Archive for August 2014

Van Til – The FV Connection Pt. 2

August 18, 2014
Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til

In my last post, and with help from Dr. Robbins, I tried to again flesh out the connection between the philosophy of Van Til and Federal Vision.  Van Til’s denial of any point of contact between the system of theology taught in Scripture and theology as it exists in God’s mind, completely undermines the authority of Scripture and robs Christians of any “objective and absolute word from God.”   What this mean is that when elders steeped in Van Til’s philosophy vow to “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” it must be remembered that they are not claiming that the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures and outlined in the Confession is the one that exists in God’s mind.   For the Vantillian, the latter is unknowable.

In recent years some of Van Til’s defenders, perhaps realizing that Van Til’s insistence on a complete break between God’s knowledge and knowledge possible for man ends in skepticism, have tried to blunt the force of Van Til’s analogical doctrine of Scripture by suggesting that man can indeed know the truth as God knows it, only that how God knows some particular truth and how man knows the same truth is different.   For example,  John Frame claims that Van Til “wanted to insist that our way of knowing is different form God’s.  On these matters, the most heatedly debated of the controversy, Van Til and Clark actually agreed.”  Of course, if all that Van Til wanted to do was to insist that God’s way of knowing is different from ours, then his point is trivial and his attack against Clark and his supporters was even more reprehensible.  Unfortunately, and as  anyone who has read the Complaint filed against Clark’s ordination along with Clark’s Answer already knows, this was never a point of contention concerning the doctrine of incomprehensibility.  It wasn’t “the most heatedly debated” point of the controversy, as it wasn’t even debated at all. Both sides understood each other completely and accurately. Consider this from the Answer:

 The complainants in attacking Dr. Clark’s position are not concerned with knowledge in the sense of the manner of knowing.  They distinguish and they admit Dr. Clark distinguishes between intuition and discursion, but they claim that the manner of God’s knowing is no part of the doctrine of incomprehensibility. The proposition, Two times two are four, apart from anything it implies, means just what it says.  It is difficult, in fact it is impossible to express the meaning of this proposition in any terms simpler than the words, Two times two are four. It is in this sense that the Compliant asserts that such a proposition has two different meanings . . . .

What Dr. Clark said was that though God’s knowledge of a truth is different from man’s knowledge of the same truth, it is none the less the same truth they both know, if indeed man knows anything.  The Complaint avers that it is a prerequisite of ministerial good standing to believe that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not “coincide at any single point” (P.5, 3; O. 21). It tries to set up as a test of orthodoxy the denial that man knows even one truth God knows . . . Far from being a test of orthodoxy, this test imposed by the Complaint is nothing else than skepticism and irrationalism. [The Answer, 20,21].

To confirm Clark’s conclusion and that for Van Til “the manner of God’s knowing is no part of the doctrine of incomprehensibility,” and to confirm that men like Frame are being disingenuous, if not flatly dishonest, one only has to look to Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology, which is material taken directly from what Van Til taught his students for 45 years at WTS.  The following quotes are from the digital version of Van Til’s complete works and are referenced by John Robbins in his lecture,“The Theology of Richard Gaffin and Norman Shepherd”:

The “system” thus produced as, e.g., it finds expression in the Reformed confessions of faith, pretends to be an analogical system. At no point does such a system pretend to state, point for point, the identical content of the original system of the mind of God. If there were any point at which such a Christian system would claim to be exhaustively reproductive of the mind of God it would have to claim to be reproductive of the whole mind of God. To claim for the Christian system identity with the divine system at any point is to break the relationship of dependence of human knowledge on the divine will.

Notice the force of this.  According to Van Til the Reformed system of doctrine is “at no point” identical to the system of theology as it exists in the mind of God. But that is exactly what the confessions do claim.  Consider WCF 1.4: “The authority of the holy scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God, (who is truth itself,) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.” The Confession doesn’t “pretend” to state the system of doctrine as it exists in the mind of God, it states the system of doctrine as it exists in God’s mind and as God, “who is truth itself,” knows it and has revealed it to us in the propositions of Scripture; “the word of God.”  The Confession makes no distinction whatsoever between what is in God’s mind and what is taught in Scripture.  They are one and the same.  To say otherwise is pure fiction manufactured in the mind of Van Til.

Here are some more:

 But even this enrichment does not imply that there is any coincidence, that is, identity of content between what God has in his mind and what man has in his mind. If there is no identity of content in the first proposition that God gives to man there can be no identity of content attained by means of any number of additional propositions of revelation that God gives to man.

I try to make a “system” of my own, my system will be at no point a direct replica of the divine system, but will at every point be analogical of the system of God. It can at no point be a direct replica….He [man] never has and never can expect to have in his mind exactly the same thought content that God has in his mind.

Affirming the primacy of the Creator-creature relationship, the Christian position, consistently expressed in the Reformed faith, maintains that man does not at any point have in his mind exactly the same thought content that God has in his mind… If God had made all the revelations propositions that he will ever make to man about himself, even then man could not have the same thought content in his mind that God has in his mind unless he were himself divine. Man can never experience the experience of God. An endless number of added propositions does not change the matter in the least.

Concerning Van Til’s construction (or, better, deconstruction) of the Creator/creature distinction, Dr. Robbins said:

Somehow [Van Til] thinks that if God knows a truth and man knows the same truth that destroys the Creator/creature distinction.  That’s nonsense. The whole point of revelation is for God to communicate truth to men.  That’s the whole purpose of revelation.  If revelation doesn’t achieve that, it’s not revelation.  The purpose of revelation is that there be the same content in the mind of men as there is in the mind of God.  To be sure, we will never know everything God knows. We’ll only know what God reveals. But, what He reveals we do know.

Van Til’s Creator/creature distinction is a bastardization, a weak caricature, of the Creator/creature distinction taught in Scripture and affirmed in the Reformed confessions. His theory of Scripture and truth has done irreparable damage to the Reformed faith and has allowed distortions and deadly novelties from biblical theology to theonomy to the Federal Vision to the New Perspectives on Paul (Gaffin’s or Wright’s or someone else’s altogether, take your pick) to take root simply because Christians are left with competing systems all lacking any direct, unambiguous, or univocal relationship to the truth as God knows it.  By denying that the Reformed confessions mirror the system of doctrine as God knows it “at any point,” any seemingly coherent system of doctrine is as valid and as acceptable as any other. Anyone can claim to defend “the true Reformed faith” simply because the true Reformed faith has no direct relationship to the truth as God knows it and has revealed it to man.

Holy War or Ungodly Mess

August 11, 2014


By Steve Matthews

The recent uptick in violence in the Middle East has resulted, predictably, in an uptick in calls to action from American neo-conservatives and dispensationalist Evangelicals.  Just today, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham called for more decisive action from President Obama with regard to the Islamic State, calling the organization, “a direct threat to our homeland.”  On his program last week, Sean Hannity, among the most militant neo-conservative, pro-Zionist voices in the American media, breathlessly reported on current conflict between Israel and Hamas.  From the tenor of his reports, it was clear that Hannity’s aim was to gin up support from American conservatives and Evangelicals for the Gaza offensive being conducted by Israel.  Yellow journalism, it seems, did not die with William Randolph Hearst.

According to a report in the Washington Post, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an organization founded by dispensationalist John Hagee and currently the largest pro-Israel group in the US, has launched an aggressive nation-wide advertising campaign with the same goal in view as Sean Hannity’s reporting, solidify Evangelical support for Israel in its struggle with Hamas.  According to the article, CUFI, “will be taking to Israel 50 pastors, one from each state, as part of a solidarity trip.  The itinerary, barring unforeseen developments due to the war, includes meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli soldiers…The trip affords CUFI a vehicle for expressing solidarity with Israel and then informing and energizing their flock back in the U.S.”

According to the CUFI website, there are Biblical and moral imperatives that obligate Christians to support the state of Israel.  Neo-conservative politicians columnists and academics call for further American military involvement in Middle East.  What is an Evangelical to make of all this?

Support for Israel

CUFI gives as its statement of purpose the following:  “The purpose of Christians United For Israel (CUFI) is to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to Biblical issues.” Under the heading Goals and Objectives, we find the following statement, “While millions of Christians support Israel, there are millions more who do not yet vocally stand up for the Jewish state.  It is crucial to educate Christians on the biblical and moral imperatives to support Israel and build Christian support for Israel throughout America.”  And by the term “support”, the group seems to mean principally political action.  The website continues, “While it is important that we pray for Israel, it is also important that we put feet to our prayers and speak truth to power about the need to stand with Israel at this critical juncture in history.  CUFI accomplishes these goals through:  CUFI’s annual Washington Summit CUFI members to personally speak with their elected officials on behalf of Israel. CUFI’s Action Alerts mobilize CUFI’s over one million members to contact their members of Congress or the Administration on critical policy issues.”

But while CUFI is very aggressive in making known its political support for Israel and encourages Christians to demonstrate their solidarity with that nation, oddly absent from its website is any mention of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s the 500 pound gorilla that Hagee and his colleagues would prefer to simply ignore.  One supposes this is due to the dispensationalist theology held by Hagee and his supporters who maintain the heretical doctrine that Jews already have a relationship with God through the law.  If CUFI and its members truly care about Israelis, they should be preaching the Gospel to unbelieving Israelis, not lobbying Congress to support the Jewish state’s offensive in Gaza.

Interventionist Foreign Policy

As a boy, I recall watching the nightly news in 1978 and seeing images of the scary mobs in Tehran.  Thousands of people in the streets were chanting, waving banners and denouncing the US as the Great Satan. It was disturbing to watch, but the joy of the Iranian mobs at the capture of the US embassy in Tehran also left me not a little bit puzzled.  I had no reason to hate Iranians, and it seemed to me that the vitriol directed by the Iranian mobs toward the US seemed completely unfounded.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned the root of the conflict between the US and Iran stretched back to 1953, when the CIA engineered a coup that deposed Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh and imposed the Shah, who served as an American puppet.  While not excusing the actions of the Iranian Islamists, this bit of background at least made clear why many in Iran harbored a deep dislike of the US.

In the years since, the US has continued armed involvement in the region.  In 1983, the US lost hundreds of marines when a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into the Beirut barracks of a US peacekeeping force.  Gulf War I and II followed in 1990 and 2003 respectively.  The war in Afghanistan, started in 2001, is still ongoing and has become the longest running military conflict in Americana history.  As if this were not enough, US backed NATO forces assisted in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.  The most recent US military involvement in the region was its attempt to overthrow the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.  The US is also supports ongoing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia.

The above is just a brief summary of US activity in the region.  There is much more to it.  But US involvement there is not limited to bombs only.  On the opposite side, it has been a longstanding policy of the US to provide foreign aid to the region.  For example, during Fiscal Year 2012, US taxpayers were forced to provide the following amounts to the nation of the Middle East,

  • Afghanistan             $12.8 billion
  • Iraq                           $1.9 billion
  • Israel                        $3.1 billion
  • Egypt                       $1.4 billion
  • Pakistan                    $1.2 billion
  • Jordan                      $1.1 billion
  • West Bank/Gaza      $457 million

And just what has the US to show for all this activity?  Are Americans better off today than they were before spilling their blood and treasure?  Hardly.  The Middle East is more unstable now than at any point in the last several decades.  In addition to the war in Gaza against Hamas, Israel is threatening to attack Iran to prevent it from building a nuclear arsenal.  The US backed Syrian rebels, many of whom have Al Qaida ties, have gone rogue, taken a significant stash of the most advanced US weapons, formed the Islamic State, and overrun a large portion of Iraq.  Their next move is anyone’s guess, but calls have already begun for the US to put boots on the ground in Iraq.  Meanwhile the civil war continues to fester in Syria. (more…)

Van Til — The Federal Vision Connection

August 9, 2014

portalesWhile driving from Portales to Amarillo this past week for meetings, and with a little over two hours to kill, I had forgotten that I had put a John Robbins lecture on my Sansa Clip (the anti-iPod) dealing with the justification controversy.  This particular lecture, and one I hadn’t heard before, zeroes in on the aberrant and deadly theologies of Richard Gaffin and Norman Shepherd.  Of particular interest was John’s discussion of Gaffin’s, Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology. John admits having to reread particularly difficult passages four or five times in order to understand exactly what the Gaffin is saying. More than anyone I’ve known, John had a habit, to the chagrin of many, of doggedly sticking with an oblique and difficult passage until he can distill the author’s meaning clearly and unambiguously.  Robbins exemplified the old Puritan ideal of making difficult ideas “plain.”  So while Shepherd’s heresy is easy to see, Gaffin’s is much more difficult to uncover, but Robbins exposes Gaffin completely.

Interesting too, Robbins has some very nice things to say about Westminster West, even referring to Scott Clark as “one their best theologians.” He also speaks glowingly about WSC president, Robert Godfrey.  He recounts a story seeing Godfrey perform “admirably” when he was forced to defend justification by faith alone against J.I. Packer and some unnamed papal representative at a national gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society in Florida.  Robbins said it was a “set up” and that the way supposedly “Reformed” men in the audience attacked Godfrey over the doctrine of justification by faith alone was “horrible.”

However, the overarching message of Dr. Robbins’ lecture is the influence the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til has had on Gaffin and Shepherd and how it has contributed directly to the current justification crisis in Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  Failure to understand the relationship between Van Til and the Federal Vision is the failure to understand that fruit trees need good soil in order to produce good fruit.  Interesting too, while Robbins places the justification controversy squarely at Van Til’s feet, he does see the rise of Biblical Theology (which is anything but biblical) as a contributing factor that has lead to this perfect theological storm.

By denying any point of identity between God’s thoughts and man’s thoughts, even in the propositional revelation of Scripture, Van Til has robbed Christians of any authoritative word from God.  While Van Til was fond of saying that the Christian is to “think God’s thoughts after him,” the irony lost on Vantillians like Scott Clark, Lane Keister, Gary Johnson and others, is that according to Van Til, the Christian possesses none of God’s thoughts to think. Now, while the connection between Van Til and the FV should be perfectly obvious, there are still those who still can’t see the connection, including at least one of those in attendance at John’s lecture.  Here’s that exchange:

Question: Dr. Robbins, with reference to what you’ve just said, I’m unable, or I guess I just didn’t pick it up, the connection between Van Til and his thought and these errors directly.  Could you make that a little more clear for me or restate what you already said?

Robbins: Well, I can try to briefly, but I urge you to read some of the books as well. The connection is in Van Til’s thought we cannot know what God knows. There can be no identity of content. All the Reformed confessions are the Christian system, but they’re not the divine system of theology. And, if that’s the case, that leaves theologians, or whoever, open to interpreting Scripture in various ways. If we have no objective and absolute word from God, then theologians can run off in all directions, and they have run off in all directions from Westminster.  You find some sound men who have graduated from the seminary, and you find people who have run off in various directions.  And, it’s all because we have no clear word from God.  Once you’ve undermined the doctrine of propositional revelation by saying there is no identity of content between the Reformed confessions and the divine system of theology . . . then you have open season on the Reformed confessions.

If any of this is still unclear in anyone’s mind, then I strongly urge you to listen to the entirety of Dr. Robbins’ lecture where he completely fleshes out the connection between Van Til and current justification controversy. You can access the lecture here. Maybe even put it on your Sansa Clip for your next long drive.

* To download the mp3, just RIGHT CLICK over the above link and choose SAVE LINK AS from the drop down menu.

The Clark/Van Til Controversy

August 5, 2014

Benjamin Wong did an outstanding job transcribing the Text of the Complaint leveled against Gordon Clark by C. Van Til and other professors at Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1940’s along with the Answer to this complaint by Clark and some of his supporters.  You can find the transcripts online at Benjamin’s site: The Complaint, The Answer.  I have also provided Word copies in the sidebar on this blog.

For those even with a passing interest in either Clark or Van Til and has ever wondered what the whole hubbub is about, it’s time to get up to speed.

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