Van Til makes the essential point that, although Christian and non-Christian philosophers oftentimes use identical philosophical and theological terminology, the definitions they give to these terms are inevitably informed by their worldview such that they come to mean totally different things when used in philosophical and theological discourse. Indeed, all of the language we use to express our convictions are defined in a way that necessarily follows from whatever holistic worldview to which we hold. These definitions in turn exist alongside and in mutual relation with, definition by, and dependence upon other definitions which themselves both obtain their definitions from these same mutual relations, as well as the worldview from which they flow.
To see how this is the case, let’s take the case of abortion. A non-Christian advocate of the pro-choice position will say that prohibiting abortion impinges upon the individual’s (in this case, the woman’s) freedom. The implication is that there is a broad worldview according to which “humans” are entitled to maximal negative liberty to the extent that their decisions do not impinge upon the negative liberty of others. Such a philosophy obviously stems from a non-Christian worldview.
While authentic Christians may hold to a certain degree of purely legislative or political libertarianism, it is obvious that Christians believe in certain forms of positive duty according to which humans are obligated by an objective, transcendent standard to conform to certain patterns of thought and behavior. While certain levels of freedom may be allowed by an individual government, this government is only a delegated sovereign, subordinate to the ultimate Sovereign of sovereigns, God; and God does not hold to such a libertarian philosophy, but instead demands total submission and obedience to the standards which flow from His character.
Indeed, from a biblical perspective, everyone is always a slave to something and everyone is always free from something. Freedom from something necessarily entails slavery to something else. We can attempt to arrogate to ourselves autonomy in our attempt at independence from the precepts of God, by which we become slaves to our own sinful passions, or we can be free from slavery to our sinful passions and instead become slaves to God. In the one case, we are free from God and free to sin.
But our affections, love and desires are always fixed upon something. Being free from obedience to God means being a slave to whatever is not God, which from the Christian perspective, is sin. Likewise, we can be free from a sinful devotion to our own autonomy and we can choose to serve God instead. In such a case, we are free from our sinful passions and instead become devotes slaves of God. Since it is only in obedience to God that humans achieve full self-actualization and fulfillment, from the Christian perspective, the truer, higher-order freedom, to use the philosophical language appropriate to speech about higher liberty, is slavery to God and freedom from sin rather than freedom to God and slavery to sin.
But the non-Christian libertarian will likely not appreciate such logic. For the non-Christian libertarian, true freedom is simply being able to exercise one’s negative liberty in whatever way one sees fit, provided it does not impinge illegitimately upon the negative liberty of another and they would likely not accept the idea that there are objective, transcendent standards of what constitutes legitimate decisions even when these decisions do not impinge upon the negative liberty of anyone else.
Likewise, the word “human” (notice the scare quotes in the previous usage) is given a radically different definition within such a worldview than that of the Christian worldview. The “human” is a “fetus” while it is still in the womb, and it only obtains the the status of a human and the rights accompanying such a status following its exit from the womb. This is obviously contrary to the Christian notion that the infant is fully human even while it is still in the womb such that killing it constitutes illegitimately impinging upon the rights due to it as a human.
The Christian would therefore contend that the libertarian is being inconsistent. Yet we must keep in mind that the libertarian concept of “freedom” must be holistically understood with reference to other linguistically mediated beliefs. In this case, “freedom” as defined by the libertarian in light of his worldview must be understood in relation to the word “human”, also defined in light of his worldview and in mutual relation to the word “freedom.”
It is helpful to articulate this discussion in terms familiar to readers of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
Meaning is the way a word is used within a specific language-game. The sum total of such meaningful utterances and their mutual and mutually defining and dependent relations constitutes the subject’s “form of life.”
“A form of life is a way of living, a pattern of activities, actions, interactions and feelings which are inextricably interwoven with and partially constituted by, uses of language. It rests upon very general pervasive facts of nature. It includes shared natural and linguistic responses, broad agreement in definitions and judgements, and corresponding behaviour. The term is sometimes used so that it converges on the idea of a culture”(Baker & Hacker, p. 74).
While Wittgenstein does not give a precise, propositional account of what constitutes a “language-game”, he does note that “… the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” (Wittgenstein, PI 23).
What we must inquire of within the context of a debate in which two subjects use identical terminology within the context of two totally different worldviews, is the “grammar”, to once again use the language of Wittgenstein, which informs their discourse. Grammar here is not being used in the conventional sense of bare, formal syntactical rules, but rather, to the general semantic and doxastic shape of a form of life and its particular utterances:
Wittgenstein adopts the term ‘grammar’ in his quest to describe the workings of this public, socially governed language, using it in a somewhat idiosyncratic manner. Grammar, usually taken to consist of the rules of correct syntactic and semantic usage, becomes, in Wittgenstein’s hands, the wider—and more elusive—network of rules which determine what linguistic move is allowed as making sense, and what isn’t. This notion replaces the stricter and purer logic which played such an essential role in the Tractatus in providing a scaffolding for language and the world. Indeed, “Essence is expressed by grammar … Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar)” (PI 371, 373). The “rules” of grammar are not mere technical instructions from on-high for correct usage; rather, they express the norms for meaningful language. Contrary to empirical statements, rules of grammar describe how we use words in order to both justify and criticize our particular utterances.
Grammar is not abstract, it is situated within the regular activity with which language-games are interwoven: “… the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” (PI 23). What enables language to function and therefore must be accepted as “given” is precisely forms of life. In Wittgenstein’s terms, agreement is required “not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments” (PI 242), and this is “not agreement in opinions but in form of life” (PI 241)(Biletzki & Matar, 2011).
Thus, in speaking of the abortion debate, it is helpful consider the two words “human” and “freedom” simultaneously under the two following heads:
1) A particularly meaning or use stemming from a particular worldview.
2) The mutual relation obtaining between a meaningful utterance with another meaningful utterance, both of which simultaneously proceed from and constitute the worldview.
Baker, G. P.. Hoboken : John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2008. (384 p.)Language: English
Biletzki, Anat and Matar, Anat, “Ludwig Wittgenstein”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/wittgenstein/>.