The Essential Van Til — In the Beginning (Part 4)

As we continue to unpack Van Til’s review of Zerbe’s book we come to the second part of the review, which concerns Barth’s epistemology. Van Til opens with an absurd claim, and then unpacks what he means:

[Barth] has no room for revelation. At first blush it would seem as though the very opposite were the case. He says that only in the eternal is true knowledge. He says that all knowledge comes by revelation. …. Karl Barth says that all knowledge for man as well as for God is based upon analysis of the eternal truths that exist apart from time. The ideal of knowledge for man as well as for God is complete comprehension. Knowledge is no knowledge unless it is completely comprehensive. … God and man are engaged in a common analysis of principles that exist independently of both.

It is statements like “Barth has no room for revelation” that tend to get Van Til into trouble! The statement, on the surface anyhow, seems ridiculous. But Van Til is quick to acknowledge that his statement can seem absurd. He notes that a surface read (“at first blush”) of Barth would prove the absurdity. After all Barth says that “all knowledge comes by revelation.” Now, there are two points that need to be made here. One of the points Van Til says here, the other he does not.

First, Van Til understands that for Barth for a person to know something that person must know it comprehensively. I think Van Til is on solid ground here. Barth will often indicate that man cannot know God because man as limited and the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. God is eternal, we are temporal and therefore we cannot know the eternal. This is what Van Til means by “eternal truths.” Truth is eternal, and therefore in order for there to be true knowledge of those truths one must likewise be eternal. And here only God qualifies because only he is eternal.

The trouble here is that truth, eternal truth, is an abstraction. It is a kind of tertium quid which is neither God nor man. Truth is independent of both. It is an object, quite distinct from both God and man. It is only potentially known by either God and man (i.e., “all knowledge for man as well as for God is based upon analysis of the eternal truths that exist apart from time”). And only God has the kind of mind that qualifies for knowing eternal truths comprehensively. Therefore, only God can know, man cannot. The upshot to all this is that if there is going to be revelation at all it must be something that takes place in eternity (i.e., transcendentally). It must be an act that takes place quite apart from and above us. This means, for Van Til, Barth has no room for revelation as it has been traditionally conceived. Barth has a doctrine of revelation to be sure, but according to Van Til it is not a biblical doctrine of revelation.

Second, the way in which Barth solves this problem is through Jesus Christ. Van Til does not say this here, though he will articulate it in his later writings. Jesus Christ alone is revelation. Revelation is not, therefore, a thing that can be grasped. It is not words captured on a page nor man’s experience of absolute dependence. It is God making himself known in a divine act of grace in Jesus Christ. Christ is himself both sides—the divine and human—of revelation. This is an eternal act that takes place quite transcendently relative to us living in the hear and now. Only in Jesus Christ is God made known, to himself in Jesus Christ, comprehensively.

The problem with this view, according to Van Til, is twofold. First, God and man are in similar epistemological positions. Both are subject to eternal truths. However, God has an advantage; a qualitatively greater advantage. He can know those truths because he is himself eternal. Man cannot, because he is not eternal. But still, God and man both have the same object of their knowledge—eternal truths. Nevertheless, God is relativized by these eternal truths which he himself must know. In this way, as Van Til will later note, the universe is therefore superior to God. Because eternal truths and God are co-existent the creator-creature distinction is eliminated. To be sure, Barth would never say that. But that is what Van Til believes it amounts to.

Coordinated with this problem is the fact that man cannot know God (nor can he know eternal truths). If man cannot know comprehensively then he cannot know truly. And he cannot know eternal truths comprehensively, and therefore not truly. He also cannot know God truly because he cannot know God comprehensively. At the end of the day man must be skeptical about God, and with his skepticism about God he must be skeptical about all things.

At the end of the day Barth is both a a rationalist (because God and man have the same source and object of knowledge—eternal truths) and an irrationalist (because man cannot know God, or anything eternal for that matter). And because of this, Barth has no room for revelation as revelation has been historically and biblically understood in Reformed theology.

The Essential Van Til – In the Beginning (Part 3)

When I first heard about Barth’s concept of the “wholly other” God, it sounded perfectly orthodox. Barth’s emphasis on the qualitative difference between God and man struck me as nothing but good Reformed theology. In addition, I had heard that Barth protested against the Liberal idea of identifying God’s being with man’s subjective experience. Surely Barth is a friend of Reformed theology! And that would be the case if that was all Barth said about the relation between God and man.

However, it was not.

Barth understood that he couldn’t stop there. He had the Christian sense to know that one cannot stop with the absolute qualitative difference between God and man. Had he stopped there there would be no hope in his theology. There would only be separation between God and man. He knew somehow that he had to bring God and man together, even if but dialectically. Liberalism did that through identifying God with man in man’s experience. Barth, however, would take the opposite position. He would reconcile God and man in God’s experience.

We continue to unpack Van Til’s initial salvo against Barth, which is a 1931 Christianity Today book review. Van Til also was grateful for Barth’s “wholly other” God. However, he was not so sanguine about how Barth brings God and man together:

Barth has made God to be highly exalted above time. For this we would be sincerely grateful. Only thus is God seen to be qualitatively distinct from man. Only thus can we stand strong against Modernism. But Barth has also made man to be highly exalted above time. For this we are sincerely sorry. By doing this Barth has completely neutralized the exaltation of God. By doing this God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man. Modern theology holds that both God and man are temporal. Barth holds that both God and man are eternal. The results are identical.[1]

For Barth the fundamental problem and presupposition of all theology is ontological: God and man are qualitatively different and therefore separate. Reconciliation is therefore also ontological. God and man are reconciled only in the God-man. And the God-man is an eternal act of grace by which God and man are made one. There never was a time when the God-man was not. The God-man, Jesus Christ, is the resolution of the ontological problem by virtue of the gracious decree of God who wills our salvation in absolute freedom.

This means that man, the man Jesus, is just as much a necessary aspect of the being of God as is his divine nature. Both the human and the divine share in the same transcendent time-event of God’s grace for us. So, as in liberalism God and man were identified in man’s feeling of absolute dependence, in Barth God and man are identified in the transcendent event of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

This eternal act of grace is what Barth calls “God’s time for us.” In this way, time (“eternal time”) and act replace “being” in the older Thomistic theology. In Thomas “being” was a kind of independent entity in which both the Creator and creature participate. God has being and man has being. But God’s being is infinite while man’s is finite. But in Barth “act” and “time” become the transcendent reality in which both God and man relate in the God-man, Jesus Christ. This means that God and man share in a common quality or entity, as in liberalism. The difference is that in liberalism the mutual participation is immanent whereas in Barth it is transcendent. But, according to Van Til, the same theological problems persist.

[1] Van Til, C., & Sigward, E. H. (1997). Reviews by Cornelius Van Til (Electronic ed.). Labels Army Company: New York.

Van Til’s Apologetic: Reading and Analysis

Publisher’s Description

“Best of Van Til under one cover” Bahnsen’s exposition and Interaction with critics of Van Til.


About the Author

Greg L. Bahnsen (MDiv, ThM, Westminster Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Southern California) was Scholar-in-Residence at the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, in Irvine. A distinguished scholar, author, and debater, he wrote and lectured extensively in the areas of apologetics and biblical law.

Introduction to Systematic Theology

Publisher’s Description

The theological foundations of Van Til’s defense of the faith are set forth here as the unified system of truth to which believers are committed and with which nonbelievers need to be confronted.

Writes Van Til: “The Christian faith as a whole, as a unit, must be set over against the non-Christian faith as a whole. Piecemeal apologetics is inadequate, especially for out time. A Christian totality picture requires a Christian view of the methodology of science and philosophy, as well as a Christian view of theology.”

Thus Van Til explores the implications of Christian theology, particularly for philosophy, as he discusses epistemology, general and special revelation, and the knowledge and attributes of God.

Cornelius Van Til taught apologetics for more than forty-five years at Westminster Theological Seminary. This newly edited and typeset edition features an introduction and explanatory notes by William Edgar.

The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed.

Publisher’s Description

This new, annotated edition of The Defense of the Faith restores the full text of the original work in a form that is more easily understood. Cornelius Van Til, who taught for more than forty-five years at Westminster Seminary, sometimes used philosophical vocabulary in The Defense, and many of his conversation partners and critics were not widely known. When later editions greatly abridged this work for these reasons, valuable discussions were laid aside.

Now they are restored, and with added clarification. Newly edited and retypeset, this unabridged edition features a foreword and explanatory notes by K. Scott Oliphint, which help us grasp a method of apologetics consistent with the nature of Christianity itself and continually relevant to our time.

Includes a Foreword by K. Scott Oliphint



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