Results tagged “Philosophy” from Reformation21 Blog

Van Til's Limiting Concept

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I have recently been wading into the thought of the 20th century Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til in order to consider his use of the term "limiting concept." These words appear throughout his collected works, both in his full-length books and his shorter articles. Our ability to define them is therefore key to understanding both Van Til and his successors in the theological world. I will attempt to explain this notion for you, and I must begin by stating that it was not Van Til who first developed it.

Kant's View of the Limiting Concept

The principle of a limiting concept was first suggested by Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher. Kant's influence was so great that nearly every philosopher who has come after him has been forced to respond to his work in some way, either by integrating it into his or her own philosophical program or reacting against it. It is nearly impossible to overstate Kant's influence on the thought patterns of the modern world, and one of the things he is best known for is his differentiation of the phenomenal and the noumenal in his work Critique of Pure Reason.

Kantian terminology can be very difficult to understand, and I certainly do not claim to be an expert, but I will give it a go. The phenomenal world, according to Kant, is that which can be perceived with our senses. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant associates the phenomenal with "sensuous intuitions"1 and "the medium of sense".2 But Kant also draws a distinction between "external objects in space" which "might be a mere delusion" and "the object of my internal perception" which "is undeniably real".3 So far, perhaps so confusing.

Of greater interest to us is the noumenal world (also referred to as "the true world"), which is beyond the power of the human senses to perceive or experience. The key Kantian term here is the "thing in itself", first mentioned in this passage:

"That space and time are only forms of sensible intuition, and hence are only conditions of the existence of things as phenomena; that, moreover, we have no conceptions of the understanding, and, consequently, no elements for the cognition of things, except in so far as a corresponding intuition can be given to these conceptions; that, accordingly, we can have no cognition of an object, as a thing in itself, but only as an object of sensible intuition, that is, as phenomenon--all this is proved in the analytical part of the Critique..."4 

What you should take away from that paragraph is Kant's clear statement that we can only know an object as a sensible intuition or phenomenon--that is, we can only know what our senses perceive. Anything beyond that is not a phenomenon, but a noumenon or thing in itself.

"Noumenon, plural Noumena, in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) as opposed to what Kant called the phenomenon--the thing as it appears to an observer. Though the noumenal holds the contents of the intelligible world, Kant claimed that man's speculative reason can only know phenomena and can never penetrate to the noumenon. Man, however, is not altogether excluded from the noumenal because practical reason--i.e., the capacity for acting as a moral agent--makes no sense unless a noumenal world is postulated in which freedom, God, and immortality abide."5 

From that encyclopedia definition, we can see that in Kant's philosophy God, the spiritual dimension, and abstract concepts belong to the noumenal world rather than the phenomenal world. They are therefore not subject to the perceptive powers of "pure reason" but can only be considered part of "practical reason", the medium through which we act as moral agents, again referring back to that encyclopedia definition.

Now, you will be hard pressed to find the term "limiting concept" in Critique of Pure Reason, but you will find many references to the limits placed upon human reason and sensibility. That which falls beyond the limits of our experience would, for Kant, be a limiting concept. Therefore, as God belongs to the noumenal world along with every other thing in itself, he must be considered a limiting concept.

William Edgar argues in his notes to the second edition of Cornelius Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology that, "For Kant, a limiting concept means a barrier beyond which human reason cannot go. God, as a concept, limits human thought, whether or not he exists."6 Note the interesting wrinkle that what exists in the true world of the noumenal may be either God or simply the idea of God, but it limits us in both cases.

Kant was living in the midst of the Scientific Revolution, and one general interpretation of his philosophy is that he hoped to preserve God (or simply belief in God) by placing him in this other realm which is not subject to the dictates of pure reason. The result was that God became essentially unknowable in Kantian philosophy. One might even say, according to this viewpoint, that his existence is non-confirmable.

Van Til's View of the Limiting Concept

Against this definition of Kant, we must raise the definition of Cornelius Van Til. In his works, Van Til attributed the origin of the term to Kant but also stated that the Christian notion of a limiting concept was completely different.

"If we hold to a theology of the apparently paradoxical we must also hold, by consequence, to the Christian notion of a limiting concept. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept has been developed on the basis of the non-Christian conception of mystery. By contrast we may think of the Christian notion of the limiting concept as based upon the Christian conception of mystery. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of would-be autonomous man who seeks to legislate for all reality, but bows before the irrational as that which he has not yet rationalized. The Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of the creature who seeks to set forth in systematic form something of the revelation of the Creator."7 

Note here that when Van Til speaks of a "non-Christian notion of the limiting concept", he is thinking back to Kant and other philosophers. Particularly disagreeable to Van Til was the method of thought known as dialecticism, but some extra explanation is needed here. The dialectic method of logic goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where it was employed by Socrates. Two different people would debate, hence the term dialectic, which in the original Greek simply referred to conversation. (Compare with the word dialect.) However, later philosophers such as Kant and G.W.F. Hegel adjusted the meaning of dialecticism to fit their own needs. It gradually came to refer to a process by which two opposing ideas are brought into conflict with one another until they form a synthesis.

By the time Van Til came on the scene, he perceived a dialectical school of theology that was taking hold. He objected to the tendency of this viewpoint to place the relative and the absolute in conflict with one another and to accept outright contradiction within theology. In one passage, he bemoaned, "I know it is the fashion of dialectical theology taught at the New Princeton, based as it is on existential philosophy, to reject the idea of God as he is in himself except as a limiting concept. But then that is not the theology of Hepp, of Machen, of Calvin, of Paul."8 The "New Princeton" was Princeton Theological Seminary, the institution from which Van Til had departed due to its liberalization.

In his work Common Grace and the Gospel, Van Til explained how the proper Christian view of paradox--that is, two spiritual truths that stand in apparent tension with one another--differs from the outright contradiction of the dialectic school.

"It might seem at first glance as though we were willing, with the dialectical theologians, to accept the really contradictory. Yet such is not the case. In fact we hold that our position is the only position that saves one from the necessity of ultimately accepting the really contradictory. We argue that unless we may hold to the presupposition of the self-contained ontological trinity, human rationality itself is a mirage. But to hold to this position requires us to say that while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former."9 (italics in original)

Van Til was prepared to embrace the apparently contradictory in theology, which we might call the paradoxical. In the passage above, he provides the "self-contained ontological trinity" as an example. Christians confess that the Triune God is one God in three Persons, or to speak more technically, the divine substance is equally shared by the three Persons without creating any parts in the Godhead. Speaking this way can seem nonsensical to human beings. How can one thing also be three things? Well, it is not three things. It is one thing, but it is three Persons. This is a clear paradox from a human perspective: two truths arranged in apparent tension with one another, beyond the power of human reason to fully comprehend.

A Muslim would charge that this view of a Trinitarian God is an outright contradiction rather than simply an apparent one. Indeed, Muslims often state that Christians worship three Gods, knowingly or unknowingly. Unitarians have gone the opposite route of removing the personal distinctions altogether. But Van Til would argue that the paradox must be embraced, for the Trinitarian God is not an outright contradiction, but only an apparent one. It is just this kind of theological paradox that caused Van Til to coin the term limiting concept to refer to two truths which must be understood in relation to one another.

According to Van Til, a limiting concept "should never be employed to do duty by itself,"10 but must be viewed in light of its paired limiting concept. Such a concept is "apparently paradoxical"11 and "incomplete without its correlative". 12 Indeed, two limiting concepts should "be regarded as implying one another."13 

In his explanatory notes on Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology, William Edgar writes, "A 'limiting concept' for Van Til is one that needs another if it is to be properly understood. It implies a complementarity. For example, one part of the Bible will not be properly understood without the other parts."14 K. Scott Oliphint also discusses the term in his notes on The Defense of the Faith.

"Though for Kant a limiting concept presupposed his agnosticism with respect to our knowledge of the noumenal, for Van Til a limiting concept is that which is, at one and the same time, determined and defined by another, limiting, concept. Thus, the doctrine of election is a limiting concept with respect to our choices. It should be remembered that limiting concepts are not necessarily on a par with each other. God's election precedes our choices. Given creation, however, one (freedom) is defined and determined by the other (election)."15 

It should be noted that at various points in his writings, Van Til uses the terms "limiting or supplementative concepts" as well as "limiting notion" fairly synonymously. Whether this reflects an ongoing development in his thought or simply an effort to better explain his meaning, I cannot say.

What is of greater interest is the variety of examples Van Til gives of limiting concepts in theology. Here are just a few that are mentioned in the three works I have referenced.

  • Predestination and free agency
  • Regenerate and unregenerate consciousness
  • Different portions of scripture
  • Natural and supernatural revelation
  • Innate and acquired knowledge of God

Many more could certainly be mined from the totality of Van Til's work.

Conclusion: A Useful Concept?

Van Til's notion of the limiting concept is useful to us to the extent that it helps reveal how apparent contradictions in scripture or theology can be harmonized with one another. However, like so many theological principles, the limiting concept could be misapplied, in this case allowing for what Van Til would consider outright (rather than apparent) contradiction. Again, I am not suggesting that a proper use of limiting concepts would produce this result, but rather an improper use.

A key part of Van Til's Christian notion of the limiting concept requires us to harmonize different scriptural passages by considering them to be limiting concepts of one another. For example, when Paul writes that "man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28) and James writes that "faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself", (James 2:17) we understand that those two passages only present an apparent contradiction. In reality, they are in harmony with one another. However, simply acknowledging that fact does not tell us which passage should be understood more "literally" (to use a popular but somewhat misleading term), or if they may in fact be addressing two different circumstances.

Clearly, the task of interpretation is not entirely removed by appeal to the limiting concept. Therefore, when you see the words limiting concept being used to discuss theology, take care to note the type of hermeneutic the author is using to harmonize the apparent contradictions of scripture, and whether it is indeed the correct one.

There you have it. Go forth and read!

All scripture passages are from the 1995 New American Standard Bible, copyright the Lockman Foundation.

 

1. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, Aegitas Kindle Edition (Toronto: Aegitas Digital Publishing, 2016), 40.

2.  Kant 57

3.  Kant 51

4.  Kant 15

5.  "Noumenon" in Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/noumenon. Accessed 10 July 2019.

6. Van Til, Cornelius. An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, Second Edition, ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2007), 68, n. 25.

7.  Van Til, Cornelius. Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, NJ: P&R, 1972), 11.

8.  Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith, Fourth Edition, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2008), 396.

9.  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 9.

10.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 68.

11.  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 11.

12.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 171.

13.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 136.

14.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 136, n. 51.

15.  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 71, n. 46.

Dogmatic Art

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As I've been reading through G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics, I was interested to happen upon his treatment of dogmatism and the arts. Reflecting on his consideration of the life and work of Rudyard Kipling, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, Chesterton wrote:

"The fiercest dogmatists can make the best artists. In the fin de siecle atmosphere every one was crying out that literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds. Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories. And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists. The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism. All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a byproduct of propaganda.

The reason, indeed, is very simple. A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it."1

The simple profundity of this observation ought not be missed. While many of us have bought into a late-modern narrative that the art world is essentially subjective, visual and feeling-driven, we should remember that--as Chesterton noted--"the fiercest dogmatists" have made the best artists. There is something deeply philosophical, ethical and thought-provoking about the most renown art. Which, if I have understood the point correctly, means that when Christians engage in the world of artistic workmanship, there ought to be a transcendent excellence to what they produce. After all, theology is nothing other than divinely inspired philosophy--enabling us to rightly interpret and portray the world and its inhabitants as God intended. 


1. G.K. Chesterton Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1905) pp. 288-289

Post-Theism?

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With Anatheism: Returning to God after God, Richard Kearney carries on a tradition of philosophy "after the death of God." Building upon philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Kearney finds himself squarely within the continental tradition of philosophy of religion. Kearney opens Anatheism with the following sentiment:

"What comes after God? What follows in the wake of our letting go of God? What emerges out of that night of not-knowing, that moment of abandoning and abandonment? Especially for those who--after ridding themselves of "God"--still seek God? That is the question I wish to pursue in this volume. And, so doing, I propose the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: those polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history. This third option, the wager of faith beyond faith, I call anatheism. Ana-theos, God after God. Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove. Another idiom for receiving back what we've given up as if we were encountering it for the first time. Just as Abraham received back Isaac as gift, having given him up as patriarchal project. In short, another way of retuning to a God beyond or beneath the God we thought we possessed."2

In other words, Kearney's anatheistic "wager"3 consists in "The return to God after the disappearance of God"4 because there are said to be too many problems with the traditional God of "the Abrahamic faiths."5 Kearney later writes, "...ana-theism is neither antitheism nor antiatheism but a form of post-theism that allows us to revisit the sacred in the midst of the secular."6 It becomes clear that in the midst of twentieth century evil, for Kearney, there must be some sort of reinventing of the wheel when it comes to God, and anatheism allows for this deconstruction and reconstruction of God.7 Kearney proposes then, a post-religious turn which seeks the best of how the different religions of the world have spoken of God, specifically with regard to "hospitality toward the Stranger."8

Criticizing this way of thinking must be done with gentleness as is commanded in Scripture and must be given a special care given the sensitivity of this issue. As noted above, this whole discussion in some ways revolves around the question of evil and is written through a post-war lens.9 However, it is not difficult to see that this proposed idea is really without basis.

Kearney bases his thesis on the problem of evil; however, without the God of the Bible there is no ground for calling anything evil. Kearney's entire proposal involves something of a subjectivity, as it is asking the question of how people might go to God after they have rejected God. This however, has much more to do with verbally referring to something or someone as God than affirming an actual God. And if there is no ultimate God, then there can be no foundation for good or evil. If there is no absolute God, then there is no absolute evil and no absolute good.

The biblical God, however, does in fact give definition to goodness because He is goodness. Psalm 34:8 says, "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!" According to Scripture, God does not simply possess goodness, He is good. The Belgic Confession affirms as much when it says in article one, "We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God-- eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good." Not only is God good, but He is the "overflowing source of all good." Because He is the ultimate good, there is no good apart from Him. Everything that has goodness receives this goodness from Him. And if He is ultimate good, then there is no basis for anything "not good" if He does not exist.

Kearney argues that he is not really saying anything new10--and that much is certainly true. Men have always sought to make the very same turn from the true God to a god of their own imagination. Romans 1:25 testifies to this when it speaks of those who "exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator." To exchange the God of the Bible for a god more palatable and comprehensible to man is the natural inclination of the human heart. But there is hope only in the true God--the God who is truly good, the God who is truly sovereign and the God who truly exists.

Though it is the tendency of every man to seek to devise a god in his own image, the God of the Bible and of the Reformed Confessions presents the only true alternative to this way of thinking. The God of the Bible, according to the Scripture, has dealt with evil at the Cross of Christ, where Jesus took our sin upon himself. When we see the horrors of the past century, we should look to the Cross. It is in the Cross that we truly see a God who hates evil. It is also in the Cross that we truly see the kind of hospitality and love that Kearney is ultimately seeking--Christ Jesus came into the world to die for sinners. He died for those who were truly estranged. It is in this Jesus and this Jesus alone that one may truly find a shelter and a home.

1. Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2010).

2. Ibid, 23 (electronic edition).

3. Ibid, 24.

4. Ibid, 25.

5. Ibid, 24.

6. Ibid, 82.

7. Ibid, 83.

8. Ibid, 219.

9. Ibid, 83-84.

10. Ibid, 28.


James Richey is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. He currently serves as the director of youth ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Pooler, GA. 

Rebirth of the Gods

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When I moved to the United States from Great Britain in 1964, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. America seemed so Christian then. The only dark blot on the landscape was that people feared the rise of Marxism throughout the world. Communism was the great threat, the political expression of what we call "atheistic humanism."

Two years after I had arrived in America to study theology, I was asked to be part of a seminar on the "Death of God" movement. Some time ago, there was a group of so-called theologians describing the death of God, and it was taken seriously enough to be part of a seminar in a theological school. The whole point was (as expressed by one of its leading theologians, T.J.J. Altizer) that God had so completely incarnated himself in the world by the act of dying on the cross that he liberated man from any alien transcendent divine power. As we sat around, my professor and the students were convinced that this was clearly an indication that secular humanism was victorious--that it was going to overtake the West, and that this was the great opponent of the Christian faith. What we didn't realize was that there was another member of the "Death of God" group by the name of David Miller, who was Professor of Religion at Syracuse University and was actually on the publishing committee for the Society of Biblical Literature. This man had a powerful role in determining what was published on the Bible.

David Miller actually published a book in 1974 (which I discovered much later), entitled The New Polytheism.1 In that book, Miller gave this prediction: at the death of God, we will see the rebirth of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome. It was a confusing prediction: the rebirth of the gods? What does that mean? Miller seemed to know something about the so-called great achievement of secular humanism that nobody else did.2 What Miller had understood was that the death of God was not the death of the notion of the divine; it was the death of the God of the Bible (as Altizer had said, any alien transcendent divine power). You see, that's what people don't want; they don't want the God who is transcendent, sovereign, and independent of us, and so that God has to be killed. Since that time, in their minds, this God has been slowly put to death.

The Demise of Secular Humanism and Postmodernism

We have seen how Christianity has diminished in its cultural influence, but what's surprising now is the demise of secular humanism. Secular humanism is pulling back, losing power. And in its place we see what you might call the rebirth of pagan beliefs. The death of secular humanism occurred after a whole series of events. Humanism promised that by reason-- by man's brilliant thinking--we would save the world. But then we saw two world wars and the destruction of millions of people via the so-called secular humanists, men like Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. And people began feel alone, facing a world without any kind of spirituality.

Many intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries predicted that expressions of religion would finally disappear. Karl Marx considered man the supreme deity and religion "the opiate of the masses." Friedrich Nietzsche said "God is dead... and we have killed him." Freud, in his book, The Future of an Illusion, spoke of religion as a mass delusion or collective neurosis from which we needed healing--a kind of mental illness. "Secular humanism is bound to take over," they reasoned as a group.

That was the prediction, but not the reality. Secular humanism failed because of all the problems that it brought us. Many factors contributed to its destruction. One of the things that has been destroying secular humanism is postmodernism. Postmodernism uses reason to critique the use of reason by the secular humanists. The problem with that is that it is impossible to think rationally, and there are no objective explanations of existence. That meant the death of postmodernism as well; after all, why should we believe the rational analysis of these postmodernists who are claiming there is no such thing as rational analysis?

We have seen the death of secular humanism and even postmodernism. But what about the transformation in our culture that was predicted by David Miller--the inroads of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome? Miller probably should have added the gods of the East as well, because that's really what we have seen. If a picture's worth a thousand words, we can learn a lot from a picture posted by the Huffington Post in 2016: that of twenty Canadian policemen, in formal dress, sitting on prayer stools in a Buddhist temple.3 This was organized, I guess, by the chief of this group of policemen, who had these policemen practicing mindful meditation from Buddhist philosophy. The photograph offered an interesting juxtaposition between traditional Western values for law and order, and a wholly different worldview of Buddhism.

How does this take place? Our culture has changed in ways we were not expecting. Our culture is not a secular humanist success, but is in fact deeply spiritual. You know the phrase, "I'm spiritual, but not religious?' That is a useful description of where we are now as a culture. People want spirituality; they don't want secular humanism. Something odd has happened to make this possible. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, the former hippie-radical-intellectual, made an incredible statement about the 1960s revolution towards the end of her life. She said, "Within a remarkably brief period, a cataclysmic transformation of the very nature of our society took place." As this "cataclysmic transformation" took place, we saw the reemergence of ancient paganism in the West. Another observer, journalist Melanie Phillips, saw the same thing. The real agenda of what she calls the "attack on Western civilization" has been the use of sexuality as a battering ram, destroying the fundamental tenets of Western culture and replacing them with a new type of society altogether. Included in these tenets are all those Christian notions of who God is.

In the forthcoming posts in this series, we will turn our attention to consider the shifts that have occurred in American culture--specifically with regard to two overarching categories, spirituality and sexuality.


1. David Leroy Miller and James Hillman, The New Polytheism (Thompson, CT, Spring Publications, 1981).

2. As it turns out, Miller was a close friend of Carl Jung, and actually taught in the various Jungian foundations.

3. See Mohamd Omar, "Meanwhile in Canada, Peel Regional Officers Meditate in a Temple," Huffington Post, April 14, 2016.


Dr. Peter Jones is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the Executive Director of truthXchange. He is the author of One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference

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Karl Marx: Still Important?

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How do we evaluate the importance of Karl Marx (1818‒83) in the world? In May of this year, China commemorated his two-hundredth birthday (May 5) by donating a fourteen-foot statue of Marx to his birthplace, Trier, Germany. Indeed, hundreds of celebrations have been held throughout the world to mark his birthdate as well as to note the one-hundred seventieth year of The Communist Manifesto (1848) by Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820‒1895). Many would suggest that such tributes are merited because of Marx's liberating impact for oppressed people, whereas others would argue against such recognition, given the many people who have been oppressed in his name. Regarding his thought, some say he is the greatest philosopher in history; others will claim that he is the most influential of modern thinkers. Certainly, it cannot be denied that the Manifesto, which Engels claimed that Marx was the principle author, has become one of the most momentous political treatises in the modern era.

In the last fifty years we have seen much debate and analysis of Marx's contribution, his ongoing relevance, and even whether a true Marxist exists. This can be seen in the academy as scholars examine his massive corpus--The Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) Project which will include 114 volumes. In the socio-political realm, many viewed Marx's impact as dissipating with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ceasing of the Cold War in 1989‒91. Ten years later, however, this viewpoint seemed to crumble with the 9-11 attacks and, later, with the financial crisis of 2008. Partly in response to those two events, Marxist thought had a widespread revival throughout the world. Capitalism showed vulnerability and those sympathetic to socialist and Marxist ideas seized their opportunity to make their claims. In fact, three significant biographies of Marx (by Jonathan Sperber, Gareth Stedman Jones, and Jürgen Neffe) have appeared in this decade alone. While acknowledging Marx's shortcomings, both English Literature expert Terry Eagleton and philosopher Jason Barker have dogmatically affirmed that Marx's elementary proposition was right after all, i.e., that capitalism is driven by class conflict by which the ruling-class exploits the working class for its own profit. Further, supporters clarify that Marx's basic thesis is not merely a statement about class warfare; it encompasses an integrated weltanschauung in which socio-economic cultural life is at the center. In this view, the very structures of society that have permitted the global capitalist economy its elite seat must be completely eviscerated and transformed in order to move to a weltanschauung of communism--a truly classless and egalitarian society of liberty and fraternity.

Perhaps, to the annoyance of more moderate socialists and Marxists, self-declared revolutionary Angela Davis's recent lecture at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute in Athens offers the kind of present-day conclusions consistent with the Marx-Engels view of critical theory. To Davis, a disciple of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School (e.g., also Max Horkheimer), no matter how socialist one may judge the tendencies of modern feminism in a person like Hillary Clinton, it is still a "bourgeoise feminism" because such feminists are caught in the trap of the "glass ceiling" in which they are part of the ruling-class minority that fails to truncate the structures of capitalism; such feminism, in Davis's estimation, will never be truly egalitarian. Moreover, as we live in a global capitalist economy, every category of existence--the state, family, religion, education, speech, media services, medical amenities, labor, vocation, arts, social and natural sciences, industry, technology, and agriculture--must be liberated from enslavement through revolution.

Much evidence exists of Marxists turning a blind eye to atrocities committed for the sake of a new "republic." In fact, those tyrannical acts toward government, family, religion, and free speech are innate in the movement of their law of history. After all, how can the structures of capitalism and its effects upon every aspect of existence be transformed unless atrocity is employed? As Immanuel Kant warned, we must not forget that too often those who replace tyranny become the implementers of tyranny themselves. We have proof of this in the deaths of millions and the witnesses of such despotism under the banner of Marx. In this light, we must not fail to clarify Marx's central influence found in his philosophy of history. His law of history--the dialectical movement of materialism--encompasses the unfinished changes of the structures of various societies affecting each cultural weltanschauung along the way until the finished product of communism looms and the supposed voice for justice towards the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

Of course, as Christians we can only effectively analyze Marx's philosophy of history and its consequences if we work from the perspective of the unfolding of the historical revelation of the Word of God, authored by the infallible hand of the Holy Spirit. The Christian must observe and seek to understand the free movement of our God's sovereign and providential hand, not only in the events that come to pass, but also in the unique eternal and eschatological structures of his own kingdom. The unique characteristics of Christ's kingdom are not given in any earthly State or any system of human projection or human speculation. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter nine, provides a wonderful biblical narrative to help us understand the historical route of God and, in our case, to use that chronicle to counter a Marxist weltanschauung. The biblical historical narrative is referred to as "the four-fold state of man:" innocence, sin, grace, and glory. In contrast, Marx, like every system of thought, will have its own secular version of "the four-fold state of man." The Christian, clearly, needs to understand and be ready to respond to such ideas with a biblical defense to those who find the gospel a stumbling block or foolishness.

We know that by the pronounced word of his sovereign divine identity, Christ dissolves all the governments of the world, including all governments that align with the principles of Marx's mythical eschatology (Jn. 18:6; cf. Phil. 2:9‒11). Only Christ's kingdom of true righteousness and justice lasts forever (Isa. 9: 6‒7). Truly, all the arrogance and pride of the world's systems--whether monarchical, socialist, fascist, communist, imperialist, totalitarian, democratic, or systems based in political ideologies yet unknown--will be brought low by the humble rule of a child--the Christ child (Rev. 12:5; cf. Ps. 8; Isa. 9:6).


Dr. William Dennison is Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA. He is the author of Karl Marx (Great Thinkers)

Being Apologetic About Jordan Peterson

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If you have been previously unaware of Jordan Peterson's existence and the discussion surrounding him, worry no more--the evangelical blogosphere has been working overtime to enlighten you. In fact it could be considered a major feat to have missed this debate in its entirety. I tried to resist myself, but the tide of emails, texts, YouTube videos, and blogs overcame the usual defenses.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian secular depth psychologist who has been making waves over the last few months for his controversial yet articulate stands on social issues, witty advice, and ability to command any room into which he walks (David Robertson provides a good introduction). Peterson appeals mainly to the growing masses of disaffected young men who tend to struggle with lack of direction and self-worth--men we see all too often in the church today.

Yet some Christians see far more in him than just this. At the celebratory end of the spectrum, a few argue that Peterson represents the archetype of an emotionally intelligent pastor, one who has been strong where our accepted pastoral wisdom has been weak.   At the critical end, some wonder whether Peterson's work is just a thinly veiled application of Nietzsche's transvaluation of values or a justification of pride-as-virtue. That is quite the difference. Which begs the question: what in the world are we to do with the likes of Jordan Peterson?

That evangelicals often reach diametrically opposed evaluations of secular resources is nothing new. Think about Harry Potter or "secular music" or the debates over what media Christians can use. That we keep ending up in widely divergent places on such crucial issues however should at least raise our eyebrows. Perhaps something bigger is going on here. Perhaps such surface level differences signal deeper theological and structural issues in our communities--issues that revolve around how we understand common grace and common ground.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why Peterson is so popular with evangelicals. I think I can offer one more reason: Peterson is a respected secular scholar who is affirming important biblical truths in non-biblical ways. This second part also explains why Peterson is so unpopular with some. For example, in his 12 Rules for Life, he comes out in favor of things like corporal punishment in parenting (Prov. 13.24), but argues for this from a common-sense and ultimately authoritarian point of view. As a Christian counselor myself, I find that these kinds of arguments breed inner conflict by affirming the truth in seemingly secular ways. On the one hand, finding a secular voice who affirms Christian values is extremely rare and exciting; on the other, Peterson's methods appear suspect.

And this is where evangelicals usually end up on issues like this: one side voices support for the common grace truth that can be found in a "thing" and the other side protests that the "thing" in view is fueled by basic presuppositions and methodology that necessarily disqualify whatever good can be found in it. It is exceedingly difficult to move beyond these poles once they have been reached. Not only is it hard to do this conceptually (for each position leaves no real room for compromise) but it is also difficult to do this personally. Try convincing a convinced homeschooler that public school options are sometimes acceptable, and vice versa!

On one hand, Peterson advocates for the importance of religion and traditional modes of living, campaigns for sanity in gender roles more courageously and clearly than most celebrity Christians, and sounds curiously biblical on many issues. Maybe he can even teach pastors a thing or two about equanimity, style, and approach. So we should allow our brothers and sisters to voice their tempered support for thinkers like Peterson. Calvin would have had it that way. Speaking on these kinds of people, he says that "so far as they do no harm, they are useful and profitable" and that "Christ declares that we ought to reckon as friends those who are not open enemies."

However, Peterson's worldview is steeped in Jungian archetypal mythology, mixed with a dash of evolutionary psychology. Although he references the Bible, he makes sustained arguments from other religious streams of thought as well. More often than not, Peterson argues from "is" to "ought," using evolutionary developments as guidelines for successful living (cf. Peterson's love for lobsters in 12 Rules). A complete or even moderate buy in by Christians to these principles could end in unmitigated disaster, and we should listen to those brothers and sisters who warn us of this. Calvin faithfully guides as always: "whoever does not assist [in establishing the Kingdom of God] is...opposed to [Christ]." Where secular resources oppose or do not assist the advancement of God's kingdom, at these points they must be opposed themselves.

Categorizing a thinker or system of thought based upon this schema can be exceedingly difficult. Part of the reason for this is that balancing extremes is naturally difficult, as is the task of identifying what constitutes opposition to the gospel. Does a system of thought oppose the gospel, fail to assist its spread, or actually advance it? Peterson is maddening in this regard, for he does all three at times, sometimes even in the same thought!

Perhaps the chief difficulty, however, is our own lack of uniformity of understanding regarding our approach to common grace and common ground in the Reformed tradition. We often (rightly) argue that non-Christian modes of thinking find no common ground with Christian ones. As the non-Christian is diametrically opposed to God in his unrighteousness, so will his thoughts, being born out of the root of rebellion and tainted with sin, end up opposed to God. Of course, the unbeliever will often stumble upon true things, but this is due to God's common grace.

The problem with such a line of reasoning is not the line of reasoning itself--this is perfectly legitimate. The problem is the attitude we so often draw from it; namely, that we must therefore publicly and equally oppose all things non-Christian. This orientation does not actually follow from the insistence that there is no common ground between believer and non-believer. Put another way, opposition of belief does not always necessitate opposition in disposition.

How can this be? First, this is so because it is actually consistent with presuppositional thought. Calling common grace discoveries good is simply saying "Amen!" back to the God who enabled them in the first place. Even more than this, affirming the good and calling out the bad appears to be one of Jesus' favorite ways of engaging the lost. Of the many examples of this, Mark 12.28-34 is the most instructive. After a scribe comes up to Jesus and speaks correctly about the law, Jesus tells him that "you are not far from the kingdom of God." This is a double-edged statement, for Jesus is simultaneously telling this man that there is much good in his thinking and yet that it is not good enough. It is also a brilliant response, for it perfectly balances the call to affirm and challenge non-believing thought.

This does not mean that there isn't a time and place to strongly condemn evil thinking and doing; Jesus does as much in many places. But it is a call to consider the evangelistic import of how we respond to secular resources. Will Jordan Peterson come to Christ if our response to him is exclusively negative? What of his followers? More pointedly, would we have come to God if His response to us had been exclusively negative (Rom. 5.8)?

In The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges tells the story of Henry Trumbull's train ride with a drunkard. Each time the drunkard took a swig, he offered one to Trumbull, who each time politely declined. Finally, the drunkard exclaimed, "You must think I'm a pretty rough fellow." In response, Trumbull said "I think you're a very generous hearted fellow," which then opened a door for him to share the gospel. We can only wonder what kind of opportunities we might gain to speak the hard truths of the gospel to seculars if we just led off with the right foot.


Brian Mesimer is a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Columbia, SC.