The Frame of Knowledge: A Christian View

Here’s an older piece which I thought worth bringing out for perusal.  It’s fairly long, but I hope some folks will like it:

Introduction

The Christian must take his or her position upon the words of Scripture. Not after it has been granted that the Bible really is the very Word of God, but it must be the great presupposition, the ultimate commitment of every child of God. We must insist that there is, in fact, no alternative to the Bible when it comes to an infallible and certain source of knowledge available to humanity. It is the “frame” into which all of mans thoughts must fit if man is to know anything for certain. Natural theology can only provide an immanent base upon which to build a theology, which would require that God’s Truth would always have to submit itself to the judgment of men. Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff describes this wrong turn taken by evangelicals in the modern (i.e. Enlightenment) era:

Theology in the modern university is under pressure to cast its argumentative structure into a very different mold. Natural theology can no longer occur as an occasional insertion into the framework of scripturally based sacred theology, as the necessary foundation thereof. Until that foundation is firmly laid in the deliverances of our human nature, there can be no going beyond. And the “going beyond,” from natural theology to scripturally based sacred theology, can occur only if the theologian, appealing solely to the deliverances of our human nature, has succeeded in establishing that the Christian Scriptures are indeed the revelation of God. Natural theology, conducted as a generically human enterprise, is thus to be followed by inquiry into the revelatory status of Scripture, also conducted as a generically human enterprise. If the result of this last inquiry is that Christian Scripture is likely to be (or include) God’s revelation, then one can construct the remainder of one’s theology on the basis of that revelational content – with the proviso that one’s interpretation of the meaning of Scripture is also to be conducted as a generically human enterprise.[1]

If the believer starts by arguing to the reliability, inspiration, and authority of Scripture he will never get to where he can plant both feet solidly on all of its teachings. Our purpose at this point is to examine what is perhaps the most disruptive fallout of an adherence to natural theology, and that is the bifurcation of knowledge into that which can be known by reason alone, and that which can only be known by reason acting in tandem with faith.

A. The “Two Spheres”

In his book about the fortunes of modern atheism in the West, the Oxford scholar Alister McGrath highlights the unfortunate outcome of churchmen in the time of the Enlightenment trying to prove God’s existence from philosophical reasoning alone:

Convinced that the scientific discoveries of their day could be harnessed to serve the needs of the church, Descartes and his colleagues abandoned any appeal to religious experience in their defense of the faith. The secure proofs of religion lay in philosophy and the natural sciences – in the reasoning of this world rather than the intrusion of the next. Philosophy alone could establish the necessity and plausibility of the Christian faith.

With the benefit of hindsight, this was not a particularly wise strategy. The English experience suggested that nobody really doubted the existence of God until theologians tried to prove it. The very modest success of these proofs led many to wonder if God’s existence was quite as self-evident as they had once thought. A well-meaning defense of God ended up persuading people that the case for God was surprisingly uncertain.[2]

As it turned out, the very arguments used by Theists to combat atheism were put into service by Atheists and used as reasons not to believe in God.[3]

The reason why it backfired on these Christians is not too difficult to divine. The Theists were employing the very same epistemological tools that the Deists (e.g. Voltaire, Toland, Herbert) and Atheists (d’Holbach, Helvetius) were using with such effect against them. The starting point was the same for all – it was human reason. The Christians just freighted in special revelation to explain some items of faith “beyond” common rationality. The problem was the dependence upon the two-tier theory of knowledge of Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas had taught that the reason was able to come to certain truths about God through inference and deduction based upon a studied reflection upon the works of God in nature. As Ronald Nash reminds us:

For Aquinas, the sphere of philosophy includes any item of knowledge that humans can acquire apart from special revelation. The word philosophy therefore encompassed the science of his day and includes any item of human knowledge based upon human experience and reasoning. Theology, by contrast, is a function of faith grounded upon the content of divine revelation. The first principles or premises of special revelation come through revelation, whereas the first principles of philosophy (such as mathematics) are known by the unaided light of the intellect.[4]

It was in this way that faith was separated from reason.[5] Those skeptics of organized religion who arose just prior to the Enlightenment could thereby choose the way of reason (which included science) while turning their reasoning against the concept of faith. It takes little mental effort to come to realize that it was misguided Christian theologians and philosophers who forged the weapons which were (and still are) used so effectively against them. In adopting a two-tier or two-storey[6] view of knowledge there is always the very real danger of the one attacking the other. Indeed, this is precisely what Francis Schaeffer said about the bifurcation of knowledge.[7] The built-in potential for a radical discontinuity between the top storey (faith, freedom, value) and the bottom storey (reason, nature, fact) becomes inexorable once the prevailing Theism of a culture or civilization becomes the object of dissatisfaction and disapprobation.[8] Once society views any form of supernaturalism with suspicion the end result will be to relegate the top tier to the realm of the unknowable (Kant), the psychological (Feuerbach), the oppressive (Marx), or the irrational (Ayer). When this is done, there are no longer two levels of knowledge but two spheres, one handling factual reality, the other religious sentiment and wish-fulfillment.

Another way of looking at the problem is to see the two-tiers as being morphed from that which describes the sacred and the secular, into a purely secularized dichotomy that produces a dualism of “public and private” or “fact and value.”[9] The sad thing about this is that Christians have bought into this secular description of reality. Yet it needs to be maintained frankly that any metaphysical and epistemological dualism, be it advanced by Christians or by non-Christians, is philosophically fallacious. The reason this is so is because the two spheres cannot be brought together into a harmonious relationship with each other. As Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes has said, this way of thinking betrays the “lack of any unifying world-view, and tacitly denies the unity of truth.”[10]

Herman Dooyeweerd’s Critique of Western Thought

At this juncture it is useful to look at the work of the great twentieth century Dutch polymath and philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, especially as it has been set forth in the first volume of his massive A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. Dooyeweerd’s philosophy is a complex dismantling of what he calls the “immanence-philosophies”[11] of the West, which stretch all the way back to the early Greeks and extend into the present day, embracing every non-biblical school of philosophic thought. In its place he constructs his own “Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea,” which sees the world as created by God as a realm of what he calls “modal aspects” or “law-spheres.” These “law-spheres,” although they are discrete in one sense, form a complete system of providence reflecting the eternal will of God for His creation.[12]

What this means is that there are “cosmonomic” norms within creation which must be followed if creation is to function optimally.[13] These norms may be designated by the terms “structure” and “direction.” One interpreter of Dooyeweerd, Albert Wolters, expresses it well. He notices that “the law of creation manifests itself in another way since the incursion of sin.” He continues:

Curbing sin and the evils that it spawns, it prevents the complete disintegration of the earthly realm that is our home. The law, in other words, impinges upon its creaturely subjects. The law is “valid” in the sense that it holds, it is in force, it has come into effect. Ignoring the law of creation is impossible…The “structure” of a thing is the law that is in force for it, and no amount of repression or subversion will ever succeed in nullifying its presence and effect.[14]

This way of viewing the world not only brings the realms of nature and imagination (or “matter and mind”) together, it also reinforces the intrinsic “Creator/creature distinction” which is crucial to any theological representation of reality.

When we say that God has placed His entire creation under law, we include under the term “law,” all Divine ordinances and norms which have their origin in the Sovereign Will of the Creator and apply to creation. The entire cosmos is subject to Divine law. All creation must obey its Maker. God is above law and is not subject to it. Law is the expression of His Will. He is the Law-giver.[15]

Thus, “God presses his claim upon us in the structure of his creation, regardless of our direction.”[16] This is the case in all avenues of human endeavor, including philosophy.

No single serious current of thought, however apostate in its starting-point, makes its appearance in the history of the world without a task of its own, by which, even in spite of itself, it must contribute to the fulfillment of the Divine plan in the unfolding of the faculties which He makes to perform their work even in His fallen creation.[17]

Naturally, this scheme forces Dooyeweerd to repudiate any two-storey concept of reality. He states that the “Nature/Grace” bifurcation of knowledge held by the Roman Catholic Church was not completely eradicated by the Reformers in their many writings, even though they saw the problem. Therefore, the scholastic motive of nature and grace, “introduced a dualism into the entire view of man and the world, which could not fail to withdraw Christian thought from the radical and integral grip of the Word of God.”[18]

An integrated and harmonious outlook on reality and knowing can only be found in the Christian-theological tradition in its best expression. As Dooyeweerd articulates it, “There exists no partial truth which is sufficient to itself. Partial theoretical truth is truth only in the coherence of the theoretical truths, and this coherence in its relativity pre-supposes the fullness or the totality of truth.”[19]

Christian truth is “Total Truth” in that it reflects the revelational epistemology (to use Van Til’s terminology) which man is supposed to live by. This revelation is not deficient, but is a true representation of the unified Decree. Thus, any defection from this theory of knowledge will introduce confusion and disharmony into the picture – whether it originate in secular thought, false religions, or Christian theology.[20] To a greater or lesser extent then, any defection is an apostasy.[21] To cite another philosopher closely associated with the Dooyeweerdian school, Hendrik Stoker:

The unity of revelation requires one who reveals, something that is revealed, and someone to whom it is revealed. The unity of revelation at the base of man’s knowledge discloses the principial connectedness of knowing and the knowable, thereby at the same time leaving the radical difference between them intact. This is apparent when we consider that God reveals himself in his Word and works…that he has created our universe or cosmos knowable; that he has endowed man with the acts and functions to know and to act upon it. Here again it becomes clear how enstatically man’s knowledge of the revelation of God (in his Word and his creation), as well as of the created universe itself, is interwoven with created reality itself.[22]

Clearly, there should be a much needed rethink among Christian-theists about their epistemology and metaphysics. But it is sad to see how many theologians are blind to it all. They are still seemingly content to allow secular thought to drive the agenda. “Science” must set the rules of the game. And however much conservative Christians; both apologists and theologians, may complain, they continue to “play the game” while trying to persuade an unrepentant world that believes the Christian truth-claim has been forever trivialized. “God holds Himself to His Sovereign laws, but only the creation is subject to them.”[23] That is the key. By ignoring this truth Christian theologians have played into the hand of the Rebellion of man against God. By maintaining a dichotomy within reality, the Church has agreed with the world against God. This is how the Voice of God is discounted by the world and shoved into the margins.


[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Travail of Theology in the Modern Academy,” in, Miroslav Volf et al., eds., The Future of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 40-41.

[2] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 31.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 170.

[5] To make matters worse Aquinas “denied the presence of any innate ideas in the human mind. Thus, if humans are to know God, this knowledge must be built up from a patient analysis of sense data.” – Ibid, 18.

[6] This is the term used by Colin Brown in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968), 33, 36.

[7] See especially Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy, (Wheaton, IL: 1968, 1990). In this book Schaeffer traces the development of the grace/nature distinction in Aquinas through to the nonrational/rational dichotomy of secularism.

[8] This is well chronicled in Alister McGrath’s, The Twilight of Atheism. See also Merold Westphal’s intriguing study, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

[9] See Nancey Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 2004), 99. On pages 101-109 this author gives a fine overview of these various secular dichotomies.

[10] Arthur F. Holmes, All Truth Is God’s Truth, (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 1977), 16.

[11] Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 1.12-13.

[12] For this reason the close ally of Dooyeweerd, Hendrik G. Stoker, preferred to start his philosophy with the concept of creation. Dooyeweerd appreciates this, but objects that since secular philosophies will automatically disallow creation, it could never function as a starting-point because that would virtually eliminate any meaningful point of contact. See Dooyeweerd, 1.94-95.

Whether Dooyeweerd is correct or not is a side issue to the present thesis, but it should be noted that Cornelius Van Til preferred Stoker’s approach precisely because Stoker grounded everything in the creation ordinances as described in Scripture, whereas Dooyeweerd eschewed Scripture at the early phases of his thought. See both Van Til’s lengthy “Response” to Dooyeweerd, in E.R. Geehan, Jerusalem and Athens, 109, and John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 372.

[13] Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, Second edition, 2005), 59.

[14] Wolters, 62.

[15] J. M. Spier, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1966, Second edition), 31.

[16] Wolters, 63.

[17] Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 1.119.

[18] Herman Dooyeweerd, In The Twilight of Western Thought, (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1972), 194.

[19] Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 1.116.

[20] The Neo-Calvinist theologian Gordon Spykman observed that, “The older, deeply entrenched dualist structures of traditional theologies had the effect of promoting, or at least of preserving, the idea of a “sacred” realm alongside, above, or beyond the “secular.” – Gordon J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 4.

[21] Pearcey, Total Truth, 93-94.

[22] Hendrik G. Stoker, “Reconnoitering The Theory of Knowledge of Cornelius Van Til,” in E. R. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens, 30.

[23] J. M. Spier, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, 31.

6 thoughts on “The Frame of Knowledge: A Christian View”

  1. I love McGrath’s observation on the philosophical proofs (so-called) for the existence of God—if you didn’t doubt the existence of God before your study of them, you’d be tempted to after. Greg Bahnsen does a great job of disecting them in his audio series on Christian Philosophy.

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