The Essential Van Til — In the Beginning (Part 4)

As we continue to unpack Van Til’s review of Zerbe’s book we come to the second part of the review, which concerns Barth’s epistemology. Van Til opens with an absurd claim, and then unpacks what he means:

[Barth] has no room for revelation. At first blush it would seem as though the very opposite were the case. He says that only in the eternal is true knowledge. He says that all knowledge comes by revelation. …. Karl Barth says that all knowledge for man as well as for God is based upon analysis of the eternal truths that exist apart from time. The ideal of knowledge for man as well as for God is complete comprehension. Knowledge is no knowledge unless it is completely comprehensive. … God and man are engaged in a common analysis of principles that exist independently of both.

It is statements like “Barth has no room for revelation” that tend to get Van Til into trouble! The statement, on the surface anyhow, seems ridiculous. But Van Til is quick to acknowledge that his statement can seem absurd. He notes that a surface read (“at first blush”) of Barth would prove the absurdity. After all Barth says that “all knowledge comes by revelation.” Now, there are two points that need to be made here. One of the points Van Til says here, the other he does not.

First, Van Til understands that for Barth for a person to know something that person must know it comprehensively. I think Van Til is on solid ground here. Barth will often indicate that man cannot know God because man as limited and the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. God is eternal, we are temporal and therefore we cannot know the eternal. This is what Van Til means by “eternal truths.” Truth is eternal, and therefore in order for there to be true knowledge of those truths one must likewise be eternal. And here only God qualifies because only he is eternal.

The trouble here is that truth, eternal truth, is an abstraction. It is a kind of tertium quid which is neither God nor man. Truth is independent of both. It is an object, quite distinct from both God and man. It is only potentially known by either God and man (i.e., “all knowledge for man as well as for God is based upon analysis of the eternal truths that exist apart from time”). And only God has the kind of mind that qualifies for knowing eternal truths comprehensively. Therefore, only God can know, man cannot. The upshot to all this is that if there is going to be revelation at all it must be something that takes place in eternity (i.e., transcendentally). It must be an act that takes place quite apart from and above us. This means, for Van Til, Barth has no room for revelation as it has been traditionally conceived. Barth has a doctrine of revelation to be sure, but according to Van Til it is not a biblical doctrine of revelation.

Second, the way in which Barth solves this problem is through Jesus Christ. Van Til does not say this here, though he will articulate it in his later writings. Jesus Christ alone is revelation. Revelation is not, therefore, a thing that can be grasped. It is not words captured on a page nor man’s experience of absolute dependence. It is God making himself known in a divine act of grace in Jesus Christ. Christ is himself both sides—the divine and human—of revelation. This is an eternal act that takes place quite transcendently relative to us living in the hear and now. Only in Jesus Christ is God made known, to himself in Jesus Christ, comprehensively.

The problem with this view, according to Van Til, is twofold. First, God and man are in similar epistemological positions. Both are subject to eternal truths. However, God has an advantage; a qualitatively greater advantage. He can know those truths because he is himself eternal. Man cannot, because he is not eternal. But still, God and man both have the same object of their knowledge—eternal truths. Nevertheless, God is relativized by these eternal truths which he himself must know. In this way, as Van Til will later note, the universe is therefore superior to God. Because eternal truths and God are co-existent the creator-creature distinction is eliminated. To be sure, Barth would never say that. But that is what Van Til believes it amounts to.

Coordinated with this problem is the fact that man cannot know God (nor can he know eternal truths). If man cannot know comprehensively then he cannot know truly. And he cannot know eternal truths comprehensively, and therefore not truly. He also cannot know God truly because he cannot know God comprehensively. At the end of the day man must be skeptical about God, and with his skepticism about God he must be skeptical about all things.

At the end of the day Barth is both a a rationalist (because God and man have the same source and object of knowledge—eternal truths) and an irrationalist (because man cannot know God, or anything eternal for that matter). And because of this, Barth has no room for revelation as revelation has been historically and biblically understood in Reformed theology.

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