By Thomas Linton
In this commentary review on Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith, the focus will be to examine the theology that Van Til lays out as he seeks to defend in his Presuppositional apologetic methodology. The first chapter of Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith, from Part One: The Structure of My Thought is on his view of Christian theology. Van Til states upfront that he has been tasked with teaching apologetics and presupposes the Reformed faith as what people need most. This first chapter serves as a basic systematic theology for the Christian worldview and focuses on the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of Salvation, the doctrine of the Church, and the doctrine of the last things. This commentary will go over these various doctrines that will show how Van Til’s theology is both Reformed and consistent with Scripture.
PART ONE—THE STRUCTURE OF MY THOUGHT
CHAPTER I—CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY
Van Til sets up the purpose of this presentation of his theology. Van Til says:
“But to engage in philosophical discussion does not mean that we begin without Scripture. We do not first defend theism philosophically by an appeal to reason and experience in order, after that, to turn to Scripture for our knowledge and defense of Christianity. We get our theism as well as our Christianity from the Bible.”CVT, The Defense of the Faith, Kindle Edition, 30.
This is the basis of the apologetic method that Van Til proposes. The Christian apologist from this perspective does not start the philosophical discussion apart from his commitment to Scripture. Van Til then states:
“It is therefore the system of truth as contained in Scripture which we must present to the world.”Ibid, 30-31.
This is how his apologetics is consistent with the gospel message and evangelism. Van Til again says,
“In each case the Reformed position is shown to be that which Scripture teaches. The Romanist, the Arminian and other views are shown not to be fully Biblical.”Ibid, 31.
Here Van Til makes the claim that only the Reformed position shows what is taught within Scripture while both Roman Catholicism and Arminianism fail to be truly consistent with the teachings in the Bible. It is important to note that in this chapter that Van Til does not go into depth here at the differences between Reformed Theology and Roman Catholicism and Arminianism. Van Til does lay out the differences later. Van Til goes on to present his theology.
Doctrine of God
According to Van Til the doctrine of God is of fundamental importance to the task of apologetics because it is important to what kind of God does Christianity believe in before offing an apologetic defense of this God.
First, Van Til believes in the aseity or independence of God. This means that God is Absolute. About this Van Til says:
“By this is meant that God is in no sense correlative to or dependent upon anything beside his own being.”Ibid, 31.
The importance of this can be seen with the difference between Molinism and Reformed Theology. Molinism holds to these counterfactuals of possible worlds. According to Molinism, God is dependent upon these counterfactual and conditional truth claims.
Second, Van Til mentions the immutability of God and that God does not change because God is not dependent upon anything besides his own eternal being.
Third, Van Til speaks of the infinity of God and with regard to time it is eternality and in reference to space God is omnipresent.
Forth, is the unity of God in regards to both the unity of singularity and the unity of simplicity. By unity of singularity what Van Til means is there is only one God. This means the Trinity is not tri-theism. By simplicity Van Til means that God is not composed of parts.
Van Til makes a statement about divine simplicity and the problem of the one and the many. Van Til says:
“Of the whole matter we may say that the unity and the diversity in God are equally basic and mutually dependent upon one another. The importance of this doctrine for Apologetics may be seen from the fact that the whole problem of philosophy may be summed up in the question of the relation of unity to diversity; the so-called problem of the one and the many receives a definite answer from the doctrine of the simplicity of God.”Ibid, 33.
Van Til then mentions the personality of God. This is important to the Christian Worldview concept of God and as Van Til frequently states “the absolute personality of God” of the Bible that is goodness, beauty, and truth. The non-Christian conception of God are impersonal.
Finally, Van Til mentions the Trinity. God exits as a tri-personality. The doctrine of the Trinity is the essential doctrine by which we come to understand the God we believe in.
For me on this section I recommend Reformed Forum’s Van Til Group podcast on Van Til’s Doctrine of God.
Doctrine of Man
The next important doctrine with apologetic importance is man or humanity. Regarding man as the image of God, Van Til says:
“Man is created in God’s image. He is therefore like God in everything in which a creature can be like God. He is like God in that he too is a personality.”Ibid, 37.
Van Til speaks of this image of God in both a wider more general sense and also a narrow sense. The wider more general aspect of image of God is that humans have personality. The narrow sense of the image of God is that man was created with true knowledge, true righteousness, and true holiness.
The next part concerning the doctrine of man is the relationship between man and the universe. Man was created to serve as God’s prophet, priest, and king to the rest of the created universe. As prophet man was to interpret this world. As priest man was to dedicate this world to God. As king man is to rule over the world for God.
Another Christian Worldview essential is the fall of man. Man was given the law of God and also given a test to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. According to Van Til the fall represents man’s attempt to do without God in every respect. Van Til says:
“The result for man was that he made for himself a false ideal of knowledge. Man made for himself the ideal of absolute comprehension in knowledge.”Ibid, 39-40.
This is completely inconsistent with the creatureliness of humanity. Instead of accepting the creatureliness the fallen man has made himself the ideal for truth and morality.
For more on this topic I recommend the Reformed Forum’s Van Til Group 3.
The Doctrine of Christ
The next essential for the Christian Worldview is the doctrine of Christ. The fall brings about a separation between man and God. According to Van Til:
“Reconciliation is possible only if God brings about salvation for man and therewith reunion with himself. Christ came to bring man back to God.”Ibid, 41.
Van Til then goes on to explain the essential that Christ was fully God and fully man. The important concept of being the second person of the ontological Trinity and then in the incarnation assumed a human nature. Van Til even appeals to a historical Christian creed when he says:
“Christ was and remained even when he was in the manger in Bethlehem a divine person but this divine person took to itself in close union with its divine nature a human nature. The Creed of Chalcedon has expressed all this by saying that in Christ the divine and the human natures are so related as to be “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The former two adjectives safeguard against the idea that the divine and the human are in any sense intermingled; the latter two adjectives assert the full reality of the union.”Ibid, 41.
According to Van Til the incarnation is fully consistent with a biblical and orthodox Christian doctrine of God. Van Til goes from appealing to the Creed of Chalcedon to the Westminster Catechism to explain his nature of Christ.
Van Til has the recognition that Jesus Christ fulfilled the offices of prophet, priest, and king. And according to Van Til:
“Christ is our wisdom. He is our wisdom not only in the sense that he tells us how to get to heaven; he is our wisdom too in teaching us true knowledge about everything concerning which we should have knowledge.”Ibid, 42.
This may be hard for some Christians to accept but this comes from the idea that there is a difference between true knowledge and false knowledge.
For more on Van Til’s Christology, I recommend the Reformed Forum’s Van Til group 4.
The Doctrine of Salvation
Van Til provides a Soteriology from the perspective of Calvinism. Regarding his Soteriology, Van Til says:
“In Soteriology we deal with the application to us of the redemption Christ has wrought for us. Sin being what it is, it would be useless to have salvation lie ready at hand unless it were also applied to us. Inasmuch as we are dead in trespasses and sins, it would do us no good to have a wonderful life-giving potion laid next to us in our coffin. It would do us good only if someone actually administered the potion to us.”Ibid, 43.
This is soteriology from a Calvinist perspective. Van Til then explains how it is important for the Christian apologist to defend the faith from a Calvinist perspective rather than an Arminian perspective. Van Til states that the differences between the two camps are too big to have a defense of the “common faith” because the difference between the two has to do with the relationship between the eternal God and temporal man. Many apologists seek to do a defense of common faith of evangelicalism that does not distinguish between the soteriological differences. While Van Til accepts both as Christians it is a difference that impacts the apologetic task. Van Til holds to a commitment to Reformed Theology and believes that it benefits the Christian to hold to Reformed Theology and defend it.
There are two important things worth quoting from Van Til. The first is on the role of the Spirit and focuses on the Creator/creature distinction, while the other takes this idea to its conclusion with regards to apologetics.
First, Van Til says:
“For this reason we must observe at this juncture that the Spirit who applies the work of Christ is himself also a member of the ontological trinity. He would have to be. Unless he were, the work of salvation would not be the work of God alone. If God was to be maintained in his incommunicable attributes the Spirit of God, not man, had to effect the salvation of man. The only alternative to this would be that man could at some point take the initiative in the matter of his own salvation. This would imply that the salvation wrought by Christ could be frustrated by man. Suppose that none should accept the salvation offered to them. In that case the whole of Christ’s work would be in vain and the eternal God would be set at nought by temporal man. Even if we say that in the case of any one individual sinner the question of salvation is in the last analysis dependent upon man rather than upon God, that is, if we say that man can of himself accept or reject the gospel as he pleases, we have made the eternal God dependent upon man. We have then, in effect, denied the incommunicable attributes of God. If we refuse to mix the eternal and the temporal at the point of creation and at the point of the incarnation we must also refuse to mix them at the point of salvation.”Ibid, 44.
This passage attempts to show how the position of Calvinism does not mix the eternal God with the temporal creation. This mixing does not happen at any point including the issue of salvation. Second, true conclusion of Calvinism in apologetics and Van Til says:
“Now since we hold that only such a concept of God as holds without compromise at any point to the conception of God as absolutely independent of man can really be said to represent the consistently Christian position, and since the whole debate between the Christian and the non-Christian position revolves about the question of the relation of the eternal to the temporal or of God to man, it will be apparent that we must hold that Arminianism can offer no effective Apologetic for Christianity.”Ibid, 44-45.
Van Til makes very clear that the method of Presuppositionalism he is advocating is a defense of Calvinism. Since Van Til wrote this the Arminian camp has split into several other theological camps like Molinism, Provisionism, and Open Theism.
The Doctrine of the Church
Van Til begins the topic of the Church with citing the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25. Regarding Van Til’s doctrine of the Church combined with his Calvinist view of Soteriology in mind, Van Til says:
“It is this fact of God’s absoluteness as expressed in his election of men that gives us courage in preaching and in reasoning with men. Sin being what it is, we may be certain that all our preaching and all our reasoning with men will be in vain unless God brings men to bay. Men cannot be brought to bay if they have any place to which they can go.”Ibid, 46.
And the place they go today may be to reject the gospel but tomorrow the place they go may be to accept the gospel.
The Doctrine of Last Things
While there are different views of specifics within Christianity, Van Til makes a comparison. Van Til starts off this section by stating:
“When we come to the Christian conception of the “last things,” we see once more how diametrically the Christian position is set over against that of its opponents. It becomes especially plain here that in the Christian conception of things interpretation precedes facts. Every Christian who trusts his future to God believes that God controls the future. He believes that God has interpreted the future; he believes that the future will come to pass as God has planned it. Prophecy illustrates this point. Belief in the promises of God with respect to our eternal salvation is meaningless if God does not control the future. We look forward to the facts to come because we accept the interpretation of them given us by God.”Ibid, 46.
The promise of the future is the restoration of all things that include the new Heaven and new earth. The eschatology of the non-Christian is one that offers no hope.
For more on Van Til’s doctrine of Salvation , doctrine of the Church, and doctrine of last things I recommend Reformed Forum’s Van Til group 5. https://reformedforum.org/podcasts/ctc712/
In conclusion of this commentary review of Van Til’s theology from chapter one, it has become common for Reformed Thomists to bring criticism of Van Til and Presuppositionalists for abandoning the orthodox view of the doctrine of God in regards specifically to divine simplicity. Upon reading the first chapter of Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith it is clear that Van Til does not abandon orthodoxy. Van Til expects the apologists to hold firm to the authority of Scripture when defending the faith.