Van Til’s Enigmatic Doctrine of Analogy

Posted: September 30, 2014 in General Presup Issues
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Understanding Dr. Van Til’s doctrine of analogy is vital to mastering his apologetic method.  Consider Dr. Oliphint:

Van Til’s notion of “analogy” or “analogical,” as it applies to knowledge and to predication, is central to his theology and apologetic.  Though the term itself is confusing in that it carries with it a host of assumptions in Thomism, it should not be confused or in any way identified with Thomas’s understanding of analogy.  Though for Thomas there was an analogy of being, for Van Til, the notion of analogy was meant to communicate the ontolological and epistemological difference between God and man.  This difference has been expressed historically in terms of an archetypal / ectypal relationship.1

This distinction is especially difficult for critics of Van Til to grasp, most notably, atheists and disciples of Gordon Clark.2 

But before offering an illustration that I’ve found helpful in explaining it, it must be noted that, like so much of Van Til’s jargon, the word “analogy” or its equivalent “analogous”, have proven less-than-helpful, as even Dr. Olphint (in the citation above) admits.  But also consider Dr. Bahnsen:

From a pedagogical perspective, I would not have preferred to use this kind of summary tag-word for what Van Til was trying to teach.  Although it is certainly possible to understand what he meant by the expression, this way of speaking probably occasioned more avoidable misunderstanding and misrepresentation from a small circle of critics than anything else he wrote.  The historical context was a controversy over the incomprehensibility of God that took place in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church during the 1940’s, with Gordon H. Clark and Van Til being the primary spokesmen for the two antagonistic parties.  Personalities and politics added fuel to the antagonism, which only tended to muddy the theological debate that was already muddled by unclear polemics on both sides.  ~ “Van Til’s Apologetic” pg. 225, footnote 147.

So, yes – the jargon is confusing, but no, that shouldn’t stop an intellectually honest researcher from parsing out what Van Til meant.

What did he mean?

Well, consider another citation from Dr. Bahnsen.  He notes that Van Til uses the phrase “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” to mean the same thing as “thinking analogically”.  As an example:

The two relevant expressions here were used interchangeably by Van Til.  For instance: “We must think His thoughts after Him.  We must think analogically, rather than univocally.” (Common Grace,28). ~ Van Til’s Apologetic, pg. 225, footnote 146.

So if we understand what “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” means, then we will also (according to Dr. Bahnsen), understand what is meant by “reasoning analogously.”  And while I’ve offered posts which I hope are helpful in understanding “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”, in this post I’d like to offer an illustration to help my readers visualize it.3


Imagine there’s a 2 hour long movie but you only catch 10 minutes of it.  Being the nerd that you are, you go home trying to piece together what the entire movie might be like.  In the end, there are some blanks in your idea of what the movie is like, and a lot of intelligent speculation.

You hem and haw so much about it, a friend (who has seen the entire thing) decides to set your mind at ease by giving you a summary.  Now, at last, most of your questions are answered even though you only know a summary of the movie, not the actual thing.

Our situation with God is similar.  To know God is to know an infinite set of true propositions and, as finite creatures, we’ll never know all of Him.  Thus, we’re left having to speculate about a mere summary of who He is.  True, this summary has been given to us by God Himself and is designed to inform us about the important doctrines, but we’re always going to run into fuzzy areas in our theology that simply can’t be rationalized.  Our systematic theology will always encounter paradox because we’re finite creatures trying to systematize the revelation of an infinite God.

This leads to the next illustration:

Consider a master artist who paints a picture of a beautiful mountain.  He gives the picture to a man who has been in a jail cell all his life with no windows or magazines or any knowledge of the outside world.  The only information he has about the mountain is from what the artist has provided him (we’re assuming here the artist is highly skilled and completely honest).

It would be wrong of us to say this unfortunate prisoner has no knowledge of the mountain, but at the same time, we cannot say his knowledge of the painting is “numerically identical” to the painter’s knowledge of the actual mountain.  He, at best, only knows a representation of the actual mountain.  Van Til would say, he knows the mountain “analogously”.

I hope these two illustrations (the movie and the mountain) help my readers better understand Van Til’s doctrine of analogy, even if the illustrations don’t succeed in being fully explanatory.

1. This citation is from the fourth edition of “Defense of the Faith”, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, pg 62, footnote 25. Additionally, Oliphint mentions Willem J. van Asselt’s article “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” from Westminster Theological Journal 64, no.2. Asselt’s essay is helpful in tracing the pedigree of this important distinction in Reformed theology and shows that Van Til was not being creative or novel in his theology. I’m working on obtaining a copy to read, cite, and summarize for my readers. Look forward to that in future posts.

2. While plenty of examples are available in the critical literature, a humorous anecdotal account should suffice: In a Facebook group dedicated to bridging the ideological gap between followers of Clark and Van Til, I noted, somewhat jokingly, that if the two men went out to lunch, Clark would have to go through an exhaustive exegetical study of all Scriptural passages relevant to mathematics and finances before being able to pay, leaving the check to Van Til. In response, one of the Clarkians suggested Clark would have to pay because Van Til would only ever know an “analogy” of the check; never the real thing. While the exchange was friendly, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Van Til’s doctrine of analogy that is seemingly ubiquitous among Clarkians.

3. See my article: “Conceptual Scheme or Worldview”, which touches on what it means for us to conceptualize what God has already conceptualized. Also, see my article “Oh Facts ye Silly Brutes” which also clarifies the relationship between our thinking and God’s.

  1. SLIMJIM says:

    Good posts; many years ago on our blog we had a very long spirited debate with some Clarkians about Van Til’s analogy; I think this topic is one some of the newer internet Van Tillians might not know or understand; but I think it is important to teach it early on that analogy refers to “thinking God’s Own Thought After Him” before young Van Tillians re-interpret the term according to Clarkian schemes.


  2. Tim Shaughnessy says:

    I couldn’t help but notice that in both of your illustrations, which were analogical, you allowed for univocal elements. How then, have you not abandoned Van Til’s notion of analogy in your defense of it?


    • Self-professed “Clarkians” are particularly good at using and re-using jargon that is decades old (in some cases, centuries old), without ever bringing new or more thorough conceptual analysis to bear on it.

      I’m curious if you fall into this same trap. Do you use the word “univocal” (for example), because you have some unique conceptual analysis of the term and you know exactly what you mean by it, or do you use it because it’s a word you’ve heard the cool kids use?


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