Antithesis in Education by Cornelius Van Til

The author’s basic assumption is informed by his firm conviction about the teaching of the Bible concerning all aspects of life. The teaching of the Bible touches all aspects of life including man and education. As biblically informed philosopher, he begins the present subject by asserting that there is nothing in common between the believers and the unbelievers in matters of ultimate principles. This distinction applies even in education. He introduces this “antitheses” in three areas: educational philosophy, curriculum, and conception about the educatee.

Distinction in Educational Philosophy

At the outset the writer warns those who want to emphasize being “positive” and “constructive” at the expense of being “negative” and “destructive.” Such one-sided emphasis is tantamount to compromising the biblical message. A faithful and consistent Christian educator cannot do such thing without undermining the fact of sin. Van Til tells us, “Antithesis…is basic to synthesis.”

The first distinction in educational philosophy between theistic theory and non-theistic theory lies in the substance of the term “environment.” For non-theist, this environment, which serves as the ultimate reality is the physical world and is impersonal. It is the goal therefore of education in this kind of philosophy to bring the learner to an encounter with the impersonal physical world. On the other hand, theistic theory believes that the ultimate environment is none other than but the absolute and personal God of the Scriptures. It is the goal therefore of education in this philosophy to bring the learner to a face to face encounter with this God.

In emphasizing the above distinction, the writer does not negate synthesis. Synthesis is an unavoidable fact by virtue of common grace. Common grace provides the common ground between the theist and the non-theist. It does not set aside the ultimate distinction but affirms it. Common grace helps us to see that apparent similarity between theist and non-theist is ultimately distinct. Ignorance of common grace confuses between apparent and ultimate similarities on the one hand, and between apparent and ultimate distinction on the other hand. Again, Van Til reminds us, common grace helps “us to focus our attention upon the antithesis without fearing that we are doing injustice to any of the facts that surround us.”

The non-theistic concept of impersonal environment has two logical consequences. One, the so-called “forensic relationship” between man and his environment is totally absent in it. In such a framework, the fact of sin as the Bible defines it has no place. It teaches a kind of ethics and morality. But such ethics and morality are different from that of the theist. In theistic theory, there is a binding relationship between man and his ultimate environment who is the personal and absolute God. Ethics and morality in theism is defined in relation to the standard of the law of God. Another thing that results from an impersonal environment is relativism. Relativism in return issues an infinite number of antitheses. But since there is no ultimate personality that settles among these antitheses, this leads to confusion and meaninglessness.

The second distinction between theistic theory and non-theistic theory evolves in the concept of mystery. It is the prevailing view that man can have no knowledge about reality as a whole. Van Til states that “The philosopher of today has given up every attempt to understand the meaning of the whole of reality.” Such attempt is a mistake. It is based on conceit. On the other hand, the philosopher accepts that unless we understand the whole we cannot really comprehend any part of the whole. The question of unity and diversity is a mystery to him. Such uncertain position breeds confusion, fear and anxiety, which characterizes contemporary education. This fear and anxiety manifests first of all in “the excited interests in matters educational. The number of books on education is legion. Man throws all his hopes on the education of the next generation. He is conscious of the fact that the present generation is in a hopeless condition. ‘A generation which has no confidence in itself occupies itself with education, as though here again something could come into being from nothing.’” In the second place, centrality is missing in the educational policies of the day. “Instead of following a policy that is based upon a definite assurance that human life must be lived for the sake of God, we find a hasty and nervous series of experimentations into the unknown.” Since man accepts that the knowledge of reality as a whole is beyond his grasp, he just confines himself with educational policies dealing with purpose, content, and method.

Distinction in the Curriculum

 Under this discussion, Van Til reduces the content of curriculum in general terms as “nature and history” or the “facts of space and time.” He asserts that the facts of space and time are unintelligible apart from the ultimate personal and absolute environment, who is God. It is He who made the facts of space and time and therefore any true understanding of these facts must recognize their relationship with God. To accept non-theistic facts Van Til adds “would spell utter bankruptcy as well as the uselessness of Christian education” at the outset. He claims that this is no “extreme statement or an overwrought accusation.” He quotes Plato admitting this. But the modern philosopher is not honest to himself. He cannot accept what Plato accepted.

The primary issue in curriculum is the question of centrality. Van Til asserts that theistic theory affirms man as the center of the curriculum. However, he qualifies it by saying that not man in general but the Christian man, who is at the center of curriculum. This implies that in teaching history in particular, sacred history will occupy a primary place for it focuses on the program of redemption.

Distinction in Matter of Conception about the Educatee

Non-theistic educational philosophy holds that the learner is placed “before an infinite series of open possibilities.” The goal of education of the learner is to adopt himself to the “process of adjustment,” which is the “integration of personality into its surroundings. The goal is the “development of personality,” which made possible since the emancipation of man from the chain of medievalism.

Under this discussion, two important subjects are debated as to their substance: personality and authority. In the mind of the non-theist, the theistic concept of personality is untenable, whereas in the mind of theist, the non-theist concept of personality is chaotic. It claims to be so for personality in the non-theistic framework cannot develop for it is placed in the context of an ultimate impersonal environment. Non-theistic theory assumes that “authority and freedom are mutually exclusive.” Authority hampers freedom. A theist contends that “without authority, no teaching is possible.” Authority in the theistic framework is nothing but the “placing of the absolute personality of God before the finite personality of man.” In this context, the role of the teacher is both “infinitely difficult” and “infinitely valuable.” But the position of the teacher in non-theist philosophy is hopeless. “He knows that he knows nothing and that in spite of this fact he must teach. He knows that without authority he cannot teach and that there are no authorities to which he can appeal. In contrast with this, the Christian teacher knows himself, knows the subject, and knows the child. He has the full assurance of the absolute fruitfulness of his work. He labors in the dawn of everlasting results.”

Brief Appreciation and Critique

I believe that Cornelius Van Til has something timely to say to current trend in educational philosophies. The consistency of his method and his effort to make both the non-theist and those who claim to be theist conscious is worthy of serious consideration. Such self-awareness particularly among theists would make Christian education indispensable in the development of human personality. However, I think that Van Til’s way of communication needs to be more specific and concrete in order for his message to be communicable not only to philosophers but also among common readers.



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