Read the series so far.
Having brought into the discussion the necessity of divine revelation as the presupposition of faith, we are faced with the question of how reason relates to this revelation. My answer to this question will have to be provisional for now. I hope to post separately on this subject in the future.
If faith truly appropriates the truth about God then it is clear that it can have no proper function apart from divine revelation. As “faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), it responds to matters above the reach of the inductive sciences (1 Cor. 2:10, etc). Hence, from a Christian point of view, it is essential for man to have proper faith if he is to know his creational environment fully.
Naturally, this is not the position of the unregenerate, nor, if what we have said above is true, can it ever be. This is for the simple reason that, according to Van Til, “Their epistemology is informed by their ethical hostility to God.”1 A century ago Herman Bavinck, following the work of C. P. Tiele, noted that every religion claimed as part of its identity, a form of revelation.2 He noted that each religion, if it were to sustain itself, needed some source of explanation (of immaterial reality) beyond human reason.3 But once English Empiricism had gained prestige, “reason gradually gained for itself the power to pronounce on the content of revelation as well.”4
The lesson is easy enough to discern. Though the Enlightenment project housed various theories and explanations of knowledge, the central pillar of all Enlightenment epistemology was the persuasion that the parameters of knowledge about reality were circumscribed by the rationality and intelligence of man. Bavinck remarked that, “Materially the gospel could not be anything other than the truth of reason.”5 There was no place left for faith. This is the “dead-end” down which most secular thought has come.
Even though both Rationalism and Empiricism as philosophical movements have been held up to withering scrutiny, they still enjoy a healthy adherence, particularly the latter, with its support of “the scientific method.” As for Kant’s attempt at fusing these two schools of thought together in his Critique of Pure Reason, we should remind ourselves that he only “saved science” from the potential ravages of Hume’s skepticism by subjectivizing it, while at the same time “saving” religion and ethics by making them impenetrable to pure reason. But as the historian Will Durant asked,
What had the [Critique] really done? It had destroyed the naïve world of science, and limited it, if not in degree, certainly in scope,—and to a world confessedly of mere surface and appearance, beyond which it could issue only in farcical ‘antinomies’; so science was ‘saved’! The most eloquent and incisive portions of the book had argued that the objects of faith—a free and immortal soul, a benevolent creator—could never be proved by reason; so religion was ‘saved’! No wonder the priests of Germany protested madly against this salvation, and revenged themselves by calling their dogs Immanuel Kant.6
Today non-Christian thought, though it more and more disavows the bombastic over-confidence of the Enlightenment, is just as aimlessly lost without a center as it has always been. Futility is the inevitable outcome of all non-revelational, or, better, anti-revelational thought (Rom. 1:21-22).
The myth of epistemological neutrality
What I have said above shows that there is no place of neutrality, no universal “buffer-zone” where all people, no matter their control beliefs, can come together to assess the facts without bias. This is emphatically the case between the Christian believer and the unbeliever in Christianity, whatever else he may believe.7
This is not to say for a second that there is nothing the believer and the unbeliever have in common. What we are saying is that when a Bible-believer and, say, a Muslim, or an atheist look at a fact, they may well agree on what the fact is (e.g. the midday sun), but they will not agree on the meaning of the fact. The Muslim will believe that the sun is there because Allah, his wholly transcendent and ineffable god, has determined it to be there. The atheist believes that the sun is there due to a series of momentous, blind chain-reactions dating back to a singularity some 15 billion years ago. The Christian theist, on the other hand, sees the sun as part of the creation and ongoing, immanent providence of the transcendent,8 Triune God of the Bible, the redeeming God of grace.
One need only give a little thought to the issue of neutrality if he is a Christian. For as a Christian he sees the world. He is certainly not neutral. He is for Christ and the Bible (Matt. 12:30)! As Jochen Douma accurately puts it, “Choosing the LORD always means making a choice that excludes every other possibility.”9 And what is true of the Christian holds true for the non-Christian, for the Bible declares that he is far from being neutral either (Eph. 2:1-3). “Theologically, the point can be expressed this way: when people forsake the true God, they come under bondage to idols. When they reject the true standard, they adopt a false one.”10 This, at least, ought to be understood, but here is where the howls of protest are heard—howls emanating from conservative Christian scholarship, no less.
1 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1955), 190.
2 Bavinck, 284-285.
3 Ibid, 286
4 Ibid, 288
6 Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, (New York: Pocket Library, 1954), 275.
7 Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 225f.
8 Notice that I have deliberately linked the immanence of God with His transcendent nature. This is done in contrast to the “transcendence” of Allah, which as formulated, makes that god utterly incomprehensible, and so vulnerable to the skeptic’s charge of being unknowable. A totally incomprehensible deity is one we cannot speak about. If we cannot say anything about him we may as well not think about him at all! A correct doctrine of God’s transcendence will include His immanence, and thus God’s incomprehensibility is not total. For more on this subject see John M. Frame’s essay, “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence,” in John Warwick Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word, (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship Inc., 1974).
9 Jochen Douma, The Ten Commandments, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 18.
10 Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 126.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.