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The Essential Van Til – Introduction and the Trinity

I’ve come again, afresh, to the writings of Cornelius Van Til. Lord willing, my plan is to compose a monograph on Van Til’s critique of Karl Barth over the next several years. In light of relentless criticism, from both Barthians and evangelical Calvinists, I would like to offer a fresh reading and defense of Van Til’s critique, on his own terms.

To that end, I have begun reading Van Til outside of his works that specifically target Barth.[1] This approach is purposeful. I believe that the best way to understand how and why Van Til criticizes Barth is to understand his thought as a whole. If one tries to abstract Van Til’s critique of Barth from his theology as a whole – and the apologetic/polemic approach that arises from it – then Van Til’s critique will never be properly understood.

So I have begun with two of the newly released annotated versions of Van Til’s works published by P&R Publishing, Common Grace and the Gospel (annotated by K. Scott Oliphint) and An Introduction to Systematic Theology (annotated by William Edgar). I have also made use of the digital version of Van Til’s works by Logos. If you do not have Logos, and you want to engage in serious study of both the Bible and theology, do yourself the favor and save your pennies for it. And, while you’re saving, save also for the digital Van Til set!

So, what I would like to do here is offer a series of posts containing some of the best quotes I come across in Van Til’s writings and offer some brief commentary. I hope you enjoy it, and benefit from Van Til’s faithfully and consistently Reformed insights.

The first quote comes from Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 13:

To use a phrase of Kierkegaard, we ask how the Moment is to have significance. Our claim as believers is that the Moment cannot intelligently be shown to have any significance except upon the presupposition of the biblical doctrine of the ontological trinity. In the ontological trinity there is complete harmony between an equally ultimate one and many. The persons of the trinity are mutually exhaustive of one another and of God’s nature. It is the absolute equality in point of ultimacy that requires all the emphasis we can give it. Involved in this absolute equality is complete interdependence; God is our concrete universal.[2]

One of the common misconceptions out there about Van Til’s apologetic approach is that his great insight was that everyone has presuppositions. That no one comes to the process of thinking about anything neutrally. And so the believer presupposes the existence of God, while the atheist does not. And God is the believer’s basis for ethics, logic, etc. The atheist, however, has no basis.

All that is true enough, as far as it goes. But the misconception is due to the fact that it does not go far enough. Van Til does not offer a generic deity as the Christian’s presupposition. It is not as if Van Til’s God can be swapped out for the God of Islam, Judaism, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Rather, Van Til presupposes the self-contained ontological Trinity as he reveals himself in the Bible. That is important because a generic deity cannot account for anything in the universe – unity or differentiation, universals or particulars, the subject-object relationship, etc. A generic deity yields only a meaningless and unintelligible creation. For Van Til only God as absolutely self-contained (i.e., a se) can render anything and everything intelligible.

I hope to be able to unpack that idea some more in future posts.

[1] The several works I have in mind here are The New Modernism, Barthianism and Christianity, Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?, The Confession of 1967, Karl Barth and Evangelicalism, and Barth’s Christology. Of course, he has critical statements about “the new modernism” all throughout his writings. But these are particularly focused on the thought of Karl Barth (and others).

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, ed. K. Scott Oliphint, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2015).


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