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Chapter 2 of Van Til's "Survey of Christianity Epistemology"

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Many would contend at least that earlier Greeks did not deal with epistemology but only with the problems of reality, or what we, after Aristotle, call metaphysics. But since every metaphysics has an implicit, if not an explicit, epistemology, it is not unfair to deal with the epistemology of even the earliest Greeks. We may even say that every man educated or not educated has an epistemology implied in his practice”(Van Til, “Survey of Christian Epistemology”).

"...Eve was compelled to assume the equal ultimacy of the minds of God, of the devil, and of herself. And this surely excluded the exclusive ultimacy of God. This therefore was a denial of God’s absoluteness epistemologically. Thus neutrality was based upon negation. Neutrality is negation"(Van Til)

For Van Til, Ancient Greece is the epitome of systematic human thought. For the Christian philosopher, it is also the purest expression of anti-theistic thought. I think Van Til's noting this may have been influenced by Vollenhoven, whom he elsewhere credits for many of his insights (along with Dooyeweerd) and distinguished forms of philosophies according to whether or not they were combined with Christian thought. In the case of the Greeks, what we have is a pre-synthetic non-Christian philosophy.

What makes Greek thought so unique for Van Til is its pure anti-theism. That is, it has yet to come into contact with Christianity and articulate its anti-theism in an explicitly reactive or antithetical manner. He contrasts it with Kant and Hegel, whose anti-theism is nonetheless, he points out, very deeply tinged with Christian theism. The central question for Van Til is the question of ultimacy. He sees every problem of epistemological ultimacy or fundamentality laid out in Plato and Aristotle, in whom we see the "germs for all future antitheistic thought..."(Van Til).

Van Til admits that the Greeks did not really discuss the question of theism the way moderns do, and yet it is sufficient for us to have found the roots of modern anti-theistic positions in the Greeks. For Van Til, we can identify certain basic assumptions in Greek anti-theistic thought, and therefore accurately determine the sort of answer they would have likely given to our theistic queries.

Van Til notes that when we speak of Greek epistemology, we are solely dealing with tacit assumptions, since the earliest Greeks did not deal explicitly with epistemology. They were instead primarily concerned with metaphysics. But keep in mind the quote at the beginning of this article which affirms that whenever we are dealing with any metaphysical claim, we are always forced to deal with implicit epistemological claims.

For Van Til, numerous questions must be broached with respect to the understanding of the divine among the Greeks and the human's standards of rationality and intelligibility in relation to it. For Van Til, of course, when he speaks of "theism", always has in mind specifically Christian theism. Here are the questions he asks with respect to the relation of the divine to the possibility of knowledge among the Greeks:

“How did they conceive of the relation between the human and the divine mind?”

"which of these two minds, the human or the divine, did the Greeks consider to be the more original and the more ultimate?"

"Could either the divine or the human mind operate efficiently without the other?"

"Could God know any of the facts of the universe without reference to man?"

"Could man know anything about any of the facts of the universe without reference to God?"

"Were they perhaps mutually dependent upon one another?"

"were they perhaps mutually independent of one another?"

"Or if there was a dependence of the one upon the other, in which direction was this dependence?"

"Was God dependent on man, and not man on God?

"Or was man dependent on God, and not God on man?"

Van Til notes that if we answer the last question in the affirmative, then one might say with justification that the epistemology of the Greeks was indeed theistic, even though it would be a non-Christian form of theism. Of course, for Van Til, the early Greeks engaged in nothing like theistic speculation of this sort. While Van Til concedes that Greek thought does contain references to God, nothing like an absolutely independent or self-sufficient God is available to us from their writings. Van Til uses the example of Aristotle. For Aristotle, Van Til writes, God was totally independent of the universe and so the universe was not dependent on God. In this sense, Van Til argues, Greek thought, even where it admitted the existence of God, was essentially anti-theistic. He notes that the universe was seen as eternally existing alongside God.

"The God of Greek philosophy is either exclusively deistic or exclusively pantheistic. The transcendence concept of theism is not clearly stated, if it is merely said that God is independent of the world. According to the ordinary use of the word, that would not exclude the possibility that the world would also be independent of God. And it is this dependence of the world upon God that a theist is interested in as much as the independence of God apart from the world"(Van Til).

Van Til even goes as far to deny that God can be truly independent of the world unless the world is dependence upon God. He then notes that it is impossible for there to be two absolutely independent beings; to be absolutely independent necessarily implies that it is the only absolutely dependent being.

Independence, we are told, implies independence from someone or from something, and therefore implies the existence of that someone or something. But let us note that this is once more the point in dispute between the theist and the antitheist. No more fundamental difference exists between the two than the question touched upon in this objection. The entire Christian theistic position stands or falls with the concept of the nature of the relation of God to man(Van Til)

Note the emphasized text. This will be crucial for us, because one's religious metaphysics is crucially bound up in one's presuppositionalist apologetics. It is of course true that the existence of God and the relation of God (if someone concedes that a god exists) to man is determinative of one's epistemology. That much is axiomatic among presuppositionalists. But different Christian apologists will understand the relation between God and man as obtaining in different ways, and it is this background factor that is crucial in understanding their different formulations of presuppositionalist epistemology. A comprehensive understanding of how Van Til, as opposed to other presuppositionalists such as Gordon Clark, for example, understands the relation between God and man is essential in understanding how the ramifications of such an understanding of this relation issues in a certain epistemological position.

Van Til does not hold that the radical independence of God implies the necessary existence of that which is dependent upon God.

Moreover, it will aid us if we realize that the objection voiced above that human language implies the relativity of God and man is not something that is true as a matter of course, but is an assumption on the part of antitheism that requires justification. It is true that there is a great plausibility in the assumption. It is our everyday experience that if we seek independence, we seek independence from someone or something that actually exists. Hence it is very easy for us to carry over this idea into the field of ultimate metaphysics and take for granted that the same principle must necessarily hold there as it does in our commonest experiences. Yet this cannot be the case. If we maintain that independence from something must always and for all intelligences alike imply the existence of that from which the independence is contemplated, we can at most find place for a God who has always been dependent upon the universe and upon the mind of man. It would mean, consequently, the eternity of the universe and man, or it would mean the temporality of God. The point is that God and man must in such a case always be kept in close relativity to one another.(Van Til)

So to assume an inherently relational understanding of independence, for Van Til, leads to the absurdity that for God to be independent of man, with man's existence being necessitated by God's independence, paradoxically leads precisely to God's dependence upon man; precisely the conclusion he is attempting to avoid.

Van Til returns to the theme of the apparent absence of discussions of epistemology in early Greek thought. He notes, as he is wont to do, that all metaphysical speculation necessarily presupposes an epistemology of some kind. The Greeks presupposed that it was possible to somehow know about the very world about which they were speculating, yet they give no explicit account of how they believed this was possible.

The majority, if not all, of the Pre-Socratics virtually identified God with the universe. The questions studied were those of being and becoming. The assumptions underlying these questions were (a) that all things are at bottom one, (b) that somehow the manifold of experience comes out of the one, i.e., the fact of change is taken for granted: and (c) that the manifold thus generated from the one is at all times identical with it. Thus if the early Greeks used the term God at all it was practically synonymous with the term universe. And since this is the case, it is clear that the question of the existence of a God as creator of the universe was, in effect, given a negative answer. The Greeks assumed that the human mind could know...all finite facts that it might ever expect to know without any reference to God as creator. Thus they were unconsciously antitheistic, but antitheistic none the less(Van Til).

Such Presocratic presuppositions, Van Til notes, are obviously quite at odds with the Christian understanding of the relation of ontology to epistemology, especially within the Reformed tradition. It is only by understanding God's interpretation of some item of data that it can be properly known and truly understood. He notes that it is very contrary to the Christian worldview to suppose that the Greeks did anything other than deliberately suppress the truth in unrighteousness concerning the creator in describing the world around them. They did not possess naive epistemological assumptions, but possessed, from the perspective of the Christian, definitely anti-theistic presuppositions about the nature of the world insofar as they did not hold the Christian worldview. The assumption that the early Greeks began without bias in their description of the world, Van Til notes, would itself only be true if the anti-theistic worldview were itself true. But as Christians, we obviously deny that the anti-theistic worldview is true, and since we presuppose the truth of the Christian worldview, we presuppose the deliberate suppression of the truth in unrighteousness precisely because this is what the Christian worldview teaches the rejection of the Christian worldview necessarily entails.

But weren't the Presocratics simply in error rather than in willful suppression of the truth? Not if the Christian worldview is true! For the Christian worldview teaches that humankind is fallen in Adam and that the resulting corruption of our wills causes us to irresistibly reject the truth about God and to create our own alternative mythologies in place of the Christian worldview.

Van Til notes that the Christian worldview contains definite answers to the questions of being and becoming; the main topics in dispute for the Presocratics. It is presupposed by non-Christian scholars, he notes, that the early Greeks proceeded from the physical world, which was nearest to them, to the metaphysical world, which was most distant, and that they thus reasoned from the near to the distant. But the Christian worldview teaches that creation itself testifies to the existence of the Christian God, and so we are no less near to God than we are to the world in describing the world itself. For the Christian, Van Til notes, being undergirds all becoming, is the very precondition for describing the world of becoming, and by means of the world of becoming reveals itself (or Himself) to man as intimately as the world of becoming does itself. Van Til proves one of the most crucial elements of his apologetic system here, namely, that there is absolutely no such thing as worldview neutrality. All epistemological utterances presuppose highly contentious ontological positions, and all ontological utterances presuppose highly contentious epistemological positions.

More interesting yet, Van Til seems to argue for a kind of semantic holism as necessitated by his presuppositional apologetic:

A Christian will engage in no speculation. He has no “metaphysics” as metaphysics is usually understood. He does not even start his thinking with God as his master-concept in order to deduce his “system” of truth from this master concept. His thinking is always and only an attempt to integrate the various aspects of biblical teaching. In doing so he is deeply conscious of the fact that every “concept” he employs must be limited by every other “concept” he employs...(Van Til)

It is partially on this basis that Van Til rejects the possibility of worldview-neutrality. Every concept presupposes the truth of another concept.



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