These posts contain lengthy quotations from Defense of the Faith, by Cornelius Van Til – this post will deal with pages 319-323. In the previous post, Van Til dealt with the unbeliever’s state before God, his self-deception, suppression of the truth, and the proper apologetic methodology to use with the unbeliever. Beginning here, he begins to answer the charge that a covenantal apologetic is “circular reasoning”, or has no “point of contact” with the unbeliever.
The one main question to which we are addressing ourselves in this series of articles is whether Christians holding to the Reformed Faith should also hold to a specifically Reformed method when they are engaged in the defense of the faith.
Here is CVT giving us his own purpose for writing this section. Should we, as Reformed Christians, use a specifically Reformed method? If so, why?
This broad question does not pertain merely to the “five points of Calvinism.” When Lutherans or Arminians attack these great doctrines (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints), we, as Calvinists, are quick to defend them. We believe that these five points are directly based on Scripture. But the question now under discussion is whether, in the defense of any Christian doctrine, Reformed Christians should use a method all their own.
In other words, this isn’t merely related to the five points, although we can and do defend them, and vigorously. Is *all* of Christian theology defended in a particularly Reformed way?
People easily give a negative reply to this question. Do we not have many doctrines in common with all evangelicals? Don’t all orthodox protestants hold to the substitutionary atonement of Christ? More particularly, what about the simple statements of fact recorded in Scripture? How could anyone, if he believes such statements at all, take them otherwise than as simple statements of fact? How could anyone have a specifically Reformed doctrine of such a fact as the resurrection of Christ? If together with evangelicals we accept certain simple truths and facts of Scripture at face value, how then can we be said to have a separate method of defense of such doctrines?
It’s very easy, if one does not think through the ramifications, to say “sure, we can work together ecumenically”. It’s another thing to think through those ramifications, as we shall see, and say the same thing. We will, actually, not address the second part of this paragraph in today’s installment, but will return to it in the next post. The first, however, will be the topic we consider today. The answer, as we will see, is that we do not, in the final analysis, accept the same things, for the same reasons. Where we differ from the “evangelical” is in what these doctrines mean.
Yet it can readily be shown that this negative answer cannot be maintained. Take, for example, the doctrine of the atonement. The Arminian doctrine of the atonement is not the same as the Reformed doctrine of the atonement. Both the Arminian and the Calvinist assert that they believe in the substitutionary atonement. But the Arminian conception of the substitutionary atonement is colored, and as Calvinists we believe discolored, by the view of “free will.” According to the Arminian view, man has absolute or ultimate power to accept or reject the salvation offered him. This implies that the salvation offered to man is merely the possibility of salvation.
As he often does, Van Til assumes his reader knows the historic, confessional definition of these issues. It may, perhaps, be a mistake to do so, but his audience, of course, is the Reformed believer. He was a professor at a Reformed seminary. Therefore, he assumes the definition of substitutionary atonement, as the Reformed believer would hold it, is both known and cherished. Many are critical of Van Til for this reason, but I don’t think that is a particularly valid complaint, especially given the previous section we addressed. Just keep it in your mind that for Van Til, it is just those doctrines which must be presupposed in order to be intelligible in your apologetic.
The second thing I would note is the centrality of “possibility” to our apologetic methodology. We argue from the impossibility of the contrary. We are not going to grant that possibility determines God’s actions or nature – we are to affirm that God determines possibility. I’ve taken some flak for this position myself, but it has always seemed to me the only coherent position, per Scripture. When speaking of the nature of the atonement, we are speaking, in essence, of possibility. Is salvation surely and with finality, accomplished by God in the particularity of Christ’s atonement, or is it made merely possible, by some other means, in a universal atonement? That other means, of course, in the Arminian system, is the determinative will of man. In the Romanist system, it is the sacramental priesthood as well as the will of man, which both cooperate to determine the atonement’s application. It is made possible by the universal atonement, of course, but that is only the initiator. In Reformed theology, God’s work is monergistic. He is who accomplishes as well as applies His own work to His people. Only such a position is coherent, and only such a position keeps intact the sovereignty of God in salvation as it is over all else in His creation. In this position, God alone determines possibility. Such is the only view which accounts for salvation in a coherent way; the positions of neither the Arminian nor the Romanist can do so.
To illustrate: suppose I deposit one million dollars to your account in your bank. It is still altogether up to you to believe that such wealth is yours, and to use it to cover the floor of your house with Persian rugs in place of the old threadbare rugs now there.  Thus, in the Arminian scheme, the very possibility of things no longer depends exclusively upon God, but, in some areas at least, upon man. What Christ did for us is made made to depend for its effectiveness upon what is done by us. It is no longer right to say that with God all things are possible.
The question is being asked here – is their position consistent? Can the Arminian really do things like pray for the salvation of others, if God is not whom that possibility is dependent on? Not consistently. How can an Arminian pray for the salvation of a man, if that man’s decision is what his salvation hinges on? If the atonement is only to make possible the salvation of all men, but the application of the atonement is left up to the will of man – that is no longer within the sphere of God’s sovereignty.
It is obvious, therefore, that Arminians have taken into their Protestantism a good bit of the leaven of Roman Catholicism. Arminianism is less radical, less consistent in its Protestantism than it should be. And what is true of Arminianism is true also, although in a lesser degree, of orthodox Lutheranism.
As Christ said, “beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. When so much of their theology has been imported into our apologetic method, it’s hard to escape the implications of that in our discussions with unbelievers – because the Romanist theology has once more sunk it’s tendrils into the “evangelical” denominations that never truly “escaped” that system. When we have well known “evangelical apologists” such as Norman Geisler openly praising Thomism, we have a serious issue, as Reformed Christians. We not only cannot, but must not cooperate with such theology, and/or methodology, in order to remain consistent. Our theology should determine our apologetic.
Now Mr. Grey, the evangelical, seems to have a relatively easy time of it when he seeks to win Mr. Black, the unbeliever, to an acceptance of the “substitutionary atonement.” He can stand on “common ground” with Mr. Black on this matter of what is possible and what is impossible. Listen to Mr. Grey as he talks to Mr. Black.
“Mr. Black, have you accepted Christ as your personal Savior? Do you believe that he died on the cross as your substitute? If you do not, you will surely be lost forever.”
The decisionism of today is nothing all that new. Neither is the equivocation at “substitute”. If Christ is the substitute of everyone, of what importance is His sacrifice? In Mr. Grey’s assertions of free will, universal ability, and individuality, he truly is on the same ground as Mr. Black! Further, he also agrees with Mr. Black on “possibility”. He has accepted the world’s view on this, and that everyone has a ‘chance’. Well, good sir, on what is ‘chance’ founded? Consistently, on this view, it is founded on the will of the creature. However, equally, chance IS the ultimate, in another sense. In that sense, it is possible that *any* man be saved, because *any* man may decide. “Anything is possible.”
What is fascinating to me is what Mr. Black speaks of next.
“Well now,” replies Mr. Black, “I’ve just had a visit from Mr. White on the same subject. You two seem to have a ‘common witness’ on this matter. Both of you believe that God exists, that he has created the world, that the first man, Adam, sinned, and that we are all to be sent to hell because of what the first man did, and so forth. All of this is too fatalistic for me. If I am a creature, as you say I am, then I have no ultimate power of my own and therefore am not free. And if I am not free, then I am not responsible. So, if I am going to hell, it will simply be because your ‘god’ has determined that I should. You orthodox Christians kill morality and all humanitarian progress. I will have none of it. Good-by!”
I am reminded of Hitchens’ comments in an older Slate article.
One is presuming (is one not?) that this is the same god who actually created the audience he was addressing. This leaves us with the insoluble mystery of why he would have molded (“in his own image,” yet) a covetous, murderous, disrespectful, lying, and adulterous species. Create them sick, and then command them to be well? What a mad despot this is, and how fortunate we are that he exists only in the minds of his worshippers.
Do the words above look familiar?
The unbeliever is self-righteously angry at the “injustice” of determinism. This “injustice” is denying to the creature the autonomy which he believes he is deserving of. Further, he mistakenly assumes (along with the Arminian, I might add) that men are damned for their election, not for their sins. The common error of “fatalism” is ascribed, followed by the typical argument of “if I am not free, I am not responsible.” As Reformed believers, we should be well-accustomed to answering these objections, as they are common misconceptions. He then goes on to say that these beliefs “kill morality and humanitarian progress.” Of course, our response would naturally be “by what standard?” Yet, as we shall see, Mr. Grey’s response is something else entirely.
“But wait a second,” says Mr. Grey in great haste. “I do not have a common witness with the Calvinist. I have a common witness with you against the Calvinist when it comes to all that determinism that you mention. Of course you are free. You are absolutely free to accept or to reject the atonement that is offered to you. I offer the atonement through Christ as only a possibility. You yourself must make it an actuality for yourself. I agree with you over against the Calvinist in saying that ‘possibility’ is wider than the will of God. I would not for a moment say with the Calvinist that God’s counsel determines ‘whatsoever comes to pass’
It has always been interesting to me how quickly, vehemently, and with how little reflection, Arminians and Romanists seek to disassociate themselves from Reformed theology. Even if I disagreed with Reformed theology, is that how I would allow an unbeliever to characterize my Christian brethren, with no opposition? With unbelievers, I’m quick to separate out the principles from the practices of Arminianism – and I certainly would not allow an unbeliever to misrepresent a fellow believer so badly. Of course, Mr. Grey may be ignorant enough to believe that these things are what we believe, but he offers no defense of us whatsoever! It’s always fascinated me to watch how quickly we are “thrown under the bus” by Evangelicals and Romanists.
Besides, even less extreme Calvinists like J. Oliver Buswell Jr. virtually agree with both of us. Listen to what Buswell says: “Nevertheless, our moral choices are choices in which we are ourselves ultimate causes.’ Buswell himself wants to go beyond the ‘merely arbitrary answer’ in Romans 9:20-21, which speaks of the potter and the clay, to the ‘much more profound analysis of God’s plan of redemption’ in Romans 9:22-24, in which Paul pictures Pharaoh as ‘…one who, according to the foreknowledge of God, would rebel against God.‘”
I’d just like to note that Geisler’s appropriation of “moderate Calvinism” is by no means new. The position he takes, likewise, is not new either. Foreknowledge, as with Geisler, is taken to be the basis for God’s election. Additionally, like Geisler, our choice is given to be ultimate. Of course, we, as Reformed Christians, would walk through Romans 9 systematically, contextually, while pressing the demands of God upon the unbeliever and pointing out the similarities to their objections found in the hypothetical Romans 9 objector. The explanation in verses 22-24 is by no means “more profound” – as if the two sections are contradictory in some fashion – but complementary and conclusive to the discussion found previously, while providing the framework for the discussion to follow.
The discussion to follow is very profound. The objection may be made that this is not how the typical unbeliever speaks; this may be true, but I can, however, personally attest to the fact that it both can and does come up in the course of conversation with unbelievers who deal with these subjects often.
“Do I understand, then,” replies Mr. Black, “that you evangelicals, and even the more moderate Calvinists, are opposed to the determinism of the regular, old-style Calvinists of the historic Reformed confessions? I am glad to hear that. To say that all things have been fixed from all eternity by God is terrible! It makes me shudder! What would happen to all morality and decency if all men believed such a teaching? But now you evangelicals have joined us in holding that ‘possibility’ is independent of the will of God. You have thus with all good people and with all modern and neo-modern theologians, like Barth, made possible the salvation of all men.
That means, of course, that salvation is possible too for those who have never heard of Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation is therefore possible without an acceptance of your substitutionary atonement through this Jesus of whom you speak. You certainly would not want to say with the Calvinists that God has determined the bounds of all nations and individuals and has thus, after all, determined that some men, millions of them, in fact, should never hear this gospel.
If God doesn’t determine what is possible in the application of that atonement, why should He determine what is possible in the means of the atonement? If the atonement only made salvation possible, why does it have to only be applied through faith in Christ? You’ve already denied the particularity of the extent of the atonement, so consistently, how can you deny the particularity in the means of its application?
Besides, if possibility is independent of God, as you evangelicals and moderate Calvinists teach, then I need not be afraid of hell. It is then quite possible that there is no hell. Hell, you will then agree, is that torture of a man’s conscience which he experiences when he fails to live up to his own moral ideals. So I do not think that I shall bother just yet about accepting Christ as my personal Savior. There is plenty of time.”
This, in the principle of Arminianism, is what I find most objectionable. By the reduction of the atonement to a “possible” work, you have therefore torn down the consistency preventing any other doctrine being similarly reduced. By removing possibility from God’s sovereignty here, you open the door for its removal anywhere else. Hell, by the same standard, is also “possibly” just the torture of conscience. It also leads to reducing the unique claims of Christ to “possibly” unique. The list could go on – but a brief survey of modern evangelicalism can quickly show this to be the case. Thankfully, many Arminians are better in practice than they are in principle – and I thank God for that – but consistency leads us to say that we cannot cooperate with such statements, lest we lead men to the same conclusions.
Poor Mr. Grey. He really wanted to say something about having a common testimony with the Calvinists after all. At the bottom of his heart he knew that Mr. White, the Calvinist, and not Mr. Black, the unbeliever, was his real friend. But he had made a common witness with Mr. Black against the supposed determinism of the Calvinist. So it was difficult for him to turn about face and also make common testimony with Mr. White against Mr. Black. He had nothing intelligible to say. His method of defending the faith had forced him to admit that Mr. Black was basically right. He had not given Mr. Black an opportunity of knowing what he was supposed to accept, but his testimony had confirmed Mr. Black in his belief that there was no need of his accepting Christ at all.
I would hope that we would both agree with this last statement – the Arminian, as well as the Calvinist. The Arminian must believe us to be more their friend than the unbeliever – and we must also believe the Arminian to be our friend more than the unbeliever is. We cannot cooperate ecumenically with a denial of Christian doctrine – but we are also not to throw our brethren “under the bus”. I recently had an exchange with someone who insisted that anyone who claims Arminians are, or can be truly believers, are false teachers. I’m aware of the Arminian’s inconsistencies, of course, but insisting on immediate sanctification in their perfection of doctrine is something we cannot do. We ourselves are not perfect in doctrine, and I know in my own case, I have much to learn. I must insist about Calvinism, however, along with Warfield, that “[i]n it, objectively speaking, theism comes to its rights; subjectively speaking, the religious relation attains its purity; soteriologically speaking, evangelical religion finds at length its full expression and its secure stability.”
Instead of forcing the unbeliever to face the inexorable law of God, which gives the unbeliever no recourse save Christ, his adoption of a foreign “possibility” gave the unbeliever the “excuse” that Scripture forbids him. By importing this foreign matter into his theology, he has been forced into agreement with the unbeliever, instead of confrontation of his foolishness. In fact, he himself cannot give an intelligible argument, because he himself has “erased” the basis he has for it.
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. But that is because in practice every evangelical who really loves his Lord is a Calvinist at heart. How could he really pray to God for help if he believed that there was a possibility that God could not help? In their hearts all true Christians believe that God controls “whatsoever comes to pass.” But the Calvinist cannot have common witness for the substitutionary atonement with “evangelicals” who first make a common witness with the unbeliever against him on the all-determining question whether God controls all things that happen.
Thankfully, it is true that the practice of many Arminians is better than their theology. It is also true that the Arminian who loves his Lord not only is, but must be a Calvinist at heart. Otherwise, what sense can be given to prayer for the salvation of a loved one? What sense can be made of an appeal for help, if it is possible that God will not do so? What we consider to be help, true, may not be what the Lord grants – but that is a function of our finitude, not His inability. We do not know what is best for us – God does.
In the final analysis, we cannot, as he says, have a common witness with the Arminian or Roman Catholic, or “moderate Calvinist” when they deny the sovereignty of God over possibility. If God is not in control, where does that leave us?
It must always be remembered that the first requirement for effective witnessing is that the position to which witness is given be intelligible. Evangelicalism, when consistently carried out, destroys this intelligibility.
This is a very important point. If we are inconsistent in our theology, our witness and apologetic will suffer accordingly. The inconsistency the “evangelical” theology has will, and cannot help but be, carried over into their witness and/or apologetic.
The second requirement for effective witnessing is that he to whom the witness is given must be shown why he should forsake his own position and accept that which is offered him. Evangelicalism, when consistently carried out, also destroys the reason why the unbeliever should accept the gospel. Why should the unbeliever change his position if he is not shown that it is wrong? And, in particular, why should he change if the one who asks him to change is actually encouraging him in thinking he is right? The Calvinist will need to have a better method of defending the doctrine of the atonement, for example, than that of the evangelical.
In other words, if the position of the unbeliever is not consistently and comprehensively opposed on all points, he will seize on that “commonality” as an excuse for why he does not have to repent and believe, as we saw above. If in one aspect he is said to be right, he will seek to force the believer’s hand as to why all of what he thinks is not right as well.
We have dealt with the doctrine of the atonement. That led us into the involved question whether God is the source of possibility, or whether possibility is the source of God. It has been shown that the “evangelical” or Arminian fundamentalist holds to a position which requires him to make both of these contradictory assertions at once. But how about the realm of fact? Do you also hold, I am asked, that we need to seek for a specifically Reformed method of defending the facts of Christianity? Take the resurrection of Christ for example – why can there be no common witness on the part of the evangelical and the Calvinist to such a fact as that?
I found it exceedingly interesting how the evangelical truly does have to assert that God is both the source of possibility and possibility is His source. Since he has to do both, he has made his own position unintelligible. In the next post, we will see the working out of the thesis of CVT’s I am wont to paraphrase: The debate is not about the facts, but about the meaning of facts.
- Editor’s footnote 26: That is, “the possibility of salvation” because Christ’s death only provided for such a possibility. It did not actually save anyone, on this view.↩
- Editor’s footnote 27: This illustration might be confusing. It might be better to suppose that I open a bank account, and promise to put one million dollars there, but only if you will believe that the million dollars is yours.↩
- Dump the Ten Commandments↩
- Author’s footnote 28: J. Oliver Buswell Jr., What is God? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 50, 53, 54.↩
- Editor’s footnote 29: The point Van Til is making here is that, if God himself were subject to possibility, such that one’s decision were the ultimate determiner of what one does, then it would also be possible that what God has said about Hell, or anything else, is not true. If it weren’t true, it would not be God’s fault, since he himself would be subject to the possible and the impossible, rather than the One who controls such things.↩