Schaeffer’s Epistemology – Contra Van Til And The Van Tillians.
In my humble opinion, their is a huge swath of reformed thinking on the subject of epistemology, or the theory and study of knowledge, or knowing how we know anything, that recklessly followed uncritically the theory of Van Til’s analogical conception. This is well known with regards to Clark’s critique of Van Til’s conception of the incomprehensibility of God, especially when Westminster Seminary had to be disciplined for wrongly accusing Clark of departing from the biblical testimony in this regard. In fact, a strong case could be made that it was Van Til who departed from the scriptures in this area. This was proven very ably by Clark, but it was also repudiated by Francis Schaeffer. The evangelicals, myself included, can be thankful that we had Schaeffer to explain biblical epistemology, but the irony is that Schaeffer was a reformed Presbyterian, when it was Van Til who caused the OPC and Westminster to lean toward the quasi-reformed perspective of Calvin College and Seminary, and the Christian Reformed Church.
One could write a treatise on how the analogical theory of Van Til has tainted what would could have been a far more significant contribution to the reformed tradition in our culture than it had. As it is, it was the men who had a biblical conception of epistemology who were able to construct a comprehensive worldview to meet the modern and post-modern worldviews head on. Men like Clark, Henry, and Schaeffer were able to put forward what is the only justification of true knowledge possible, namely that which is rooted in the scriptures and a thorough conception of its theology, and a full orbed conception of what it means to serve God as his image bearers. Like Clark, Schaeffer argued that even though our knowledge of God and all he has made, is not exhaustive, nevertheless, based upon the revelation of holy scripture, what we do know is true knowledge because it is univocal with God’s revelation of what is true. In his ‘He Is There And He Is Not Silent’, Schaefer dealt with the subject of epistemology, in the form of a primer.
Although he does not name Van Til or those who espouse his view, he did clearly oppose his conception of incomprehensibility. Van Til could not seem to get his head around the idea that although God is indeed ontologically separate from humanity he created, this did not mean that we have a different epistemological conception of truth. In fact, it is part of being created in his image that we are able to receive that which God has chosen to reveal, in both general and special revelation. To suggest otherwise actually makes it impossible for humanity to have any confidence that there is in fact ‘true truth’ as Schaeffer put it. In an age that is submerged in the post modernist soup of relativism, Van Tillians have no answer to the biblical conception of true truth. In the above work alone we find the following. “In the Reformation…we find that there is someone there to speak, and that he has told us about two areas. He has spoken first about himself, not exhaustively but truly; and second, he has spoken about history and about the cosmos, not exhaustively but truly.”(62)
Schaeffer made the point that one need not have exhaustive knowledge to have true knowledge. In this sense, any subject is incomprehensible to us. In other words, our knowledge is quantitatively different from God’s but not qualitatively different. “We cannot even communicate with each other exhaustively, because we are finite. But he tells us truly – even truth about himself.”(79) On this point we have something else to show the absolute necessity of special revelation for any justification for true knowledge, namely that one can only have true knowledge if one does receive this knowledge from someone who does know all things exhaustively, and brings this to each subject of knowing. We have logical grounds for stating that the only grounds for true knowledge, is the special revelation of holy scripture, since it was given by one who does have exhaustive knowledge. This knowledge is qualitatively the same as that received by his creatures, who are able to receive it because they have been created in his image. What obscures that true truth is the fallen nature of humanity which seeks to suppress that truth in unrighteousness.