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Home Home Schooling The marks of an unregenerate mind - Text (For Moms & Seniors)

The marks of an unregenerate mind - Text (For Moms & Seniors)

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The Marks of an Unregenerate Mind


John Campbell


This article describes the marks of an unregenerate mind according to Cornelius Van Til, extrapolated from his writings and delineated by John W Campbell.


There is great profit from reading Cornelius Van Til .( The Defense of the Faith) Readers are urged not to be discouraged if they do not understand all the parts of this article on the first reading. It gets better as you get into the flow and as you read a second and third time. The first time I listened to Francis Schaeffer I understood very little but it became more edifying and enlightening every time I did listen (editor).


The mind of unregenerate man                


The 'mind' in Scripture (nous, dianoia etc.) approximates the 'heart' and covers not only thinking but choosing and feeling as well. Van Til makes much of the three states of man - Adamic (unfallen), unregenerate and regenerate, and how their minds operate. The unregenerate mind is profoundly and perversely affected by sin, which in turn results in all sorts of damaging outcomes (Rom 1:21 , 28). Despite attempts at suppression (Rom 1:18 ), intuitive God-awareness remains in all people as the sensus deitatis (sense of God). This awareness is the true contact point, and carries with it an indelible sense of obligation and guilt. Thus Van Til comments:


`The eternal power and Godhead of Paul's gospel are clearly visible to all men everywhere. God speaks his requirements through all the facts with which man deals. He speaks to men in the works of creation and providence; he speaks also to men through their conscience. He spoke at the beginning of history in direct supernatural fashion to Adam. All men are therefore without excuse. There is no fault in the objective revelation of God to men. It is perspicuous; no one can escape being confronted with it. There is no area of impersonal relationships where the face of God the Creator and Judge does not confront man. It is not as though the evidence shows that a god exists or that God probably exists. If such were the case then there would be some excuse for man if he did not bow before his Maker. Paul makes bold to claim that all men know deep down in their hearts that they are creatures of God and have sinned against God their Creator and their Judge.'


The unregenerate mind is . apostate and 'autonomous'


Dr Van Til understands the historic fall as man's original assertion of metaphysical (the basis of being) and epistemological (the basis of knowing) independence. Autonomous reason does not allow fallen man to recognise either his derivative nature or his true guilt. Van Til notes that 'modern man has his own substitute for Christianity. He, not God, determines this goal of life. He must be his own standard of right and wrong... He must provide his own motivation.'


In a well-used word picture of autonomous man, D * r Van Til depicts him like child home alone who denies to visitors that he has parents. He insists that he alone owns and pays for everything, and that the rich evidences of adult clothes and family pictures do not weaken his childish pretensions to autonomy – not even the photograph which reveals him as a 'chip off the old block'. Like a wrestler, sinful man holds down the sensus deitatis of the glorious God. This leaves a 'God-shaped blank' which tends to be filled by lesser and flawed candidates (idols).


Man's autonomous reason, suggests Van Til, is like a misaligned buzz saw that inevitably slices incorrectly, cutting truth about God and reality according to the skewed setting of sinful personality. The intellect is a tool that largely depends on its user. Van Til also employs an illustration ol'air architect who designs specific plans and functions only to find that the builder, having notions of autonomy, tries to rearrange things creatively with the result that many required elements do not work at all. Van Til calls us lo abandon any alien elements of neutrality or autonomy as we reach t1or full epistemological self-consciousness.


2. Is hostile


If 'the sinful mind is hostile to God and it is not obedient to God's law, not can it be' (Rom 8:7 ), then Van Til is correct in asserting that there is n( neutral place in all creation.


There is no neutrality in the knower


Following in Kuyper's path, Van Til shows how enormous are the 'noetic  (noetic is from the Greek word for mind) effects of the fall. Scripture affirms that the natural/ sinful man 'cannot receive the things of the Spirit' (1 Cor 2:14 ). Unregenerate man suppresses ultimate truth so that events, facts and ideas are interpreted in a manner hostile to God's claims:


To be 'without bias' is only to have a particular kind of bias. The idea of ,neutrality' is simply a colourless suit that covers a negative attitude towards God. At least it ought to be plain that he who is not for the God of Christianity is against him.


Believers and unbelievers alike are immersed in the same environment of God-constituted facts. This common metaphysical reality does not extend to their epistemology because in key ways their knowledge faculties work differently. Believers are enlightened by God's Spirit to know and accept his truth so that their lives become thoroughly renewed. Unbelievers prefer darkness to light, and run for cover to habitually avoid every reminder of God (John 3:19-20 ). They reject him as a transcendent authority and as the ultimate reference point of predication. They misinterpret reality through lack of clear vision — in fact Van Til asserts that the unregenerate man has yellow tinted glasses cemented to his nose so that all his thinking is jaundiced. Fallen man is a God-hater. As Rousas Rushdoony remarks:


`To expect man, the covenant-breaker, to be impartial with regard to factuality is like expecting a thief to sit impartially as judge and jury over himself.'


Either way unbelievers oppose God and his truth. There is no demilitarised zone in the warfare between Christ and Satan, so Christ must be held up as the Lord of culture as well as religion.


There is no neutrality in the known


All facts are God-created and therefore witness to him in the epistemological framework which presupposes creation. There are no 'brute facts'. God's common grace in the cosmos proclaims his being (Ps 8 and 19:1f, Rom 1:19-20 ; 2:15). Fact and meaning are tied together. Man is not free to assign arbitrary meanings to physical data or historical eventuation for 'facts and interpretation cannot be separated. It is impossible even to discuss any particular fact except in relation to some universal.'


Van Til applies these thoughts with a compelling illustration:


`The main point is that if man could look anywhere and not be confronted with the revelation of God then he could not sin in the biblical sense of the term. Sin is the breaking of the law of God. God confronts man everywhere. He cannot in the nature of the case confront man anywhere if he does not confront him everywhere. God is one; the law is one. If man could press one button on the radio of his experience and not hear the voice of God then he would always press that button and not the others. But man cannot even press the button of his own self-consciousness without hearing the requirement of God.'


The professor also uses the analogy of a person who lives on someone's great estate and obtains all of life's necessities and pleasures without ever acknowledging the owner. Ownership signs are everywhere but there is not the slightest gratitude shown to him. Ignoring the rights of the Lord of the manor rightly incurs his displeasure. Likewise, when dependent creatures wilfully deny God's claims, even his very existence, then they store up guilt and wrath for themselves. Van Til concludes:


`You have as it were entered upon God's estate and have had your picnics and hunting parties there without asking his permission. You have taken the grapes of God's vineyard without paying him any rent and you have insulted his representatives who asked you for it.'

If one lacks a presupposed framework then `facts' cannot be of much help in apologetics or evangelism. Van Til shows how easily an unbeliever could accept something like Jesus' resurrection and still not be any closer to Christianity. They would treat it as a 'brute fact' and put their own 'spin' on it, perhaps by deeming it as a new indication of man's potentiality in being or becoming and calling for a wider view of the limits of the possible. Thus one can hold to a framework governed by the law of non-contradiction and exhaustive knowledge, and still see no need to adopt Peter's or Paul's doctrine of Jesus' resurrection as it is preached in Acts.


3. Is disordered


The unbeliever's reflections upon life have a faulty starting point, like a guided missile misprogrammed before launching. His knowledge structure is poorly built because the true foundation has been ignored, and winds or floods are capable of destroying it or casting it adrift on a sea of relativism. `In the beginning God ...' is the last place unregenerate man would contemplate as a starting point.


Consider the contrasting starting points of Locke's empiricism and Descartes' rationalism. John Locke (d.1704) formally disclaimed presuppositions and worked with the notion of the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper awaiting the arrival of knowledge through sense impressions from external stimuli. To Locke, man is neutral and his ultimate starting point lies in gathering empirical sense data. Empiricism has many philosophical descendants that include behaviourism and some educational, political and penal theories.


Rene Descartes (d.1650) had a different order for cultivating a world view. He was self-consciously working as a Roman Catholic apologist, concerned to shore up traditional dogma in the face of rising scepticism. So he set out to demonstrate the validity of God-knowledge without recourse to tradition, Bible or faith. As the springboard of his knowledge system he bypassed external phenomena and settled on the internal and rational cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Jim Halsey, Professor Van Til's interpreter, explains it this way:


`The rationalist Descartes' cogito ergo sum ('I think, therefore I am'), for example, illustrates the attempt on the part of apostate reason to found human knowledge upon the self as intelligible to itself apart from God. Such knowledge does not begin by making God the presupposition of every form of intelligible predication. Once the one indisputable truth of the cogito was established, Descartes hoped to proceed to the existence of the external world and to God by "building bridges" outward from the autonomous self.'


Van Til compares empiricists and rationalists to a boy who has buttoned up his jacket with the very first button in a wrong hole. When the point of departure is defective then the whole sequence is dislocated. The disorder becomes more obvious when it is noted that self-authenticating man fails to adequately distinguish between proximate and ultimate starting points. The above philosophies tend to endow mere proximates with a mantle of ultimacy. Sensory data or rational reflection are then enthroned. Following Augustine and Calvin, Van Til has recognised the role of proximate starting points but has never confused them with a truly theistic reference point.


4. Is eccentric


His thinking is off-centre, lopsided and unbalanced. It focuses on some selected or appealing facet of reality and uses it as a standard to interpret the whole. Having repressed the knowledge of God's priority, mutinous man looks around (formally or informally) for a different key to life.


Human existence, then, comes to be completely determined by the dimensions of space and time, and often, in line with a scientific-mechanistic viewpoint, 'nature' acquires a capital 'N', and evolution a capital 'E'. Jacques Monod claims in his Chance and Necessity that the enormous variety of nature and the richness of human culture can all be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, and yet his approach is governed by an existential philosophy. Many hold to some form of' reductionism and agree with Max Planck that 'whatever can be measured, exists', or perhaps follow the suspect verification principle of Logical Positivism. It should be remarked that Linguistic Analysts who test the validity of knowledge have already made prior assumptions about reality.


This kind of thinking affected theology in the later 20th century. To make God acceptable for a materialistic age, theologians tried to demythologise God and turn him into the impersonal Ground of all Being, changed miracles into parables, and dismissed credence in various concepts such as a God 'tip there'; supernatural events; any reliable cognitive word from God, incarnation; resurrection; Trinity and heaven or hell. More recently the theology of 'Open Theism' (the idea that God himself does not know flic future) is taking a similar course in diminishing plain scriptural teaching about God in order to make God more palatable. No wonder Carl I leery depicted all such endeavours in this way:


We are left with only a multiplicity of 'latest words', none of them fixcd :iml final. So an elite cadre of Athenian intellectuals devoted to novelty soon breeds an entire generation "ever learning and never able to come to :i knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim 3:7 ).


How would Van Til practise what he preaches? Observe the kindly pastoral tone in his appeal to an unbeliever:


`Now in presenting all your facts and reasons to me, you have assumed that such a God does not exist. You have taken for granted that you need no emplacement of any sort outside of yourself. You have assumed the autonomy of your own experience. Consequently you are unable - that is, unwilling - to accept as a fact any fact that would challenge your self‑


sufficiency. And you are bound to call that contradictory which does not fit into the reach of your intellectual powers. You remember what old Procrustus did. If his visitors were too long, he cut off a few slices at each end; if they were too short, he used the curtain stretcher on them. It is that sort of thing I feel that you have done with every fact of human experience. And I am asking you to be critical of this your own most basic assumption. Will you not go into the basement of your own experience to see what has been gathering there while you were busy here and there with the surface inspection of life? You may be greatly surprised at what you find there.'


5. Is pretentious


From Bacon until the impact of Jacques Derrida a central concept of exhaustive knowledge has held sway. There could be no absolutes 'till all the facts are in', so theories, textbooks and conclusions cannot ever be final. New data will always force revisions and reassessments. Although Leibnitz was probably the last individual to be able to write an encyclopaedia, some still hope that perhaps computerisation will one day analyse all `facts' within the cosmos. One time Van Til student E J Carnell embodies an exaggerated Christian version of exhaustive knowledge when he says that 'time and illumination alone stop us from understanding the entire revelation of God'.


Van Til links this pretentious ideal of knowledge with the univocal theory of language. This view of language and knowing says that man and God know the same things in the same way, and the only difference is that God knows a lot more. On this univocal theory, given time and effort, man might one day know as much as God. Unfortunately, it cuts across the vital Creator/ creature distinction and blurs important doctrines such as the incomprehensibility and transcendence of God. Van Til holds that revelational language is neither univocal (continuity through identical meaning) nor equivocal (discontinuity through ambiguous, relative or multiple meanings as in much non-evangelical thought) but analogical (like meaning). This view, a subject of heated debate even between orthodox Calvinists, seems to avoid the extremities of the other two, and acknowledges God's sovereignty in that his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways not our ways (Isa 55:8-9 ).


The Bible does not teach all the facts but does teach the truth about all the facts. Our wisdom is to grasp providence, salvation and coming judgement, and so provide purpose and meaning. The believer is marked by humility and trust rather than pride.


6. Is disquieted


There is unease in the realms of formal thought. This is pre-eminently a post-modern world of rapid transitions. Restrictive naturalistic and mechanistic views of the world have crumbled in an age that is intolerant of meta-narratives and any affirmations  of absolute truth. 'Truth' is privatised and may be subjectively valid for a person or group, but no 'triumphalism' or universal truth claims are permitted. Chill winds are blowing in the once optimistic civilised Western mind-set. Van Til would not have been surprised by this vast sea change.


This cultural transformation is parallel in scope to the historic shift into the Enlightenment - except that the current massive swing is away from the rational, intellectual, individual and objective, and towards the intuitive, affective, collective and subjective. Aristotle's three ways of knowing; deduction, induction and intuition, are facing some challenges in the light of post-modern methods. Michael Polanyi's promotion of the roles of intuition, personal judgement, world views and imagination in his approach to 'tacit knowing' has helped to move the debate beyond old secular scientific boundaries. Deconstructionism has replaced concepts such as Foundationalism in current attempts to describe reality.


Historical Utopias once proposed or celebrated by optimistic writers such as Carl. Becker and H G Wells became mired in the military realities of the mid-twentieth century, and their outcomes were dolefully lamented in Modern Democracy (Becker) and Mind at The End of its Tether (Wells). The failure of technology to control evil is widely noted, and 'progress' is generally rejected.


Other examples of this massive alteration in the Western outlook could be cited, but such a large scale abandonment of long cherished principles fits snugly with Van Til's epistemology. He sees all godless philosophies as fluctuating between Rationalism and Irrationalism, and expects each one to come inevitably to its end. Instead of being overawed by their representatives, the Christian has a duty to expose their fault-lines:


`Apologeties, like systematics, is valuable to the precise extent that it presses the truth upon the attention of the natural man. The natural man must be blasted out of his hideouts, his caves, his last lurking places.'


His analysis of the secular scientific approach of his day produces judicious word pictures. He holds that, as all facts are God-created, the natural man has valid knowledge 'only as a thief possesses goods', and that humanistic scientists rely on knowledge from Christian sources as a cattle rustler depends on stock from honest ranchers! He adds:


`Non-Christian science has worked with the borrowed capital of Christian Theism and for that reason alone has been able to bring to light much truth.'


If he were alive today, perhaps the professor may have interpreted some of the post-modern changes as the result of the Western world's beginning to live out consistently its non-Christian presuppositions. He might very well add that it has played out all the way to an irrationalistic reductio ad absurdum. Whatever the prevailing thought forms to be addressed, the professor would always be ready with pastoral spirit and incisive acumen:


'Moreover it is true that the more consistently Christian our methodology, the less acceptable it will be to the natural man ... A patient may like a doctor who tells him that his disease can be cured by means of external applications and dislike the doctor who tells him that he needs a major internal operation. Yet the latter doctor may be right in his diagnosis... He who loves men most will tell them the truth about themselves in their own interest.'


There is a further factor which should be included and I am sure that Van Til would have concurred.


7. Is worldly


The unregenerate mind is fully wedded to this world. This world has taken over the place of God. 'My people have committed two sins. They have forsaken me the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns, that cannot hold water' (Jer 2:13 ). There is that terse word of James, 'You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God' (James 4:4 ).


Like the pig at his trough so the unregenerate mind must and will feed on that which is unclean in God's sight. The degree to which fallen men will stoop to satisfy their carnal desires varies. Hence the mighty flood of novels,films, videos and TV which portray the depravity of mankind in lust, adultery, violence and murder.


When a person is born again there is an immediate cleansing together with a radical break with sin and the world and with the quagmire it represents. But as believers well know this is not straightforward. Sinful remnants remain. Sanctification is progressive. There is the struggle described in Romans 7 . A love of the world can cause the believer much stress and this involves a spiritual battle. 'For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature, (Gal 5:17 ). There are many exhortations in Scripture to flee worldliness such as 1 John 2:15-17 . This conflict in the believer is not a conflict in the unregenerate person who is absorbed wholly by this world.



The radical experience that every man needs is regeneration, or the new birth, without which, Jesus declares, no-one can see or enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3-5 ).


Van Til concludes that regeneration is prior to knowing. Unregenerate thought processes cannot think God's thoughts after him, or accept his version of reality. The professor continues by showing that not only is being prior to knowing but also knowing is prior to behaving (i.e. the order is: ontology – epistemology – ethics). So, regenerate being, enlightened knowledge and godly conduct hang together in that sequence. What a man is determines how he thinks, and those in turn settle what he does.


Regeneration, then, is a fundamental, transforming work of the Holy Spirit, which begins the renewal and restoration of man, the image-bearer of God, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. This aspect of Van Til's contribution is largely a mainstream Reformed treatment of how man's faculties (intellect, will and affections) are restored in principle to their proper place, function, motivations, preoccupations and relations (Col 3:10 etc). Once again, reason functions in subordination to revelation and no longer aspires to ultimacy. It knows its derived nature, and as it grows in epistemological self-awareness it seeks to bring every area of life into captivity to Christ. It is content to be an analogue of God, a finite replica of its Creator. The regenerate mind also must function with the authentication that only the Holy Spirit of truth can give.


John Campbell - Copyright

Last Updated on Friday, 21 March 2014 10:54  

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