Saturday, September 10, 2011

Univocity and Analogy: Van Til and the distortion of language

Thus every bit of knowledge on the part of man is derivative and reinterpretative. This is what we mean by saying that man's knowledge is analogical.

— Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd Ed. (ed. by William Edgar; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), p. 34

Van Til's concept of analogy is alluded to throughout his writings. Because God is the Creator, we cannot know univocally (as he does), yet neither do we know equivocally (never the truth). Instead we know analogically, by thinking God's thoughts after him. This is quite different from Thomas's [Aquinas] use of analogy, which amounts to a middle way between univocal and equivocal knowledge, whereby we may climb up closer to God's being without ever knowing his essence.

— Editor, Ibid., p. 97 footnote 41

As indicated at the outset of this work, we speak of all forms of reasoning in which man is assumed to be the final or ultimate reference point of predication in univocal reasoning. In contrast to this we speak of the form of reasoning employed by the Christian who recognizes that God is the ultimate reference point of predication as analogicalreasoning. Univocal here describes thinking that is exactly the same as God's thinking, a clear impossibility.

Ibid., p. 178 footnote 6


u-niv-o-cal (adj): Having only one meaning, unambiguous []

The issue of analogy and univocity has plagued the Clark-Van Til controversy since it occurred. What does Van Til means by analogy, and how should we think of the concept?

The quotes above from Van Til's book I think sufficiently aids us in understanding what Van Til meant by analogy. In Van Til's system, there is a huge emphasis on the Creator-creature distinction. That is of course well and good, but it is what one does with this that need to be evaluated.

The Creator-creature distinction in Van Til's thought means that one should not reason like Man in order to reach God. In order to know anything at all, Van Til asserts that one should reason from a Christian perspective.

Van Til accordingly defines his terms as follows: "Univocal" reasoning is to him thinking in the exact same manner as how God thinks. "Equivocal" thinking is to not-reason. "Analogical" thinking Van Til defines as thinking derivative thoughts re-interpreting what God has interpreted.

The funny thing here is that as a Clarkian, I absolutely agree that Christians are to think "derivative thoughts re-interpreting what God has interpreted," and Clark does too. According to Van Til's definition, most Clarkians would reason analogically.

The problem comes however with definitions. Clark and Clarkians in general use plain English as much as possible. As a sample definition in shows, the term "univocal" means "having only one meaning, unambiguous." It has to do therefore with the intended meanings of words and sentences. Therefore, using plain speech, the term "univocal" cannot refer to the manner of reasoning, but the content of propositions (not the form because the same sentence can mean two or more different propositions depending on factors including the socio-cultural environment)

Van Till's distinct philosophy and his definition of "univocal" is therefore contrary to the actual meaning of the word in English. This is especially when the adjective "univocal" is modifying the noun "knowledge." The term "univocal knowledge" means that the content is the same. In other words, instead of "univocal knowledge," we can substitute it for the phrase "literal" or "unambiguous knowledge."

As an adverb ("univocally"), the word could be used in the way Van Til uses it. However, this then is the difference between "univocally knowing X" and "knowledge of X is univocal." The former expression has the adverb "univocally" modifying the manner of "knowing" X, and therefore could convey the meaning that Van Til desires it to have. The latter however describes the content of X that we are knowing, viz that there is an overlap of sorts between the content of what God and what Man knows.

In this way, the univocity of knowledge ensure revelation is possible. It means that if God intends for us to know that "Justification is by Faith Alone," the truth would be conveyed to us and we would receive it. No doubt it may be the case that God's revelation is much more richer than what we have discovered so far with regards to this vital doctrine, but the key issue is that we have at least perceived part of what God intends to convey.

Van Til therefore creates de novo his own definitions of English words , and then uses his newly-fangled words to define what orthodoxy is. But such a tactic is entirely illegitimate, and as such we should reject the entire "univocal" and "analogy" terms altogether when describing the manner of our knowing anything. It is no thanks to Van Til therefore that we have confusion and the misrepresentation of Gordon Clark. After all, since when did a theologian get to judge the orthodoxy of another person based upon whether they agree with the form of his phrases made up of redefined words? Therefore, we should reject this redefinition of words, and use proper English.


Joel Tay said...

I am not so sure that it is just a matter of definition. My understand from read Van Til is that he rejects both a quantitative as well as qualitative point of contact between God's knowledge and man's knowledge. Van Til after all said that he did not know if 2+2=4 for God.

PuritanReformed said...


well, yea. I can't speak for what he said in other places, only what he seems to be saying in the two books I have read so far.

Daniel Kleven said...

I stumbled upon this post while searching deeper into the meaning of "univocal" and "analogical" speech. I haven't read Van Til or Clark on this specifically (I've read a bit of Clark, nothing of VT), but I can say that you seem to entirely misunderstand Van Til, and your criticism is ill-directed.

Van Til has not taken an English word and "redefined" it de novo as you allege. His use of the terms "univocal" and "analogical" have a long history in theology, starting with the opposing views of Aquinas and Scotus, and explored at length by early reformed theologians. Calvin held to strong view of analogical language, as did many of the Reformed Scholastics in the 16th and 17th centuries. Van Til is using the terms straight out of the history of theology.

To go to Webster Dictionary, pluck out a 20th century American definition of a word, and then declare a theologian "wrong" for using the historic theological definition of a word instead of your Webster definition seems highly suspect.

If you want to criticize Van Til, I suggest you use a different line of attack.

PuritanReformed said...

@Dan Kleevan,

I have read up more on the issue in the meantime, so I'll nuanced my words further now, but I stand by essentially what I have written.

I understand CVT to be using (or trying to use) the words as they have been used in medieval scholasticism. That however DOES NOT change the fact that this is now what the words mean now. This is especially true in modern English, and Clark uses those words as they mean in modern English.

While CVT uses the words in its medieval scholastic sense, I have serious questions on how well he actually conveys the actual teachings of Calvin and the Protestant Scholastics. Understood in its medieval scholastic sense, all Christians hold to "analogy," better expressed in terms of the archetypal/ ectypal distinction.

That said, the main issue of my post is that Vantillians have been accusing Clarkians of denying analogy and upholding univocity, having in mind the medieval scholastic definitions of the terms. So I think it is imperative for them to actually represent their opponents correctly, and since their opponents actually speak English and not Medieval-ish, their accusations are false and baseless.

Lastly, please tell me whether you think we should be speaking English, or "Medieval-ish" when discussing philosophical issues in the modern world.