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The Christian concept of revelation

Updated: Jan 9

One of the most common objections Christians might encounter in everyday conversations with unbelievers (and members of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches) is that whatever we believe based on Biblical authority, we actually believe based on our own authority. The reason for this, they argue, is that the Bible is a complex book and throughout history, there have been numerous interpretations forthcoming. We, therefore, have no right to uphold our interpretation as the right one given the plethora of conflicting interpretations of the Bible that abound (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses, Roman Catholicism Mormonism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, etc.).

This article outlines the concept of Christian revelation that will dispel this objection, and point out defects in other attempts to secure objectivity in Biblical interpretation. We will be following Cornelius Van Til closely in his Introduction to Systematic Theology.

Preliminary remarks on the objection

Before we jump into the concept of Christian revelation, it would do us well to better unpack the objection in such a way that it becomes apparent that it provides ammunition to undermine itself.

Firstly, the objector believes that the Bible is not perspicuous. That is, clearly expressed and easily understood.

Secondly, the objector believes that no one person has secured an objective interpretation of the Bible (at least in its essentials).

Thirdly, the objector believes that we have the capability to objectively understand their own objection (or at least the words that make up their objection) but that no one can objectively understand the Bible. Therefore, the objector believes their own words to be perspicuous. Moreover, if the objector is Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, they still need to account for how the interpretation of the Church given to them is more perspicuous than the Bible.

Fourthly, the objector has not reckoned with the effect of sin on the understanding of the Bible. The natural man will because of their rebellion against their Creator, interpret Scripture in such a way that its meaning will be lost (or even in such a way that it teaches what they want to hear).

From the above, we can rightly ask why the objector holds to (1) and (2) but does not apply the same standard to (3). There seems to be no reason for (1) and (2) not to apply to (3) as well, in which case we have the full right to simply twist the objector's words in such a way that the entire meaning of the objection is lost. It, therefore, turns out that the objector is simply begging the question against the Bible.

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However, the objector can still go one step further and agree that there is no objective interpretation of the Bible and of their own words (thereby applying (1) and (2) to (3) in a consistent manner). In this case, the objector has thrown out the objective meaning of words. This last-ditch effort to circumvent the objective requirements of God's law basically implodes the entire system in an attempt to escape. It is an admission that nothing can be known and an appeal to ultimate mystery and irrationality. Despite its appeal (in the sense that it gives the objector a way out), this move is actually self-defeating as it is still an objective claim that there is no objective claim.

All this is to say that the Christian need not immediately go on the defensive when someone claims that the Bible lacks perspicuity and that no objective interpretation can be made. We can press the objector for consistency to show how the standard they're trying to apply to the Bible undermines their own words.

Now, the above is not enough (by a long shot) to offer a positive reason for our belief that the Bible is perspicuous. It still is the case that we need to interpret the Bible for ourselves (using our own rational faculties), so how can we escape the subjective implication of this? The same applies to our knowledge of the external world. What if reality is just that: ultimately irrational, despite the seeming contradiction in affirming it? What if there is no objective interpretation of the facts around us, no matter the absurdities it might seem to entail?

The objection to Scriptural authority

In his Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til addresses this type of objection in the form of a response to A.E Taylor (a British idealist philosopher). When Taylor discusses “The Meaning and Place of Authority”, he tells us that the basic reason for the rejection of the conception of biblical authority is that Christianity deals with historical phenomena.

Alfred Edward Taylor
Alfred Edward Taylor

He writes: “In any true account of the concrete and individual reality [reality outside of us], one must somewhere come upon something of which it can only be said, ‘Why this thing should be so, or even just what it is, is more than I can tell, but at all costs, it must be recognized that here the thing is.’ [that is, we just don't know why it is] If this is all we mean by ‘irrationality,’ we may safely say that historical individuality is the great supreme irrational from which thought can never succeed in getting free.”

The essence of all the arguments against the conception of an absolute revelation from God in the form of Scripture (or any other form for that matter), according to Taylor, is that the reception of revelation always requires a subjective element. He tells us that it is impossible to make any intelligible statement “whether about the natural or the supernatural, which shall have as its content the simply objective and given, with no element whatever of the subjective and constructed.”

How do we go about answering someone like our objector, or A.E. Taylor? We start off with the big picture to see how our objectors have snuck anti-Christian presuppositions into their argument that cannot be left unquestioned.

The big picture

We first introduce some basic concepts before we present an answer to the objector.

The following discussion with Rev. Dr. Brant Bosserman captures at least in part what we're trying to communicate in this section, and will provide useful background to the answer provided later:

A. The incomprehensibility of God

To fully grasp what Christians mean by revelation, we need to clearly distinguish this from non-Christian concepts of revelation. When we seek to determine the nature of the Christian concept of revelation we must turn to our concept of God [1]. In this, we are following Cornelius Van Til's method. Van Til, in everything that he writes, does not fail to move from Christian theism as his starting point, to the particular issues he is dealing with. In this, he always makes the Christian concept of God his ultimate (logical) starting point.

We first note that God is the absolute, self-contained being that gives meaning to our concept of revelation [2] (read more in our article titled, Who is God?). Van Til's way of illustrating this was to draw two circles on his classroom board:

The Creator-creature distinction
(Fig. 1) The Creator-creature distinction

The above circle represents the Christian God: Self-contained, self-defined, independent, forever fully satisfied with Himself. The below circle (represented by the earth) is the creation: Absolutely dependent on God for its existence and meaning, and on His sustaining power for its continued working. The two circles are exhaustive. Anything that is not God, is created. It is for this reason that God is incomprehensible to us: There are no categories in creation that we can predicate [or attribute] to God such that He is identical to those categories. Once we do this, we basically admit that there are things (e.g. abstract concepts) that are more ultimate than God that lend meaning to Him and creation alike. If we do this, it means that God can no longer be self-contained and independent.

With this in mind, we must begin by emphasizing that whatever else others may mean when they use the word “revelation,” what Christians mean is based upon and is implied in our concept of an absolute and absolutely self-conscious God. This God is the one who reveals himself to man [3].

There is no given to God. There is no element of novelty for God. Everything that is not God is dependent on God (we will expand on this more later). God knows everything absolutely (objectively).

B. The image of God in man

Van Til continues and mentions that another presupposition of the Christian concept of revelation (which follows from our doctrine of God briefly explicated above) is that man is created in God's image. Since God is absolute, self-contained and absolutely self-conscious, man cannot get his origin from any other source (e.g. chance) than from God. If we could, God would cease to be absolute. There were no patterns or ideas that were above or distinct from the nature of God from which God could draw inspiration in order to create mankind (remember, the two circles drawn in the previous sub-section (Fig. 1) are exhaustive of the whole picture).

The image of God, therefore, involves at least the following implications for our purposes here (which we'll explain in the following section):

  1. Man's ideal of knowledge should never be that of the comprehension of God.

  2. Man's knowledge is nevertheless true.

With regards to the first, comprehension of God would mean that God ceases to be the absolutely self-contained Creator of all that is not God. The reason for this is that to comprehend God would mean that either we can comprehend Him by comprehending ideas that are more ultimate Him, and then applying those concepts on a univocal basis to God (e.g. this tree is brown, brown being a concept that is independent of the specific tree). Or it would involve us knowing God as God knows Himself, in which case we would be God and the Creator-creature distinction would be wiped out.

With regards to the second, just because we cannot comprehend something, does not mean that our knowledge is not true. Comprehension is not a prerequisite for knowledge (at least not if we start from with the Creator-creature distinction).

These two points together form the foundation of what Van Til called "analogical knowledge". That is, if we know anything truly at all, we know it after God has known it first. We, therefore, reinterpret reality after the thoughts of God. We'll now turn to explain the above two points in greater detail. If we don't understand analogical knowledge (as implied by the Creator-creature distinction) we won't be able to understand the nature of revelation.

C. Human knowledge is analogical

Van Til writes in chapter two of his Introduction to Systematic Theology that the distinguishing characteristic between the non-Christian theory of knowledge on the one hand, and the Christian concept of knowledge, on the other hand, is that in all non-Christian theories men reason univocally, while in Christianity men reason analogically [4].

By univocal reasoning, it is meant that time and eternity are aspects of each other, that God and man must be thought of as being on the same plane, God and man must be correlative (having some kind of mutual relationship/commonality) to each other, that God and man work under a system of knowledge that is higher than both and that exists independently of both [5]. This can be visualized as follows:

The Creator-creature distinction compromised
(Fig. 2) The Creator-creature distinction compromised

In contrast to this, as Christians, we hold that God existed before any time was brought forth. He existed as the self-conscious, self-consistent, self-defined God. There is no system that is greater than God. Time is not correlative to eternity. God and man are not aspects of each other. God and man do not work under a system of knowledge that is higher than both and exists independently of both. Whatever is good and whatever is true ultimately finds its origin in God's being (we explain a bit of God's natural - and free knowledge in our article on Calvinism and God's sovereignty). Nothing is true that does not find its origin in God. Again we refer the reader to the two circles drawn (Fig. 1) a few sections ago.

If we take this as our logical (ultimate) starting point, the fact human knowledge will never be that of comprehension of God is simply contained in the fact that there is no system of knowledge that encapsulates both God and man. Any system of knowledge is what it is because of God's creative decree. Therefore, we always reinterpret the facts of experience. Our interpretation is never original (as if we know something in the exact same way God knows it).

C. No system over and above God: The law of non-contradiction

The law of non-contradiction will serve as an example of what is meant by the above.

For most people today, the laws of logic (and more popularly, the law of non-contradiction) is thought of as something that imposes itself even on God. They believe, that because of the law of non-contradiction, God cannot do something because it might contradict this law (it would be nonsensical). However, given the Creator-creature distinction and the exhaustive nature of this doctrine, the law of non-contradiction is not something that springs out of our two circles (Creator and creature) in some abstract fashion and regulates both God and man.

Two views of the reality: Creator-creature distinction and laws of logic
(Fig. 3) Two views of the reality with regards to the law of non-contradiction

In the above figure, the situation is again visualised. On the left, we have our Creature-distinction as defined earlier. On the right, we have the law of non-contradiction visualised as something that is more ultimate than the Creator-creature distinction that regulates both Creator and creature.

Now, that the law of non-contradiction exists in this independent way (as indicated on the right side of figure 3) contradicts the Christian doctrine of God:

It would mean that there is something in reality that is not created by God on par with His own existence. This means that God ceases to be self-contained (and self-defined). It means that there is something outside of God's own being He must first "consult" before He can know whether it is possible or not. Rather, God does not need some law of non-contradiction in order to contrast Himself with what is not God to gain self-definition. Rather, in the three eternally distinct persons of the Trinity, each one eternally the one God, God is His own self-definition.

The laws of logic are not legislatively operative apart from the providential control of God. The laws of logic are given by God to man in order that we might develop a system of interpretation of all reality subject to what God has said in Scripture [6].

The question then arises: How are we to read Scripture if not by using the law of non-contradiction? Important to note here is that we're not denying the laws of logic. We're just properly grounding them. The laws of logic are given to us by God, and they are the means by which we systematise the facts of Scripture.

D. Analogical knowledge, ultimate and proximate starting points

Given that God exists as the self-contained Trinity, that there are no principles and systems of knowledge that delimit Him in any way, and that creation is absolutely dependent on God for its existence and meaning at every point in time, we can use this as a springboard to make clear the distinction between proximate and ultimate starting points (a distinction many Van Til critics tend to miss). The distinction between ultimate and proximate starting points is an implication of the Creator-creature distinction and simply another way of stating that all human knowledge is analogical.

God is the ultimate starting point. He is the determiner of possibility and impossibility, and we refuse to say one word about reality if we do not introduce the concept of the Creator-creature distinction from the outset. Our proximate starting point would be our own consciousness, laws of logic, mental faculties, sense experience etc. But we never elevate these faculties to our ultimate starting point (determiners of possibility and impossibility), as that is to negate the Creator-creature distinction.

Summary of the big picture

To summarise some of the big picture points unpacked above:

  • God is incomprehensible (self-contained).

  • God, in Himself, had all knowledge from all eternity. Nothing could be added to His knowledge in any process of time.

  • In accordance with His plan, and in accordance with His purposes, all other things were made (creation).

  • Therefore, human knowledge must be analogical.

  • That is to say, all knowledge that any finite creature of God would ever have, whether of things that pertain directly to God or of things that pertain to objects in the created universe itself would, in the last analysis, have to rest upon the revelation of God.

Christian epistemology

Any question that relates to the objectivity of revelation and Biblical interpretation in particular touches on the subject of epistemology [the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion].

All forms of non-Christian epistemology have one thing in common: Non-Christians think of reality as one whole, inclusive of God and man, with reasoning being everywhere the same, whether in God or man. Human reason is therefore potentially divine (i.e. we have the ability (or potential) to know as God knows, even though we will never get there).

Our concept of human reason, contrary to the above, and in line with the big picture outlined previously, must be directly involved in our conception of God. We must avoid the idea that human reason exists as a known and definable entity (or force) apart from God as if we can start from it as an ultimate starting point.

We now note how Christian epistemology differs from non-Christian epistemology by noting their different positions on the objects (things of creation [e.g. rocks]) of knowledge, and the subjects of knowledge (human reason).

The object and the subject of knowledge in a diagram
The object and the subject of knowledge

The questions we must ask ourselves regarding the object and the subject are:

  1. Whether they can have their existence independent of God.

  2. Whether they can have their meaning independent of God.

We first briefly discuss predication.

What is predication?

For our purposes, we can define predication as the logical affirmation of something about another. Especially the assignment of something to a class [Merriam-Webster].

Whenever we predicate, we construct a sentence that has a subject (not the be confused with the subject of knowledge introduced above) and a predicate.

The subject of the sentence is what (or whom) the sentence is about. In the sentence “The cat is sleeping in the sun” the word cat is the subject. A predicate is the part of a sentence or a clause that tells what the subject is doing or what the subject is.

The apple (subject) is red (predicate)

The girl (subject) is pretty (predicate)

The object of knowledge

According to the doctrine of creation, God created the entire world ex nihilo [out of nothing]. The entire world owes its existence to the will of God. God did not create using pre-existing matter. Therefore, the existence of creation is absolutely dependent on God.

What is true of the existence of the entire world, is also true with regard to its meaning. As the absolute, independent (self-contained) God determines the derivative existence of the universe, so the absolute meaning that God has for Himself implies that the meaning of any and every fact must be related to God. This is necessarily the case given the absolute nature of God, as if some facts are not related to God, then not all facts derive their meaning from God, therefore it means that God ceases to be absolute.

Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.

Revelation 4:11, ESV

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:36, ESV

Applying this to the question of man’s knowledge of facts, it may be said that for the human mind to know any fact as true, it must presuppose the existence of God and his plan for the universe.

In all knowledge transactions, we must relate particulars with universals (facts with laws). For example, we know that physics acts in accordance with the law of gravitation. The law of gravitation can be seen as universal, and the particular physical objects are the particulars.

However, the most comprehensive interpretation that we can give of the facts by connecting the particular and universals together leaves our knowledge at loose ends. We either end up with a universal that leaves out all the particulars, or we so emphasise the particular that we negate all universality (see How the Trinity explains the problem of the one and the many).

Moreover, the ultimate subject of our predication is not the universe or "being in general", where God is the universal. Some philosophers believed God to be the one, and creation to be the many. In this way, creation is somehow an emanation from God's being that participates in God. If this were the case, then God and man (creation) would be correlative to each other [9] and creation becomes semi-divine as it participates in God, and in nothingness.

In contrast to this, Van Til maintains the equal ultimacy of the one and the many in God, and a derivative equal ultimacy of the one and the many in creation. This, again, simply re-asserts what we already know from figure 1. Man does not participate in the being of God. God and man are not correlatives. The one and the many that exist in creation are absolutely distinct from (and dependent on) the original one and many that is the Trinity.

The meaning of the universe is not found in the universe itself. We cannot speak coherently of this universe as if it is self-existent, and as if it has its meaning in itself. This is to say that we cannot know anything at all if we don't know whether God exists. If we were to be able to know anything at all without knowing whether God exists, it would implicitly mean that the universe has its meaning in itself - and if we end up proving that God exists down the line, God would cease to be the self-contained God of the Bible.

The subject of knowledge

As with the object of knowledge, so the subject of knowledge (the human interpreter) is dependent on God for his existence and meaning. In God, existence and interpretation are co-extensive [extending over the same area]. That is to say that God never learns anything new, and never interprets anything to search out the meaning of objects independent of Him.

What follows from this is that human interpreters must be re-interpreters. We don't interpret as God interprets (as we're not God), and since the objects of knowledge owe their meaning to God, and since they cannot contain their meaning within themselves independently of God, we must be re-interpreters and not original interpreters.

Another implication of this is that we can never know anything comprehensively. If we were to know comprehensively, it would mean to know something as God knows it, but this is impossible as we're not God. Since all facts find their meaning in God, all facts must be eternally related to God. To know one fact comprehensively is, therefore, to also know God comprehensively which is impossible for us.

Non-Christian thought believes that to the extent that something is not comprehended, it is not knowledge. Christian thought on the other hand believes that we need not and cannot comprehend exhaustively and that we need not do so. God does comprehend exhaustively and that's enough for us. God's comprehension gives validity to our partial comprehension [7].

Now, not only do we believe that the mind of man is necessarily derivative, but ethically depraved as well. Paul says that the “natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.” The reason for this is that these things are “foolishness unto him.” More than that, he cannot receive them “because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14) [8].

It is useful to quote Van Til verbatim at this point:

We must therefore begin with:
(a) The Adamic consciousness, or, the reason of man as it existed before the fall of man. This reason was derivative. Its knowledge was, in the nature of the case, true, though not exhaustive. This reason was in covenant with God, instead of at enmity against God. It recognized the fact that its function was that of the interpretation of God’s revelation. In paradise Adam had a true conception of the relation of the particulars to the universals of knowledge with respect to the created universe. He named the animals “according to their nature,” that is, in accordance with the place God had given them in his universe. Then, too, Adam could converse truly about the meaning of the universe in general and about their own life in particular with Eve. Thus the subject-object and the subject-subject relationship was normal. In paradise man’s knowledge was self-consciously analogical; man wanted to know the facts of the universe in order to fulfill his task as a covenant-keeper.
(b) Then, secondly, we must think of the sinful consciousness, i.e., of the human reason as it became after the entrance of sin. Looked at from the point of view of its unredeemed character, we may speak of it as the unregenerate consciousness. This is the “natural man” “dead in trespasses and sin.” The natural man wants to be something that he cannot be. He wants to be “as God,” himself the judge of good and evil, himself the standard of truth. He sets himself as the ideal of comprehensive knowledge. When he sees that he will never reach this ideal he concludes that all reality is surrounded by darkness. As a child would say, “If I cannot do this, no one else can,” so the “natural man” today says in effect that, since he cannot grasp knowledge comprehensively, God cannot either. The non-regenerate man takes for granted that the meaning of the space-time world is immanent in itself, and that man is the ultimate interpreter of this world, instead of its humble re-interpreter. The natural man wants to be creatively constructive instead of receptively reconstructive.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 25–26.

The subject-object relationship

Usually, when we study physics we don't think that we're dealing with revelation. We are just studying the individual objects of the universe. We try to determine what the laws are with which they work (e.g. Newton's laws, Ohm's laws, Pascal's laws, Einstein's theory of special relativity).

All this is to say that we are dealing with the object-object relation. The object-object relation is the relation that exists between different objects in creation (e.g. two rocks, a rock and a ball, clouds and water).

But we also deal with the subject-object relation. That is to say the relationship between the human mind (the subject) and the objects of creation (e.g. rocks, balls, clouds). It is the human mind that seeks to get information about the objects of the world.

The Christian conception of the object-object and the subject-object relation is that God created the objects of experience in relation to each other that they don't just exist as abstract particulars with no relation, but that they exist as particulars that are related to each other by way of some universal (e.g. two objects can be described by a single word: rock). God has not only created the objects (facts of experience), but also the laws of physical existence.

It is also the case that God has adapted the objects to the subjects such that we can make contact with the objects of our experience.

All this is simply to say that it is by God's creative work and His providence that all things are created and maintained in their existence and their operation in relation to each other. This is simple Reformed theology applied to the subject of physics.

The laws of mathematics do not exist apart from God. Newton's laws and Ohm's laws mentioned above do not exist apart from God, and are not their (Newton and Ohm's) laws, but rather, God's laws that He created and maintains (recall Fig. 1, Fig. 3).

Now since we think of nothing as having an existence and meaning independently of God, it is impossible to think of the object and the subject standing in the fruitful relationship with one another that they actually do, unless God is back of them both. Hence, the knowledge that we have of the simplest objects of the physical universe is still based upon the revelational activity of God (we'll discuss this when we discuss the revelation about nature from God in one of the following sections).

Focusing specifically on the subject-object relationship, Descartes was one of the great rationalist philosophers who made use of a non-Christian a priori [in a way based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation]. In this sense, the human self takes itself to be the ultimate starting point (that which makes the facts what they are). If this is the case, then Van Til argues that each man would of necessity wind all the facts of nature into something like a ball about himself as a core. All the balls (interpretations of men) would have little to no contact with each other, and the result is ultimate subjectivism.

However, if we start by thinking of the a priori laws of the minds of men as created and controlled by God, then the facts of nature are intelligible to us.

Van Til uses the example of Jesus' parable of the branch and the vine (John 15:1-17). Jesus did not hesitate to use that figure as symbolic of the relationship between himself and the church. Why was He able to do this? Was He simply clever in seeing a neat parallel between nature and human experience? If this is the case, there's no justification for believing that the parable actually applies to our experience. Rather, Jesus is the Logos of creation. He is the Creator. Creation does not exist independently of the Creator. All things being created by God, made by Him for His own glory (the lower made for the higher), the parable carries objective weight.

In the same sense, when we interpret nature in terms of ourselves, the anthropomorphism that results leads to greater insights, and not a blind alley of scepticism because God is at the back of both nature and man.

The whole universe reveals God

By natural revelation, we mean that is revealed to us in creation. This can be in the objects of experience (the things that God made), as well as in subjects (humans made in the image of God). As Christians, we think of the whole of the created universe as revelational of God [10]. This much should be clear from the above discussion. Our entire context is a Christian theistic, God-determined context. This is of course implied by the big picture outline we provided above.

However, with this, we take care not to fall into the trap of pantheism or intellectualism.


In pantheism, God is identical to the universe. On the contrary, as Christians, we emphasize the fact that God was self-conscious, and therefore self-expressive and self-expressed before He ever created the universe. He does not need the universe, He is distinct from it (recall Fig. 1)


Intellectualism is another (perhaps more common) error that Christians fall into. These Christians view revelation only as communication as intellectually expressed thought content. Revelation is seen as distinct from creation. They would think that God created the universe, and then he also revealed Himself to man. Sometimes this move is made to guard against pantheism as described above [11].

We believe, with Van Til, that this is a mistake. Scripture constantly speaks of the whole universe as a revelation of the glory of God. The flowers of the field and the cattle on the hills are a revelation of God. If the whole universe was created to show forth the glory of God, as the Scriptures constantly say that it was, then it could not do this unless it was a revelation of God [12].

Therefore, God is revealed everywhere. To make this as practical as possible, take for example this picture of a rhinoceros I recently took on a Safari trip. This rhino, like all other objects of creation, clearly and truly reveal God. There were no other "facts" that God consulted outside Himself to create this magnificent Creature. This rhino for its existence and meaning is wholly dependent on God (as we are), and at the moment this picture was taken, was fulfilling the purposes that God had for it. There is no third thing (or principle of chance) at work in making this rhino what it is (Psalm 8:3-4).

Pre-redemptive special revelation

Keeping the above sections in mind, we first speak about the state of man prior to the fall into sin. When God created Adam, Adam immediately knew his place in creation as a creature of God. However, in addition to knowing his current state, Adam received from God what is generally called "pre-redemptive special revelation".

The first example we have of this type of revelation is when God revealed to Adam His will with regards to the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “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, ESV

Man could not know from nature itself nor from himself in relation to nature that the result of eating from the tree of good and evil would spell his death [13]. The tree, when analysed neutrally, actually lent itself to the opposite interpretation of what God revealed to Adam (as its fruits were nice to look at and desirable to eat according to Genesis 3).

This type of revelation can, therefore, be described as direct communication of thought content on the part of God to man.

Van Til writes,

It is of prime importance to observe that even in paradise man was never meant to study nature by means of observation and experiment without connection with positive super-natural thought communication given to him by God. Nature could not be observed for what it actually is except in relation to history, and history cannot be seen for what it is at any stage except it be viewed in relation to its final end. And only by direct supernatural revelation could man have an adequate notion of this end.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 68.

This direct communication of thought content came in the form of words communicated to Adam, who then, in turn, communicated it to Eve. The question before us, keeping all the preceding in mind, is on what basis God could expect Adam to understand this pre-redemptive special revelation?

The answer that is forthcoming is simple: God created Adam, He created the tree, He created the language with which He is communicating with Adam. Therefore, God knows for certain that His communication with Adam will reach its intended purposes. Adam will understand what is required of him, and he will be responsible for his success/failure in keeping the commandment.

Adam was not (and never would have been) required to use principles that are more fundamental than God to understand God's command. Reason is not an independent authority. Adam, being created in the image of God, involves the fact that he was created with a natural religious fellowship with God,

Firstly, Adam knew what a tree was as he formed the concept of a tree in his mind when he was confronted with them in creation. However, to know what a tree is, Adam (pre-fall) did not view the individual trees of experience as brute facts. Rather, the trees that he interpreted (or reinterpreted), he interpreted as facts that have their meaning and origin in God. He could enjoy the confidence that his concept of trees, in general, is true as far as it goes (even though he does not know all trees exhaustively) because the subject and the object enjoy harmony with each other as maintained by their common Creator.

Secondly, since his entire context is controlled by the sovereign Creator, God knew exactly how to provide the special revelation to Adam with regard to the tree so that Adam can grasp the requirement before him. There is no novelty element that could enter the equation that could cause Adam to fail to grasp the requirement, or that could cause God to fail to communicate the requirement to Adam.

Thirdly, as (outlined by Lane Tipton in his course on Van Til's Apologetics), the two forms of revelation (natural revelation, and special revelation) cannot function apart from each other. As soon as Adam is formed as an image-bearer being conscious of himself as a creature, he is conscious of himself in covenant with God (with the requirements of the covenant being communicated via special revelation).

The contents of special revelation illuminate the contents of natural revelation to form a single coherent whole revelation of God, either of which cannot be dispensed with.

Van Til writes,

... There can be no [and is no] conception of a vague irrationality enveloping the historical for God. For God, history has no surd. But for the same reason human thought must, in the nature of the case, be reinterpretative. When the human being thinks normally his interpretation does not introduce an element of subjectivity which vitiates the absoluteness of the truth with which he comes into contact. On the contrary, when man thinks normally he must be in contact with absolute truth.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 137.

Hence, Adam, thinking normally as a creature of the absolute Creator God would be in contact with the truth, even though he might not grasp it comprehensively.

For more on this topic, read our article Should we blindly believe the Bible?

Special revelation (the Bible)

By special revelation (post-fall), we mean the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. The Bible contains diverse types of literature and was written in three different languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) by dozens of authors from diverse cultural backgrounds and walks of life over many centuries.

The same principles we discussed in the pre-fall special revelation of God can be applied to God's Word in the 66 books of the Bible (post-fall special revelation in its completed form). In the exact same way, the revelation of God in the Bible is as perspicuous (clear), authoritative, and sufficient as the pre-fall special revelation was to Adam.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

Psalm 36:9, ESV

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 110:105, ESV

The heart of the matter

If the above is the case, then why do we still feel like a problem exists for us?

Here then is the heart of the matter: through the fall of Adam man has set aside the law of his Creator and therewith has become a law to himself. He will be subject to none but himself. He seeks to be autonomous. He knows that he is a creature and ought to be subject to the law of his Creator. He knows that his Creator has made him in His image. He knows that he ought therefore to love his Maker. He knows that the light of knowledge depends for him upon his walking self-consciously in the revelation of God. Yet he now tries to be the source of his own light. He makes himself the final reference point in all predication [15].

In essence, the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that the non-Christian believes himself to be self-sufficient, and the Christian believes only God to be self-sufficient. Hence, a revelational epistemology (which can be taken as the sum total of God's revelation in nature and special revelation in Scripture), does not allow for neutral reasoning. To suspend the existence of God, deny the natural fellowship inherent in man as the image of God, ignore the self-revelation of God, and posit neutral reasoning is the hallmark of the fall into sin.

Involved in the doctrine of the God who controls whatsoever comes to pass is the notion that all things in the world are revelational and that man as created by God knows himself in relation to this revelation of God. He knows himself to be analogical to God in his being, his thought and his action. Even the sinner after the fall knows that his idea of autonomy is a false idea. He “knows” that he is a creature of God, yet his idea of autonomy would make him think as though he were not. Thus sin is always to sin against better knowledge [16].

Instead of interpreting the world in covenantal obedience to God and affirming the self-sufficient nature of God and the dependent nature of man, the sinner relegates God to a mere possibility/probability. In doing this, the sinner necessarily holds to a principle of chance/brute fact. The mind of man and the mind of God (if He is believed to exist), therefore, interpret reality in exactly the same way. God is no longer the sovereign determiner of all that is (man's context and man himself). With this view, there are givens for God, God cannot be sure that His revelation will reach His intended purposes (as things change over time outside of His control).

The problem of interpretation and objectively in interpretation, therefore, only arises for the sinner that insists on viewing himself as ultimate, instead of his Creator.

Stated otherwise, Van Til wrote

[The non-Christian] view of man ... implies that “possibility” is above God. But a “possibility” that is above God is the same thing as Chance. A God surrounded by Chance cannot speak with authority. He would be speaking into a vacuum. His voice could not be heard. If God were surrounded by Chance, then human beings would be too. They would live in a vacuum, unable to hear either their own voices or those of others. Thus the whole of history, including all of its facts, would be without meaning.

Van Til, The Authority of Scripture

The attributes of Scripture

The above sections allow us to briefly discuss the necessity, perspicuity, authority and sufficiency of the Bible, and to see these attributes in their proper light as the consequence of the absolute God who identifies Himself, us, and all the facts of the universe in terms of Himself, and not some other principles greater than Him.

The necessity of the Bible

If the revelation that is in Scripture has not been provided to us, as sinners we would twist the truth of creation beyond recognition. Making ourselves ultimate, we would know nothing of anything rightly.

The authority of the Bible

We have seen that the sinner will not of himself recognize that he is abnormal in his interpretation of life. Hence he also refuses to recognize that God is the ultimate while he himself should be nothing but the immediate starting point in the knowledge situation [17]. The sinner will therefore attempt to set himself up as the judge over God's revelation (e.g. "did God really say?").

The authority of Scripture is not that of "expert authority", but of absolute authority that is involved in God being the Creator and sustainer of the world. Therefore, the Bible does not appeal to human reason as ultimate in order to justify what it says. It comes to the human being with absolute authority. Its claim is that human reason must itself be taken in the sense in which Scripture takes it, namely, as created by God and therefore properly subject to the authority of God [18].

The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

WCF, Chapter 1.4

The perspicuity of the Bible

The perspicuity means that no third party human interpretation needed to come between the reader and the Scripture. If this were the case, the Bible cannot be said to be authoritative apart from the work of man, and this gives Satan an access point to obscure the truth of the Scriptures. If the Bible is necessary and authoritative, it means that it must also be perspicuous.

Perspicuity does not mean that every portion is equally easy to be understood. It means that with ordinary intelligence any person can obtain, without the intervention of Catholic priests, the main point of the things he needs to know [19].

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The sufficiency of the Bible

The interpretation of sinful man is not partly, but wholly bankrupt (in principle). Sufficiency is therefore necessary, as perspicuity is necessary, in order that no mixture of human interpretation would be required in connection with the special revelation of God. This is not to say that we can separate supernatural revelation from natural revelation, but that no autonomous philosophy of man is needed to supplement Scripture in order for it to be sufficient.

Hence, authority, perspicuity and sufficiency are closely involved with each other:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

WCF, Chapter 1.7

The objectivity of Biblical revelation

The above provides us with an arsenal to attempt a rather complete answer to the question of Biblical interpretation. We'll try to summarise the above in an answer form:

A. God knows comprehensively

God, as the absolute God and Creator, knows everything in creation exhaustively not because He's had more time to study it all, but because everything that is not God is dependent on Him. Everything that is, is what it is because God is who He is. For its meaning and existence, every fact of creation depends on God. This is our indispensable starting point as it means that there is no mystery for God. It also means that God's Word carries a type of authority that is of a qualitatively different kind than any human authority. God's Word is self-authenticating because God is absolute. The truth of God's Word is not dependent on principles more ultimate than God Himself. Therefore, if God says something, it is true and not subject to verification like even the best human authorities (e.g. philosophers, doctors) are.

B. Human language

We begin by re-iterating the fact that everything that is not God, is creation. This includes all human languages. Human language itself is analogous to the eternal Word of God who we explicitly about read in Genesis 1 (when God spoke prior to creation) and John 1 (who is the eternal Son, Jesus Christ).

Therefore, human language ultimately finds its foundation in God (even the subsequent human developments of language) does not happen outside of the counsel of God. Therefore, we can rest assured that the words used in the Bible to reveal God to us, reveal Him truly. Just as Jesus was able to apply the concept of the branch and vine to Himself and the Church, so ultimately all human words find their ultimate meaning and origin and God, and hence can truly (though not exhaustively) describe God and reveal God's knowledge of Himself or creation to us.

C. Nature (objects and subjects)

Our entire context is a Christian theistic context. The concepts we form of the objects, we ought to form them in a way that takes account of the fact that they depend for their existence and meaning on their Creator. We can, therefore, naturally form concepts in our minds by bringing particulars and universals together, without striving for absolute comprehension and be sure that our knowledge of the facts are true as it goes and will be refined in the future toward a deeper understanding.

Knowledge does not entail complete comprehension. Man is in natural to contact with the truth because there is no principle of chance that can work against or frustrate the purposes of God in history.

D. Transmission of Scripture

Even the Word of God (in its transmission/translated form) comes to us in this Christian context. That is to say that even the "copies of the copies" people tend to complain about have themselves been produced by the sovereign control of God, therefore, we can rest assured that we have the Word of God today as it has been faithfully preserved for us throughout the ages by His sovereign control of history.

D. Conclusion

The above view of the world (worldview) supplies the necessary ingredients to secure objective knowledge of any fact, including an objective interpretation of Scripture. In essence, it comes down to the fact that the sinner needs to negate himself as ultimate. However, this he would not do. It is, therefore, necessary (for us) that Jesus, the Son of God enter into Creation and die on the cross as a proportion for our sins against God (as the ultimate display of God's wrath and justice against our rebellion, and love and mercy toward His creatures) so that a way back might be secured for us.

The common grace of God prevents sinners from consistently working and living out the destructiveness of their own principles of interpretation (making themselves their own God). Via common grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of sinners, we know that they can understand the Gospel when it reaches their ears even though they would regard it as absolute foolishness and contradictory according to their own principles. But the Spirit, working based on the election of the Father applies the work of the Son to the sinner and brings them home so that they can live in close fellowship with their Creator once more.

Once we have been redeemed by our Creator and given a new heart, we are able to negate ourselves as ultimate and see ourselves correctly in relation to our Creator. It means we can thank Him for his providence in our lives, we can worship Him for His wonderful creation, knowing that it's been made as a context for us to operate in, controlled by God, that is conducive to human knowledge. We then once more view the entirety of the world as revelational of God and His plan, and we interpret the Scriptures and the world around us as a single whole, each dependent on the other.

The answer to our objector and to A.E Taylor is summarised by Van Til as follows:

In our defense of the concept of biblical authority, then, it is of the utmost importance that it be brought into relationship with the theistic position that is presupposed by it... It is not till we have shown that the anti-theistic assumption of Taylor, i.e., of the independence of man from God, is the source of all the opposition to the idea of biblical authority, that we have dealt with these objections in any thorough way. This does not mean that it is of no value to show that particular objections themselves in each case rest upon misunderstanding. But it does mean that the deepest misunderstanding upon which all the objections rest is that of the assumed correlativity of God and man with which antitheistic thought starts upon its way

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 139.

Relooking at the initial objection and pushing the antithesis

Recall that our initial objector insisted on the concept of subjective truth. Your truth is not my truth and vice versa. What I intend to show in this final chapter is how this conception actually depends on the Christian worldview for its own intelligibility, and so doing ends up being self-refuting.

The picture our objector is painting is the following picture:

Ultimate subjectivity in worldviews
Ultimate subjectivity. Two perceivers (subjects) see an object, but attaches different (yet supposedly equivalent) interpretations to it. Neither is right, or wrong.

Initially, this picture might look convincing to our unbelieving friends as it does seem to make some intuitive sense. However, upon further scrutiny, we realise that this picture itself is an objective picture of reality as a whole that paints human knowers as ultimate and not derivative. This picture in its supposed humbleness for claiming not to know anything knows for certain that the Christian God does not exist. Because it starts with the assumption of the ultimacy of the human perceiver and the laws of thought in the human mind, it has actually started by assuming that Christianity is false. The actual illustration of the situation we find ourselves in, is, therefore, perhaps more akin to the following illustration:

Worldviews in conflict
Worldviews in conflict

The objector, by definition of his own position as the ultimate starting point of knowledge, cannot know whether his position is true or not. The Christian, on the other hand, refuses to start with himself as the ultimate starting point in knowledge but rather recognises that the absolute God who is distinct from Creation is the final arbiter of truth. These two worldviews are the complete antithesis of each other.

The irony of the non-Christian position is that the non-Christian must grant that the Christian position is as much true as his own lest he makes some objective claim on reality, but this would involve him in a contradiction as if the Christian position is true, it means the non-Christian position is false because God is absolute.

Our non-Christian objector, based on his own principles of interpretation operating on a supposed chance driven world of brute fact cannot know whether an apple is red or green, whether he exists or not, whether he loves his wife, whether he has a wife, or whether he is feeling hungry or not. All these concepts relate particulars of experience to universals which can only be brought into fruitful contact if at the back of it all sits the absolute God of Christianity.

Without the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this would be the world we're left with (in principle) because we refuse the guidance of the God who made us.


[1] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), pg. 62.

[2] Ibid. pg. 62

[3] Ibid. pg. 62

[4] Ibid. pg. 11

[5] Ibid. pg. 11

[6] Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, The Articles of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

[7] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 24.

[8] Ibid. pg. 25.

[9] Ibid. pg. 23.

[10] Ibid. pg. 63.

[11] Ibid. pg. 63

[12] Ibid. pg. 64

[13] Ibid. pg. 67

[14] Ibid. pg. 68

[15] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969).

[16] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969).

[17] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 134–135.

[18] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969).

[19] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 135.


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