How can we know God? For that matter, how do we know anything?
Our need to know, as apologist Cornelius Van Til1 correctly saw it, resides not merely in our limitations as God’s creatures, but in the sad truth that our minds are predisposed at birth to be the masters of our own fate and the captains of our own souls. As someone teasingly declared, “There are things that we think about before we think.”
What we think about before we think, the undetected axiom of life, is our plenary ability to reason objectively and neutrally. It is this man-centered and lawless presupposition that hinders our attaining the knowledge of God, ourselves, and God’s creation.
In Romans 7, Paul incriminates mankind when he says “that the carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Our eyes are prejudiced; we see everything through colored-glasses. All of created reality is viewed through the spectacles of our fallen nature, which is both blind and hostile to God’s truth. Our ability to know is fatally injured. Because of our sinful nature, we recoil against God’s clear revelation and authority. Only God’s gift of regeneration, which alone makes us see, can overcome our would-be autonomy (1 Cor. 2:14-15).
Because of sin our minds at birth are not blank. During the Watergate hearings of the 1970s it was common for the chairman of the investigating committee to ask, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” The same must be asked of all: “What do unbelievers know and when do they know it?”
Romans 1 answers that the unbeliever knows plenty about God! Paul teaches that mankind knows the invisible things of God, such as His Creatorship, omnipotence, eternity, and Godhead. The word “Godhead” means that the unbeliever knows not just a god, but the God, the true God. In short, he knows that God is God. So clearly does he know that he is “without excuse.”
This means that he simultaneously knows and does not know. What is the explanation of this seeming paradox? The answer is that the knowledge of God is so repugnant to him that he suppresses it. Although he knows God, he does not glorify Him as God, nor is he thankful. No sooner does man know the true God than he adulterates this knowledge by worshipping a god of his own making.
John Calvin said that the human heart is a factory of idolatry. When someone says, “My idea of God is…,” we know that we have a factory-made deity. When he declares, “My idea of God is…,” he also says that, “My idea of knowing is…,” since knowing is dependent upon his ultimate religious commitment. The god of the unbeliever is a projection of his own cerebrum, and his quest for knowledge is destroyed.
The Looking-glass of Scripture
How then can we acquire an unperverted knowledge of God, ourselves, and creation?
Cornelius Van Til’s work is immensely helpful in understanding the true connection between knowledge and Scripture. His doctrine of knowledge and of the Bible was informed by the opening chapters of John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin begins his Institutes with the topic of our knowledge of ourselves and God. He tells us these two are connected by many ties, so that it is not easy to know which one proceeds from the other.
For example, when we look at another man, what do we see? We see a man who has been created in the image of God. But why do we see God’s image in him? The answer is that we, too, are in God’s image. Calvin’s metaphor for this was a mirror. The human race is a “bright mirror” of the Creator’s works,” wrote Calvin. This means that the knowledge of God is conspicuous in our world. What is more, we never attain a true knowledge of ourselves until we first peer into the face of God. Van Til informs us that all the light we possess is there only because of the One Who is the Light, even as a “candlestick is in relation to the sun.” For “in thy light we see light” (Ps. 36:9).
Our enduring quandary pertains to how knowledge is possible. Usually, people will answer their own question and assert that they must be critical instead of dogmatic. They assert that the Scriptures must be “proved” instead of humbly received. Unregenerate man cavalierly claims that he wants to test all assumptions, including his own. Yet to him it is the believer who wears the colored-glasses of obscurantism and prejudice.
The unbeliever begins his thinking without acknowledging “what he thinks about before he thinks.” For him, theology about things is governed by the sovereignty of his own autonomous thought. He seeks knowledge apart from the revelation of God’s inscripturated truth. When he comes to the Bible, he places (to borrow from C. S. Lewis) the God of the Bible in the dock, not realizing that God’s Word is not dependent upon the suffrage of the church or the endorsement of men. The only authority is God Himself, as God swears not by the lesser, but by Himself (Heb. 6:13).
History and Scripture
Van Til also argued that if history is not controlled by an absolutely sovereign God, then the very idea of an infallible Bible is hopeless. This means that every hope of infallible knowledge would also be destroyed.
The reason is that the Bible is a self-attesting book. It testifies that whatever transpires in history is orchestrated by God’s sovereign decree. God’s sovereignty guarantees that every word in the original autographas (original writings) is infallible and inerrant. It should not then vex us that there were mistakes in the apographa (or copies of the originals) since each mistake of transmission was also decreed by God. The conclusion is that the Sovereign God of Scripture and history has preserved His word in thousands of extant manuscripts, even though the autographa itself is lost.
The Attributes of Scripture
Van Til argued that the Scripture is the precondition for our knowing both God and ourselves. Because the Scriptures are the self-attesting revelation of God, they are sufficient in and of themselves.
As Van Til noted, first, there is the perspicuity of Scripture. This describes the “see-throughness” of Scripture, which means that the Scriptures are clear. Perspicuity opposes the medieval position that the Scriptures are so nebulous as to need the church as their infallible interpreter. To the contrary, the church father Gregory wrote, “The Scriptures have, in public, nourishment for children, as they serve in secret to strike the loftiest minds with wonder; indeed, they are like a full and deep river in which the lamb may walk and the elephant may swim.”2
Second, Scripture is sufficient. The Scriptures contain every word that the church needs for salvation and maturity. The sufficiency of Scripture is compromised when we genuflect before other authorities that bind our conscience, such as tradition, reason, psychology, etc.
Sufficiency also means that the Scripture is self-attesting, because the written word of God is God! For example, in Exodus 9 God speaks to the Pharaoh. But in Paul’s recounting of that statement, the Apostle states that it was “the Scripture” that spoke to the Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17). This counters the Evidentialist approach to the Bible which says, “The Bible is not proven to be the Word of God because it says so, and the Spirit is not known to be the Spirit of God because he is said to say so.”3
Third, Scripture is authoritative. The Roman Catholic view is that the church authenticates Scripture by its “infallible” papal teaching.
In his book, Nearer, My God, William F. Buckley Jr. writes that the Achilles Heel of Protestantism is that “there is no magisterium to pronounce conclusions by which the faithful are bound.” He argues that whereas Protestants are governed by private judgment, Catholics are governed by authority. Buckley does not understand that the Bible is self-attesting. God’s self-attestation excludes both human autonomy and churchly infallibility. After all, which came first: the church or God’s Word? If the church did not originate apart from God’s Word, how can the church be said to authenticate the Bible, which is the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20)?
Fourth, there is the necessity of Scripture. The vagueness of the human memory, the depravity of human nature, the shortness of life, and the frauds of the Devil necessitate the need for an inscripturated word. Positively, the Scripture was necessary to preserve God’s Word, to vindicate God’s Word, and to propagate God’s Word throughout the world.
There is a fifth attribute of Scripture leading to knowledge, although Van Til did not emphasize it, and that is unity. For example, we hear the shibboleth today that the Old Testament is a Jewish book, while the New Testament is a Christian book. We also hear that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love. These sorry clichés are at war with the unity of Scripture and its God. The Bible is a single book, not 66 unrelated books, and the God of the Bible is unchanging, not a god who evolved between the two testaments. What is more, the whole Bible points to Christ. The message of the Bible is one, not many.
We can think before we think. The Bible’s perspicuity saves us from clericalism. The Bible’s sufficiency delivers us from enslavement to human traditions. Its authority saves us from autonomy, and its necessity delivers us from any suspicion that God’s word is lost or fraudulent. Its unity presents us with a single, unified message of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.
All of these Scripture-attributes make knowledge both possible and certain.
1. Dr. Cornelius Van Til was one of the great Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. He is known for his groundbreaking work in the area of presuppositional apologetics. For 43 years, he was a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary. He died April 17, 1987 at the age of 91.
2. Francis Turretin, Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing Co., 1992), 145
3. R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 139.
- Jim West
Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!