Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

Some Reformed apologists who describe themselves as followers of Gordon Clark, suggest a new formula for knowledge (I’m thinking of Jason Peterson, a self-identifying “Clarkian”). The traditional formula for knowledge is the following:

Knowledge = Justified, true, belief.

I’ve seen Peterson suggest (in numerous places although I can’t recall any specifics), that this formula ought to be re-worked so that, instead, we have:

Knowledge = true, belief.

In this post, I’m not concerned with Jason Peterson specifically, nor am I concerned with getting into what counts as true expressions of “Clarkian” philosophy. Instead, I’d like to look at the above formula, as posed, and note that if we accept it, we’ll be obligating ourselves to a weird anti-realist metaphysic that almost no Christian – certainly not Reformed orthodox – ought to hold.

We’ll take the following belief as a test case:

“There is a book on my coffee table.”

Many who claim to be Clarkians do not want to grant that the above sort of belief also counts as knowledge. Since if it is known, it is known empirically, and since most Clarkians believe knowledge cannot be obtained empirically, the belief must not be knowledge.

Nevertheless, the belief is either true or false. When asked, the Clarkian might respond that we don’t have enough data to determine the truth value of the belief. Namely: we wont be able to figure out if the belief is true or false unless God directly tells us. Lacking this authoritative data, we simply can’t determine the truth value.

Even granting that, however, it seems the belief still has a truth value. It is either true or it is false. Let’s explore what might happen in either case:

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is true, then, given the formula “Knowledge = true belief”, he’ll have to say I know there is a book on my table. But he doesn’t want to say that. It would undermine the strong position he’s taken against empirical methods of acquiring knowledge.

If the Clarkian suggests the belief is false, then he’s saying there actually is *no* book on my coffee table. This is to make a very large metaphysical claim. It’s to say that the world is very different than how it appears to us.

He might try to avoid this dilemma.

He might want to keep the idea that the world is, for the most part, how it seems to be. But, he’ll add, we simply can’t know that it is one way or the other. In this case, he might suggest there is a book on my coffee table, I just can’t know if it is there or not. But that, unfortunately, is a violation of the proposed knowledge formula: “Knowledge = true belief”. If the formula holds, then if it’s true there is a book on the coffee table, and I believe it’s there, then I know it’s there. All that’s required for a belief, proposition, etc., to count as “knowledge” is that it simply be true. Consequently, all cases of accidentally true beliefs (eg: I believe there are two million craters on the moon, and surprise, surprise, scientists discover there actually are two million…), would have to automatically count as knowledge.

Another way the Clarkian might try to rescue a sane metaphysical view is by claiming that while I might know there is a book on the table, I don’t know that I know it until God reveals the true nature of reality to us.

While we Van Tillians have made it very clear people have the psychological ability to know a proposition without knowing they know it (Dr. Bahnsen’s thesis on self-deceit), what’s being suggested by our hypothetical Clarkian isn’t a mere psychological feat. What’s being suggested is that a person can know a proposition and not know the same proposition at the same time and in the same way; and, that doesn’t seem to work.

Best, by far, in my opinion, that if the Clarkian is going to insist on being a Clarkian, he not accept the simplified “Knowledge = true, belief” formula unless he’s also willing to defend radical metaphysical views.


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.