In our last post, we examined the Romanist/Arminian concept of possible salvation, opposed to the Reformed doctrine of particular, perfect atonement. I’ve taken heat previously for my insistence that neither a Romanist or Arminian (or to a lesser extent, a dispensationalist) can consistently argue presuppositionally. The reason this is so, is due to their theological stance. In the case of the Romanist and Arminian, Van Til spends a large amount of his book demonstrating why their apologetic stems from their theological stance. In the same way, our apologetic stems from our theology – as it should.
Once more Mr. Grey, the evangelical, punches the doorbell at Mr. Black’s home. Mr. Black answers to admit him.
“I am here again, Mr. Black,” begins Grey, “because I am still anxious to have you accept Christ as your personal Savior. When I spoke to you the other time about the atonement, you got me into deep water. We got all tangled up on the question of ‘possibility’.
Notice something – Mr. Grey considers “possibility” as something which can be separated from his apologetic, or his evangelism. It is something to get “tangled up on,” and something to be atomistically removed from the equation. The concept of “possibility”, ironically, is explicitly mentioned by Mr. Grey – and tied directly to salvation. Yet, here he is trying to separate possibility out from salvation as if he never said such a thing! Even worse, he is shortly about to use the word “possible”, or a variant thereof twice more in this next section. The atonement cannot be separated out from possibility, or any other doctrine of Scripture. To say otherwise is to discard the totality of Scripture for some sort of “bare” theism. Scripture does indeed talk about possibility. When taken in its totality, it speaks very plainly, as well. To disregard that, in order to make your apologetic or your evangelism more palatable is simply atrocious. We can’t break Christianity down into a bunch of blocks, and say none of the blocks relate to one another.
“But now I have something far simpler. I want to deal with simple facts. I want to show you that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is as truly a fact as any that you can mention. To use the words of Wilbur Smith, himself a Calvinist but opposed to the idea of a distinctively Reformed method for the defense of the faith: ‘The meaning of the resurrection is a theological matter, but the fact of the resurrection is a historical matter; the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus may be a mystery, but the fact that the body disappeared from the tomb is a matter to be decided upon by historical evidence.’ And the historical evidence for the resurrection is the kind of evidence that you as a scientist would desire.”
“Simple” facts. So, what Mr. Black is being told, is that facts are facts – and they both can and should be interpreted apart from God. No mention of what “true” will mean, variously, to the believer and unbeliever – because the two are being considered as arriving at “truth” the same way – namely, apart from God. His citation of Smith as a “Calvinist” shows only that Smith doesn’t treat facts like a Calvinist should. He separates meaning from fact – on what Biblical basis? In Isa 41:22, and 43:9 God’s challenge is that His rivals not only tell us the future – but declare the past – what it means. Since Smith is being cited as encouraging us to do the same, he is pushing us into the same error Satan pushed Eve – self-interpretation of facts.
“Smith writes in the same book:
About a year ago, after studying over a long period of time this entire problem of our Lord’s resurrection, and having written some hundreds of pages upon it at different times, I was suddenly arrested by the thought that the very kind of evidence which modern science, and even psychologists, are so insistent upon for determining the reality of any kind of object under consideration is the kind of evidence that we have presented to us in the gospels regarding the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, namely, the things that are seen with the human eye, touched with the human hand, and heard by the human ear. This is what we call empirical evidence. It would almost seem as if parts of the gospel records of the resurrection were actually written for such a day as ours when empiricism so dominates our thinking.
Notice some amazing things here. Immediately we give the unbeliever what he demands, with no contest. No discussion of whether empiricism is even valid. Second, there is no talk of *whether* the resurrection is a problem, but what to do about it. Third, the context of the gospels is said not to be universal, but to be for our day. This is a common sign of eisegesis to come.
“Now I think that Smith is quite right in thus distinguishing sharply between the fact and the meaning of the resurrection. And I am now only asking you to accept the fact of the resurrection. There is the clearest possible empirical evidence for this fact. The living Jesus was touched with human hands and seen with human eyes of sensible men after he had been crucified and put into the tomb. Surely you ought to believe in the resurrection of Christ as a historical fact. And to believe in the resurrected Christ is to be saved.”
Contrast this with Van Til:
“It is in vain to speak about the fact without speaking of the meaning of the fact. For the factness of the fact is to any mind that deals with it that which he takes it to mean. It is his meaning that is virtually the fact to him. And it is impossible even to present the fact for what it really is, namely, that which it is according to its interpretation as given in Scripture, to the natural man, if one does not challenge his notions of possibility and probability that underlie his views of the facts of history.”
“But hold on a second,” says Mr. Black. “Your friend the Calvinist, Mr. White, has been ahead of you again. He was here last night and spoke of the same thing. However, he did not distinguish between the fact and the meaning of the resurrection. At least, he did not for a moment want to separate the fact of the resurrection from the system of Christianity in terms of which it gets its meaning. He spoke of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as rising from the dead. He spoke of the Son of God, through whom the world was made and through whom the world is sustained, as having risen from the dead. And when I asked him how this God could die and rise from the dead, he said that God did not die and rise from the dead, but that the second person of the Trinity had taken to Himself a human nature, and that it was in this human nature that he died and rose again. In short, in accepting the fact of the resurrection he wanted me also to take all this abracadabra into the bargain. And I have a suspicion that you are secretly trying to have me do something similar.”
As Van Til writes here, so does he instruct in methodology.
“Since the natural man assumes the idea of brute fact in metaphysics, and the idea of autonomy of the human mind in epistemology, the Reformed apologist realizes that he should first challenge these notions. He must challenge these notions in everything that he says about anything. It is these notions that determine the construction that the natural man puts upon everything that is presented to him. They are the colored glasses through which he sees all the facts.”
“No, no,” replies Mr. Grey. “I am in complete agreement with you over against the Calvinist. I have a common witness with you against him. I. too, would separate fact and system. Did I not agree with you against the Calvinist, in holding that possibility is independent of God? Well then, by the same token I hold that all kinds of facts happen apart from the plan of God. So we evangelicals are in a position, as the Calvinists are not, of speaking with you on neutral ground. With you, we would simply talk about the facts of Christianity without bringing into the picture anything about the meaning or the significance of those facts.”
Contra Van Til again:
“The finite mind cannot thus, if we are to reason theistically, be made the standard of what is possible and what is impossible. It is the divine mind that is determinative of what is possible.” 
“He must always maintain that the “fact” under discussion with his opponent must be what Scripture says it is, if it is to be intelligible as a fact at all. He must maintain that there can be no facts in any realm but such as actually do exhibit the truth of the system of which they are a part. If facts are what they are as parts of the Christian theistic system of truth then what else can facts do but reveal that system to the limit of their ability as parts of that system? It is only as manifestations of that system that they are what they are. If the apologist does not present them as such he does not present them for what they are.”
“It makes me smile,” continues Mr. Grey, “when I think of poor Mr. White coming over here to try to convert you. That poor fellow is always reasoning in circles. I suppose that such reasoning in circles goes with his determinism. He is always talking about his self-contained God. He says that all facts are what they are because of the plan of this God. Then each fact would of necessity, to be a fact at all, prove the truth of the Christian system of things and, in turn, would be proved as existing by virtue of this self-same Christian system of things. I realize full well that you, as a modern scientist and philosopher, can have no truck with such horrible, circular reasoning as that.
It is for this reason that, as evangelicals, we have now separated sharply between the resurrection as a historical fact and the meaning of the resurrection. I’m merely asking you to accept the fact of the resurrection. I am not asking you to do anything that you cannot do in full consistency with your freedom and with the ‘scientific method’.”
Notice that “facts” are represented as “brute” facts. Uninterpreted. In his own context, to interpret as he will. That, we shall see, he shall.
“Well, that is delightful,” replies Mr. Black. “I always felt the Calvinists were our real foes. But I read something in the paper the other day to the effect that some Calvinist churches or individuals were proposing to make some common witness with evangelicals for the gospel. Now I was under the impression that the gospel had something to do with being saved from hell and going to heaven. I knew that the modernists and the ‘new modernists’ like Barth, do not believe in tying up the facts of history with such wild speculations. It was my opinion that ‘fundamentalists’ did tie up belief in historical facts, such as the death and resurrection of Jesus, with going to heaven or hell. So I am delighted that you, though a fundamentalist, are willing to join with the modernist and the neo-modernist in separating historical facts from such a rationalistic system as I knew Christianity was.
Interesting, isn’t it? The unbeliever knows enough about what we believe to know that this doesn’t jive with a true presentation of the gospel. That there is a real connection between historical fact, and every aspect of theology. He properly identifies this penchant (this neutral penchant) of the evangelical apologetic with appeasement of liberal scholasticism.
Now as for accepting the resurrection of Jesus,” continued Mr. Black, “as thus properly separated from the traditional system of theology, I do not in the least mind doing that. To tell you the truth, I have accepted the resurrection as a fact now for some time. The evidence for it is overwhelming. This is a strange universe. All kinds of ‘miracles’ happen in it. The universe is ‘open’. So why should there not be some resurrections here and there? The resurrection of Jesus would be a fine item for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Why not send it in?”
There you have it 🙂 Ripley’s! I am sorely tempted to “cheat”, and go to the next section here, but I shall refrain. On occasion, the unbeliever will, in some sense “accept” the facts to mean, in a limited way, what we say about them. This is by no means guaranteed, nor is it, in truth, especially positive. In fact, it’s actually worse in some respects. They are falsely insulated from their own danger by their “better” position – and since the basis of their position was never challenged, what is the evangelical apologist to do then?
Mr. Grey wanted to continue at this point. He wanted to speak of the common witness that he had, after all, with the Calvinists for the gospel. But it was too late. He had no “common” witness left of any sort. He had again tried to gallop off in opposite directions at the same time. He had again taken away all intelligibility from the witness that he meant to bring. He had again established Mr. Black in thinking that his own unbelieving reason was right. For it was as clear as crystal to Mr. Black, as it should have been to Mr. Grey, that belief in the fact of the resurrection, apart from the system of Christianity, amounts to belief that the Christian system is not true, is belief in the universe as run by chance, is belief that is was not Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who rose from the dead.
By attempting to find “common” ground with an unbeliever, and repudiating “common” ground with believers, you are left standing on the unbeliever’s shifting sand – or in mid air with them. You’re well and truly stuck. Even worse, because you stepped away from the rock your house should be built on, you’re not where you’re supposed to be, either! If God doesn’t determine all things, if His existence is only “possible”, if facts are subjective, if truth is relative… you have a LOT of problems you’re suddenly left with – and in a hurry!
To be sure, in practice the “evangelical” is much better in his witness for the resurrection of Christ than he has been presented here. But that is because every evangelical, as a sincere Christian, is at heart a Calvinist.
This is an important distinction to make. It is not in practice that evangelicals falter. At least not faithful evangelicals. The issue is the principles that they profess, and are ultimately inconsistent. When I have argued that Arminians cannot argue presuppositionally, this is what I am referring to. If they are faithful Christians, if inconsistent ones, they will recognize that this is the Biblical method. Unfortunately, since their theology – their principles – are inconsistent, their apologetic will likewise be inconsistent, and incapable of using a truly Biblical method.
But witnessing is a matter of the head as well as of the heart. If the world would hear a consistent testimony for the Christian faith, it is the Calvinist who must give it. If there is not a distinctively Reformed method for the defense of every article of the Christian faith, then there is no way of clearly telling an unbeliever just how Christianity differs from his own position and why he should accept the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. We are happy and thankful, of course, for the work of witnessing done by evangelicals. We are happy because of the fact that, in spite of their inconsistency in presenting the Christian testimony, something, often much, of the truth of the gospel shines through unto men, and they are saved.
I would just like to note, and to highlight, what Van Til says here. In spite of their inconsistency, the Gospel is still heard. It reminds you of Philippians 1:15-18, doesn’t it? Just so here. Just as a note of warning for Reformed folks, however. To whom much is given, my friends, much is expected. Do not boast, do not think more of yourselves than you ought. What do you have that you were not given? Be careful to strive not to be worse than your principles.
- Author’s footnote 30: Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore, Stand (Boston: W.A. Wilde, 1945), 386↩
- Author’s footnote 31: Ibid., 389, 390↩
- Defense of the Faith, 4th ed, 165↩
- Ibid., 166↩
- Ibid., 62↩
- Christian Apologetics, 2nd Ed, 153-54↩
- Author’s footnote 32: That is, every evangelical believes that one cannot separate the fact of the resurrection from its meaning; and every evangelical believes that God is sovereign over his creation, and in salvation.↩