Is There Such a Thing as “Common Ground” Between the Believer and the Unbeliever? – A Response

The purpose of this post is to shed light on the question of whether or not a Christian has any common ground with the unbeliever.  This is an important question.  Filbert might say:  “How silly! Of course there is common ground.  After all, some common concepts must be held between any two people who want to have a conversation.”  Filbert has a point.  If Cornelius Van Til asked Filbert where he could find a hot dog stand, and if Filbert pointed to the hot dog stand across the street, we would have to conclude that Fil and Til have a great deal of common concepts in mind such as: what a hot dog stand is, what pointing represents, what a question is, and even some basic laws of thought.  Yet, some have asserted that there is no common ground between the believer and the unbeliever because all of the unbeliever’s actions, motivations, desires, and thoughts stem from a desire to serve himself and disregard God.  Presumably, if the believer’s actions, motivations, desires, and thoughts stem from a desire to serve God, none of them will be held in common with the unbeliever.

Jeff Waddington
Jeff Waddington

 

An article titled: Is There Such a Thing as “Common Ground” Between the Believer and the Unbeliever? by Jeffrey C. Waddington at reformedforum.org begins with the answer:

 

No and yes. It all depends on what you mean.

 

It does depend on what you mean.  Good show.  Two of the most prominent students of Cornelius Van Til, namely Dr. Bahnsen and Dr. Frame, have criticized Van Til’s use of undefined confusing terminology. Many followers of Van Til have expressed a desire that people cease communicating Van Til’s thought by means of his own terminology, because it was vague, undefined, confusing, and sometimes unnecessarily divisive.  In this article, brother Waddington recognizes Filbert’s objection and desires to respond to it saying that the view that there is no common ground between believer and non-believer

 

…strikes readers new to Van Til as odd since they think they share common notions with unbelievers all day, every day, in every way. After all, doesn’t the Christian baker use the same recipe and ingredients as the non-Christian baker when he bakes chocolate chip cookies?  This is a good question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.

 

In order to respond, Waddington takes a detour through some basics of the Christian worldview.  He argues for two facts:  (1) there is a difference between God and his creation and (2) there is a radical rift between God and his creation.  I wondered if number two is just an example of number one, but, more importantly, the reader wonders how these two facts relate to Filbert’s objection and Waddington’s cookie scenario.  The reader has to wait and see.

 

In the next section, Waddington points out that the second problem, the radical rift fact, has been solved by God through the redemptive work of Christ.  So, he focuses on the first problem, the difference between God and his creation.  He lists off some differences between God and man.  One particular difference Waddington notes will drag us off track for a minute:

 

God created everything not God from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) and he upholds it in existence. This is typically referred to as the “Creator-creature distinction” and it is basic to understanding who God is and the world in which we live, move, and have our being which he has created.

 

The relevance of this digression to the subject at hand will likely not be understood by speed readers.  The latter half of his statement above is a paraphrase of Acts 17:28 where the Apostle Paul says a similar, but not identical, thing.  Waddington said that we live, move, and have our being, in the world, but Paul says we live, move, and have our being in God.  Paul says:

 

God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:27-28)

 

Waddington does not mean to equate the world with God does he?  I doubt it.  He said that God created this world in which we live, yet Paul says that we actually live inside God, who is uncreated.  If we all live and have our being in God, does this serve as another example of common ground?  And how is it that an unchanging God can create something that is within Himself and continues to change within Himself? And if, as Waddington says, God is indivisible yet spatially present at all locations, how can anything be rightly called “in” God?  Can Waddington sort out this puzzle with his underlying Thomistic metaphysical substructure without having to crawl to Augustinian Realism?  I doubt it.[1]

 

I digress.  Waddington says that other significant differences between God and man are that God is infinite, man is finite.  God is omniscient, man is ignorant of some things.  God is everywhere, man is only one place at once.  God is simple and uncomposed, man is composed of parts.[2]  Much of the discussion on the attributes of God is worthwhile and helpful.

 

Next, Waddington moves to the relationship between man and the creator.  Here, he draws us back to the point at issue:

 

Everything in creation speaks to us about the creator God. Knowledge is not true knowledge that doesn’t take this God connection into account. True knowledge involves knowing individual facts and their circumstances. In other words, true knowledge of a given fact requires that we understand how that individual fact relates to God and his plan. If we deny a single fact relates to God we undermine our knowledge of that fact. This is the worst sort of atomism.

 

Here, the Filbert’s and the Luke Miner’s of this world begin to scratch their heads.  Some of us assume that we aren’t philosophically gifted enough to grasp this sort of argument.  Some of us dig in our heels.  Waddington reasons from the fact that everything “speaks” about God to the conclusion that “knowledge is not true knowledge that doesn’t take this God connection into account” and we are at a loss as to how to follow. This seems to be a colossal non-sequitur.  Yet, it is the critical connection between everything Waddington wrote previously and the supposed implications that follow.  Then, he asserts that to know facts involves knowing their circumstances as well.  How are we to understand this?  No explanation is given.  Presumably, Waddington would not deny that “their circumstances” are, themselves, facts.  So, to know a fact, one must also know related facts.  But which ones?  All facts are related to each other in at least one way; that is that they are all facts.  Surely Waddington does not mean that to know one fact, one must know all facts.  The facts that he seems most concerned with are the facts that relate other facts to God.  Of course, all Filbert means by “common ground” is the facts without their relation to God, so this doesn’t seem to meet the issue.  To be fair, perhaps Waddington did not want to get off in the philosophical weeds here.  However, Filbert and I feel that his common-ground objection is squarely planted in the midst of such weeds (right next to Waddington’s cookie objection), so Waddington must come and risk the thistles in order to meet it.

Cornelius Van Til
Cornelius Van Til

 

Under the next heading, Waddington discusses the differences between believer and non-believer and attempts to bring his discussion of the attributes of God to bear on the topic at hand.  He writes that the believer has begun a new direction in obedience to God, where the unbeliever continues to suppress God.

These rebels seek to ignore or deny God and his Word and his claim on them even though they live in the world he has created. They always live in his presence and know it.

As an aside, we, that is Filbert and I, wonder how Waddington reconciles his statement with his no-common-ground view, since both believers and non-believers “…always live in his [God’s] presence and they know it.”  As Waddingon points out, the non-Christian seeks to suppress this knowledge, yet both believer and non-believer know it.

 

Now, we finally get to the punch.

 

Is there common ground between the Christian and the non-Christian? In terms of ideas or notions or concepts, there cannot be because all factors of knowledge are related to the Triune God of the Bible and the Christian affirms this and seeks to live his life in light of this. The non-Christian seeks not to live his life in light of this. There may be formal similarity between, say, a Christian’s idea of freedom and the non-Christian’s idea of freedom. But since the Christian recognizes that freedom bears a relation to God and that this relation permeates the whole definition of freedom it will differ from the non-Christian’s understanding.

 

I am devastated to find out that Waddington believes that Filbert and Van Til did not actually have the same common knowledge of what a hot dog stand is.  Not only does Van Til simply believe that God is the creator an Lord of all things including hot dog stands, but the “whole definition” of hot dog stand is permeated by this specific difference.  If part of Filbert’s definition of hot dog stand is “sells hot dogs,” are we to conclude that Van Til’s definition can’t include “sells hot dogs.” unless it is appended “sells hot dogs created and ruled by God”?  This is partly in jest, but the real question is that if Waddington doesn’t mean this, what does he mean?  In his introduction, he set down a discrete practical objection with cookies and bakers, but he answers us without a discrete practical solution.

 

More disappointing is the weasel phrase “there may be formal similarity.”  Now we wonder what Waddington is actually arguing for.  Does he grant formal common ground?  Are we to believe that all this time he has been merely arguing for the idea that there is no “informal” common ground between the believer and the unbeliever?  We wish we could drag Waddington with us into the weeds of formality and clarity, just as so many before tried to do to Van Til, but found that, as soon as you get clear and formal, as soon as you drag this contention into the light, it crumbles into vagueness.  Not only God is incomprehensible, but also Van Til’s doctrine of no-common-ground.  What if the only common ground Filbert wants to argue for is the formal common ground that Waddington grants him?

 

He continues:

 

However, because both the Christian and the non-Christian are created in the image of God and live in God’s world and are surrounded by his revelation there is this key thing in common. This is a factual metaphysical commonality. It is not a conceptual commonality.

 

Earlier, Waddington stressed the necessity of explaining what we mean by common ground.  I don’t see how “factual metaphysical” and “conceptual commonality” help much.  For helping us clarify common ground, at best, Waddington has pointed out some examples of common ground, and some examples of non-common ground, and left us with two nebulous categories in which to sort them.  Presumably, concepts can’t be metaphysical facts.  What about my concept that all dogs are mammals?  Isn’t that a metaphysical fact?  We can’t tell because we don’t know what Waddington means here.  We also are left wondering if Waddington would allow for “formal” conceptual commonality between the believer and the unbeliever.

 

So, as I finally begin put down the ventriloquist act, Filbert and I are left with a vague conclusion.  The believer has common ground with the unbeliever in a factual metaphysical sense and not in an informal conceptual sense.  Even if I agreed with Waddington’s argumentation up to the conclusion, I still would have no idea how to sort particular facts into what is and isn’t common ground.  His conclusion just isn’t clear enough.  In order to support this conclusion, Waddington argued that there is a difference between God and man and explains some of these differences.  He, then, made an important leap through a non-sequitur that deserves re-quoting:

 

Everything in creation speaks to us about the creator God. Knowledge is not true knowledge that doesn’t take this God connection into account. True knowledge involves knowing individual facts and their circumstances.

Three Types of Religious Philosophy
Three Types of Religious Philosophy

 

Even if Waddington had clearly explained what he meant by “common ground” in this article, such an argument cannot take the premise that God is different than man and validly move to the conclusion that there is no common ground between believer and non-believer.  This article has argued against Jeffrey Waddington’s opinions on the common ground problem, not against Jeffrey Waddington himself.  My exposition of his argument, courteous disagreement, and hopefully accurate portrayal of his views were meant to show gratitude and respectful appreciation for his work.  However, based on the considerations expressed in this article, I think the topic is more accurately handled by Gordon Clark in his book: Three Types of Religious Philosophy.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Take it as a jab, not as an insult.

[2] I wonder how God can be everywhere yet not in many places in particular, as God’s simplicity requires.

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  • gus gianello

    Good rebuttal. We know where this is going. Van Til, there is no point of univocity between man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge because man cannot know anything exhaustively. Since i cannot know the facts that support the facts, and this is in fact an infinite regression, i cannot know. Only God can know. Not only that, but God cannot even reveal the “facts” to me, because I cannot know exhaustively, only discursively, and my process of knowledge acquirement is not intuitive like God’s, but only successive and chronological. Therefore, I cannot know, therefore there is no common ground.

    Clark rightly opposes such nonsense. Men are made as the image of God, and come into this world with the inner teacher, teaching them. Sinful men are like a stopped clock–they are right at least twice a day. They do not experience this knowledge through knowledge acquisition as knowledge, because they can give no account of it, denying that all knowledge both a priori and a posteriori comes from God. Therefore, there IS common ground and that common ground is the epistemological structure of logic, which is God thinking, for we all live and move and have our being in God. Believer and unbeliever can say “hotdog” and mean exactly the same thing. The common ground is the imago dei. BUT where Clark really shines, is demonstrating that this common ground for communication can only be used negatively. The believer cannot use this common ground to persuade the unbeliever to believe. Van Til asserts that there is no common ground but also asserted that the unbeliever CAN be persuaded, and that one of the vehicles to do so are the traditional proofs of God which according to him are VALID. Clark says “there is common ground” but the unbeliever cannot be persuaded, because all common ground does is allow us to communicate NOT persuade. The SYSTEMS of thought, the world view is different, therefore there is no common ground when we talk about epistemic significance. Both believer and unbeliever look at the sky and see glory, therefore they communicate. But what do they communicate? The believer says “see the glory of God” and the unbeliever says “see the glory of the nebulas”. There is no systemic cohesion, there is no systemic common ground.

    Therefore all we can do is silence the unbeliever with ad hominems using reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate the internal incoherence of his world view, and when he is silenced, proclaim the Gospel to him, praying that the sovereign Spirit will regenerate him. THEN and only then will we not only have common ground, but have a common world view, where every fact has a theocentric significance. Van Til is right, there is no “brute factuality” every fact speaks of God, but he erred in concluding that because there is no “brute factuality” there is no common ground. The image of God is common ground, and Van Til is proved preposterously wrong, because when a believer shouts “there is fire in the theater” every unbeliever, including atheists, runs for the exits. But he would say “it was the providence of God that i saw the fire” whereas the rescued atheist would say, “boy am i lucky you came along.”

    Keep up the good work.

    Dr. Gus Gianello
    Issachar Biblical Institute
    issachar.institute@gmail.com