Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Clark-Van Til Controversy: Traversing the Impasse

Epistemology, the theory of knowledge, is of paramount importance in the study of prolegomena in Systematic Theology. Before we seek to understand and know God, we must ascertain what we can actually know. We would need to understand and define the term “knowledge,” for it would be absolutely meaningless if we claim to have knowledge, but couldn’t state what knowledge is. I would proceed to illustrate the importance of understanding epistemology and knowledge in the study of theology with the well-known debate concerning the ontology of Man’s knowledge of God in the Clark-Van Til conflict.

Gilbert B. Weaver, in his essay Man: Analogue of God, furnishes us with a brief introduction to the controversy:

“When Cornelius Van Til describes man’s knowledge as being in an analogical relationship to the knowledge of God, Gordon Clark charges him with skepticism. In a 1957 Bibliotheca Sacra article Clark aired his side of an ecclesiastical controversy with Van Til and others. … Noting that Van Til signed a statement that man’s knowledge must be “analogical” to the knowledge God possesses, Clark states, “If God has the truth and if man has only an analogy, it follows that he does not have the truth. An analogy of the truth is not the truth; and even if man’s knowledge is not called an analogy of the truth but an analogical truth, the situation is no better. An analogical truth, except it contain a univocal point of coincident meaning, simply is not the truth at all.”[1]

John Frame, Van Til’s disciple, understand Van Tillian analogical reasoning as “Thinking in subjection to God’s revelation and therefore thinking God’s thoughts after him.”[2] So, for Van Til, God is the original Knower; He is the embodiment of true knowledge. Man can have knowledge because God condescended and revealed Himself in the Scriptures (special revelation). According to Van Til, the Scripture is the starting point for Man’s knowledge, and it is from them and from them alone that any true knowledge on any subject (direct or implied) can be gained. This is Van Til’s understanding of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

Van Til understood God’s knowledge of Himself as being uncommunicable to His creatures. It is different from Man’s knowledge of God both qualitatively and quantitatively. In other words, the self-knowledge God has - being an infinite, necessary being – is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the knowledge of God finite, contingent beings have. Man, created in the image of God, is only able to think analogically God’s thoughts after him. Therefore, for Van Til, there is no univocal point between Man’s knowledge of God, and God’s self-knowledge of Himself.

Van Til writes, “For man any new revelational proposition will enrich in meaning any previous given revelational proposition. But even this enrichment does not imply that there is any coincidence, that is, identity of content between what God has in his mind and what man has in his mind….There could and would be an identity of content only if the mind of man were identical with the mind of God.”[3]
He continues, “Christians believe in two levels of existence, the level of God’s existence as self-contained and the level of man’s existence as derived from the level of God’s existence. For this reason, Christians must also believe in two levels of knowledge, the level of God’s knowledge which is absolutely comprehensive and self-contained, and the level of man’s knowledge which is not comprehensive but is derivative and re-interpretative. Hence we say that as Christians we believe that man’s knowledge is analogical of God’s knowledge.”[4]

Van Til places special emphasis upon the Creator-creature ontological distinction, and it is this distinction that permeates his theory of knowledge. It is hereby interesting to note that this Creator-creature distinction is not new in historical Reformed scholasticism. Franciscus Junius (1545-1602) is often credited for his exposition on the archetypal/ectypal distinction in the ontology of knowledge. A likely antecedent is the Scotist distinction between theologia in se (God’s self-knowledge) and theologia nostra (our finite knowledge of God).[5] According to Junius, there are two kinds of knowledge of God. Archetypal knowledge is God’s perfect knowledge of Himself. This knowledge is eternal, uncommunicable and uncreated. It is not comprehensible for His creatures.

Ectypal knowledge, however, is the knowledge of God as conceived by other contingent beings, for example, human beings. Junius further differentiates ectypal knowledge into theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta and theologia ectypa secundum quid. The first refers to the entire, perfect body of knowledge of God which is communicable to created beings. This knowledge resides in God’s Mind in order to be revealed to us, and it is knowledge accommodated to our capacity to understand. The later refers to the relational form of knowledge graciously revealed to Man by God in the form of union, vision or revelation according to Junius.

Junius makes “a distinction between (1) the internal concept of ectypal theology in the mind of God and (2) the external form in which God communicates this concept to human beings. The internal concept in the mind of God is his divine will and grace; the external form is the body of knowledge that God decided to reveal to mankind. … Furthermore, the concept of ectypal knowledge existing in the mind of God must be distinguished from archetypal theology. Junius calls the former theologia simpliciter dicta which differs from archetypal theology in that the latter is incommunicable, while the former is communicable. When communication of ectypal knowledge takes place then theologia simpliciter dicta becomes theologia secundum quid, i.e., relational theology, for it depends upon God’s accommodation of himself to a form which finite beings are capable of grasping.”[6]

It is important for us to realize that both archetypal knowledge and ectypal knowledge (theologia simpliciter dicta) resides in the Mind of God. This becomes relevant when we discuss further the definition of knowledge as understood by philosophers, and how propositional truth relates to knowledge.

We now recall Gilbert Weaver’s description of the Clark-Van Til controversy in the beginning paragraphs of this article. Weaver, a Van Tillian, have the following to say concerning Clark’s criticism of Van Til, “Clark converts the term “knowledge” of Van Til’s statement into “truth” in his criticism of Van Til. Clark takes for granted a virtual identification of knowledge with true propositions, because he denies the possibility of any knowledge in the realm of sense experience.” This statement is remarkable for it reveals a lack of understanding of how philosophers conceive knowledge, and what knowledge actually entails. When God communicates His knowledge to Man by special revelation (theologia revelationis), He communicates through the Scriptures via propositional truths. Hence, a “virtual identification of knowledge with true propositions” is justified, especially when we are referring to Man’s knowledge of God. The existence (or non-existence) of knowledge beside propositional truths is not relevant to our discussion here, because Scripture is propositional, and the truths Scripture conveys are propositional. The senses are only the means whereby the mind of Man can have any contact with the propositional truths expressed in Scripture, for example, by using the eyes to read the language used to convey truths.

Knowledge Defined

It now becomes pertinent for us to understand what constitutes knowledge. In the perennial debate amongst epistemologists concerning justification and warrant in the definition of knowledge, one salient point stands out. Whether a philosopher defines knowledge as “justified true belief” or “warranted true belief,” knowledge must relate to true propositions. For Man to claim knowledge, his belief must be truthful. Take for example the following simplistic definition of knowledge:
“S knows that p if and only if (i) S accepts that p, (ii) it is true that p, (iii) S is justified in accepting that p, and (iv) S is justified in accepting that p in a way that is not defeated by any false statement (that does not depend on any false statement).”[7]

Lehrer explains, “The first condition of knowledge is that of truth.”[8] Therefore, any definition of knowledge would include the following: If S knows that p, then it is true that p (where p refers to a proposition or propositional truth). Gordon Clark was correct to use the term “truth,” as truth is always referred to when we consider knowledge.

We recall that for Van Til, “God is “infinite,” “eternal,” and “unchangeable” in his being. Because God’s being is such, and because man’s being is finite, temporal, and changeable, in short, because there is the ontological distinction, man can have no univocal knowledge of such a being as God. Nor can man, because of the ontological distinction, know what God knows in the same way as God knows it, whether that knowledge pertains to God Himself or to some created thing.”[9]

But Gordon Clark was adamant that Man’s knowledge must have a univocal point of reference to God’s knowledge of Himself. There were attempts at resolving or reconciling the differences between Van Til’s and Clark’s understanding of epistemology in this aspect. For example, one can say that Man’s knowledge of God (theologia ectypa secundum quid) is analogical to God’s self-knowledge (theologia archetypa), but univocal to the theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta. This proposed solution would not fulfill its intended purpose. Firstly, Van Til does not make a distinction between theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta and theologia ectypa secundum quid. This is because according to Van Til, all that God knows of Himself (i.e. all the true propositions that exist in God’s Mind) can have no univocal point of contact with Man’s knowledge of Him. Both the theologia archetypa and the theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta reside in God’s Mind. And as such, Van Til would consider that all the true propositions which reside in God’s Mind can never be univocal to Man’s knowledge of these propositions. Secondly, ectypal knowledge, by definition, is knowledge of God as conceived by contingent beings. As such, it is qualitatively and quantitatively different from God’s perfect self-knowledge (archetypal knowledge). Therefore, ectypal knowledge can only be analogical to archetypal knowledge. It is philosophically and theologically meaningless to say that theologia ectypa secundum quid is univocal to theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta, as both are by definition ectypal knowledge and analogical to archetypal knowledge. Therefore, if God knows a proposition that P (archetypal), an alleged corresponding proposition P1 (ectypal) cannot be the same as P (archetypal). P and P1 are only analogical or similar, but they are not the same or univocal. Van Til would not accept that Man knows P.

A Proposal for Resolution

So how do we preserve the Creator-creature distinction while allowing Man to have knowledge of God? According to Junius, the theologia ectypa is communicated “by union (unione) to Christ, by vision (visione) to the beatified, and by revelation (revelatione) to the pilgrim or viator. In descending order ectypal theology can be communicated to Jesus Christ, to the spirits in heaven, and to men on earth.”[10] For our purpose, we shall focus on revelatione, specifically, special revelation as this is the source of our knowledge in God on earth.

God reveals Himself in Scripture via the medium of human language. In the philosophy of language, there is a distinction between sentences and propositions. A proposition is the meaning of a sentence.  So, the distinction between a proposition and a sentence is really the distinction between the sentence and its meaning. For example, three different sentences in three different languages can have the same meaning. Alternatively, a simple sentence can have several different meanings depending upon context. We must be careful not to confound sentences in a certain language medium with actual propositions.

With regard to special revelation, God through the Spirit of Truth has communicated to Man with the medium of human languages in Scripture. The sentences of the language used are obviously analogical to the actual propositions in God’s Mind. Language is the medium whereby God reveals Himself to Man via the Scriptures. This language medium convey propositional truths that are univocal to the propositional truths found in God’s Mind. If God’s Mind consists of only all true propositions (as He is omniscient), it follows that no untrue proposition exists inside the Mind of God. And if, according to Van Til, Man’s knowledge of God through the Scriptures is only analogical to God’s knowledge of Himself, and if the propositions in God’s special revelation are only analogical and not identical to the true propositions that exist in God’s Mind, then the propositions conveyed to Man cannot be true. Knowledge for Man is then impossible.

We have discussed that all true propositions and only true propositions exist in the Mind of God since God is omniscient and knows all Truth. We also recall that both archetypal knowledge and ectypal knowledge (theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta) reside in the Mind of God, and these knowledge would consists of true propositions known by God. Since all that God knows is Truth, and there is no falsehood in Him, it follows that both archetypal and ectypal knowledge (which exists in the Mind of God) consists of only truths or true propositions. Man’s knowledge of God (ectypal knowledge) is analogical to God’s self-knowledge in the sense that there is a qualitative difference between God’s archetypal knowledge of Himself and Man’s knowledge of God through the medium of language. The sentences of Scripture, written and transmitted with human language, expresses the true knowledge (true propositions) concerning God for Man, but is qualitatively different in an ontological sense with respect to God’s archetypal knowledge. Scripture exists in a finite world, while God’s Mind is transcendental.

However, if Man is to have knowledge concerning God, there must be an univocal point of reference between the true propositions in Scripture, and the true propositions in God’s Mind. In the ontological sense, Man’s ectypal knowledge is therefore analogical in the sense that Scripture uses language which is finite and non-transcendental, and at the same time, univocal to the true propositions found in God’s Mind. We can know true propositions about God, not because we are like gods, but because we are made in the image of God (Imago Dei). We are created with cognitive faculties capable of understanding God’s special revelation to Man. And special revelation in itself is already a miracle of God!

What Alvin Plantinga commented concerning another form of theological agnosticism applies to our current discussion concerning the analogical knowledge of Man. Such theological pursuits concerning the ontology of knowledge, “begins in a pious and commendable concern for God’s greatness and majesty and augustness, but it ends in agnosticism and incoherence. For if none of our concepts apply to God [or if none of our inferences extend to God], then there is nothing we can know or truly believe of him – not even what is affirmed in the creeds or revealed in the Scriptures. And if there is nothing we can know or truly believe of him, then, of course, we cannot know or truly believe that none of our concepts apply to him. The view … is fatally ensnarled in self-referential absurdity.”[11]

Therefore, it is self-defeating to propose that “Man cannot know true propositions concerning God.” In order to know the proposition “Man cannot know true propositions concerning God,” Man must at least know this proposition concerning God – that “Man cannot know true propositions concerning God!” This is what Plantinga describes as “self-referential absurdity.”


[1] See Geehan, E. R. ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Nutley, NJ., 1971.

[2] In order to discuss further, we must elucidate upon the meaning of these terms: analogical, univocal, and equivocal. See for an accessible explanation of these terms, but keeping in mind that Van Til’s understanding of analogy is distinct from Thomas Aquinas.
[3] Van Til, Cornelius, An Introduction to Systematic Theology. In Defense of the Faith, Vol. V (Nutley [N.J.]; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), p. 165.

[4] Ibid, p. 12.
[5] See Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 227-228.

[6] Van Asselt, W. J., The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought, Westminster Theological Journal (2002), 64(2), p. 329.
[7] Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge (Colorado: Westview Press, 2000), pp. 169-170.

[8] Ibid, p. 11
[9] Jim Halsey, “A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: The Theologian A Review Article,” Westminster Theological Journal, 39(1), p. 122.

[10] Van Asselt, The Fundamental Meaning of Theology, p. 330
[11] Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980), p. 26.



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