God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 7: Conclusion

Several additional corrections to Kenton Sparks’ characterization of presuppositionalism need mentioning. Third, in regard to the nature of man’s knowledge, Van Til believed, with Reformed theology, that there exists a distinction between God’s knowledge and man’s, but rather than being entirely similar, they are analogous. That is, God’s knowledge is archetypal and man’s is ectypal, patterned after God’s.[1]Archetypal knowledge is perfect knowledge and is only possessed by God. God is identical with his knowledge; his knowledge is not a universal external to Him. All human knowledge, on the other hand, is ectypal, patterned after God’s knowledge. This has two implications: first, since man’s knowledge is derived from God’s knowledge, it is true knowledge; second, because it is not archetypal, it is necessarily finite. This distinction, then, allows for humans to possess true, but incomplete knowledge. Nowhere in this distinction is “perfect” knowledge demanded or expected, as Sparks seems to characterize most of evangelical theology. Human language is, therefore, adequate to communicate true knowledge. Van Til recognized the difference between archetypal and ectypal knowledge, and knew that man could never attain perfect knowledge.

The bridge between archetypal and ectypal knowledge is revelation. In revelation, God condescended to man and revealed himself, making knowledge possible. The two main forms of special revelation, incarnation and inscripturation, communicate clearly and perfectly what God wanted man to know. Sparks’ epistemology, like that of many evangelicals, does not require revelation. Revelation is added later, but is not necessary to make the system coherent. Sparks’ division between God’s knowledge and our knowledge makes God’s knowledge unattainable. Human knowledge (all human knowledge), therefore, must contain error. Sparks leaves no room for revelation in which God condescends to reveal himself through his Word. Scripture seems primarily human, and only distantly divine in his reading.

Fourth, Van Til’s presuppositional epistemology takes the fallenness of humans far more seriously than Sparks’ practical realism. While Sparks makes much of the effects of the Fall on knowledge, Van Til emphasizes the effects on man himself. “Owing to man’s ethical depravity, man is unwilling to recognize himself as a creature. Accordingly, he assumes that the foundation of the validity of human reasoning lies in himself.”[2] Again, “The result for man was that he made for himself a false view of knowledge. Man made for himself the ideal of absolute comprehension in knowledge…In conjunction with man’s false ideal of knowledge, we may mention here the fact that when man saw he could not attain his own false ideal of knowledge, he blamed this on his finite character. Man confused finitude with sin.”[3]

Finally, Van Til would never have accepted the idea that only presuppositionalists can arrive at proper interpretations. What he would say is that only presuppositionalists have rational warrant for their epistemology, because only Scripture provides the principium for human knowledge.[4] Van Til did not often discuss biblical hermeneutics as Sparks supposes. This is another indication that Sparks’ failure to distinguish epistemology from hermeneutics has left him with confusion on this point. Van Til was more concerned with demonstrating that any attempt to establish knowledge by means of autonomous human reason was necessarily flawed and irrational.

Much more could be said about Van Til’s revelational epistemology.[5] Suffice it to say that Van Til saw only two options for epistemology. A revelational epistemology begins with the ontological Trinity as the principium essendi of knowledge, and Scripture as the principium cognoscendi by which we know the principium essendi. All other epistemologies began with autonomous human reason as that which judges all truth claims, including those of Scripture. Revelational epistemology begins with God and proceeds to human knowledge, unlike other epistemologies that add God after the system has been established. Whereas rationalist and empiricist epistemologies begin with human belief and seek to progress to knowledge, revelational epistemology begins with the sensus divinitatis, the implanted knowledge of God in every person, which is true knowledge. On the basis of this sure, universal knowledge, it proceeds to judge beliefs as true or not. In addition, the role of the Holy Spirit in leading a believer to truth plays a central role in Van Til’s thought. He took seriously the Scripture’s distinctions between the knowledge that fallen man possesses and that which redeemed man possesses, especially when it comes to knowledge of God through the Scriptures.

In contrast to practical realism, then, which posits high confidence in human perception, and low confidence in human ability to know, revelational epistemology places lower confidence in human perception and high confidence in human ability to know, and more importantly, total confidence in Scripture to judge both. The problem, as Van Til saw it, was not that humans want to know, but are hindered by their limitations (a metaphysical problem). The problem is that humans have the ability to know, but their fallenness has resulted in rebellion against knowledge, even the most basic knowledge—that there is a God—making man’s problem an ethical problem (Rom. 1:18-25). The portrayal of man as suppressing truth in rebellion against God is absent in discussion of realism, whether it be Sparks’ practical realism, Murphy’s holism or Hiebert’s critical realism. Realism assumes that humans are, for the most part, on a genuine search for the truth. This contrasts sharply with the futile thinking and foolish hearts of unbelievers in Romans 1:21. While this view of man may not hinder the unbeliever from discovering truth, he can never account for his discovery properly. It also means that his “search for truth” will always be taking place simultaneously with his suppression of truth in rebellion against God.


God’s Word in Human Words faces a dilemma. If its epistemology is flawed and inadequate, its conclusions regarding the text of Scripture are suspect. Practical realism has been shown to be unable to support its own weight. The adoption of this epistemology by some evangelicals is troubling, for to subject Scripture to the scrutiny of autonomous human reason can only result in theological and spiritual disaster. While the “humanity” of the text of Scripture must be addressed, the answer lies not in a proposal undergirded by practical realism.[6] Any doctrine of Scripture must begin with its primary characteristic—its supernatural inspiration. Only in light of the divine authority of Scripture can an exploration of its “humanity” be safely pursued.

Wrestling with difficulties in the Scripture must begin with an epistemology that proceeds from God himself, bounded the Word of God. Sparks, by contrast, has begun with an approach that places too much confidence in the conjectural conclusions of scholars examining “evidence” in a self-professed neutral and objective fashion. This is too much like foundationalism to be plausible for evangelicals. For an epistemology to be faithful to Scripture it must proceed from Scripture. By this method alone can evangelicals be sure that they have not accommodated the truth to the criticism of human reason.

[1] Van Til describes these types of knowledge as “original” and “derivative.” He notes that our knowledge is not merely symbolic, but true, though derivative; Intro to Systematic Theology, 324 n9.

[2] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 98.

[3] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 36-37.

[4] For a detailed explanation of the role of principium in epistemology, see K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006).

[5] Another important distinction Van Til made was between created reason, fallen reason and redeemed reason. Each of these bears on the question of the nature of reason in human knowledge today.

[6] For a more orthodox treatment of this topic, see Gaffin, God’s Word in Servant-Form.

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.

2 Responses to God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 7: Conclusion

  1. Richard L. Lindberg says:

    Good analysis of Sparks. It is interesting to see a Baptist make such good use of Van Til.

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

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