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.