[This is a book review philosopher Ronald Nash wrote for Christianity Today in their January 16, 1970 edition.]
Attack on Human Autonomy
A Christian Theory of Knowledge, by Cornelius Van Til (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969, 390 pp., $6.50), is reviewed by Ronald H. Nash, director of the Graduate Program in Humanities, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green.
No student of Christian theology and philosophy should regard his education as complete until he has carefully worked his way through at least one of Professor Van Til’s books. In this extension of his earlier Defense of the Faith, Van Til continues his attack on all systems of thought that exalt the autonomy of man at the expense of the sovereign God of the Scriptures. If God is sovereign, nothing can be above him (such as the laws of logic) or can exist independently of him (such as “facts”). Human knowledge is impossible unless man’s knowledge is analogical of the divine knowledge, that is, unless man thinks God’s thoughts after him. Van Til’s purpose in this book is to show modern man the relevance of Christianity by demonstrating that only Christianity has the answers to the questions that modern thought seeks in vain.
The thesis of modern theology, philosophy, and science is that “nothing can be said conceptually about a God who is above what Kant calls the world of phenomena, the world of experience.” But, Van Til counters, if the God of Christian theism does not exist (or cannot be known), then Chance is ultimate. And if Chance is ultimate, then nothing (neither words, nor thoughts, nor events) can have any meaning. But if nothing has meaning, it is impossible to deny (or affirm) the existence of God or anything else. The effort to eliminate God turns out to be self-defeating. “If Christian theism is not true, then nothing is true…. So far as modern thought is not based upon the presupposition of the truth of Christianity it is lost in utter darkness. Christianity is the only alternative to chaos.” The “death of God” is simply the inevitable result of the elevation of autonomous man over God. It is what we should have expected all along.
The foundation of all non-Christian thought is the presupposition of human autonomy. Van Til is especially hard on non-Reformed Christians who try to support their faith by appeals to logic, to “facts,” or to probability. If God is sovereign, neither he nor his Word can be compromised by such appeals. Van Til also attacks (correctly, I think) the modern dialectical approach to Scriptures, which prides itself on its “dialogue” with modern man. The dialogue is spurious, Van Til contends, because the Christ presented by dialectical theology is a Christ that no one can know.
While Van Til devotes space to several of his critics (Floyd Hamilton and J. Oliver Buswell, Jr.), his book does not contain one reference to the man who over the years has offered the most serious objections to his position. I am referring to Van Til’s “fellow Calvinist,” Gordon Clark of Butler University. Clark continues to be concerned over the qualitative difference that exists in Van Til’s system between the divine and human knowledge. According to Van Til, God’s knowledge and man’s do not (and cannot) coincide at a single point, from which it follows that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and man. Clark’s contention is then that Van Til’s view leads to skepticism, because if God knows all truth and man’s “knowledge” does not coincide with what God knows at a single point, then man does not possess knowledge. Until Van Til answers this objection, I must agree with Clark.
I have several objections of my own, also. All Van Til’s conclusions are supposed to follow from the principles set forth in his first three chapters, but it is exactly at this point that his argument is weakest. Take, for example, his defense of the Scriptures. Like Van Til, I believe in the authority and the inspiration of the Bible. But so far as the ultimate validity of his system is concerned, everything depends on Van Til’s ability to defend the authority of the Scriptures without making any appeal to logic or to “facts.” He argues then that the authority of the Scriptures is self-attesting.
As I see it, a self-attesting truth is one that cannot be questioned. A good example of a self-attesting truth would be an analytic statement like “All bachelors are unmarried man.” No evidence can be offered that could throw the truth of this statement into questions; no evidence is even needed to support its truth. But in the case of the Scriptures, even Van Til admits that there are problems. He does not think the problems are sufficient to undermine the authority of the Bible, but the important thing here is his recognition that problems do exist. I fail to understand how a system of truth that faces problems which even Van Til admits may never be fully resolved (see page 35) can be self-attesting.
A second problem concerns Van Til’s peculiar understanding of the term fact. It is impossible, he argues, to separate a fact from its ultimate interpretation, which means God’s interpretation. I am willing to grant this, but how is a sincere disciple of Van Til supposed to know when his facts are God-interpreted? When they are consistent with the Scriptures? Hardly, for the Bible says nothing about most of the facts in question. When our interpretation coincides with God’s? Hardly, for we must never forget that there is no point of identity between the divine and human knowledge. I contend then that Van Til’s use of “facts” is vacuous, since there is no way for man to know when his facts are God-interpreted.
Finally, I am most uncomfortable in the presence of Van Til’s treatment of logic, which he derides as a test of truth. Yet at the same time, he warns that we must not take the biblical teaching about both divine sovereignty and human responsibility as a contradiction. In fact, he admits on the bottom of page 38 that the presence of a logical contradiction in the Bible would be evidence against the Bible’s claim to be the Word of God. For the life of me, I cannot understand this vacillating use of logic. It looks very much as if Van Til introduces logic when it is convenient and ushers it out the back door when it is no longer needed.
I believe these problems are serious. But I do not think they detract from the importance of this book or from Van Til’s stature as one of the most important and original Christian apologists of this century.