The Similarity of the Christian’s and Non-Christian’s Science

Modern Christianity struggles with how to relate our Biblical perspective on reality with present-day science. Science has been very successful in explaining many aspects of our world, and the fruit of science and technology is all around us. This struggle is even more pointed when we see science linked to the anti-Christian and anti-theistic agenda of Evolutionary Naturalists. Christians who are also practitioners and students of science see that much of the scientific enterprise can be conducted without reference to God. This has led some to suggest that science is religiously neutral or that science is category of description of the world that is largely independent from and complementary to a religious description. Thus, it is suggested that, as long as non Christian scientists do not step outside of the domain of science, i.e. as long as they only deal with properties, behavior, and the formative history of physical entities, that the fruit of their science can be incorporated into a Christian framework.

Practically speaking, it is probably the case that this approach to science/faith issues works most of the time, however, it seems to me that this strikes at the heart of a Biblical and Reformed view of knowledge. In the work of Cornelius Van Til there is a sustained critique of this way of thinking about science. Van Til argues that the fundamental starting point for all knowledge is the knowledge of God and the proper creaturely response to that knowledge. Every fact of science is either interpreted rightly, acknowledging God as creator, or wrongly, denying God as creator. In other words, “there are no brute facts”. Consequently, when the unbelieving scientist (or any unbeliever, for that matter) claims some knowledge, because it denies the most fundamental aspect of that creaturely knowledge, the knowledge of God, Van Til would say that it is not true knowledge. He writes in A Survey of Christian Epistemology:

The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove that if one is not a Christian theist he knows nothing at all as he ought to know anything. The difference is not that all men alike know certain things about the finite universe and that some claim some additional knowledge, while the others do not. On the contrary, the Christian theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God. He does this in no spirit of conceit, because it is a gift of God’s grace. Nor does he deny that there is knowledge after a fashion that enables the non-theist to get along after a fashion in the world. This is the gift of God’s common grace, and therefore does not change the absoluteness of the distinction made about the knowledge and ignorance of the theist and the non-theist respectively.

There are three things to notice in this passage. First, the Christian theist alone has true knowledge about science. (Van Til talks about cows and chickens, but we could substitute chemistry, biology, astronomy, engineering, etc. for cows and chickens.) This is an extraordinary claim and one for which Van Til has received much criticism. The idea is that apart from the knowledge of God as Creator and Sustainer that any knowledge falls short of true knowledge. Thus, only believers, who by the grace of God confess the true God, can have true knowledge. Another aspect of this claim is a moral one; the unbeliever “knows nothing at all as he ought to know anything”. Van Til is not saying that the unbeliever knows nothing. But, since all knowledge carries with it a religious and moral imperative to worship and serve the Creator, and since unbelievers disobey that imperative, their knowledge falls short of true knowledge.

The second thing to notice is that while Van Til denies that unbelievers have true knowledge, he does admit that they have “knowledge after a fashion”. Unbelievers can know chemistry, biology, astronomy, engineering, etc “after a fashion”. Van Til’s critics want to call this “knowledge after a fashion” true knowledge, Van Til wants to reserve the term “true knowledge” to knowledge that recognizes the knowledge of God and includes the proper religious/moral response. Thus, the unbeliever’s knowledge of “brute facts” is only “knowledge after a fashion” that allows the unbeliever to get along in the world. For example, the unbelieving chemist can mix salicylic acid and acetic anhydride to synthesize aspirin that can be used to treat a headache. The chemistry and the pharmacology works just as it does for the believing chemist. But, for the unbeliever, this is merely “knowledge after a fashion” and not “true knowledge”.

The final thing to notice is that Van Til appeals to common grace as the basis for this “knowledge after a fashion” that the unbeliever has. Despite their rebellion and as part of the free offer of the gospel, God allows unbelievers to live in this world that he has created, He has made them in his image with the capacity to have “dominion over the creatures”, and he has endowed them with gifts to learn about the world “after a fashion”. Such a gracious posture on the part of God will not endure forever. If they persist in their unbelief and refuse to worship and serve the Creator, the judgment day will come and the very things that were manifestations of God’s grace toward them will be used as evidence against them and they will receive their eternal punishment.