Review: Cornelius Van Til, an Analysis of his Thought

by John Frame. Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1995.

This is my second time to read through this book.  The question obviously arises:  should you read this book or Bahnsen’s book on Van Til?  They are two different books dealing with two different approaches.  Bahnsen’s book is a manual on Van Tillian apologetics, but has relatively little on Van Til’s actual theology.  That is where Frame’s is valuable.

The Metaphysics of Knowledge: God as Self-Contained Fullness
This is Frame’s favorite aspect of Van Til’s thought, and probably the best section in the book. This is another way of saying God’s aseity. God is sufficient in himself. From God’s self-containment, we may say that God’s unity implies his simplicity: “If there is only one God, then there is nothing “in” him that is independent of him” (55). How does God’s revelation play into this? Due to the richness of God’s nature, we could never know him left to ourselves. However, if God, a self-contained God–and a self-contained God who meets the standards of immanency and transcendence, reveals himself, then we have certain, sure knowledge of who this God is (transcendence) and how his revelation applies to concrete situations (immanence).

God is the original and man is the derivative (Christian Theory of Knowledge, 16).  By analogical we don’t mean what Aquinas meant.   Our knowledge is a finite replica of God’s (Introduction Systematic Theology, 206).

Absolute Personality
Non-Christian systems die on the altar of personality. Either they posit personal, but finite gods (Greek pantheon) or impersonal, infinite gods (Eastern religions). Only Christian theism posits a personal, absolute God. They do so because of the Trinity. To quote CVT, “the members of the trinity are exhaustively representational of one another” (qtd. Frame, 59). To end this section with a quote and call to action from Frame, “Impersonal facts and laws cannot be ultimate, precisely because they are not personal. They cannot account for rationality, for moral value, for the causal order of the universe, or for the universal applicability of logic” (60).

The Trinity
Ah, this is where the heresy charges come in! And given the renewed interest in Trinitarianism, this section can be very useful. Van Til begins by stating and affirming what the Church has taught on the Trinity. His position can be summarized in the following moves: Trinitarianism denies correlativism, the belief that God and creation are dependent on one another. God is three persons and one Person. Watch closely. He calls the whole Godhead “one person.” He is not saying that God is one in essence and three in essence. The main question is “the one being personal or impersonal?” (67). Van Til is calling the whole Godhood one “person” in order to avoid making the essence of God to be merely an abstraction. Frame argues, “If the three persons (individually and collectively) exhaust the divine essence (are “coterminous” with it), then the divine essence itself must be personal” (68). And if God is an absolute person (he is), and he is one (he is), then there must be a sense in which he is a person. Granting the Augustinian circumincessio, every act of God is a personal act involving all three persons acting in unity (68).

The Problem of the One and the Many
I think Rushdoony was more excited about this than Van Til (see Van Til’s response to Rush in Jerusalem and Athens). How do we find unity in the midst of plurality? Unbelief cannot answer this question. It always tends toward one or the other extreme. If abstract being is ultimate, then there are no particulars. If abstract particular is ultimate, then there is no truth. The Trinity is both personal one and many.

If all of reality is one, then how can we make distinctions?  If all of reality is just sense data, how can we unify them in our consciousness? We are faced with the danger of either pure abstraction or pure matter.  Frame has a very good discussion of this on p.73.

Contrary to popular opinion, Van Til does hold to general revelation. Given his view of God’s sovereignty, all things reveal God’s decree. (Man is receptively reconstructive of God’s revelation. It is his job to re-interpret previously God-interpreted facts.) In short, Van Til holds to the typical Kuyperian view of revelation. From this Van Til posits a three-fold division in God’s revelation: a revelation from God, from nature, and from self (120). This is perspectival, btw. As to Scripture, it is self-attesting and bears God’s full authority. As such, it must be inerrant.

CVT does not disparage the use of evidence, many critics to the contrary. Rather, he denies the use of “brute facts.” Given the Trinity, all facts and laws are correlative. Brute facts are “uninterpreted facts” and therefore meaningless, the constituents of a universe of pure chance. This means we cannot separate facts from meaning. We cannot challenge the unbeliever on a particular fact if we do not challenge his philosophy of fact. Again, see RJ Rushdoony on facts and evidence (JBA).

Common Grace

Van Til’s contribution to this debate is that he puts common grace on a timeline, emphasizing “earlier” and “later” (CGG, 72).

The Crack of Doom

Van Til makes the interesting point that common grace decreases as time goes on. “Differentiation sets in” (83). Frame questions this as he does not see the world necessarily getting more and more wicked.  Frame is partially correct but he resists the inference Gary North will draw.

Frame thinks North reads too much into the word “Favor,” which is ambiguous in English.  Perhaps he does, but North’s argument is still the same:  we should speak of common gifts instead of common grace. God gave the Caananites an extra 40 years.  This was a gift.  Was it “favor?”  No, he ethnically cleansed them 40 years later.

And Van Til, pace Frame, is very clear on the timeline.  As history progresses God will withdraw his common grace from the wicked, and show his love towards his children by watching the wicked wipe them out (or so reads Van Til’s timeline).  Frame avoids the postmillennial challenge:  if the unbeliever is epistemologically self-conscious, he can’t function logically, so how can he have dominion?


There are also chapters dealing with Barth, Dooyeweerd, and the theonomists.  They are well worth your time but beyond the scope of this review.

2 thoughts on “Review: Cornelius Van Til, an Analysis of his Thought

  1. Pingback: Early October 2017 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

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