Originally posted here in Westminster Magazine.
I’m a Matthew 5:9 child. Were my heart a forest, peace would be the log cabin deep in the woods, with a spindling smoke trail winding above the evergreen. Still. Settled. Quiet. And longing to stay that way.
But my heart isn’t a forest. Peace isn’t tucked away in the woods. The world is loud and broken. There is so much shouting, and sarcasm, and caricatures, and reductionism. In the loud world, my heart might as well be in Times Square—shaken by the decibels of discontent. Today’s controversies and disagreements literally make my stomach turn. Awkward pauses reeking with judgment swell my throat. Heart palpitations thunder when I watch people cut each other off. So, when I finished watching a recent documentary on identity, you can imagine how I felt.
But what struck me by the end of watching was how many unspoken assumptions weren’t voiced—assumptions that would’ve explained so much not just about what people thought but why. If we don’t know why someone thinks something, conversation is bound to get hijacked by misunderstanding, and offense isn’t far behind. Assumptions—our own—is where we need to start before we engage with anyone who differs from us. And in a culture where Christianity is continually marginalized, we’re going to meet a lot of people who differ from us.
THREE TYPES OF ASSUMPTIONS
Assumptions are the countries we live in, the things we walk on. They are the patterns of thought and underlying conditions our feet always find. We live on our assumptions in order to function in the world. And there’s no one on the planet who doesn’t have the three main types of assumptions I’ll discuss in this article. The academic labels for these are metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. But we’re simply talking about what exists, how we know things, and what makes something right or wrong.
If we want to engage peaceably with people who differ from us, we need to know what our assumptions are in these areas, and then we can use conversation to discover where others stand in the same areas. This doesn’t mean we’ll then be more likely to agree with others in the broader culture. In fact, for Christians, what we assume about metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics will ensure we’ll likely disagree with most people. But at least we’ll know why. And we’ll also establish a clear means for our conversation partners to express their own views. This can at least provide civility in a world where polarization and the demonization of dissenters reigns.
What exists and where did it come from? The first part of that question seems simple enough, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not) how much variation there is in today’s world of what Charles Taylor called expressive individualism. For now, let’s break up Christian assumptions about metaphysics into two points. And then we’ll need to draw a conclusion about our identity, which is the screaming topic of our culture and an important facet of public theology.
First, as Christians, our basic assumption is that this world isn’t all there is. There is God, who made and governs all things, and then there is the world, creation. Theologians call this the Creator-creature distinction, and Cornelius Van Til was adamant about its centrality. He said we must “begin our interpretation of reality upon the presupposition of the Creator-creature distinction as basic to everything else.” As Christopher Watkin wrote recently,
This creator-creature distinction sets the biblical account apart from the dominant picture of reality in our own culture, which holds that there is only one sort of existence, often with conflict at its heart. This view is summed up in the words of Carl Sagan, ‘The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or evil will be.’ It is a monism, or what Van Til called a ‘one-circle’ view.
Second, everything we see around us came from and is sustained by the speech of God. This highlights not only the deeply personal nature of our world but also the centrality of Scripture, as God’s personal word to us. As Vern Poythress wrote, “Scripture is our natural instructor as to the metaphysics of the world, since the metaphysics of the world is completely determined and specified by God’s speech governing the world, and his speech takes place in Christ the Word (John1:1).” The speech of the Trinity has shaped and stewarded every fleck of the material universe—from the silent stars to your cereal spoon. We exist because he spoke. We find our identity, purpose, and meaning in that speech. As Christians, we cannot account for what exists or even who we are apart from God speaking.
Now, third, what does this mean about our identity, about who we are? In looking to the speech of God for our answer, Christians must say image bearers, one of the earlier teachings of Scripture (Gen. 1:26–28). But we can go further, since many people (even Christians) don’t really know what this means. To be an image bearer of God means that we holistically resemble him on a creaturely level. We are, as Carl Trueman restated recently, mimetic creatures. We imitate. We look at God’s hand in history and in our own lives. And then, by the power of God’s own Spirit, we do what he does as little reflectors of his eternal light, a light of truth, love, and beauty. The image of God covers everything that we think, say, or do.
But this holistic imitation always has a relational goal. Put in the words of the Dutch theologian Geerhardus Vos,
That man bears God’s image means much more than that he is spirit and possesses understanding, will, etc. It means above all that he is disposed for communion with God, that all the capacities of his soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God. . . . According to the deeper Protestant conception, the image does not exist only in correspondence with God but in being disposed toward God. God’s nature is, as it were, the stamp; our nature is the impression made by this stamp. Both fit together.
Everything that we do turns us toward the ineradicable want and need for communion with the God who made us. We are communion creatures.
Given that truth about human identity, notice how we would greet all the different sorts of people in our culture who hold to other views of identity on the political spectrum. I say this because only the image of God gives people the deeply sought-for meaning and value so many debates about personhood revolve around.
- To the unborn baby in his mother’s womb: Hello, image bearer of the eternal, tripersonal God.
- To the newly born infant struggling for life: Hello, image bearer of the eternal, tripersonal God.
- To the teenager selling donuts at the local bakery: Hello, image bearer of the eternal, tripersonal God.
- To the senior citizen battling cancer: Hello, image bearer of the eternal, tripersonal God.
- To everyone in the LGBTQ+ community: Hello, image bearer of the eternal, tripersonal God.
- To the atheist and agnostic: Hello, image bearer of the eternal, tripersonal God.
Our identity is grounded not in what we do or what political cause we uphold or what social demographic we call our home. Identity is grounded in something beyond us, something transcendent. The problems we encounter with our unstable meanings for the word identity arise because the world has replaced transcendence with immanence; they look only at what’s in front of them, never at what’s beyond them.
But what’s beyond us is the only thing that can provide us with lasting value, meaning, and purpose. God has identified us as his own reflections. And here’s the good news for anyone and everyone who has ever or will ever feel victimized or slighted by the culture (even the religious culture): That. Will. Not. Change. No matter what political storms swell, no matter what partisan politics are at play, no matter what you claim as your gender or as not your gender—you have inherent value, meaning, and purpose because of how you were made. Full stop. Praise the God who speaks. He knows who I am, and I don’t have to prove that to anyone, though I may have to defend it in a world that tries to place identity elsewhere.
What exists and who we are deeply tied to what and how we know things (epistemology). And how we know things is deeply tied to a word that’s always bitter on today’s tongue: obedience. But more on that in a minute.
How do we know things, and how do we decide what’s true or false? You may already know the answer from the previous section: the speech of God. But this speech takes two forms: general and special. What I’m calling “speech” here is traditionally called “revelation,” so I’m using the term “speech” in a broader sense. Everything we know—about God, ourselves, and the world—is a divine gift of uncovering. And God is the giver. We rely on him in knowing anything. As Vern Poythress wrote, “God is the ultimate source of knowledge and also the standard for knowledge. But it is also important to say that our knowledge of him is mediated through revelation. So we are always in a position of dependence, in which we depend not only on God himself, but also on tacit knowledge that God has given us.”
But this may sound very strange to people outside the Christian faith. Why do we need to have God’s speech if we want to know things? The short answer: because knowing is an act of interpreting—revealing the meaning of something—and God is the grand interpreter. He’s the ultimate giver, the original interpreter. As image bearers, we are reinterpreters. Cornelius Van Til put it this way: “the existence and meaning of the human interpreter must be brought into a relation of subordination to God as the ultimate interpreter. . . . The Spirit of God searches the deep things of God. It follows from this that any human interpreters would have to be derivative interpreters or reinterpreters.” If we want to know things, to see the meaning in our lives and in the world around us, we don’t work alone. We look and listen. And God speaks. He speaks in Scripture, and he tells us how to interpret his general speech in the natural world.
What can be easy to forget is that all the experiences we have aren’t just experiences. We’re not surrounded by mute landscapes and raw material we can manipulate at will. Everything that’s here already has meaning, and it finds that meaning in God’s revealed plan for redeeming all things. We know anything—from our sense of right and wrong to our measurement systems to John 3:16—through God’s revelation, God’s speech. That speech can come to us either generally in the natural world or specifically in Scripture. In both cases, we know by speech.
Note how profoundly personal this is, in contrast with many secular approaches that might just say we know things by experience or through reason. We know things because God—the ever-present, constantly communicating, I-will-give-my-Son-for-you Spirit—has spoken, and he still speaks to us in his word.
What about ethics? Ethics is the study of right and wrong. And once again, Christians take their ethical standards from God’s speech in Scripture and in the natural world, including our God-given conscience. In fact, even the previous assumption about how we know things is an ethical assumption, and it’s tied to metaphysics, too.
If we’re made as God’s image bearers (metaphysics), called to imitate and commune with him, then knowledge (epistemology) is just one of the areas where we imitate and commune. But knowing is also an ethical endeavor. That’s why John Frame speaks about knowledge as being either obedient or disobedient. Those are ethical labels, and yet Frame was writing about epistemology. He can do this precisely because “in seeking to know anything, our first concern is to discover what our Lord thinks about it and to agree with his judgment, to think his thoughts after him.” Can you see the ethical dimension to knowledge?
But most of the time, our focus is on whether an action is right or wrong. We can say more than just, “If God says it’s right, then it is, and vice versa.” Scripture directs us to three areas (also captured in WCF 16.7)—motive, standard, and goal, and each of those is shaped by the speech of God. Motive points to the heart and sincere faith (Rom. 14:23), and yet our hearts are stones until the breath of God draws them up from the dust (Ezek. 36:26; John 3). It’s through the Word (John 1:1), the speech of God incarnate, that we receive a spiritual pulse. Standard is set by the speech of God because only God’s word can tell us what standard to hold, notably in the Ten Commandments and in the teachings of Jesus to sacrifice ourselves for others (see 1 John 3:4, where God’s spoken commandments set the standard for goodness vs. lawlessness). Lastly, our goal is to glorify the God who speaks, and he tells us to do that in his word: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). In all three areas, we look to the speech of God for our direction and ongoing growth in holiness.
In sum, those are the three fundamental types of assumptions we have. These serve as the grounds for why we believe what we believe, and they’ll help us understand why we differ from others who have opposing views. Here’s the short form:
- What exists? The independent, trinitarian God and his creation, all of which finds its meaning and identity in him.
- How do you know things or define the truth? By the revelation of God in the world and in Scripture. We find truth, understanding, and beauty by thinking God’s thoughts after him.
- How do you know what’s right and wrong? Through God’s revelation, which shapes my heart, provides the standard, and helps me glorify my Maker.
We’re all going to be engaging with those who differ from us, but the differences and disagreements don’t need to lead to animosity and a complete absence of civility. Dialogue is meant to be an open exchange of expressions, not a contest to see how loudly we can bark out an argument before slamming a door (if that door slamming is a block on social media).
And, what’s more, our culture needs our engagement right now because the world is dark and deeply confused. And light is the only means out of darkness. Becoming more acquainted with those who differ from us isn’t easy. And if you’re like me, it may bring a good deal of discomfort and anxiety with it. But it’s a matter of light. As Cornelius Van Til said at a Westminster convocation in 1955,
To preach Christ as the Light of the world we must know the world and its ways of darkness. Christ with unequaled keenness signalized that which was Satanic in the hearts and lives of men. But He did so in order to liberate them from it. We too must know the way of Satan in this world, but we must know it primarily in order to preach the Christ as the One through whom the prisoners of darkness may see the light of truth.
As we hold to our God-given assumptions in a dark world, we can speak calmly and lovingly to people desperate for the two foundational desires of human beings: to be completely known and completely loved. Failing to have dialogue would preclude knowing others deeply; failing to stand on our assumptions would preclude loving them truly.
 See Camden M. Bucey, “Van Til and the Creator-Creature Relation,” Reformed Forum, February 17, 2020, https://reformedforum.org/van-til-and-the-creator-creature-relation/.
 Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2022), 56–57.
 Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 107.
 Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 39.
 Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: A System of Christian Theology, ed. and trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2020), 231–232.
 Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy, 215–216.
 Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, 2nd ed., ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 60.
 John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R,2013), 705–714.
 Frame, Systematic Theology, 708.
 Frame, Systematic Theology, 1102–1103.
 Cornelius Van Til, “On Preaching Christ,” 1955 Convocation Address, Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA.