Re: Calvinistic Epistemology

From: John Burgeson (
Date: Sat Jan 25 2003 - 11:23:22 EST

  • Next message: "true knowledge"

    Hi Terry:

    I saved the post (below) of yours from Dec 19th because I had to think about
    it. Thanks for the insight.

    What I have difficulty with is, I think, perhaps a fundamental difference of
    worldview -- between me and Van Til -- probably between you and me. It has
    to do with "truth." I guess I am a Platonist, regarding the caves parable of
    Plato as a metaphor for the worldview that we never perceive reality
    directly, but only its shadows. Thus, in the text you posted, where it reads
    "Science has been
    >very successful in explaining many aspects of our world, ... ." I would
    >replace the word "explaining" with "making theoretical models." Those
    >models are, to some extent (depending on the discipline -- se Casti's
    >book), successful in both explaining observational data in terms of their
    >mathematics, and making predictions about data we might observe in future
    >experiments, but are not to be considered synonomous with reality -- they
    >are always subject to future change.

    Thus, I'd argue that no human being, Christian or not, can ever have "true"
    knowledge of cows, chickens, or quantum mechanics. Etc. So when you
    (paraphrasing Van Til) write: "Thus, only believers, who by the grace of God
    confess the true God, can have true knowledge, ... ." he errs big time.

    Somehow I think we can both agree that this area (worldview) is fundamental.


    John W. Burgeson (Burgy)

    >From: "Terry M. Gray" <>
    >Subject: Calvinistic Epistemology
    >Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 00:27:18 -0700
    >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.
    > From
    >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 <>
    > >writes:
    > >> <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?
    > >Dave
    >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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