Van Til - confused Ontology with Epistemology

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Puritan Board Sophomore
The most frequent critique of Van Til is that he confused Ontology with Epistemology. I am a bit of a novice, so could someone explain what this means?


Puritan Board Graduate
Ontology here means the order of being: God creates.

Epistemology here means the order of knowing: we start from a knowledge of self and come to know God. That's what is meant here. The criticism is that Van Til has us start with knowledge of God before we start from knowledge of self. Whether or not he actually does this is unclear to me at this juncture, but that's the criticism of Gerstner and Sproul.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
The alleged problem would not begin at VanTil, but with Calvin.

Calvin, Inst. 1:
1. Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain....

2. On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself....

3..... But though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter.
The naturalist philosopher assumes the priority of himself, his own mind. He assumes there is no other, rational starting point wherewith to begin.

Calvin et al. (followed by VanTil), starting from entirely different a priori foundations (non-Cartesian, non-Aristotelian)--though recognizing that self-awareness is something of an necessity--believes that logically and ontologically God is prior to man. And being so, a formally proper self-understanding cannot even be started, if to begin with the knowledge of God is denied, or even relegated to second place.

This means that, to some extent (the existence of original sin being the explanation) natural man can never arrive at true self-awareness. This observation does not mean that men cannot possess aspects of truth or utilize them; but that they cannot create an accurate self-portrait, seeing as they deny a crucial aspect of their composition--namely the fact that they were constituted a revelation-receiver.

Sproul, Gerstner, et al. accept the starting principle of self-understanding. They adhere to a constructive (or building-block) methodology, by which one rises up to the knowledge of things beyond the self, even up to God. Cartesian philosophy begins with doubt (cotigo), and grounds self-existence on that which he purports indubitable. Since he cannot doubt that he doubts, and since his existence must lie behind (a priori) his doubts, ergo sum, "therefore I exist."

It is a conclusion that refers to the starting point. Of course, it is self-referential and viciously circular (all argument is ultimately circular), or else it has not yet revealed it's unproven axiom. For anything that is a conclusion is not the starting point in fact. Ultimate starting points are not "provable" in the discursive sense.

So where should one start? With self? Or with God? Calvin says we know God by that same act (not the same function) by which we know ourselves. Scripture reliably informs us of this. In the end, our axiom is the revealed God of Scripture. He is not properly "provable" by discursive reasoning, for he is not properly anyone's conclusion, but the Alpha and Omega of reason itself.

This does not mean that men cannot reason, or conclude truth concerning God or his existence. Only that first to deny him, so that he might the better be "proven" is nonsense, if one actually believe what the Bible says about him.


I'll add one thing to this. I believe VanTil would distinguish as well between God's own rational modalities, and human. For God himself, there is no departmentalization of his thought into epistemology, ontology, and ethics. Will, act, and good are indistinguishable to the divine, and all reveal him. We should say that God WILLS his BEING, so as to guard against the thought that God's being is logically antecedent to his will, which is a natural way to think of human existence (not that I can say with any accuracy that I exist, bodily, apart from my soul/thought/will, though the functions may be inactive in some conceivable circumstance).

Since God orders human reality as Creator, so far as we are concerned, and as conuterintuitive as it may seem to us to be on naturalistic presuppositions, ETHICS precedes both ontology and epistemology. God's prescriptive will for mankind antedates the existence of the first Man. He is fashioned, and given life and breath, with an ethical foundation already in place. This utterly undercuts all and every evolutionary principle of ethics. The Creator-creature relationship ordains an ethical relation before Adam's frame is even finished being made out of the dust of the ground.

This is simply the way things ARE, as the Bible defines the terms for us. It is not the case that we should begin with the tabula rasa, and from there infer everything as it is in fact. The inductive ("scientific") method, as useful or powerful as it is, can never set us on a course for the integration of truth or all known facts. We cannot understand accurately the relation of all facts to one another without knowing the Orderer of those relations, without there being some ultimate reference point.

Rationalism, naturalism, scientism, atheism, false religion--most or all of these make ethics the end-result, make ethics utilitarian, make ethics relative. Christianity makes the true ETHIC supreme, and antecedent to the first human action, will, or even being. Not only can one not logically derive an "ought" from what "is" (priority once again); the "ought" assigned to humanity for its obedience is above all else determinative of what is, or shall be, when organization is idealized or correctives have been issued. Ethics are "programmatic" for reality.
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