To Obligate Belief

The classic beginning of Calvin’s Institutes rightly assumes that it is not possible to know God without knowledge of ourselves. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. But it runs the other direction as well. It “not easy to discern” which knowledge precedes and brings forth the other. They are interdependent. “Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him” (Institutes 1.1.1).

The same kind of thing is true of other sets of complementary assumptions. I cannot know my Cartesian pinpoint self without assuming something about the authority of logic. I think I think, therefore I think I am, I think. I cannot know the Bible without assuming something about the nature of the world in which I learned to read it, along with the reality of Miss Robinson who taught me how to read in first grade. I cannot know one thing without knowing something about all things.

This, if true, means that the whole world is a package deal. God did not give us the world piecemeal. He places us in an integrated reality, and it is only sin that wants to pretend that we are anywhere else.

That sin wants to say that so long as it is willing to continue the argument, there must be something to the argument. But that is what Hell will be like — endless gnawing, endless rationalizations, endless argument. The worm does not die.

The Way It Looks on the Screen

So I am a presuppositionalist. That’s true enough, but what do I need to presuppose? This will require more development, but what needs to be presupposed is the way things actually are. You don’t need to know all the precise details of how things actually are — you don’t begin at the end — but you do have to be committed to the truth a priori, knowing that such objective, unmovable truth, which is so necessary as the foundation of every form of knowing, is not possible apart from the bedrock of the true and living God.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 9:10). But beginning with the fear of the Lord does not mean beginning with the Lord alone, the Lord solitary, the Lord isolated. No one can know the Lord that way — it is incoherent — oxymoronic. God cannot be known from outside God unless there is a creation, in which the knower lives. And if he lives in a created order larger than himself, then he also knows things other than God simultaneously with his self-knowledge, and these other things also testify to the majesty of the God who created them all.

So prior to the creation, there was no fear of God. In order to have the fear of the Lord (which is the beginning of knowledge), it is necessary to have a knowing subject who does the fearing, and who knows himself to exist as a fearing creature. Moreover, he lives and moves and has his being in a world within which that fear makes sense.
That fear makes sense to the creature because he presupposes the whole shebang. He presupposes the God who is, the world that this God spoke by the word of His power, the holy law that our first parents disregarded, and the Scriptures which declare to us His spelled out explanations of all that has come to pass.

If I presuppose a Creator, then heaven and earth must be contained within that presupposition. If I presuppose a Savior, then a Word containing gospel is contained within that presupposition. If we say that God wrote two books, His Word and the world, it makes no sense to pit those books against each other. God is perfect, and the books He wrote need to be perfectly harmonious.

Not only can I not consider God independently of the created order, I cannot successfully isolate His Word to us from that created order. In order to read a Bible, I have to reckon with a cascading series of things like learning to read, a cow that contributes leather for the cover, paper, ink, the light that strikes the page, the physical eyes that receive that light, the brain cells that remember what I read yesterday, and so on. How shall they distribute tracts without a typesetter?

It is not the case that the world comes to me through this portal, and the Word through that portal. God is the living constant, and He is speaking at all times and through all things. This is something precious I learned from Van Til. At the same time, I do want to run with some of this and apply it in ways that perhaps Van Til would have been uncomfortable with. The computer that is my brain can (I think) run two operating systems — Van Til 1.2. and Lewis 5.2. The code in the back room can look pretty funky sometimes, but I like the way it looks on the screen.

So, like all presuppositionalists, I try to reason from Scripture instead of reasoning my way to the Scriptures. I don’t want to presuppose a neutral space, from which I try to get others to become Christian. But when I presuppose Scripture, there is another foundational layer underneath that. I must presuppose a God who is absolute, and who has revealed Himself in absolutely everything. In the words of Schaeffer’s great title — He is there, and He is not silent.

C.S. Lewis and Moose Tracks Ice Cream

Over the last few weeks, we have been discussing natural law — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Jim Jordan kicked things off by attacking The Calvinist International at the Auburn Avenue conference, and I wrote a few posts on the subject, including an outline of my own debt to C.S. Lewis, and my derivative gratitude for the work of Van Til.

So the debate now continues. Peter Escalante and Steven Wedgeworth have now replied to Jim here. In addition, just as I did, Steven gives an account of his intellectual pilgrimage here. We all travel different paths, but we ascend the same mountain.

That’s what natural law leads to, right? A syncretistic swirl of paganism and Christianity, like moose tracks ice cream? The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient, that kind of thing?

Not really. I think this is a fruitful topic for debate because it concerns the nature of reality, and our access to that reality. For every Christian who lives downstream from Kant, I think this is an issue that should concern us much more than it usually does. We shouldn’t want to live in a generic universe, ruled over by the place-holder god of the secular deists, on the one hand, but on the other we must not duplicate (in our own fashion) the liberal Protestant “retreat to commitment” that Bartley dissects so ably.

So that you don’t have to read between the lines, here is my summary take on the whole thing. As far as relationships go, Jim Jordan is a friend, Peter Escalante is a friend, and Steven Wedgeworth is a friend, so that won’t help you much. I could leave it there, but as far as the substance of this discussion goes, I have much greater affinity with the outlook of The Calvinist International than I do with thoroughbred Van Tilianism. My most recent book, Against the Church, is dedicated to Peter and Steven for their work at The Calvinist International, so that should give you some idea.

One last thing. These really are crucial issues, and so as we debate them, I would urge everyone to keep a cool head. When outsiders look at us, they should think “hotbed of cool customers,” or something equivalent. I commend Peter and Steven for the measured response, and look forward to what shakes out of all this.

Me and Van Til

So let us begin with the ungrammatical title. Why would I put it like that? It is not really proper, unless worked into a sentence like “‘Me and Van Til’ is not really a proper title for a blog post.” So maybe I am being grammatical accidentially, like the boy who was dozing in the back row of English class when the teacher said to him, “Billy, give me examples of two pronouns.” He lurched to his feet, bewildered, and said, “Who? Me?” “Very good,” she said, albeit reluctantly. Maybe I was just looking for an arresting title. Maybe it is just clickbait.

Where was I? Since I have been writing a bit on natural law, and have identified myself as a Van Tilian presuppositionalist, I thought a little intellectual autobiography might be in order, and I will begin with an anecdote that illustrates the jumble in my head.

One of the first books I wrote (in the early nineties) was called Persuasions, and contained a series of conversations between a character called Evangelist and various unbelievers. It was a dream of “reason meeting unbelief.” This was pre-Internet, and at the time, conservative Presbyterians and recons got a lot of their books from a catalog company called Great Christian Books, previously named Puritan and Reformed Books. I sent a copy of the book to them, and a gent named Walt Hibbard running the catalog was kind enough to pick up my book and include it among his offerings. This was a big deal for me, and so I was naturally excited to get my copy of the catalog. When it arrived, I hunted down the place where it was, and read the copy that had been written for my book. That copy said something like “this small book is a fine introductory treatment of Van Tilian apologetics.” I stared at it, flummoxed. “It is?” I thought.

Natural Law and Self-Deception

So it looks to me as though we are going to have a full bore discussion of natural law. This is fine, and about time. I do think that there are some genuine differences here, obviously, but perhaps not as many as advertised. Some of this seems to me to be a debate between advocates of natural knowing, on the one hand, and natural understanding on the other.

If you look in the comments on the previous “5K in your pocket” post, you will see a link to Andrew Fulford’s article on certain tensions in Van Til’s position, along with some comments on it. Here is that link again.

But if you will allow me to complicate things a little bit — for is that not my spiritual gift? — I would point out one other implication of any expression like natural law. If there is a law, then there is a lawgiver, as I have already said. But if there is a natural law, then there is also a body of persons to whom the legislation applies. If there is law in Idaho, there is a legislature. But there must also be Idahoans, who are subject to the law.

Five Thousand Dollars in Your Pocket

As our discussion of natural law proceeds apace, one of things we have to do is distinguish between the unacceptable forms of natural law and the acceptable forms of it. I mean, to accept the unacceptable forms of natural law would be . . . unnatural. Creepy almost.

So what’s the difference? At the end of the day, if someone wants to say that natural law can give us a moral compass whether or not there is a God, that is unacceptable. It is idolatrous. In such a case, nature functions as the source of law. In my understanding of what Scripture teaches, the only source of natural revelation would be God Himself, as He is — which is triune. God is not an optional component in the system. With natural revelation, creation is the medium through which God speaks.

The world is God talking, and it is absurd to postulate a system where you keep the talking, but then grant that the existence of the talker is up for grabs. Scholars apparently differ . . .

So a litmus test of whether we are going in a bad direction would be whether or not the words nature and creation are interchangeable, for the purposes of our discussion. If those two things are treated as being completely different, then we have compromised with unbelief. If nature functions as a “given,” whether or not it has a Creator, then we are, metaphorically speaking, on the bad side of town at two in the morning, we are out of gas, and have five thousand dollars in our pocket.

What Plato’s Cousin Knew

Theological disputes are often matters of great moment, even when those outside the dispute cannot track with what is going on. I think it was Gibbon who once displayed his ignorance by saying that the debate over homousia and homoiousia was somehow over the letter i — which is pretty similar to saying the debate between atheists and theists is over the letter a.

But at the same time, theologians are capable of talking past each other simply because they are used to different terminology, or perhaps because they are worried about the trajectory of those who use that other terminology. Take, for example, the distinction between natural revelation and natural law.

Now before opening this particular worm can, I want to acknowledge that two positions represented by these phrases can be quite different indeed. But this is a historical fact, not a logical one. I believe the two essential positions can be collapsed into one another with 5 minutes of questions.

Say you are comfortable with the phrase natural revelation. You believe that the triune God of Scripture revealed Himself through the things that have been made, and that this fact leaves all men everywhere without excuse. It sounds to me like this is an ethical obligation, and another fine word for natural ethical obligation would be natural law. Honoring God as God is not optional, and it is therefore law.

Say you are comfortable with the phrase natural law. Laws do not arrive by themselves, coming from nowhere in particular, but rather laws come from a lawgiver. And the giving of law is a form of communication, is it not? One might even say that communication reveals things — natural law is therefore a form of natural revelation.

No, no, no, someone will cry. Cornelius Van Til disagrees with John Locke and Thomas Aquinas. And I cheerfully grant it. This doesn’t mean that the hearts of the two positions are inconsistent. The God who reveals Himself through the things that have been made, and the God who embeds His law in the natural order of things, and even deeper in every human conscience, is the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of The Lord Jesus Christ.