Dr. Van Til or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plato’s Cave

When I wrote the post “Cornelius Van Til and Charlie Clough’s Bible Framework Course” last year I chronicled my discovery of, and my final rejection of, Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. Part of what drove my curiosity about Van Til’s apologetic was that I couldn’t quite understand how he constructed his system. Sure, every step in the system had a Bible verse quoted to justify it but everyone does that. It really bothered me that Van Til’s system did not jump out at me from the pages of scripture and I could not understand where he got many parts of it from. Notice the use of the word “couldn’t” in the past tense. I now understand Van Til because I now understand Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and I don’t believe that is an accident.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
When I was a sophomore in High School one of my teachers introduced my class to the Allegory of the Cave. To me it was one of the worst examples of academic “navel gazing” that I had ever encountered. Little did I realize that, 35 years later, I would actually need to understand it order to understand a popular theology.

This graphic may help some of you who are not familiar with Plato’s allegory:


Here is a short summary of Plato’s Cave Analogy via Michael Vlach:

Plato used the analogy of the cave to illustrate his idea of forms. The analogy goes like this:

Imagine several prisoners who have been chained up in a cave for all of their lives. They have never been outside the cave. They face a wall in the cave and they can never look at the entrance of the cave. Sometimes animals, birds, people, or other objects pass by the entrance of the cave casting a shadow on the wall inside the cave. The prisoners see the shadows on the wall and mistakenly view the shadows as reality.

However, one man breaks free from his chains and runs out of the cave. For the first time, he sees the real world and now knows that it is far beyond the shadows he had been seeing. He sees real birds and animals, not just shadows of birds and animals.

This man is excited about what he sees and he goes back to his fellow prisoners in the cave to tell them about the real world. But to his astonishment, they don’t believe him. In fact, they are angry with him. They say the shadows are reality and that the escaped prisoner is crazy for saying otherwise.

POINT OF THE CAVE ANALOGY: According to Plato, the world outside the cave represents the world of forms while the shadows on the wall represent objects in the physical world. The escape of the prisoner represents philosophical enlightenment and the realization that forms are the true reality. Most people are like the prisoners in the cave. They think the shadows are reality. Philosophers, though, are like the man who escapes the cave and sees the real world. They have true knowledge.

“Christianizing” Plato’s Cave
It is a fairly simple task to define the elements of Plato’s Cave in a somewhat Christian manner which makes the analogy seem Christian, deep, and “profound.”

God/Trinity is the  Light: Cornelius Van Til was always very clear that the ultimate reality is the Trinity which created all of us and everything we perceive. The more we understand the Trinity the more truth we know. The Trinity replaces Plato’s forms in the allegory.

The Prisoners: The prisoners are all of humanity. None of us can perceive reality but we can perceive a two dimensional, black and white version of it flickering on the wall of the cave. This is where Van Til’s concept of “analogical knowledge” comes from. No human can know truth the way God knows truth (only God Himself understands the Trinity in its totality) so we know truth “analogically.”

Of course there is one modification to the allegory that needs to be made at this point. In Van Til’s theology no unbeliever can even see the shadows, unbelievers are completely blind and incapable of perceiving any light.  It is only by an act of God that the unbeliever becomes one of the elect who can now see. This is completely in keeping with Calvinism’s teaching that no person can believe on their own, God chooses winners (believers) and losers (unbelievers).

The Chains: The chains that keep man bound are his sin and total depravity (the “T” in TULIP).

Escaping the Cave: Plato had a prisoner escape the Cave to find reality (the world of forms). Van Til really has no parallel for this since no human will ever know truth as it actually exists (there is no escape from the Cave for Van Til). However I do believe that Van Til, like other Calvinists, does believe that Calvinist theologians and pastors have more of the truth (light) than the “sheep” sitting in the pews. The Calvinist pastor is a close counterpart to the “philosopher-kings” that Plato believed should rule the world. Of course Plato’s philosopher-kings were the people who had escaped from the Cave.

Didn’t Van Til Swear Off All Pagan Philosophy?
The answer to that is both “yes and no.” In truth no protestant can hold up a pagan philosopher as having something of value for the Christian without being laughed out of the room. However Cornelius Van Til threw intellectual stones at Aristotle (Plato’s main antagonist over the centuries) at every opportunity but he does not treat Plato with the same bile. If any of you have listened to Charlie Clough’s Bible Framework series you will have heard him denounce “Aristotelian categories” many times.

For instance here is a telling quote from Van Til which tells a bit about his feeling toward Plato:

Those that are not God’s people are portrayed to us as being in darkness, and those that are God’s people are portrayed to us as living in the light of the Son of God.

Those in darkness have had their own prophets to speak to them. Plato, for instance, the great Greek philosopher, in that matchless allegory of the cave, spoke of men as being chained by their necks, their heads turned into the cave, away from the sunlight back of them. They can see only shadows on the wall. They hear only echoes. It seems that these shadows are speaking with one another. And these echoes and shadows typify mankind. And when one of these men, for some reason Plato cannot explain, has His chains removed and comes to the sunlight and sees things as they really are, and then goes back to his fellowmen who are still bound, they will not believe him. They say he is seeing visions and has been dreaming dreams. They think they are the ones that see the truth, and that he is a visionary who has imagined things for himself, so that he talks wildly about seeing the sun and the colors of the rainbow. He is a dreamer.

Yet he has seen the sun, and he it is who does see things as they are. And he proclaims the truth of God to men. So the Apostle says that it is we, God’s people, who have been given this task, to bring the light of the gospel to those in darkness, that they too may be translated out of the darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son.

And as ministers of the gospel we of the New Testament dispensation are not only taken out of darkness into light, but also in distinction from Old Testament believers we have a greater fullness of light. It is of that greater fullness of the light of the gospel which New Testament ministers preach and teach that this text speaks.

Notice these three points. We New Testament believers and preachers see better than Old Testament believers and preachers did. Secondly we see more. We see something they did not see. We see the glory of the Lord. And in the third place, we are changed more thoroughly than they were. As a result of what we have seen, we are changed as by the Spirit of the Lord.

A More Excellent Ministry
Sermon at an ordination service
The Presbyterian Guardian
Volume 22, Pages 166ff

In the end I believe that Van Til’s apologetic/worldview/theology never made sense to me because he didn’t get it from scripture. I know that some people will strongly disagree with that but it is the only way I can explain why I couldn’t understand Van Til until I understood Plato’s Cave.

Explore posts in the same categories: Apologetics

3 Comments on “Dr. Van Til or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plato’s Cave”

  1. Dave Says:

    I recently listened to a series of podcasts on the history of philosophy that helped me understand how Christians came to appropriate Plato through the neo-Platonists, especially Augustine. The Christian church spent hundreds of years enmeshed in the neo-Platonic debates over whether Plato or Aristotle was greater and which parts of each to keep or throw away.

  2. Glenn Says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thank you for the comment. If you visit my blog again I would like it if you would provide a link to the podcast you mentioned. I would like to check it out and maybe someone else will find this post in the future and find it helpful.

    I had read years ago that the Roman Catholic Church believes that Aristotle is probably in heaven. Teaching that Aristotle is in heaven and Luther in hell is a monument to what happens when philosophy pushes scripture aside.


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