Linguistic Limitations and Special Revelation

In Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis Greg Bahnsen brings up an interesting point regarding the role of special revelation.

Supernatural verbal revelation is, according to Van Til, inherent in the human situation and the intended concomitant to supernatural revelation in nature and in man’s inner constitution.  In that case, man was never – and is not now – expected simply to observe the natural world or consider his own rational, moral personality and figure out for himself how they are to be interpreted and how their truths are to be verbally expressed.  Man’s Creator has provided the linguistic framework for “exegeting” the truth of God in natural revelation and in man himself.1

When we step back and think about this, it is a fairly straightforward point.  But what is interesting is the way he couches the statement.  God has given us the linguistic framework for understanding natural revelation.  What Bahnsen and Van Til are saying is starkling opposed to contemporary teaching in philosophy.  Grenz and Franke in following Wittgenstein present a post-modern world where each community has its own linguistic framework and makes sense of reality through that grid.  Jacques Derrida talks about subjects being locked in a hall of mirrors.  We are always and everywhere trapped by our own experience and our own linguistic structure.  How does one transcend this limitation?

Karl Rahner, probably the most influential Roman Catholic theologian of the 20th century and the mind behind the theology of Vatican II, speaks of thematic and unthematic knowledge.  Thematic knowledge pertains to religion, science and other structured knowledge most often obtained through a syllogistic process.  This knowledge is second order, however and takes a back seat to the first order knowledge he calls unthematic knowledge.  This is the intuition each human has that he is dependent upon “being” most properly understood as God.  Unthematic knowledge is known immediately without conceptual or linguistic mediation.  Formally, we might say Rahner’s unthematic knowledge is general revelation.  Man as image of God does have an immediate knowledge of the Creator that is not run through conceptual or linguistic frameworks.  But in understanding that immediate knowledge is where Rahner and Van Til go in opposite directions.

Van Til incorporates the reformed doctrine of special revelation and places it as the exclusive interpreter of general revelation.  So for Van Til, there is no natural theology, only natural (general) revelation which is interpreted by special revelation.  Rahner, on the other hand, has an understanding that grace is available through the whole world and that all men will be “divinized” or reversely incarnated, as it were, if they have some sort of passionate, genuine experience.  In that sense, unbelievers are “anonymous” Christians.  I’ve heard that Rahner would have even been “honored” to have been called an “anonymous” Buddhist.

We must maintain the exclusivity of special revelation for interpreting general revelation.  Through this special revelation we are able to transcend our linguistic limitations because God transcends them and He has revealed Himself to us.  We “break through” because we everywhere and always rely on God, who is a se – the God who is comprehensive in His knowledge and inexhaustible in His thought.

1Bahnsen, Greg L. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998), 195.

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One Response to “Linguistic Limitations and Special Revelation”

  1. Joel Heflin says:

    Thanks for this. How would you compare Van Till / Bahnsen with Calvin’s view of natural law?

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

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