To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s “Wholly Other”?
This is part 5 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.
Click here for Part 3.
Click here for Part 4.
A. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction and skepticism.
The Answer, written by Gordon Clark and other elders, accused The Complaint, written by Cornelius Van Til and other elders, of resulting in skepticism. It reads:
“The Presbytery wishes to suggest that if man does not know at least one truth that God knows, if man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide in at least one detail, then man knows nothing at all. God knows all truth, and if man’s mind cannot grasp one truth, then man’s mind grasps no truth. Far from being a test of orthodoxy, this test imposed by The Complaint is nothing else than skepticism and irrationalism.” – The Answer, 21.
Clark himself, in an unpublished paper comes to the same conclusion. He writes,
“The Complaint, on the other hand, makes the truth God has qualitatively different from the ‘truth’ man has. There is not a single point in common. Whatever meaning God has, man cannot have. And since the Bible teaches that God has all truth, it must follow on the theory of the Complaint that man has no truth. The theory of the Complaint is therefore skepticism.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Studies in the Doctrine of the Complaint” in The Presbyterian Philosopher, Douglas J. Douma, Wipf&Stock, 2017. p. 260.
Of interest, and probably of surprise to those who have studied the Clark – Van Til controversy, some of those who wrote The Complaint later themselves came to admit its skeptical character. That is, the conceded that the language was “misleading” and “created the impression” of skepticism. They wrote:
“The second statement [in the original complaint] is also misleading, particularly because of the words, ‘single point.’ The whole clause, taken by itself, is liable to create the impression that our knowledge does not come into contact with the objects of the divine knowledge at any point. This would, of course, be incorrect and would also be skeptical in character.” Fifteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, meeting minutes (Wildwood, NJ: 13 May 1948), Appendix 21. In The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 158.
Years after the controversy, Ronald Nash—a voice from outside of the OPC—wrote in agreement that Van Til’s position results in skepticism. Nash said,
“It is well-known that Van Til for years held that a qualitative difference exists between the knowledge God has and that possessed by humans. God’s knowledge and our knowledge do no coincide at a single point. But this implies, of course, that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to humans. For twenty years or so, as a friendly critic of Van Til’s views, I have maintained that Van Til’s position entails scepticism.” – Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 99-100.
“In conclusion, one can ask how Van Til knows that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to a human, that our knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide at any point. This very knowledge claim says something about what lies beyond the Boundary.” Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 101.
It is clear to me, then, that Van Til’s position in The Complaint did result in skepticism. But, as I noted in The Presbyterian Philosopher (see: p. 161-162), Van Til changed his position (or at least clarified it) near the end of the controversy. To avoid skepticism he began arguing that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge; not entirely without coincidence as The Complaint had said. Clarkians (and others, like Nash) have generally critiqued Van Til for his earlier position.
But did Van Til entirely give up his earlier position? It seems not. He continued to argue for an undefined difference in “content” between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 171-2) and speak of “a two-layer theory of knowledge” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 35). In doing so he continued to make an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (based on his Creator-creature distinction) and so resulted in skepticism.
Note: It is important to note that what Van Til and his followers speak of as “THE Creator-creature distinction” is not equivalent to what other theologians speaks of using the same term. All Christian theologians hold that God and man are distinct in being. Van Til’s novelty is to extend the Creator-creature distinction from being to knowledge itself (not solely the mode of knowledge, but knowledge itself).
And, if I’m wrong on this, let someone explain why was The Complaint written? Other than the obviously political nature of it, why would Van Til (and others) have filed a complaint against Clark’s epistemology if they merely held that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge? I’m convinced that Clark would have had no issue with that wording.
B. Barth’s “wholly other” and skepticism.
In Karl Barth’s Theological Method, Gordon Clark argues that Barth’s doctrine of God as “Wholly Other” results in skepticism. Clark relays that Barth believes, “God cannot be compared to anyone or anything. He is only like himself.” To this Clark contended that, in addition to Barth’s position being unbiblical, “if God is Totally Other then He is totally unknowable.”
“Although it is such an elementary point, it seems often to be forgotten that object x can be both like and not like object y. It sounds self-contradictory, like saying that a plane figure is both square and not square; and perhaps the form of the words obscures the difference. But just as a cat is like and not like a dog, so God is like and not like a man.” (p. 169)
C. The “Creator-creature distinction” compared to Barth’s “wholly other.”
Karl Barth explains his doctrine of God—the “wholly other”— as “an infinite qualitative different between God and man.” As such, man is “incapable of knowing Him.” This makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so results in skepticism. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction—when made to argue against any coincidence in man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge— also makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so ends in skepticism. So, like in part 4 of this series, we must conclude “different doctrines, same result.”
It is interesting to note that as Barth came to reject his doctrine of God as the “Wholly Other” (or “Totally Other”) in his later writings and yet continued to let it influence him, (Karl Barth’s Theological Method, p. 169) so Van Til repudiated his position in The Complaint but yet continued to let it influence his writings.