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Van Til’s Pastoral Wisdom on the Doctrine of Scripture

Cornelius Van Til concludes his chapter on Scripture in his Introduction to Systematic Theology with a note of pastoral wisdom.

It is not sufficient … to instruct the church in certain positions of Scripture or to make them memorize a great deal of Scripture. In addition to this, they must possess a doctrine of Scripture as a whole. It is only if men see clearly that Scripture is what the orthodox doctrine says it is that they will, by the grace of God, be safeguarded against every wind of doctrine that so easily besets us (240).

This remains apt counsel in our day in which there is a high demand for immediate results and payoffs, but little desire to put in the time and sweat to first lay a strong foundation. While I’m no cultural expert, one reason for this may be the intuitive nature of technology. When Apple releases their latest version of the iPhone with new features and capabilities, rarely does a person need to spend time reading on how to use them. Instead, they are simply intuited and you learn by using them.

But can such an intuitive process be applied to theology with similarly successful results? Can we correctly arrive at certain positions of Scripture without first taking the time to lay some foundation? Van Til implies in the above quote that sound and stable theology is founded upon our doctrine of Scripture. That is, along with asking the question, “What does Scripture teach?” we need to also ask the more fundamental question, “What is Scripture?” (see The Importance of Posture in Studying God’s Word).

There’s a reason this question gets answered under the branch of theology called prolegomena (from the Greek prolegein meaning, “say beforehand). Here the more foundational material is presented from which all other doctrines will be elucidated. This includes the definition of theology, the origin and nature of revelation, the character of special revelation, etc. So while you might find volume 2 of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics on the doctrine of God (his names, attributes, triunity, decrees, etc.) more captivating and immediately applicable, if you bypass his first volume on prolegomena, you are going to end up constructing theological walls that are unstable since they are without a foundation. The walls may be beautiful and magnificent, but they can easily be torn down by winds of false doctrine.

We must, therefore, be self-conscious of our doctrine of Scripture when formulating our theology, whether that be exegetical, biblical or systematic. And for those who preach and teach in the church, our doctrine of Scripture needs to be evidenced in it all, so that our hearers may be rooted in the firm bedrock of Scripture and not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. A couple of places to find faithful articulations of the doctrine of Scripture would be chapter one of the Westminster Confession of Faith and articles 2-7 of the Belgic Confession.

Now while many specific problems at the foundational level could be addressed, Van Til, with his scope particularly aimed at fundamentalism, highlights two: (1) reading the Bible in a piecemeal fashion and (2) making obscure passages central. He writes,

Unfortunately many fundamentalist ministers are, to a large extent, themselves to blame for this deflection of the membership of the churches into all manner of false doctrines. With all the good intentions that they have, they all too commonly teach Scripture in a piecemeal fashion. And, in particular, many of them occupy themselves to such an extent with the more obscure passages of Scripture that they cultivate in their hearers a wrong sense of proportion. It is not uncommon to find an ardent and well-meaning youth, of less than twenty, interested greatly in the details of the “signs of the times,” while he has no reasonable knowledge of the main doctrines of Scripture, to say nothing of the catechisms of the church, in which the system of doctrine of the Scripture is set forth (240).

We can restate Van Til’s critique in terms of three positive exhortations, which we would do well to heed in order to bolster our theological foundation, whether we’re pastors, teachers or laypeople.

1. Recognize the organic unity of Scripture and have it bear on your interpretation. This means recognizing that underlying the diversity of Scripture is a fundamental unity that results from God himself being its primary author (2 Tim. 3:16). For this reason, Van Til can say, “All interpretations must be subordinated to Scripture as a whole.” That is, interpretation of any verse is always a canonical pursuit. Furthermore, because God’s revelation is the interpretation of his work of redemption, which took place in history, there is a corresponding historical progression to Scripture. It was not given in one lump-sum, but progressively over time. This progression moves in an organic fashion, like the seed of a flower moving toward full blossom. For more on this see the opening chapter of Vos’ Biblical Theology and listen to the corresponding discussions by Drs. Tipton and Bucey in Vos Group: part 1part 2.

2. Maintain a healthy proportion between the clearer and more obscure passages. We confess that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all…” (WCF 1.7). This doesn’t mean we never leave John 3:16 and ignore the difficult passages deeply tucked away in Ezekiel, but it does mean we prioritize the clearer to make sense of the more obscure. For example, if there are interpretive options presented for a difficult passage, we are going to use the clearer passages, first, to cross-off options that are contradictory and, second, to provide us with an exegetical direction to go in. Van Til puts it simply, “[T]he darker places must be interpreted in the light of the more easily understood.”

3. Know your catechism well. Our catechisms (Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) provide us with reliable summaries of the system of doctrine set forth in Scripture. They have been publicly accessible for hundreds of years to be tested as to their faithfulness and accuracy to God’s word. As a result, they provide us with bounds outside of which our interpretation of Scripture should not go (though they are not infallible). However, there is also a danger here in allowing them to flatten out our interpretation of Scripture so that all we’re doing is trying to plug a verse into a certain question and answer and, therefore, missing the unique contribution of a passage. For more on the role of confessional statements in the church see our interview with Carl Trueman on his excellent book The Creedal Imperative.


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