by Cornelius Van Til
DEAR DR. BUSWELL:
Allow me to thank you first for the courtesy extended in permitting me to make some remarks on your recent review of my booklet on Common Grace (See The Bible Today, November, 1948). I shall try, as simply as I can, to state something of my theological beliefs and my method of defending them. In this way I can perhaps best reply to your charges that I do not hesitate to make declarations flatly contradictory to the Reformed Standards and the Bible.1
The Bible Is Infallible
My primary interest is now, as it always has been, to teach what the Bible contains as the infallible rule of faith and practice in the way of truths about God and his relation to man and the world. I believe in this infallible book, in the last analysis, because “of the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in my heart.”2 Your readers may obtain a little pamphlet Why I Believe in God in which I have set forth my views in popular form, from Rev. Lewis Grotenhuis, Rt. 2, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
The God of the Bible Differs From All Other Gods
In speaking of the God of the Bible it is, I believe, of the utmost importance that we speak of him first as he is in himself prior to his relation to the created world and man. Reformed theologians therefore distinguish between the ontological and the economical trinity, the former referring to the three persons of the Godhead in their internal relations to one another, the latter referring to the works of this triune God with respect to the created universe. With respect to the ontological trinity I try to follow Calvin in stressing that there is no subordination of essence as between the three persons. As Warfield points out when speaking of Calvin's doctrine of the trinity “the Father, the Son, the Spirit is each this one God, the entire divine essence being in each;” (Calvin /p. 219/ and Calvinism, p. 232). In the syllabi to which you refer and with which you are familiar, I have spoken of the equal ultimacy of the one and the many or of unity and diversity in the Godhead. I use this philosophical language in order the better to be able to contrast the Biblical idea of the trinity with philosophical theories that are based upon human experience as ultimate. When philosophers speak of the one and many problems they are simply seeking for unity in the diversity of human experience. In order to bring out that it is Christianity alone that has that for which men are looking but cannot find, I use like terminology of philosophy, always making plain that my meaning is exclusively derived from the Bible as the word of God. “In the Bible alone do we hear of such a God. Such a God, to be known at all, cannot be known otherwise than by virtue of His own voluntary revelation. He must therefore be known for what he is, and known to the extent that he is known, by authority alone” (Common Grace, p. 8)
Take now these two points together (a) that I have consistently stressed the necessity of asking what God is in himself prior to his relation to the created universe and (b) that I have consistently opposed all subordinationism within the self-contained trinity and it will appear why I have also consistently opposed correlativism between God and the universe and therefore correlativism between God and man. By correlativism I understand a mutually interdependent3 relationship like that of husband and wife or the convex and the concave side of a disk. I know of no more pointed way of opposing all forms of identity philosophy and all forms of dialectical philosophy and theology. I have also spoken of this self-contained trinity as “our concrete universal.” Judging merely by the sound of this term you charge me with holding Hegelianism. I specify clearly that my God is precisely that which the Hegelian says God is not and yet you insist that I am a Hegelian.
I have further said that in God, as he exists in Himself, apart from his relation to the world, thought and being are coterminous. Are they not? Is God's consciousness not exhaustively aware of His being?5 Would you believe with Brightman that there is a “given” element in God? God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
God's Decree Controls All Things
I further hold that the self-sufficient triune God “from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain /p. 220/ whatsoever comes to pass.” This is what I mean when I say that God is the ultimate cause back of all things. In this terminology I am merely reproducing Calvin's argument against Pighius in The Eternal Predestination of God. (See Henry Cole, Calvin's Calvinism).6 Calvin speaks of remote and proximate causes. I simply use the word ultimate instead of remote. I do not think there is any essential difference between Calvin's usage of the word remote and my usage of the word ultimate?
In various works, Calvin had maintained the all-inclusiveness of the decree of God. This, Pighius had argued, was in effect, to make God the author of sin. Calvin denies vigorously that he makes God the author of sin. “I have with equal constancy, asserted that the eternal death to which man rendered himself subject so proceeded from his own fault that God cannot, in any way, be considered the author of it.” (Calvin's Calvinism, p. 127). Here Calvin makes the distinction between remote and proximate causes. As the proximate cause of sin man is guilty before God. “But now, removing as I do from God all the proximate cause of the act in the Fall of man, I thereby remove from Him also all the blame of the act leaving man alone under the sin and the guilt.” (Idem p. 128). But Pighius argues that if man is the responsible cause of his sin, then God's eternal reprobation must logically be denied. He identifies Calvin's conception of proximate cause with the cause, that is the only cause. To this Calvin replies again by means of his distinction between remote and proximate causes. There could be no responsible proximate cause unless there were also an all-comprehensive remote cause. He clinches his point by indicating that the doctrine of free grace cannot be maintained except upon the presupposition of a remote or ultimate cause back of the proximate cause. “If the wickedness of man be still urged as the cause of the difference between the elect and the non-elect, this wickedness might indeed be made to appear more powerful than the grace of God which he shows toward the elect, if that solemn truth did not stand in the way of such an argument: ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy’.” (Idem p. 80). Dealing with the blindness of sinners /p. 221/ referred to in Acts 28:25, 26, Calvin says: “Some persons will here erroneously and ignorantly conclude that the cause and beginning of this obduracy in the Jews was their malicious wickedness. Just as if there were no deeper and more occult cause of the wickedness itself, namely, the original corruption of nature! And as if they did not remain sunk in this corruption because, being reprobated by the secret counsel of God before they were born, they were left undelivered!” (Idem p. 81). Speaking still further of the cause of the sinner's blindness and of the Evangelist John's exposition of the famous Isaiah passage on this subject Calvin says: “Now, most certainly John does not here give us to understand that the Jews were prevented from believing by their sinfulness. For though this be quite true in one sense, yet the cause of their not believing must be traced to a far higher source. The secret and eternal purpose and counsel of God must be viewed as the original cause of their blindness and unbelief” (Idem p. 81). Again he adds: “The unbelief of the world, therefore, ought not to astonish us, if even the wisest and most acute of men fail to believe. Hence, unless we would elude the plain and confessed meaning of the Evangelist, that few receive the Gospel, we must fully conclude that the cause is the will of God; and that the outward sound of that Gospel strikes the ear in vain until God is pleased to touch them by the heart within” (Idem p. 82).
When therefore you object to my saying that “God is the ultimate cause back of whatsoever comes to pass” you will also need to reject Calvin's distinction between proximate and remote causes. I was simply reproducing Calvin's argument against Pighius. With Pighius you will have to say that man's deeds of wickedness are the cause, the only or final cause of his eternal state. And therewith you have, as Calvin points out, virtually denied the doctrine of the sovereign grace of God in the case of the elect. I do not think that you can show how Ephesians 1:11 which says that God “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” is a “very different statement” from saying that God is the ultimate or remote cause back of all things, without falling into Arminianism.
I was much surprised when you objected to my simple reproduction of Calvin's argument. I could not imagine that as a Calvinist you would hold with Pighius against Calvin. So I looked up your own discussion of freedom in Sin and Atonement. In your argument against determinism you assert: “We hold that there is genuine and absolute freedom within certain areas of human life, a freedom for which God himself in his infinite foreknowledge holds man absolutely responsible” (p. 49). Then, speaking of your own choice of becoming a violinist or a missionary you add: “There was a period of time when the decision though foreknown of God was still indeterminate.…” (Idem p.50). In opposing determinism you do not carefully distinguish between fatalism and Calvinism. You do not mention foreordination but only foreknowledge. You speak of man having “absolute freedom” in certain areas, and of the result as being “indeterminate” without saying that it was indeterminate only in the sense that you as a man did not know the outcome. Add all this to your /p. 222/ peremptory rejection of my reproduction7 of Calvin's argument and the question cannot be repressed to what extent you would hold to Calvin's position rather than to that of Pighius.
Do you think Charles Hodge's “great chapter distinguishing between necessity and certainty, showing that complete certainty is not dependent upon the idea of necessity” is out of agreement with Calvin's doctrine of God as the remote cause of all things? If you can show it to be such it will surely be “anathema” to me; if you cannot show it to be such why should you object to my statement that God's decree is the ultimate though not the immediate cause of all things? Hodge says: “It may, however, be remarked that there is no difficulty attending the doctrine of foreordination which does not attach to that of foreknowledge. The latter supposes the certainty of free acts, and the former secures their certainty.” (Systematic Theology II p. 301) Or again, “Being the cause of all things God knows everything by knowing Himself; all things possible, by the knowledge of his power, and all things actual by the knowledge of his own purposes” (Idem I p. 398). Again, “The futurition of events, according to the Scriptures, depends on the foreordination of God who foreordains whatever comes to pass” (Idem I p. 400).
Your readers must certainly have been amazed at hearing that I unequivocally teach that God is the author of sin. You assert: “To say that Calvin knew that his opponent could ‘rightly insist that God is the cause of sin,’ is a direct contradiction of the statement, based upon many scores of Scripture passages, that ‘neither is God the author of sin’.“ (p. 76) What did I actually say? “If God is the ultimate cause back of whatsoever comes to pass, Pighius can, on his basis, rightly insist that God is the author of sin.” (Common Grace p. 66). First you misquote me. You quote me as saying: on this basis while I say on his basis.8 Then in your reproduction of my argument you omit this all-important /p. 223/ phrase on his basis. Omitting that phrase makes me say the exact opposite of what I actually said. Pighius denies the validity of the distinction between remote and proximate causes. Accordingly he holds that a proximate cause in Calvin's sense of the term is no real cause and that the only real cause of sin on Calvin's basis must be God. Is he logically inconsistent with his own assumption when he reasoned thus? He is not. Calvin does not say that he is. He points to no flaw in Pighius's reasoning. Instead he points to the necessity of introducing the distinction between remote and proximate causes. Then and then only, Calvin argues, is it really possible to establish the exclusive responsibility of man for sin. For then, and then only, is the freedom of man really established and are secondary causes given a true foundation.
In this connection you further assert: “It is of course characteristic of the school of thought to which Dr. Van Til belongs to deny the possibility of any distinction between God's permissive decrees and his compelling decrees” (p. 46). Was there any necessity for thus lumping me with a “school of thought” and asserting or suggesting that as a member of such a school I must hold so and so when as a matter of fact I do speak of the permission of God with respect to sin? (See the Syllabus on Introduction to Theology Vol. II p. 217). But I am anxious that what God permits be not set in contrast over against that which God foreordains. In that case the will of man would again be thought of as the final or ultimate cause of its own acts and therewith God's grace be denied. (The reader may find Calvin's evaluation of the idea of God's permission of sin in Calvin's Calvinism p. 244). Are your “permissive decrees” in no sense “compelling decrees?” Would you deny the ultimate efficiency of God in order to make room for the entrance of sin? If you are not to make your distinction between permissive and compelling decrees to fall into a virtual argument for an Arminian conception of the freedom of the will, how can you avoid saying with Calvin that “whatsoever men do, they do according to the eternal will and secret purpose of God?” (Idem p. 205).
The same school of thought to which I am supposed to belong is accustomed, you say, “to stop in the ninth chapter of Romans with the great and profound truth of the twentieth verse, ‘O man, who art thou that repliest against God’ ” without going on to the twenty-second verse in which Paul “so simply explains” why God brought Pharaoh into existence. (p. 46). Well I am not in the habit of stopping with the twentieth verse any more than was Calvin. But neither do I think, that the twentieth verse gives a merely arbitrary statement about God while the twenty-second verse gives a more profound reason for God's dealings with Pharaoh. In complete contrast with Calvin's approach (See Calvin's Calvinism p. 246) you assert, while speaking of the passages of Romans 9:20, 21 and 9:22, 23: “I do wish to emphasize very forcefully that the Apostle Paul does not stop with the first merely arbitrary answer. He goes forward to suggest a further and a much more profound analysis of God's plan of redemption” (What is God? p. 53). I do not think the will of God is an arbitrary reason. I believe with Calvin that God's will “is and must be, the highest rule of all equity” (op. cit. p. 190). I do not think that the explanation given in the twenty-second verse is offered as more profound or more ultimate than the point made in verse twenty. “Taking, then, an honest and sober review of the whole of this high and Divine matter,” says Calvin, “the plain and indubitable conclusion will be that the will of God is the One principal and all-high cause of all things in heaven and earth” (Idem p. 246). Or again “But as the will of God /p. 224/ is the surest rule of all righteousness, that will ought ever to be to us the principal reason, yea—if I may so speak—the reason of all reasons!” (Idem p. 247). But Calvin desires that his distinction between proximate and remote causes be always observed.9 It is because his adversaries have failed to make this distinction which he considers so essential that they have done him grave injustice. “Our adversaries load us with illiberal and disgraceful calumny, when they cast it in our teeth that we make God the author of sin, by maintaining that His will is the cause of all things that are done” (Idem p. 251). Making the distinction between proximate and remote causes enables Calvin to do full justice to the longsuffering of God without giving up the decree of God as basic to whatsoever comes to pass.
Creation Out of Nothing
On the question of creation I believe that it pleased God “for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days and all very good.” This doctrine of creation fits in with the doctrine of the ontological trinity. If God is fully self-contained then there was no sort of half existence and no sort of non-being that had any power over against him. There was therefore no impersonal laws of logic that tell God what he can do and there is no sort of stuff that has as much even as refractory power over against God when he decided to create the world.
I have not merely held but have also frequently defended this doctrine. I have defended it not merely against those who openly reject it or assert it to be impossible on the basis of logic as was the case with Parmenides. I have defended it against those who assumed the existence of some sort of limiting power next to God. I have in particular defended it against all forms of modern dialecticism, whether Hegelian or Barthian.
For all that you charge me with holding to something like a Platonic realism. You first assert that I mean by “autonomous man” “man as an actually existing substantive entity” (p.56). Then you add that you fear that I do not believe in man as being created as such an entity. As a matter of fact I have frequently explained that by the term “autonomous man” I mean the idea of a man who virtually denies his createdness. As created in paradise man was a distinct ontological entity over against God. As made perfect he recognized that God his creator was also his lawgiver. Of his own accord, according to the law of his own being as God had made him, he was therefore a covenant keeper. But with the entrance of sin man was no longer willing to obey the law of his maker. He became a covenant breaker. He sought to be a law unto himself, that is, he sought to be autonomous. Speaking of my meaning of the word autonomous you say: “I do not think he means eternal or uncreated.” But why can I not mean “uncreated” when I assert that I do? I do not say that all men openly /p. 225/ assert that they are non-created. What I have asserted time, and again is that men virtually assume or presuppose that they are non-created. If they do not assume or presuppose that they are created then what else are they doing than assuming or presupposing [that they] are not created and therefore are not responsible to their creator? Is this too broad and sweeping a statement to make about all sinners? The daily newspaper is unintelligible on any other basis. There are those who worship and serve the creature and there are those who worship and serve the Creator. This is the simple differentiation with which I am concerned. I try to call men back to the recognition of the fact that they are creatures of God by challenging their false assumption of their non-createdness, their autonomy or ultimacy.
A word may here be said about the relation of the ontological trinity to temporal creation. You assert the following: “The doctrine of paradox comes to its extreme expression in the words…‘we have, in our doctrine of the ontological trinity and temporal creation cut ourselves loose once and for all from correlativism between God and man’ ” (p. 47). Then you criticize my rejection of correlativism as though in rejecting it I were rejecting the idea of man's relatedness to and dependence upon God. Was there any need for giving my words such a construction? Even the sentence following upon the one you quote shows that I am arguing for the God of the Bible who is back of history, who has his plan for history against those who speak of a comprehensive reality which includes God and man in one whole. Does it follow that I reject the Bible with its doctrine of God's creation of man and the world because I reject the teaching which connects God necessarily with the world or makes him a principle within the world?
At this point I may say a brief word on your statement, “Van Til holds that holiness and truth are created by the will of God” (p. 53). But I have neither said nor implied any such thing anywhere. You refer to pp. 6, 7, 65, of Common Grace. On p. 6, I am arguing against Platonic realism. Does that make me a nominalist? If I reject one error must I hold to an opposite error? I find nothing on p. 7 that has any bearing on the subject unless in your mind it is the sentence, “Romanism and Arminianism have virtually allowed that God's counsel need not always and everywhere be taken as our principle of individuation.” Perhaps you object to this because you hold that man has been created “to be the ultimate cause of the acts for which he is morally responsible.” (What is God? p. 38). Even so is there anything in what I say here or anywhere else that justifies you in saying that I hold that God's will acts independently of his character? On p.65 I quote Calvin to the effect that the will of God is “the highest rule of righteousness.” Do you disagree with Calvin? Do you want to by-pass the will of God in order thus to reach God's character?10 Is Calvin also a nominalist?
Sin and Its Implications
As far as I know my mind I hold sin to be that which the Confession and catechisms say it is. This involves the historicity of the Genesis account.
I have defended that time and again, particularly against Barth, Brunner and Niebuhr. It involves, I believe, also the covenant theology. God dealt with /p. 226/ every man that was to come into the world through Adam the first man as their representative. Even when they do not yet exist as historical individuals men are thought of by God and treated by God through Adam the first historically existent man. So in the passage you quote I speak of all men as existing in Adam their common representative. You yourself say, “I sinned in Adam specifically and precisely because he, an individual, represented me,—stood as the federal and representative of all mankind in this original act of sin” (p.57). Do I say anything else? You say, “I sinned in Adam.” Did you then not in some sense exist in Adam? When I first say of sinners that in paradise “they do not yet exist” obviously I mean as “historical individuals.” When then I add in the next sentences, “yet they do exist. They exist in Adam as their common representative,” you speak of this as Platonic realism. I could say the same thing of your position not merely for as good a reason but for the same reason. You yourself quote Genesis 2:15-17 and then add: “In this passage we see humanity in the image of God in ‘knowledge, righteousness, and holiness,’ given the opportunity of exercising free will,” (Sin and Atonement p. 23) Is this also Platonic realism?
You even go so far as to say: “The reader will remember that, for Van Til, Adam is not an individual but ‘mankind’ ” (p.59). You have not the least bit of justification11 for making such a charge. You admit that I believe in the infallibility of the Bible. How could I believe in that unless I believed the historicity of the Genesis story? You claim to be familiar with the contents of my class syllabi as well as with what I have published. The article on Nature and Scripture in The Infallible Word is utterly unintelligible without the assumption of the historicity of the story of Adam as an individual in paradise. How could I speak of Adam as representing man in paradise unless I thought of Adam as the first individual man that lived? I have defended the historicity of the Genesis account on more than one occasion, against Barth, against Hegel and against Niebuhr. Even in the little pamphlet on Why I believe in God I explained that in my infancy a “formula was read over me at my baptism which solemnly asserted that I had been conceived and born in sin, the idea being that my parents, like all men, had inherited sin from Adam, the first man and the representative of the human race,” adding a little further on that, though later made acquainted with the arguments for evolution and higher criticism, I had not in the least given up the faith of my childhood.
As to Common Grace its whole argument is surcharged with the historicity of the story of the Bible.
Even in the immediate context of the words you quote I speak of the relation of the earlier and later in history. “To set the problem before us as clearly as possible, we do well to think of it in connection with Adam in paradise. Would it be possible to maintain that only by the later revelation of God's final purpose could anything be known of His attitude toward man? Then Adam would at the beginning have known nothing of God's attitude toward him. No revelation of God's final purpose had yet been made. The whole future, as far as Adam's knowledge was concerned, was conditioned on his obedience or disobedience” (p. 71). From this point on I begin speaking about man. “Man was originally created good.” Even so I continue to mention Adam as an historical individual, and speak of his “representative act of obedience or disobedience.” How could I speak of Adam as engaged in paradise in a representative act if I were identifying him with mankind? Then on page 72 I go on to speak of the elect and the non-elect and of what they have in common. The argument is that in paradise, at the beginning of history Adam acted for all of them representatively. They have had things done with respect to them by their common representative. Adam in paradise at the beginning of history, when they did not themselves exist as historical individuals. On page 73 the argument goes on to the effect that the original situation was an historically unfinished situation. “Whether Adam (the Adam who existed historically in paradise) was to obey or disobey, the situation would be changed.” Is it wrong after all this to say: “We need not hesitate to affirm, then, that in the beginning God loved mankind in general. That was before mankind had sinned against God. A little later God hated mankind in general. That was after mankind had sinned against God” (p.74). Is it wrong to say, “When man first sinned he did not know God as fully as we know Him now, but he did know God for what He is, far as he knew Him at all. And it was mankind, not some individual elect or reprobate person that sinned against God?” Have not all men who appeared or will appear as historical individuals after Adam sinned in Adam their common representative in paradise?
Christ and His Work
My reason for stressing this matter is that together with all orthodox believers I have frequently argued, as you know, that the historicity of Christianity cannot be maintained unless the historicity of the Old Testament and in particular the historicity of the Genesis account be also maintained. But then, having been “deceptively mired in Hegelian idealistic pantheism” and holding to God as the “concrete universal” I should, to be consistent, you argue, also deny the uniqueness of Christ. “What becomes of the incarnation?” (p. 49) But I hold to temporal creation and to the incarnation on the orthodox sense of the term not because of an inconsistency but because it is taught in Scripture. At the same time the doctrines of the self-sufficient God, of temporal creation and of the incarnation are not inconsistent with one another. They are all part of the one system of doctrine of Holy Writ.
For Whom Did Christ Die?
Charles Hodge, with whose statement of the Reformed faith you say you agree “with great delight in almost every point,” begins his chapter under the above given title by indicating what is not involved in the question. He says (a) that it does not in the first place, concern “the nature of Christ's work,” (b) that /p. 228/ it does not concern “the value of Christ's satisfaction. That Augustinians admit to be infinite,” (c) that it “does not concern the suitableness of the atonement. What was suitable for one was suitable for all,” (d) that it “does not concern the actual application of the redemption purchased by Christ. The parties to this controversy are agreed that some only, and not all of mankind are to be actually saved” (Systematic Theology III pp. 544, 545). He concludes his introductory section by saying, “The simple question is, had the death of Christ a reference to the elect which it had not for other men? Did He come into the world to secure the salvation of those given to Him by the Father, so that the other effects of his work are merely incidental to what was done for the attainment of that object” (Idem p. 546).
He goes on to argue that God from eternity “determined to save one portion of the human race and not another.” He says that it seems to be contradictory to say “that the Father sent his Son to die for those whom He had predetermined not to save, as truly as, and in the same sense that He gave Him up for those whom He had chosen to make the heirs of salvation” (Idem p. 548). He points to Ephesians 5:25 where Christ is said to have laid down his life for his Church. He points to John 15:13 where Christ is said to have laid down his life for his friends. He points to John 11:52 where the whole mission of Christ is summed up in the task of gathering together in one the children of God that are scattered abroad. Then He adds: “When mankind are divided into two classes, the Church and the world, the friends and the enemies of God, the sheep and the goats, whatever is affirmed distinctly of the one class is impliedly denied of the other” (Idem p. 549).
We remind our readers again that according to the theory which we have called Presuppositionalism, there is no common ground in reason upon which we may deal with lost souls who are in a state of rejecting Christian presuppositions. We feel that this theory is very harmful to the cause of Christ and we regret that it is held by conscientious and sincere Christian persons like Prof. Van Til. With this issue we are printing the remainder of his reply in full. We trust that the reply itself, even without the footnotes, will be its own refutation. Ed.
You assert that my “unqualified” statement that ‘Christ has not died for all men’ is intolerable” (p. 47). But I was again simply reproducing Calvin's argument against Pighius. Pighius had argued that one who believed in the doctrine of election could not consistently also believe in the genuineness of the general offer of salvation to all men. Calvin replies that he believes in both. Moreover, he offers his distinction between remote and proximate cause as the reason why he can hold to both without contradiction. Christ has not died for all men, in the sense of intending actually to save them all. But the “special reference” of Christ's work (as Charles Hodge calls it) with respect to the elect does not make void the general call to repentance. From the immediate context of the words you object to, it appears that as Calvin argued against Pighius I am arguing against those who deny common grace for the genuineness of the general reference of Christ's work. My statement therefore is (a) not unqualified, (b) is part of an argument which defends rather than rejects the importance of what Hodge calls the “merely incidental” effects of Christ's work, (c) is designed to oppose the idea that the doctrines of Christianity which seem to unbelievers to be contradictory are really contradictory. If my position is intolerable to you, that of Hodge must be also.
Coming now to a brief statement of the method of defense that I use for the propagation of what I believe and how it differs from the traditional method, I may note first that you have not, for all the length of your article, anywhere given a connected picture of my argument. Yet you at once characterize it in contrast with your own as being “negative and universal.” Without the least bit of qualification I am said to deny “that there is common ground of reasoning between those who accept Christian presuppositions and engage in the spread of the Gospel, and those who do not accept Christian presuppositions and reject the Gospel” (p. 41). The facts are far otherwise.
I am, to be sure, opposed to the traditional method of apologetics as this has found its most fundamental expression in the Summae of Thomas Aquinas the Roman Catholic and in Bishop Butler the Arminian. I seek to oppose Roman /p. 279/ Catholicism and Arminianism in Apologetics as I seek to oppose it in theology. Does that make my main thesis universally negative? I think there is a better and more truly biblical way of reasoning with and winning unbelievers than the Romanist Arminian method permits.
To begin with then I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority. The Bible requires men to believe that he exists apart from and above the world and that he by his plan controls whatever takes place in the world. Everything in the created universe therefore displays the fact that it is controlled by God, that it is what it is by virtue of the place that it occupies in the plan of God. The objective evidence for the existence of God and of the comprehensive governance of the world by God is therefore so plain that he who runs may read. Men cannot get away from this evidence. They see it round about them. They see it within them. Their own constitution so clearly evinces the facts of God's creation of them and control over them that there is no man who can possibly escape observing it. If he is self-conscious at all he is also God-conscious. No matter how men may try they cannot hide from themselves the fact of their own createdness. Whether men engage in inductive study with respect to the facts of nature about them or engage in analysis of their own self-consciousness they are always face to face with God their maker. Calvin stresses these matters greatly on the basis of Paul's teachings in Romans.
In maintaining the essential clarity of all of the created universe as revelational of God's existence and his plan, Calvin is nothing daunted even by the fact of sin and its consequences. If there has been any “obscuration” in the revelation situation on account of sin, this sin is in any case the fault of man. If in Adam, the first man, who acted for me representatively, I have scratched the mirror of God's general revelation round about and within me, I know at bottom that it is I who have scratched it. Men ought therefore, says Calvin, to conclude that when some individual sin is not punished immediately it will be punished later. Their consciences operate on this basis.
One thing should be particularly stressed in this connection. It is the fact that man today is sinful because of what happened at the beginning of history. “We are told that man could never have had any fruition of God through the revelation that came to him through nature as operating by itself. There was superadded to God's revelation in nature another revelation, a supernaturally communicated positive revelation. Natural revelation, we are virtually told, was from the outset incorporated into the idea of a covenant relationship of God with man. Thus every dimension of created existence, even the lowest, was enveloped in a form of exhaustively personal relationship between God and man. The ‘ateleological’ not less that the ‘teleological’, the ‘mechanical’ no less than the ‘spiritual’, was covenantal in character” (The Infallible Word p. 259). Even in paradise therefore supernatural revelation was immediately conjoined with natural revelation. Revelation in and about man was therefore never meant to function by itself. “It was from the beginning insufficient without its supernatural concomitant. It was inherently a limiting notion.” (Idem p. 267).
Having taken these two, revelation in the created universe, both within and about man, and revelation by way of supernatural positive communication as aspects of revelation as originally given to man, we can see that natural revelation is even after the fall perspicuous in character. “The perspicuity of God's revelation in nature depends for its very meaning upon the fact that it is an aspect of the /p. 280/ total and totally voluntary revelation of a God who is self-contained” (Idem p. 269). God has an all comprehensive plan for the universe. “He has planned all the relationships between all the aspects of created being. He has planned the end from the beginning. All created reality therefore actually displays this plan. It is, in consequence, inherently rational” (Idem p. 269).
At this point we may add the fact of Scriptural revelation. God has condescended to reveal himself and his plan in it to sinners. It is the same God who speaks in Scripture and in nature. But in Scripture he speaks of his grace to such as have broken his covenant, to such as have set aside his original revelation to them. And as the original revelation of God to man was clear so is the revelation of grace in Scripture. “The Scriptures as the finished product of God's supernatural and saving revelation to man have their own evidence in themselves” (Idem p. 271).
In all of this there is one thing that stands out. It is that man has no excuse whatsoever for not accepting the revelation of God, whether in nature, including man and his surroundings, or in Scripture. God's revelation is always clear.
The first and most basic point on which my approach differs from the traditional one is therefore that: (a) I start more frankly from the Bible as the source from which, as an absolutely authoritative revelation, I take my whole interpretation of life. Roman Catholicism also appeals to Scripture but in practice makes its authority void. Its final appeal is to the church and that is, in effect, to human experience. Even Arminianism rejects certain Scripture doctrines (e.g. election) because it cannot logically harmonize them with the general offer of salvation. (b) I stress the objective clarity of God's revelation of himself wherever it appears. Both Thomas Aquinas and Butler contend that men have done justice by the evidence if they conclude that God probably exists. (I have discussed the views of Aquinas in The Infallible Word and those of Butler in the Syllabus on Evidences.) I consider this a compromise of simple and fundamental Biblical truth. It is an insult to the living God to say that his revelation of himself so lacks in clarity that man, himself through and through revelational of God, does justice by it when he says that God probably exists. The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down the validity of this argument to the probability level. The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound. Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold. It is not merely as reasonable as other positions, or a bit more reasonable than other positions; it alone is the natural and reasonable position for man to take. By stating the argument as clearly as we can, we may be the agent of the Holy Spirit in pressing the claims of God upon men. If we drop to the level of the merely probable truthfulness of Christian theism, we, to that extent, lower the claims of God upon men” (Common Grace p. 62). Accordingly I do not reject “the theistic proofs”14 but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture. “That is to say, if the theistic proof is constructed as it ought to be constructed, it is objectively valid, whatever the attitude of those to whom it comes may be” (Idem p. 49 ). (c) With Calvin I find the point of contact for the presentation of the Gospel /p. 281/to non-Christians in the fact that they are made in the image of God and as such have the ineradicable sense of deity within them. Their own consciousness is inherently and exclusively revelational of God to themselves. No man can help knowing God, for in knowing himself he knows God.15 His self-consciousness is totally devoid of content unless, as Calvin puts it at the beginning of his Institutes, man knows himself as a creature before God. There are “no atheistic men because no man can deny the revelational activity of the true God within him” (Common Grace p.55). Man's own interpretative activity, whether of the more or less extended type, whether in ratiocination or in intuition, is no doubt the most penetrating means by which the Holy Spirit presses the claims of God upon man” (Idem p. 62). Even man's negative ethical reaction to God's revelation within his own psychological constitution is revelational of God. His conscience troubles him when he disobeys; he knows deep down in his heart that he is disobeying his creator. There is no escape from God for any human being. Every human being is by virtue of his being made in the image of God accessible to God. And as such he is accessible to one who without compromise presses upon him the claims of God. Every man has capacity to reason logically. He can intellectually understand what the Christian position claims to be. Conjoined with this is the moral sense that he knows he is doing wrong when he interprets human experience without reference to his creator. I am therefore in the fullest agreement with Professor Murray when, in the quotation you give of him, he speaks of the natural man as having an “apprehension of the truth of the gospel that is prior to faith and repentance.” But I could not thus speak with assurance that the natural man could have any such apprehension of the truth of the gospel if I held with the traditional view of Apologetics that man's self-consciousness is something that is intelligible without reference to God-consciousness. If man's self-consciousness did not actually depend upon his God-consciousness there would be no meaning to Romans 1:20. Each man would live in a world by himself. No man could even have that intellectual cognition of the gospel which is the prerequisite of saving faith. In short if the universe were not what the Calvinist, following Paul, says it is, it would not be a universe. There would be no system of truth. And if the mind of man were not what Calvin, following Paul, says it is, it could not even intellectually follow an argument for the idea that the universe is a universe. All arguments for such a universe would come to him as outside that universe.
Yet it is the very essence of the positions of Aquinas and Butler that human self-consciousness is intelligible without God-consciousness. Both make it their point of departure in reasoning with the non-believers that we must, at least in the area of things natural, stand on the ground of neutrality with them. And it is of the essence of all non-believing philosophy that self-consciousness is taken as intelligible by itself without reference to God. Moreover the very theology of both Romanism and Arminianism, as already noted, requires a measure of /p. 282/ subtraction of the self-consciousness of men from its creaturely place. (d) Implied in the previous points is the fact that I do not artificially separate induction from deduction, or reasoning about the facts of nature from reasoning in a priori analytical fashion about the nature of human-consciousness. I do not artificially abstract or separate them from one another. On the contrary I see induction and analytical reasoning as part of one process of interpretation. I would therefore engage in historical apologetics. (I do not personally do a great deal of this because my colleagues in the other departments of the Seminary in which I teach are doing it better than I could do it.) Every bit of historical investigation, whether it be in the directly Biblical field, archaeology, or in general history, is bound to confirm the truth of the claim of the Christian position. But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the non-believer's philosophy of fact. A really fruitful historical apologetic argues that every fact is and must be such as proves the truth of the Christian theistic position.
A fair presentation of my method of approach should certainly have included these basic elements that underlie everything else. (See the syllabi on Apologetics and Introduction to Theology Vol. I.).
It is only in the light of this positive approach that my statement to the effect that epistemologically believers and non-believers have nothing in common can be seen for what it is. Even in Common Grace it is evident that by the sinner's epistemological reaction I mean his reaction as an ethically responsible creature of God. Does the sinner react properly to the revelation of God that surrounds him, that is within him and that comes to him from Scripture? As I have followed Calvin closely in stressing the fact that men ought to believe in God inasmuch as the evidence for his existence is abundantly plain, so I have also closely followed Calvin in saying that no sinner reacts properly to God's revelation. Is this too sweeping a statement? It is simply the doctrine of total depravity. All sinners are covenant breakers. They have an axe to grind. They do not want to keep God in remembrance. They keep under the knowledge of God that is within them. That is they try as best they can to keep under this knowledge for fear they should look into the face of their judge. And since God's face appears in every fact of the universe they oppose God's revelation everywhere. They do not want to see the facts of nature for what they are; they do not want to see themselves for what they are. Therefore they assume the non-createdness of themselves and of the facts and the laws of nature round about them. Even though they make great protestations of serving God they yet serve and worship the creature more than the Creator. They try to make themselves believe that God and man are aspects of one universe. They interpret all things immanentistically. Shall we in the interest of a point of contact admit that man can interpret anything correctly if he virtually leaves God out of the picture?16 Shall we who wish to prove that nothing can be explained without God first admit some things at least can be explained without him? On the contrary we shall show that all explanations without God are futile. Only when we do this do we appeal to that knowledge of God within men which they seek /p. 283/ to suppress. This is what I mean by presupposing God for the possibility of intelligent predication.
You ask what person is consistent with his own principle. Well I have consistently argued that no one is and that least of all the non-Christian is. I have even argued in the very booklet that you review that if men were consistent17 they would be end products and that then there would be no more reasoning with them. However since sinners are not consistent, and have, what is from their point of view, an old man within them, they can engage in science and in the general interpretation of the created universe and bring to light much truth. It is because the prodigal is not yet at the swine trough and therefore still has of the substance of the Father in his pockets that he can do that and discover that, which for the matter of it, is true and usable for the Christian. Why did you omit this all important element in what I teach?18 In a booklet largely written in the defense of the idea of “commonness” as between believers and unbelievers against those who deny it, you find nothing but the opposite. If your contention is that I have said precisely the opposite of what I wanted to say, you should in fairness at least have discussed the points just now discussed.
What then more particularly do I mean by saying that epistemologically the believer and the non-believer have nothing in common? I mean that every sinner looks through colored glasses. And these colored glasses are cemented to his face. He assumes that self-consciousness is intelligible without God-consciousness. He assumes that consciousness of facts is intelligible without consciousness of God. He assumes that consciousness of laws is intelligible without God. And he interprets all the facts and all the laws that are presented to him in terms of these assumptions. This is not to forget that he also, according to the old man within him, knows that God exists. But as a covenant breaker he seeks to suppress this. And I am now speaking of him as the covenant breaker. Neither do I forget that no man is actually fully consistent in working according to these assumptions. The non-believer does not fully live up to the new man within him which in his case is the man who worships the creature above all else, any more than does the Christian fully live up to the new man within him, which in his case is the /p. 284/ man who worships the Creator above all else. But as it is my duty as a Christian to ask my fellow Christians as well as myself to suppress the old man within them, so it is my duty to ask non-believers to suppress not the old man but the new man within them.
The necessity for this can be observed every time there is some popular article on religion in one of the magazines. There was a questionnaire sent out recently by one of them asking a certain number of people whether they believed in God. By far the greater number of them said that they did. But from further questions asked it appeared that only a very small number believed in the God of the Bible, the Creator and Judge of men. Yet they said that they believed in God. From such an article it is apparent that every sinner has the sense of deity and therefore knows God as his Creator and Judge. But from such an article it is also apparent that every sinner seeks in one way or another to deny this. They are therefore without God in the world. They must, as Charles Hodge so well points out, be renewed unto knowledge (Colossians 3:10) as well as unto righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24).
Now neither Aquinas nor Butler makes any such distinctions as I have made. And in that they are but consistent. They do not make the Creator-creature distinction absolutely fundamental in their own thinking. How then could they consistently ask others to do so? It is of the essence of their theology to maintain that God has made man so that he has such freedom as to be able to initiate something that is beyond the counsel of God. For them the human self therefore is supposed to be able to think of itself as intelligible and of the facts and laws of the world as manipulable and therefore intelligible apart from their relationship to God. I have already pointed out that for this reason the traditional view of apologetics has no universe and has no real point of contact in the unbeliever.19 If either Romanism or Arminianism were right in their view of the self-consciousness of man there could be no apologetics for Christianity at all. There would be no all-comprehensive plan of God. This much being clear it can be seen that the Romanist and the Arminian will, in consistence with their own theology, not be able to challenge the natural man's false assumptions. The traditional apologist must somehow seek for a point of contact within the thinking of the natural man as this thinking has been carried on upon false assumptions. He cannot seek to stir up the old man in opposition against the new man in the non-Christian. He makes no use of such a distinction. He will allow for gradational differences within the natural man. He will even make a great deal of these. To him therefore the passages of Paul to the effect that /p. 285/ every man knows God and that man is made in the image of God are interpreted so as to do injustice to other equally important teaching of Scripture to the effect that the natural man knoweth not God. All this is compromising theology. It is no wonder that the Romanist and the Arminian will also follow a compromising apologetics.
The basic falseness of this apologetics appears in the virtual, if not actual, denial of the fact that the natural man makes false assumptions. Aquinas and Butler hold that the natural man, whom the Calvinist knows to be a covenant breaker and as such one who interprets God himself in terms of the universe, has some correct notions about God. I mean correct notion as to content not merely as to form. Any one who says “I believe in God,” is formally correct in his statement, but the question is what does he mean by the word God. The traditional view assumes that the natural man has a certain measure of correct thought content when he uses the word God. In reality the natural man's “God” is always20 a finite God. It is his most effective tool for suppressing the sense of the true God that he cannot fully efface from the fibres of his heart.
The natural man's god is always enveloped within a Reality that is greater than his god and himself. He always makes Reality, inclusive of all that exists, the All the final subject of which he speaks. With Thales he will say All is water, with Anaximenes All is air. With others he may be a dualist or a pluralist or an atomist, a realist or a pragmatist. From the Christian point of view he still has a monistic assumption in that he makes Reality to be inclusive of God and himself. And there is not much that the traditional apologist can do about this. He has bound himself to confusion in apologetics as he has bound himself to error in theology. He must tie on to some small area of thought content that the believer and the unbeliever have in common without qualification when both are self-conscious with respect to their principle. This is tantamount to saying that those who interpret a fact as dependent upon God and those who interpret that same fact as not dependent upon God have yet said something identical about that fact.
All this is bound to lead to self-frustration on the part of the traditional apologist. Let us watch him for a moment. Think of him first as an inductivist. As such he will engage in “historical apologetics” and in the study of archaeology. In general he will deal with the “facts” of the universe in order to prove the existence of God. He cannot on his position challenge the assumption of the man he is trying to win. That man is ready for him. Think of the traditional apologist as throwing facts to his non-Christian friend as he might throw a ball. His friend receives each fact as he might a ball and throws it behind him in a bottomless pit. The apologist is exceedingly industrious. He shows the unbelieving friend all the evidence for theism. He shows all the evidence for Christianity, for instance, for the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. Let us think of his friend as absolutely tireless and increasingly polite. He will then receive all these facts and toss them behind him in the bottomless pit of pure possibility. “Is it not wonderful,” he will say, “what strange things do happen in Reality. You seem to be collector of oddities. As for myself I am more interested in the things that happen regularly. But I shall certainly try hard to explain the facts you mention in accord with the laws that I have found working /p. 286/ so far. Perhaps we should say that laws are merely statistical averages and that nothing can therefore be said about any particular event ahead of its appearance. Perhaps there are very unusual things in reality. But what does this prove for the truth of your view?”
You see that the unbeliever who does not work on the presupposition of creation and providence is perfectly consistent21 with himself when he sees nothing to challenge his unbelief even in the fact of the resurrection of Christ. He may be surprised for a moment, as a child that grows up is surprised at the strange things of life, but then when he has grown up he realizes that “such is life.” Sad to say, the traditional Christian apologist has not even asked his unbelieving friend to see the facts for what they really are. He has not presented the facts at all. That is he has not presented the facts as they are according to the Christian way of looking at them and the Christian way of looking at them is the true way of looking at them. Every fact in the universe is what it is by virtue of the place that it has in the plan of God. Man cannot comprehensively know that plan. But he does know that there is such a plan. He must therefore present the facts of theism and of Christianity, of Christian theism, as proving Christian theism because they are intelligible as facts in terms of it and in terms of it alone.
But this is also in effect to say that the Christian apologist should never seek to be an inductivist only. He should present his philosophy of fact with his facts. He does not need to handle less facts in doing so. He will handle the same facts but he will handle them as they ought to be handled.
Now look at the traditional apologist when he is not an inductivist but an a priori reasoner. He will first show his fellow worker, the inductivist, that he defeats his own purposes. He will show that he who does not challenge the assumptions of his non-Christian friends has placed himself on a decline which inevitably leads down from Locke through Berkeley to Hume, the skeptic. Then for his own foundation he will appeal to some internal ineffable principles, to some a priori like that of Plato or of Descartes. He will appeal to the law of contradiction either positively or negatively and boldly challenge the facts to meet the requirements of logic. Then he will add that the facts of Christianity pass the examination summa cum laude. Well, they do. And in passing the examination they invariably pass out of existence too. He can only prove the immortality of the soul if, with Plato, he is willing to prove also that man is divine. He can only prove the universe to have order if, with the Stoics, he is also willing to say that God is merely its principle of order. With the Hegelian idealists such as Bradley and Bosanquet or Royce he will prove all the facts of the Bible to be true by weaving them into aspects of a Universe that allows for them as well as for their opposites.
But usually the traditional apologist is neither a pure inductivist nor a pure a priorist. Of necessity he has to be both. When engaged in inductive argument about facts he will therefore talk about these facts as proving the existence of God. If anything exists at all, he will say, something absolute must exist. But when /p. 287/ he thus talks about what must exist and when he refuses even to admit that non-believers have false assumptions about their musts, let alone being willing to challenge them on the subject, he has in reality granted that the non-believer's conception about the relation of human logic to facts is correct. It does not occur to him that on any but the Christian theistic basis there is no possible connection of logic with facts at all. When the non-Christian, not working on the foundation of creation and providence, talks about musts in relation to facts he is beating the air. His logic is merely the exercise of a revolving door in a void, moving nothing from nowhere into the void. But instead of pointing out this fact to the unbeliever the traditional apologist appeals to this non-believer as though by his immanentistic method he could very well interpret many things correctly.
That this traditionalist type of apologetics is particularly impotent in our day, I have shown in my review of Dr. Richardson's and Dr. Carnell's books on Apologetics. Dr. Richardson is a modernist. But he says he holds to the uniqueness of the facts of Christianity. At the same time he holds that this holding to the uniqueness of Christianity and its facts is not inconsistent with holding to a form of coherence that is placed upon human experience as its foundation. Dr. Carnell is an orthodox believer. To an extent he has even tried to escape from the weaknesses of the traditional method of apologetic argument. But he merely rejects its inductivist form. By and large he falls back into traditional methodology. And just to that extent he has no valid argument against Richardson. To the extent that he admits the type of coherence which Richardson holds to be valid he has to give up the uniqueness of the events of Christianity as he himself holds them. On the other hand, to the extent that he holds to the uniqueness of events the way Richardson holds to them, to that extent he has to give up the coherence to which he himself as an orthodox Christian should hold (See The Westminster Theological Journal November, 1948).
Your own handling of the question of the immutability of God exhibits exactly the same difficulty. You speak of the dynamical self-consistency of God as a concept that will make it quite easy to see how God's immutability can be consistent with the genuine significance of facts in the course of history. But to the extent that you explain how the immutability of God can be consistent with the actuality of historical change, you explain it away. You go so far as to define that very immutability in terms of God's constancy of relationship to the created temporal universe. “God's immutability consists in his perfectly unified plan in dealing with the world, which he created, God's absoluteness is in his perfectly consistent relatedness” (What is God? p. 32). Now if God's immutability is not first to be spoken of as an attribute that pertains to the character of God as he is in himself apart from his relation to the universe, then there is no problem any more because one of the factors of the problem has been denied. To the extent that you have explained you have also destroyed the fact to be explained. And to speak of self-consistency after first reducing the self to a relationship22 /p. 288/ is meaningless. On the other hand you do not really hold to the identity of the being of God in himself with his relationship to the world. That is also plain from your general discussion of God. But then if you are to speak to an unbeliever with respect to the God who is really self-contained and ask him to think of this God along the lines of his own procedure, without challenging the assumptions that underlie that procedure, then he will simply say that such a God is so wholly beyond his experience that he can make nothing of him and that such a God is therefore meaningless to him. To this you can, on your method, offer him no adequate answer.23
The general conclusion then is that on the traditional method, it is impossible to set one position clearly over against the other so that the two may be compared for what they are. Certainly there can be no confrontation of two opposing positions if it cannot be pointed out on what they oppose each other. On the traditional basis of reasoning the unbeliever is not so much as given an opportunity of seeing with any adequacy how the position he is asked to accept differs from his own.24
But all this comes from following the Roman Catholic, Thomas Aquinas, or the Arminian, Butler. If one follows Calvin there are no such troubles. Then one begins with the fact that the world is what the Bible says it is. One then makes the claims of God upon men without apologies though always suaviter in modo. One knows that there is hidden underneath the surface display of every man a sense of deity. One therefore gives that sense of deity an opportunity to rise in rebellion against the oppression under which it suffers by the new man of the covenant breaker. One makes no deal with this new man. One shows that on his assumptions all things are meaningless. Science would be impossible; knowledge of anything in any field would be impossible. No fact could be distinguished from any other fact. No law could be said to be law with respect to facts. The whole manipulation of factual experience would be like the idling of a motor that is not in gear. Thus every fact—not some facts—every fact clearly and not probably proves the truth of Christian theism. If Christian theism is not true then nothing is true. Is the God of the Bible satisfied if his servants say anything less? /p. 289/
And have I, following such a method, departed radically from the tradition of Kuyper and Bavinck?25 On the contrary I have learned all this primarily from them. It is Kuyper's Encyclopedia that has, more than any other work in modern times, brought out the fact of the difference between the approach of the believer and of the unbeliever. It is Bavinck's monumental work which set a natural theology frankly oriented to Scripture squarely over against that of Romanism which is based on neutral reason. It is Bavinck who taught me that the proofs for God as usually formulated on the traditional method prove a finite god. I have indeed had the temerity to maintain that these great Reformed theologians have in some points not been quite true to their own principles. But when I have done so I have usually tried to point out that when they did so and to the extent that they did so they had departed from Calvin.
Many other observations might be made. But your readers now know: (a) that on a very essential point you have misquoted me, (b) that you have misrepresented me, (c) that you have nowhere enabled your readers to see what my argument really is, (d) that because of mere similarity of words you have pinned such heresies on me as I have been most concerned to oppose, (e) that you have not shown that I have in any material way departed from Reformed tradition and (f) that the reason why you have done this is apparently your own departure from the “tradition” of Calvin.26
There are several points in your article that I have not dealt with directly. If you can give me still more space27 I shall be glad to deal with them also. Meanwhile allow me to thank you for your kind consideration in giving me as much space as you have.
Your brother in Christ,
Cornelius Van Til