Van Til – The FV Connection Pt. 2

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Gordon Clark, Heresies, Theology, Van Til

9 Comments on “Van Til – The FV Connection Pt. 2”

  1. Hugh McCann Says:

    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.

    And worse, totalitarianism is the necessary, logical extreme when there is no sure word from God.

    Years ago, at a conference on how to witness to Eastern Orthodox folk, I asked a Muscovite (Idaho, USA variety) why my church’s WCF was preferable to say, the Council of Trent, et. al. of Rome.

    The reply from the speaker that day (a philosopher cum independent, reformed, Van Tillian church elder) was that I was to submit to my elders because they are my elders. That was the only appeal to the Bible – submission to church leadership.

  2. Hugh McCann Says:

    Today, authoritarianism pervades the professing churches, from the absolute monarchy of the Roman Catholic Church-State, with its nobility of bishops, to the local Charismatic church that teaches submission and the local Baptist church that has only one pastor and no elders – all are in disobedience to Christ.

    This sinful authoritarianism has also entered the “conservative” Presbyterian churches, and it is based on the same doctrinal errors that led to the formation of the Roman Church-State 1500 years ago. In this essay, Kevin Reed traces the historical and doctrinal roots of Imperious Presbyterianism, and calls Bible-believing Presbyterians to correct the errors of their authoritarian elders.

    – See more at:

  3. Denson Dube Says:

    Hi Hugh,
    Isn’t it ironic that when there is no sure word from God, or more appropriately, when man reject the word of God, the consequences are not enjoyment of unbridled freedom and “free spirits” but bondage and slavery.

  4. Sean Gerety Says:

    Great point Hugh. This could also be why titles and positions are so important to these men and I’ll say the so-called “good guys.”

    The authoritarianism of the theonomists and the FV men is well known, where we have total loons like James Jordan calling down anathemas from heaven against a former teacher at the church’s school for filing for unemployment. I’m talking about men who think their degrees and positions, by themselves, can demand submission on nothing more than their own authority. It’s like Dr. Strange painting himself as the “Watchman of Israel” while fabricating history in order to bolster his denial of the justification by belief alone. Or, TE and moderator on Lane’s blog, Ron Henzel, who sees himself imbued with apostolic authority by which he can withdrawn his phony “charity” against those who refuse to submit to his theological incoherence and intellectual dishonesty. I’ve seen this sort of ecclesiastical grandstanding for years with men so puffed up by their own positions and imagined power that they’re shocked when their word alone doesn’t end all debate.

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when all these men are trained to believe that there is no objective and authoritative word from God. All they’re left with are the words of men. Besides, something has to fill that vacuum and I’m quite sure they’re happy to fill the gap.

    And, thanks for the link, I’ll have to read Kevin Reed’s piece again.

  5. justbybelief Says:

    Van Til’s ‘theology’ will only revive the priesthood that was killed during the reformation. If men can’t lean on the word of God, they’ll lean on the words of demons speaking through men.

    When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    I blame John Murray more than Van Til for the FV. David Gordon writes—-Murray’s followers confuse: -works and faith (Norman Shepherd), since the Mosaic covenant was not primarily characterized by faith, but by works (Gal. 3:12), and, presumptively, the Sinai covenant was not different in kind from the New Covenant; and confuse the imputation of the obedience of Christ with our own personal obedience

    David Gordon—I’d like to retain the right, after a generation or two of discussion, to change my mind and remove Murrayism if we discover that his views are genuinely fatal to consistent federalism. My current “tolerance” of his view is due, in no small measure, to the fact that in two of his published works (The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, and the Romans Commentary), Murray defends the historic federal position.

    David Gordon– The “Federal” theologians… don’t appear to have a biblical understanding of what a covenant is or whether the Bible contains more than one. Simply as a matter of intellectual integrity, theirs should be called “The Non-Federal Vision.” And when they suggest that we need to do theology from a covenantal perspective, we should demand that they do the same, and candidly acknowledge that the Bible not only records a multiplicity of covenants, but also speaks of them in the plural.

    Reflections on the Auburn Theology – T. David’s Page

  7. Sean Gerety Says:

    I blame John Murray more than Van Til for the FV.

    I hardly think Murray was a philosopher, whereas Van Til was.

  8. Dr. Clark: Now then here are two questions. Yes, oh, here comes some more. Uh, what propositions do you try to get across when you present or preach the Gospel? Well, first of all, I would say that the whole Bible is the Gospel, not just a little part of it. And, uh, I do not like to reduce its scope and center only on, uh, some pet subject. I do, however, recognize that there are things that must be emphasized more than others and that’s what I said just a moment ago–that the, uh, the doctrine of the propitiatory sacrifice or the satisfaction view of the atonement is one thing I most certainly try to get across. But, uh, I also try to follow Paul’s, uh, advice to preach the whole counsel of God in order not to be guilty of the blood of men. I think we must preach the whole counsel and this distinction between kerygma and, uh, church doctrine–as the neo-orthodox put it–I have no sympathy for that.

  9. Hugh McCann Says:

    Thanks, Charlie. You’ve proven your point. I side with Robbins’ more reasoned thoughts, below (rather than an off-the-cuff remark given in a Q & A).

    J.R. made it clear that he too was a “whole Bible man,” and that the Scriptures are the system of truth given to us by God, but that the Gospel is a PART of that system, EMBEDDED in that system:

    QUOTE (Emphases added):

    The Whole Counsel of God

    But there is more in Paul’s account of the Gospel than might appear in a superficial reading. What we have discovered so far is totally different from what passes for the Gospel in this decadent age. But there is a great deal more. Paul uses the phrase “according to the Scriptures” twice in this concise account of the Gospel. His whole summary of the Gospel takes only twenty-seven words in the New King James translation (and fewer in the Greek), and eight of those words are “according to the Scriptures … according to the Scriptures.” The phrase is obviously very important. Why does Paul repeat it? What does it mean?

    The Gospel, according to Paul, is EMBEDDED IN SOMETHING MUCH LARGER: IT IS EMBEDDED IN ALL THE SCRIPTURES. Not only are the Scriptures the only reliable source of information we have about the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but the Scriptures alone explain those events. The Gospel is not merely that Christ died; so did Paul. The Gospel is not merely that he was buried; so was Abraham. The Gospel is not merely that Christ rose again, so did Lazarus. The Gospel is that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. And that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. The Gospel is in accord with and explained by the Scriptures, all sixty-six books of them. When Christ explained his resurrection to the disciples, he did so by explaining the Scriptures:

    And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him: and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” … And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

    By emphasizing the phrase “according to the Scriptures,” Paul is emphasizing the fact that the Gospel is PART OF A SYSTEM OF TRUTH GIVEN TO US IN THE BIBLE. All of the parts of this system fit together. All the statements in the Bible are logically consistent with one another. To give but one example of this, Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection fulfilled specific prophecies given centuries earlier. The exact town where he would be born was predicted hundreds of years before his birth; the fact that his birth would be unusual, for his mother would be a virgin, was predicted centuries before his birth; his death among the wicked and his burial among the rich were predicted; and Christ himself predicted his resurrection. The specific propositions that Paul calls the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 do not stand alone. They imply and are implied by many others. The choosing by God the Father of those that should be saved, the suffering of the punishment due them for their sins by Jesus Christ at Calvary, and the gift of faith to the elect people by God the Holy Spirit are all part of the system of truth taught in the Bible. They are the three great aspects of redemption: election, atonement, and faith. And the Gospel, the doctrine of the atonement, IS THE CENTRAL THEME. It is impossible to defend the Gospel, or even to preach the Gospel, without defending and explaining the system of truth OF WHICH IT IS A PART.

    Paul’s emphatic phrases in 1 Corinthians 15 indicate that those who wish to separate the Gospel from the system of truth found in the Bible cannot do so. The Gospel, WHILE A DISTINCT PART OF THE BIBLICAL SYSTEM, IS NEVERTHELESS A PART OF THE SYSTEM. This system is fully expressed in the Scriptures. The propositions that Paul calls the Gospel are SOME OF the propositions of Scripture. Because the Gospel is PART OF THE SCRIPTURAL SYSTEM OF TRUTH, it is impossible to defend the Gospel without defending the whole system.

    [Here, Robbins echoes Clark.]

    An exclusive emphasis on the “fundamentals” of the faith, rather than the “whole counsel of God,” which is the phrase the Bible uses, is futile. Six or eight unconnected truths, even if they be major doctrines of Christianity, are not the whole of Christianity, and cannot be defended effectively. Fundamentalism poses no serious threat to secular philosophies because it is logically unsystematic and disjointed, a mere shadow of the robust Christianity we find in the Bible.

    [Again, Robbins was not at all at odds with Clark’s concern for “whole Bible” Christianity. Just not “whole Bible gospel.”]

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