For Van Til, the Christian ought to conceive of “knowledge” consists not merely of correspondence of our idea of a thing with the mind-independent thing itself, but requires that one understand the relation of any fact to the Triune God. Unless I understand the relation of a fact to God’s plan, by which all facts are given their meaning, I cannot be said to know or understand something. In Van Til’s own words,
The whole meaning of any fact is exhausted by its position in and relation to theplan of God. This implies that every fact is related to every other fact. God’s plan is a unit. And it is this unity of the plan of God, founded as it is in the very being of God, that gives the unity t hat we look for between all the finite facts. If one should maintain that one fact can be fully understood without reference to all other factst, he is as much antitheistic as when he should maintain that one fact can be understood without reference to God(Van Til)
This is quite a bold statement on Van Til’s part against a simple correspondence epistemology. It is similar to the position held by the idealists mentioned earlier, except knowledge is understood as grounded in a transcendent creator God rather than capable of being discerned within the immanent activity of the Absolute Spirit. Since true knowledge is only obtained by understanding how the facts of the universe fit into God’s plan, we must assume the truth of the biblical worldview in our all of our investigations.
All of our inquiries into various intellectual fields, regardless of how apparently unrelated to theology they may appear, must necessarily relate back to their relation to God’s plan for the universe. Van Til concludes from this that “in starting any investigation the general precedes the particular.” We investigate concrete particulars, such as the examination of a certain kind of mineral, and we relate it to a class or sub-class of other form of minerals in order to categorize it. Van Til notes that this is the “inductive” method of investigation.
He contrasts this with the deductive method of investigation, according to which the general always has control over the particular. There is no such thing as investigation of a fact in its pure particularity. Rather, each and every particular is subsumed under the “general” rubric of how it is to be related to the Triune God of the Bible. For Van Til, priority of pure particularity over generality in epistemology is incompatible with an authentic Christian epistemology. Presupposition of a Christian worldview according to which each particular piece of data is subsumed under and interpreted according to a framework which presupposes the truth of the Bible and the God who inspired it and of which it speaks means that it is impossible to discover a fact that contradicts it.
The anti-Christian holds that any sort of fact may appear. He thinks this to be one of the most important requirements of a truly scientific attitude. On the other hand, the Christian holds that no fact will appear that could disprove the ultimacy of the fact of God, and therefore of what he has revealed of himself and his plan for the world through Christ in the Scriptures…For any fact to he a fact at all, it must be what Christ in Scripture says it is. This is the main point in dispute between Christians and non-Christians. The difference between the two does not only appear in the interpretation of facts after they have been found, but even in the question what facts one may expect to find. And it does not go without saying, as is all too often assumed, that the non-Christian is right in looking for any kind of fact. If the Christian position should prove to be right in the end, then the anti-Christian position was wrong, not only at the end, but already at the beginning.(Van Til, emphasis mine)
This passage is key to comprehending Van Til’s understanding of what constitutes an authentically Christian understanding of the relation of ontology to epistemology. In presupposing the possibility of the appearance of any sort of fact, as he notes the (secular) non-Christian does, such a non-Christian is not merely avowing ignorance or agnosticism, but is necessarily putting forth a positive thesis: namely, he is dogmatically asserting (though he may attempt to hide or deny this) that certain worldviews are absolutely false: namely, dogmatic worldviews such as the Christian worldview according to which only Christian facts are possible. If the Christian worldview happens to be right (which the Christian obviously must assume) then the investigative methods of the non-Christian are fundamentally wrong-headed from the start. He will reach erroneous conclusions because of his erroneous beginning.
Van Til argues that the Christian method of investigation is neither purely deductive nor inductive. On the one hand, it is not deductive because it does not seek to ground investigations in the ultimacy of axioms not grounded in God. For example, Plato believed that the truth and ultimacy of the axiomatic belief in the existence of the True, the Good and the Beautiful were not grounded in God but that God was subordinate to them. This is obviously unacceptable from a Christian perspective.
Likewise, contemporary secular philosophers and scientists oftentimes try to ground all reality in mind-independent (as well as God-independent) scientific laws, which laws govern the sorts of things which are allowed to be true. The means, they say, of discovering such axioms, is investigation of particulars by means of autonomous human rationality rather than submission of that human rationality to the Bible.
Scientists who would prefer to reject the theory-ladenness of their domain might try to discern the facts of nature without recourse to axioms. Supposedly rejecting any and all axioms, they simply keep an ‘open mind’ to whatever sorts of facts may be the case, always prepared to accept or jettison any and all beliefs (except their confidence in this very methodology, of course) based on new ‘evidence.’ Van Til’s response should be unsurprising to the reader who has followed us up to this point:
the difference between the prevalent method of science and the method of Christianity is not that the former is interested in finding the facts and is ready to follow the facts wherever they may lead, while the latter is not ready to follow the facts. The difference is rather that the former wants to study the facts without God, while the latter wants to study the facts in the light of the revelation God gives of himself in Christ. Thus the antithesis is once more that between those for whom the final center of reference in knowledge lies in man, and those for whom the final center of reference for knowledge lies in God, as this God speaks in Scripture.
The Christian takes issue with strict practitioners of both deduction and induction to the extent that they do not ground the standard of their knowledge in the God of the Bible. Van Til notes, however, that inductivists typically charge Christians with being closet deductivists whose method is formally identical to that of the Platonists, and whose only difference (and it is by their standards a superficial difference) is that we ground our axiom in the Bible as our transcendent authority rather than on the Good, the True and the Beautiful. It is true that much of Van Til’s methodology is formally and structurally quite similar to that of many non-Christian philosophers. However, it is precisely the fact that these non-Christian philosophers leave God out of the equation that makes all the difference in the world. The distinction between the a priori and a posteriori, for example, is useless to Christians and ought to be considered apostate to the extent that it leaves God out of the equation.
He goes on to address the question of the transcendental method from a Christian perspective. Van Til notes that it is a uniquely Christian synthesis of certain elements of both inductivism and deductivism which constitutes such a properly Christian transcendental method. A transcendental argument takes an object of investigation and attempts to discern what must be the case in order for such a thing to be the case. For example, Plato investigates the realm of sense and concludes that there must exist forms of the Good, the True and the Beautiful in order for such a temporal world to exist. An inductivist, Van Til points out, may conclude from an investigation of the temporal universe that the law of cause and effect necessitates that the universe must have had a cause.
Christians, Van Til points out, have used both methods in their apologetics. Yet in their use of such reasoning they already presuppose the conclusion. Why must this be? Because the non-Christian, in investigating reality, always already has his own standards of consistency, intelligibility and rationality, just like the Christian does. When the non-Christian comes to a non-Christian conclusion concerning the nature of reality following his investigation, what is the only possible conclusion from a Christian perspective? It is the specifically Christian conclusion that his motive for having done so, according to the Bible, has to do with a willful rejection of the truth rather than honest or reasonable skepticism.
If the non-Christian comes to a non-Christian conclusion it is because he has set out from the beginning to do so, and if the Christian comes to a Christian conclusion, as he might be expected to, it is because he has already set out to do so at the beginning. That this is the case is not the result of the investigation of human psychology, but is simply the biblical teaching of doxastic voluntarism, according to which whether or not we submit epistemically, volitionally, and in every other respect, to the Bible, is based solely on the state of our will and desire. The regenerate person willfully submits all his faculties to the transcendent standard of the Bible, and the unbeliever willfully refuses to do so. I therefore identify two essential elements in Van Til’s apologetic method:
1) The equi-primordiality, mutual dependency and embededness of epistemology and ontology in general which necessarily results in circular reasoning for all reasoners, Christian and non-Christian.
2) The necessity of adhering to a distinctly Christian doxastic voluntarism according to which the only reason anyone would accept the non-Christian hermeneutic circle of reasoning is because they have willfully rejected the truth of the Bible, which will is antecedent to and determinative of the conclusions of the intellect. Indeed, for the Christian to concede that perhaps the presuppositions and conclusions of the non-Christian may be correct is to concede the possibility that his own belief system in Christianity may possibly be false, which is obviously sinful unbelief. Furthermore, for the Christian, however sincerely and dogmatically he may hold to his belief in the truth of Christianity, to concede the possibility that the presuppositions and conclusions of the unbeliever may be the result of sincere error, is to reject the clear and essential biblical teaching on the noetic and volitional effects of original sin and total depravity, and is thus to depart radically from orthodox Christianity.
The Bible teaches that humans because of our fall in Adam, necessarily flee from God and attempt to replace Him with other idols. This is what Dooyeweerd refers to as humanity’s religious ground-motive in his discourse on the impossibility of religious neutrality, which majorly influenced Van Til’s own work. In justifying the behavior resulting from their apostate ground motive to their intellects and consciences as they suppress the truth in unrighteousness, they construct ground-ideas or intellectual systems upon which to ground such behavior. Such apostate ground-motives and the ground-ideas compulsively constructed to legitimate them can only be remedied by means of the work of the Holy Spirit. “It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them.” The Bible, Van Til concludes, teaches the formal necessity of circular reasoning (that is, it teaches that all reasoning is necessarily circular) and that the only two forms of reasoning are circular reasoning that is vicious because it is based on unbiblical presuppositions which must necessarily yield non-Christian conclusions, and circular reasoning which is virtuous because it is based on Christian presuppositions and must therefore necessarily yield Christian conclusions.