reformed theology

Van Til, Reformed Epistemology-Chapter 2

Source of Van Til’s Work

History of Epistemology in General

Now that he has shown that establishing an adequate epistemological model is of paramount importance, Van Til now wants to take a look at how humans throughout history have attempted to find certainty.

He begins by viewing pre-Socratic thought, which simply assumed the validity of their knowledge. In this period there were views of philosophers such as Heraclitus who assumed that all was in flux as opposed to Parmenides who said that nature was unchangeable. The great number of contradicting views of reality during this time period led to doubt, causing the Sophists to call attention to the theory of knowledge.

Afterward came Plato whose metaphysics revolved around his theory of forms which were perfect, eternal, and unchanging. He said that the only certainty we can have is of these forms, but not any material object. Any intellectual relationship we have of the material world is simply a belief or opinion. Unlike Plato, Aristotle held that we need to look for the universal in specific things or, in other words, their essence. While Plato held that the forms exist outside of objects, Aristotle’s epistemology focused on particular objects and worked its way to a knowledge of essence. The way in which he does this is through his theory of four causes which allows us to come to an object’s telos. However, Aristotle held to a God who was the prime mover, but besides that, had no relation to the world. This led the Neo-Platonists to create “mediators” which would allow us to approach an unapproachable God.

The Middle Academy held the view that nature is simply unknowable. Augustine wrote against these thinkers, not only claiming that we can have probably knowledge, but certain knowledge.

The early modern period is where serious epistemology began. Here we see Locke create a system where our knowledge is based off of our immediate impressions. Hume took this idea and showed that this empiricism inevitably leads to skepticism, because the ideas we form from the impressions are imperfect copies, making our analytic judgments of those ideas also imperfect. Rationalism made the opposite mistake by stating knowledge is based upon universal a priori principles, neglecting our perceptions entirely.

Kant, in an attempt to unify these two sides, states, “Thoughts without perceptions are empty, while perceptions without thoughts are blind.” Here we see a critique of both rationalist and empiricists. To overcome this dualism he proposed that real knowledge must depend on a priori principles of the mind. But how do we not get stuck in our minds like the rationalists? Kant claims that space and time has no existence apart from mind, subjecting all experiences to the laws of our thinking. All knowledge is synthetic a priori knowledge. However, Kant has to concede that all we can know is the phenomena that appear to us. This means we cannot know things in themselves (in the noumenal realm we do not have access to), so we get locked up into the subjectivity of our experiences. Van Til claims that this is the fundamental error of all non-revelational idealistic epistemology. He states that Kant was correct in thinking that the starting point must be the human subject, but mistaken in thinking that the human subject must be creative and productive in a sense. Kant went too far in thinking that the subject plays such an active role, when all idealism needs is the fact that experience is necessary for something to be real for us. Also, we can know a higher reality through the initiative, not of the subject, but of this higher form itself. Van Til sums it up by saying, “Idealism has willfully shut itself up…It has closed its windows that looked up to the sky.”

Van Til thinks that a correct epistemology is one where experience comes into our consciousness but we do not produce it. He notes that while Hegel and Kant have several stark differences, we must note the unity they shared, which was the emphasis on the creativity of the mind. The rational then is the real and the real rational.  An epistemology that leads to identity is one which necessarily denies error, which we know to exist. It seems that any non-revelational epistemology fails.



The Need for the Gospel in Practical Apologetics

With boiling blood, I picked up the desk I was sitting at. I swiftly maneuvered over to where he was sitting, desk over my head, and proceeded to club him with all the force I was capable of producing. Perhaps now he would understand how stupid the things he was saying really were.
At least…this is what I was fantasizing about doing in my head. We were in an empty classroom on Wednesday night discussing the moral argument (William Sorley’s version), which goes like this:
  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

We were currently talking about the second premise and were coming up with a list of objective moral values. Once we made a somewhat exhaustive list, the guy leading the discussion asked “Do we all agree that the things in this list are good, regardless of whether someone believes them to be or not?” The few of us that were in there all nodded in agreement….except the fellow in my fantasy above. He began to talk about why he believed that all of our moral values had some advantage in natural selection, how in the end everything comes down to opinion, and how there is no such thing as right or wrong. Of course, we were not going to let him get away with saying such things. I crafted up a scenario where my girlfriend (a pretty far-fetched scenario, I suppose) was hanging out with another guy, and in my anger I killed her for doing so. I asked our friend whether or not her family had any right to seek justice against me for killing their daughter. To my surprise, he quickly replied with a no; explaining that it is just a construct of our society to care about human rights. This was just the start of 45 minutes of running around in circles, because we had completely different worldviews. I seriously thought that the only way to get this guy to think about what he was saying was to bash my desk over his head and to see if he really thought he had no right to do anything about it. Fortunately, I did not do that, but coming out of that classroom, I had many new thoughts concerning practical apologetics. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

Apologetics Cannot Rely on Philosophical Arguments for Theism

Now, I do really, really appreciate the works of intellectuals who defend arguments that point to the existence of God. These arguments being like the moral argument (the one above), cosmological argument, ontological argument etc. However, I believe that in the place of practical apologetics, these should not be our main source of fire power. While these arguments do have their place in apologetics, most people really do not find these arguments compelling enough to start following the Christian God. All these arguments can do is point to a God like the one we believe in, but ultimately these are not going to create disciples. I think that arguments like these are best used to defend the Christian God from certain objections, but that we cannot stop there when conversing with a non-believer. Also, like the situation above, it is too easy to get tripped up on certain premises. Instead of getting no where, we have to move onto describing what we actually believe. Because even if you do show them that the premise you are defending is correct, that really does not move them in the direction we want them to (closer to the Christian God). While I love watching debates with intellectuals like William Lane Craig and John Lennox, I do not know a single person who has accepted Christ as their savior because of debates like those. These philosophical arguments are very good for strengthening the faith of believers and answering objections to God, but our apologetics should not simply be to show that God can possibly exist.

The Gospel Should Always Be the Focus of Apologetics

So what should we be intentional in doing when conversing with a non-believer? The answer sounds so simple, but it is so often neglected, it is to share the gospel. The Book of Acts has many examples of the early apostles sharing the gospel to both Jews and gentiles. I think Acts 17:16-31 contains one of the clearest examples of how to converse with non-believers. In verse 18 we are told that Paul was in the streets talking to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of the day. We are not told that he argued with them on their terms, but rather he was “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” This led them to letting him speak in the Areopagus, where he began to preach the gospel. In his sermon that he gave there, he started with where his audience was. He started with talking about the idols that he saw in Athens, and then used that as his starting point to proclaim the good news of Christ. This is what we need to be more intentional in doing when we are talking about God with non-believers. Apologetics is completely useless if the gospel is never mentioned. Let us seek to show people the love of Christ instead of trying to win fruitless arguments.

When idols, confusion, and sin I see

I will preach the gospel, relying on thee

No fear in not knowing that words I will say

Your spirit will fall, showing me the way

If just one soul awakened, even if I die

Pure glory to God, in heaven I will cry

Soli Deo gloria