Van Til, Kuyper, Calvin, Aquinas, Grace, the Donum Superadditum, and Immortality

For the believers, Scripture is the principle of theology.[1] As such it cannot be the conclusion of other premises, but it is the premise from which all other conclusions are drawn.[2]

From what has been said it is not to be concluded that Kuyper has no great appreciation of the knowledge of God that may be obtained from nature. The contrary is true. he lays the greatest possible stress upon the idea that the Bible is not a book that has fallen from heaven. There is a natural foundation for it. This natural foundation is found in the fact that the natural is itself the creation of the same God who in special principle comes to man for his redemption. In form at least Kuyper would therefore agree with Aquinas when he says that the supernatural or spiritual does not destroy but perfects nature. But Kuyper’s ideas of the natural and the supernatural are quite different from those of Aquinas. For Aquinas the natural is inherently defective; it partakes of the nature of nonbeing. Hence sin is partly at least to be ascribed to finitude. For Kuyper the natural, as it came from the hand of God, was perfect. To be sure, there was to be development. And historically, this development has come by way of grace. But for all that it is an “accident,” something incidental to the fulfillment of the natural. Christ came into the world to save, and in saving developed to its full fruition the powers of the natural. Thus grace is not reduced to something that is to be naturally expected as a development of the natural. The gradation motif of Aquinas is replaced by the idea of grace as “accidental” as the means by which sin, which is wholly unnatural or contrary to the natural, and destructive of the natural, is removed, in order that the truly natural may thus come to expression.[3]

The natural man, working on his principle, working from the principle of his second nature, must not be given the opportunity of destroying the “accidental” character of redemption. He would be given this opportunity if his principle of autonomy were not challenged. Working on his principle he would destroy the “accidental” character of grace altogether. He would do what Romanism has so largely done. He would seek to show that redemption is naturally to be expected by man. He would show on the other hand that the redemptive is something without determinate character in history so that every man may regard it as he pleases.[4]

“On the other hand, it may be said that according to the Roman Catholic view the natural man does not give a fully correct interpretation of natural revelation. Does not Thomas Aquinas correct the interpretations that “the philosopher” has given of the things of nature?[5] And does not the Roman Catholic view of the image of God in man itself imply that even originally, before the fall, man was unable, without the donum superadditum[6], to know anything in a perfect way?

We reply that though Aquinas does correct some of the conclusions of Aristotle, he accepts the method of Aristotle as essentially sound. But ignoring this, and granting for the sake of the argument that according to Rome the natural man’s view of natural revelation is not fully correct, it should be noted that the only reason Rome can adduce for this fact is a defect in revelation itself. The prisoners of Plato’s cave are not to be blamed for the fact that they see shadows only. They are doing full justice by the position in which they find themselves. If their heads are bound so that they see shadows only, this is due to no fault of theirs. It is due to the constitution and course of nature. According to this view the human mind is not originally and naturally in contact with the truth. The idea of freedom, as entertained by Roman theology, is based upon man’s being metaphysically distinct from “god”, And this is tantamount to saying that man is free to the extent that he has “no being.”[7] There is on this basis no genuine point of contact with the mind of the natural man at all. The ideas that man is out of contact with God and that he participates in the being of God are correlative to one another.

We do not object to the idea that the mind of man is said to be always in need of supernatural revelation. On the contrary we would stress the fact that even in paradise the mind of man needed and enjoyed a supernatural revelation.[8] What we object to is the reason given for the need that man had of supernatural revelation even in paradise. THe reason for this need, according to the Roman Catholic view, is virtually a defect in the constitution of man. This implies that man is naturally, according to his original constitution, prone to error as well as to truth. The reason for this is that the god of Roman Catholicism does not control “whatsoever comes to pass.” Man is, accordingly, not exclusively confronted with that which reveals God. Man is also confronted with the ultimately nonrational.[9] On such a conception of reality in general it is natural that man’s constitution should be thought of, on the one hand, as of itself possessing the truth, and, on the other hand, as never able, by its natural action, to come into possession of the truth.”[10]

Although we have set aside all difference between the two words we have not yet ascertained what this image or likeness is. The Anthropomorphites were too gross in seeking this resemblance in the human body; let that reverie therefore remain entombed. Others proceed with a little more subtlety, who, though they do not imagine God to be corporeal, yet maintain that the image of God is in the body of man, because his admirable workmanship there shines brightly; but this opinion, as we shall see, is by no means consonant with Scripture. The exposition of Chrysostom is not more correct, who refers to the dominion which was given to man in order that he might, in a certain sense, act as God’s vicegerent in the government of the world.

This truly is some portion, though very small, of the image of God. Since the image of God had been destroyed in us by the fall, we may judge from its restoration what it originally had been. Paul says that we are transformed into the image of God by the gospel. And, according to him, spiritual regeneration is nothing else than the restoration of the same image. (Col 3:10, and Eph 4:23.) That he made this image to consist in righteousness and true holiness, is by the figure synecdochee[11]; for though this is the chief part, it is not the whole of God’s image. Therefore by this word the perfection of our whole nature is designated, as it appeared when Adam was endued with a right judgment, had affections in harmony with reason, had all his senses sound and well-regulated, and truly excelled in everything good. Thus the chief seat of the Divine image was in his mind and heart, where it was eminent: yet was there no part of him in which some scintillations of it did not shine forth. For there was an attempering in the several parts of the soul, which corresponded with their various offices.[12] In the mind perfect intelligence flourished and reigned, uprightness attended as its companion, and all the senses were prepared and moulded for due obedience to reason; and in the body there was a suitable correspondence with this internal order. But now, although some obscure lineaments of that image are found remaining in us; yet are they so vitiated and maimed, that they may truly be said to be destroyed. For besides the deformity which everywhere appears unsightly, this evil also is added, that no part is free from the infection of sin.[13]

He gave the tree of life its name, not because it could confer on man that life with which he had been previously endued, but in order that it might be a symbol and memorial of the life which he had received from God. For we know it to be by no means unusual that God should give to us the attestation of his grace by external symbols.[14] He does not indeed transfer his power into outward signs; but by them he stretches out his hand to us, because, without assistance, we cannot ascend to him. He intended, therefore, that man, as often as he tasted the fruit of that tree, should remember whence he received his life, in order that he might acknowledge that he lives not by his own power, but by the kindness of God alone; and that life is not (as they commonly speak) an intrinsic good, but proceeds from God. Finally, in that tree there was a visible testimony to the declaration, that ‘in God we are, and live, and move.’ But if Adam, hitherto innocent, and of an upright nature, had need of monitory signs to lead him to the knowledge of divine grace, how much more necessary are signs now, in this great imbecility of our nature, since we have fallen from the true light? Yet I am not dissatisfied with what has been handed down by some of the fathers, as Augustine and Eucherius, that the tree of life was a figure of Christ, inasmuch as he is the Eternal Word of God: it could not indeed be otherwise a symbol of life, than by representing him in figure. For we must maintain what is declared in the first chapter of John (John 1:1-3,) that the life of all things was included in the Word, but especially the life of men, which is conjoined with reason and intelligence. Wherefore, by this sign, Adam was admonished, that he could claim nothing for himself as if it were his own, in order that he might depend wholly upon the Son of God, and might not seek life anywhere but in him. But if he, at the time when he possessed life in safety, had it only as deposited in the word of God, and could not otherwise retain it, than by acknowledging that it was received from Him, whence may we recover it, after it has been lost? Let us know, therefore, that when we have departed from Christ, nothing remains for us but death.

I know that certain writers restrict the meaning of the expression here used to corporeal life. They suppose such a power of quickening the body to have been in the tree, that it should never languish through age; but I say, they omit what is the chief thing in life, namely, the grace of intelligence; for we must always consider for what end man was formed, and what rule of living was prescribed to him. Certainly, for him to live, was not simply to have a body fresh and lively, but also to excel in the endowments of the soul.[15]

Consider this preparatory for an argument I’ll be developing over several posts. If you don’t know where I’m going with this yet, don’t worry. It does all relate, and will result, God willing, in a transcendental argument.

  1. [1]Editor’s footnote: Remember that, like Kuyper and his theological forebears, Van Til is using the notion of principle here in its technical sense. For Reformed thought, the principia are the foundations upon which being and knowledge are, and are understood. God is the principium essendi (the source or principle of all being) and Scripture is the principium cognoscendi (the source or principle of knowledge).
  2. [2]Author’s footnote: Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige godgeleerdheid, 517.
  3. [3]Editor’s footnote: This section needs a bit of explanation. Van Til is referring once again to the Thomistic notion of a scale of being, in which essences participate. Those things which participate in a lesser extent, tend toward nonbeing. This scale Van Til here calls a “gradation motif.” The “natural,” therefore, tends toward nonbeing. Contrary to that is Kuyper’s view that the natural came from the hand of God, and is therefore wholly good, but that sin has entered in and disrupted that goodness, setting itself against nature; sin is, therefore, unnatural, or, as Kuyper liked to say, abnormal. In this context, grace, that is, the grace that is general, in nature (common grace) is “accidental” in that it comes in as a result of sin, as a result of a radical change from nature as good to nature as corrupt by virtue of our sin. This general grace is presupposed by special, redemptive grace, and redemptive grace restores the natural principle (in principle) so that it is good again. Grace is in response to the unnatural and the abnormal, and its purpose is “that the truly natural may thus come to expression,” i.e., that the natural might be restored to its “normal” condition. The factor of discontinuity, therefore, according to Kuyper, is not with respect to what something essentially (and thus relative to being), as Thomism would have it, but with respect to sin’s entrance into the world, corrupting the world, and thus evoking God’s response of grace to overcome such corruption.
  4. [4]Van Til, Defense of the Faith, (4th Ed.) 348-349
  5. [5]Editor’s footnote: Aquinas differed from “the philosopher,” Aristotle, for example in Thomas’ insistence that creation was not eternal.
  6. [6]Editor’s footnote: This is a reference to the “superadded gift” of righteousness, which according to Romanist theology was needed at creation since the being of man could in no way include it.
  7. [7]Editor’s footnote: Van Til’s reasoning here includes the notion that, in Romanist philosophical theology, man participates in the being of God, yet that participation cannot include man’s choice since it must be free of any outside constraint. So, if we “are” in God, but are “free” outside of his influence, we “are not” in God with respect to our choices. This is one way in which Van Til works out a rational/irrational dialectic with respect to elements of unbelief.
  8. [8]Editor’s footnote: That is, God spoke to Adam and Eve (Gen 2:16-17), and specified to them how they were to act in obedience before him.
  9. [9]Editor’s footnote: The “ultimately nonrational” in Romanist theology, includes the fact that man as created could not please God; man was also in need of an added righteousness.
  10. [10]Ibid., 111-112
  11. [11]Editor’s footnote: Synecdoche is the figure which puts a part for the whole, or the whole for a part.
  12. [12]Editor’s footnote: “Erat erim in singulis animae partibus temperatura quae suis numeris constabat.”
  13. [13]Calvin, Commentary, Gen. 1:26
  14. [14]Editor’s footnote: “Scimus minime esse insolens ut virtutem suam Deus externis symbolis testatam nobis reddat.” — “Nous savons que ce n’est point chose nouvelle, que Dieu nous testifie sa vertu par signes exterieurs.” — French Trans. Virtus in Latin, and vertu in French, may both signify power, virtue, efficacy; but it seems that the term grace more correctly conveys to an English ear the meaning of the Author. — Ed.
    On the sacramental character of the tree of life, which Calvin here maintains, but which Dr. Kennicott, in his first Dissertation, endeavors, with more learning than sound judgment, to set aside, the generality of commentators seem to be agreed. See Patrick, Scott, etc. Patrick says, — “This garden being a type of heaven, perhaps God intended by this tree to represent that immortal life which he meant to bestow upon man with himself, (Revelation 22:2). And so St. Austin, in that famous saying of his, ‘Erat ei in caeteris lignis Alimentum, in isto autem Sacrcramentum.’ In other trees there was nourishment for man; but in this also a sacrament. For it was both a symbol of that life which God had already bestowed upon man, and of that life which he was to hope for in another world, if he proved obedient.”
  15. [15]Calvin, Commentary, Gen. 2:9

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