I remember the first time I picked up a book by Cornelius Van Til. I thought he was opaque, and almost entirely incomprehensible. Even until today I find reading him a challenge, yet every time I read Van Til I come across new insights – paragraphs that failed to make sense to me a year ago would now come off the page at me in a new way. I’ve been going through Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (probably the definitive work on Van Til, still. Go and get it.) recently and I am again struck by Van Til’s brilliance and adamant desire to submit all human thinking to the Lordship of Christ. Here are selections taken from the book:
“…No sinner knows anything truly except he knows Christ, and no one knows Christ truly unless the Holy Ghost, the Spirit sent by the Father and the Son, regenerates him.
If all things must be seen ‘in God’ to be seen truly, one could look ever so long elsewhere without ever seeing a fact as it really is. If I must look through a telescope to see a distant star, I cannot first look at the star to see whether there is a telescope through which alone I could see it. If I must look through a microscope to see a germ, I cannot first look at the germ with the naked eye to see if there is a microscope through which alone I can see it. If it were a question of seeing something with the naked eye and seeing the same object more clearly through a telescope or a microscope, the matter would be different. We may see a lanscape dimly with the naked eye and then to look at it through a telescope and see it more clearly. But such is not the case with the Christian position. According to it, nothing at all can be known truly of any fact unless it be known through and by way of man’s knowledge of God.” (170-171)
Thus in defending the faith, Van Til insists that rather than arguing from evidence to knowledge of God, he argues that no “evidence” can be seen for what it is unless God exists, for it is through knowledge of this God can any fact be intelligible. He goes on:
“But if it be readily granted that a Christian begins with a bias, it will not so readily be granted that his opponents also begin with a bias. Yes this is no less the case. And the reason for this is really the same as that given above in the case of the Christian. We may again illustrate with our telescope analogy. The antitheist is one who has made up his mind in advance that he will never look through a telescope. He remains steadfast in his conviction that there are some facts that can be known truly without looking through a telescope. This much is implied in the very idea of starting to see whether there is a God. It will be observed that even to say that there are some facts that can be known without reference to God, is already the very opposite of the Christian position.
It is not necessary to say that all facts can be known without reference to God in order to have a flat denial of the Christian position. The contention of Christianity is exactly that there is not one fact that can be known without God. Hence if anyone avers that there is even one fact that can be known without God, he reasons like a non Christian. … In other words, such a person has taken for granted that God is at least not such a “fact” that he is related to every other “fact” so that no other fact can be understood without reference to the “fact of God.” (171)
Van Til was often charged of being “too radical” even by other Christians. But notice, if Christians believe in the Bible, they already do believe that God is in the back of everything and that things are what they are in light of God’s creative purposes: Col. 1:15-17, states that all things hold together in Him, and thus that all knowledge and wisdom is in Christ (Col. 2:3-10). We read in John 1 that not one thing that is made was made apart from Him and that He is the Light that enlightens all men. In sum, we read in the book of Proverbs that famous statement that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
Too often have Christians assumed that God’s existence is a peripheral supplement to an already clear and existing body of knowledge. We might even assume, in our sinfulness, that these things are what they are irrespective of God’s existence. Or, more subtly, that at least some things (like the facts of math, perception, and logic) are more clear than God’s existence. This will be equivalent, for Van Til, to saying that “a man is able to walk” is more intelligible than the fact that he has legs. Indeed, the notion of walking would be unintelligible without presupposing knowledge of him having legs. In the same way, since God is in the back of all things, nothing would be intelligible without God, and the fact that we can even begin or function in that line of thinking is a sign of sin and the fall. Once we think that way, we cut off the very source of intelligibility for all things, and thus this is why Van Til contends that any and every non-Christian worldview will be self-contradictory. The existence of God cannot be supplementive for it is His very existence as the Trinitarian God that all things in the universe are what they are. And insofar as nonbelievers live and breathe in this God-planned universe and have some knowledge of it, they are living on borrowed capital.
Given that we live in a fallen context, the question will naturally thus be: How is it that the the most basic facts of life (logic, math, morality, human perception, the material world, etc.) relate to God, such that if God is taken away these things become unintelligible?
That is the question, indeed, that we must probe into. It is the question that gives us a clue to the task of the Christian knower. “What we seek to do in our search for understanding the universe is to work ourselves ever more deeply into the relations that the facts of universe sustain to God.” (173) Nothing can be more of a pressing need as our culture today further perpetuates a secularism that argues for the irrelevance of God in more and more fields of life.
Again, I am reminded of what Herman Bavinck observes about the Christian mind:
“The Christian mind remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the Triune God, and until the confession of God’s Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life.”
If we have felt satisfied with thinking of God as a mere “added extra” to our thinking, important on sundays but irrelevant on most details, then it is time to pray once again.