Cornelius Van Til

Volume II of the series

In Defense of Biblical Christianity


Box 817
Phillpsburg, New Jersey 08865


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The first edition of this syllabus was written in 1932. The title then used was The Metaphysics of Apologetics. How ancient and out of date such a title seems to be now.
Was I, perhaps, at that "pre-historic" time unaware of the fact that Hegel had slain the Alte Metaphysik? Did I not see the drift toward the positivism of the new day?
The answer is that then, as now, I was convinced that only if one begins with the self-identifying Christ of Reformation theology, can one bring the "facts" of the space-time world into intelligible relation to the "laws" of this world. Science, philosophy and theology find their intelligible contact only on the presupposition of the self-revelation of God in Christ - through Scripture understood properly by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Apologetics had always been unbiblical and therefore inadequate. What needed to be done was to point out that man himself, the subject of knowledge, must interpret himself as the creature of God, as a sinner in the sight of God, and as forgiven through the work of Christ and his Spirit. All men know God, but all men as sinners seek to suppress their knowledge of God. They do this particularly by means of their various philosophical systems. This fact must be pointed out. Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? It was not till later years that I received much help in my understanding of philosophy from D. H. Th. Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd.
The syllabus is offered in this second edition for the consideration of those who are interested in the spread of the "whole counsel of God."

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The subject of a Christian View of Life must be studied historically and systematically in order to understand it comprehensively. If we study it thus we find that we face an ultimate choice between Christian and non-Christian epistemology. Especially because of the modern emphasis on the Immanence of God, it is necessary to become clearly aware of the deep antithesis between the two main types of epistemology.


A preliminary survey of epistemological terminology brings out that this terminology itself has grown out of a milieu which has colored its connotation. It will not do to speak of the inductive and deductive methods as though theists and non-theists meant the same things when they use these terms. The term induction means one thing for a theist who presupposes God and another thing for a non-theist who does not presuppose God. For a theist induction is the implication into God-centered "facts" by a God-centered mind; for a non-theist it means the implication into self-centered facts by a self-centered mind. The same difference prevails in the case of such terms as analysis and synthesis, correspondence and coherence, objectivity and subjectivity, a priori and a posteriori, implication and linear inference and transcendental versus syllogistic reasoning. A nontheist uses all these terms univocally, while a theist may use any or all of them analogically.



The question we must ask constantly is how anyone has conceived of the relation of the human mind to the divine mind. It is on this point that the greatest difference obtains between the theistic and the nontheistic position. The former cannot think of the human mind as functional at all except when it is in contact with God; the latter presupposes it to be possible that the human mind Function normally whether or not God exists. For this reason it is fair and necessary to emphasize the fact that Greek speculation was at the outset antitheistic and not neutral as is often said.
It is necessary too to keep in mind that the long argument about the relation of the Finite subject to the finite object is quite subsidiary to the main question of the relation of tile finite mind to God.



When due consideration has been given to the differences among Greek thinkers, it may still be said that they present a united front. Accordingly, we study Plato's thought as typical of the Greek position.
There is a special value in studying Greek epistemology since it has not been brought into any contact with Christianity: antitheistic epis- temology appears here without intermixture of theistic elements.
Moreover, Plato's views may be taken as a fair sample of all antitheistic speculation to the present day. We may say that Plato first tried to interpret reality in terms of tile sense world. Then he tried to interpret reality in terms of the ideal world. Finally he tried to interpret reality in terms of a mixture of temporal and eternal categories. In this way Plato exhausted the antitheistic possibilities. Modern epistemology presents no more than variations on these themes.



As we took Plato for a representative of Greek epistemology, so we may take Augustine for a representative of early Christian epistemology.
We would note that Augustine's thought, though in many ways Platonic, is fundamentally the polar opposite of Plato's thought. Plato assumed that the human mind can function independently of God; Augus- tine held that man's thought is a thinking of God's thoughts after him. Accordingly, Augustine did not seek to interpret reality by any of the three Platonic methods. He sought rather to give a philosophy of history in terms of the counsel of God. Augustine found in the conception of the Trinity the union of the logical principles of identity and difference, while Plato had sought for the origin of diversity in the sense world.



Instead of developing further the great differences between the two main types of epistemology, Scholasticism attempts to harmonize the Creek and the theistic traditions.
The problem of the "universals" was treated by the Scholastics with an underestimation of the fact that epistemological terminology is not a neutral something. Accordingly, the main question in epistemology,

i. e., that of the relation of the finite to the divine mind, was subordinated to the less important question of the relation of the finite mind to finite laws and "facts." The result was that though there was much valuable discussion of details, the main issue between theism and antitheism was not clarified but obscured by Scholasticism. The issue remains obscure in the Roman Catholic church to this day.




The Reformation as a whole was a great advance in the direction of the clarification of the issue between theism and non-theism. This advance was possible because the theologians of the Reformation period developed Christian doctrine on its subjective side. This helped to bring Christianity into an indissoluble union with theism so that it was seen that the one cannot be defended without the other. This in turn helped to do away with the distinction between the "that" and the "what" in the field of theistic argument. Slowly it dawned on Christian apologetics that the existence of God must not be separated from the character of God, and the character of God must not be separated from the redemptive plan of God in its objective element, the Scriptures, and in its subjective element, regeneration.
Lutheranism, however, retained some of Scholastic thought and was not able, on that account, to carry the Reformation principle as far as it otherwise would have carried it. In the Lutheran conception of the sacraments the difference between the divine and the human is not clearly seen to be metaphysically absolute. Accordingly, there is in Lutheranism a remnant of impersonalism. The human consciousness is at some points thought of as being surrounded by something else than the personal God.



The impersonalism spoken of in connection with Lutheranism appears more clearly in Arminian epistemology. Its theological position with respect to the human will makes it especially liable to attack from non-theistic epistemology. Instead of developing the Reformation doctrine that the human consciousness cannot function independently of God, Arminianism has to an extent compromised with the enemy on this point. Watson, Miley and Curtis maintain positions which indicate that if one yields on the non-theistic point of the independence of the finite consciousness there is no stopping till one lands in the impersonalism of "personalism."



In Calvinism the issue between theistic and non-theistic epistemology came to the dearest and fullest expression,
Calvin developed tile real Reformation doctrines spoken of above. He recognized clearly that main principle that the finite consciousness must from the outset be set in contact with the consciousness of God. Accordingly, he used the "theistic arguments" more theistically than they had been used before. He did not separate the "what" from the "that." He took into his purview the absolute God, the absolute Christ, the absolute Scripture and absolute regeneration, and maintained that all of this must be taken or nothing can be taken, He cleared Christian theistic thought from much of the Platonism that clung to it till his time.



Modern antitheistic epistemology is but a continuation of the arguments of Plato on the assumptions of Plato.
Descartes founded the whole knowledge scheme upon the independent activity of the finite consciousness in its relation to objects that are independent of God.
Kant maintained that tile finite consciousness can have knowledge of the phenomenal world even if it has no knowledge of the noumenal world.
The Pragmatist school has consistently worked out the Kantian principle and has boldly proclaimed the sufficiency of temporal categories for the interpretation of reality.
The idealist school has been inconsistent on this point, but is built upon the same Kantian presuppositions.



After the historical survey we come to a more thetical statement. In it we must seek to bring the theistic and the non-theistic positions face to face with one another on the central issue of the relation of the finite consciousness to God.
We may begin the argument by discussing what is involved in the ordinary knowledge transaction of man. Christian theism claims that finite consciousness can know nothing about anything except upon the presup-

position of the absolute self-consciousness of God. The non-theistic position holds to the opposite of this.

We try then to show that non-theism has taken its position for granted instead of proving it. In the first place non-theism has done this with respect to the object of knowledge. It has assumed the existence of the objects of knowledge and the possibility of their having a meaning apart from God. Similarly it has taken for granted that error is a natural thing, so that it cannot be said that Scripture is necessary in order that the object of knowledge may appear for what it is.



The main question in dispute between Christians and their opponents comes out most clearly when the subject of knowledge is discussed. It is then that we must give an answer to the question whether the human mind is able in itself to interpret reality.
On this important point we note that the opponents of Christian theism have taken for granted that which they ought to have proved, namely, the independence and therefore the ultimacy of the human mind. We point out this fact in the case of those who have reasoned after the fashion of Plato's first method. Of these we mention especially the "experience" philosophers and theologians. In the second place we point out this fact in the case of those who have reasoned after the fashion of Plato's second method of explaining reality in exclusively logical or eternal categories. B. Russell, J. E. MacTaggart and F. H. Bradley may serve as illustra- tions here. Finally we point out this fact in the case of those who have reasoned after the fashion of Plato's third method of reasoning. Of these Bosanquet is given special consideration because he has more fully than any other worked out the problems of logic and the theory of judgment. It appears that in its most thorough expression antitheism has taken for granted what it should have proved.



There is a special reason for fearing what seem to be approaches to a theistic epistemology on the part of those whose philosophy is built upon the Idealist theory of judgment. So the philosophy of A. Seth Pringle-Pattison seems to be more theistic than that of Bosanquet. In reality it is just as antitheistic as that of Bosanquet, inasmuch as the human mind is still thought of as functioning in independence of God.

The same judgment must be passed on the methods of the philusophy of religion schools of modern philosophy. C. C. J. Webb shows that even a great emphasis on personalism does not make one a theist.
Modern psychology is also based upon the antitheistic assumption of the ultimacy of the human mind. The psychology of lames Ward proves this claim.
Finally we note that even the strong emphasis upon the personality of God as maintained by such men as H. Rashdall, J. Lindsay, J. Royce and E. Hocking cannot place one in the theistic camp if one's philosophy is built upon the assumption of the truth of the antitheistic epistemology.



Having begun the consideration of movements on philosophy that work in the direction of theism, we must now turn to some writers who, though building upon the idealist system of logic, approach Christianity in the statement of their philosophy.
A. E. Taylor may be taken as an example of those philosophers who try to make room for Christianity upon the basis of the assumed correlativity of time and eternity, but who must necessarily fail because Christianity presupposes the conception of God as self-sufficient.
B. P. Bowne's philosophy may serve to illustrate the fact that if one rejects what seems to be such a minor matter as biblical infallibility, one cannot stop till he has rejected theism as well as Christianity.



If it is true that the difference between Christian and antitheistic epistemology is as fundamental as we have contended that it is, and if it is true that the antitheist takes his position for granted at the outset of his investigations, and if it is true that the Christian expects his opponent to do nothing else inasmuch as according to Scripture the "natural man" cannot discern the things of the Spirit, we must ask whether it is then of any use for the Christian to reason with his opponent.
The answer to this question must not be sought by toning down the dilemma as is easily and often done by the assumption that epistemological terminology means the same thing for theists and non-theists alike. The answer must rather be sought in the basic concept of Christian theism,

namely, that God is absolute. if God is absolute man must always remain accessible to him. Man's ethical alienation plays upon the background of his metaphysical dependence. God may therefore use our reasoning or our preaching as a way by which he presents himself to those who have assumed his non-existence.



After we have asked the question whether Christians should seek to reason with non-theists, and have answered that question in the affirmative, we must now ask how Christians should argue with the opponents.
Our answer must once more be that the method of reasoning employed must be consistent with and now out of the position defended. Non-theists always reason univocally. Christians must always reason analogically. They may and must use the same terminology as their opponents, but while using this terminology they cannot afford to forget for a fraction of a second the presupposition of the absolute self-consciousness of God, which alone gives meaning to the terminology they employ.
If this fundamental canon of Christian reasoning be always kept in mind, we can begin reasoning with our opponents at any point in heaven or earth and may for argument's sake present Christian theism as one hypothesis among many, and may for argument's sake place ourselves upon the ground of our opponent in order to see what will happen. In all this it will remain our purpose to seek to reduce the non-theistic position, in whatever form it appears, to an absurdity. In our preaching we say that those who do not accept Christ are lost. Our reasoning can do nothing less.


It was useful to seek to apply the method of reasoning discussed in the previous chapters to the various schools of philosophy about us. However, since we have constantly sought to bring out that all forms of antitheistic thinking can be reduced to one, and since the issue is fundamentally that of the acceptance or the rejection of the concept of God, it may suffice to apply the analogical method of reasoning in an argument with those who hold to the "scientific method" of the day. That scientific method is agnostic. It claims to be willing to accept any fact that may appear, but unwilling to start with the idea of God.
Reasoning analogically with this type of thought, we seek to point out that it is psychologically, epistemologically and morally self-contradictory. It is psychologically self-contradictory because it claims to be making no judgment of any sort at the outset of its investigation, while as

a matter of fact a universal negative judgment is involved in this effort to make no judgment. It is epistemologically self-contradictory because it starts by rejecting theism on the ground that its conception of the relation of God to the universe involves the contradiction that a God all-glorious can have glory added unto him. By this rejection of God, agnosticism has embraced complete relativism. Yet this relativism must furnish a basis for the rejection of the absolute. Accordingly, the standard of self-contradiction taken for granted by antitheistic thought presupposes the absolute for its operation. Antitheism presupposes theism. One must stand upon the solid ground of theism to be an effective antitheist.

Finally, agnosticism is morally self-contradictory since it pretends to be very humble in its insistence that it makes no sweeping conclusions, while as a matter of fact it has made a universal negative conclusion in total reliance upon itself. The "natural man" is at enmity against God.

What we are concerned with in this syllabus is, first of all, a broad survey, and secondly, a method of defense of the Christian philosophy of life. We shall not attempt to give the survey First, and the defense afterward. On the contrary, we shall try to make the defense as we make the survey, and make the survey as we make the defense. We shall have to approach the matter of a Christian world-and-life view from an historical point of view.
Yet after we have dealt with our subject historically, we must deal with it systematically. Only after we have gained a survey of the field by an historical review, are we in a position to deal more systematically with any subject. The real point of the problems of philosophy that confront the human race today cannot be understood if they have not been observed in their growth. The problems of philosophy are today more pointed and more specific than they have ever been. But we cannot deal with the more pointed and the more specific until we have dealt with the more general. On the other hand, our final interest is very definitely in the systematic development of our subject. We do not study history just for the sake of a certain amount of interesting information. As Christians we have a very definite philosophy of history. For us history is the realization of the purposes and plans of the all-sufficient God revealed through Christ in Scripture. And if this is the case we are naturally persuaded that in history lies the best proof of our philosophy of human life. The core of our system of philosophy is our belief in the triune God of Scripture, and in what he has revealed concerning himself and his purposes for man and his world.


We shall deal with our subject in two main divisions; the first is epistemology, and the second is metaphysics. In these two divisions the various divisions of any system of philosophy can be treated. Every system of philosophy must tell us whether it thinks true knowledge to be possible. Or if a system of philosophy thinks it impossible for man to have a true knowledge of the whole of reality or even of a part of reality, it must give good reasons for thinking so. From these considerations, it follows that if we develop our reasons for believing that a true knowledge of God and, therefore, also of the world, is possible because actually given in Christ, we have in fact given what goes in philosophy under the name of epistemology. It will then be possible to compare the Christian epistemology with any and with all others. And being thus enabled to compare them all, we are in a position and placed before the responsibility of choosing between

them. And this choosing can then, in the nature of the case, no, longer be a matter of artistic preference. We cannot choose epistemologies as we choose hats. Such would be the case if it had been once for all established that the whole thing is but a matter of taste. But that is exactly what has not been established. That is exactly the point in dispute.

In the second place, every system of philosophy has a theory of metaphysics. The term metaphysics is often used to define a rather narrow discipline in tile field of human knowledge. The term is then used in distinction from psychology, physics, etc., to indicate that in metaphysics we deal with tile must ultimate concepts of reality only. In distinction from this narrow use of tile term metaphysics. there is a broader use. In that broader sense we employ the term in this syllabus. We mean by metaphysics, then, a complete theory of reality. The mistake should not be made, however, of thinking that we shall attempt to give a detailed philosophy of all branches of human knowledge. On the contrary, as the word metaphysics suggests when used in the narrower sense, we shall have to do only with the most ultimate concepts of human thought. We shall even limit ourselves, almost exclusively, to tile concept of God. But the definite understanding will be that our concept of God has specific implications for every branch of human knowledge. Therefore, when we have established our belief in tile Christian conception of God, we have, in principle at least, also established our belief in a definite theory of the universe and of man. This point is forgotten again and again in our day. People all too thoughtlessly accept theories of man and of the universe that are altogether out of harmony with their own theory about God. They forget that a Christian conception of God demands a Christian conception of the universe.
It should be noted further that, as in epistemology so in metaphysics, the matter of a choice comes up again. We shall find that the Christian theory of metaphysics is the only one that really takes the matter of metaphysics seriously. For the others it has really become a question of taste. The one takes to one type of thing, and the other takes to another type of thing, they say, and it really does not make much difference which one you hold to. The conviction at the basis of such an attitude must be that it is rationally impossible for man to have any knowledge of ultimate things. It will be necessary for us to insist that our opponents make reasonable to us this claim that man can have no knowledge of ultimate things. Unless they are able to do this they have no right to their attitude of carelessness. So then, we are necessarily led once more into a dialogue.
We may further observe that in these two divisions of epistemology and metaphysics we deal from a philosophical point of view with that which theology deals with from a theological point of view. The six divisions of

systematic theology-theology, anthropology, Christology. soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology - are all included in our theory of reality or metaphysics. Philosophy deals with no concepts that theology does not deal with. It is but a matter of terminology. We emphasize this point because a minister of the gospel should not be in jeopardy every hour lest his theological structure crumble to the ground because of advances in the fields of science and philosophy of which he knows nothing or very little. He should rather realize that in his presentation of biblical truth he has dealt with all the concepts that any human being can possibly deal with. Not as though he can pose as a scientist or a philosopher in the technical sense of the term. It is not necessary for him to be able to do so. He has a right to feel confident that there are no unknown trenches from which the enemy may suddenly pounce upon him. Now this is exactly what may be one of the chief benefits of a course in metaphysics for a theological student. In it he ought to learn that his opponents have exhausted themselves in trying to find a solution for the problems with which he is dealing, and have found no such solution. He ought to see the limits of their thought. He ought to examine the tools with which they labor. He ought to survey the field upon which they operate. If he does this thoroughly he will return with confidence to the propagation of his own position, or if he should feel inclined to reject it, he would at least do it intelligently.


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