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The Essential Van Til — More on Old Princeton

In chapter 3 of Christian Apologetics Van Til addresses the issue of the “point of contact” (Anknüpfungspunkt). That is to say, the point at which the believer may make contact with the unbeliever in the task of defending the faith. Is there a place of agreement between believer and unbeliever from which the apologetic endeavor may begin?

In this chapter Van Til offers an acute criticism of Old Princeton on this issue. He likens the Old Princeton understanding of reason, and the mode of apologetics that flows from it, to Rome and Arminianism. He makes this connection under the sub-heading “Less Consistent Calvinism” (pp. 101ff).

It may help here to underscore what Van Til is not saying in this section. He is not attacking Hodge’s or Warfield’s (hereafter: H&W) theology or their epistemology, as such. This is evident in part by a section (pp. 94–97) in which he offers quote after quote from Hodge on his doctrine of the incapacity of the natural man to know God. He also offers a quote from Warfield to the same effect (pp. 101-102). To be clear, Van Til is not saying that H&W hold to an Arminian theology. Rather, what he is doing is pointing up an inconsistency between the Old Princeton theology (which he praises) and the Old Princeton apologetic (which he criticizes as being Arminian). In short, the criticism concerns what he perceives to be an inconsistency and incongruity between their theology and apologetic.

To narrow the focus of the criticism, the reason why Van Til charges H&W’s apologetic with Arminianism is because of how they relate reason to revelation. After a section where he praises H&W for their very Calvinian doctrine of man’s knowledge of God, Van Til turns to critique: “It would seem that we have dropped from this high plane to the level of evangelicalism when Hodge speaks of the office of reason in matters of religion” (p. 102). In other words, Hodge presents us with a way of relating reason to revelation that is more consistent with an Arminian view than a Calvinistic one. He goes on to explain:

First [Hodge] shows that reason is necessary as a tool for the reception of revelation. About this point there can be little cause for dispute. “Revelations cannot be made to brutes or to idiots.” Second, Hodge argues that “Reason must judge of the credibility of a revelation.” . . . Third, Hodge continues, “Reason must judge of the evidences of a revelation.” As “faith involves assent, and assent is conviction produced by evidence, it follows that faith without evidence is either irrational or impossible.” (pp. 102-103)

Van Til does not disagree with all that Hodge says here (evidenced in his comment in the first point). But Van Til does take exception to the idea of reason being a judge of revelation’s credibility and evidences. Therefore, the believer may not assume reason’s competency to judge revelation:

But the unbeliever does not accept the doctrine of his creation in the image of God. It is therefore impossible to appeal to the intellectual and moral nature of men, as men themselves interpret this nature, and say that it must judge of the credibility and evidence of revelation. For if this is done, we are virtually telling the natural man to accept just so much and no more of Christianity as, with his perverted concept of human nature, he cares to accept. (pp. 103-104)

Van Til’s point is simple: because the unbeliever does not accept the fact that he is created in the image of God, he is in no position to rightly interpret the evidence of revelation. What is worse, we are allowing the unbeliever to be the final judge over revelation, which means he will accept only what he wants to accept – and nothing more. If we allow him to use his own fallen reason the unbeliever “will certainly assume the position of judge with respect to the credibility and evidence of revelation, but he will also certainly find the Christian religion incredible because impossible and the evidence for it always inadequate” (p. 104).

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Van Til actually concedes that H&W believe this:

Hodge’s own teaching on the blindness and hardness of the natural man corroborates this fact. To attribute to the natural man the right to judge by means of his reason of what is possible or impossible, or to judge by means of his moral nature of what is good or evil, is virtually to deny the “particularism” which, as Hodge no less than Warfield, believes to be the very hall-mark of a truly biblical theology. (ibid.)

So, where is the rub? It is precisely here:

The main difficulty with the position of Hodge on this matter of the point of contact, then, is that it does not clearly distinguish between the original and the fallen nature of man. Basically, of course, it is Hodge’s intention to appeal to the original nature of man as it came forth from the hands of its creator. But he frequently argues as though that original nature can still be found as active in the “common consciousness” of men. (p. 105)

And then finally:

Now it is quite in accord with the genius of Hodge’s theology to appeal to the “old man” in the sinner and altogether out of accord with his theology to appeal to the “new man” in the sinner as though he would form a basically proper judgment on any question. Yet Hodge has failed to distinguish clearly between these two. Accordingly he does not clearly distinguish the Reformed from the evangelical and Roman Catholic views of the point of contact. (pp. 105-106)

In summary, Van Til is not lambasting the Old Princeton theology here. He is not even lambasting the Old Princeton epistemology. What he is critical of, however, is how H&W’s inconsistency in their apologetic approach and the question of a point of contact. On the theoretical level H&W are spot on about man’s fallen nature and the need for regeneration and special revelation to properly interpret all things. But, they fall to inconsistency in that they fail to apply their doctrine of man and sin appropriately to the post-fall use of reason. In short, the apologete cannot assume a “common consciousness” between believer and unbeliever.

H&W’s theology was so faithfully Calvinistic that we should be baffled over why they switch to an Arminian apologetic. At the same time, however, we should not think that Van Til is calling H&W Arminian. He is not. He is not even saying that they contained within their thinking a mixture of Calvinism and Arminianism. Van Til’s critique is not of their theology, nor of their epistemology (see my past post “No Critic of Old Princeton?”). The criticism is exclusively on the level of application; that is, the failure to consistently apply their (good) theology to their (inconsistent) apologetic.


On Key

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