Cornelius Van Til and Classic Reformed Theism
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,"
- 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
- 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.
- What distinguishes divine knowledge from that of human beings?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.