October 17, 2013

The Importance of Philosophy

By In C.Jay Engel

[Edit: Make sure your read Jameson’s comment below.  He has graciously read every word I have written topic over the last several days.  He has taken the time to consider and also to respond.  In the end, you’ll notice a unity in Christ despite these differences.  Some things are worth separating over.  I hold that this is not one of them.  I am receiving many emails about this topic and I intend to reply to all of them.  You can always email me too.  It all started here.]

After the last several posts –a few articles and a handful of blogposts –regarding Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til, it has dawned on me that what this site needs is a defense of philosophy.  My esteemed critic (RA Jameson) would seem to downplay the distinction between Van Til and Clark, which really makes me think the big differences between the two have not yet been realized.  If I propose that Van Til’s theory of knowledge does not allow us to believe anything at all, then we should realize that this has an effect on our economic theory just as much as it does our salvation.

For what are political theories, economics, metaphysics, theology, and ethics, without the epistemology?  Are we saved by what we believe? Then we must know perfectly, accurately, those propositions which we believe.

The issue is not a finely tuned point about the distinctions between two presuppositionalists.  The issue is whether reality is, or is not, intelligible.  Furthermore, while my friend may say that this one point is “much ado about nothing,” I have countered that on this foundation rests so much more.  One would hardly say that the difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism was the “small issue” of the authority for the Christian and is therefore much ado about nothing.  Why?  Because on that foundation an entire world of knowledge is built! It is therefore my contention that the dangers proceeding from Van Tillianism must be taken seriously.

But, lest I be misinterpreted here, I do not think that RA Jameson has an urge to downplay philosophy, but rather it is my contention that he does not realize just how important this debate really is for the topic of philosophy itself.  In that spirit, below are some reasons why this debate is not “much ado about nothing.”

But first, regarding the qualitative/quantitative. One of Jameson’s claims against my defense of Clark is the statement: “Of course things are known.”  But this “of course” is too presumptive.  For this is exactly what I am claiming Van Til could not (and did not) say.  An analogy of the truth is not “the truth.”  Truth is propositional.  Therefore, to say that a truth statement is infinite in quality seems unnecessary.  A proposition is either true, or it is false.  Jesus said: “I and the Father are one.”  This is true.  It is not somehow more true when stated by God or less true when stated by man.  This is quality.  The “cat is black” is a proposition that (let’s assume) is true.  If it is true for God, then to the same extent it is true for man.  To say that there is infinite quality for God in a proposition is to say that for man, there is finite quality.  But this is the definition of irrationalism, namely, that the truth cannot be known.  Moreover, to say that God’s knowledge is infinite is to say that the proposition itself can actually grow in its truthfulness.  It can become more truthful.  This is dangerous epistemology.  Let us suppose that God only knew one proposition: “God is holy.”  If he revealed that one proposition to us, we would say that it is true in the exact same sense for both God and man.  When we say that the quality of God’s knowledge is the same as ours, we are saying that each individual true proposition that we know is known in the same way by God.

Am I divorcing qualitative from quantitative? Well, I am saying that they are different categories.  But I do affirm that only God (not man) has perfect quantitative knowledge and that all truth (no matter who believes it) is perfectly qualitative because it is propositional.  Propositions are either true or false.  And remember, when we use the phrase “qualitative,” we are not referring to the quality of the “cat” or the quality of the “black”.  We are referring to the quality of the proposition: “The cat is black.” This is because nouns like “cat” are not propositions and are therefore not truths.

Much Ado About Nothing?

If the propositions that man believes is different in quality than the propositions that God believes, then we don’t have the truth.  For God Himself is truth and his thoughts alone are true.  He thinks in propositional form and has revealed many of these propositions in Scripture.  This is the very foundation of knowledge.  Ironically, one of the arguments that Greg Bahnsen would level against Muslims in his debates is the fact that, since Muslims deny that human words and language can accurately and perfect describe Allah, it follows that the Koran cannot be trusted.  The Koran is made up of words, but apparently they cannot be trusted to teach the truth about Allah. The Clarkian might wonder if Bahnsen ever considered applying the same critique to his mentor.

Thankfully though, Clark provides us with a theory of knowledge that allows the truth to be known.  Namely, that God thinks in propositional form, created man in his image and to think in the same way, and gave us a language by which we can communicate accurately.  Indeed, we can be one with God when we think his very thoughts!  Anyone who has read Clark will realize how radically Clarkian this is.  We “have the mind of Christ.”

It is because the Van Tillians do not believe that all truths are propositional that they can literally hold to contradictory beliefs.  This marks their willingness to venture away from Protestant orthodoxy on the issues of the clarity and consistency of the Scriptures.  In saying that all Scripture is paradoxical, they have affirmed that they are willing to leave behind Machen, Hodge, Calvin, and Augustine, among others, on issues of Scriptural truth and the intellect.  This is the roots of their justification confusion, and their dangerous trinitarian doctrines.

The Van Tillian theory of knowledge has several ramifications:

1. Truth can contradict other truth.

2. The Bible is contains truths.

3.  Therefore the Bible can contradict itself.

4. The Bible is God’s words and thoughts.

5.  Therefore God’s words and thoughts can contradict themselves.

6. God cannot be separated from his thoughts for He is truth.

7.  Therefore, God is self-contradictory.

There was in the last century a “Religious Revolt Against Logic” (to use the words of Ronald Nash, a Reformed Baptist), and perhaps Van Til, in spite of his very impactful teachings in presuppositionalism (he was not always wrong!), helped bring that revolt into the Presbyterian denomination.  Before that, since Augustine, logic was seen as presupposing God because logic was God thinking.  And then came Van Til to say that God created logic and uses it sometimes, but certainly not always.

I’ll conclude with W. Gary Crampton:

Clark, however, corrects the error [that truth is different for God and man]: “To avoid this irrationalism…we must insist that truth is the same for God and man. Naturally, we may not know the truth about some matters. But if we know anything at all, what we know must be identical with what God knows. God knows all truth, and unless we know something God knows, our ideas are untrue. It is absolutely essential, therefore, to insist that there is an area of coincidence between God’s mind and our mind. One example, as good as any, is… [that] David was king of Israel.”

Clark, of course, is not denying that there is a difference in degree between God’s knowledge and our knowledge — that is, God always knows more than man does. What he is denying is Van Til’s assertion that there is no point at which our knowledge is God’s knowledge. That is, there must be a univocal point where truth in the mind of man coincides with truth in the mind of God. (The difference in knowledge, then, is one of degree, not of kind.) Without this univocal point, man could never know truth. Man could not, to use Van Til’s own phrase, “think God’s thought after him,” unless God’s knowledge and the knowledge possible to man coincide at some point.

Van Til’s faulty view of human analogical knowledge entails skepticism.

Lastly, Jameson noted that he wants to be called a “Presuppositionalist” rather than a Van Tillian.  I think this is great.  Especially considering that Van Til deviated from his own (or Bahnsen’s own) definition of presuppositionalism.  Namely, that the God of Scripture must be assumed, not proven.  Finally (I used the words “conclude” and “lastly” already), Jameson is frustrated at both Clark and Van Til.  This makes sense.  But if we look back at the history of the debate and find that one of these men did not want the extreme division nor to break apart the denomination, but simply wanted to have a conversation like we are now, it is hard to be mad at him, even if we find him disagreeable.  To be frank, even many Van Tillians (such as John Frame) expressed dissatisfaction with the way Clark was treated.  You may not like either of them because of the debate, but I would contend that both debated, but only one divided.  “Come, let us reason together.”

In apologetics, the trinity, justification, sanctification, the nature of the Bible, Biblical consistency and clarity, the nature of mankind, and epistemology, I disagree with Van Til.  But all these conclusions stem from the theory of truth.  There is also much I agree with Van Til on.  But these posts are about their differences.  Much ado about everything.






Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • RA Jameson

    Great post C.Jay! I have benefited greatly from your articles and exchanges with me.

    Here are some propositions that I hold to be true: Theology is the chief of studies with Philosophy complimenting Theology where the Scriptures are not explicit. In the study of both, epistemology ranks as vital-in that how can we know God or His wisdom at all? My epistemology is rooted in the sovereignty of God. I know only what God in His grace chooses to reveal to me. Does it hurt to put my hand on the hot burner? Yes, because God has revealed this to me. Is holding hands with the Belle-of-the-Ball as we walk down the street pleasurable? Very much so, but I only know that because God has extended that grace to me. Is God Holy? Yes, He revealed this to me through His Scriptures. Is God creative? Yes, He revealed this to me in BOTH General and Specific revelation. Does God Love me? Very much so. I know that because He told me in Scripture and demonstrated that love through the incarnation of His son who willing offered Himself on my behalf. The more I ponder that revelation, the more overwhelmed I become. Awesome.

    Can I know truth? Yes, to the degree that God reveals it to me.

    I know that He knows all and that I do not. I know that He is truth personified. And to the degree that He reveals Himself to me, I will know truth. And where Allah remains aloof, my God came near. Where Allah remains only transcendent, my God is transcendent and immanent (very awesome). Where Allah remains a mystery to be feared, my God has revealed Himself to be adored and worshiped.

    Here is where propositions end, and questions abound. Does God ask or require of me to distinguish between qualitative knowledge and quantitative knowledge? Not that I know of. Does God ask or require of me to measure the quality of my knowledge up against the quality of His knowledge? Not that I know of. But how do I know anything at all? Again, because God has revealed, by His grace, what He would like me to know. What is the quality of God’s knowledge? I don’t even know how I would know that. Do I know the difference between Rome’s doctrine of Justification and the reformer’s doctrine of Justification? Yes, again, God has revealed that to me.

    To say that ‘God is Holy’ is at the same time qualitative and quantitative. Am I asked to parse the two? Not that I know of. God’s knowledge of His own holiness is perfect, both in quality and in quantity. Is my knowledge of His holiness perfect in either quality or quantity? I seriously doubt it. But yet, I know HE IS HOLY. How, because-I repeat-He revealed that truth to me. And since I am satisfied with an epistemology that rests in the sovereignty of God, and see no compelling command to divorce the quality of a thing known from the quantity of a thing known, I am content to reside here.

    Maybe I am too weak to move from this camp. I think I would have to say that I am neither Clarkian or Van Tilian, primarily because I am just not all that interested in measuring the quality of my knowledge against the quality of God’s knowledge. I am content in being grateful that He, by His wonderful mercy, allows me to know Him at all. And my hearts breaks knowing that I am a poor steward of that revelation. In both the quality and the quantity of my devotion.