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.

Revelation
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.

Evidence
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?

Conclusion

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

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Politics as Athanasian Pluralism

Gary North might have just solved my dilemma on Cromwell and the Covenanters.  As a Presbyterian I want to like the Covenanters, but given how they universally failed every political and military test, and how a national church is unworkable, and how most modern Internet Covenanters are hyper-legalists, I just couldn’t do it.

And while I like Cromwell, I was always troubled the nature of the Independents and schismatics in the New Model Army.  But maybe that’s just the cost of doing business in a fallen world.  I was tipped off to this possibility by reading Gary North’s Conspiracy in Philadelphia, arguably his best book. He described Cromwell’s project in this way:

He created a trinitarian civil government in which all Protestant churches would have equal access politically, and the state would be guided by “the common light of Christianity.”(I call this “Athanasian pluralism.”) [North 27].  North footnotes chapter 12 of Political Polytheism.

I think the New Model Army got into some problems because it had abandoned aspects of Covenantal Thinking.  In his just execution of Charles I it didn’t rely on the earlier Covenantal models of John Knox. So what would a Cromwellian system guided by the 5 Point Covenantal Model look like?  I think Athanasian Pluralism is a good start.

Political and ethical pluralism is bad.  But there can be a biblical pluralism.  It just means a plurality of covenants in a society.  At this point I am heavily relying on chapter 12 of Political Polytheism.

Dominion Christianity teaches that there are four covenants under God, meaning four kinds of vows under God: personal (individual), and the three institutional covenants: ecclesiastical, civil, and familial. 2 All other human institutions (business, educational, charitable, etc.) are to one degree or other under the jurisdiction of one or more of these four covenants. No single human covenant is absolute; therefore, no single human institution is all-powerful. Thus, Christian liberty is liberty under God and God’s law, administered by plural legal authorities (576).

The Solemn League and Covenant fails because it collapses civil and ecclesiastical covenants into one, so that the SLC is neither.

The Failure of Political Confessionalism

North explains why political Presbyterianism failed so badly in England:

Other oddities of the five-year effort of the Assembly are also worth mentioning. Scotland’s Solemn League and Covenant (1643) had been signed in preparation for entry into a war against the King, whose safety the 1639 National Covenant had promised to uphold.  Scotland became a military ally of Cromwell and the Independents, who rose to power and then destroyed the judicial basis of the Scottish National Covenant: first by executing the King; second, by imposing Protestant religious toleration on the realm, including Scotland.
As it turned out, a group of Englishmen established the foundational documents of Scottish Presbyterianism. In 1648, the year after the Assembly completed the annotated Confession, England went to war with Scotland (North, Crossed Fingers, 994).

The English Presbyterians had been trapped by the decision of the Scottish Presbyterians to defend the King and a Throne-Church theocratic order, which had been affirmed by the language of the Solemn League and Covenant (Sec. VI). English Presbyterians could impose Church unity only by force, but the only significant force available was Cromwell’s New Model Army, which opposed Presbyterianism.95 Haller writes: “The advance of the army under Cromwell’s leadership meant the final defeat of the work of the Westminster Assembly.”96 He concludes: “The English people were never again to be united in a visible church of any sort.,,97 After the Restoration, English Presbyterianism refused to accept the Westminster Confession of Faith as binding, and in 1719, the denomination went unitarian (996).

After 1647, the Presbyterians had a monumental problem. The Church’s foundational documents had been written to gain the acceptance of a civil assembly that included non-Presbyterians-as time went on, a growing number of non-Presbyterians. The documents did not fit together. The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (1645) had no required statement of faith, i.e., no theological stipulations. It required no oath from Church officers or members. The Confession of Faith (1647) also did not mention Church oaths. It did not specify how its own stipulations were to apply judicially. The burning question should have been this: What was the covenantal relationship between these two completely separate documents? But no one in authority asked it in 1648, and no one in authority has asked it since.

This is why intellectually the Political Covenanter movement failed before it even began.

Safe Sects: Healing

North on Charismatics, Calvinism, and Healing.  Summarizes my own journey.  Let’s put aside all of the “in your face” stuff like prophecy and tongues. I understand the case against continuationism. I really do. (I admit. I don’t understand any case for or against tongues). But where in the New Testament do you get the idea that Jesus will pull the plug on healing once the ink is dry on Revelation?

Cessationists say, “But where is healing today?”  To which I say, Look around.  The evidence is there if you want to find it.  But the case for healing is more than just the overwhelming amount of evidence.  It is the nature of the covenant.  I love what North writes,

If God heals in history, then He must bring judgment in history. To deny the one is to deny the other. Yet the modern church denies either or both of these aspects of God’s work in history. Churches do not want judgment, for it begins at the house of the Lord (I Peter 4:17). So, they reject the biblical idea of healing. They are consistent — consistently wrong.

The apostle James presupposed something we don’t know. Oil has judicial qualities.  It’s not just “advanced medicine.”

Modern charismatics aren’t completely correct, to the extent that they are individualists.

On the other hand, by preaching physical healing through the authority of the church, the charismatics raise a crucial issue: establishing the limits of God’s healing in history. God heals individuals, not cultures, insist the traditional charismatics. By what theology can such limits be placed on God’s healing? Dispensationalism? But dispensationalism denies the legitimacy of all church-invoked, church-administered healing, not just cultural healing. Traditional dispensationalism is in this sense consistent; charismatic dispensationalism isn’t.

 

Gary North quotes

This is just for fun. I am not necessarily endorsing the finer points of what he is saying, but only pointing out how good a writer he really is.

“When you criticize someone with followers, the followers recognize that, if you are correct, they have been sucked in. If they had been sucked in, then they must not be too bright, or at least they were not well enough informed to form a critical judgment which would have led them to identify their leader as someone not worth following. So, a criticism of the leader produces a particular response in the followers. They feel that there has been an attack on them personally. The critic is saying, loud and clear, that anyone who has followed this particular leader is not a good judge of character, intellect, or facts. They are quite correct. This is exactly what the critic is saying.”

“The negative penalties of the Old Testament case laws were not harsh but just, not a threat to society but rather the necessary judicial foundation of civic freedom… the Old Testament was harsh on criminals because it was soft on victims.”
― Gary NorthVictim’s Rights: The Biblical View of Civil Justice
“Do you really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, plans to be a loser in history?”

“Microeconomics: The study of who has the money and how I can get my hands on it.Macroeconomics: The study of which government agency has the gun, and how we can get our hands on it.”

Dominion Files, no. 1 (the break up of the recons)

I did theonomy files on my old blog and it did help some make headway of the movement. It was more focused on why I didn’t agree with theonomy, yet why most of the Reformed responses to it were incompetent.  This will focus on the actual strengths of the old Reconstruction movement and what the church can expect from them today.

But let’s get to the main part:  why did it seem to not go anywhere?  The movement was never really organized, and it never had support from any of the churches.  That doomed it to parachurch status, always a terrible situation.  I can identify at least three different strands of the Reconstructionist movement

  1. The Tyler Group
  2. The Bahnsen Group
  3. The Rushdoony gruop

The Tyler Group

While it had its own nuttiness at times, the damage was never long-term. After Chilton fell ill and died, and Jordan moved to Florida, and Sutton became Anglican, I think Gary North just put an end to it.  And while North may have lost some credibility on Y2K, he has done productive work at the Mises Institute.

The Bahnsen Group

This is Gentry and a few others who either stayed in the OPC or stayed relatively good churchmen.  The irony is that while they were violently rejected among bourgeois Presbyterians, they voted Republican and did strict grammatical-historical exegesis.  In other words, they were normal where it mattered.  These guys are more interested in theonomy as a sub-discipline of ethics.  In other words, whether or not theonomy is true doesn’t depend (nor does it cause) postmillennialism or Christian Reconstruction.

The Rushdoony group

Sure.  Rushdoony is a great speaker and his early output is impressive.  In fact, I think he wrote one of the better books on Van Til the theologian.  But where he went wrong, he went wrong.  It’s not so much the dietary laws that bother me.  It’s the over-emphasis on the family.  Today when feminists accuse someone of patriarchy, they mean any male who hasn’t committed suicide.  But in Rushdoony’s case, it really is patriarchy.  I think Gary North refuted him here.

And after the mid 1970s his literary output wasn’t of the same quality as before.  You just don’t see books on the same level as The One and the Many (probably his best book).   And I think North is right:  God put judicial sanctions on Rushdoony because R. began giving himself the Lord’s Supper.

And his disciples haven’t done much today.  Doug Phillips started a movement, but it has (praise be to thee, O Christ) collapsed do to his fornicating on one of his servant-maids. Faith for all of Life runs the same rotation of articles–gubmint bad, beware of statism, etc.  All good points, mind you, but we need to move to the level of analysis.

Yes, I hear you say, but what about the Federal Vision guys?  Here is where it gets interesting.  James Jordan, the godfather of FV, represented only one branch of the early Recons.  And the FVers today who venerate Rushdoony only do that because they recognize his influence.  The Young Turk FVers do not care, if they aren’t openly hostile. And as an aside, I don’t think Jordan’s typological method necessitates Federal Vision.

So where do I fit in?  I don’t know.  I reject FV.  I like the 5 Point Covenant Model.  I’m not much enamored of current calls to “Reconstruct the Republic.”  Maybe they will work.  I hope they do.  But they won’t work as long as the FED is still up and George Soros is calling the shots.  I don’t consider myself a theonomist, though most of the criticisms of theonomy are bad.  I don’t know if I am postmil.  I don’t think I am.  Right now I am a tentative partial-preterist.

Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views

Ed. by Robert Clouse (IVP)

I understand why IVP pulled this book after a year of successful selling.  North publicly destroyed everyone in it.  That wouldn’t work with IVP’s “proto-SJW turn.” Gary North offers the free-market view.  William Diehl offers a mostly free-market view, with a little govt thrown in. Art Gish offers the hippie commune.  John Gladwin is a Communist.

Aside from North, only Diehl actually shows some knowledge of economics. (And despite Diehl’s antipathy towards the Old Testament, his essay and most of his responses were quite good).  All of the responders attacked North on his insistence that the Bible gives a blueprint to stuff like law, politics, and economics.  Admittedly, OT law is a hard sell to hippie evangelicals, but North’s comeback is unanswerable: what good does it do to speak of “Christian guidelines” if you don’t fill in the content?

Art Gish’s essay on decentralist economics should be interesting today, given the current Benedict Option fad.  It’s the standard “Let’s live in community, man” and “God liberates the poor.”  North gives a wise response:

“The Bible also does not teach that “God intervenes in history to liberate the oppressed poor” (p. 135). What the Bible does teach is that God intervenes in history to liberate the righteous oppressed, whether rich or poor. Did God liberate the poor who lived in Canaan? No. He had his people exterminate them. There were wicked poor people in Canaan, after all. They lived under the domination of “unrighteous structures,” to use a popular phrase. God destroyed both Canaan’s oppressed and Canaan’s “unrighteous structures” when Joshua and the Israelites invaded the land (163).”

It does no good to say “Let’s look to Jesus” if we divorce Jesus from the Bible he read.  Diehl moves in for the finishing blow:

but to advocate a nonsystem seems irresponsible. Koinonia, on a global scale, without any blueprint, is a nonsystem. Because it is a nonsystem it can hardly be called a “New Testament economic program.” Utopia it is; an economic program it is not” (Diehl 173).

Gladwin’s essay is pure Communism, so no need to refute it here.  The book is a let-down.  Don’t pay money for it.  Read it here.

http://garynorth.com/NorthDebate.pdf

Review: Unholy Spirits

Interesting historical review of 20th century occultism practiced by the secular establishment. I knew that the CIA and KGB conducted paranormal tests on their victims. North provides a bit more documentation than do others.  The running thesis is that occultism is simply the latest stage of humanism:  it is the promise that men shall be as gods.  North explains that many of these New Age techniques seek to do an end-run around man as created being.  For the godly man, time is not evil.  It is limited and under the curse, but it also provides the conditions for planning for the future and building wealth.

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Societies that reject this worldview cannot progress. North writes: “It is a fact that only by means of Western science has a centuries-long period of constant improvement of skills, equipment, and treatment been maintained. Scientific progress, which was originally grounded on the Christian ideas of providence, progress, and the subduing of the earth to the glory of a pre-eminently rational and personal God, was exponentially increased by the social and intellectual aftermath of the Reformation.  The idea that men can increase their control over nature by an ever-increasing division of labor, including intellectual labor, is at the heart of Western progress (247).

Conclusion: By personalizing the techniques of healing, primitive societies have in principle abandoned the idea of medical, economic, or any other kind of progress through more impersonal organizations of human talent (248).

Much of the book is dated but the general idea is sound.  In fact, it’s a very well-written book.  It narrates and evaluates “testimonies” (giving the book an anecdotal feel at times).  We end with this urgent call:

“The fact that Western man counts the cost accurately, i.e., can calculate the weight of each burden, enables him to reduce the burden through effective planning, discipline, and above all, capital formation. The socialist or communist, who affirms the religion of the occult – that the limits of scarcity are not natural, but are man-created – is less rational, cannot calculate economically, and threatens economic productivity whenever he takes over the reigns of political power (348)