Was Cornelius Van Til a Foundationalist?

One reoccurring critique by postmodernists is this: the dominant epistemological model of modern period, classic foundationalism, is a hopelessly doomed project. Many analytic philosophers have conceded the fact that foundationalism, in the sense critiqued by postmodernists, is not workable or realistic. In response to this critique many such epistemologists have proposed a modest foundationalism. This approach opens up space for for defining a “properly basic belief.” Is Cornelius Van Til’s epistemology subject to the postmodern critique of classic foundationalism? Is it even accurate to categorize Van Til’s position as foundationalist? I am tempted to say both yes and no.

First, let’s examine what I mean what I answer “no” to the question above. Classical foundationalism seeks some epistemological bedrock upon which their entire epistemological structures could be erected. Traditionally, there are 2 major camps under the larger foundationalist umbrella (though, in reality, there are literally dozens of ways of cutting the foundationalist pie). Theses schools of thought, empiricism and rationalism, despite their differences, shared methodological commitments to certain and indubitable knowledge.  The rationalists rooted their position in clear and distinct ideas, while the empiricists looked to basic sense impressions on the “blank-slate” of human consciousness. If some aspect of human knowledge could be proven to be beyond doubt, self-evident and subject to open inquiry the trustworthiness of human knowledge would be maintained. The problem with this project, from a Van Tillian perspective, is that both schools seek an epistemic  pou stou 1) apart from the God’s word, and 2) as a way of preserving sinful autonomy (i.e. intellectual independence from God and His authority).

Van Til clearly rejects this project and instead presents the self-attesting revelation of God in the Scriptures as our epistemic bedrock. We shouldn’t look to anything in creation to ground knowledge.  No finite thing can provide epistemic certainty. Instead, despite our finitude and sin, we are to turn to Scripture for guidance and be content with the supernatural certitude that comes only by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

But does Van TIl’s approach leave us hopelessly agnostic, lacking any kind of confidence regarding the veracity of our knowing? No, Van Til was no relativist. Instead, he presents us with a theological framework for making sense of our everyday confidence in our cognitive faculties. This leads me to the affirmative aspect of my answer to our original question.

Is it even accurate to categorize Van Til’s position as foundationalist? Perhaps, but not in the sense open to postmodern criticism. Recall that classic foundationalism is an epistemological position. But, we’ve seen above that Van Til rejects the modernist’s notion of rooting certitude in anything in creation. Instead, we find our confidence in the living God. Van Til’s position is that knowledge is “saved” because God exists and we are created in His image (in fact for VT this fact is turned into a powerful theistic argument. For handy summary of VT’s “argument from unity of knowledge,” see James Anderson, “If Knowledge, then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til,” Calvin Theological Journal, April, 2005.).

God providentially guides and preserves our knowledge to an overwhelmingly great degree. Thus, for theological reasons, we can have confidence in our knowledge. But this is no onto-theological leap by which VT calls God into the picture simply to fill in the gaps of his philosophy. Instead, this lies at the very heart of VT’s philosophy. Functionally, because of our creationally constituted knowledge of God, we are always, whether believer or non-believer, in contact with God. The reason why VT’s epistemology escapes the postmodern barbs against modernist foundationalism is because, though we have metaphysical confidence, epistemologically we have no direct or unmediated knowledge of the world. We all have baggage, whether that manifests as misleading worldviews or inconsistent heart-commitments. Of course, this is not to say that our situatedness in an inherent impediment against obtaining true knowledge (cf. Vern S. Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, 66.), but this is a point against attaining the impenetrable, philosophically certain knowledge modernism sought. Secondly, how the surpressed knowledge of God concretely plays out in our lives is very difficult to express. It’s so common to our everyday experience that reflective contemplation of it is akin to a fish examining the water it swims in. Though this is a rough-and-ready term, perhaps we can call this cognitive intuition.

Instead, we can categorize Van Til as a soft foundationalist, which is not open to postmodern critique. So, our confidence is in the power of God, and not our epistemic equipment. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.


Posted on May 8, 2008, in Philosophy, Van Til Stuff. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for your comments here. It is nice to see people engaging Van Til’s thought.

    On the whole, though, I am convinced that Van Til is not in any way a foundationalist. By definition, foundationalism delineates two modes of belief, each of which might lead toward knowledge. So, the “foundation” of any foundationalism is a *belief* structure, which, perhaps, could lead to knowledge.

    For Van Til, the epistemic condition of all people included two primary and related truths. First, we are all made in God’s image. Second, because we are image of God, all people, by virtue of being image of God, *know God.*

    No foundationalist – soft or hard – would countenace such a view. For Christianity, we *begin* as knowing subjects, in that we all know God. For foundationalists, they begin with beliefs which might lead to knowledge.

    The two epistemic structures are irreconcilable. They cannot be merged.

    Thanks again for your good post.

  2. Thank you for your input, Dr. Oliphint. It’s an honor to have you visit.

    I don’t think there’s any substantial difference between what you said and what I wanted to affirm. Perhaps in affirming VT as a soft foundationalist I’m using the term too loosely. My point was to deny that VT was a foundationalist if by that term we are looking for some autonomous epistemic bedrock (in propositions, sense experience, etc.). And in affirming VT as a foundationalist I meant to say that his bedrock was metaphysical/ontological, 1) in the triune God himself, and 2) in our created constitution as image bearers. But, as you’ve said, I doubt any classical foundationalist would accept that as an adequate definition of the term.

    At my request, John Frame has read both this entry and your comments. Here were his thoughts (posted with the permission of Dr. Frame):


    “Well, I’m not sure there is an “official” definition of foundationalism, but maybe I haven’t followed the discussion as closely as Scott has. I basically follow Wolterstorff’s 1976 (?) book Reason Within the Limits of Religion; but I take the concept rather loosely. To me, a foundationalist is someone who thinks that the whole fabric of human knowledge can be built out of a number of foundational propositions. Some regard the “building” process as deductive, others inductive, still others a third alternative or combination of the two. The “foundational” propositions are considered to be appropriate for various reasons. Typical claims: they are self-evident, evident to the senses, incorrigible, properly basic (in Plantinga’s sense), etc. Wolterstorff defines a kind of “weak foundationalism” that he distinguishes from “classical foundationalism.” I’m inclined to see the “foundational” propositions as the propositions revealed in Scripture.

    Now Scott describes those foundational propositions as a “belief structure.” Well, yes, I suppose they won’t serve as your foundation unless you believe them. But he seems to think those beliefs are not knowledge, but only beliefs that “perhaps could lead to knowledge.” I’m not aware that this sort of idea is part of the definition of “foundation.”

    On the contrary, I think that once a belief is accepted as part of a foundation, it is already accepted as “knowledge.” The foundational beliefs are criteria of knowledge. So they must be themselves knowledge.

    Of course I’m aware that Plantinga’s “properly basic beliefs” are defeasible. Does that imply that they are not knowledge? I don’t think so. But if they are not knowledge, then it seems to me they are not qualified to serve as a foundation in the sense described above. But I’ll let Plantinga choose his own terminology.

    But if we take “foundation” as that knowledge that serves as the criterion of other knowledge, then we can assert that in a Christian epistemology Scripture is the foundation of knowledge.

    But here’s a nonfoundationalist alternative: normative, situational, and existential perspectives on knowledge, correcting one another, etc. That would give us something like Willard Quine’s “web” in which a belief will be foundational on Monday, but peripheral on Tuesday, as our experience brings about changes in the priorities of the system.

    So we can be foundationalist when thinking of the role of Scripture, nonfoundationalist when considering the mutual reciprocities of the three perspectives. Scripture is God’s word, and so absolute, foundational. But our understanding of Scripture in the light of God’s many kinds of natural revelation develops by a nonfoundational process.

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