Revelational Epistemology | Understanding the Christian View on Epistemology

Updated: May 2

Before we delve into the topic of what Christians call Revelational Epistemology, it will serve us well to read three quotes from Van Til on epistemology.


According to Scripture, God has created the “universe.” God has created time and space. God has created all the “facts” of science. God has created the human mind. In this human mind God has laid the laws of thought according to which it is to operate. In the facts of science God has laid the laws of being according to which they function. In other words, the impress of God’s plan is upon his whole creation. We may characterize this whole situation by saying that the creation of God is a revelation of God. God revealed himself in nature and God also revealed himself in the mind of man. Thus it is impossible for the mind of man to function except in an atmosphere of revelation. And every thought of man when it functioned normally in this atmosphere of revelation would express the truth as laid in the creation by God. We may therefore call a Christian epistemology a revelational epistemology.

Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.1


The Christian holds to the authority and finality of the Bible not because he can clearly, that is exhaustively, show the coherence of every fact with every other fact of Scripture. He rather holds to this doctrine of Scripture because, unless he does, there is no resting point for the search of facts anywhere.

Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.36


The scientist who is a Christian therefore has the task of pointing out to his friend and colleague, who is not a Christian, that unless he is willing to stand upon the Christian story with respect to the world which has been redeemed through Christ, there is nothing but failure for him. Scientific effort is utterly unintelligible unless it is frankly based upon the order placed in the universe of created facts by Christ the Redeemer.

Cornelius Van Til, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture


This video also serves as a good introduction to Revelational Epistemology:


Ontology and Epistemology


What do we mean by Epistemology? Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, especially concerning its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. The questions that relate to epistemology would be questions like: What is knowledge? What does it mean to know? Are there different types of knowledge? Is my knowledge of an inanimate object the same as my knowledge of an abstract concept? What about my knowledge of other human beings? From whence does knowledge come? What is the origin and source of knowledge?

Epistemology - How do we know what we know? How do we go about knowing things?

This somewhat relates to ontology. Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular, becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Questions that relate to ontology are: What is? What is existence? and What is the nature of existence?

Ontology - What do we know?


Truth, Reality, and Knowledge


A truth claim is a proposition or statement that a particular person or belief system holds to be true. A truth claim is not necessarily the truth.


A truth claim is a statement about reality. Truth claims can therefore not exist independent of a mind. All truth is also truth claims. All truth claims are not necessarily correct/valid. Therefore, truth cannot exist independently of a mind -- as truth is correctly interpreted reality.


A truth claim is therefore only true when it corresponds to reality. The truth is, therefore, a truth claim that corresponds to reality.


Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. Therefore reality can exist independent of a (human) mind to interpret it (not independent of God’s mind - more later). An interpretation of reality (or truth claim) that corresponds to the objective reality would be the truth.


Therefore, an interpretation of reality is a truth claim. The truth, is a truth claim that corresponds to reality.


Knowledge is justified, true belief, or a truth claim that is actually the truth -- an interpretation of reality that corresponds to the objective reality.


Therefore, true and justified knowledge is an interpretation of reality (truth claim) that corresponds to reality.


The Bible


Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6


The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7


[Jesus].. in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Colossians 2:3


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:1

The Greek word translated into “Word” above is the well-known Greek word “Logos”. What does Logos mean? Logos is the Greek term translated as “word,” “speech,” “principle,” or “thought.” In Greek philosophy, it also referred to a universal, divine reason or the mind of God.


Using our discussion above, on truth, knowledge and reality -- we see truth is found in Jesus (God). What does this mean? Remember that the truth is a truth claim that corresponds to reality, and this cannot exist independently of a mind. God’s mind, being the fount of all truth and wisdom (as John Calvin put it) is the only source from which we can obtain knowledge (Knowledge is justified, true belief, or a truth claim that is actually the truth -- an interpretation of reality that corresponds to the objective reality.)


Indeed Dr. Greg Bahnsen wrote that -


“In the process of knowing anything, man begins with his own experience and questions—the “immediate” starting point. However, that which man knows metaphysically begins with God (who pre-interprets, creates, and governs everything man could know), and God’s mind is epistemologically the standard of truth— thus being the “ultimate” starting point.”

Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, pg 100, fn 33


Therefore, truth is that which conforms to the mind of God, OR, whatever God says. To reject this fact is to have no ultimate rational and consistent justification for reality, much less truth.

“When our thoughts of God agree with what the Word says about him (and by that I mean, when we believe what the Word teaches about his Being and Attributes are true), then we have right thoughts of God.”

(The Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 209)


As God created reality, He pre-interpreted the facts in His mind, spoke, and it was so. Consider that God did not randomly create anything, He had a specific purpose in creation. This we read in Ephesians 1 verse 4:


..even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world

Moreover, we read in Isaiah 43:6b-7 that God created for His Glory:

Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Therefore, God did not create without purpose. We also read in Genesis 1 that God spoke to create -- consider Genesis 1 verse 4:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Before there was light, there was the idea of light in God’s mind, and God spoke it into being. This captures the essence of what I was saying earlier when I said that reality cannot exist independently of God’s mind. God is the one who pre-interpreted the facts, and whose knowledge of reality is exhaustive and true (justified) -- as reality is based on God’s knowledge of reality! This is also what Greg Bahnsen meant when he said that God is the one who pre-interprets, creates and governs everything a man could know.


God's knowledge of the facts comes first. God knows or interprets the facts before they are facts. It is God's plan or his comprehensive interpretation of the facts that makes the facts what they are.

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith p.32



Therefore, something is only true when it conforms to the mind of God. The issue then is, how do we know what conforms to the mind of God in order to know what is true?


Revelation


No man can know Jesus Christ except through the revelation of the Father.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 212


The Bible is God’s revelation. It is His infallible Word. Since the truth is that which conforms to the mind of God, we see that there is no greater authority on which we can base our knowledge other than God’s own Word. If we as humans (created in the image of God) use any other epistemology (how we come to know things) other than revelational epistemology (based on God’s Word), we can’t actually know anything at all!


The strategy of the enemy has always been to conquer the minds of men, and sinful thinking is taking a fearful toll on our society. Witness some of the incredible positions being espoused by many of our leaders. As these ideas are implemented we see a decline in every area of life - from economics to criminal justice. This is not a cause for despair, however; it is a warning that the church needs to wake up and bring more salt and light to our culture. As Christians, we can do more than just oppose these ideas. The Scriptures tell us that our weapons have divine power to demolish strongholds. We are to demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we are to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:4,5).

Don Craig - Caution, Depraved Minds at Word


Human knowledge takes two forms: a priori (lit. "from the earlier") and a posteriori (lit. "from the later").


A priori - knowledge or justification is independent of experience.

A posteriori - knowledge or justification depends on experience or empirical evidence.


God created human beings with the ability to know, and understand their world as well as their creator. From this we can conclude that all genuine knowledge then is at the bottom, revelational in nature. And this is true for a priori and a posteriori knowledge.


John Calvin is the theologian who coined the term Sensus Divinitatis ("sense of divinity"). Every human being, according to Calvin, is born with a knowledge that God exists and that we are accountable to him. Calvin learned the concept of innate knowledge of God from Paul, especially from the first two chapters of Romans (see Rom. 1:21). This type of knowledge that Paul says God made plain to all men so that all men are without excuse, is a type of a priori knowledge. We also read that God wrote the law on the hearts of men in Romans 2, meaning it is impossible for man not to know of morality. These two examples are a priori knowledge, and are dependent on God’s revelation.


The a posteriori knowledge that man gets from the universe we live in (like scientific discoveries) are also revelational in nature. Remember that God is the one who created all reality, and that He is the one who pre-interpreted all the facts. The truth is that which corresponds to the mind of God.


What this means with regards to a posteriori knowledge, is that those things which we take for granted every day when we learn and come to know things, is justified in Him. Things like the laws of logic, the reliability of our senses and reasoning (cognitive faculties), uniformity of nature (to solve the problem of induction), reliability of our memory etc. It has been revealed to us that we are made in the image of God and hence we can argue and reason. To gain knowledge (a posteriori) for the Christian is to use his/her God-given faculties to think God’s thoughts after Him - God, therefore, being the single and only standard for all truth.


Other Epistemologies


In essence there are only two manners in which we come to know things. One starts with the revelation of God, the other starts with man. So why is it so that unless God has revealed Himself, we cannot know anything at all? Firstly, because God has revealed that He is in fact the Precondition for intelligibility.


All other epistemologies don’t use the Christian God as their starting point. They start with man (hence not with revelation as their highest authority from which to base their knowledge on like Christians), and lose the justification for things like the laws of logic, the reliability of our senses and reasoning … as we mentioned above. What happens then is that man tries to become his own authority as Eve did in the Garden of Eden when she no longer accepted God’s Words as authoritative, but rather wanted to reason to her own conclusion autonomously. The result was devastating.


Consider that God said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” -- Genesis 2:16-17.


And Eve, trying to reason apart from God’s revelation did not see death, she saw: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate...” -- Genesis 3:6

Eve’s conclusion was wrong, as it wasn’t built on the right foundation of God’s Word.

In the same way, modern secular epistemologies all fail and we’ll quickly take a look at them here.


Van Til during a lecture
The Greek philosopher Protagoras believed that “man is the measure of all things.” This is the sine qua non of unbelieving thought. This is the fundamental difference between a Christian view of knowledge and a non-Christian view of knowledge. Christians must insist from the very beginning that all human knowledge is revelational in nature, and is therefore utterly dependent on God.

Ed Ingess, A Christian Theory of Knowledge: Revelational Epistemology


Rationalism


Rationalism: the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.


In short, rationalism holds that human knowledge comes through the mind, or human reason. This contradicts what we discussed previously: that in God is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Note that rationalism is opposed to rationality which simply means "based on or in accordance with reason or logic." -- no Christian denies rationality, only that rationality is justified in the God of Scripture.


Rationalism can be easily be refuted. How does the rationalist know whether his reasoning is valid, without appealing to his reasoning? He cannot, therefore the rationalist cannot know whether he is rational, meaning rationalism is no way to gain knowledge.


Empiricism


Empiricism holds that human knowledge is experiential in nature. All knowledge is the product of sensory data.


This again is different from using sensory data to gain knowledge. No Christian denies gaining experimental knowledge, only that the preconditions for doing experiments and our senses are found in the God of Scripture, and is hence justified through revelation.

Empiricism can, therefore, easily be refuted. On what basis does the empiricist assume the uniformity of nature which is crucial for his knowledge to be true knowledge? How does the empiricist know that his memory is generally reliable without appealing to his memory? How does the empiricist know that he can trust his senses, without using his senses? He can’t, therefore empiricism is no way to gain knowledge.


Conclusion


Presuppositional apologetics states that we can't know things autonomously. Thus, we as humans are dependent on a revelational epistemology. So, we can only know things that are stated in the Bible in principle. This is why it has long been acknowledged even by the Reformers that deduced knowledge can be knowledge too, as the foundation for such knowledge is found in Scripture.


In order to know anything we must first know if our senses and reasoning work properly. We can only know this through God’s revelation.


Epistemologically, God's revelation comes first. It is because of our fallibility that we must depend upon God's certain and self-revelation in order to know anything at all.


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