Coming to Terms with Van Til

One of the things that does not help me is that I cannot read Van Til dispassionately. I need to work on it, but here’s why I cannot.

Things that get me worked up:

1 – his private vocabulary. Abstract and concrete are important terms for him, and I gather he means by them what we use the terms notional and real. I think the terms satisfy him because he can accomplish ulterior things by it. Like careless thinkers who use objective as a form of approval and subjective to dismiss what they really don’t have the tools to deal with, he uses abstract to dismiss any kind of thinking he doesn’t find useful and concrete for all that his heart embraces. As if God’s aseity, infinity or justice were not entirely abstract concepts! He conveniently fails to be consistent in his terminological predilections. I also deplore the aesthetics of his terminology.

2 – his contempt for human learning. C. S. Lewis would have used the term Barthianism, and it is with no small satisfaction that I borrow from Lewis. Lewis uses it anachronistically of Richard Hooker’s puritan enemies. They ask: Is it of God? Then fall down and worship. Is it of man? Destroy it. I think this attitude is behind the tendentious locution Autonomous Reason. Let me put it this way. There is human cuisine. But since we know we are fallen, then we know that human cuisine is all wrong, when not done in submission to God. If human cuisine does not draw from Scripture, it is autonomous cuisine, and tastes awful. The way they prepare vegetables, do their cuts of meat, hand recipes down, etc., all of this is bunk. We need to throw out those human traditions and have Biblical cooking. You can do that, but I don’t want to eat your food.

You may say to Van Til: But you eat at the human diner down the road, and I know it’s run by Catholics. Well, he would say, that’s common grace. They have the wrong cuts, the wrong procedures, the wrong recipes, but common grace makes it all come out fine. Even when they say that common grace gets back into the cuts and procedures and recipes, thus foiling the autonomy, they will condemn autonomy when it is convenient. You are either inconsistent, invoking common grace as a magical interference, or you are irrational. And cherishing irrationality is the thing about Van Til that gets me so worked up.

They don’t do it about cuisine, obviously, they do it about human reason. But human reason is just humans reasoning. When it comes to human reason, I think it is like the human eye after the fall. Many people are somewhat damaged, some are even blind. But on the whole, most of us can expect to see fine, can do things to correct the problems we face, and human society need not operate on the assumption that human eyesight is unreliable because of the ocular effects of sin. But if you have the attitude that human eyesight is hopeless and that the ophthalmologists are operating autonomously, in rebellion to God, you will live in the world of ocular depravity, just because that’s how you see things.

I do believe in the fall, and I do believe it is our perverse desiring that is the problem, not our eyesight or our thinking ability. We can see fine, but we use our good eyesight to see what we should not. But we often use it to see what we ought too. It is not autonomy to expect that our inability is moral rather than natural. It is an inability to think clearly because you have an agenda, the first hint of which is your private use of terms to load the conversation in your favor. I hate Van Til because he was a totalitarian, and you understand that when you see his disciples constantly claiming that to understand him rightly, you have to understand he was speaking holistically. Holistic is one of those bogus words that says nothing that better words don’t already provide without distortion. They do not mean holistic, the disciples, they mean totalitarian.

3 – all knowledge is analogical knowledge of what God really knows. It is a good question, where are the objects of knowledge. People like to say they are in God’s mind. I am not sure why this is attractive, but in itself it is not objectionable. What Van Til does, though, is make these objects mediate, and not immediate. In other words: you may think the objects of knowledge are all in God’s mind, but you also think you have direct contact with them. Van Til does not. You have a sense of them, but not immediate contact. You know something like them. Your knowledge is not partial because you can’t have all there is, your knowledge is partial because you only have a copy.

Not only do you have only a copy, but I think he actually believed you can have a complete copy, and the framework and broad outlines of this copy are principally doctrinal. It is reliable to the extent that it rests on Reformed Covenant Theology, and its reliability argues for a certain complete finality. In other words, Van Til completes the project you see vaguely lurking about the Reformation of understanding fundamental reality in doctrinal rather than in philosophical categories. Hence the private language. Hence the need to argue against Aquinas knowing anything, and with Barth against any kind of natural understanding of anything at all. It is the ultimate ill-tempered assault on the humanities, and it ploughs deep screaming furrows in my soul.

What is the problem of coopting the categories of philosophical inquiry? If they were developed by pagans, isn’t it about time we changed them? Well, what if the language developed originally was adequate? And what if the language of doctrine was developed to stand upon that original terminology and specially describe the theological depths, rather than everything altogether? I realize that here my suspicious is taking me particularly far out into the realm of speculation—but I actually think speculating is how we learn what we did not formerly understand. Suppose the language of philosophy is good, and the understanding real, and that theology further built on this and specialized its own terminology assuming correctly the rightness of the ancient philosophy it assimilated and incorporated? What are you going to accomplish by removing this and setting up a new, bogus and truncated alternative? You will at some point start reinterpreting Scripture, that’s what.

4 – he claims that God is one person. This is actually believed to be ingenious by his supporters. No, Van Til does not deny there are three persons in the Trinity, but he does not see that as God’s superabundant personality. He believes God is absolute person, his essence is personal, and his personality is part of his divine simplicity. (It reminds me of the saying another frustrated inmate recently made about how they cherish irrationality.) Why? Personality is concrete, not abstract. This is touted as a way to maintain theology that isn’t vague, if you remember that concrete is real and abstract is vague. Real solid, you see. He has framed the whole discussion in his own private language and as a result achieved a new, spectacular insight with terminology at odds with catholic expression in order to prevent something that is a problem for none but his silly followers. But you can understand why all the theology faculty Westminster employs graduates from . . . Westminster.

Van Til even makes the obnoxious claim that Rome may have good theology when it comes to the Trinity, but they’re entitled to it. That is the kind of thing that makes my vision dim with an overcrowding and cosmic annoyance. It is hard to find anything better than Aquinas on the Trinity. I do not believe it exists and strongly doubt it ever will. But, that is not the Van Tillian narrative, of course.

And now I know why they have a course on the Trinity, and why they try to do the whole thing in one semester, reading the primary sources from start to finish, and why Edwards gets amazingly skipped, but not Van Til.

Do you understand what I’m getting at?


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