Cornelius Van Til vs. Zacharias Ursinus
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.