On February 7, 1951, Cornelius Van Til wrote an insightful letter to neo-evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry. While it was written sixty-nine years ago, the letter demonstrates Van Til’s awareness of contemporary issues in theology proper while also anticipating those in our present context. His criticism applies to doctrinal formulations arising within the Thomistic and Barthian traditions. Oddly enough, it also applies to formulations of theologians closely identified with his own legacy such as John Frame and K. Scott Oliphint, who qualify divine immutability and impassibility with respect to the Creator-creature relation in order to identify a principle of unity between the two.
The following excerpt is from Cornelius Van Til, letter to Carl F. H. Henry, February 7, 1951, archives of the Montgomery Library, Westminster Theological Seminary.
Modern philosophy, realizing that the staticism of the Greeks led into a blind alley has assumed that all reality is basically temporal (Realitat zeitigt sich). That is Kant’s great contribution. But the contrast between modern and ancient philosophy on this matter is not absolute. All non-Christian philosophy assumes that change or chance is ultimate. Not holding to the Creator-creature distinction all non-Christians are not only monists and staticists but also pluralists and temporalists. Chance has some spot in all non-Christian systems; it is given a larger place in modern than in ancient philosophy.
Accordingly, it is our business as Christians to begin our interpretation of reality upon the presupposition of the Creator-creature distinction as basic to everything else. We must refuse to say one single word about the nature of reality as a whole before we introduce the Creator-creature distinction. If with Aquinas we first start speaking about reality and say that it is analogical then we can never after that come to the Christian doctrine of God as Creator and controller of the world. We should argue that intelligent predication is impossible except one make the Creator-creature distinction basic to one’s thought. The fact that speculation is wholly self-frustrative on any but the Christian basis can be shown easily. On any non-Christian basis a man must either know everything so that he need not ask questions or he knows nothing so that he cannot ask questions (But I need not go into this).
Starting with the Creator-creature distinction as basic to one’s thought one need not and in fact cannot after that discuss such concepts as time and eternity by themselves. By themselves they are abstractions. True we can speak of them by themselves as we can speak of the justice of God by itself. But when we speak of the justice of God by itself we always insist that it is the justice of God, that it is an attribute of God. The justice of God is therefore interwoven with the other attributes of God and with the being of God. So also with eternity. It is the eternity of God. And God is man’s creator. And time is characteristic of the created world.
As then it is fatal to fail to introduce the Creator-creature distinction at the outset of one’s thought so it is also fatal to fail to think of eternity as exclusively a characteristic of God and of time as exclusively a characteristic of the created world. It would be to make God subject to the conditions of his creatures, subject to change, etc.
This is I think the only sound approach to the matter. But admittedly it is only an approach. We cannot ever conceptualize the relation between God’s eternity and man’s temporality for the reason that we cannot conceptualize the relation of God to his creature. The Greeks wanted to conceptualize the relation of god to man and they came to the conclusion that both are eternal. The modern man wants to conceptualize the relation between the two and comes to the conclusion that both are temporal. The Christian position stands squarely over against both by its starting point.
The Greek and the modern views both want to conceptualize the relation between God and man because they want a principle of unity that outreaches both. They think that on a Christian basis one is bound to dualism, authoritarianism, etc. As it turns out it is only on the frankly and most consistently Christian basis that ultimate dualism can be avoided. It cannot be avoided in the sense that man can ever expect to understand exhaustively but it can be avoided by presupposing God, who is not subject to the limits of man, as the positive presupposition of human predication.
It is therefore not so much a matter of detailed exegesis but of the consistent application of basically biblical concepts that is important in setting the Christian position over against both the ancient and the modern forms of paganism. The sad results of a failure to do so can best be seen in the latest works of Barth.
For historical context and biographical information, consult John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (P&R Publishing, 2008), especially pp. 119–178. For my interaction with the thesis represented in K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us, read this post. For a helpful summary and treatment of what James Dolezal identifies as “theological mutualism,” I suggest reading his book, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2017). Readers would also benefit from a careful study of several Reformed dogmatics, especially Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:95–177 and Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:3–37, 177–182.