VT – contrasts the way (ancient) Greeks tended to reason, beginning with Physics (their immediate environment) and moving outwards to Metaphysics (their more remote environment).  The Greeks, argues VT, thus exhibited a philosophical bias in favour of naturalism & evolution, believing that natural entities emerged from primordial slime before their supernatural counterparts.  Such a worldview takes for granted that humanity (Greek) culture didn’t fall from an Edenic paradise where man, as God’s preeminent creature was endowed with knowledge and commissioned to subdue the earth, etc.  Other examples cited include: (i) Christian thought = an attempt to integrate the various aspects of Biblical teaching VERSUS non-Christian (antitheistic) thought = an attempt to integrate the various aspects of autonomous human experience (p151) (ii) Unfallen Adam’s reasoning VERSUS Eve’s reasoning, having capitulated to Satan’s temptation (p152). (iii) Metaphysical constraints of time and temporality VERSUS the (Christian) theist’s recognition of God’s eternal decree (p153).  NB.  Thus, right-reasoning ultimately depends on regeneration; hence repentance = a change of mind! (p155)

4.2a Differentiate BRIEFLY between belief, knowledge and truth

Not all our beliefs are true, rather knowledge is ‘true’ belief.  Philosophers tend to agree that knowledge = ‘justified true belief’.  Justification is a further crucial part which we’ll end up covering below (see 4.3).  But for the time being, it’s helpful to appreciate that knowledge = true belief.

Incidentally, it needs highlighting & stressing at this point that the wide variety of opinions out there on a host of disparate topics warrant proper intellectual SIFTING.  We must never settle for laziness in our pursuit of knowledge. Alas, hoards of Christians do!!  Bahnsen tells us that VT was “resolute in teaching that (philosophical) opinions that stand opposed to each other ought to be refuted by a reasoned argument, instead of by ridicule and assumption”.  Accordingly, writes GB, “the conflicting claims about what is known or not known about Christianity call for analysis and cogent reasoning”.  (page 158)  Given the antithetical nature of truth we must, as honourable citizens of heaven seek it.

4.2b What is the Christian conception of ‘truth’?

Truth is fundamentally ‘whatever conforms to the mind of God’ [p163].  GB cites (i) The works of His hands are verity and justice; all His precepts are sure.  They stand fast forever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness. [Ps 111:7&8]; (ii) “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. [Jn 14:6]; (iii)   However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth [Jn 16:13a].

4.2c Is it possible to know ANY fact truly apart from God?  Explain!

No it isn’t! (see p171-2).  Van Tillians are apt to say, ‘there is no BRUTE factuality’.  Let’s briefly consider why.  It is only as the fact exists in the context of ALL factuality that true meaning and significance can be allocated to the fact under consideration.  But only God perceives the totality of His created universe & the true meaning/significance of each fact contained in it.  As a covenant keeper, the Christian necessarily recognises this & seeks to comprehend each fact in accordance with Scripture – the light by which God illumines our understanding of all created factuality.  VT called such a method of knowing ‘the method of implication’ – i.e. “what we seek to do in our search for understanding the universe is to work ourselves ever more deeply into the relations that the facts of the universe sustain to God”.  [p173]

4.3a Why MUST it be the case that the ‘unbeliever’ actually does believe in God?

This is because knowing is a PERSONAL enterprise.  Inanimate objects (e.g. lamp-posts & kettles) don’t know.  Only persons know.  This realisation inevitably drives us back to the contemplation of who/what we are.  According to Scripture, we are persons made in the image of God.  We know because God is a ‘knower’.  We are moral because God is moral; we appreciate goodness, beauty & truth because God Himself does & has filled His universe with them!  Thus, when all is said & done, we can only make sense (i.e. ACCOUNT FOR) our knowing of anything insofar as we acknowledge our relationship, as creatures, to God our Creator.  Therefore, St Paul writes,

“…. because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts…” (Rom 1:19-21)

4.3b What KIND of knowledge of God does the ‘unbeliever’ possess? 

Following on from what we have said above, it follows that the kind of knowledge possessed by EVERY man is ‘constitutional’ (p184).  We are, as it were, hard-wired with the knowledge of God.  It is not knowledge derived from deduction or inference or any similar sort of mental procedure; rather it is IMMEDIATE and INSTINCTIVE, like when Grandma, unseen, addresses us & we instantly & intuitively recognise her voice.  VT rehearsed what John Calvin had said about it centuries before, identifying such innate knowledge of God as man’s ‘sensus deitatis’ (sense of God’s being).  (see p186)

VT thus urges ‘the Reformed apologist must seek his point of contact with the natural man in that which is beneath the threshold of his working consciousness, in the sense of deity which he seeks to suppress’.  (p189)

Again, ‘God made man a rational-moral creature.  He will always be that.  AS such, he is confronted with God.  He is addressed by God.  He is a covenant being… The very activity of his consciousness is a daily reminder to him of the will of God.  Though he has tried over and over again to choke the voice of God he has not been able to do so.  Involuntarily, men think back, with the Prodigal, to the father’s home.’ (p190/192)

4.3c What are the some of the practical implications of this?

First, it is apparent that there really aren’t any true atheists.  Rather, the unbeliever is involved in a sort of subtle self-deception.  He kids himself that he can get along just fine without God.  We need to explain, gently yet forcibly, to him that his problem is not so much disbelief as ‘dislike’ of God.

Conscience would appear to be very closely bound up with what we’re here saying.  Conscience appears then to function as, the voice of God, sometimes approving, sometimes disapproving our words & actions.

VT draws our attention (see p187) to man’s inherent dissatisfaction with life lived apart from God.  We may well meet occasionally one who seems ostensibly content & at peace within himself, etc.  But by and large, the generality of ordinary folk, if pressed & if honest, would agree with Mick Jagger (Rolling Stones), “I can’t get no satisfaction”.

We shall, in due course, come to see that authentic patterns of thought follow immaterial, universal laws – the Laws of Logic – which are simply the way God thinks & the way He expects us to think.  In so far as we are mindful of what we’re doing when we think we are mindful of our close relationship to God. We want to ‘think God’s thoughts after Him’ (J. Kepler).

Finally, this realisation ought to make us yet more kind & respectful of our fellow men. When they stand before us, they represent their/our Maker.  They possess infinite worth & dignity by virtue of the ‘imago Dei’ (image of God) in which they are created.  They instinctively & intuitively recognise this themselves!

Steve Layfield