Since it looks like the Christological dust up over at the Green Baggins blog has burned itself out, at least for now, I thought I would take this opportunity to again focus on what I consider to be the anti-Christian nature of Van Tillian epistemology. That’s not to say that I consider Van Tillians to be anti-Christian, only that the epistemic framework they operate from negatively impacts their understanding of Scripture along with the historic creeds that are supposed to be the product of biblical study, reflection and deduction. As I quoted Gordon Clark in a recent “Clark Quick Quote”:
It must forever be kept in mind that a theologian’s epistemology controls his interpretation of the Bible. If his epistemology is not Christian, his exegesis will be systematically distorted. If he has no epistemology at all, his exegesis will be unsystematically distorted. – The Incarnation 46,47
Epistemology, or the study of knowledge and justified belief, whether in theology or philosophy, logically comes first in any system simply because unless you can explain or demonstrate how you know something you can’t really say you know anything at all. So, the question of epistemology is as fundamental as it is foundational.
With that in mind I would like to briefly look at a couple of statements made by Dr. Alan Strange on the Green Baggins blog. Readers of this blog will recall I’ve had a few previous run-ins with Dr. Strange in the past that you can read about here, here, and here.
Strange, who is an OPC minister and an associate professor of church history at Mid America Reformed Seminary, is unlike many of those who have simply been influenced by the epistemological ideas of Cornelius Van Til. Strange is a true believer. In political terms he might be called an ideologue just as I’m sure he would consider me an ideologue when it comes to the Scripturalism of Gordon Clark. And we all know about those annoying “Clarkians” ideologues, right? Well, I admit we can be pretty annoying at times. I know I certainly can be and I have fail miserably at times trying to bridle my tongue when dealing with men like Strange and too often I simply lose my patience. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to be part of a derided minority where Clark, who is arguably the most important theological and philosophic mind that the Lord has seen to bless His church with in the modern era, has had his work systematically expunged from the curricula of virtually every major Reformed seminary (which many of us have good reason to believe is due to an ongoing and concerted effort by Van Til’s followers like Strange, John Muether, R. S. Clark, Scott Oliphint, James Anderson and others). Why even Strange’s fellow OPCer, John Muether, who is also a professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary and the official historian of the OPC, attempted to organize opposition in order to block Dr. Robert Reymond from being received as a minister in the OPC because of his “Clarkianism.” According to a paper Muether distributed in advance of the Presbytery meeting that was to vote on receiving Reymond, Muether claimed Reymond’s error, if you want to call it that, and what should keep him from ministering in the OPC, is that he rejects Van Til’s theory of “analogical knowledge” Muether writes:
In failing to recognize a place for Van Til in Christian epistemology, Reymond seems to be rejecting a central part of OPC identity, and beyond that, a core tenet of the Reformed tradition (the archetypal/ectypal distinction). The Presbytery must ask why Reymond would seek to affiliate with what he perceives to be such a grave error, and it must consider the wisdom of brining into its company someone who appears so antagonistic to the denomination’s historical, corporate understanding of the Reformed faith and the Word of God.
It seems [to] me that the question before the Presbytery of the South is not, “Is there room at the table for Dr. Reymond in the OPC?” Rather, the question is this: “is there room at the table in the OPC for the consistently Reformed apologetic witness of Cornelius Van Til if Reymond’s views gain the sanction of this Presbytery?” Putting the matter this way does not seem too strong a response to the rhetoric that Dr. Reymond has consistently applied to the theology of Cornelius Van Til. – “Robert Reymond and Cornelius Van Til: Some Reflections”
Let me just say actions like raising Van Til’s epistemological peculiarities to the level of Reformed orthodoxy, even providing the justification for eliminating from the ministry those who do not subscribe to Van Til’s epistemic eccentricities (and with good reason), doesn’t engender much brotherly love and fraternity. As far as I’m concerned there is little doubt that Van Tillians like Muether and Strange would love to purge every last remaining “Clarkian” from every church that calls itself “Reformed” and in fact are working toward that end. That certainly is not meant to excuse my own lack of patience and frustration with Van Tillians like Strange, only that it becomes tiring having to repeatedly answer the same Van Tillian canards against Clark over and over again.
With that preface out of the way, Dr. Strange wrote:
In his book on the Incarnation especially, and in his wider corpus, more generally, I think that Dr. Clark fell into the Nestorian error. This does not mean that I don’t believe that he was a very gifted and able man and helped the church in many ways. I do, but I believe that he was wrong here. The latter part of the quote in #126 makes it sound as if this human being named Jesus received this wrath: what connection this man had in receiving such to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is very unclear. Christ was an eternal divine person who added humanity to deity, not who added a human person to His divine person.
Admittedly, Clark did have a two-person view of the Incarnation near the end of his life, but does that make Clark’s view “Nestorian”? It would only if either Nestorious or his opponents, Strange included, had any idea what a “person” is. As Clark observed:
Some unfriendly critics [i.e., Alan Strange] will instantly brand the following defense of Christ’s humanity as the heresy of Nesorianism. Nestorius, you remember from the early pages of this study, taught, or was supposed to have taught, that the Incarnation of the Logos resulted in two persons. This view of Nestorius, with its accompanying condemnation, cannot be sustained either logically or historically. As for the history, several scholars assign the heretical view of his followers, who supposedly developed his suggestions beyond his approval. Nor can the charge of heresy be logically stantiated. The reason should have become obvious pages ago. Neither Nestorius nor his opponents had any clear idea of what a *person* is. They used the word but attached no meaning to it. In their discussion and writings the term was as much nonsense syllables as *substance* and *nature.* However distasteful it may be to those students whose knowledge is confined to fifteen minutes of a broader lecture in the Systematic Theology class, and all the more distasteful to the professor who knows little more than those fifteen minutes, they must be forced to acknowledge that the Chalcedonian bishops and the later theologians were talking non-sense, because their terms had no sense at all.
To remedy this disgraceful situation, I have not only denounced the use of and expurgated the term *substance,* but in an attempt to be occasionally positive, I have offered a definition of the term *person.* Most people will find it queer. Most theologians will find it unacceptable. Well and good, let them formulate and propose a different definition. That is the honest and logical thing to do. Then there will be an intelligible subject of discussion. One can reasonably suppose that it could be a better definition than mine. But even if not, it could not be branded as meaningless nonsense. (The Incarnation, 75,76)
Besides, in Clark’s “wider corpus,” he nowhere advanced anything like the theory he advanced in The Incarnation. Frankly, when writing about the Incarnation elsewhere I would say Clark’s comments were pretty standard fare. However, at the end of his earthly life when he turned his mind to the problem of the Incarnation he ran into some logical and definitional difficulties as he sought to answer the question; Who or what died on the Cross? A nature or a person or something else entirely? Of course, the traditionalists would say a divine Person, the Logos, according to his human nature died on the cross, but how does a divine Person die and not die since a rift in the everlasting Trinity is impossible? Aren’t they just positing a thinly veiled two person theory of their own; one person according to his divine nature and the other according to his human nature? Of course, you can do and say just about anything if you don’t define your terms and Clark was rightly appalled by the failure of theologians to unambiguously define what they meant by “person.” As Clark was fond of saying: “Define or discard.” And, since the divine Person of the Incarnation is God, then as Lane Keister said: “It is meaningless to say ‘God died in His humanity.’ It’s just as meaningless as saying ‘God grew in grace and favor and wisdom in His humanity.’” Replacing the word God with the name Logos changes nothing. The historic doctrine logically leads to absurdities, or what Alan Strange might affectionately call “mysteries” (which is just a clever theological phrase for ignorance).
Interestingly, and from a man probably more hostile of all things Clark than Strange, Van Tillian James Anderson completely agrees with Clark’s defense above and that the charge of “Nestorianism” cannot be sustained in Clark’s case. Anderson writes:
As for the paradox of the Incarnation, Clark’s solution is to reject the positive statements of the Definition of Chalcedon as vacuous and to offer his own definition of ‘person’ as a composite [or complex] of propositions.” On this view, Jesus Christ turns out to be two persons: “a divine person and a human person”. This proposal is designed to alleviate the logical difficulty of attributing both omniscience and partial ignorance to Christ. I concur with Clark that it wouldn’t be fair to charge him with the heresy of Nestorianism, since Nestorius clearly didn’t employ anything like Clark’s definition of ‘person’. (Who does?) (A Response to W. Gary Crampton, 12, 13)
Of course, it doesn’t matter who does or who does not employ anything like Clark’s definition of “person,” the point is that Clark, unlike his opponents, had a clear, unambiguous and intelligible definition of “person” and even drew his definition from Scripture. Further, and contra Strange above, Jesus was a real human being just as much, and just as fully, as he was a divine being. Isn’t that what we mean when we say Jesus was fully God and fully man? However, according to Strange Jesus was the Divine Second Person “who added humanity to deity.” In that case Jesus wasn’t a real man at all, yet the Bible says “the man Jesus Christ” (1Timothy 2:5).
In addition, what does it mean that “Christ was an eternal divine person who added humanity to deity… to His divine person.” Did the divine Person add to Himself some sort of Jungian collective consciousness? The Scriptures say that Jesus was like us in every way except without sin (see Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15). Well, I’m not “humanity.” I’m an individual human person: a man and a sinner. If Jesus is “an eternal divine person who added humanity to deity,” then He is not like me at all. I’m mutable, can suffer (and probably over the last year have suffered quite a bit), decay, and die. I was made from the dust of the ground and to the dust I shall return. I have been made in God’s image, and, as such, have been created with a rational mind (despite what some unfriendly critics may say). Thoughts pass through my mind in successive order as I live and move and have my being in God, and my knowledge, whatever little I may have, is derivative. When I come to the propositions of Scripture I can and do, by God’s grace and through the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, think some of God’s actual thoughts after him (to steal a phrase from Van Til). However, in the man Jesus there was and is a one to one correspondence between his human thoughts and the divine thoughts of the Second Person. As Thomas Morris described the relationship, in Jesus the divine mind of the Second Person contained but was not contained by Jesus’ human mind. There weren’t just a few univocal points of contact here and there between Jesus’ human thoughts and the thoughts of the divine Second Person. Jesus always, immediately, and continually thought the thoughts of the Second Person, and, as a result, rightly identified himself completely as God’s natural born Son; the first born of many brothers. That’s because Jesus didn’t just think some of the divine thoughts, he thought all the thoughts of the divine Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, as in him are hidden all (and not just some) of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. To see the man Jesus is to see the divine Second Person, quite literally, in the flesh.
Yet, for Van Tillians like Strange the Incarnation is both an ontological and epistemological impossibility. According to Van Til man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge will not and cannot “coincide at any single point.” In Van Til’s famous illustration where he would draw a large circle above a smaller one connected by two vertical lines, there is and can be no overlap between God’s knowledge and knowledge possible to man. Yet, in Jesus there was a complete overlap of Van Til’s proverbial two circles. Van Til’s conception of the Creator/creature distinction, sometimes wrongly called the archetype/ectype distinction, requires that man’s knowledge is forever the ectype, a copy of the original, never the archetype. Therefore it follows that all human knowledge is and can be only the analog of God’s knowledge. There isn’t just a separation between the mode or process of God’s knowing as compared to the mode or process of man’s knowing, there is a complete break, an absolute division, between the content of God’s knowledge and that which can be known by man. To put it another way, the man Jesus could never posses the archetypal or original thoughts of the Second Person. For man knowledge is forever and always “analogical” and if that is true for all men as Van Til insisted, then it is true for the man Jesus Christ as well.
And, as Clark observed long ago, if there is no univocal point of contact between God’s knowledge and knowledge possible to man, and all of God’s revelation is analogical, then it follows man could not even know the univocal truth that all revelation is analogical.
Despite these insurmountable difficulties, Strange continues:
Clarkians have called Van Til a modalist for saying that God is one person and three persons. Now I don’t think that he was–I think the confusion was terminological and otherwise explained–but I think that Van Til’s expression was not only infelicitous and unwise but, in fact, wrong–an error. I don’t defend it. I understand why Dr. Clark would have a problem with it. And I have a problem with the way Clark deals with the Incarnation.
Here’s the rub. Yes, I’ve heard many Van Tillians try to explain away Van Til’s assertion that God is both one person and three persons (Anderson is one of the few who doesn’t try and explain away Van Til’s “infelicitous and unwise” expression of the Trinity and instead defends Van Til’s contradictory statements as being the epitome of Trinitarian orthodoxy), but why would Strange reject out-of-hand Clark’s explanation along with his definition of “person”? Would not simple fairness dictate that he at least consider Clark’s arguments and how he defined his terms, in particular the word “person,” just as he expects “Clarkians” to try and understand Van Til’s construction when a defense is offered?
Before we answer that question, there is one more twist in the puzzle. Bryan Cross, who received M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary (the official seminary of the PCA) only to later renounce “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” and covert to Romanism (you have to wonder if he came under the influence of some Federal Visionist or New Perspective professors while at Covenant), brought an interesting element into the debate at Green Baggins arguing that the Reformed doctrine of propitiation and the idea that Jesus Christ suffered under the wrath of God on account of sin and on our behalf, runs afoul of historic Chalcedonian Christology. However, before we consider Cross’ argument, first here is R.C. Sproul on what transpired on that cross when our Savoir died:
Once sin was concentrated on Jesus, God cursed Him. When the curse of the law was poured out on Jesus, He experienced pain that had never been experienced in the annals of history. I have heard of graphic sermons about the excruciating pain of the nails in the hands, of hanging on a cross, and of the torturous dimensions of crucifixion. I am sure that they are all accurate and that it was a dreadful way to be executed, but thousands of people in world history have undergone the excruciating pain of crucifixion. Only one man has ever felt the pain of the fullness of the unmitigated curse of God upon Him. When he felt it, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Some say that he did to quote Psalm 22. Others say He was disoriented by His pain and didn’t understand what was happening. God certainly did forsake Him. That is the whole point of the atonement. Without forsakenness, there is no curse. God at that moment in space and time, turned His back on His Son.
In the midst of His forsakenness, I doubt He was even aware of the nails in His hands or the thorns in His brow. He was cut off from the Father. – Who Is Jesus?
Who could disagree with Sproul at this point? Frankly, I think Sproul’s presentation here is excellent.
Now, consider this from Cross:
But, given Chalcedonian Christology, and this conception of propitiation by the exhaustion of divine punishment for sins on a substitute victim, then to whom were our sins imputed, and who bore the Father’s wrath? It has to be a who; it cannot be a mere nature. So it has to be the Logos. But this only raises further difficulties. If the sin was imputed to the Logos without qualification, then the break in communion between the Father and the Logos during the crucifixion entails that God is passible even in His divine nature…. The rejoinder is that sin was imputed to the Logos only according to His human nature. But, even so, it is still the Logos, not a human nature, who becomes guilty. And therefore the wrath of the Father cannot be directed only to a human nature, but must be directed to His own Logos. So this rejoinder doesn’t resolve the problem of a breakdown in intra-Trinitarian communion, or preserve divine impassibility. And a breakdown in intra-Trinitarian communion entails either polytheism or Arianism, as I’ve argued elsewhere….
…So the question is how a full embrace of Chalcedonian Christology is compatible with the Reformed conception of propitiation. I’m glad for a Reformed affirmation of Chalcedon — my question is whether that’s truly compatible with the Reformed conception of the atonement. It seems to me, for the reasons I’ve just laid out, that such a notion of the atonement depends implicitly on a kenotic or Nestorian Christology. So I want to know how this problem is resolved.
Obviously, having Jesus Christ suffer under the wrath of the Father due to sin and on our behalf is not a problem for Roman Catholics like Cross because Jesus Christ did no such thing. According to the Roman state/church atonement is not something that was accomplished once and for all on our behalf and completely outside of us on a cross some 2,000 years ago and apart from anything that might be wrought in us. To be a good Catholic you must do your part and participate in the ongoing sacrificial work Christ that began on the cross and continues through the so-called perpetual sacrifice of the “Mass” as you cooperate with grace in the ongoing atoning work for your own sins, either here on earth or in their fantasy way-station called Purgatory. As Roman Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis put it in his book, Not By Faith Alone:
What did Christ’s suffering and death actually accomplish that allowed the Father to provide the human race with salvation? Did Christ take within himself the sin and guilt of mankind and suffer the specific punishment for that sin and guilt, as Protestants contend? The answer is no…Christ did not take upon himself the entire punishment required of man for sin. Rather, Scripture teaches only that Christ became a ‘propitiation,’ a ‘sin offering,’ or a ‘sacrifice’ for sins…Essentially, this means that Christ, because he was guiltless, sin-free and in favor with God, could offer himself up as a means of persuading God to relent of his angry wrath against the sins of mankind. Sin destroys God’s creation. God, who is a passionate and sensitive being, is angry against man for harming the creation. Anger against sin shows the personal side of God, for sin is a personal offense against him. We must not picture God as an unemotional courtroom judge who is personally unharmed by the sin of the offender brought before him. God is personally offended by sin and thus he needs to be personally appeased in order to offer a personal forgiveness. In keeping with his divine principles, his personal nature, and the magnitude of the sins of man, the only thing that God would allow to appease him was the suffering and death of the sinless representative of mankind, namely, Christ (pp. 107-108).
For Roman Catholics like Cross and Sungenis the idea of propitiation is something considerably less than the Protestant conception where Jesus received the Father’s wrath against sin and on our account. Therefore, the relationship between Chalcedonian Christology and the biblical doctrine of propitiation and atonement, along with the subsequent and related doctrine of imputation or what some rightly call “the great exchange,” only become a problem for Protestants.
Now, you can read the various defenses offered in response to Cross’ propitiation challenge on the Green Baggins blog as some are admittedly better than others. Even Dr. Strange agrees that the questions Cross poses are “a challenge but am not ready to concede that it is not for the RCC as well.” According to Strange:
There seems to be a supposition on your part, Bryan, that the essential relationship would be disrupted by the Father manifesting wrath to the Son immanently, but no more so if an earthly father manifests such to a son. It certainly does not mean that the Father ever ceases for a moment to love the Son. The essential relationship is maintained; in fact, had Christ not been God, He could not have sustained such wrath as a mere man (as no mere man could).
As another commentator notes quoting John Stott: “the language of ‘abandonment’ or ‘forsakennes’ is a metaphorical way of referring to divine judgment.” I confess, if Christ being forsaken on the cross was metaphorical then was Christ’s atoning work on our behalf also metaphorical? Cross thinks so and writes in response to Strange:
You seem to be construing the Father’s pouring out His wrath for all the sins of the elect on His Son as mere “discipline,” not punishment. Discipline is corrective, whereas punishment (in this sense) is retributive. So if what the Father poured out on His Son was mere discipline, then the sins of believers have not been fully punished in Christ. And in the Reformed conception of propitiation, that leaves the Father’s wrath unquenched, and all believers therefore doomed at the Judgment. But the full punishment for sin necessarily includes separation from God. So, if the Son received the full punishment for all the sins of the elect, then the Son had to endure separation from God. And ‘separation’ here doesn’t mean spatial or geographical separation — it means loss of communion.
However, Cross’ challenge is no problem for Clark who writes:
Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 support this [Clark's] view: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Since a rift within the eternal immutable Persons of the Trinity is absolutely impossible, Jesus is here speaking as a man. An impersonal human “nature” cannot speak. Nor is there much intelligibility in supposing that the Father could forsake a “nature.” Those words from Psalm 22:1 were the words of a true man, a real human being, whom the Father forsook, thus imposing the penalty of propitiation by which we are redeemed. The Incarnation 70-71
So, what is Dr. Strange’s solution?
Bryan has not escaped what he seeks to bring against us and this is the mystery of Chalcedonian Christianity: The Son suffers the Father’s wrath immanently without essentially losing communion. The mystery is ‘resolved’ only in the rationalism of real Nestorianism (#126) or in denying wrath, as Bryan has done.
Remember, the charge of Nestorianism against Clark cannot be sustained either historically or logically simply because neither Nestorious nor his opponents had any idea what a “person” is. It’s interesting, because Strange here admits the mystery has been resolved by Clark, but according to him Clark’s solution should be rejected out-of-hand because Clark is guilty of “the rationalism of real Nestorianism.” Admittedly Strange’s anathema here would have some force if he had any idea what a “person” is, but when I asked him to define “person” so that he might succeed where others on Lane’s blog so miserably failed, he refused to answer. But, isn’t it also possible that if Strange were to fairly and honestly considers Clark’s proposal, seeing that he admits “the mystery is resolved,” that he might even improve on Clark’s definition of “person”?
It was precisely at this point where the epistemological rubber hit the road after David Reece observed; “If a doctrine leads to contradiction, then either the premises are false or the reasoning has been invalid. God’s holy word consents in all its parts.” Reece then asked Strange whether he believed “that the doctrine of the Incarnation as delivered by Chalcedon leads to irresolvable problems?” Strange replied:
I agree that the Bible consents in all its parts and that no part of it contradicts another. I’ve never said otherwise. That it may seem or even appear to us to contradict does not mean that it does to Him who is transcendent and incomprehensible.
Now, consider the above statement very carefully. According to Strange “the Bible consents in all its parts” except when it doesn’t. And, when it doesn’t that “does not mean that it does to Him who is transcendent and incomprehensible.” Notice in his response what he does not say. Strange does not say that when and where the Scriptures “may seem or even appear to us to contradict” the answer is that we need to recheck our premises, retrace our exegetical assumptions, and search the Scriptures to see where we might have erred. No, in just those situations we’re to rest in some sort of pious repose and have faith that what seems to be a contradiction to us is not one for God.
Of course, if the Scriptures “may seem or even appear to us to contradict” then on what basis can Strange possibly know that they do not contradict for “Him who is transcendent and incomprehensible”? According to Scripture? Impossible, since it is from the study of Scripture that gave rise to these apparent contradictions in the first place. As in the case of problems that arise from implications drawn from a given interpretation of Chalcedon, so-called “mysteries” aren’t to be resolved, for that is “rationalism,” “Nestorianism,” or worse. They are to be embrace in the hope that for God there are no contradictions. Besides, does anyone really think that the Westminster divines who said that one of the chief evidences that the Scriptures are the Word of God is that they present to the mind, i.e., the human mind, a logical “consent of all the parts” intended to mean anything close to what Strange asserts above? I think Strange’s approach to Scripture, which he derived from Cornelius Van Til, is completely foreign to what the divines at had in mind at Westminster.Explore posts in the same categories: Theology, Van Til