Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology part 1

P&R Publishing has been re-releasing the major works of Cornelius Van Til with commentary provided by means of an introduction and explanatory notes from current apologetics faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. These books should be a great treasure for the church as William Edgar and Scott Oliphint help to explain the historical circumstances of Dr. Van Til’s writing and then to point out and explain key terms that occur in his theology. Dr. Van Til can be very difficult to read at times and so these explanatory notes help to make his works more accessible to the church. Currently P&R has re-released Christian Apologetics (ed. by Dr. Edgar), An Introduction to Systematic Theology (ed. by Dr. Edgar), and The Defense of the Faith (ed. by Dr. Oliphint).

I’m currently reading An Introduction to Systematic Theology and I thought that I would blog through the book. If you follow the link provided then you can browse the table of contents and Dr. Edgar’s introduction for free. I think that Dr. Edgar will do more to convince you of the value of this book than anything I can add so I will simply commend that to you.

It should be noted that this book is not an introduction to systematic theology like the introductions written by Wayne Grudem or Louis Berkhof. Instead as Dr. Edgar notes this is more like a traditional Prolegomena that introduces the first principles of systematic theology with sections on methodology, epistemology, general and special revelation, and theology proper. I’ll blog about these sections in the order that Dr. Van Til deals with them. Also it needs to be said that Dr. Van Til was a professor of apologetics and not systematic theology. Accordingly, this Prolegomena is focused on the importance of a full understanding of these first principles in the course of engaging in apologetics. For a more complete exegetical approach to these same topics I would recommend the first volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics or book one of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Chapters 1-2 Methodology

Dr. Van Til writes that the goal and purpose of systematic theology is “to offer an ordered presentation of what the Bible teaches about God.” (15) Here he notes that the study of Christian theology has the goal of gaining knowledge about God. This is not the only goal. We want to know everything that God desires for us to know about anything but the center of theology is the knowledge of God just as the center of our lives ought to be God. Van Til makes two important points here.

First, to say that theology is God-centered does not diminish the importance of the person and work of Christ. Instead Van Til says that after the fall Christ is the only way that we can come to the Father or know the Father. Beyond this, as Christ is the eternal Second Person of the Trinity to know him is in fact to know God. Yet the goal of theology is to know the Triune God fully as he makes himself known to us and therefore it is more appropriate to say that theology is God-centered than to say that it is Christ-centered.

Second, this does not mean that systematic theology is more important or somehow reduces the logical value of other theological disciplines. Van Til notes the value of exegetical theology, biblical theology, systematic theology, apologetics, and practical theology working together for the goal of understanding what the Bible teaches. The value of systematic theology is not that it stands apart or over these other disciplines but rather that it supports them by using the fruits of exegetical and biblical theology to present what the Bible teaches as a unified whole and then giving the platform for apologetics to defend and for practical theology to preach and teach.

Next Van Til sets about answering the question of, “What is the value of systematic theology?” He first says that the question of value first needs to be subject to the question of truth and duty. God commands that we study Scripture and bring its content together into a systematic whole. So the value of the study is found first in obedience to divine command. The result is that we do not become doctrinally one-sided but rather that we are thoroughly equipped to answer all questions of theology on the basis of Scripture’s teaching. This then has value for apologetics as Van Til says, “The fight between Christianity and non-Christianity is, in modern times, no piece-meal affair. It is the life-and-death struggle between two mutally opposed life-and-world views.” (23) So the apologist who will be able to answer all of the attacks of the unbeliever is only the apologist who is thoroughly trained in systematic theology and can remove the foundation of the unbeliever’s position.

This leads into the second chapter and a discussion of the methods of systematic theology. Van Til says that method is never neutral in theology. He writes:
Our presupposition of God as the absolute, self-conscious being, who is the source of all finite being and knowledge makes it imperative that we distinguish the Christian-theistic method from all non-Christian methods. (27)
Here Van Til uses idealism as a negative example. He quotes Charles Hodge who argued that there was both an a priori (“from the former” meaning deductive) and an a posteriori (“from the latter” or inductive) side to Christian theological methods. Van Til cannot leave it at this because idealism (that reality is fundamentally mental in nature) makes the same claim. Yet the problem is that the Christian and the idealist do not mean the same thing by deduction and induction. The idealist can only work deductively by assuming that the temporary state of things has a permanent aspect ultimately meaning that all of his conclusions are inductively reached as he has to look at what he can perceive and then presuppose that what he perceives is eternal. The Christian deductively works from the fact of an absolute, self-conscious God who creates all the things that are to be perceived. Thus inductive reasoning for the Christian arrives back at the same starting point as all the facts that we can sense are created and controlled by the same absolute, self-conscious God.

This leads Van Til to discuss the essential principle of knowledge. The Christian must confess that it is impossible to think of the nonexistence of God. We can think of the nonexistence of the world since there was a time when the world did not exist but we cannot think of a time when an eternal self-sufficient and self-contained being did not exist. Van Til then says we cannot comprehend God in that as he alone is self-contained and self-existent we cannot know him fully as he knows himself and as he knows us. “He was and is the only self-contained whole, the system of absolute truth.” (30) So his knowledge is self-dependent. There is not anything independent of him that he has to investigate or learn.

On the basis of God’s self-knowledge Van Til can now turn to human knowledge. The unbeliever must always assume that he knows things univocally, meaning that his own mind is the ultimate interpreter of reality. Van Til says that the Christian instead realizes that he knows only analogically, or that he is only the re-interpreter of reality since God alone is the univocal interpreter. Van Til explains the distinction this way:

Christians believe in two levels of existence, the level of God’s existence as self-contained and the level of man’s existence as derived from the level of God’s existence. For this reason, Christians must also believe in two levels of knowledge, the level of God’s knowledge, which is absolutely comprehensive and self-contained, and the level of man’s knowledge, which is not comprehensive but is derivative and reinterpretative. (32)
Here those who are somewhat familiar with the Clark-Van Til controversy may recognize elements of their disagreement. Van Til calls all knowledge that is not comprehensive analogical. By this he means that it is a reinterpretation of knowing as God knows and only God knows things perfectly as only he knows facts in their relation to all other facts. So for Van Til to truly know something requires knowing it comprehensively, which in turn requires omniscience. Van Til’s goal in this argument is to preserve the Creator-creature distinction in all facets of life. He does not want to say that we cannot truly know anything though so he wants to say that believing knowledge is analogical and so we know things only in terms of how we interpret them based on God’s revelation.

I think we have to critique Van Til here a bit. To only know something analogically is not to know it at all on the basis of his own definition of knowledge as comprehensive. This would mean that humans cannot ever really know anything. Instead of saying human knowledge is analogical it seems better to say that it is revelational. This means that what we know is what God reveals to us by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit through general and special revelation. So we can truly know that Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification, not because we interpret the relevant facts given to us analogically, but because God, who knows all things comprehensively, revealed this to us in Scripture and by the work of the Spirit. This allows for true creaturely knowledge as we know that God cannot lie in his revelatory activity and also preserves the Creator-creature distinction as we do not know univocally as God does.

Van Til then says that the conscious acknowledgement of the existence of God is required for the knowledge of every single fact in the universe. It is the fact that God exists and that he has created everything including the mind of man and whatever the mind of man knows that makes all other knowledge possible. So God is not only necessary for theology but for all the sciences. Similarly, every fact that is observed by any of the sciences is actually revelation of God and proves the existence of God and the truth of Scriptures. Every fact must be expressive of the plan of the absolute God or no fact can prove or disprove anything as there is not any relation between facts (by fact Van Til means anything that can be known).

So Van Til says that we have only two possible methodologies for investigation. One presupposes an absolute and self-contained God who has created all things. All facts as they appear are a part of his creation plan and so presuppose God and that plan. They are unintelligible apart from God. So the Christian sees facts as created by the will of God and in accordance with the nature of God. The other denies the existence of this God and treats facts as if they are self-contained and can be examined to arrive at some sort of independent universal law.

Therefore, Van Til says that in discussions with unbelievers we must be careful not to give in to their presuppositions and pretend as if any fact means the same thing to both. This is ultimately true without regard to the details of how the non-theistic system is built. Van Til writes:
A rationalistic method, that is, a method in which the a priori predominates, is in itself no worse than an exclusively empirical or a posteriori method. Both are equally unacceptable if they do not have the Christian conception of the a priori and a posteriori. So, also, no combination of rational and empirical aspects will produce a method that is better than either a rationalistic or an empirical method. If we add ever so many zeros to zero, we have zero still. (44)
Ultimately this means that we are obligated to accept the Christian method of presupposing the absolute God in order to proceed to any knowledge of facts. All non-Christian systems are equally false and equally incoherent because they do not begin with this presupposition. The unbeliever will fight this presupposition as much as possible. But the unbeliever remains created in God’s image and surrounded by a world that manifests God’s power and divinity in every fact. So their resistance to the knowledge of God, whose image-bearers they are, is an ethical resistance.

God restrains this resistance through his common grace. Van Til reminds us again that this is all the plan of God:

We have to speak as if sin would have destroyed the work of God. That was certainly its ethical intent. But we know that this was not an ultimate metaphysical possibility, for it was already, from all eternity, a part of the plan of God that sin should be defeated through the work of Christ. (48)
So the sinner continues to know God (Rom. 1:18-21) even though he tries to suppress this knowledge. He knows this even as he is created in God’s image to think rationally just as God is ultimate rationality. So, as an example, theoretically the unbeliever holds to the law of non-contradiction. Yet the unbeliever claims the right to determine for himself what is and is not contradictory. This is irrational as a finite creature cannot be the ultimate judge of anything. So Van Til wants to show that all non-Christian thinking is rational because of being created in the image of God in God’s world but is irrational in rejecting the existence of God and claiming to the be ultimate authority. This will lead into Van Til’s discussion on epistemology in the next three chapters.

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