The Essential Van Til — His Relation to Scholasticism

Van Til used the word “scholasticism” (or its other variations) as shorthand for Thomistic dualism (and with it the medieval synthesis of Christian and pagan thought). In short Thomistic dualism is the idea that there are two sources of knowledge: reason and revelation. Knowledge that comes from reason can be gained by man on reason’s own terms, quite independent of revelation. I am aware that this understanding of Thomas is disputed. But that dispute need not distract us here. However, for our purposes, when Van Til criticizes “scholasticism” he is attacking Thomistic epistemology, as he understands it. So, for example:

But the essentially scholastic or Romanist procedure on the matter of the application of some abstract system of logic to the facts of experience is followed even by some Reformed theologians. This is done particularly in the field of apologetics. We therefore touch on the matter very briefly here. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 301)

Perhaps we can clarify this whole matter by contrasting the scholastic procedure, with respect to finding knowledge of God, to that which we have here advocated as being the consistently Christian procedure. To do this, we may conveniently turn to the work of a modern Catholic philosopher. We take the work of P. Coffey on Ontology, in order to see what he says with respect to the being-of God. We quote a portion of his chapter, “Being and Its Primary Determinations.” (ibid, 328)

Scholastic theology indulged its speculative tendency when it spoke of a lumen gloriae by which man is supposed to be lifted out of his creatural limitations in the life hereafter in order that he may have a large measure of insight into the very being of God. (ibid, 370)

These are just three examples from one text of Van Til’s writings, but they are fairly representative. This means that Van Til was not against or critical of “scholasticism” as such. Scholasticism, rightly demonstrated by the Muller school, is primarily a method of organizing and presenting content. It need not necessarily carry with it particular content. So for example Thomas was a scholastic in that he organized his material in a systematic way and in a way that was intended to instruct and convince. Francis Turretin was a scholastic in this same way. Yet no one in their right mind would ever confuse Turretin for Thomas in terms of context. Turretin and Thomas both used a scholastic method, but their theology couldn’t be more different.

What Van Til goes after are medieval theological systems which compromise Christianity with pagan thought. He does not go after “scholasticism” as such, much less Reformed scholasticism. For him to have done so would have been to bite the hand that feeds him. After all, no one influenced Van Til’s theology more than Vos and Bavinck. And Vos and Bavinck were very dependent upon Reformed scholasticism for their theological insights. They generally do not adopt the scholastic method, but they do adopt Reformed scholastic theological content. We may speak similarly about Old Princeton. Old Princeton feasted upon the meat of Francis Turretin’s great systematic theology Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Van Til received that theology from his professors at Princeton. As we have noted in a previous post Van Til disagreed with his professors’ apologetic, but not their theology. He believed that their apologetic was too influenced by a synthesis with modern thought which was reminiscent of Thomas’s synthesis with Aristotle. It is that synthesis which he often dubs “scholastic.”

But it must be made clear that Van Til in no way rejected, but rather upheld, Reformed scholasticism (also called Reformed orthodoxy). Van Til often criticized other systems of thought over against Reformed scholasticism/Reformed orthodoxy. Reformed orthodoxy stood with Calvin’s thought over against Rome and Barthianism, so he can say: “There is less appreciation for Barth’s Christ as act in Calvin and in Reformed orthodoxy than there is in Romanism” (Christianity & Barthianism, 89).

This is just one example among others. But the idea is finally and ultimately established by how Van Til uses the expression “Reformed orthodoxy” in his criticisms of Karl Barth. Where he quotes Barth and polemicizes against him (see for example footnote 25 in A Christian Theory of Knowledge, pp. 363–365) Barth uses the language of Reformed orthodoxy and Reformed scholasticism interchangeably to describe the same theological phenomenon, namely Reformed theology in the 17th century. It is the Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century that Barth attacks and which Van Til defends. Again, Van Til is not concerned to defend Reformed scholasticism’s method (Van Til himself did not use this method), but rather Reformed scholasticism’s theological content.

What is the upshot of all this? Van Til should not be used by us today to reject “scholasticism” as such and with a sweeping wave of the hand. Nor should we blame Van Til for today’s depreciation of scholasticism. And what is more, perhaps, we should not think that “Calvin and the Calvinists” appropriated pagan sources the same way medieval scholastics did. Van Til was very critical of how the medievals synthesized Christianity and pagan thought, but did not see the same kind (or the same level) of synthesis among Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy. Van Til, after all, is dependent (albeit mediated by others) upon the theology of Reformed scholasticism, even as he is critical of medieval forms of scholasticism.

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Jamie Duguid

3 months ago

I want this to be true. Can you provide a quote of Van Til saying something nice about Reformed scholasticism in general, or an individual Reformed scholastic, to seal the deal? Van Til must comment on this historical period in Reformed thought somewhere, right?

Bob LaRocca

3 months ago

Here is some Richard Muller,

“The Reformation, in spite of its substantial contribution to the history of doctrine and the shock it delivered to theology and the church in the sixteenth century, was not an attack upon the whole of medieval theology or upon Christian tradition. The Reformation assaulted a limited spectrum of doctrinal and practical abuses with the intention of reaffirming the values of the historical church catholic. Thus, the mainstream Reformers reconstructed the doctrines of justification and the sacraments and then modified their ideas of the ordo salutis and of the church accordingly; but they did not alter the doctrines of God, creation, providence, and Christ, and they maintained the Augustinian tradition concerning predestination, human nature and sin. The reform of individual doctrines, like justification and the sacraments, occurred within the bounds of a traditional, orthodox, and catholic system which, on the grand scale, remained substantively unaltered.” PRRD, Vol. 1, 97.

If the Medievals directly contributed to Reformed orthodoxy, even on matters of principle, wouldn’t Van Til’s attack on Medieval scholasticism be a biting of the hand that fed the hand that fed Van Til?

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