Understanding Cornelius Van Til, part 2

Having begun our initial discussion of Cornelius Van Til (here), we can now turn our attention to a few other important points of his thought.  Van Til’s writing style is not entirely straightforward, but his thinking is quite systematic.  That is, what Van Til says in one area will inevitably have an impact on all the other areas, either directly or indirectly, of his thought.  Therefore, having discussed the doctrine of God and the doctrine of man, we can know turn to the more specific doctrine of the knowledge of God.

3.  God’s Knowledge

When we speak of God’s knowledge we mean:

a. God’s knowledge is completely Self-comprehensive.  We saw last time that God is utterly self-sufficient, that is, God depends upon nothing outside of Himself for His existence.  It follows from this that God’s knowledge is completely self-sufficient as well.  God fully knows Himself; in fact, as Van Til says, God “is the only self-contained whole, the system of absolute truth” (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, hereafter IST, 30).  There is no reality outside of God which God needs in order to know something about Himself.

This is important for a variety of reasons.  First, it follows from the previous discussion regarding the being of God.  Since God depends upon nothing outside Himself for His being, it follows that God depends upon nothing outside Himself for His knowledge either.  Second, God fully comprehends Himself.  Since God’s knowledge is self-sufficient, it follows that He fully knows and understands Himself (otherwise He would have to rely on something outside Himself in order to come to an understanding of Himself).

b. God fully knows His plan for the universe.  As Van Til says in The Defense of the Faith, “God had from all eternity a plan to create the universe” (hereafter DF, 61).  This point is extremely important for our discussion.  All that exists is either A) God or B) God’s creation.  Therefore, when we say that God has exhaustive knowledge of Himself, we also mean to say that God has exhaustive knowledge of all of His creation.  This follows logically from a consideration of God’s self-sufficient knowledge.  God, since He knows Himself exhaustively, knows precisely what He is capable of.  He knows exactly what He can create, and He knows exactly what He plans to create.  Since God is self-sufficient and, therefore, able to create whatever He pleases, it follows that He knows fully whatever He creates.  But we must make two qualifications here: First, creation is not a manifestation of the being of God; second, though God’s knowledge of creation is eternal, creation itself is not eternal.

We say that God fully knows His plan for the universe because there is nothing outside of Him upon which He depends in order to devise His plan.  That is, God planned the universe (and everything that would happen therein) without reference to anything outside Himself.  This is what the Westminster Confession of Faith means when it says, “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3.1).  This means that God did not simply “look forward down the corridors of time” and then approve what He saw; a notion like that is an assault against the being and knowledge of God.  Rather, we say that God fully knows His creation because He freely planned everything and is capable of bringing about the entirety of His plan.

Even as we say that God fully comprehends Himself and that He fully comprehends His creation, it does not follow that God is creation or that creation is God (which is called pantheism).  Nor does this imply that God and creation are two like “beings” sat side-by-side.  As we have already said, God alone is self-sufficient.  Creation is at all times and in every place totally dependent upon God.  There once was a “time” when creation did not exist, but God exists absolutely and eternally.  Therefore, with Van Til, we say, “[God’s] knowledge of the universe depends upon God’s knowledge of himself” (DF, 62).

c. God fully knows everything in creation.  This point is nothing more than the next step from the previous one.  Since God fully knows his plan for creation, it follows that He fully knows everything that will come to pass in creation.  Nothing could ever come to be apart from God willing it to be so (since God alone is self-sufficient).  Therefore, nothing that happens in creation surprises God, since He ordained from all eternity everything that would happen in creation.  God knows the past, present, and future not merely because He has seen what happens there, but because He gives to the past, present, and future its very existence.

4. Objections and Implications

Rather than continue on with the doctrine of human knowledge, I think it would be good here to anticipate a few objections and to bring out a few implications.  What does the self-sufficient being and knowledge of God have to do with our lives?

The first thing to be said is that to even ask the question is to misunderstand the previous discussion.  God is the source and the end of the universe, not us.  We were planned by Him from eternity, are sustained by Him in all our waking (and sleeping) moments, and our end or purpose in life is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.  How radical is the Christian worldview!  So a better question to ask is: “How should we respond in light of the self-sufficient being and knowledge of God?”

The most fundamental thing to say here is that the Christian worldview is characterized by the Creator-creature distinction.  As I said earlier, everything that exists is either A) God or B) not God.  God is of a completely different kind.  We are mere creatures who have been given existence by our Creator in order to bring Him glory.  Surely a right understanding of this idea will go a long way to combating the rampant triviality of the American church.  It is God whom we worship.  He is not some tiny creature.  On the contrary, God requires our absolute obedience in all areas of life.  He gives to us “life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25), and therefore we must display the supremacy of His glory in everything we do (1 Corinthians 10:31).  God is fiercely committed to His glory: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8).  Let us, then, remember exactly who we are in this relationship: creatures, always and everywhere dependent upon our Creator for life and breath and everything.  When we worship God, we are not worshipping someone who is a little bit bigger or stronger than we are.  We worship the One for whom all things exist (cf. Colossians 1:16).

At this point we can make rather interesting conclusion: since God alone is self-sufficient, mankind does not have free will because we depend upon Him at all times and for every part of our being.  We cannot say that God has given us absolute freedom because what it means for God to be God is that He alone is self-sufficient, and therefore it is impossible for God to grant man any sort of autonomy (i.e., existence apart from God).  In fact, God cannot grant to man this kind of autonomy since it would destroy the very nature and character of God.  Now, of course, God interacts with His creation and has given His creatures genuine moral responsibility and capability, but this does not imply that the Creator’s creatures exist apart from Him.

Now we may say that the difference between the Christian worldview and all non-Christian worldviews is that Christians interpret reality in light of an eternally self-conscious divine personality.  That is, Christians have the only basis for interpreting reality, precisely because God alone is the prime interpreter of reality (since His knowledge of reality is exhaustive).  All non-Christian views of the world insist either the primacy of man or that of creation in interpreting reality.  This means that either man or something within the created order is the final authority for saying what is or what isn’t.  But the problem with that idea is that neither man nor creation have or can provide a comprehensive knowledge of reality, which means they cannot provide us with any true knowledge.  To quote Van Til: “It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere, but this comprehensive knowledge need not and cannot be in us; it must be in God” (DF, 65).  The Christian need not claim exhaustive knowledge of reality since he knows he cannot have such a thing.  Only God has comprehensive knowledge, and this is the basis for all true human knowledge.

5.  Prayer and the Glory of God

Now, what of prayer?  If God has ordained “whatsoever comes to pass,” why even pray?  This question can be answered in two ways: first, God has ordained the ends as well as the means to those ends.  This means that God’s plan includes not just the end result, but also the methods for obtaining that end result.  Prayer is one of those means.  Prayer functions as one of the ways in which God’s purposes will be accomplished.  We can pray precisely because we know that God has designed prayer to be effective in accomplishing His ordained ends.

Second, if God has not ordained “whatsoever comes to pass,” why even pray?  Prayer is simply asking God what only He has the power to do.  So do you pray for the salvation of your unbelieving friends?  Do you pray for the poor to be fed?  Do you pray for God’s kingdom to come and for His will to be done?  If so, in your praying of these prayers, you are acknowledging that God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass.  As I’ve said elsewhere, “How could you possibly ask God for anything if He is not in control of everything?”  Prayer is powerful because God controls everything.

Finally, and of greatest importance and comfort to me, the glory of God is at stake in this discussion.  It is my contention that God does everything He does in order to bring glory to His name.  This means that in all of His actions, God seeks to display the supremacy of His attributes, and this is the ground upon which the believer has any hope at all for his salvation and everlasting joy in God.  The reason for this is that God saves sinners to the praise of His glory.  I said before that God is fiercely committed to His glory, and part of that means that He will stop at nothing to display the glory of His grace in the salvation of a specific people.  After declaring that God saves sinners from the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, Paul asks, “What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  We can be fully assured of our salvation, not because of what we do, how we feel, the strength of our faith, the perfection of our theology, or anything in us at all.  Rather, we can be fully assured that those of us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved because our salvation is not primarily about us: it is primarily and ultimately about the glory of God!

Thanks for reading.  Have additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.




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