Van Til and Systematic Theology

“Van Til’s apologetics may well be described as a group of original applications of some familiar Reformed doctrines. In Van Til’s view, apologetics and theology (particularly systematic theology) are very closely related: “… defense and positive statement go hand in hand.”[1] There can be no adequate positive statement without defense against error, and vice versa. In fact, “Systematic Theology is more closely related to apologetics than are any of the other disciplines. In it we have the system of truth that we are to defend.”[2] Thus Van Til begins the exposition of his apologetic with an outline of Reformed systematic theology. [3] It is clear from the outset that one of Van Til’s basic concerns is to present an apologetic which is true to Scripture and Reformed doctrine. His major complaints against competing apologetic methods are theological complaints, that is, that they compromise the incomprehensibility of God, total depravity, the clarity of natural revelation, God’s comprehensive control over creation, and so on. His appeal to the non-Christian contains much exposition of Reformed doctrine, in order that the unbeliever might know what sort of God is being argued for.[4] Thus, Gordon R. Lewis[5] and John W. Montgomery [6] charge that Van Til confuses apologetics with systematic theology. This criticism is mistaken, for it suggests that Van Til would merely proclaim doctrine to a non-Christian without evidence or argument. Even though “defense and positive statement go hand in hand,” Van Til is quite capable of distinguishing between them, and he is self-consciously concerned to supplement the one with the other.[7] Yet the Lewis-Montgomery criticism shows a real insight into the structure of Van Til’s thought, for in one sense it is indeed difficult to distinguish apologetics from systematic theology in Van Til’s position. Though Van Til does clearly distinguish “positive statement” from “defense,” and though in general he aligns the first with theology and the second with apologetics, he does insist that, because each is indispensable to the other, theology must have an apologetic thrust, and apologetics must expound theology. The difference between the two in practice, then, becomes a difference in emphasis rather than of subject matter.

This practical identification of the two disciplines makes Van Til’s apologetics highly responsive to the demands of Reformed doctrine. But the converse is also true: the traditional doctrines take on, in many cases, a very new appearance when put to Van Til’s apologetic use. Unoriginal as his doctrinal formulations may be, his use of those formulations — his application of them–is often quite remarkable. The sovereignty of God becomes an epistemological, as well as a religious and metaphysical principle. The Trinity becomes the answer to the philosophical problem of the one and the many. Common grace becomes the key to a Christian philosophy of history. These new applications of familiar doctrines inevitably increase our understanding of the doctrines themselves, for we come thereby to a new appreciation of what these doctrines demand of us. Sometimes these new understandings are of quite a radical sort — radical enough to require new formulations, or at least supplementary formulations, of the doctrines themselves. Van Til, as we have observed, rarely provides such revised formulations, though he does at some significant points, as we shall see. But there is much in Van Til that will require future orthodox Reformed dogmaticians to rethink much of the traditional language and thus to go beyond Van Til himself. Not that the traditional language is wrong (generally speaking); it is just that through reading Van Til we often become painfully aware of how much more needs to be said.

Thus, Van Til’s theology, conventional and traditional as it may seem at first glance, is just as significant in its own way as is his apologetics. If Van Til has given a new epistemological self-consciousness to apologetics, then he has done the same for theology and all other types of Christian thought. If (as may well be said) Van Til has done for Christian thought what Kant accomplished for non-Christian thought, giving it a revolutionary awareness of the uniqueness and comprehensiveness of its distinctive principles, then as with Kant the “Copernican” radicalism of his contribution must be appreciated in all areas of human thought and life.”

John M. Frame, Van Til: the Theologian

  1. [1]Van Til, Apologetics (Syllabus, 1959), 3
  2. [2]Ibid., 4
  3. [3]Ibid., 4ff; cf. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 23f
  4. [4]Note, for example, the treatment of creation, providence, prophecy, and miracle in Van Til’s pamphlet, Why I Believe in God (Philadelphia: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, n.d.), 13-15
  5. [5]In E. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens (Nutley, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 34
  6. [6]In ibid., 391f
  7. [7]Van Til, Apologetics, 3f.; Why I Believe in God, 16. The idea that Van Til’s apologetic substitutes proclamation for argument is frequently denied in Van Til’s writings, but is nevertheless one of the most prevalent misunderstandings of his position

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