“No and yes. It all depends on what you mean.” Such is the conversation I sometimes have with seminary students new to the writings of Cornelius Van Til. In this series I will attempt to offer a more complete answer to the question, something I am never able to do when teaching in the classroom setting. This question of common ground usually arises in the context of learning about Van Til’s doctrine of the antithesis. This doctrine states that principially a Christian and a non-Christian have no common ground. In other words, believers and unbelievers think differently. This strikes readers new to Van Til as odd since they think they share common notions with unbelievers all day, every day, in every way. After all, doesn’t the Christian baker use the same recipe and ingredients as the non-Christian baker when he bakes chocolate chip cookies?
This is a good question and it deserves a thoughtful answer. The confusion over common ground usually occurs in discussions about apologetic methodology. Would-be defenders of the faith think that they share at least a modicum of common knowledge with non-Christians and so they can meet the unbeliever on the ground of these common notions and from there lead the non-Christian to faith in Jesus Christ because they start with shared ideas. I want to go behind the apologetic encounter and look at the underpinnings of Van Til’s notion of the antithesis and the bearing it has on the reality of common ground.
We start with the biblical witness.
The Bible begins with God’s existence and the narrative of his variegated creation. Man is the crown of the biblical storyline and he was created to worship, fellowship, and enjoy his relationship with God. However, this self-same man disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil even though God warned them of sure death on the day they ate of that tree. From the point of the fall onward, the Scriptures record the unfolding of God’s wondrous plan of redemption, which centers around God’s covenant relationship with the patriarchs and Israel which culminates in the coming of the Messiah. Jesus’ holy life, death, and resurrection constitute the basis of the Christian church and the ongoing life of individual Christians. The whole story of salvation will wrap up with the return of Christ for his church and the general judgment that ends in the destruction of the wicked and the eternal felicity of the saints in glory with the Triune God. This overly brief description of the biblical narrative reveals two significant facts. First, there is a difference between God and his creation. Second, there is a radical rift between God and his creation.
God the Creator
The first is a fact we must reckon with. It is not a problem from God’s point of view and it shouldn’t be from ours either. The second is a problem. The story of redemption in Christ is the point of Scripture and it is God’s answer to the radical rift between God and his human creatures.
What about this difference between the Triune God and creation? It is a basic insight of Scripture that God is supreme in the universe and that human beings are finite creatures. God is the source of all that he has created. God created everything not God from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) and he upholds it in existence. This is typically referred to as the “Creator-creature distinction” and it is basic to understanding who God is and the world in which we live, move, and have our being which he has created. In terms of our existence or being, God is God and we are not. Alternatively, we are creatures and God is not. This truth has a bearing on our existence. God is self-existing and self-sustaining. The theological term for this reality is aseity and that God is a se. God is from himself and not another. God is not dependent on anything else for his existence. In particular, God is not dependent upon us since he is Triune and there exists within the Godhead Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who have eternal loving fellowship with one another. God did not have to create because he was lonely.
We also need to know that God’s knowledge of himself and his creation is exhaustive and wholly comprehensive. God does not need to learn anything whatsoever. He knows everything there is to know. God is omniscient. God knows everything and all the relationships between the different elements of reality. God knows in a divine way and in a Trinitarian way, which is to say he knows intuitively or/and all at once. We, on the other hand, learn seriatim or step by step. As Scripture tells us, God knows the end from the beginning and the beginning from the end and everything in-between. God also knows perfectly well what could or could not have been.
God is also simple which lies behind what we have said about his being and knowledge. God is not dependent on more basic parts or elements. A car is not simple (I am not a mechanic!) but a complex entity. It has a body, an engine, wheels, and an interior. The thing we call an automobile is made up of thousands if not millions of parts, which we might call building blocks. There are no building blocks with God. There is no before and after. God is timeless. God is fully present in every location within the universe. There is no here and there with God. God cannot disintegrate. Unlike our automobile, God does not need regular upkeep nor will he rust out and fall apart.
In a word, God is infinite.
Man the Creature
We human creatures are finite. We are dependent upon God for existence, knowledge, and proper behavior. This true apart from any consideration of a fall. God has not created us to be either self-sustaining or self-sufficient. The fact that we are dependent or contingent should be obvious to us if we keep our wits about us. If we stop eating or drinking, we will eventually die. If our health fails, we quickly discover our dependence upon doctors and nurses. And we are created for fellowship. As the poet John Donne put it many years ago, “No man is an island.” If God were to withdraw his sustaining power, we would vanish in an instant. We are dependent upon God and his creation for our very existence.
We are equally dependent upon God for what we know and how we know. If God did not create us and our environment with natural revelation of himself and if he had not designed us to know truth as we live in this world and if he had not spoken in pre-redemptive special revelation, we would know neither him nor anything else at all. In other words, every facet of our capacity to know God and his world comes from God. And every aspect of God and his world that we do know is absolutely dependent upon God. Our environment is not simply a given that just happens to be there. God created it and us with a purpose. We are to know and love and enjoy God. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism asserts, we are “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Everything in creation speaks to us about the creator God. Knowledge is not true knowledge that doesn’t take this God connection into account. True knowledge involves knowing individual facts and their circumstances. In other words, true knowledge of a given fact requires that we understand how that individual fact relates to God and his plan. If we deny a single fact relates to God we undermine our knowledge of that fact. This is the worst sort of atomism.
We are also dependent upon God for how we ought to behave. We are not the product of chance evolutionary forces and so enabled to create our own codes of behavior. The meaning of life is not something we get to make up as we go along. As creatures we are to mirror God in our character and behavior. Who we are and how we behave matters to God. This was true in the Garden of Eden before the fall into sin. As creatures we are already in a relationship with the creator. God gets to determine the nature of the relationship. We are called to hear God’s Word and obey him. We are called to know God and be known by him and follow his will. We are therefore dependent upon God for the standard of our ethics.
All of the above about us is true apart from the fall. When Adam fell, we fell with him and suffer guilt and corruption. We did not lose our humanity in the fall. We are still human and are still the image of God. While Adam and Eve were holy and righteous before the fall, afterwards the image became twisted and tarnished. The image was marred. The entrance of sin into God’s world necessitates redemption if any human being is to fulfill his divinely intended purpose. God would have to give further redemptive revelation, which was tied inextricably to the unfolding drama of redemption. After the fall we are not only finite, dependent creatures. We are sinful as well. We need a Redeemer to rescue us. God would work through the nation of Israel and eventually would send his own Son to save us. Salvation restores us to our proper existence, enables us to know God in Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Spirit empowers us to behave as God wants us. But we never outgrow our finitude. We never reach a place where we can dispense with God.
Two Kinds of People
So God is God and we are not. What does this have to do with the question with which we started? Much in every way. Do Christians and non-Christians have common ground? No and yes, still. Our dependence upon God for our existence, knowledge, and ethics bears upon this question. With the introduction of sin into our world we now are in rebellion against God and we repudiate his authority over us in the three realms we have discussed: existence (being), knowledge, and ethics (behavioral norms). God overturns this rebellion in our hearts through the Holy Spirit applying to us Christ’s accomplished redemption. We grow increasingly to recognize that our purpose for existence is to glorify God, to know him in his fullness, and to order our lives in conformity to his Word.
What we have at this point are two kinds of people. We have an antithetical relationship. We have those who are still in their natural state of rebellion against the God who made them. This fact impinges upon their existence, knowledge, and behavior. These rebels seek to ignore or deny God and his Word and his claim on them even though they live in the world he has created. They always live in his presence and know it. The non-Christian is committed to self-determination with regard to his or her purpose for living, with regard to his or her self-knowledge and knowledge of the world in which he lives. And the non-Christian chooses to behave how he sees fit. Because this creature is finite and lives in God’s World, is dependent upon God for his knowledge, and knows God’s moral expectations his self-determination is never really successful.
The Christian, on the other hand, is undergoing major renovations. The Christian realizes from God’s Word in nature and Scripture that he is dependent upon God for his existence, knowledge, and moral standards. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is King and Lord over the Christian. However, this side of the new heaven and new earth, the Christian is not perfectly obedient to Christ. He still struggles with the traces of sin in his life. The Christian life is one “long obedience in the same direction.”
When the Christian and the non-Christian talk with one another we see that there are these three factors of existence, knowledge, and ethics at work. The Christian knows things as they relate to God. The non-Christian “knows things” out of relation to God. However, the real world is the one created by God and suffused with his natural and special revelation of himself. No matter where one turns, he is face to face with the Triune God of Scripture. In reality both the Christian and the non-Christian are dependent upon God for existence, knowledge, and ethics. The Christian knows this and seeks to conform his existence, knowledge, and ethics to this fact. The non-Christian seeks to suppress this fact. In truth, the Christian is often inconsistent with this reality because of the traces of sin and the non-Christian is serendipitously right because he or she lives in this world which was created by God and is continuously upheld by him.
Is there common ground between the Christian and the non-Christian? In terms of ideas or notions or concepts, there cannot be because all factors of knowledge are related to the Triune God of the Bible and the Christian affirms this and seeks to live his life in light of this. The non-Christian seeks not to live his life in light of this. There may be formal similarity between, say, a Christian’s idea of freedom and the non-Christian’s idea of freedom. But since the Christian recognizes that freedom bears a relation to God and that this relation permeates the whole definition of freedom it will differ from the non-Christian’s understanding.
However, because both the Christian and the non-Christian are created in the image of God and live in God’s world and are surrounded by his revelation there is this key thing in common. This is a factual metaphysical commonality. It is not a conceptual commonality. But here’s the thing. God in his grace can bring about the transition from non-Christian to Christian. None of us is by nature Christian. We are Christian by the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. As Cornelius van Til once noted, by grace we “transition from wrath to grace.” When a Christian converses with a non-Christian and talks about the deep things of God, God can use that to draw the non-Christian to himself. When that happens then we have common ground.