Categories: Theology, Van Til
By Patrick McWilliams
Cornelius Van Til was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who is well-known today for his apologetic method and his views on analogical knowledge and paradoxical theology. While many uphold Van Til as a bastion of orthodoxy in the Presbyterian church, his view of Scripture as paradoxical – appearing to be contradictory – was actually anti-Confessional. Van Til argued:
Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. -Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 61.
… while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 9.
All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory. Ibid., 142.
According to Van Til, God’s Word, all throughout Scripture, appears to our human minds to be logically contradictory. Indeed, he even made the claim that to even attempt to demonstrate the logical consistency of certain doctrines (e.g. divine sovereignty and human responsibility) was to fall prey to the error of “Rationalism.” (See The Text of a Complaint)
Is this true? Is this orthodox? Is this Confessional?
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God… (Westminster Confession of Faith, I.v)
According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, all the parts of Holy Scripture, rather than being “apparently contradictory,” logically consent. In fact, the Confession takes this truth as being so obviously foundational that it actually claims it as an argument for Scripture being the Word of God. If “all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory,” as Van Til claimed, how can “the consent of all the parts” be used to support it as being the Word of God? How would we, being finite creatures, even be able to see “the consent of all the parts,” if Scripture appears to our minds utterly contradictory?
Zacharias Ursinus, primary author and editor of the Heidelberg Catechism, had this to say in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism:
The harmony of the different parts of the doctrine of the church, is an evidence of its truth. That doctrine which contradicts itself can neither be true, nor from God, since truth is in perfect harmony with itself, and God cannot contradict himself (7).
Scripture does not contradict itself. Any apparent contradiction we perceive is merely a problem with our own thinking. With proper exegesis and the application of logic, and by God’s grace, we will see, along with Ursinus and the Westminster Divines, that each part of God’s Word perfectly consents in logical harmony with every other part. What cannot be resolved, however, is Van Til’s doctrine of Scripture and the correct view taught by Reformed orthodoxy.
I have never met Dr. Reymond, but loved and admired him very much. His systematic theology is a joy to read. His handling of the problem of evil is outstanding and his fleshing out of Clark’s argument alone is worth the price of the book. The whole work is a masterpiece and deserves to be studied and taught in every seminary calling itself Reformed.
The Aquila Report has provided some links to some of Dr. Reymond’s sermons and lectures along with a list of his published books. You can find his book, The Justification of Knowledge, for free in pdf format here.
There are two interesting postmortems on the PCA from two different perspectives. The first is “How the FV Won the PCA” by Lane Keister. The second is a counterpoint by a a former PCA pastor, Lee Johnson, from Lincoln, NE. While both provide interesting and valuable insights into what went wrong, I tend to think Lee’s analysis, perhaps without some of the conspiratorial overtones, is probably more accurate only because his perspective is broader. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think the Big Tenters in the PCA, those who make up the mushy middle and who all aspire to be Tim Keller, don’t care one whit about Leithart, Meyers, Moon, Lawrence, or the Federal Vision, or any of those things. These squabbles are an annoyance and even an embarrassment. They care about inclusion, making women officers, and being “missional.” And, that last item is key, because as Paul Elliot explains, to be ”missional” means to be “focused on ‘saving’ people by bettering their moral, psychological, and material circumstances, far more than the redemption of their souls from the wrath of God.”
To the Big Tenters conservative-confessionalists, or simply “TRs,” are men who seemingly revel in doctrinal minutia and infighting; neither of which helps to attract new members and doesn’t grow the church. They are a nuisance. Plus, even if these fights were justified, it’s just dirty laundry. From their perspective the Federal Vision is a fight among conservatives and voting to let the Leithart and Meyers decisions to stand was a good way to either 1) drive the conservative-confessionalists-anti-woman-officer types from the denomination, or, 2) emasculate them to the point where they learn to behave while they’re being ignored, which is exactly what happened at the last General Assembly. My guess is the answer is both with one small twist. While the FVers have come up through the Vantillian, über-militant, post-millennial, theonomistic wing of the church, they have incorporated much of N.T. Wright’s “New Perspectives on Paul” which, if nothing else, is what it means to be “missional.” It’s the social gospel recast. As the old saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows and the FV men are, ironically, the Big Tenter’s natural allies.
And, on the topic of politics, you have to give credit where credit is due and the FV men were smart. As Lane explains:
[The FV men] actively courted the evangelical middle of the PCA. They tried very hard (and successfully) to convince the evangelical middle that the FV issues were not gospel issues, but peripheral issues. This was done by the cherry-picking out-of-context quoting of the Reformed fathers that tried to make the case that the FV was within the Reformed tradition (whatever that means!). Once that was done, the evangellyfish … middle completely flipped sides. If it is a gospel issue, the middle generally votes with the confessionalists. However, if they are not convinced that it is a gospel issue, they will vote to keep the peace (whatever that means! There is FAR less peace in the PCA now than there was, say, 8 years ago.
There is no question that the FV men are skilled at obscuring their teaching so that what is warmed over Romanism comes out sounding positively Reformed. However, the majority of the blame for not making the FV a “gospel issue” falls squarely on the TRs. After all, what is the average “evangellyfish” supposed to think when after a year of online debate Lane gave Doug Wilson, the poster-boy of the FV and their chief spokesman, a clean bill of health on justification by faith alone and imputation. At the time Lane wrote:
My problem with Wilson lies in this: although Wilson says many things that are Reformed in a positive sense, he is not willing to reject the errors of the other FV proponents. Personally, I am willing to believe that Wilson holds to justification by faith alone, although he is too ambiguous on the aliveness of faith and its place in justification. He does hold to imputation. But he will not distance himself from any error of the FV, no matter how egregious. That is why, if Wilson were to apply for admission into the Presbytery of which I am a part, I could not vote to approve his transfer of credentials. What I have sought to show is that it is not enough to affirm the truth. One must also reject the errors.
Thankfully, God has granted Lane repentance and he has since come to see that the reason Wilson doesn’t distance himself from the more egregious errors of the FV is because he shares them. However, I can’t help wonder if Lane’s about-face was a case of too little, too late. But, the problem runs deeper as the TR wing, even to this day, doesn’t really see the FV as a “gospel issue.” For example, Bob Mattes, who with Lane is genuinely one of the good guys, recently wrote:
The issue with FV isn’t that they aren’t Christians . . .The issue is that FV adherents have no business being officers in the PCA. Period. That’s the issue.
Of course, that is not the issue and has never been the issue. The FV men are not Christians. Those who deny justification by belief alone and imputation are not Christians except in the most nominal sense. These are men who have no business being officers in any Christian church regardless of the denomination. These men are Roman Catholic in everything except Rome’s most flagrant departures from historic Christianity. If the issue really is that “FV adherents have no business being officers in the PCA,” then I can hardly see how the FV could be a “gospel issue.” A sectarian issue, perhaps, but hardly a matter of life and death.
Sadly, the FV victory was sealed the day the heralded PCA FV/NPP study report was adopted. That’s because in that report, which clearly demonstrates that the FV and NPP both strike at the vitals of the faith, even justification by belief alone and imputation, begins by proclaiming:
The committee … affirms that we view NPP and FV proponents in the PCA as brothers in Christ.
Someone can hold to justification based on works done through faith, something FV proponents claim contributes to our “final justification,” and call the doctrine of imputation, the heart of the Gospel and the “great exchange,” redundant as Peter Leithart has, yet according to the official PCA study report these men are still our “brothers in Christ.” This was a fatal mistake.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Sean Lucas, who was one of the purportedly “TR” committee members responsible for drafting the PCA FV/NPP report wrote (interestingly enough on Jason Stellman’s blog prior to Stellman converting to Romanism):
I have little doubt that Dr. Leithart is a genuine believer in Jesus. I do not believe that he is a heretic (particularly because, in my understanding as a church historian, heresy would generally be associated with denying key Trinitarian or Christological truths). And I do not believe that simply because one has a high baptismal theology that one is a heretic (if so, then Calvin was wrong to say that the Roman Catholic Church still had true baptism).
The issue here (and really the only issue here) is whether someone can teach in ways that are contrary to the essentials of the Standards of the PCA and still remain a minister in good standing in that church. The case that has been made is that Dr. Leithart has significant differences with the Standards on issues such as covenant, election, justification, and perseverance‑‑all issues that are essential to the system. One could hold his views and still belong to other branches of the Christian church; the real question is whether one can hold his views and be a minister in this branch of the Christian church.
Think about this for a moment. One can have “significant differences” concerning the doctrine of justification as expressed in the Westminster Standards, a doctrine that is repeated in every other Protestant and Reformed Confession and one that faithfully echoes the clarion call of the Reformation, yet still be a “genuine believer in Jesus.” This is amazing. According to Lucas, Leithart can safely hold his views on justification and imputation and “still belong to other branches of the Christian church,” just not the PCA. Since Lucas failed to mention which branches those might be, I can only think of two; the Roman Catholic state/church and the FV ”Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches” (CREC), but both of those are only pretend branches of the Christian church. I wonder if church historian Lucas can tell the difference.
Consequently, if the “good guys,” the TRs, can’t seem to identify a “gospel issue” when it’s punching them in the face, can there be any wonder why the mushy middle in the PCA failed to see the FV as a “gospel issue”? Frankly, if justification by belief alone and imputation are not “gospel issues,” there are no gospel issues.
Also, I want to stress the above use of “belief alone” rather than “faith alone” and not because there is any difference between the two, linguistically or logically, but in the minds of even many TRs like Allan Strange, the difference is huge. These men argue, even against the clear teaching of our Lord (see Mark 1:15), that believing the Gospel is not enough to save anyone. Saving faith requires more. What more exactly these men are hard pressed to say. Some say that the central fiducial element that completes faith and makes it saving is love. Of course, love is a volition and as Jesus said; “If you love me keep my commandments.” So, to view saving faith as something that is completed by love is hardly different from even the most crass Federal Visionists, even James Jordan. Others simply equivocate and say that in addition belief there must be trust without ever demonstrating how trusting someone is in any way different from believing them. As John Robbins explains:
Belief, that is to say, faith (there is only one word in the New Testament for belief, pistis) and trust are the same; they are synonyms. If you believe what a person says, you trust him. If you trust a person, you believe what he says. If you have faith in him, you believe what he says and trust his words. If you trust a bank, you believe its claims to be safe and secure. Strictly speaking, trust is belief of propositions in the future tense, such as “he will be good to me” or “this bank will keep my money safe.”
The failure to understand biblical saving faith and confusing it with the traditional three-fold definition, which is not biblical and where saving faith is defined as a combination of understanding, assent and trust (or notitia. assensus, and fiducia), played right into the hands of the FV. That’s because while most Reformed men have little grasp of the real difference between faith and saving faith, the FV men maintain that to trust is to obey and it is obedience to the unspecified “demands of the covenant” that is integral to saving faith and is the key to justification.
I hope as these much needed postmortems continue that those in the PCA, particularly those who fought the good fight, will take the time to also perhaps assess mistakes they may have made if only to ensure they don’t make them again. Let us pray.
Elihu Carranza has redone his excellent website, The Logic Classroom. Check it out.
“In conclusion, the student should remember, for the rest of his life, that if he is logical, he will never go wrong — unless he starts with false premises. Logic will not guarantee the truth of the premises, but without logic no progress is possible.” (Gordon H. Clark, Logic, The Trinity Foundation, 1985, p. 116.)
Categories: Gordon Clark
The following is from Ronald Nash’s intro to presuppositional apologetics, Faith and Reason. Thanks to Joel Tay for transcribing the passage.
The Argument From Truth
Theists have more resources at their disposal than they often realize. One oft-neglected argument for God’s existence invites us to reflect about the ground of truth. So far as I know, this argument makes its first appearance in Book 2 of Augustine’s On the Freedom of the Will, written in A.D. 395. There is at least one clue that Thomas Aquinas thought the line of reasoning sound. Its tow major modern proponents appear to be Gordon H. Clark and Alvin Plantinga. Since Clark and Plantinga present different versions of the argument, that address audiences with somewhat different philosophical interests, I am going to look at the argument from both contemporary perspectives. This makes sense because it is sometimes easier to understand a difficult argument when approaching it from two different directions. While Clark’s presentation is simpler, it may puzzle readers who are unaccustomed to talking about truth apart from propositions, the carriers of truth. Plantinga’s version of the argument is more in tune with contemporary way in which philosophers typically think of truth.
Clark’s Version of the Argument
Gordon Clark’s account of the argument from truth utilizes six steps:
1. Truth Exists
2. Truth is immutable
3. Truth is eternal
4. Truth is mental
5. Truth is superior to the human mind
6. Truth is God
1. “Truth exists.” Clark establishes this point by reminding us of the self-defeating nature of any attempt to deny the existence of truth. Since skepticism is false, there must be knowledge; and if there is knowledge, there must exist the object of knowledge, namely truth.
2. “Truth is immutable.” It is impossible for truth to change. As Clark says, “Truth must be unchangeable. What is true today always has been and always will be true.” For Clark, all true propositions are eternal and immutable truths. He has no use for pragmatic views of truth that imply that what is true today may be false tomorrow. If truth changes, then pragmatism will be false tomorrow-if, indeed, it could ever be true. Truth itself is unaffected by the fact that sentences like “I am now typing” are sometimes true and usually false. Since I’ll present a rather long argument in defense of this claim later in this chapter, I’ll assume that this possible problem can be answered and move on to Clark’s next point.
3. “Truth is eternal.” It would be self-contradictory to deny the eternity of truth. If the world will never cease to exist, it is true that the world will never cease to exist. If the world will someday perish, then that is true. But truth itself will abide even though every created thing should perish. But suppose someone asks, “what if truth itself should perish?” Then it would still be true that truth had perished. Any denial of the eternity of truth turns out to be an affirmation of its eternity.
4. “Truth is Mental.” The existence of truth presupposes the existence of minds. “Without a mind, truth could not exist. The object of knowledge is a proposition, a meaning, a significance; it is a thought.” For Clark, the existence of truth is incompatible with any materialistic view of man. If the materialist admits the existence of consciousness at all, he regards it as an effect and not a cause. For a materialist, thoughts are always the result of bodily changes. This materialism implies that all thinking, including logical reasoning, is merely the result of mechanical necessity. But bodily changes can be neither true nor false. One set of physical motions cannot be truer than another. Therefore, if there is no mind, there can be no truth; and if there is no truth, materialism cannot be true. Likewise, if there is no mind, there can be no such thing as logical reasoning from which it follows that no materialist can possible provide a valid argument for his position. No reason can possibly be given to justify an acceptance of materialism. Hence, for Clark, any denial of the mental nature of truth is self-stultifying. In Clarks words,
“If a truth, a proposition, or a thought were some physical motion in the brain, no two persons could have the same thought. A physical motion is a fleeting event numerically distinct from every other. Two persons cannot have the same motion, nor can one person have it twice. If this is what thought were, memory and communication would be impossible…It is a peculiarity of mind and not of body that the past can be made present. Accordingly, if one may think the same thought twice, truth must be mental or spiritual. Not only does [truth] defy time; it defies space as well, for if communication is to be possible, the identical truth must be in two minds at once. If, in opposition, anyone wished to deny that an immaterial idea can exist in two minds at once, his denial must be conceived to exist in his own mind only; and since it has not registered in any other mind, it does not occur to us to refute it.”
To summarize Clark’s argument thus far, truth exists and is both eternal and immutable. Furthermore, truth can exist only in some mind.
5. “Truth is superior to the human mind.” By this, Clark means that by its very nature, truth cannot be subjective and individualistic. Humans know certain truths that are not only necessary but universal. While these truths are immutable, the human mind is changeable. Even though beliefs vary from one person to another, truth itself cannot change. Moreover, the human mind does not stand in judgment of truth: rather truth judges our reason. While we often judge other human minds (as when we say, for example, that someone’s mind is not a keen as it should be), we do not judge truth. If truth and the human mind were equal, truth could not be eternal and immutable since the human mind is finite, mutable, and subject to error. Therefore, truth must transcend human reason; truth must be superior to any individual human mind as well as to the sum total of human minds. From this it follows that there must be a mind higher than the human mind in which truth resides.
6. “Truth is God.” There must be an ontological ground for truth. But the ground of truth cannot be anything perishable or contingent. Since truth is eternal and immutable, it must exist in an eternal Mind. And since only God possesses these attributes, God must be truth.
“Is all this any more than the assertion that there is an eternal, immutable Mind, as Supreme Reason, a personal, living God? The truths or propositions that may be known are the thoughts of God, the eternal thoughts of God. And insofar as man knows anything he is in contact with God’s mind. Since further, God’s mind is God, we may… say, we have a vision of God.”
Therefore, When human beings know truth, we also know something of God’s nature. There is a sense in which all knowledge is a knowledge of God.
-Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason, p. 161 – 164
* For Clark’s argument see A Christian View of Men and Things