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.