Results tagged “Van Til” from Reformation21 Blog

Cornelius Van Til and Classic Reformed Theism

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Cornelius Van Til, former professor of Christian apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA, professed to have stood on the shoulders of classic Reformed theological giants such as Abraham Kuyper, Benjamin B. Warfield, and Herman Bavinck.1 While not everyone is agreed on how consistently he stood on the shoulders of those men,2 I wish to underline--in this article--the fact that Van Til stood squarely on the shoulders of theologian extraordinaire Geerhardus Vos.3 Vos was, like his friend and old Princeton colleague Benjamin Warfield, a polymath and renaissance man, expert in exegesis, biblical, systematic, and historical theology.4 Vos proves to us that you can be adept at all of these and allow each to mutually reinforce and inform the other disciplines. Van Til often said that Vos was his favorite seminary professor. He kept a framed photo of Vos in his office at the seminary as proof of his love and esteem.5

In recent years some have given the impression that Van Til did not uphold so-called classical theism. As long as classical theism is not equated with any single theological influence (say, Thomas Aquinas to the exclusion of other equally profound thinkers), I can affirm without fear of contradiction that Van Til upheld classical theism, or more accurately, classic Reformed theism. This is not to suggest that he merely parroted the tradition (whatever that might actually mean), as if he did not suggest improvements and creatively construct theological formulations. He is known, after all, for his creative approach to apologetics. Even here I would suggest that the more one reads in Dutch Reformed orthodoxy the more one will see that Van Til extended its insights to apologetics. In other words, Van Til was committed to the deeply rich theological vision of the likes of Geerhardus Vos.6 That Vos is little known is a true disappointment. I am convinced that we are the poorer for this neglect.7

For the sake of this article, let's consider the matter of God's aseity. The doctrine of divine aseity is that biblical truth that upholds God's independence. God is not dependent on anything outside of Himself. Whereas we creatures are dependent on God and the world He has created for us, God did not need to create us whatsoever nor does he depend upon us in any way. God does not change in himself by the mere act of creation nor does he change in himself in order to relate to or interact with his creation. Another way to say the same thing is to note that God is both absolute and that he relates to us. God does not need to change in himself in order to enter into meaningful relationships with us.

Even in the incarnation, the eternal and absolute Son wills a new relation that consists in taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul in permanent hypostatic union to his divine person. Yet precisely in that new relation his divine person remains immutably absolute. In other words, God the Son remains a se in himself. Both the essence and the person of the eternal Son remains immutably absolute in the "new relation" to the contingent human nature assumed in the incarnation. That is why the Chalcedonian formula is so important.

The Son does not become what he was not before. The Son as to his divine nature remains independent but he enters into a hypostatic union with a true, but contingent human nature (soul and body so that Christ has a divine nature and a full human nature in one person). While the two natures are united, they are not mixed nor do the two natures intermingle or become a third thing (per Chalcedon). Jesus Christ is both God and man in one person, but the union does not contradict the Creator/creature distinction. The God - man is absolute as to his divine PERSON and nature and contingent and changeable as to his human nature (as Luke 2:40, 52 explain, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man").

Cornelius Van Til often talked about the "self-contained ontological Trinity" throughout his various writings. He could not have meaningfully and truthfully used such language had he denied divine aseity.

I am interested in defending the metaphysics that comes from Scripture. This involves: (a) the doctrine of the self-contained God or ontological trinity, (b) the plan or counsel of this God pertaining to created reality, (c) the fact of temporal creation as the origin of all the facts of the universe, (d) the fact of God's providential control over all created reality including the supernatural, and (e) the miraculous work of the redemption of the world through Christ. This metaphysic is so simple and so simply Biblical that non-Christian philosophers would say that it is nothing but theology...So I point out that the Bible does contain a theory of Reality. And this theory of Reality is that of two levels of being, first, of God as infinite, eternal, and unchangeable and, second, of the universe as derivative, finite, temporal, and changeable. A position is best known by its most basic differentiation. The meanings of all words in the Christian theory of being depend upon the differentiation between the self-contained God and the created universe.8

If God had to change within himself in order to create or relate to creatures, then he could not be independent, no matter how much conceptual and linguistic gymnastics one performed. For Van Til, God is both self-contained, and relational. This is true because God is both one and three, three and one. Unity and diversity are equally ultimate in the godhead. God is one and at the same time he is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God's oneness is not something other than the three persons, but the three distinct persons who subsist distinctly as the undivided essence of God, also relate to one another in perichoretic, personal relations of mutual interdependence (known in Greek as perichoresis and in Latin as circuminscessio). It should be noted that we do not need to fall into the equal and opposite error of thinking that God is an undifferentiated monad (like the One of Plotinus).9 Van Til clearly builds upon the insights of his mentor Geerhardus Vos as evidenced by Vos's discussions about God and the incarnation in his recently translated five-volume Reformed Dogmatics.10

In the first volume of Vos's Reformed Dogmatics, which follows the catechetical question and answer format (although it often has answers far too long for a memorable catechism answer), Vos asks about God's "self-existence,"

  1. What is God's self-existence? That attribute of God by which He is the self-sufficient ground of His own existence and being. Negatively expressed, independence says only what God is not. Self-existence is precisely the adequate affirmation here. Proof texts: Acts 17:25; John 5:26.11
If Van Til builds on Vos in his understanding of divine aseity, the same is true with regard to divine omniscience. God is the original and man is the copy. God is the archetype and man is the ectype. God's knowledge is creatively determinative and man's knowledge is derivatively reconstructive. As Van Til liked to say, we are to "think God's thoughts after him." Vos, specifically notes,

 
  1. What is God's knowledge? That perfection by which, in an entirely unique manner, through His being and with a most simple act, He comprehends Himself and in Himself all that is or could be outside Him.
  2. What distinguishes divine knowledge from that of human beings?
  3. a)     It occurs by a most simple act. Human knowledge is partial and obtained by contradistinction. God arrives immediately at the essence of things and knows them in their core by an immediate comprehension.
  4. b)     It occurs from God's being outwardly. With us the concept of things must first enter our cognitive capacity from outside us. God knows things from within Himself outwardly, since things, both possible and real, are determined by His nature and have their origin in His eternal decree.
  5. c)     In God's knowledge, there is no cognition that slumbers outside His consciousness and only occasionally surfaces, as is the case for the most part with our knowledge. Everything is eternally present before His divine view, and in the full light of His consciousness everything lies exposed.
  6. d)     God's knowledge is not determined through the usual logical forms, by which we, as by so many aids, seek to master the objects of our knowledge. He sees everything immediately, both in itself and in its relation to all other things.12
God knows all things because he has decreed them. We know because we discover the truth of things after the fact. God knows all things exhaustively. We know things truly, but not exhaustively. God created us to know him and his world. We know him as he intended us to know him, after the fall into sin, not only dependent upon him for every breath but for any knowledge we have of facts or the laws that govern facts.

God could not be archetype if he was not a se. If he had to change within himself in order to create us or relate to us, he would by implication also have to come to learn things as we do. If God had to change within himself in order to create or relate then that would mean that he had to be what he was not before which would entail learning or coming to know something he did not know before. If God knows himself perfectly since he is a se, his knowledge would be correspondingly incomplete and imperfect should he need to change.

While Cornelius Van Til was creatively constructive in his application of Reformed theology to apologetics, he was standing on the shoulders of giants like Geerhardus Vos. Van Til sought to bring out the rich insights of classic Reformed theism in his theology and his theological apologetics. We have briefly considered his treatment of divine aseity and omniscience. If we think Van Til is novel in these areas, it may be because we don't know the depth of the richness of classic Reformed theism as we think we do. With Van Til, let's seek to be faithful to our heritage which seeks to bring out the riches of Scripture as found in classic Reformed theism.

 

 

1. See Greg Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), for a discussion of Van Til's critical appropriation of Kuyper and Warfield. For further elaboration of this topic, see my "On the Shoulders of Giants: Van Til's Appropriation of Warfield and Kuyper," The Confessional Presbyterian Journal, Fall 2011 (Vol. 7), 139ff. With the recent translation and publication of Bavinck's magnum opus, the Reformed Dogmatics (John Vriend, tr. John Bolt, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2003-2008), the reader can see Van Til's dependence upon and extended application of Bavinck's method to the defense of the Reformed Christian faith.

2. In recent days, it has not been uncommon to discover certain theologians affirming Bavinck and rejecting Van Til. I would contend that those who have done so have almost certainly not read the former carefully and have most likely misunderstood the latter. One cannot read and affirm Bavinck's project and at the same time reject Van Til's work. This is not to suggest that one must agree in every detail. Even Van Til disagreed with Bavinck here and there at points.  But that is the subject for another article.

3. Van Til noted his appreciation for and dependence upon Vos throughout his teaching career at Westminster. Vos is the author of such noteworthy volumes as Biblical Theology, the Pauline Eschatology, and Grace and Glory. Many of Vos's works are available through the Logos electronic library in a fully searchable format now.

4. A good exposure to Vos's ouvre can be found in the compilation of his shorter writings ably edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., >Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ:P&R Publishing, 2001). In this volume the reader can find Vos's adeptness with all the disciplines of the theological encyclopedia.

5. Van Til's framed portrait of Vos is now located in the front lobby of the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary. Van Til also indicated his dedication to his favorite professor by performing his funeral in 1949.

6. Van Til, in advanced years, even produced a Sunday School level biblical theology volume that has not been published. He manifests his clear attachment to Vos in this typescript.

7. For biographical material on Vos, see James T. Dennison, ed., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001). The first portion of this book is a biography with the remainder of the book comprised of letters written by and to Vos by such worthies as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Benjamin B. Warfield. More recently see the series of articles by Danny Olinger in the Ordained Servant, the journal for officers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The final article can be accessed online at: http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=680. Accessed on 25 April 2018.

8. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith. 4th Edition. (K. Scott Oliphint, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 236-37. This is a restoration of the original full text of the 1st edition of 1955 with introduction and explanatory notes by the editor. Italicized words are added for emphasis and clarity.

9. That is, the two errors to avoid are indistinguishable monadism on the one hand, and mutual dependence between the Creator and creature on the other hand.

10. See the five volume set by Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ably edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Multiple trs. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2016). Lexham Press is the print edition arm of Logos software. This set is also available in electronic format in the Logos library and other formats. The RD was originally written by hand in Dutch and then typed up, again, in Dutch. See Lane G. Tipton's review of the set in the New Horizons April 2018 issue, 9-11. This can be read online at http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/NH2018/NH2018Apr.pdf. Accessed on 25 April 2018. For a more detailed audio discussion of the issues covered in this article and in the Vos set, see the Christ the Center podcast from the Reformed Forum: http://reformedforum.org/ctc537/#comment-3540212.

11. Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 1: 8.

12. Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:16-17.

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 3)

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It is in Oliphint's final critique of Aquinas' views on natural reason and philosophy in their relation to theology that the source of his misreading of Aquinas becomes clear. The assumption that Aquinas, given his attachment to Aristotle, attempted to merge two antithetical principia comes from Cornelius Van Til. In addition, the assumption that Aquinas' Aristotelianism stood in the way of a resolution of the question of essence and existence "so central to Thomas's metaphysical system" also comes from Van Til (pp. 51-53, 88-89), even as Oliphint identifies the writings of Van Til as "the best overall assessment and critique of Thomism" (p. 139). Oliphint summarizes Van Til as arguing that "reason, apart from grace, can deal only with essences and not with existence," and then cites Van Til as viewing Aquinas' purported attempt to move from "the language of essences into that of existences" as rendered impossible "without suppressing reason" (p. 51). Van Til concludes the impossibility of merging pagan Aristotle and Christian theology--as if this is what Aquinas were doing--and, on the mistaken assumption that Aristotelian philosophy is a philosophy of "abstract essences," posits the further impossibility of a "transposition from the realm of abstract essences to that of existence."1

The rather natural question that arises is where do Van Til and Oliphint find the claim that reason, apart from grace, can only deal with essences and not with existence? It certainly is not a legitimate inference from Aquinas' thought. It also would be, at best, rather difficult to work through Aristotle's treatises on physics, the categories, generation, and the history of animals and conclude that, for Aristotle, reason does not deal with existence but only with essences. The basis for Van Til's and Oliphint's view is probably an assimilation of Aristotle to Plato, who assumed it is the idea, namely the form or essence, that is the proper object of knowledge. But Aristotle, unlike Plato, did not allow that ideas or essences can be separate from substantial existence.2 Aristotle's view does yield the conclusion that the knowledge of things consists in their definition, the definition being the idea or essence that applies to a class of existents, which in turn leads to a the question of how one has knowledge of particulars or individuals--a rather different issue than that claimed by Van Til. There is, moreover, a considerable scholarly literature that discusses the issue and that concludes that Aristotle's philosophy does deal with the knowledge of particulars.

The Van Tilian claim is also demonstrably wrong in the case of Aquinas. Copleston notes, rather pointedly, that it is "not true to say that the intellect, according to St. Thomas, has no knowledge of corporeal particulars." As Copleston continues, this primary object of the intellect is not the abstracted universal "as such" but the universal as abstracted from the particular.4 Aquinas rests this view, moreover, on a distinction between sensory and intellective knowing. The primary object of the intellect is the form or universal that has been abstracted from the particular, with the particular external object being known by the intellect indirectly, by means of the abstracted universal--but also with the external object being directly and concretely known to sense.5

These considerations not only of Van Til's misconceptions but specifically of what Aristotle and Aquinas understood concerning knowledge of essences and of things or particulars, brings us back to the impact of Exodus 3:14 on metaphysics and, accordingly, on the framing of a Christian philosophy. Aquinas' approach, in focusing on the identity of the First Mover as "He who is," the existent One, opens up a philosophy that can argue creation ex nihilo and a doctrine of providence, specifically on the ground that the One in whom there is no real distinction between essence and existence can know the essences of potential things and confer existence.

In order to deny this reading of Aquinas, Van Til even goes so far as to bifurcate Aquinas into a philosopher and a theologian attempting to the synthesize unsynthesizables--Aristotle's pure essence that does not create and the biblical God, the One who is, who does create.6 But, as indicated above, even taking McInerny's approach to the preambles as correct, the proofs in the Summa theologiae remain the philosophical arguments of a Christian. The proofs, moreover, do not attempt, as Oliphint and Van Til claim, to simply merge an Aristotelian absolute Thought with the God of creation: on the contrary, they draw on Aristotelian views of causality and motion but argue in a non-Aristotelian manner to a divine first cause who, as necessary Being, creates a contingent order out of nothing. In other words, Aquinas draws together the truths concerning causality and a First Mover known to Aristotle, highly useful in demonstrating that the existence of God can be known to reason, and truths of the biblical revelation concerning God--on the ground that rational and revealed truths, as true, cannot disagree.

Van Til's claim of impossibility rests on his own presuppositions cast over Aristotelian thought and Aquinas' arguments: after assuming a radical antithesis, worthy of a Harnackian, between Greek philosophy and biblical revelation, Van Til imposes his own conclusion on the direction that any Aristotelian argumentation must take and then reads his conclusion concerning Aristotelian thought into his reading of Aquinas--without acknowledging that neither Aquinas nor, in fact, the Christian tradition from the second century onward, including Reformed orthodoxy and the Westminster Confession of Faith, shared his presuppositions about the character and use of natural reason.

There are, in sum, several fundamental problems with Oliphint's work on Aquinas that stand in the way of the book serving a useful purpose. The first of these problems is simply that Oliphint's argumentation evidences major misreadings and misunderstandings of the thought of Thomas Aquinas on such issues as the relation of reason and revelation, the noetic effects of sin, the praeambula fidei, the analogia entis, the nature and character of the proofs of the existence of God, and the relation of the doctrine of divine simplicity to the doctrine of the Trinity. The second, related problem is that his argumentation rests largely on the thought of Cornelius Van Til, who by no stretch of the imagination can be viewed as a competent analyst of the thought of Aquinas. The end-result of their readings is a mangled interpretation of Aquinas that impedes genuine access to his thought and actually stands in the way of legitimate interpretation. Third, inasmuch as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Reformed Orthodoxy in general are largely in agreement with Aquinas on issues of epistemology, natural theology, doctrine of God, and, indeed, apologetics, Oliphint's and Van Til's views at best stand at the margin of what can be called Reformed and, at worst, create a kind of sectarian theology and philosophy that is out of accord with the older Reformed tradition and its confessions.

1. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Philippsburg: P&R, 2008), p. 155; cited in Oliphint, Aquinas, p. 51.

2. Cf. e.g., Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.9, 991b, 1-9; with ibid., VII.5-6, 1031a, 1-19.

3. E.g., Harold F. Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1944), pp. 221 n131, 236-239; Walter Leszl, "Knowledge of the Universal and Knowledge of the Particular in Aristotle," in Review of Metaphysics, 26/2 (1972), pp. 278-313; Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics: A Study in the Greek Background of Medieval Thought, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978), pp. 426-432; Robert Heinaman, "Knowledge of Substance in Aristotle," in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 101 (1981), pp. 63-77.

4. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 9 vols. (Westminster, MD.: Newman Press, 1946-1974), II, p. 391, citing Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.86, a.1; cf. Joseph Owens, "Aquinas on Knowing Existence," in St. Thomas Aquinas on the Existence of God: The Collected Papers of Joseph Owens, ed. John R. Cattan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), pp. 23-26, 29, etc.

5. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.86, a.1, ad 4.

6. Van Til, Defense of the Faith, p. 156.

7. A more detailed essay-review of Oliphint's work is forthcoming in Calvin Theological Journal.


Richard A. Muller
Senior Fellow, Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research
P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology, Emeritus
Calvin Theological Seminary


*This is the third and final installement of Dr. Muller's review of Dr. Oliphint's book on Aquinas. You can find the previous posts in this series here

Several readers have asked if Dr. Oliphint will be giving a response to this review of his work. Prior to posting these three articles, I emailed Dr. Oliphint to let him know that we were publishing a review of his book which was critical in important respects. In that same email I told him that we would welcome and consider any response he produced. Up to this point, he has chosen not to respond. -- Jonathan Master

Van Til's Critique of Barth's Christology (Part 2)

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In the first post in this series, we gave consideration to Van Til's assessment of Barth's Christology. In this post we wish to examine Barth's own teaching on Christology. The key to understanding Barth's Christology is to understand where he places the act of the incarnation. To use Van Til's expression, Barth seems to place that act in Geschichte. So what is the nature of this Geschichte? At least in Barth's earlier thought, as Bruce McCormack has shown, this is the real history of God which stands over against the so-called "unreal" history of humanity.34

McCormack aptly describes this as the "tangent point" at which God's history meets our history, without becoming one with it. It is important at this point to set this idea against the backdrop of Barth's rejection of the higher critical approach of the liberal school. For Barth, God and his revelation cannot be handled or manipulated by man in his own fallen time. Therefore, revelation - and thus the incarnation - must be something that is quite independent of "our time." Trevor Hart explains:

Revelation...is an event...The habitual use of the noun form [i.e., "revelation"] tends inevitably to direct our thinking instead toward the abstract, and to suggest some commodity (textual, historical or whatever) which represents the abiding deposit of a prior act of 'revealing'...something which has, as it were, become an earthly commodity and been handed over into human custody and control, domesticated and packaged for responsible human use.35

Second, in CD III/1 Barth engages in a stimulating discussion of the relation between God's act of creation and the history of the covenant of grace. What he is concerned to do here is defend against the notion of a generic "god," an impersonal uncaused cause as you find in Thomas' five ways. At this point, Barth offers a very insightful alternative to Thomas with which Van Til would surely agree. In refusing to pit God as creator against God as redeemer, Barth sets forth a better way:

But at this point everything depends upon the fact that the One from whom the world comes and on whom it depends should not be "God" in the sense of this or that conception, but He who in the process of history reconciles the world to Himself in order to give to it, as its Redeemer, its new and eternal form. (CD III/1, 45).

To this sentiment a truly Protestant theologian can only express his assent. However, Barth goes one step further. He goes so far as to affirm the history of the covenant of grace as being prior to the act of creation. The history of the covenant of grace has a distinct precedence and pre-existence over creation. Our doctrine of creation,

equating the Creator with the Deliverer, tells us that the world too, the whole nexus of being and movement in which I exist, has no prior existence that there is absolutely nothing which can take precedence of the history of the divine covenant of grace (Idem).

From here Barth develops his argument to include the Trinity. Creation is an act of the triune God, and in particular the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Barth states:

Hence the proposition that God the Father is the Creator and God the Creator the Father can be defended only when we mean by "Father" the "Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit." (CD III/1, 49).

But who is the "Son" that is with the Father-Creator? For Barth, notice, it is not the self-contained ontological Son apart from human flesh, rather:

It is not without His Son but as the Father of Jesus Christ that God bears the name of Father in Scripture and the creed. Again, it is not without the Son but in Jesus Christ that according to Scripture and the creed He makes Himself known as the sovereign Lord of all things and the Creator (Idem).

So, since there is an incarnation in eternity, that must mean God has time - and if time, then history.36 "Eternity...is not in any way timeless...In this way it is the essence of God Himself...God is Himself eternity. Thus God Himself is temporal...God in His eternity is the beginning of time" (CD III/1, 67-8). It becomes increasingly clear that for Barth there is a time, or history, other than "our time." (read: Historie). And that other time is the time of Jesus Christ - the time of grace. Jesus Christ is this time of grace. And what is more, this time of grace is independent of our time:

In this way the time of grace, the time of Jesus Christ, is the center and perfect counterpart of the time of creation. Like it, and in contrast to 'our' empty time, it is fulfilled time (CD III/1, 75).37

Therefore the revelation of God in Jesus Christ does not occur in our time, in our history. Yet, and because of this, God's time of grace occurs in "full contemporaneity" (CD III/1, 74) and "simultaneously" (CD III/1, 75) with our time. Even so, our time never becomes itself revelation.

Finally, this whole conception must be set against the backdrop of Barth's earlier work in CD I/2 where he speaks about "God's time for us." This time is a third time (CD I/2, 47).38 The Christ event is its own time (CD I/2, 49). It is the time of Jesus Christ (CD I/2, 51). However, standing over against this third time is "our time." This world time is

without Christ, without revelation, a hard surface of secularity...It covers the years 1-30 like all others. It is world history in which, along with history of culture...there is also a history of religion and the Church. But there is certainly nothing that we can seriously call a history of "God's mighty acts" (CD I/2, 63).

But the "third time" is a time that God makes for us (CD I/2, 49). This is the time of revelation and incarnation.39  Barth sets forth three times: God's time, our time, and Gottes Zeit fur uns ("God's time for us"). It is this last time which is real time. And this time takes place in the incarnation - "the event of Jesus Christ" (CD I/2, 49). This time alone "is to be regarded as eternal time" (CD I/2, 50). This eternity is "pre-historical time" (ahistorischen Vorzeit). Yet - though it is pre-historical - it is not timeless time. Rather, it is a temporal reality (Idem; KD, 55). And it is here that "our time" is taken up and renewed:

...the time we mean when we say Jesus Christ is not to be confused with any other time. Just as man's existence became something new and different altogether, because God's Son assumed it and took it over into unity with his God-existence...so time, by becoming the time of Jesus Christ, although it belonged to our time, the lost time, became a different, a new time (CD I/2, 51).

This third time is God's act, or event, of revelation in Jesus Christ. It is important for us to note here, in support of the idea that this third time is not something which happens in calendar time, to cite Barth's original idea of the relation between this time of revelation and calendar-time history. He puts it this way:

To put it concretely, the statement "God reveals Himself" must signify that the fulfilled time is the time of the years 1-30. But it must not signify that the time of the years 1-30 is the fulfilled time. It must signify that revelation becomes history, but not that history becomes revelation. (Ibid., 58).

Now, no other statement is more important for understanding Barth's Christology than this one. Revelation - i.e., Jesus Christ - becomes history. Jesus Christ - in this act or event of God's time for us - becomes history by taking to himself our fallen time. However, our time, history, or calendar days can never be revelational.40 Revelation takes place transcendently, entirely removed from our fallen time. Our time has no capacity for revelation, history can in no way be the medium of revelation.

In this way, Barth's Christology represents a new and original reinterpretation of the tradition. And this is why his theological innovations were such a reversal of his day's dominate neo-Protestant theology. Nineteenth century theology was thoroughly informed by a doctrine of God's immanence. Liberalism's God was "trapped" or "stuck" in the earthly muck of human consciousness. Barth sought to release God from that trap and make him utterly and completely transcendent. Rather than viewing the incarnation as a process which occurs within the consciousness of man, or within the strictures of man's fallen history, Barth described the incarnation in terms of an objective event which occurred outside of "our time." The incarnation is a transcendent event.

In one fell swoop Barth has rejected both liberalism and Reformed orthodoxy, presenting us with a would-be via media. Even so, a commonality remains between liberalism and Barth: the incarnation did not happen in calendar-time history. Revelation may be historical, but history is not revelational.41 In other words, what Barth believes is an attempt at a via media is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is merely another modern option, with nothing but a formal nod to orthodoxy.

 

Conclusion

If what we have said above about Barth's thought is correct, then we must stand with Van Til in his fundamental contention: Barthianism is not simply a different expression of Christianity, but a different religion altogether. Or, to put the matter in the form of a question: is there any way to conceive of Barthianism and (Reformed) Christianity as friends? The answer must be Nein!

For this reason, we find the recent dismissals of Van Til's critique by current evangelical theologians somewhat troubling. What is perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Barth's theology is being readily received today as being friendly toward Reformed orthodoxy. Whatever the reasons for this, it is time to once again exercise discernment, as Van Til did. In addition, we would do well to read Barth, carefully and closely as Van Til did, seeking to understand truly the deep structures of his thought and their implications for Christian doctrine and life. And when we have done that, we must stand in witness and testimony to the self-attesting Christ of Scripture.


*You can find the full set of footnotes for this post here.

Van Til's Critique of Barth's Christology (Part 1)

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In the recent resurgence of interest in the theology of Karl Barth--particularly among evangelicals1--theologians of no mean significance have opined on Cornelius Van Til's writings about the dialectical theologian. Van Til, according to some, offered an "absurd"2 and "inept analysis"3 of Barth's theology which "wielded a disproportionate influence"4 among evangelicals through his "tendentious"5 reading of the Church Dogmatics.6 Others have argued that Van Til's motive for critiquing Barth and Barthianism was "institutional." D.G. Hart, for example, argues that Van Til was motivated by a desire to justify Westminster Seminary's existence over against Princeton Seminary.7 But did Van Til really misfire so badly in his critique?

Van Til's Critique

In order to show the accuracy of Van Til's analysis of Barth, we will take his critique of Barth's Christology as a test case.

First, according to Van Til, Barth's Christology results in a functional Eutychianism. In the one act of God in Christ the creature is collapsed into the Creator; man is as highly exalted above time as is God. In other words, in the incarnation

"... God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man. Modern theology holds that both God and man are temporal. Barth holds that both God and man are eternal...Whether God and man are regarded as correlatives in the thick, heavy atmosphere of time or in the rarified realms of eternity makes no difference. In both cases man is as necessary to God as God is to man."8

This will be Van Til's basic understanding and critique of Barth throughout his life. In fact, in 1955, he made the following observation about Barth's theology--echoing some of his concerns from 1931:

"So also Karl Barth's God is what he is exclusively in relation to man "in Christ." Barth's main principle is "the revelation of God in Christ" to the exclusion of the God who exists from all eternity within himself, independently of his relation to the world."9

Furthermore, because God and all things are equally transcendent, Barth "strip[s] him of all the attributes that orthodox theology has assigned to him, and thus enable[s] him to turn into the opposite of himself."10 According to Van Til, then, Barth's theology leads to the inevitable conclusion that "He is then wholly identical with man and his world."11

Second, Van Til shows that Barth's thought is in fundamental continuity with a basic Kantian ontology. Van Til writes:

"To be sure, Barth has repeatedly asserted his desire to construct his theology in total independence of all the philosophical schools. Yet he has also admitted that in his earlier writings he had been influenced by modern epistemology...The Ritschlian theology in which Barth was nurtured was controlled by a modern form of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant...the Theology of Crisis, in the case of both Barth and Brunner, is essentially a modern theology. By an essentially modern theology we mean a theology which, like modern critical and dialectical philosophy, seeks to be activistic and anti-metaphysical at all costs."12

Interestingly, Bruce L. McCormack reaches a similar conclusion concerning the relationship between Kant and Barth:

"The fact that Barth devoted so many pages of his writings...to criticizing neo-Protestant theology tended to conceal the extent to which his antimetaphysical stance was itself a distinctly modern option in theology. My own contribution to the European discussion of Barth's relation to modernity was to demonstrate the extent to which Kant and the later Marburg neo-Kantianism influenced not only his earliest "liberal" theology...but also decisively stamped his dialectical theology."13

This interpretation is shared by Kant scholar, John Hare who--while recognizing significant discontinuities between Barth and Kant--argues that Barth's reliance on Kant was "constant."14 While so much more can and should be said here, we will leave it with simply noting how interesting it is that even the best of scholars recognize Barth's basic Kantian ontology. Yet, Van Til continues to be castigated--even though he made this observation over 85 years ago!

Third, consider Van Til's most concise critique of Barth's Christology which came in a 1960 article, entitled "Karl Barth on Chalcedon." Here is gives a close summary of Barth's doctrine of the incarnation from CD IV/1 and IV/2.15 He summaries Barth's "actualized" doctrine of Christ when he writes, "The incarnation is an event. As such it is at the same time the humiliation of God and the exaltation of man. The peril in which man stands is God's peril in Christ."16 In other words, the incarnation has ontological implications for who--and what - God is.

Now, this new formulation of "the Christ-event" means several things for Barth. Initially, it means that we must no longer think of the states of humiliation and exaltation as events in time in which one event takes place before the other. That would make revelation a predicate of history, which would--in turn--limit God's absolute freedom.17 Next, this Christ-event means that the two natures can never be separate from one another. It is one event that takes place in both natures. In this way, Christ's humiliation is the humiliation of God and his exaltation is the exaltation of man...By thus removing the traditional ideas with respect to the states and natures of Christ, Barth is opening up a path for the sovereign and free, as well as universal, grace of God to man.18

And last, the Christ-event also means the elimination of the distinction between Christ's person and work. Rather, "Christ's person is his work and his work is his person."19 Van Til takes this to mean that the incarnation in Jesus Christ is God's act of atonement for all mankind--sovereignly and universally. Jesus is the act of "the changeless Son of God and the changing man Jesus."20 It is in this context that Van Til introduces Barth's concept of the "contemporaneity" of Christ's person--which is his work - in Geschichte. He explains that "Geschichte happens every time" and thus "Christ's humiliation is at the same time exaltation."21

Fourth, the Christ-event means the utter rejection of the distinction between the Logos asarkos and the Logos en sarkos. In other words, "God does not will to be God without us."22 Van Til further explains:

"Here then is the reason why the idea of a Logos asarkos back of the incarnate Christ must be rejected. The message of the Gospels is the incarnate Christ. It is this Christ that precedes the creative work of God. The covenant of grace as preceding creation is established and effected through him."23

Therefore, Van Til explains, for Barth "God is his revelation to man."24 Any distinction between God-in-himself and God-for-us "no longer has any constitutive meaning but possesses only heuristic import."25 God's being and his revelation in Christ are identified. This clarifies what Van Til said earlier when he said "man is as necessary to God as God is to man." Furthermore:

"God extends his existence into coexistence with man. He identifies his being with that of man and transforms human being into participation with divine being...A complete interchange of predicate takes place between God and man in Christ."26

In other words, God's act in the incarnation constitutes his being. Again, Bruce L. McCormack supports Van Til's reading:

"What Barth is suggesting is that election is the event in God's life in which he assigns to himself the being he will have for all eternity...He takes this human experience into his own life and extinguishes its power over us."27

Therefore, God has no being which stands prior to or independent of his acts: "Thus there is no God in himself prior to the incarnation and there is no man in himself apart from his participation in the incarnation."28

Fifth, the Christ-event means the rejection of the idea of "God as such." Van Til explicates:

"Barth says that in Jesus Christ God is both wholly like and wholly unlike man...Herein lies the foundation of the reconciliation of the world with God. He can become truly man and as such the only true man, only if he is free to relinquish his being as it is in itself and to become wholly one with man. It is therefore God's nature to become wholly other than himself."29

For Van Til, Barth does not have a doctrine of a self-contained God who is altogether a se.30 Rather, his nature is determined by his act in Jesus Christ, "God's being and God's work are said to be one and the same."31

And sixth, the Christ-event means the denial of the decretum absolutum. If Jesus Christ is both electing God and elected man, then there can be no decree which exists independent of the person of Jesus Christ.32 To say otherwise - to say that God chooses some and rejects others - is to make God arbitrary in his decision. Rather, Barth proposes a decretum concretum in which God's covenant choice for all men in Christ precedes everything else.33 In other words, God's opera ad extra determine his opera ad intra. What God will do in Christ (save all) constitutes his eternal decree (to elect all).


1 Of special interest for our purposes is the recent blog post by Michael Allen at the Gospel Coaition (retrieved September 8, 2016). Allen's piece exemplifies the characteristic appreciation of Karl Barth's theology today which stands in stark contrast to the critical disposition of Reformed theologians of the mid-20th century.

*A document with the full set of footnotes for this post can be found here