Infallibilism, Knowledge, Attenuated Presup and Unwitting Clarkianism

So, I was involved in a bit of a dustup with some folks yesterday. Essentially, the bone of contention was concerning knowledge. The position of our antagonists, essentially, was that knowledge, to be knowledge, must be “infallible.” There are a variety of issues with this stance, but chiefly, my concern is from theology proper, as we will explore; although we will address a few other issues along the way as well.

My response is first to the notion of infallibility being applied to “knowledge” in the first place. Fallibility, obviously, means an ability to fail. Well, to fail, one has to be doing, or trying to do, does one not? In other words, to be an active being with purpose. Christ is, for example, morally infallible. He cannot fail to do what is right. God’s sovereign decree over all creation, likewise, is infallible. God cannot fail to achieve that which He purposes to do. The common threads thus far are being, activity and purpose, correct? Let us, however, think about fallen humanity. Can a child of wrath ever be infallible in any respect? Obviously not. Depravity extends to every aspect of the human condition – and further, to every aspect of creation as a whole, as it groans together with us. However, it is plain that this is not our original condition. We cannot say that we *shouldn’t* be infallibly moral – because that is God’s standard for His creation. We also cannot say, further, that we don’t know that expectation. This brings us to the next issue.

In this same exchange, we were told that
1) The possibility of error denies knowledge
2) The question was asked: “If you have fallible justification, how can you know that what you claim to know is true?”
3) The statement was made: “If your reasons are fallible, you can’t know that they accurately reflect reality.”
4) There was a further statement made: “We can’t know anything without revelation from God.” While true, doesn’t distinguish the types of revelation, thus could easily be misunderstood. The followup statement, however, doesn’t seem to follow.
5) “[I]f all knowledge comes by revelation of God, then there can be no such thing as fallible knowledge.”
6) We were told “if one doesn’t have certainty about a thing, he cannot know it.”

Quite a few claims were made! Unfortunately, the person who turned it into a dustup provided very few answers whatsoever, and stuck to asking questions, mostly attempted traps. In some ways, he is and was mostly irrelevant to the discussion apart from being the impetus. The person in question is hardly known for providing answers, it must be said. He is typically content to stick to tu quoque return objections in lieu of answers, unfortunately. We will deal with that subject further at a later time, however. The individual who provided the quotes above was far more willing to make clear positive statements, so we are using his for our discussion.

Let’s take an example for the first statement. Can you be wrong about, for instance, whether someone is a Christian? Most of us have had experiences where someone near and dear to us has inexplicably turned against the faith, and left the fellowship abruptly. We are given general guidelines for “fruit inspection,” of course – but none of us know, for a certainty, that a man is genuinely saved. I can think of several examples right now, in fact. But let’s take it a bit further. Let’s take one person who has since died, and I have confidence is right now with the Lord, and one of the examples I’m thinking of. I had justification in either case to think that either man was saved. Both of these men evidenced genuine, at least to me, Christian affections and habits. One left the faith, and went off into self-destructive hedonism, and one died quietly after a lifetime of service. If you had asked me about both men at one time, I would have said I was certain they were both Christians. Here is the issue, however. What is the standard for certainty for my knowledge here? Per Scripture, we are told that we will know them by their fruits. Up to that point, I would put them just about even, insofar as I knew. I had justification in both cases, and I believed it was true in both cases. Only in one case was that belief actually true, however. What is our standard in this instance? Per Scripture, it is faithfulness *over time*. At that time, both showed a roughly equal amount of faithfulness, visibly. I was justified in believing that either man was saved, was I not? However, I would be wrong about the one, and right about the other. I failed to recognize any signs, if there were any, from the one man that he would slide into apostasy. Insofar as I knew, they were both faithful. I was wrong in one case – but was that a case of a fault in either my own knowledge, or in God’s revelation concerning apostates? No. It is simply one issue where we are not given exhaustive knowledge concerning. We are given *sufficient* knowledge – but the difference in the case, you see, was *time*. Given enough time, all apostates will show themselves, and show they are not of us. I can say that I actually knew – but my knowing is fallible.

Another example. Take Satan. You’ll see why in a minute. Does Satan know God? I’d think so, given his status as the chief of angels before his fall, and his status as “head of the opposition” after. But, instead of making my own argument here – I’ll let Van Til make it.

“It is true, of course, that when Cain left the face of the Lord, he in a sense knew God just as well as he knew him just before. It is true also that there is a sense in which Satan knows God now as well as he knew God before he fell. in a sense, Satan knows God better now than before. Did not God prove the truth of his statements to Satan thousands of times? But herein lies the contradiction of Satan’s personality: that though he knows God, he yet does not really know God. His very intellect is constantly devising schemes by which he thinks he may overthrow God, while he knows all too well that God cannot be overthrown. What else can this be but a manifestation of the wrath of God?

In like manner, too, man’s thought since the entrance of sin has been characterized by self-frustration. It is quite true that the sinner was able to accumulate a great deal of knowledge, after a fashion. Thought his body, as a tool with which he had to obtain much of his knowledge, was weakened, and though his logical powers themselves were weakened, as he sees with his own eyes constantly when he makes false conclusions about the matters of fact in the physical world, yet, in spite of all this, man has been able to know a great deal. The laws of logic as God had created them in the universe were not broken by sin, but man’s ability to use them rightly was weakened, and it is still true that in his logical interpretation man has, in the form of the matter, come very close to the truth.”[1]

Now, can it be said that Satan knows God? Sure it can! Can it also be said that Satan doesn’t know God? Yes, it can. Why? Because Satan is *inconsistent*. Yes, in principle, there is an absolute ethical and epistemological antithesis between the unbeliever and God. YET, despite themselves, and due to Common Grace, they still know things. They know truths about all sorts of things. Do they know them all, or even all of the ones they know, rightly? No, they do not. However, any denial that an unbeliever can know 2+2 is an absurdity. We will revisit this more, I’m sure, but let’s move on.

Regarding the second statement, let’s look at an example. Say that you are sure the sun will rise tomorrow. We all know that this is not a universal, do we not? As Christians, we know that one day Christ will come again, and the heavens and earth will pass away. We further know that we will not know the day nor the hour that this will occur, correct? As these are both true, we must consider them. Thus, while we can be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, in a general sense, since God has ordered this world – we also know that since it is God who has ordered this world, He has also ordered it’s dissolution. So, is my knowing fallible? sure is. Is my knowledge certain? For the most part – with that reservation in mind. But let’s look one step further. Am I certain that I will be around for that sunrise? No, I don’t think so. I can say “God willing, I will see tomorrow.” In general, however, I do plan for tomorrow with that expectation. In a certain sense, we can say “I know what I’m doing tomorrow.” In another sense, we have to recognize that man plans his way, but God directs his steps.

So, how can a man know if he isn’t certain? Well, first, are you Van Tillian, or not? Van Til explicitly affirms that unbelievers both can and do know things – *in spite of* their principles, but nonetheless. Is is true, or not, that men know God exists? Sure, it’s true. Well, they also know that they exist, because the same revelation informs them that they are created in the image of God. Further, there is the witness of *general* revelation all around them. There is a common mistake made by folks new to presup in disregarding Van Til’s exceptionally strong doctrine of general revelation. Further, they also have a tendency to forget his doctrine of common grace. Men know because God is still gracious. They don’t know in principle, but they DO know in practice – because God has graciously tempered their depravity so that they are not as depraved as they *could* be. Thus, they still know things, despite their inability to account for them the way they *say* they know things. What does that do, however, to this idea that you must infallibly known what is to be known? They truly know that which they do know – but why? Not because of why they say they do – but because of what they borrow “on the sly.” Their stated justification is wrong – but their borrowed justification, in practice, is right. When they know it, it is also true what they are saying – as far as it goes. However, it is not *because* of their stated justification. It is because of their *unstated* justification. By fallible and failed means, they yet have knowledge of the world around them – and often more than Christians do!

Note what Van Til says:

“Human reason is not a simple linear extension of divine reasoning. The human activity or interpretation always runs alongside of and is subordinate to the main plan or purpose of God. If this is kept in mind it will be seen that if, as Reformed theology has contended, both the doctrines of of the absolute ethical antithesis of the natural man to God and of his relatively true knowledge and relatively good deeds must be maintained, we are not led into any inconsistency or self-contradiction.”[2]

Again;

“No Christian can escape facing the fact that many non-Christian scientists have discovered much truth about nature. If he does not explain this fact with Calvin by virtually saying that this is true in spite of their immanentistic view of life and because of the fact that they cannot help but work with the borrowed capital of Christianity, then he must grant that the naturalist is partially right.”[3]

Just because it is easier, or simpler, does not make it the right answer. I would argue that the system creating these sorts of answers (really, questions, because only rarely do they make a positive case as both Bahnsen and Van Til submit we must – they take only one step of the two-step method) is actually overly simplistic. It is not accounting for several cardinal doctrines that Van Til teaches, while purporting to be a Van Tillian presuppositionalism. However, I think this view does attempt to escape the inescapable. What is unfortunate is that the position elucidated is quite similar to that of Clark, as we shall see shortly.

As to the third statement; let’s be clear, here. The term “fallible” doesn’t apply to human knowledge, or “reasons”. Why is this? Because human knowledge is not active personal being. It applies to human *thinking*, or *knowing* but not to the knowledge itself. The statement is actually unintelligible. Yet let’s go further. If it is the case that only infallible justifications can provide knowledge, where is the distinction made between principle and practice, or special and general revelation? As already noted, it is a common mistake to conflate the latter – but it is a common enough mistake for some to conflate special and general, as well – or at least to fail to make proper distinction. General revelation is properly interpreted fully by special revelation – but by God’s common grace, unbelievers are still allowed to know things “as far as it goes.” Note something else, however, about this common grace. It is for at least two purposes, at least for the extent of our discussion. First, for the sake of the elect. The work of unbelievers is to our benefit – and some of our work AS unbelievers is for other believers as well as ourselves. God meant it for good, despite us meaning it for evil. Second, it stores up wrath for unbelievers. Flouting the grace of God brings about more wrath upon the unbeliever. Yet, if we are to deny knowledge to them, how are we to explain their knowledge of God from *creation* around them? If every fact testifies to God, then it must be the case that they can and do know that this is so. We cannot ignore direct teaching because it is more convenient for our argumentation. As Van Til constantly says, the matter of the unbeliever’s knowledge is complicated.[4] Attempts to simplify it down are doomed to failure.

Let’s depart from a point by point response at this juncture. The issue at hand is knowledge. What does Scripture and our confession have to say about it? Well, the LBCF says this about God’s knowledge: “his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain.” I don’t think anyone here disputes that. However, it is quite evident that it also says “whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.” We cannot know God exhaustively – but we can know Him truly. God is Simple – without parts – and a spirit. He is incomprehensible. I hasten to point out Simplicity, of course, because that is essential to our argument. If God’s knowledge is identical to Him, then it can be truly said that He is infallible. It cannot, however, be said about man. There is also a difference to be seen when it comes to regenerate and unregenerate man. That difference, however, does not entail that we alone know anything out of the created order – or that special revelation is the only means by which we can know. The confession also says that “all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence.” That is, all things occur in accordance with His will, without failure. All activity in creation is by His decree, and that decree does not fail. While this is true about God, what does it say about man? Well, not an awful lot, but some. 1.1 says that “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.” So, we have a direct statement concerning knowledge *to salvation* – but that isn’t the subject of our discussion. Later, it speaks of an infallible assurance of faith, but that, again, is not our particular concern. If I might be so bold, let me once again cite Van Til.

“The only distinction that will really help us is the one Calvin developed, namely, that from an ultimate point of view the natural man knows nothing truly, but that from a relative point of view he knows something about all things. He knows all things after a fashion, and his fashion is best when it deals with earthly things such a electricity, etc.”[5]

This brings some clarity, I think – but it may need to be explained what he means by “relative” here. Remember the quote earlier: “Human reason is not a simple linear extension of divine reasoning. The human activity or interpretation always runs alongside of and is subordinate to the main plan or purpose of God. If this is kept in mind it will be seen that if, as Reformed theology has contended, both the doctrines of of the absolute ethical antithesis of the natural man to God and of his relatively true knowledge and relatively good deeds must be maintained, we are not led into any inconsistency or self-contradiction.” This next one might explain more.

“We are well aware of the fact that non-Christians have a great deal of knowledge about this world that is true as far as it goes. That is, there is a sense that we can and must allow for the value of knowledge of non-Christians.”[6]

Remember, Van Til says quite often that the entrance of sin into the world has made the situation with respect to epistemology “complicated.” It has gummed up the works, insofar as neat little categories go. You can’t simplify things past a certain point. The unbeliever, as with Cain, and Satan in the example above, both know and do not know God. They both know, and do not know the world around them, for the same reason. Where Van Til differs from other putatively presuppositional apologists is in his extensive doctrinal excurses into the areas of man’s universal knowledge of God, common grace, the relation between special and general revelation, as well as, of course, his epistemological ideas and transcendental argumentation. However, as he repeatedly stresses, we cannot simply pick a few of these points and run them until they stop. We are comparing *entire* worldviews. We are also comparing principle to practice. We are also using the image of God as a point of contact – and expecting things out of an unbeliever when discussing the world around them that we could not expect if it were *impossible* for them to have knowledge in the sense discussed. It must be emphasized that It is at the very point of their practice NOT being consistent with their principles that we call them upon their inconsistency in “borrowing” from our worldview. Are we then to tell them that the facts they cannot know at all are actually the ones which convict them? How will they know they are convicted if they cannot know anything in any sense? I’m sure our antagonists would admit that these folks know that God exists. Is that all they know? Not according to the very discussion Van Til cites from Calvin, nor from the discussion of Van Til concerning that passage! It will not do to reduce knowledge, similar to that of Clarkianism, to infallibility, or certainty concerning that which revelation speaks of, or can be deduced from that revelation. As Van Til says, “both the doctrines of of the absolute ethical antithesis of the natural man to God and of his relatively true knowledge and relatively good deeds must be maintained.” Read this from Van Til: “Man as man is inherently and inescapably a believer in God. Thus he can contribute to true knowledge of the universe. Add this to the fact of common grace and he can in a measure cooperate with the believer in building the edifice of science.” [7] You must know how to explain this in a balanced fashion. It will not do to “escape facing the fact.” It must be faced, and faced as if it is inescapable. Reductionism cannot give an answer. Tu Quoque objections in response to objections from unbelievers do not suffice as an answer, either. As Bahnsen tells us, there is two-step method for giving an answer.

“1) an internal critique of the unbeliever’s system, demonstrating that his outlook is a foolish destruction of knowledge, and 2) a humble yet bold presentation of the reason for the hope in us, communicated in terms of the believer’s presuppositional commitment to God’s true word.”

Unfortunately, all too many newer presuppers concentrate on step 1 to the exclusion of all else. Step 2 is where the “beef” is. It is the presentation of CT as a worldview, whereas you have already dealt with ~CT as a worldview. If you leave this step out, you are leaving out crucial elements of a Biblical apologetic. If you present it wrongly, you are doing harm to the cause of Christ. It is for this reason that I am responding. I have named no names at this point, as it is not necessary for the moment. I will encourage those who recognize their position in this response to humbly reassess their own position in light of Scripture, and of the systematic theology you should be studying in order to more aptly understand the order and system of the teachings of Scripture. Zeal can be a wonderful thing – but zeal without knowledge is deadly. Please consider what it is you are saying, and whether it is actually saying things about God and man that cannot be said by one of His children consistently, or without being an offense to God’s righteousness. Thank you. I’ll leave you with one last thought: “[W]e shall have to make it plain that our theory of knowledge is what it is because our theory of being is what it is. As Christians we cannot begin speculating about knowledge by itself. We cannot ask how we know without asking at the same time what we know.”[8]

  1. [1]IST, pg 164
  2. [2]IST, pg 66
  3. [3]IST, pg 153
  4. [4]DotF, pg 73
  5. [5]IST, pg 150
  6. [6]IST, pg 63
  7. [7] DotF, pg 371
  8. [8]DotF, pg 55

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