Descartes rested ontology on epistemology – I am because I think. Kant came along a few centuries later and said that all our knowledge of the external world is constructed by our own subjectivity. This was what he described as his “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. In a post a few weeks ago I cited Van Tillian John Frame frankly admitting the Kantian moorings of Van Til’s project, even if as a reversal of the identity of the transcendental.
Although I haven’t got it all put together in my mind yet, it seems to me that by constructing Christian epistemology, theology, and apologetics in a Kantian framework, Van Til necessarily commits himself to a subjectivistic orientation. While it is true that he talks of the objective self-contained God who objectively interprets his own revelation for man, and of man who then analogically thinks God’s thoughts after Him, a deep subjectivism nevertheless appears again and again as the final answer to the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian.
For instance, in his discussion of general revelation in Christian Apologetics Van Til says that while general revelation is “historically sufficient” as the necessary contrast against which special revelation appears, and while it is “clear” in and of itself, nobody can truly be a theist unless he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Only Christians are real theists, and only the Holy Spirit working subjectively in a man’s heart can make him able to properly understand anything that God says. Interestingly, Van Til calls this subjective process of the Holy Spirit in a man’s heart a “Copernican revolution,” implicitly invoking Kantian categories (pg. 36). The objective world may be “out there,” but man only knows it via a subjectivistic process involving the mediating, shaping force of categories inside of him. Although as a matter of confession the Van Tillian constantly tells everyone he relies solely on the objective Trinity for everything, as a matter of implication and actual practice he holds that ontology rests on epistemology and that reality is grounded in human thought processes.
But that’s not all. Keeping in mind the subjectivistic orientation, wherein knowledge is grounded on operations inside the consciousness of man, Van Til goes on to say that man can only put everything in “true perspective” if God gives him a new heart so that he can accept the evidence “for what it really is” (pg. 37). Van Til invokes Calvin’s doctrine of the internal witness of the Spirit, but he does not note that Calvin says this internal witness is the final piece of conviction of Scripture’s inspiration for the believer, not the only piece. Calvin spends a lot of time discussing the objective marks of Scripture, and in no way says they are worthless. They are not the whole story, but for Calvin that does not mean they are no story at all. Van Til seems to me to obliterate this careful conjoining of objective and subjective, and to rest everything on the subjective.
It is true that just after invoking Calvin he says that he is talking about the salvific purpose of Scripture (ibid.), but the way he frames the whole discussion seems to be a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Van Til goes on to say that “one must be a believing Christian to study nature in the proper frame of mind and with the proper procedure,” but then, when he admits the influence of indwelling sin even on the believer’s interpretations of revelation, his only answer is that the believer must “test his interpretations constantly by the principles of the written Word.” However, as was noted yesterday in my citation of R.L. Dabney on natural theology, devaluing man’s natural capacities (such as reason) in the name of wanting to avoid giving man too much logically creates the opposite problem of making man too inept to understand anything. Why should anyone believe that the Van Tillian is properly interpreting Scripture? If regeneration is the necessary precondition for proper understanding, but regeneration is basically invisible and subjective and inside a man, how do we outside of the Van Tillian know he’s regenerate? The whole thing rapidly flies apart into a duel of subjective impressions.
Other than the dominant emphasis on subjectivism, all of this seems to me to be a radicalization of the traditional Protestant doctrine of the clarity of God’s revelation and of God’s dealings with men in history. Traditionally (at least following Luther) the clarity of revelation was thought to have two aspects, external and internal. Any competent reader could understand the basic “stuff” of Scripture externally (that is, non-salvifically), but only those regenerated by God could understand it internally (that is, salvifically). The difference between men had only to do with salvation, not with basic comprehension. One begins to see why Van Tillians seem to talk out of both sides of their mouths regarding such things as evidences for faith and points of contact with unbelievers. They have to talk out of both sides of their mouth because they are trying to talk to people outside of themselves but their basic theory of truth and how people know it is mired inside their own consciousness. They are basically unable to ground their program on something more stable than ideas that are “clear and distinct” only to themselves.
It seems to me that the final result of claiming that only regeneration can make a man able to “truly” interpret anything is to rest the interpretive process, and the obtaining of truth itself, on purely subjective processes. Objective and subjective are divorced, faith and reason are dichotomized, religion is privatized, and theology becomes the domain of those who, with Kant in one hand and the Bible in the other claim that men have to grow up by daring to think for (in) themselves.:”(By this I am referring to the frequent Van Tillian rhetoric about the “immaturity” of past generations of Christians, and the tactic that goes with this rhetoric of willfully jettisoning anything that is “traditional” which does not comport with the deliverances of the Van Tillian’s own private consciousness. “Sapere aude,” indeed.)”: Perhaps I am being needlessly provocative here, but I just have to ask what is this but the very “Enlightenment” thought that Van Tillians so vehemently complain about in others?