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The Essential Van Til – Connecting the Dots

Part of a good transcendental critique must be drawing the lines between the dots for people to see clearly.

If I have any critique of Van Til, it is that he could have done better connecting those dots. He observes things in people’s thought with uncanny penetration and insight. And he will often state that their position entails something else, often an unwelcomed theological conclusion. And he seems to be right when he draws the dots. However, he often leaves us dangling and does not always connect the dots explicitly. If we can improve on Van Til anywhere it is here: connect the dots more explicitly, while penetrating deeply and critiquing transcendentally (as Van Til did).

An example of what I am talking about is found in his The Theology of James Daane. There Van Til says that Arminians cannot do justice to the idea of an infallible Bible (p. 24). On the surface that sounds absurd because many Arminians believe in infallibility. But his point is that once you deny an absolutely sovereign God who stands back of all history and events, direct inspiration and the assurance that human authors are kept from error fails. In other words, a god that is not absolutely sovereign cannot have contact with creation, and even if he could he cannot speak with any level of absolute certainly. But he does not write that large with explicit clarity. He does not walk us through the logic of why “A” necessarily entails “B” (not just in this instance, but in almost every system of thought he critiques).

I think that is how we can advance Van Til today. Not by changing or toning down what he said (as some “Van Tillians” would have it), but by making more explicit and lucid what he did say.

The Essential Van Til – Aquinas and Barth: Their Common Core

“Yet the Aristotelianism of Rome, with its idea of potentiality, offers, we are bound to think, a point of contact with the underlying philosophy of Dialecticism. Rome occupies an intermediary position.”[1]

What has Basel to do with Rome? In the above quotation Van Til is making a startling point. On the one hand earlier on in the paragraph he acknowledges that Rome has way too much orthodoxy in it for there to be an easy alignment with “the theology of Crisis.” Nevertheless, Rome’s theology and the theology of Basel are not devoid of all commonalities.

So, when he speaks of “the Aristotelianism of Rome” he has in mind, of course, the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Van Til, rightly or wrongly, always associates Roman Catholicism with Thomism. But what is most important here for our purposes is to identify what he means by Rome’s “idea of potentiality.”

We need to be brief here (a fuller scholarly treatment of this subject is beyond our purview). But the idea of “potentiality” entails what some call a chain, or scale, of being. Potency is understood opposite of actuality. And every thing has potency, which means it has potential toward actualization. Only God is pure actuality, having no potency in himself. Everything else is on its way toward actualization. This idea is often connected with the idea of the analogia entis – or analogy of being. Things on the scale of being—God who is the greatest being, man as an actualizing agent—relate to one another analogically. While there is much dissimilarity between God and man—God is fully actualized, we are not—there is also a commonality as well: God and man are both beings. So, it is an analogy based on the fact of what God and man have in common: being. And while God and man differ quantitatively in their being they are not qualitatively different.

So, what has this to do with Barth (here Van Til uses the broader term “Dialecticism,” but he has primarily Barth in mind)? After all, does Van Til not know that Barth absolutely rejected the analogia entis (goes so far as associating it with the anti-Christ)? Does Van Til not know that Barth speaks about the “qualitative difference between eternity and time?” Where in the world could Van Til find common cause between Aquinas and Barth?

While it is true that Barth begins with the “qualitative difference between time and eternity” he does not stay there. Especially as his theology develops from the time of his Romans commentary, he recognizes that he cannot stop with the qualitative difference if God and man are ever to be reconciled. Somehow God and man, time and eternity, the Creator and creature must be brought together. At the same time his actualistic doctrine of God does not allow him to have a God who is eternal or timeless in the absolute sense. So he speaks about “God’s time.” For Barth God’s time is his time of grace in the eternal decree who is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is himself both the electing God and the elect man. With that, then, Jesus Christ is both the eternal God and the temporal man. And he is such in his eternal nature. There is for Barth no logos asarkos, that is a Christ who is ever understood as being without flesh and therefore without time. Jesus Christ is himself “God’s time for us.” That means that God and man, eternity and time, are co-terminus realities. The relationship between God and man is relative and not absolute. For God is forever and from all eternity this God who has time for us in Jesus Christ.

To be sure, this is not the same thing exactly as Thomas’ analogy of being. It is more like an analogy of God’s time. And while the construction differs, what remains as a common ground between Thomas and Barth are their commitment to placing God and man in a relative relationship rather than an absolute one.

Both Thomas and Barth then stand over against the Reformed understanding of how God and man relate. For the Reformed God and man relate covenantally. They both have a relationship in absolute distinction from the beginning. The way in which they relate, then, is not through some kind of ontological bond. Rather, the bond is covenantal. It is a relation established by God and guaranteed and sealed by divine fiat—not through bringing God and man in under a common ontological reality (being for Thomas, time for Barth).

But there is one last commonality between Thomas and Barth, and it is based on the commitment to their respective views of analogy. And that is they both stand in antithesis to the Reformed Faith. Reformed theology will not allow this common sharing or an ontological bond between God and man. For the problem between God and man is not ontology. The problem is a matter of hamartiology. And the solution is soteriological and covenantal. And therein lies the difference between the Reformed Faith on the one hand and Thomas and Barth on the other.


[1] Van Til, C. (1947). The new modernism: an appraisal of the theology of Barth and Brunner. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Philadelphia. P. 8.

The Essential Van Til – In the Beginning (Part 6)

At long last we have come to the end of the beginning (see parts 1, 2, 3, 45). We have reviewed Van Til’s opening salvo against Barth’s theology as it appeared in the form of a book review. This last part of Van Til’s critique is a kind of parting shot, and prognostication concerning the future of Barthianism. He takes his lead from another American reader of Barth:

Professor McGiffert of Chicago predicted last summer that Barthianism would not last because it was really a recrudescence of Calvinism. If we might venture a prediction it would be that Barthianism may last a long time because it is really Modernism, but that neither Barthianism nor Modernism will last in the end because they are not Calvinism, that is, consistent Christianity.

Van Til here predicts the “success” of Barthianism. However, Barthianism will last long not because it is good but precisely because it is not Calvinism. Barthianism is not a real break from Modernism. And while Van Til does not explicitly say why he believes that Modernism has “legs” to last a long time, we can venture a guess here.

First, Modernism is a synonym for theological liberalism (we understand that Modernism has a much broader meaning outside of the field of theology). And Van Til understood the draw of liberalism. He understood why it gained such wide allegiance. It did so because it imbibed the zeitgeist of the 19th and early 20th century.

A brief on liberalism is in order here. Liberalism was not at its heart a denial of orthodox doctrine—though it did do that. But liberalism, at its heart, was unbelief driven by fear. The fear was that Christianity would lose its place in the world, its hegemony over Western culture. How could Christianity withstand the tide of the waxing influence of modern philosophy, science and the cultured intelligentsia? It either had to make adjustments or die and lose its grip on the world which it enjoyed for over a millennium. Christian doctrine had to be adjusted to adhere to the standards and demands of modernity. In other words, it had to make itself acceptable to the times.

Second, according to Van Til Barth did not break with this tradition. Rather, he channeled the spirit of Schleiermacher. He disagreed with his liberal forefathers in many respects. But he did not disagree with them that Christian doctrine had to be non-offensive to the age. He only disagreed with them on how to make Christian doctrine accede to the terms of modernity (particularly as modernity was changing in his day). He could not, for example, go back to liberalism’s commitment to the rejection of scholastic metaphysics. Kant has taught us too well. We cannot go back to the deus absconditus or the logos asarkos because that would mean resorting back to the metaphysics which funded those doctrines. No, in keeping with the times, we must focus not on static being but on dynamic notions like time and act. These sentiments are already in the air in neo-Kantianism, Hegel and Heidegger. Granted, while Barth did confess to doing some “Hegeling,” he is no Hegelian nor is he an existentialist (at least not his Church Dogmatics). But he strikes chords which resonate with his generation of youthful intellectuals who would never have supported the Kaiser.

And it is for these reasons that Van Til predicted the “success” and long lasting influence of Barthianism. It too is making adjustments to Christianity to make it “fit in” and non-offensive to a modern (and then post-modern) people. It purports to solve the problems in the older liberal theology which could support a tyrannical war effort while at the same time refusing to return to the older orthodoxy. Barth gave a fresh voice to a new generation. Once again, and in a different way, he made Christianity palatable to the cultured despisers. But biblical Christianity, for Van Til, is not acceptable to the “natural man.” The natural man and the modern person seek a faith that won’t be mocked and that is “reasonable” (to our natural mind). True Christianity, as it comes to its most mature expression in the Reformed faith, is offensive to the natural and (post?) modern mind. But, it will at long last prevail because it is true and consistent Christianity.

But until then the Reformed faith will be the Christianity of the despised and marginalized. Concurrently, all the new theologies that play to the whims of the times will preserve the shell of Christianity. But like Schleiermacher’s innovations the new will be shown to be inconsistent folly and at long last go the way of all flesh. And remaining will be God’s people who faithfully cling to his promises, not being overcome by the spirit of the ages which, like Ishmael toward Isaac, mock them. By grace they will not be overcome, for they will not fear Ishmael. Rather, they will fix their eyes on the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. And they will bear witness to him in love to their neighbors believing that this old story of Jesus and his love is sufficient to save today no less than in generations past.

The Essential Van Til – In the Beginning (Part 2)

In the last post we began to consider Van Til’s first published criticism of Barth. It was set in the context of a book review.[1] There we underscored Van Til’s criticism that Barth’s “theology is based upon an antitheistic theory of reality.” We noted that it was “antitheistic” because it was a “correlative theory of reality.” We said, in short, this means that God and man exist on the same, eternal, “plane” with one other in Jesus Christ. God’s identity, in some sense, depends on the creature.

Van Til goes on in the review to unpack the implications of Barth’s “theory of reality:”

[Barth] even denies the real significance of the temporal world. The whole of history is to be condemned as worthless. The eternal is said to be everything and the temporal is said to be nothing. Does not this seem as though Barth holds to a genuine transcendence of God? Does it not seem as though transcendence means everything for Barth? It does seem so—but it is not truly so. Barth holds that “the only real history takes place in eternity.” If then man and the temporal universe in general are to have any significance at all they must be an aspect of God and as such be really as eternal as God. Anything to be real, says Barth, must transcend time. Man is real only in so far as he transcends time. We are true personalities only in so far as we are experiences of God. We are not to say with Descartes, I think therefore I am, or even with Hocking, I think God therefore I am, but we are to say, I am thought by God therefore I am. Abraham’s faith takes place in eternity. Resurrection means eternity. The entire epistle of Paul to the Romans is said to bring this one message that we must be eternalized. To be saved means to be conscious of one’s eternity.

Before unpacking this criticism, a few words of observation about it are in order:

  1. Zerbe’s book and Van Til’s article are very early. Zerbe interacts with the German works of Barth, but his research only goes up to 1929 (co-authored volume Zur Lehre vom Heiligen Geist).
  2. We know Van Til read Barth’s Church Dogmatics in German before it was translated into English. But it is impossible to tell from this review if Van Til is criticizing Barth in accordance with his own reading of Barth’s corpus up to 1931 or if his criticism is entirely or in part mediated by Zerbe’s reading. Given that the themes we see in Van Til here persist throughout his critical writings on Barth points us in the direction that Van Til was already conversant with the same early German writings Zerbe was working from.
  3. This is not Van Til at his most nuanced. At first blush we may think that he is charging Barth with denying the reality of the temporal world. That is an understandable reaction, but on a more careful read Van Til is not leveling such a charge. We’ll discuss this more below, but when reading Van Til here we have to understand that he is speaking in generalities and is not as precise in his wording as he could have been (English being his second language and all).

OK, those qualifications having been stated, let’s unpack Van Til’s claims. That first sentence needs careful exegesis. What Van Til is critical of here is Barth’s denial of the “real” meaning of reality. He is not saying that Barth is denying reality, as if the world and the things around us do not actually exist. Here the word “significance” is important to get Van Til’s meaning. “Significance” for Van Til means “meaning” or “interpretation.” What he is saying, in short, is that Barth denies the real (read: divine) interpretation of reality.

Yet more needs to be said. Whatever we want to say concerning Barth’s later theology, his earlier theology is most certainly characterized by the “crisis” that exists between eternity and time, or between God and man. Given this great divide our reality, history and present experience are cut off from God and his revelation. God and his revelation are of eternity, we are of time (and the twain shall not meet!). But, for Van Til, God only by his revelation can give to us the true (i.e., real) meaning (i.e., significance) of reality. And since God/eternity and man/time are qualitatively different without overlap or contact, there is no way for man to know the true interpretation of his experience.

As Van Til goes on to note, the only way man/time can have any real God-given significance (i.e., meaning/interpretation) is for God to lift man/time up into his eternity, destroy its old fallen meaning and make it new (this process is called Aufhebung in German). And that God does in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is an eternal event of grace in which man/time is lifted up, destroyed and united to God.

That does mean, as Van Til rightly notes (even if in a somewhat un-nuanced way), that time (and everything which is of the warp and woof of this present age) is but fallen, sinful and nothing. The only place where reality is something is in the real man, Jesus Christ who alone is the transcendent act of God’s grace for us. Everything else is fallen nothingness.

Now, this is the position which I believe Barth holds for the rest of his life, whatever we may think of the qualifications he brings to it via a modern version of the analogia. Barth’s later theology would become much more orderly and systematic. But his early work forms a foundation which he will not reform in any significant way.

So much more can and should be said about that. But for now, I hope I have brought a small measure of clarity to Van Til’s critique. My experience is that for those who actually have read Van Til on Barth have exercised very little patience in accurately and charitably understanding his main point. Granted, to get there one must wade through what is often time clunky English prose. The interpretation of Barth given by Van Til above, while coming with an admittedly negative tone, is far from being idiosyncratic or even particularly controversial (even among some of Barth’s most ardent supporters today).[2] I wonder if now isn’t a good time for both friends and critics of Barth to set aside personal emotions and take up Van Til afresh and give him another chance to help us reappraise the theology of Karl Barth.


[1] Review of The Karl Barth Theology: The New Transcendentalism, by Alvin S. Zerbe. Christianity Today 1/10 (Feb 1931): 13–14. The book reviewed is Alvin S. Zerbe, The Karl Barth Theology: The New Transcendentalism (Cleveland: Central Publishing House, 1930).

[2] I recognize fully the need to unpack this claim and substantiate it more comprehensively. I aim to do just that in future posts.

Am I Free If God Is Sovereign?

God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom are often thought to be in competition with one another in a sort of zero-sum game: either God is sovereign or I am free. This has led to thinking that there are only two basic options on the table to chose from.

Option #1: God’s sovereignty is limited by man’s freedom. Man’s moral and rational capacities are withdrawn from the eternal decree of God and given an independent and autonomous significance and existence.

Option #2: Man’s freedom is eliminated by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are wholly determined by the eternal decree of God and cease to have any real significance or existence at all.

The first option is correctly labeled “Arminianism.” The second option is often thought to be the teaching of “Calvinism,” but is actually in fundamental disagreement with Calvinism. It is a kind of fatalism or determinism, which Calvinism has properly rejected full force. Both options fail to maintain the basic Creator-creature distinction, which has led to the assumption that God’s freedom and man’s freedom are qualitatively the same. Hence, the zero-sum game. Accordingly, where one is free the other is not. So while options 1 and 2 seem to affirm totally opposite positions, they are actually both situated on the same rationalistic spectrum, just at opposite ends.

Calvinism rejects this rationalistic spectrum entirely and provides us with a third option that is most consistent and faithful to God’s revelation in Scripture.

Option #3: Man’s freedom is established by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are created and maintained within the eternal decree of God and therefore have real existence and significance.

Whereas options 1 and 2 begin with man’s reasoning, Calvinism begins with God’s Word. It does not claim to solve the mystery, but properly relates God’s sovereignty and human freedom as friends, not enemies. God’s sovereignty does not eliminate man’s freedom, nor does man’s freedom limit God’s sovereignty, instead God’s sovereignty establishes man’s freedom.

This is encapsulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (3.1).

Herman Bavinck also avoids the rationalism that would set God’s freedom and man’s freedom in opposition to one another, rather than understanding the former to “create” and “maintain” the latter.

“If God and his human creatures can only be conceived as competitors, and if the one can only retain his freedom and independence at the expense of the other, then God has to be increasingly restricted both in knowedge and in will. Pelagianism, accordingly, banishes God from his world. It leads both to Deism and atheism and enthrones human arbitrariness and folly. Therefore, the solution of the problem must be sought in another direction. It must be sought in the fact that God—because he is God and the universe is his creation—by the infinitely majestic activity of his knowing and willing, does not destroy but instead creates and maintains the freedom and independence of his creatures” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:376–77, emphasis mine).

Geerhardus Vos likewise understands God’s sovereign decree not to destroy or limit but to establish and ground man’s freedom.

“God’s decree grounds the certainty of His free knowledge and likewise the occurring of free actions. Not foreknowledge as such but the decree on which it rests makes free actions certain” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:20).

“…God can realize His decrees with reference to His creatures without needing to limit their freedom in a deterministic manner. Their free acts are not uncertain and the certainty to which these acts are connected is not brought about by God in a materialistic, pantheistic, or rationalistic manner. As the omnipresent and omnipotent One, the personal One, He can so govern man that man can do nothing without His will and permission and still do everything of himself in full freedom. When God sanctifies someone, He is at work in the depths of his being where the issues of life are, and then the sanctified will acts of itself and unconstrained outwardly no less freely than if it never had been under the working of God. The work of God does not destroy the freedom of the creature but is precisely its foundation” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:90–91, emphasis mine).

Cornelius Van Til employs the archetype-ectype distinction and the Reformed covenantal structure to uphold both God’s freedom and man’s freedom in their proper relation.

“Our view of man as the spiritual production of God points to God as the archetype of all human freedom. Human freedom must be like God’s freedom, since man resembles God, and it must be different from God’s freedom since man is a finite creature. In God, then, lies the archetype of human freedom. … We are fashioned after God and our freedom after God’s freedom. But never ought we to lose sight of the fact that our freedom is distinguished from God’s freedom by reason of our finitude” (“Freedom,” 4).

“We found … that the Reformed covenant theology remained nearest to this Biblical position. Other theories of the will go off on either of two byways, namely, that of seeking an unwarranted independence for man, or otherwise of subjecting man to philosophical necessitarianism. Reformed theology attempts to steer clear of both these dangers; avoiding all forms of Pelagianizing and of Pantheizing thought. It thinks to have found in the covenant relation of God with creation the true presentation of the Biblical concept of the relation of God to man. Man is totally dependent upon God and exists with all creation for God. Yet his freedom is not therewith abridged but realized” (“The Will in Its Theological Relations,” 77, emphasis mine).

For more on this listen to this episode of Christ the Center in which we dive deeper into this topic with a consideration of Van Til’s representational principle.

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