The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God

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Analogical Language, Doctrine of God, and the World

800px-Lavaux_Alpes_et_Lac_lémanIn God’s world, everything is, after all, comparable to everything else. Granted, we tend to wince a bit when something we love or admire is compared to what we consider an unworthy object… Everything is related to everything else. There is nothing that ‘has nothing to do with’ anything else… To criticize a metaphor as such is to engage in criticism at the word-level, rather than the sentence-level, which is an illegitimate practice. (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, cited below, 231-232)

One of the most interesting discussions in theology is the use of language about God and the world. Much ink has been spilled in writing about this topic, because it is of critical importance. If human language is incapable of meaning anything in relation to God, then we can say literally nothing about God. There is also much discussion over the relation of different things in creation to other things. Are there bits of creation which are absolutely unique?

Creation

It does not seem to be the case that any part of the created world is sui generis in the sense that it is absolutely unique from anything else in creation. Consider anything you like which exists. It is easy to draw parallels. A flower and an automobile are both made of matter; a lake and a grove each contain water. The analogies may take a while to think up, but they are there.

God and Analogy

Conversely, we find great difficulty when we try to relate creation back to God. We think of analogies for the Trinity and discover they all fall into one variety of Trinitarian heresy or another. The problem is because although creation gives us evidence for a creator, creation is not the creator. Using analogies to try to compare the deepest mysteries of God to the natural world is theologically dangerous. However, using analogies to discuss God is not always impossible. Indeed, the Bible is filled with analogies regarding God: God is like a rock, a mother hen, a fortress, and the like. Thus, it is possible in principle to compare the created world with the creator. The problems come when we try to turn the relations of the Godhead into relations of the natural order. So it is necessary to remember that though we can speak analogically of God, we should be careful in choosing what we are speaking of. To speak analogically of the Trinity to things such as the states of water invites heretical understandings of the Trinity.

Another difficulty is when we read human relationships back onto the Trinity as well. One error which has unfortunately become quite common is to look at the terms “Father” and “Son” and assume that these names for the divine persons must mean that the relationship between these persons in the Godhead entails eternal subordination. Such thinking is extremely anthropomorphic. It reads human relationships back onto God. Again, creation is not the creator. Human relationships should not be our model for the doctrine of God. One should never govern the doctrine of God by human analogy, and to eternally subordinate one of the persons of the Trinity introduces hierarchy into the Godhead and invites multiple theological mistakes.

Doctrine of God, therefore, should always be the guide. Analogies should flow from God to creation rather than from creation to God. Thus, we should say “God is like x”; not “x is like God.” Semantically, these two sentences are fairly equivalent. My point is that prioritizing God in such language helps us to focus on the necessity of prioritizing God’s reality over our own. When we speak analogously of God, we must remember that we are not saying God is like creation in that an aspect of creation is Godlike or somehow an exact replica of an attribute of God. Instead, when we speak analogously of God, we must speak from God to us.

Talk About God

God is the being which is absolutely unique. There is no one like God (2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Chronicles 17:20; Jeremiah 10:7). But does this mean that we are incapable of talking about God? Indeed, some theologians have favored the notion that we can only speak analogically of God. For example, when we say God is loving, what is meant by that phrase is not that God is loving in the sense that we are loving, but rather that God is something like loving is for us. However, this notion seems to me to be just as mistaken as attempting to describe Trinitarian mysteries in naturalistic forms. For if God cannot be known other than analogically, then we have no true knowledge of God. The claims of those who argue we can only speak analogically of God leads to a state of affairs in which we know nothing of God. After all, when I make the claim that “God loves us” my claim, on this view, is reducible to: “God loves us, but this love is qualified in some unknown [and unknowable!] sense.” For if we were able to know what it means to say “God loves us” that is itself univocal and not analogical. Thus, those who claim that we can only speak analogically of God eliminate the possibility of knowing anything at all about God.

Think on this for a moment with me. Suppose the claim is correct. We can only know God analogically. Thus, God is “like” something loving, but not actually something loving in the sense we mean when we say loving. If we say that God is Just, we cannot mean it in any sense which we know to be true univocally. The difficulty rating only increases when we consider those properties exclusive to God. We claim that God is omnipotent–all powerful. But on the view that we can only speak analogically or metaphorically of God, God is all-powerful, but only “like” having power in the sense that we conceive of when we think of power. God doesn’t actually have the capacity to do anything which is logically possible, for that is merely conceiving of power within the realms of human language; no, God, on this view, has omnipotence*, which is omnipotence + something that we cannot know. Thus, such an assertion undermines all knowledge of God.

Therefore, we must admit that talk about God has some sense of univocity to it. When the Bible teaches that God is just, that concept of justice is univocal in some sense with our own. We can understand some truths about God.

Once we have established this point, it is again extremely important to realize that the flow of such truths is from God to us and not vice-versa. God’s justice is the perfect form of what we understand to be just. God’s love is perfect love, which our human love can only imitate. Yet in that imitation, we have some understanding of what it is like to be loving. Thus, we can know God without knowing everything about God.

To Sum Up

Religious language is one of the areas of philosophical theology which is often just assumed. I think it is to our own discredit that we avoid such discussions. I have shown how misunderstandings of religious language can lead to theological errors which can be fairly easily avoided. The way we can avoid such errors, I have charged, is to remember that language about God should always flow from God to us. God is perfect, and our language about God should never be used to limit that perfection. Thus, we cannot limit God to human relationships or human understandings of deity. On the other hand, we should not be so pessimistic of our possibility of knowing God that we undermine any possibility of speaking truthfully of our Lord.

Links

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Source

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Unbeliever Knows God: Presuppositional Apologetics and Atheism

100_1270-2-2[A]ll men already know God–long before the apologist engages them in conversation–and  cannot avoid having such knowledge… People lack neither information nor evidence… [A]ll men know that God exists… In a crucial sense, all men already are “believers”–even “unbelievers” who will not respond properly by openly professing and living obediently in accordance with the knowledge they have of God. (Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 179-180, emphasis his, cited below).

One crucial point of presuppositional apologetics is that even the unbelieving atheist really does know God. All people have knowledge of God. None can turn from it, none can escape it: everyone knows God. This knowledge is not saving knowledge. Instead, it is knowledge which is suppressed. The knowledge is ignored or even reviled. The quote above from the famed presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen is just one example. C.L. Bolt, a popularizer of presuppositional apologetics, says similarly:

 It is in the things that have been created that God is clearly perceived. This perception is, again, so clear, that people have no excuse. Not only do all of us believe in God, but we know God. (C.L. Bolt, cited below)

What are we to make of this claim? What is the point from the presuppositionalist perspective? The claim is firmly rooted in Paul’s discussion of God’s wrath against evil in Romans 1-2 (see the text at the end of this post). Therefore, it behooves all Christians to reflect upon the notion that God is known to all people. Presuppositional Apologists have done much reflecting on these subjects, and here we shall reflect upon their insights.

galaxy-5-2What is meant by ‘knowledge of God’?

It is important to outline what exactly it is that this knowledge is supposed to be. Greg Bahnsen notes in Van Til’s Apologetic that the claim is, in part, that “[all people/unbelievers] ‘have evidence’ that justifies the belief that [God] exists” (182).

Note that there is an important distinction within presuppositional thought about what this knowledge of God means. John Frame makes it clear that there is a sense in which the unbeliever knows God and yet another sense in which the unbeliever does not know God (Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God 49, cited below). According to Frame, the unbeliever knows “enough truths about God to be without excuse and may know many more…”; but “unbelievers lack the obedience and friendship with God that is essential to ‘knowledge’ in the fullest biblical sense–the knowledge of the believer” (ibid, 58). Furthermore, the unbeliever, according to Frame, is in a state wherein he fights the truth: the unbeliever denies, ignores, or psychologically represses the truth, among other ways of acknowledging God as the truth (ibid).

Frame also makes clear the reasons why all people know God in at least the limited sense: “God’s covenental presence is with all His works, and therefore it is inescapable… all things are under God’s control, and all knowledge… is a recognition of divine norms for truth. Therefore, in knowing anything, we know God” (18). Frame elaborates: “[B]ecause God is the supremely present one, He is inescapable. God is not shut out by the world… all reality reveals God” (20).

Therefore, this knowledge should be understood as the blatant, obvious awareness of God found in the created order. It is not saving faith or saving knowledge; instead, it is knowledge which holds people culpable for its rejection. All are accountable before God.

df-van-tilThe Implications of the Knowledge of God

The Practical Implications of the Knowledge of God

Of primary importance is the notion that there is no true atheism. Instead, atheism can only be a kind of pragmatic or living atheism: a life lived as though there were no God. All people know that God exists. The eminent Calvinist theologian, William Greenough Thayer Shedd writes, “The only form of atheism in the Bible is practical atheism” (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology Kindle location 5766). This means that people can live as though there were no God, but none can genuinely lack knowledge of God. Atheism is a practical reality, but not a genuine reality. The very basis for a denial of God is grounded on truths which can only be true if God exists. Here is where the distinctiveness of the presuppositional approach to apologetics

Van Til notes, “It is… imperative that the Christian apologist be alert to the fact that the average person to whom he must present the Christian religion for acceptance is a quite different sort of being than he himself thinks he is” (The Defense of the Faith, 92). His meaning is directly applicable to the discussion above. Christian apologists must take into account the fact that the Bible clearly states that those who do not believe in God themselves know God already.

Furthermore, this knowledge of God is of utmost importance. Bahnsen writes, “Our knowledge of God is not just like the rest of our knowledge… The knowledge that all men have of God… provides the framework or foundation for any other knowledge they are able to attain. The knowledge of God is the necessary context for learning anything else” (181). As was hinted at above, without God, there is no knowledge. Even the unbeliever relies upon God for any true beliefs he has. Van Til notes, “our meaning… depends upon God” (63).

Apologetics in Practice

For presuppositionalists, this means that apologetics is reasoning with people who already know and use their knowledge of God to ground whatever knowledge they do have and bringing them to an awareness of their double-standards. They reject God in practice, but accept God in their epistemology. Thus, presuppositional apologists use the transcendental argument: an argument which seeks to show that without God, the things which we take for granted (knowledge, logic, creation, etc.) would not exist.

Can evidentialists use the insights of presuppositionalists here as well? It seems they must; for the Bible does clearly state that everyone knows God. However, the way evidentialists may incorporate this insight is by using an evidential approach to bring the unbeliever into an awareness of the knowledge they are rejecting in practice. Thus, a cosmological argument might be offered in order to bring the unbeliever into an awareness that their assumptions about the universe can only be grounded in a creator.

Conclusion

We have seen that presuppositional apologetists makes use of the knowledge of God attested in all people by Romans 1 in order to draw out a broadly presuppositional approach to apologetics. I have also given some insight into how evidentialists might use this approach in their own apologetic. We have seen that the core of this argument is that all people know God. Therefore, there are no true atheists; only practical atheists. All true knowledge must be grounded on the fact of God. There are none with an excuse to offer before God at judgment. God’s existence is clear. The unebeliever knows God.

I end with the Biblical statement on the state of the knowledge of the unbeliever, as written by Paul in Romans 1:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

Unbeliever’s suppression of the truth-A brief overview of the notion that unbelievers are suppressing the truth from a presuppositional perspective.

The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til– I analyze the apologetic approach of Cornelius Van Til, largely recognized as the founder of the presuppositional school of apologetics.

Choosing Hats– A fantastic resource for learning about presuppostional apologetics.

Sources

C.L. Bolt, “An Informal Introduction to Covenant Apologetics: Part 10 – Unbeliever’s knowledge of God.

Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998).

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987).

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (4th edition, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

Shedd Dogmatic Theology (3rd edition, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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