God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 6: Cornelius Van Til and Revelational Epistemology Correctly Understood

Sparks gives a brief nod to Van Til before summarily dismissing him as a Cartesian foundationalist. Sparks is correct to criticize Cartesian foundationalism, but wrong to associate Van Til with that epistemology. Those who understand Van Til know that his epistemology was developed (through the influence of Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper among others) with the express purpose of refuting foundationalism. Van Til believed that a Christian epistemology must necessarily flow from an explicitly Christian philosophy. Foundationalism, on the other hand, is anything but necessarily or explicitly Christian. As Jonathan Wilson states, “A foundationalist epistemology seeks to ground knowledge in truths that anyone can accept. Thus an inerrantist who applies a foundationalist epistemology might say, ‘Set aside any convictions about Jesus Christ, God and salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. I will show you that the Bible is true through historical, geographical and scientific study that everyone agrees on.’”[1] This is clearly not the approach of Van Til’s epistemology. In fact, this is exactly the model Van Til argued against in almost everything he wrote.[2]

Sparks misunderstands Van Til’s epistemology as radicalizing the postmodern claim that all interpretation is contextual. He believes Van Til to say that, “we must know everything (the whole context) in order to know anything (that which we are interpreting).”[3] Based on this statement, Sparks concludes that to know anything, a person would have to know the ultimate thing—God. Since an unbeliever does not know God, he would be missing the most important element in interpretation, and therefore, his interpretations would not be good. Sparks believes that Van Til held that correct interpretation requires a belief in God. Sparks disagrees, for he has great confidence in the ability of unbelievers to arrive at truth, often doing so more consistently than believers, in his account.

Additionally, says Sparks, presuppositionalists deny that the Christian beliefs required for good hermeneutics can be acquired through general hermeneutics. The only healthy way to interpret anything is via a special hermeneutic that presupposes the truth of Christian belief. Sparks concludes that this makes presuppositionalists “strong Cartesian foundationalists, for whom the basic beliefs needed to reach incorrigible truth are gifts of grace available only to genuine Christians.”[4] Unless one approaches Scripture presuppositionally, he will fail as an interpreter. Hence, good interpretations are only available to presuppositionalists.

A Van Tilian presuppositionalist will immediately see serious problems with this characterization of presuppositionalism. First, Van Til’s discussion of particulars and universals took place in the context of the way that the Christian belief in the Trinity solves the philosophical problem of the one and the many.[5] So, Sparks’ reference to this unrelated point of Van Til is not germane to epistemology.

Second, Van Til never claimed that theological constructions by presuppositionalists or anyone else were incorrigible. What he claimed was that unless one utilizes a revelational epistemology in which the search for knowledge begins with the ontological Trinity as revealed in the Scriptures, there would be no logical necessity for any truth proposition, and no way to prevent irrationality. Apart from God in whom actuality and necessity exist, and in whom possibility finds its grounds, these properties are difficult to imagine, let alone demonstrate conclusively.

In Part 7 we will conclude this critical analysis of God’s Word in Human Words with the conclusion of Van Til’s revelational epistemology.

[1] Jonathan R. Wilson, “Toward a New Evangelical Paradigm of Biblical Authority,” in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 155.

[2] Representative works include Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (4th ed. K. Scott Oliphint, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008); An Introduction to Systematic Theology (2nd ed. William Edgar, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007); A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, no date)..

[3] Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Specifically, Van Til was answering the question of how we can know how any one particular relates to another. Because philosophy could not find a universal, there was no way to establish any necessary link between any particulars. Van Til’s answer to philosophy was that the unity of God in his oneness, and the diversity of his triunity gives an answer to the question of the one and the many. All the diversity in the world finds unity in that it is all created by God who is distinct from all created matter. We know everything truly, therefore, only in light of the unity and diversity of the Trinity. “In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal, and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.”[5] What Van Til said about particulars and universals is, therefore, true. Unless one accepts the biblical picture of the Trinity and all it entails, he can never know the why of any particular, even though he may know a great deal of the what of that particular. Would Van Til accept the idea that an unbeliever may arrive at a proper theological interpretation? Certainly, but the unbeliever could never account for why that interpretation is correct.

About Mark Farnham
Professor of Apologetics and Director of the Pre-Seminary Major at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Founder and Director, Apologetics for the Church (apologeticsforthechurch.org). PhD in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; ThM in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

One Response to God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 6: Cornelius Van Til and Revelational Epistemology Correctly Understood

  1. Pingback: God’s Word in Human Hands Series by MARK FARNHAM « The Domain for Truth

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