Cornelius Van Til,  Education

Van Til’s Philosophy of Education

For Van Til, two doctrines are vital for Christian education – creation and providence. God makes all the facts and arranges them according to his own will. No fact is outside the control of God or originates in anyone other than God. Experiences of human beings all originate in the plan of God. For Van Til, all facts are related to God, they are his facts.

Being related to God, facts are automatically revealing of God. A fact that is determined by God reveals God to human beings who themselves are created by God. In scripture God provides the right interpretation of nature, experience and all the other facts humankind can come to know. Consequently, human beings, created by God in his image, should learn “analogically.” To think and learn analogically means, for Van Til, to think and learn in self-conscious subjection to what God has revealed. This, Van Til thinks, marks the distinctive with all other forms of education:

There are two mutually exclusive principles for the interpretation of life. The Christian principle presupposes God who speaks authoritatively through the Bible, giving man basic principles for the interpretation of the whole of life. The non-Christian principle presupposes man who speaks authoritatively of himself. 

Faith and learning are integrated by the self-conscious recognition of humankind’s place before God. Human learning is marked by the goal of bringing glory to God through building of culture and performing the task of revealing God through human nature. The criteria of education is God’s criteria of interpretation – the Bible. Scripture, thus, performs a regulative function, showing what is educative or miseducative. This, Van Til, points out is often difficult in practice even while the principle is pretty clear. The motivating factor in education is, then, faith, having certain knowledge of God’s sovereignty over all facts, over all human learning.

Van Til notes that such a point of view provokes the objection that if this were the case, then there would be no common ground between the two kinds of people. This objection rests in the idea that there should be some kind of unity in human culture that transcends boundaries of belief and unbelief. If education is, in part, a cultural project, then Christians need some way to build culture alongside those in unbelief. We might wonder how this would be possible given Van Til’s strong antithesis between the two principles.

Van Til’s response is counter intuitive. Instead of seeking common principles he suggests that “the idea of total depravity and the unity of human culture are involved in one another.” To see this, Van Til asks us to remember his opening principle – that all facts, all history, all human culture, is related to God by virtue of the all-encompassing plan of God: “God is in control of history and all that comes to pass because of his ultimate determination. Nothing less than this idea, directly taken from scripture, will do justice to the unity of culture.”

The very principle that Van Til uses to delineate a Christian educational project is the principle that accounts for the unity of human culture. Since all human beings are who they are as a result of the determining plan of God they are able to be part of a unified plan of God for human culture. This would not be the case, says Van Til, if the plan was not comprehensive. If the plan was not comprehensive unity of human culture would be according to human origination, human autonomy. But if this was the case, then Christian education would be ultimately meaningless.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.