Stop! It’s Hammer Time!

While I was searching for citations from Van Til, I ran across this post at a website named “God’s Hammer”. It appears to be a great website full of resources overall, but this particular author seems to have blind-spots when reading Van Til. It could be a bad rep given by clarkians, or for some other reason altogether. Nonetheless he doesn’t seem to understand the difference between real contradictions, and apparent contradictions (otherwise known as a paradox).

“Cornelius Van Til was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who is well-known today for his apologetic method and his views on analogical knowledge and paradoxical theology.”

1)Van Tils views of Theology were hardly new, especially as it had to do with knowledge being grounded in God’s condescension in creation, and relating to man by way of Covenant.

2) I’m not sure what he means by “paradoxical theology”. I suppose he is referring to the Creator/creature distinction in knowledge. Where God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge meet could be the issue he’s referring to here, but again, Van Til didn’t posit anything new concerning that, at least as it has to do with the way the Reformed understood it.

“While many uphold Van Til as a bastion of orthodoxy in the Presbyterian church, his view of Scripture as paradoxical – appearing to be contradictory – was actually anti-Confessional.”

1) Accusing Van Til of being anti-confessional is a bit stunning, given claims to the contrary of Van Til being too polemical for his own denomination and confession.

2) John Frame complained about Van Til being too isolationist  in his criticism of others, because of his emphasis on the Reformed faith. That “he intended to defend the Reformed faith even down to the last detail.” (source)

3) On a smaller note, it’s always interesting to see criticisms of Van Til that clash with one another.

The author quotes Van Til saying;

“Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. -Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 61.

I’m not sure what the issue is in this quote. The only thing I can think of is Van Til’s usage of the word “contradiction”, even though he added the qualifier “seems to be”.  It cannot be emphasized enough that this isn’t a Vantillian novelty. Herman Bavinck, who was a major influence to Van Til’s thought, began his Reformed Dogmatics  with the same sentiment;

“From the very start of its labors, it faces the incomprehensible One. From Him it derives its inception, for from Him are all things. But also in the remaining loci, when it turns its attention to creatures, it views them only in relation to God as they exist from Him and through Him and for Him [Rom. 11:36]….

All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under Him, traced back to Him as the starting point. Dogmatics is always called upon to ponder and describe God and God alone, whose glory is in creation and re-creation, in nature and grace, in the world and in the church. It is the knowledge of Him alone that dogmatics must put on display.”  Herman Bavinck, Eds. John Bolt and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 29.

This stream of thought is grounding Man’s knowing in God while recognizing that our point of reference is a “stutter” or a “translation” of God’s infinite knowledge of Himself and creation. The Westminster Confession of Faith (the confession that Van Til is allegedly opposing) itself grounds it in God’s  Covenant and condescension;

” The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant” (Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1)

It would also be helpful to note that Nature and Scripture come together as one organic whole of God’s revelation. Both are God speaking, Nature speaking generally of God and His requirements, and Scripture  (the infallible record of God’s interactions with man) speaking specifically of God and His requirements. They come together before the fall, and they come together after the fall. The only difference being that sin causes men to suppress the revelation of God they have naturally, and Scripture being the only means in which men can know of His Creator sufficiently.

“… while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. “Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 9.

At this point, the author seems to be building his case against Van Til by simply counting how many times he refers to the paradoxical. However, he doesn’t use the full quotation that would provide the context of what is being said. The quote as it stands here doesn’t say anything problematic, so he isn’t doing himself any favors by leaving out the context.

“If it is the self-contained ontological trinity that we need for the rationality of  our interpretation of life, it is this same ontological trinity that requires us to hold to the apparently contradictory. This ontological trinity is, as the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Standards puts it, “incomprehensible.” God dwells in light that no man can approach unto.

It follows that in everything with which we deal we are, in the last analysis, dealing with this infinite God, this God who hideth Himself, this mysterious God. In everything that we handle we deal finally with  the incomprehensible God. Everything that we handle depends for what it is upon the
counsel of the infinitely inexhaustible God. At every point we run into mystery.”

Van Til here notes that because all of our knowledge has the Incomprehensible God as final point of reference, because in Him we live and move, and have our being, it follows necessarily that all of our knowledge is eikonic, image-based, reflective, and therefore “analogous” and “paradoxical”. There is a reason that hymn writers commonly wrote the lyrics “How can it be?”.

 

Again he quotes Van Til saying;

“All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.  Ibid., 142.”

And again we are given a quote without a context. This is actually a heading located in Chapter 5 of “Common Grace and the Gospel”. (In the ebook, it is located on the bottom half of page 94). As Van Til had already explained in the preceding heading (Proximate and Ultimate Cause), logic isn’t the final reference point in understanding God, but rather a proximate starting point. Even logic itself cannot penetrate or constrain the infinite God, and those of more rationalistic flavor in the history of the Church who tried doing so ended up with Anti-trinitarian views because they simply followed their reasoning to consistency (e.g. Arians, Socinians). Those in the orthodox realm (folks who agreed with Clark) who refer to logic and knowledge without any distinction (Eimi/eikon or Creator/creature) do so inconsistently.  It is a verbal fiat to say that nothing in the Trinity isn’t paradoxical. It is verbal fiat to say that the Hypostatic Union isn’t contradictory on the face of it. Paul even recognized the incomprehensibility of God , and worshipped Him for it, as we should. If He and His Being  His ways are “past finding out” or “unfathomable”, or as Isaiah said “Higher than the heavens are above the earth” why collapse that distinction?

Van Til quotes Calvin here (and in the pages that preceded) saying

“And most certainly there is nothing in the whole circle of spiritual doctrine which does not far surpass the capacity of man and confound its utmost reach.”

Clarkians get too wound up in misconception at this point to fully appreciate what Van Til is saying here. They would probably criticize him for being irrational for quoting Paul from 1 Corinthians 1:18

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The author states

 

“According to Van Til, God’s Word, all throughout Scripture, appears to our human minds to be logically contradictory. Indeed, he even made the claim that to even attempt to demonstrate the logical consistency of certain doctrines (e.g. divine sovereignty and human responsibility) was to fall prey to the error of “Rationalism.” (See The Text of a Complaint)

1) “The Text of a Complaint” is a minority report  brought against the ordination of Gordon Clark to the OPC. The complaint wasn’t simply Van Til’s , but the complaint of 11 others in the OPC, including Ned Stonehouse, Ed Young, Paul Wooley, and  R.B. Kuiper. With the exception of Young, they were founders of WTS. This is pointed out to clear the misconception that it was an accusation out of left field. Reading the complaint will further illustrate that point

2) It didn’t hold up. Clark was clear to continue teaching in the OPC. Instead he opted to resign, probably for a number of reasons, including being hurt by the complaint brought against him. Given the controversy surrounding this issue, it could be said that it would preferable that he stayed. It would have probably saved a lot of ink.

“Is this true? Is this orthodox? Is this Confessional?”

The previous examples seemed to believe so.

The author goes on to quote the WCF I.V

“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God…

and then provide the following commentary;

‘According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, all the parts of Holy Scripture, rather than being “apparently contradictory,” logically consent.”

I’m not sure what the tension is here. A paradox stilll falls within the realm of logical consent. The point Van Til was making is

a) Scripture teaches paradoxes

b) By definition, the contradictions aren’t actual or real contradictions.

Why is that such a hard pill to swallow?

“In fact, the Confession takes this truth as being so obviously foundational that it actually claims it as an argument for Scripture being the Word of God.”

At this point the author is shadowboxing.

“If “all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory,” as Van Til claimed, how can “the consent of all the parts” be used to support it as being the Word of God?”

1) Well, if we clear up the false dichotomy the author set up, it probably won’t be as problematic as he might think. The tension doesn’t have to do with real contradiction (which is what he seems to be inserting into the term “apparent contradiction for reasons unknown), rather it has to do with the limitations of man’s knowledge (even before the fall) and sin.

2) we should also keep in mind the rest of the statement ;

“yet notwithstanding our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (WCF 1.5) Which would be consistent with WCF 1.4  stating “he authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends 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.”

“How would we, being finite creatures, even be able to see “the consent of all the parts,” if Scripture appears to our minds utterly contradictory?”

Again, it’s unfortunate to end up on the wrong end of questions like these. You could probably picture someone in Rome asking Paul how a foolish person, or a finite creature understand God. At this point we should figure out whether or not we are being self-conscious in our Christianity. As I pointed out before the authors of Scripture saw the incomprehensibility of God as an occasion to worship. Even the authors of the confession maintained that there are hard teachings in Scripture. while recognizing the clarity of the parts necessary unto salvation and the  sufficiency of all of Scripture.

The author ends his post with quotes from Zacharias Ursinus

“The harmony of the different parts of the doctrine of the church, is an evidence of its truth. That doctrine which contradicts itself can neither be true, nor from God, since truth is in perfect harmony with itself, and God cannot contradict himself”

and provides commentary

“Scripture does not contradict itself. Any apparent contradiction we perceive is merely a problem with our own thinking.”

Notice how he affirms now  the existence of paradoxes. When Van Til discusses the topic , he is being anti-confessional. However, the author just fell under the weight of his own judgement by trying to rationalize what he denied earlier.

Again, paradoxes are due to our limitations as creatures, and demonstrate that God is infinite and worthy of our praise because of His Divinity. It isn’t a “problem” in that sense. It is a “good”  limitation that God created us with. It is only a sin to those who are prone to rationalistic error.

“With proper exegesis and the application of logic, and by God’s grace, we will see, along with Ursinus and the Westminster Divines, that each part of God’s Word perfectly consents in logical harmony with every other part.”

At this point Ursinus or any of the Westminster Divines would disagree with the author, if logical harmony entails comprehensive knowledge of God and His will via exegesis of Scripture and application of logic. Rather they affirmed a  sufficient knowledge of God  through Nature and Scripture. Nature being sufficient to know God and relate to Him under His Wrath in Adam, and Scripture which is sufficient to know Him and relate to Him redemptively, in Christ.

There is logical harmony, but that logical harmony doesn’t exclude the apparent Contradiction of the Trinity , or the apparent contradiction of the Hypostatic union in the mind of man.

“What cannot be resolved, however, is Van Til’s doctrine of Scripture and the correct view taught by Reformed orthodoxy.”

Actually what cannot be resolved is the author’s misconception of Van Til’s writings , and what Van Til actually taught.


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