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The Myth Of Neutrality

The plea for Christians to surrender to neutrality in their thinking is not an uncommon one. 

—Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (1996)

 Man neither is nor can be “objective” and “impartial.” 

All his thinking is from some fundamental starting point or presupposition. . . .

—Rousas J. Rushdoony, By What Standard (1958)

God in the Dock

“You shall not surely die.”  For the first time Satan openly contradicted the word of God.  Eve listened attentively, and her husband apparently watched.  Satan went on:  “God knows that the day you eat of this fruit, you will be as God, knowing good and evil.”

In this interchange, Satan didn’t claim to be God; he merely claimed to be right.  He claimed he had a better explanation of the facts at hand than the one God had given Adam and Eve.  He invited Eve to put these rival claims to the test.  In other words, Satan was telling Eve that she needed to step out onto the neutral ground of her own autonomy and there judge the matter for herself.  Eve complied.

The issue here was one of epistemology, which is the study of … How do we know?  And how do we know that we know?  Authority A says one thing; authority B, another.  How can we judge?  How can we know with certainty what the truth is?

Eve as Judge

As the neutral investigator, research scientist, and judge, Eve had to fall back on some aspect of her own nature to find a touchstone and standard for her analysis.  She could, for instance, turn to deductive logic.  In that case, her mental calculations might run something like this:

My reasoning mind is the one sure thing in reality.  I don’t have much else except my reasoning ability.

Or Eve could approach the Tree as an empiricist.  She could consult her five senses.  She could run the bark, leaves, and fruit of the Tree through chemical analysis.  She could consider the texture of the fruit, its color, and finally its taste.  She could do all this on the assumption that Truth is only that which can be verified by sensory experience and scientific experiment.

Or, Eve could turn to her emotions.  She could meditate upon the Tree.  She could descend into the depths of her soul and there discover her fundamental oneness with all reality, including the Tree and its fruit.  On simple Romantic and pantheistic assumptions, she could be certain that “Nature would never betray a loving heart.”  On the basis of “love” she could be sure the fruit was good.

Finally, Eve could fall back on sheer volition.  She could act with purpose with regard to the Tree.  She could take the fruit with determination, acting to create herself and her reality in the existential moment.

But whether Eve chose to act as a rationalist, an empiricist, a Romantic, or an existentialist, a nagging problem remains.

The Failure of Autonomy

First, God claimed to be the Creator of all things.  If this were true, then the Tree, the fruit, and Eve herself were wholly the creation of a sovereign God.  God’s interpretation was not just opinion, but the all-conditioning decree of the God who made and moved the universe.  In such a case, there could be no neutral ground.  Every fact was God’s fact, established by His decree, moved by His providence.  Every fact was what God said it was, nothing more, less, or other.  Every fact testified to the reality and identity of its Maker.  Any attempt to find neutral ground in such a scenario was foolishness, madness, and even rebellion.

But let us grant Eve her neutrality for a moment—that is, her autonomy.  Rejecting God’s interpretation of reality, she will decide for herself what is true and good and right.  But how is that going to really work out for her?

Any appeal to reason presupposes a rational universe of cause and effect, a knowable universe that somehow is in sync with Eve’s mental processes.  But how can this be?  And how can we know it to be so?  Should we simply claim that it’s reasonable to be reasonable and rational to be rational?  This is the epitome of arguing in a circle.  Deductive logic makes for entertaining games at a party, but really rests on the void—and isn’t nearly as unbiased as we’d like to think.

Appealing to our senses is full of more problems than most folks think.  Our senses are tied to the present moment.  They tell us nothing about the past or the future.  By their very nature, they can’t yield scientific law or any accurate prediction of the future.  They give us the splash of light and color, a smell, a passing sensation of texture and heat, a note and a pitch — nothing more.  What lies behind our senses stays a mystery, unknown and unknowable.

Emotion, intuition — call it what you want — also falls short of any explanation. Why should anyone “trust The Force”?   Why should we believe that our feelings about things “out there,” things apparently distinct from us, are accurate renderings of reality?  “All is One” is a religious assumption, not an epistemological answer.

And, finally, the blind use of volition, the “existential choice” in the face of uncertain options, says nothing about objective reality.  The existentialist must assume — because there is no proof — that there is anything more to reality than the form he imposes upon it by his or her choices.

In short, even a single step into autonomy leads straight down the “no explanation” path.  It’s either a blind faith in one’s self, or it is an unconscious acceptance of an entire worldview, one that makes huge unprovable claims about God, man, and the universe.  In running from faith in the Creator who has spoken, man ends up with faith in his own beliefs and presuppositions.  He runs from revealed religion to his own self-invented “natural” religion.  But at the end of the day, he’s still religious. Always religious… but never neutral.

No Neutral Ground

Here’s the truth: There is no area of life that is not religious.  There is no middle ground between God and Satan.  God’s claims are of such a nature that we must either acknowledge and surrender to them or we must invent our own designer religion and custom worldview.

Humans are inevitably and inescapably religious.  And when all the talking is done, the number of religions in the room is in reality, pretty small.  People may reject the claims of God and absolutize some aspect of his finite and flawed humanity.  Or they may humble themselves before God His Maker.  We either trust ourselves, or we trust God.

And since we are made in the image of God and the world we live in is God’s world, the first option never works very well.  It involves all sorts of self-contradictions and internal conflicts.  And it never really answers the questions, “How do I know? And how do I know that I know?” Instead, it often asks a tired, lifeless question like Pontius Pilate…“What is truth?”

For Further Reading:

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols.  Trans. Henry Beveridge.  (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970).

C.W. Powell, No Neutral Ground, Essays on Christian Education. Anderson, CA: pri­vately published, 1992.

Rousas J. Rushdoony, By What Standard?  An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Tyler, TX:  Thoburn Press, 1983).

Cornelius Val Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (N.p.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1975).

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, [1955] 1976).

Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Re­formed Publishing Company, [1932], n.d.).

Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P & R Publishing, 1998).

Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready, Directions for Defending the Faith (Atlanta, GA:  American Vision/Texarkana, AR:  Covenant Media Foundation, 1996).

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