Cornelius Van Til contrasts the correspondence theory of truth with what is known as the coherence theory of truth, which he identifies as having risen to prominence within the German idealist tradition. Rather than knowledge arising from mere correspondence of knowledge or belief in the mind to something in the external world, “The mind and the object of which it seeks knowledge are parts of one great system of reality and one must have knowledge of the whole of this reality before one has knowledge of any of its parts.” Thus, we can see how a Platonist or Tractatus-era Wittgensteinian can know something that is true on the basis of correspondence of one’s knowledge or belief to something in the world without adhering to a broader worldview in which such knowledge coheres or makes sense.
For the idealists, what was really important was not merely correspondence of belief or knowledge with a fact, but the coherence of one fact with all other facts. One does not have true knowledge unless and until one does not simply know or cognitively assent to a fact but to understand a fact’s place within the context of all other facts. This idealist position, Van Til affirms, is formally similar to what Christians ought to affirm about knowledge from the Christian worldview; namely, that only Christians can lay claim to true knowledge about the world because, even though unbelievers may hold to beliefs that correspond with reality, they do not understand how these facts cohere with all other facts.
Apart from the formal similarity of the idealist understanding of the significance of coherence for one’s epistemology, the idealist position fails from the Christian perspective because it lacks Christianity’s self-conscious God. Furthermore, the idealist, Van Til points out, believes in an “Absolute” which, far from transcending the immanent world, is correlative and bound to it.
Their Absolute is not a god that exists outside of space and time and which has exhaustive knowledge of past, present and future, exhaustive knowledge of all facts as well as their mutual relation and significance, and so on. It is therefore impossible for the unbeliever(in this case, the proponent of Absolute idealism) to exhibit real coherence in his or her thought. It is only by means of thinking God’s thoughts after him in such a way that “all of our thoughts about the facts of the universe are in correspondence with God’s ideas of these facts” that there can be true coherence in our thinking.
God alone knows everything and He alone therefore not only has exhaustive knowledge of the sum total of all facts, but He alone understands the internal coherence of all facts because he understands how all facts mutually relate to one another. Therefore, God alone has complete coherence in His thought. Therefore, the only way we can hope to have true coherence in our own thought is by agreeing with God concerning the facts of the universe and the mutual relations and internal coherence of those thoughts. Cornelius Van Til thus points out that it is in the case of the Christian, and the Christian alone, that both true correspondence as well as true coherence, are made possible.
Cornelius Van Til notes that while the issue of correspondence is what is of primary concern for humans within the realm of epistemology, for God, the question of coherence comes to the fore. “There was coherence in God’s plan before there was any space-time fact to which his knowledge might correspond, or which might correspond to his knowledge.” In other words, coherence consisted in the mind of God with respect to his plan before the actual execution of this plan and the world of facts in which it resulted. Keeping this in mind, for Van Til, is crucial to a properly Christian understanding of a coherence theory of truth. The big question for Van Til is not merely whether or not our thoughts correspond to the facts, but whether or not they specifically correspond to God’s ideas of the facts and whether or not these facts cohere with one another in a proper manner with respect to their mutual relations and ultimate significance.
Van Til clearly does not therefore adhere to the correspondence theory of truth. This does not mean that he does not mean that correspondence of one’s ideas of facts to the facts themselves is necessary for knowledge. He does, however, deny that mere correspondence of our ideas of facts to the facts themselves is sufficient.
Van Til next deals with the question of “objectivity.” The word simply refers to whatever exists independently of the human mind. Knowledge is objective if our idea of something corresponds with its mind-independent reality. If our idea of something does not correspond to its mind-independent reality, then we have a false idea about the thing and our knowledge is inaccurate, or else not knowledge at all.
As we have seen, Van Til’s Christian understanding of the coherence theory of truth necessitates a new understanding of what it means for knowledge to be objective. it is no longer sufficient for one’s idea of something to correspond to its mind-independent existence. Instead, for knowledge to be objective means that we must not only assent to a fact but understand its coherence within a complete philosophical or theoretical system. In Van Til’s own words, “One would have a true idea of a cow not by having a replica of a cow in one’s mind, but by understanding the place of the cow in the universe.”
Epistemic priority, therefore, for Van Til, is placed not on the correspondence of our idea with the cow, but rather the correspondence of our idea of the cow with God’s idea of the cow, since God alone understands the significance of the cow and its place within God’s omniscience. While such a coherence understanding of knowledge is formally similar to that of the idealist, Van Til again reiterates the crucial difference that “for the idealist, the system of reference is found in the Universe inclusive of God and man, while for us, the point of reference is just found in God alone.” Epistemological positions, for Van Til, which do not seek the Archimedean grand for their knowledge in the self-conscious God, cannot lay claim to objective knowledge. Man simply cannot have knowledge without God.
Following his discussion of objectivity, Van Til discusses the question of method. Each and every system of thought has its own method of investigation. What is the method of investigation unique to Christianity? Van Til notes that the question of method is usually overlooked.
“It is taken for granted [falsely, by most people] that everybody begins in the same way with an examination of the facts, and that the differences between systems come only as a result of such investigations. yet this is not actually the case. It could not actually be the case. In the first place, this could not be the case with the Christian. His fundamental and determining fact is the fact of God’s existence. That is his final conclusion. But that must also be his starting point.”
Here, we see Van Til’s well-known position that all reasoning is necessarily circular. Where one begins determines where one ends, and where one ends likewise reveals where one had antecedently begun. The Christian begins and end with metaphysical belief in the existence of God, and epistemological reliance upon the Bible as his only authority.
The point Van Til makes about the de facto necessity of circularity goes something like this: If a Christian is right about his metaphysical belief in God, it is only because he has the correct epistemological authority. The reason this is the case is because the Bible itself, which has been authored by an infallible God who cannot lie, teaches that God Himself is the only medium by which one can know about God. If the God of the Bible really does exist and it is only by means of revelation by Him that one knows anything, attempts to obtain knowledge apart from Him is futile.
Van Til uses a few analogies to attempt to illustrate this point:
If all things must be seen “in God” to be seen truly, one could look ever so long elsewhere without ever seeing a fact as it really is. If I must look through a telescope to see a distant star, I cannot first look at the star to see whether there is a telescope through which alone I could see it. If I must look through a microscope to see a germ, I cannot first look at the germ with the naked eye to see if there is a microscope through which alone I can see it. If it were a question of seeing something with the naked eye and seeing the same object more clearly through a telescope or a microscope, the matter would be different. We may see a landscape dimly with the naked eye and then turn to look at it through a telescope and see it more clearly. But such is not the case with the Christian position. According to it, nothing at all can be known truly of any fact unless it be known through and by way of man’s knowledge of God.
It would also be legitimate to say something like: one cannot look at a star beyond one’s view in order to determine whether or not one requires a telescope in order to view it. One cannot observe a germ in order to determine whether or not one requires a microscope to see it. In each case, the very nature of things dictates that one requires a microscope or a telescope as the precondition for perceiving each of these things in the first place. Such is the case with the mutual dependence, mutual embeddedness and equi-primordiality of ontology and epistemology, particularly from within the Christian perspective.
If the Christian worldview is true, and the God of the Bible really exists, and knowledge really can only come through Him, then it follows that we must simply assume His existence in order to have any knowledge whatsoever. For the positivist to say, for example, that the God of the Bible is evil is to already presuppose both a non-Christian ontology and a non-Christian epistemology. Indeed, a non-Christian ontology necessarily flows from a non-Christian epistemology, and vice-versa. For the non-Christian to say that the God of the Bible would be an evil God is to presuppose the falsity of the Christian worldview and the truth of his or her own worldview. It likewise entails presupposing the falsity of Christian epistemological standards and the truth of non-Christian epistemological standards. The non-Christian, no less than the Christian, will go about the argument one of two ways:
1) Explicit epistemological claim with an implicit ontological position – “Science has disproven the epistemological reliability of the Bible.” This is the explicit epistemological claim. The epistemological claim is that the interpretation of sense-perception by man’s autonomous reason is reliable. The implicit ontological claim is that the universe is such that autonomous human reason is reliable(in this case, the implicit ontological claim is something like the traditional narrative about the creation of the universe from a Big Bang or a chaotic inflationary model of the universe, or whatever cosmology to which the disputant adheres, and that the Bible is an epistemologically unreliable collection of random ancient near eastern and Hellenistic Jewish writings; that the interpretation of the significance of sense-perception by the human nervous system is the best epistemological authority to which we have access, etc.). The latter is the circular assumption.
The Christian, in refuting this position, must point out that they are circularly assuming that the universe is such that autonomous human reason is reliable and counter with his her own explicit epistemological claim that the Bible is the only reliable epistemological authority, to which a human reason which would otherwise attempt to become autonomous must submit itself in its quest for truth. The implicit ontological claim in the Christian’s explicit avowal of his trust in the Bible as his only reliable epistemological authority is that the universe is such that the Bible is our only reliable epistemological authority(in this case, the implicit ontological claim is that the universe is such that the God of which the Bible speaks actually exists).
2) Explicit ontological claim with an implicit epistemological position – An example of this would be something like “The idea that there is a God who created the universe is just a myth.” This is a more explicitly ontological claim. Embedded in this ontological claim is the implicit epistemological position that autonomous human reason is sufficient to determine the correct metaphysical view of reality.
In the end, ontological claims can be shown to be shown to be implicitly epistemological claims, and epistemological claims can be shown to be implicitly ontological claims about reality. The question is ultimately a question of one’s holistic “worldview.” Worldview refers to the holistic, mutual dependence, embeddedness and equi-primordiality of epistemology and ontology. Everyone is “biased” in the sense that all of their utterances always presuppose a worldview. What is presupposed in each case is an ontology and an epistemology, with the one flowing necessarily from the other.
Insofar as everyone always already presupposes, either explicitly or implicitly, an ontology or an epistemology, one’s perspective is always “biased.” It is on these grounds that Van Til can justifiably dispute the existence of any purely ‘neutral’ perspective. In each case, whenever the unbeliever makes a worldview-laden claim, whether its emphasis be on epistemological or ontological aspects of reality, the Christian can justifiably respond with something like “unless the worldview claims of Christianity are simply true, and autonomous human reason is not an epistemologically reliable standard”, or “unless the worldview claims of Christianity are simply true and your assumptions about the metaphysical nature of reality are simply false.”