Calvinistic Epistemology

From: Terry M. Gray (
Date: Thu Dec 19 2002 - 02:27:18 EST

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    I've always thought that the critics of the Calvinistic epistemology
    that Jan is advocating have misunderstood it. "Thinking right" is so
    much broader than "merely" getting the "facts" straight. Here's a bit
    from an essay I wrote while I was at Calvin. I (and C. Van Til, whom
    I am discussing) don't hesitate to recognize "after a fashion" and
    "common grace" correctness on the part of unbelievers. The question
    is whether or not we want to call that "right thinking".

    I'd be interested in what you think.



    Chapter 5

    The Similarity of the Christian's
    and Non-Christian's Science

    Modern Christianity struggles with how to relate our Biblical
    perspective on reality with present-day science. Science has been
    very successful in explaining many aspects of our world, and the
    fruit of science and technology is all around us. This struggle is
    even more pointed when we see science linked to the anti-Christian
    and anti-theistic agenda of Evolutionary Naturalists. Christians who
    are also practitioners and students of science see that much of the
    scientific enterprise can be conducted without reference to God. This
    has led some to suggest that science is religiously neutral or that
    science is category of description of the world that is largely
    independent from and complementary to a religious description. Thus,
    it is suggested that, as long as non Christian scientists do not step
    outside of the domain of science, i.e. as long as they only deal with
    properties, behavior, and the formative history of physical entities,
    that the fruit of their science can be incorporated into a Christian

    Practically speaking, it is probably the case that this approach to
    science/faith issues works most of the time, however, it seems to me
    that this strikes at the heart of a Biblical and Reformed view of
    knowledge. In the work of Cornelius Van Til there is a sustained
    critique of this way of thinking about science. Van Til argues that
    the fundamental starting point for all knowledge is the knowledge of
    God and the proper creaturely response to that knowledge. Every fact
    of science is either interpreted rightly, acknowledging God as
    creator, or wrongly, denying God as creator. In other words, "there
    are no brute facts". Consequently, when the unbelieving scientist (or
    any unbeliever, for that matter) claims some knowledge, because it
    denies the most fundamental aspect of that creaturely knowledge, the
    knowledge of God, Van Til would say that it is not true knowledge. He
    writes in A Survey of Christian Epistemology:

    "The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to
    prove that if one is not a Christian theist he knows nothing at all
    as he ought to know anything. The difference is not that all men
    alike know certain things about the finite universe and that some
    claim some additional knowledge, while the others do not. On the
    contrary, the Christian theist must claim that he alone has true
    knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God. He does this
    in no spirit of conceit, because it is a gift of God's grace. Nor
    does he deny that there is knowledge after a fashion that enables the
    non-theist to get along after a fashion in the world. This is the
    gift of God's common grace, and therefore does not change the
    absoluteness of the distinction made about the knowledge and
    ignorance of the theist and the non-theist respectively."

    There are three things to notice in this passage. First, the
    Christian theist alone has true knowledge about science. (Van Til
    talks about cows and chickens, but we could substitute chemistry,
    biology, astronomy, engineering, etc. for cows and chickens.) This is
    an extraordinary claim and one for which Van Til has received much
    criticism. The idea is that apart from the knowledge of God as
    Creator and Sustainer that any knowledge falls short of true
    knowledge. Thus, only believers, who by the grace of God confess the
    true God, can have true knowledge. Another aspect of this claim is a
    moral one; the unbeliever "knows nothing at all as he ought to know
    anything". Van Til is not saying that the unbeliever knows nothing.
    But, since all knowledge carries with it a religious and moral
    imperative to worship and serve the Creator, and since unbelievers
    disobey that imperative, their knowledge falls short of true

    The second thing to notice is that while Van Til denies that
    unbelievers have true knowledge, he does admit that they have
    "knowledge after a fashion". Unbelievers can know chemistry, biology,
    astronomy, engineering, etc "after a fashion". Van Til's critics want
    to call this "knowledge after a fashion" true knowledge, Van Til
    wants to reserve the term "true knowledge" to knowledge that
    recognizes the knowledge of God and includes the proper
    religious/moral response. Thus, the unbeliever's knowledge of "brute
    facts" is only "knowledge after a fashion" that allows the unbeliever
    to get along in the world. For example, the unbelieving chemist can
    mix salicylic acid and acetic anhydride to synthesize aspirin that
    can be used to treat a headache. The chemistry and the pharmacology
    works just as it does for the believing chemist. But, for the
    unbeliever, this is merely "knowledge after a fashion" and not "true

    The final thing to notice is that Van Til appeals to common grace as
    the basis for this "knowledge after a fashion" that the unbeliever
    has. Despite their rebellion and as part of the free offer of the
    gospel, God allows unbelievers to live in this world that he has
    created, He has made them in his image with the capacity to have
    "dominion over the creatures", and he has endowed them with gifts to
    learn about the world "after a fashion". Such a gracious posture on
    the part of God will not endure forever. If they persist in their
    unbelief and refuse to worship and serve the Creator, the judgment
    day will come and the very things that were manifestations of God's
    grace toward them will be used as evidence against them and they will
    receive their eternal punishment.

    >On Wed, 18 Dec 2002 10:33:45 -0500 Jan de Koning <>
    >> <snip>
    >> We know as well that
    >> through
    >> the fall in sin, man destroyed a lot, including his ability to
    >> (always?)
    >> think right, and that through that fall in sin even our thoughts are
    >> not
    >> what they should be. We do indeed need Jesus Christ as our Saviour
    >> to help
    >> us. Those grounds are basic.
    >> <snip>
    >> Jan
    >Seems then that Galileo and Kepler were right in their thinking, but
    >Newton (an Arian) may not have been. Goedel and Einstein clearly did not
    >have the "ability to think right," but all the orthodox Christians do.
    >This means that none of the brethren can contradict each other, so that
    >some on the list must be pseudo-Christians. Or do you suppose that some
    >Calvinists need to rethink what they say about the Fall?

    Terry M. Gray, Ph.D., Computer Support Scientist
    Chemistry Department, Colorado State University
    Fort Collins, Colorado  80523
    phone: 970-491-7003 fax: 970-491-1801

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