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Analogical knowledge of God, and the Clark-Van Til controversy

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

A newer article that addresses many of the same questions can be read here: Knowing the incomprehensible God: Vindicating objective analogical knowledge of God

Background to the controversy

Gordon Haddon Clark (August 31, 1902 – April 9, 1985) was an American philosopher and Calvinist theologian. He was a primary advocate for the idea of presuppositional apologetics (although his ideas differed significantly from those of Van Til, and were not adopted as widely as Van Til's thought) and was chairman of the Philosophy Department at Butler University for 28 years.

Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), born in The Netherlands, was a Christian philosopher, Reformed theologian, and presuppositional apologist. Van Til graduated from Calvin College in 1922, receiving a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1925 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1927. He began teaching at Princeton but shortly went with the conservative group that founded Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught for forty-three years of his life as a professor of apologetics (read more here).

In 1943, Dr Gordon H. Clark, who was to become one of the foremost Christian philosophers of the twentieth century, sought ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). Dr Clark was opposed by the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, led by Cornelius Van Til. Despite this, Dr Clark was ordained. In 1944, the Westminster Seminary faculty tried to remove Dr Clark from office by arguing that the procedure the OPC used to ordain him was irregular. The ensuing controversy brought to light many important doctrinal questions. Particularly, the issue of God's incomprehensibility.

Gordon Clark (left) and Cornelius Van Til (right)
Gordon Clark (left) and Cornelius Van Til (right)

Before progressing in this article, the following piece is useful for pre-reading and discusses the same issue from a different angle: Who is God?. The following article from the Gospel Coalition is also useful pre-reading: Divine Incomprehensibility and the knowledge of God.

The incomprehensibility of God

Our discussion will follow Van Til in chapter 13 of the Introduction to Systematic Theology.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism's definition of God is very familiar. “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” The remaining chapters of the confession may be said to be like an effort to ascertain as clearly as possible the meaning of this definition and its present-day significance.

After presenting the preceding definition, Van Til asks the question:

But the question will at once be asked how it is possible that man should say anything at all about a God who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in all his perfections.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

The incomprehensibility of God is something that is implied by the Creator-creature distinction.

The Creator-creature distinction
The Creator-creature distinction

There is nothing more ultimate than God. Not chance, not logic, not time. God is the ultimate reality. If God is the ultimate reality, it follows that there is no third thing that stands independently of God that he must first consult before He can know if something is possible or impossible, right or wrong, moral or immoral. Thus, everything in creation stands in a complete dependence relationship with God. God is independent, creation is dependent. Now it should be clearly seen why we can't take any concept in the creation and apply it to God on a 1-to-1 basis. God is not identical with anything in creation. Nor does He share some common property with the creation that is more ultimate than both Himself and creation.

The question that comes to mind when we consider God - who is described as incomprehensible due to the above - is how can we say anything meaningful or intelligible about this God, to begin with? It is a fact that all orthodox or traditional theology does claim to be able to have theoretical knowledge of God despite the incomprehensibility of God. Roman Catholic and Protestant theology are in agreement in maintaining that the idea of God is not merely a limiting concept (cannot be known) but is rather a constitutive (can be known) concept [1].

The traditional Roman Catholic and the orthodox Protestant both appeal to revelation (i.e. Scripture) to establish that God can be known: He has revealed Himself since creation and has not left Himself without a witness. It's not as if we are left to our own devices in the dark trying to find a god, rather, it is the case that the God who made us has stooped down and made Himself known.

The Roman catholic pitfall and moderate realism

Let's take a look at those who Van Til calls "modern" philosophers and theologians. These modern philosophers do not regard revelation as a sound answer to how we can come to know an incomprehensible God. Their reason is that the words contained in revelation (the Bible) are human words. Hence, God remains unknown as human words cannot make contact with God. Van Til uses the example of God's eternality to describe their point. According to these philosophers, God's eternality cannot mean anything other than "a very long process of time" to us, and a god who is very old is not the absolute God of the Bible [2].

It is at this point that the Roman Catholic backs away, and has no response to the modern philosopher and theologian. The Roman catholic does not include the human mind itself in the scope of revelation [3][4]. For the Roman catholic, the knowledge of God is not innate (not that Van Til holds to an idealist conception of innate ideas. For a view of Van Til's view of innate knowledge, check out this article). It does not include the human mind within the scope of revelation simply because it does not take the Creator-creature distinction (or the doctrine of creation) seriously.

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The reason Roman Catholics detract from the doctrine of creation is that they (together with Arminians) introduce the idea of the freedom of man [5] and therefore they make God and man co-dependent on each other and the universe. To the extent that man is independent of God, it means that he is no longer revelatory of God. And to the extent that is his no longer revelatory, it means that his ultimate reference point is no longer found in God alone. For the Roman Catholic, there are theoretical principles that are more basic than God Himself from which the autonomous creature can make sense of himself and the world. Only afterwards is the distinction between a divine being and created being introduced. In this sense, the Roman Catholic reference point is not found in God.

Van Til expounds on what is meant by the ultimate reference point in The Defense of the Faith and elsewhere.

The non-Christian’s process of reasoning rests upon the presupposition that man is the final or ultimate reference point in human predication...
The Christian’s process of reasoning rests upon the presupposition that God, speaking through Christ by his Spirit in the infallible Word, is the final or ultimate reference point in human predication...

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, pg. 96

When Satan tempted Adam and Eve in paradise he sought to make them believe that man’s self-consciousness was ultimate rather than derivative and God-dependent. He argued, as it were, that it was of the nature of self-consciousness to make itself the final reference point of all predication.

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, pg. 109

All this is to say that if man does not find the ultimate reference point of predication in God, but himself, it makes him the final arbiter of what is possible, and what is not possible. More clearly (at least according to Daniel Akande), the final reference point of all predication is taken to be whatever facilitates the relationship between “logic” (universals, classes, systems, categories, general concepts, etc.) and “reality” (objects, facts, events, states of affairs in the contingent realm). That is, whatever provides for the relationship between particulars and universals is the final reference point of all predication.

If man is the ultimate reference point in predication, it means that God must know things in exactly the same way humans do (i.e. when we learn of a tree and we claim to be able to know everything about the tree without taking God into account, it means that God does not have an interpretation of the tree that's any more authoritative than ours).

We speak of all forms of reasoning in which man is assumed to be the final or ultimate reference point of predication as univocal reasoning. In contrast to this, we speak of the form of reasoning employed by the Christian who recognizes that God is the ultimate reference point of predication as analogical reasoning [7].

If a man has any degree of freedom (in the sense of determining his own destiny apart from God's decree), it means that man is no longer fully dependent on God for all aspects of his being. Moreover, God must wait and see what His creatures do, and react accordingly - hence, He is no longer in full control of reality (i.e. Arminianism, Molinism). This brings God down to the level of man and makes them co-dependent at best. In terms of univocal reasoning, since the facts of experience no longer reveal God and can be understood apart from His revelation, the relation of the facts to man, is the same as the relation of the facts to God. The only difference is that God knows the facts more "comprehensively".

This is why the Roman Catholic has no answer for the modern theologian, as they ultimately end up doing the same thing...

The modern theologian, with the modern philosopher and the modern scientist, makes the universe or reality as a whole his final or ultimate subject of predication. He includes his god and himself within a common universe. Then he makes assertions about the nature of this universe. He does so by means of the laws of logic that he finds operative in his mind. Without the least bit of justification he assumes that reality must answer to the nature of these laws...
What is true of the Romanist is also true of the Arminian. He too has attributed to man a measure of ultimacy. He too has thereby reduced the doctrine of the internal self-contained infinity of the perfections of God. He too has to an extent enveloped his god with himself in a universe of logic and of fact that is above both. He too, therefore, has no answer to make to the modern theologian. With Parmenides of old he assumes that what man can intelligently say about reality is true, and only that is true. That is to say, only that is real which man can reduce to a network of logical relations.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

Van Til's statement above is visualised as follows:

It is modern irrationalism that the traditional theologian was trying to answer. But he cannot answer this if he himself is something of a rationalist. And this is the case with the Roman theologian. He has allowed that the human mind is right in maintaining that it cannot be said to know unless it can understand exhaustively. That is to say, only such knowledge can be said to be scientific knowledge as enables man to reduce facts to logical relations. Therefore [according to Aquinas] knowledge properly speaking is only of species.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

By restricting knowledge to universals or species, and excluding the particulars of experiences as objects of knowledge, Aristotle and Aquinas effectively admitted that to know something, you need to know it comprehensively. That is, to know a dog, you must fully comprehend the essential characteristics of dogness and incorporate them into your logical system. You must know the absolute limits of what it means to be a dog.

Working with this Aristotelian idea of knowledge, Aquinas asserts that man cannot know what God is, but only what he is not...

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

Hence, for Aquinas (following Aristotle and representing the official Roman catholic philosophy), knowledge is of universals only [6] (as abstracted from the particulars of experience). Since we cannot experience God, we cannot know the essence of God. Nor does revelation from God help the situation. Since man is functioning independent of God, this revelation cannot be something that removes the independence, it must be seen in the light of the independence - and hence cannot tell us of anything of an incomprehensible God.

Suppose knowledge is of universals only, and we can know these universals as independent, unchanging, abstract concepts without revelation and without realising the dependence of any concept on God first. In that case, it means that revelation has effectively become superfluous: It cannot reveal to us anything about God simply because this revelation must then fit into autonomous, unchanging and exhaustive human categories.

As the result of holding to what is essentially a rationalist view of human reason (knowledge is of universals only), Aquinas held to what is virtually an irrationalist view of God's revelation: If it is said that man by reason can say nothing positive about God, his view of revelation will be that of an irrational assertion that can make no connection with the system of thought that man knows by reason. Stated differently, that which comes to man by way of special revelation can make no contact with the system of knowledge man has developed thus far apart from it.

Now, if this view of God's incomprehensibility was the case, the unbeliever could rightly say that God has to be diligently searched for, that God might be hidden in some remote corner of the earth, or moon or Jupiter, then the unbeliever would have an excuse for his ignorance [8]. Perhaps God cannot even be known. One thing is for certain, according to this view, God cannot keep us morally accountable for our unbelief. The unbeliever can sleep peacefully.

The Reformed answer

The main reason people fall into the above conundrum with regards to the knowledge of God in the first place is because they fail to take seriously the Creator-creature distinction by rather regarding their intellect as ultimate, and not God.

This conundrum of man not being able to know God is solved when we take account of God's revelation (in the comprehensive Christian sense of the term), which is implied when we hold uncompromisingly to the creation doctrine which asserts that all the particulars of experience, including the mind of man, is revelational of and under the control of God. Stated in different words, God is the final reference point of all predication and not man.

When we make the Creator-creature distinction basic, we arrive at another view of the incomprehensibility of God. No longer is the incomprehensibility identical to the anti-Christian view of the incomprehensibility of the universe (as we cannot reduce everything to logical relations).

The church’s doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is based upon and is the logical consequence of God’s absolute self-existence (recall our previous section). It is just because God is an eternal and self-contained being while we are his temporal creatures that we cannot ever hope to comprehend his being [9].

Another way of stating this - making more use of images - is that God is not encapsulated in darkness so that we cannot see anything of Him or that He is hidden, but He is the absolute light so that it is by His light that we see everything else (again recall the two figures above).

The non-Christian view of man's knowledge of the incomprehensibility of God is that of a man lighting a match in a very dark cave to try and map its corners. Never can we hope to map out an infinitely big cave. Just as soon as the flicker of light passes over the rocks, so the darkness swallows it up again and we've made no progress. This is the case when we make ourselves as well as God subject to bare possibility and ultimate mystery. Not even God knows that which lie beyond Him (i.e. chance).

In the Christian view, God is the light by which we can see (Ps 36:9). God lights up the whole cave, even though we can only look at one part of it at a time. The cave, the light and our observations are all dependent on God and made for each other. We have confidence (faith) that the knowledge of one part of the cave will relate to other parts of the cave simply because of the ultimate rationality of God who is at the back of the cave itself. Any possibility and mystery that we might experience is not the case for God.

In the first scenario, man is seeking God in the dark and unknown universe with himself as the final reference point. In the second scenario, man is not seeking God, God is revealed to man and by this revelation, we can truly see everything else although not exhaustively. The knowledge of God and man's place concerning Him is basic to the constitution of man as created in the image of God. Man knows God because reveals Himself to man always and everywhere. Every thought, breath or impression on the senses is due to the providence of God. Even language itself has its origin in God. Hence, although language can never capture the essence of God, we know that it will secure a true knowledge of God as far as it goes because God is the author of language (see this lecture by Dr Vern Poythress).

Making the Creature-creature distinction basic in our thought allows us to conceive of man's intellect and rational faculties as created. Moreover, the human mind was never designed to operate outside of an environment of God's revelation. We can't reason to the incomprehensible God. Rather we can know the incomprehensible God through His revelation, and can't reason without His revelation. Our reasoning is therefore not univocal, but analogical.

Thus the Reformed Christian has an effective answer for the modern man. His answer is that the capacities of the human mind would have no opportunity for their exercise except upon the presupposition that the most absolute God does exist and that all things in this world are revelational of him...

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

This is to say that there is no autonomy present in human thinking and knowledge. The final reference point of all predication is found in God, and God alone. This makes it impossible for the Reformed Christian to make God dependent on man, on the universe, on anything that is not God whatsoever. To maintain that all things are revelational of God is to maintain that absolutely everything is under His control.

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Therefore, God is not encapsulated in a context together with man. God does not know things in the same way as a man. The Creator-creature distinction is maintained at all times.

It is only Reformed theology that does full justice to the idea of revelation in all its comprehensiveness and depth of meaning. It is only if the doctrine of revelation is taken thus seriously that the knowledge of God is assured. Man may be certain that he knows God. More than that, man cannot help but know God...
The sinner’s problem from his point of view is to cast doubt upon this evidence [of God's existence], to make it appear as though the evidence were not clear... Thus it is clear that the incomprehensibility of God presupposes the revelation of God in all its comprehensiveness. One could not talk about God at all except in terms of his revelation to man. Without the presupposition of God’s revelation to man there could be no predication of God at all. God would be not incomprehensible, but inapprehensible*. That is, no predication could be made of him or of anything else.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

* Apprehend denotes the laying hold of a thing mentally, to understand it clearly, at least in part. Comprehend denotes embracing or understanding it in all its compass and extent.

Operating with God's revelation we now speak of the incomprehensibility of God differently. No longer is it in the sense that we cannot know God, but rather that we cannot exhaustively understand everything that is revealed to us by God. When God reveals something about Himself to us, He is telling us about Himself. So we are not in a state of total ignorance concerning who God is.

If we speak therefore of the incomprehensibility of God, what is meant is that God’s revelation to man is never exhaustively understood by man.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

The charge of Dr Gordon Clark

It is at this point that we reach Dr Clark's charge (as outlined by Dr Robert Reymond) that Van Til's insistence on analogical knowledge results in scepticism with regard to the knowledge of God. As is hopefully clear from the above and flowing from the Creator-creature distinction, there is also a distinction between human knowledge and God's knowledge. This is a problem, says Clark.

Van Til’s insistence on the analogical relationship between divine and human knowledge, even human knowledge derived from revelation, is the greatest single weakness, in my opinion.

Dr Robert L Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge

Not only does Van Til deny that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge ever coincide as to content at any one point, but he also refuses to make an effort to explain what the qualitative difference between them is. He refuses to “state clearly” how “two times two is four” is different for God; and he does this, he says, because of “the Christian doctrine of revelation.” Is it not clear from this quotation that, for Van Til, God’s revelation of Himself to man does not really reveal to man anything of what God is essentially; that, for Van Til, any knowledge of God gained through His revelation to man is never univocal but always only “analogical” knowledge; that, for Van Til, God “with respect to any revelational proposition” still is as incomprehensible as He was prior to the revelation? Is it any wonder that Clark contends that Van Til’s position inevitably leads to skepticism and total human ignorance?

Dr Robert L Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge

With this in mind, let's head to the text of Van Til that Reymond is critiquing which is also found in chapter 13 of Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology. We will quote Van Til at length:

In the first place, it is possible in this way to see that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man coincide at every point in the sense that always and everywhere man confronts that which is already fully known or interpreted by God. The point of reference cannot but be the same for man as for God. There is no fact that man meets in any of his investigation where the face of God does not confront him.
On the other hand in this way it is possible to see that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man coincide at no point in the sense that in his awareness of meaning of anything, in his mental grasp or understanding of anything, man is at each point dependent upon a prior act of unchangeable understanding and revelation on the part of God. The form of the revelation of God to man must come to man in accordance with his creaturely limitations.
God’s thought with respect to anything is a unit. Yet it pertains to a multiplicity of objects. But man can think of that unit as involving a number of items only in the form of succession. So Scripture speaks of God as though he were thinking his thoughts step by step.
This is true with respect to every bit of revelation that God gives to man. Accordingly, the fact that man is given more and ever more revelation of God does not tend to reduce the incomprehensibility of God. For man any new revelational proposition will enrich in meaning any previous given revelational proposition. But even this enrichment does not imply that there is any coincidence, that is, identity of content between what God has in his mind and what man has in his mind.
If there is no identity of content in the first proposition that God gives to man there can be no identity of content attained by means of any number of additional propositions of revelation that God gives to man... It is only on the assumption that the human mind is not the mind of a creature but is itself the mind of the Creator that one can talk consistently of identity of content between the mind of man and the mind of God.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

We need to keep in mind that all facts are created facts, and God alone knows all facts exhaustively as He knows Himself exhaustively. Van Til writes above that God's thought concerning anything is a unit. God knows all facts as a unit, whereas we need to discover (rediscover) the facts sequentially. When the Bible then speaks of God as knowing things in a sequential manner as well, then this is anthropomorphic language adapted for our limitations. We cannot know in any other way as we are not God.

As we learn more about who God is through revelation, it does not reduce the incomprehensibility of who God is. It increases it. We might grow in the enrichment of our understanding of who God is, but part of this enrichment entails "the more we know, the more we know how little we know". It is at this point that Van Til states that there is no identity of content between the mind of man and the mind of God.

However, and contrary to charges of Dr Clark, the increase in the incomprehensibility of God the more we learn of Him is not an increase in mystery in the non-Christian sense. Our minds, language and logical conclusions are themselves created and controlled by God so that we might reach true yet non-comprehensive knowledge of Him. So, Van Til does not fall into scepticism, simply, because he refuses to introduce the idea of human autonomy into the equation when it comes to "God-talk", the content of revelation, and the human mind doing the thinking.

So, Dr Clark, in making the requirement that there must be a univocal (that is in the same way and same sense) contact point between the knowledge of God, is effectively negating the Creator-creature distinction.

Van Til, in asserting the analogical relationship between the knowledge of God and the qualitative difference between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man was merely asserting the truth of the Creator-creature distinction in the field of epistemology [10]. God knows that 2x2=4, and man knows that 2x2=4. But, on Dr Clark's principles, there must be an identity of content between God's knowledge of this truth, and man's knowledge of this truth. Clark then challenges Van Til to "state clearly" what the qualitative difference (analogical relationship) is, since Van Til denies that there is an identity of content [11].

To this, Van Til simply indicates that in order to "state clearly", it would mean to "explain exhaustively" what the difference between God's knowledge of a fact, and man's knowledge of a fact is. If Van Til attempted to explain the difference as such, it would be in contradiction to his unwavering commitment to a revelational epistemology. To explain exhaustively already presupposes that Van Til was wrong in asserting the analogical relationship between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man - hence, Clark's requirement begs the question. According to a revelational epistemology, we can know truly yet not exhaustively. There is no scepticism.

This is evidenced when Van Til himself explains what he means:

In setting out a series of propositions about the revelation of God, as the church has done in its confessions, the Christian may rest assured that he has “the system of truth” while yet he may add to his knowledge of that system. All his knowledge is analogical of God. God is the original knower and man is the derivative re-knower. Man knows in subordination to God; he knows as the covenant-keeper.
If he is not a covenant keeper he will set the false ideal of knowing even as God knows, by complete coincidence with the contents of the mind of God, and end up by knowing that what he calls knowledge is no true knowledge at all, and that what he calls false submission to authority is the true knowledge of God and of man.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

And further...

When his God makes a revelational proposition to him such as that he, God, is eternal, man in repeating this proposition says that God is eternal. The reference point is the same but the content is not. Being subject to no conditions, himself the source of all conditions for man. God at once sees the significance of such a proposition in all the depth of its meaning God knows the meaning of this proposition in all the fulness of its significance because he knows it in relationship to all other propositions that he will make or will not make to man. If God had made all the revelations propositions that he will ever make to man about himself, even then man could not have the same thought content in his mind that God has in his mind unless he were himself divine. Man can never experience the experience of God.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13


...the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man coincide at no point in the sense that in his awareness of meaning of anything, in his mental grasp or understanding of anything, man is at each point dependent upon a prior act of unchangeable understanding and revelation on the part of God.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

The only way to resolve the controversy is to not beg the question but to perform an internal critique of the competing positions. Clark, supposedly, since he is charging Van Til with scepticism holds to an identity of content between the mind of man and the mind of God. Man can know a fact just like God can. And since Clark wants to avoid scepticism, he must then be able to explain exhaustively how knowledge of certain propositions differs between man and God. But, as Van Til points out, Dr Clark says there is an infinity of relations and implications about any proposition that man makes (even 2x2=4). And man cannot understand this infinity of relationships. Thus man does not understand at all. For to understand without understanding is, on Dr Clark’s basis, impossible altogether [12]. And so it seems that Dr Clark's system collapses on itself.

Now, Dr Clark is a Christian and he is not consciously trying to adopt a non-Christian method. Clark writes that the truth is dependent on God and independent from man. The truth is not indepdent of God. But if the truth is really thought of as dependent upon God then we are back to the Christian method of analogical knowledge [13]. All knowledge, if it is to be true knowledge, must be dependent on a prior act of God's knowledge and revelation, and we cannot know as God knows.

It is God, by an eternal intuition knowing himself, who reveals himself. Man has no approach to the knowledge of the nature of God—on which truth is admittedly dependent—except by the self-conscious activity of God as expressed in revelation. And this revelation is a revelation about the manner of God’s knowing or it is not a revelation about God at all.
God’s nature is self-conscious activity. Only on this basis is there an identity of reference point. On this basis man may know the proposition that two times two are four as part of the “system” of knowledge that is God’s. Thus only is there identity of reference point between man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge. Only thus can man know truly without knowing exhaustively.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Ch 13

Van Til's analogical reasoning

In order to fully grasp the concepts involved, it will do us well to dig deeper into what Van Til meant with "analogical reasoning". We must be careful not to conflate Van Til's view on analogy with that of Aquinas, and to that goal, I'll refrain from touching on Aquinas just yet (perhaps in a future article). On John Frame and Vern Poythress' website the following definition is offered:

What does Van Til mean by “analogical system” and “analogical reasoning”? On first hearing these phrases, we might suppose that Van Til here is advocating a doctrine about Christian religious language–that such language is “analogical,” figurative, as opposed to being “literal.” The term “analogical” is often used this way in theological and philosophical literature, especially when contrasted with “univocal,” as it is in Van Til. It is evident, however, that Van Til’s concept of analogy is a doctrine about human reasoning (even human life!) in general, not about religious language in particular.

Similarly, Bosserman writes:

Van Til’s doctrine of analogy concerns the relationship between different sorts of minds—that of God and man—and not between concepts and different grades of objects. Just as there are two levels of existence (uncreated and created) there are “two levels of knowledge, the level of God’s knowledge which is absolutely comprehensive and self-contained and the level of man’s knowledge which is not comprehensive but is derivative and re-interpretive.”
The pertinent question regarding our thought forms is not whether they reflect external objects when taken in isolation, but whether they reflect God’s all-encompassing interpretation/plan for that object. After all, no object can convey the whole story about itself. But, supposing that there is a Creator who has foreordained the end from the beginning, it follows that he must possess a complete systematic interpretation of things. Man’s interpretations, then, are “analogical” of God’s when they reflect, in a finite measure, God’s perspective on reality.

Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox

Van Til agrees with Clark (over Aquinas) that man can only rest assured that analogical knowledge is true if he has some standard that can confirm this belief. However, he denies that this standard can be a set of impersonal qualities/propositions that have identical meaning for God and man. The only way that man’s finite knowledge could be univocal with the divine mind is if certain propositions were self-evident expressions of a universe that was independent of, and superior to both its divine and human interpreters.
However, the only being who resides above man and God alike, and Who may confirm the correspondence of the mind of the former to the mind of the latter, is God Himself, in the second person of the Trinity (1 Tim 2:5). The Word of God testifies that finite words may reflect the mind of God truly, even though not identically (John 1:18), by utilizing and authenticating them himself (Matt 5:18)... with Christ’s word as a reference point, true and false beliefs can be sharply distinguished. A true belief corresponds to the mind of God because it is formed in faithful submission to the Word of Christ, while a false belief does not correspond to the mind of God, because it refuses the illumination of Christ. A true belief is coherent because it is informed by that Being Who holds all things together

Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox

Bahnsen also commented on this writing in Van Til's Apologetic:

God and man are metaphysically different, which is evidenced in their differing acts of knowing, but man is to think the same things that God does. What man knows is literally the truth, not an analogy to the truth - the same truth known by God, accepted or verified by the same standard or point of reference for both man and God, namely God's own mind.

Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic, pg. 228-229


... [the Van Tillains are charged to teach] that "man can grasp only an analogy of the truth itself" Van Til did not teach that what we know is only an analogy of God (or truth about Him), much less that univocal predication regarding God must be rejected, but rather that we know God (as well as His creation) analogously to His knowing Himself and His creation.

Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic, pg. 228-229 footnote 159

Finally, Van Til's definition of analogy in his own words:

The distinguishing characteristic between very non-Christian theory of knowledge on the one hand, and the Christian concept of knowledge on the other hand, is, therefore, that in all non-Christian theories men reason univocally, while in Christianity men reason analogically. By this distinction we mean that every non-Christian theory of method takes for granted, that time and eternity are aspects of one another, and that God and man must be thought of as being on the same plane. God and man must be thought of as correlative to one another. God and man work under a system of logic that is higher than both, and that exists in independence of both. The law of contradiction is thought of as existing somehow in independence of God and man or at least as operating in both God and man on the same level.
In contrast to this, Christianity holds that God existed alone before any time existence was brought forth. He existed as the self-conscious and self-consistent being. The law of contradiction, therefore, as we know it, is but the expression on a created level of the internal coherence of God’s nature. Christians should therefore never appeal to the law of contradiction as something that, as such, determines what can or cannot be true.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology

If we were to summarise this in a short section, Van Til is stating that, unlike man, God does not discover truths by employing tools like the laws of logic. God is the original knower and comprehensively knows all truth. Moreover, God's pre-interpretation of all facts is constructive to the truth, meaning all truth is what it is because of what God makes it to be. Man's knowledge is that of a sequential reconstruction of what God already knows.

It then becomes clear that for both God and man, the standard for judging all truth is the mind of God. Hence, God's Word must be the ultimate standard for judging claims to truth and God's word must be the preconditioning context in which man goes out to discover more truth about himself and the world. This in short is what is meant by analogical reasoning. A Christian reasons analogically when they reason in faith submission to the Word of Christ, who is the guarantee of our correspondence to the mind of God.

In contrast to this way of thinking, the unbeliever wants to reason in a univocal manner and hence disregarding the Creator-creature distinction. Rather than thinking God's thoughts after Him, they, together with God think thoughts about reality to discover more truths (God may already know said the truth, but after we discover it, we know it in the same sense). Van Til offers the rather straightforward definition of “analogical” reasoning: “To make every thought captive to the obedience of Christ speaking in Scripture is to reason analogically in the proper sense of the term.”

So why did Van Til choose to use the word "analogical" reasoning which caused much of this confusion? Because, as Bahnsen writes, "Man cannot do what God does, except by way of finite imitation or reflection. This applies to the act of knowing things. Because the word 'analogy' refers to and stresses the element in which of agreement or identity between two things that are different, it seemed to be the appropriate word to describe the relationship between God's knowing and man's knowledge."

Man's knowledge of God is anthropomorphic

Van Til, Bahnsen and Bosserman agree that our knowledge of God as revealed to us is "anthropomorphic". This is defined as the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities.:

We need at this point to be fearlessly anthropomorphic. Our basic interpretative concept, the doctrine of the ontological trinity, demands of us that we should be so... Applying this to the case in hand, we would say that we are entitled and compelled to use anthropomorphism not apologetically but fearlessly. We need not fear to say that God’s attitude has changed with respect to mankind. We know well enough that God in himself is changeless. But we hold that we are able to affirm that our words have meaning for no other reason than that we use them analogically.

Van Til, The Articles of Cornelius Van Til

And all revelation of God to man is anthropomorphic. It is an adaptation by God to the limitations of the human creature. Man’s systematic interpretation of the revelation of God is never more than an approximation of the system of truth revealed in Scripture, and this system of truth as revealed in Scripture is itself anthropomorphic. But being anthropomorphic does not make it untrue. The Confessions of the Church pretend to be nothing more than frankly approximated statements of the inherently anthropomorphic revelation of God. For it is such a system that is directly involved in the idea of the self-contained God.

Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge

Although Van Til's doctrine if analogical knowing was not a thesis about religions language, it does have some noteworthy implications about such language. Since all of our knowledge of God must be based on His revelation to us, God must teach men how to speak about Him - and speak to them with human words that perfectly communicate how they are to think about Him. The words used by God to teach us how to think and speak of Him can, therefore, utilize figures of speech without jeopardizing the veracity and adequacy of what we learn and know about God from His revelation. Thus van Til could assert, "We are entitled and compelled to use anthropomorphism not apologetically but fearlessly ... we hold that we are able to affirm that our words have meaning for no other reason that we use them analogically". Because we must think God's thoughts after Him (analogously), there can be no objection if "Scripture ... has not hesitation in speak anthropomorphically of God"

Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic, pg. 232 footnote 169.

God, therefore, reveals Himself to humans in creaturely categories. These categories that we use that are revealed to us adequately reflect what God wants us to know about Him. He is the author of language and the objects that relate to the written words. He uses the perfect human phrases and expressions that will communicate the truth to human minds.

It is at this point that Bosserman provides an amazing example of how we can know a proposition to be true whilst not knowing it in its fullness:

Van Til’s theory of knowledge accords remarkably well with the idea of redemptive-historical development. As each successive covenant furnishes more information about God, it carries with it certain discontinuities in the symbols, sacraments, and laws which define the divine-human relationship (Heb 10:1; cf. Matt 5:17; Gal 3:24–25; Col 2:17). Quantitative differences in information carry with them qualitative differences in man’s impression of the said information. And although an economic priority must be given to the new covenant revelation of God in Christ (Heb 1:1–2; Matt 11:11) since the earlier vantage points exist for the latter (Heb 11:39–40), they are all equally true.

Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox, pg. 116-117

In simple terms, everything the Jews knew about God is true in the Old Testament, however, in light of the New Testament, we can gain a greater understanding of the Old Testament revelation. This doesn't mean that the less clear propositions about God were false, they are equally true but they were not yet fully grasped.


[1] Van, C., 1974. An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. pg. 159

[2] Ibid. pg. 160

[3] Ibid. pg. 160

[4] Not everyone has the native intelligence to do the kind of work in philosophy required to understand an argument for the existence of God. Among those who have the requisite intelligence for such work, many do not have the time it takes to apprehend such truths by philosophy, being engaged as they are in other important tasks such as taking care of children, manual labour, feeding the poor, and so forth. Finally, among those who have the natural intelligence and time required for serious philosophical work, many do not have the passion for philosophy that is also required to arrive at an understanding of the arguments for the existence of God (

[5] Human beings have free will and are masters of themselves through their free will. Free will can be impeded by obstacles or ignorance but naturally moves toward God (,but%20naturally%20moves%20toward%20God.&text=According%20to%20Aquinas%2C%20intellect%20and,this%20Aquinas%20and%20Pinckaers%20agree.).

[6] Since physical particulars, the "beings" or "substances" of which reality is composed can change, the object of knowledge cannot be the particular, but must be of that which is "universal." When I know "Fido is a dog." I know by sensory observation an individual particular perishable substance, the dog "Fido." But in knowing he is a dog, what I know, the object of my knowledge, is the universal, "Dogness" which is found not only in Fido, but also millions of other substances; it is the "commensurate universal" that which all the particulars exhibiting a form have in common. This is the form, so again Aristotle agrees with Plato that the object of knowledge is the universal form or, as it came to be known, "essence" or "essential nature". (

[7] Van, C., 1974. An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company pg. 101, fn. 1.

[8] Ibid. pg. 163

[9] Ibid. 12

[10] Ibid. pg. 171

[11] Ibid. pg. 171

[12] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 172.

[13] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 173.



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Sep 22, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Good explanation of the both the controversy and Van Til's methodology

Arne Verster
Arne Verster
Sep 27, 2023
Replying to

Thank you! This article was a beast to write back in the day. Glad it's still giving some fruit :)


Joshua Butcher
Joshua Butcher
Jan 15, 2023

I have just discovered your website, so the following information may be old news to you. Ryan Hedrick has done yoeman's work collecting the writings of GHC and interacting with his thought (both to clarify and critique). Here's a link to his blog where most, if not all, of his work is published:

Arne Verster
Arne Verster
Jan 15, 2023
Replying to

Great stuff thanks Joshua!

I’ll check it out and possibly reach out 😁


Jul 30, 2022

perhaps these posts on Clark-VanTil might be of interest. Perhaps not. :)

Arne Verster
Arne Verster
Aug 11, 2022
Replying to

Thanks for sharing!


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