Mr. White, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Black IX

It’s been a while! We will, however, pick up from where we left off in this exchange, and examine Mr. Black’s reply to Mr. Grey.

“Well,” says Mr. Black, “this is great news indeed. I knew that the modernists were willing with us to start from human experience as the final reference point in all research. I knew that they were willing with us to start from Chance as the source of facts, in order then to manufacture such facts of nature and of history as the law of non-contradiction, based on Chance, will allow. I also knew that the famous neo-orthodox theologian, Karl Barth, is willing to remake the God of historic Christianity so that he can change into the opposite of himself, in order that thus he may satisfy both our irrationalist philosophy of Chance and our rationalist philosophy of logic. But I did not know that there were any orthodox people who were willing to do such a thing. But you have surprised me before. You were willing to throw your resurrection into the realm of Chance in order to have me accept it. So I really should have expected that you would also be willing to make the law of non-contradiction rest upon man himself instead of upon God.

Just as an introductory note, remember that our goal is to deal with the best arguments from the other side. While we might be able to find someone who has a better reply than Mr. Black in the time elapsed since this was written, in my experience, it wouldn’t be much better. On the other hand, what you encounter, as far as argumentation goes, will depend on whom you encounter.  The variety of unbelief which exists will, by necessity, likewise engender a wide variety of responses.  What is important about this section is that it shows Mr. Black responding to the ideas advanced by a non-presuppositionalist in the context of a conversation he is also having with a presuppositionalist.  As such, there is an opportunity for contrast.

What Mr. Black intends is to divide and conquer.  Much is often made of having a “united front,” of not “undermining our brothers” – and that is true insofar as it goes. Where it doesn’t go, however, is compromise of our fundamental doctrines.  Van Til has spent, by this point, more than 300 pages delineating the differences between apologetic approaches, and, from his perspective, the underlying theological compromise necessary to adopt the methodology of Romanism toward apologetics.  What he is engaged with in this section is in showing that when you compromise your theological principles, you compromise your witness and apologetic to the unbeliever.

Mr. Black starts with a comparison, drawing on the demands he has already made[1] of his interlocutors.  In his view, Mr. Grey accedes to his demands. He begins by saying it is “great news” – and perhaps he is being a trifle tongue in cheek here.  Essentially, however, he is accepting Grey’s statements just prior as concession to his demands.  When Grey says of revelation(s), “‘Let them make peace with the law of contradiction and the facts of history, and they will deserve a rational man’s assent,” he is, in effect, subjecting them to “human experience as the final reference point.”  As he points out, when you do so, you also agree with the unbeliever on this point, to accept chance as the source of facts. If you don’t subject reason to the sovereignty of God, you are subjecting God’s sovereignty to reason.  The problem, then, is that reason then rests, itself, in midair. It has no foundation, either to justify it, or to render it intelligible. Along with Mr. Black, Mr. Grey has stepped into the irrationalist/rationalist dialectic in order to be considered more acceptable by his peer.

“I am extremely happy, too, that not only Arminian fundamentalists but also less extreme or moderate Calvinists, like Buswell, Carnell, and Smith, are now willing to test revelation by a principle that is wholly independent of that revelation. It is now only a matter of time until they will see that they have to come over on our side altogether.

This is the key here. The self-sufficiency of Scripture is at issue.  On the one hand, Mr. White should say, along with his confession, that “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.[2]”  When you say that this authority must make peace with the laws of logic and history, you have set aside that self-attesting authority, and have placed another authority above.  Now, of course it must be said that Mr. Grey will not think he has done so. Isn’t he giving lip service to the confessional statement when he says “This can be done only by applying the canons of truth. God cannot lie. His authority, therefore, and coherent truth are coincident at every point. Truth, not blind authority, saves us from being blind followers of the blind”?  Well sure, he is. Unfortunately, what he has actually done is say that the truth of God is true only insofar as we consider it to be logical. In other words, yes, God is truth – but we can only consider what He has said; interpret what he has said – in light of what we “know” from our logical and historical consideration of those words. Our interpretive grid is presupposed prior to our consideration of Scripture.  Hence, what Mr. Black is saying is, when you do this, you are inevitably going to be drawn to consider everything in Scripture from the same perspective he does.

“I do not like the regular Calvinists. But they are certainly quite right from their own point of view. Mr. White claims that I am a creature of God. He says that all facts are made by God and controlled by the providence of God. He says that all men have sinned against God in Adam their representative. He adds that therefore I am spiritually blind and morally perverse. He says all this and more on the basis of the absolute authority of Scripture. He would interpret me, my facts, and my logic in terms of the authority of that Scripture. He says I need this authority. He says I need nothing but this authority. His Scripture, he claims, is sufficient and final. The whole thing, he claims, is clear in the light of Scripture.

Look, we all know that Calvinists are the boogeymen of popular evangelicalism.  We shouldn’t be surprised when unbelievers pick up on that, either. We also shouldn’t be surprised that they recognize the effort we put into consistency.  The following section(s) will delve into this subject more closely, but I would point out that Van Til’s summary of the entire conversation points out two things in particular (out of many, some of which we have already covered).  You can find this summary on page 341, in the second and third paragraphs. As he points out, the “traditional method” compromises the sufficiency and authority of Scripture.  I would invite you to examine the entire discussion, through page 343, where he lays out the principal theological tenets that are “distinctive” to his apologetic method – both positive and negative.  It is very helpful, and very illustrative of why he says the things that he says.  In addition, while some consider Van Til to be sometimes unclear, the referenced section is unambiguously clear and exceedingly concise.  If you want to know what Van Til is really all about, those three pages will give you an overview, and bring much-needed clarity.  That being said, let’s note a few things in Mr. Black’s statement.

Notice, he acknowledges that Mr. White is right to say what he does – from his own point of view.  This is an important thing to keep in mind.  Most of the people we talk to won’t be particularly familiar with our theology. Since this is so, we have to tell them what we believe.  When we do so, we are speaking directly from our own theology when we likewise advance our own apologetic, and it is thereby self-evident that we are being consistent with it.

He says “Mr. White claims.” All the claims thus made have not been recorded in the dialogue thus far.  Yet Mr. Black has heard them, from Mr. White.  So, obviously, there was more to these conversations than was related.  What is interesting, however, is that Mr. Black is essentially relating the heads of theology as Mr. White would.  Man is a creature.[3]  All things (including facts about those things) are God’s[4], and all things are controlled by Him[5] All men sinned against God in Adam, their representative[6]. Therefore, he is spiritually blind and morally perverse[7]. He says all this and more on the basis of the absolute authority of Scripture.  He would interpret Mr. Black, his facts, and his logic in terms of the authority of Scripture[8].  He says Mr. Black needs this authority[9]. He says Mr Black needs nothing but this authority[10]. His Scripture, he claims, is sufficient and final[11]. The whole thing is clear, in the light of Scripture[12]. Notice how closely this summation follows his outline in his Why I Believe in God? Read through that article, if you would. All of the elements here are present there, in a slightly more expanded conversation, all in one “sitting”. The point is, that Van Til is here referring to the “basics of the faith”.

“Now all this looks like plain historic Protestantism to me. I can intellectually understand the Calvinist on this matter of authority. I cannot understand you. You seem to me to want to have your cake and eat it. If you believe in scriptural authority, then why not explain all things, man, fact, and logic, in terms of it? If you want with us to live by your own authority, by the experience of the human race, then why not have done with the Bible as absolute authority? It, at best, gives you the authority of the expert.

This paragraph is very important, in my opinion. What Van Til is having Mr. White say is nothing new. Nothing he presents in the book up to this point is novel, or even particularly controversial. What is controversial, to his critics, is his application of these principles to the exercise of apologetics.  What was at issue, for many of his critics, was his insistence on consistency with the same theological principles they confessed in the apologetic they exercised.  What, we might point out, was consistent about on the one hand arguing against Thomas’ anachronistic accident/substance distinction for the Romanist Mass, as borrowed from Aristotle, but on the other hand, accepting a system of argumentation founded on Aristotle’s scale of being, which is part and parcel of his logical system?

“In your idea of the rational man who tests all things by the facts of history and by the law of non-contradiction, you have certainly made a point of contact with us. If you carry this through, you will indeed succeed in achieving complete coincidence between your ideas and ours. With us, you will have achieved complete coincidence between the ideas of man and the ideas of God. The reason for this coincidence of your ideas with ours, and for the coincidence of man’s ideas with God’s, is that you, like we, then have a God and a Christ who are virtually identical with man.

Of course, the very point of engaging in this type of apologetic is, as he says, to make a “point of contact.”  Mr. Black’s point, however, is that by so doing, they have lost the ability to distinguish themselves from him in any consistent way. As he says, “If you carry this through.”  As Van Til has already pointed out, “It is true, of course, that in practice Mr. Grey is much better in his theology and in his method of representing the gospel than he is here said to be.”  That is, however, because they separate “sharply between the resurrection as a historical fact and the meaning of the resurrection.”  In other words, the theology and the apologetic do not coincide – by intention.

When consistent, Mr. Black is saying, there will be no distinguishable difference between the two positions, in practice, because the principle has already been divorced from that practice.  If only that which can be exhaustively known, and reasoned about, either logically or historically, can be true, then you have effectively ceded to naturalism, and there is now no reason to believe anything that naturalism cannot “explain” by its lights.

“Do you not think, Mr. Grey, that this is too great a price for you to pay? I am sure that you do not thus mean to drag down your God into the universe. I am sure that you do not thus mean to crucify your Christ afresh. But why then halt between two opinions? I do not believe Christianity, but, if I did, I would stand with Mr. White.[13]

Now, the first question he asks is significant.  It is pointed, and purposefully so.  The next statement is also pointed. It refers again to Barth.  Yet, while in so doing he points out that by adopting this perspective, he essentially points out that they are falling into the trap of apostasy referenced in Hebrews 6[14]. Then, he references 1 Kings 18[15]. Basically, his point is that if you’re that willing to compromise to “get a foot in the door”, why don’t you just step in and stay for the duration? He doesn’t have any respect for that.  He does have respect for a robust Calvinism, whether he likes it, and them, or not.

We will continue this discussion in #10 of the series.

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  1. [1]See Mr. White, Mr. Grey and Mr. Black VIII, third paragraph of the cited material, where he references Barth. See also Van Til’s Christianity and Barthianism for his fuller assessment of Barth.
  2. [2]WCF I.4
  3. [3]WCF IV.2
  4. [4]WCF III.1
  5. [5]WCF V.1
  6. [6]WCF VI.1-3
  7. [7]WCF V.6, VI.2
  8. [8]WCF I.1,4,6,10
  9. [9]WCF I.7
  10. [10]WCF I.4,10
  11. [11]WCF I.1
  12. [12]WCF I.7
  13. [13]Editor’s footnote 47: ”The point Van Til is seeking to make here is that compromising with unbelief for the sake of communication will end up stripping Christianity of its power and its coherence. Even unbelievers can sense that what is being offered in such cases is not fundamentally different from unbelief itself.
  14. [14]Heb. 6.6
  15. [15]1 Kings 18:21

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