Old Van Til reviews

I know this is going to be a long post, but it is mainly for research purposes.  I am not a Van Tillian. I am closer to Klaas Schilder, so I sort of transcend these debates.

Introduction to Systematic Theology

Van Til’s method can be summarized as thinking God’s thoughts after him in an analogical way (we receptively reconstruct God’s own preinterpreted facts). He also builds his system around the following:

1) God’s being and knowledge are coterminous. If God’s knowledge is not coterminous with his being, then it is a correlative of his being. This being is then given a potentiality of its own. No more internally complete knowledge. Hence the open and finite god of non-Reformed systems.

2) The principle of individuation lie withing the Godhead. Only there are facts correlative and brute factuality ruled out.

3) Van Til struggles with the 1 and 3 of the Godhead, particularly in terminology, but I think he is making steps forward and his difficulty is no different from Augustine’s.

Persons are mutually exhaustive of each other, but what does that mean?
he says we “speak of God as a person” (220). Is this necessarily modalism? Maybe not. Whenever God confronts us in Scripture, he speaks as one person. That could be what Van Til means.

Before we attack Van Til, we must acknowledge that there really isn’t a good definition of person. Indeed, for Eastern Patristic thought there cannot be a definition of person, because a person is what is uniquely particular about an individual and resists a universal definition.
Even more, Patristic definitions of person, such as they were, did not include self-consciousness and mind. Modern definitions of persons do. This isn’t to say the latter is correct, but it does highlight our problem today of speaking about persons.

4) Beware of Beginning with Bad Abstractions. We should not think of “Being” in an abstract, empty way.
An abstract “way of negation” is a convenient tool for the sinner to remove the positive demands God makes on him. If one uses the way of negation before the way of eminence (ala Rome), then one ends up with a finite god.

We lose the aseity of God when we begin with abstract concepts of being. Such abstractness makes God/being a correlative with other being(s).

If we “negate” simply by removing the creatureliness of a property–time and space– and then applying that to God, we do not get the infinity of god. We get emptiness (211)


This book suffers from the usual defects, if such they are. He moves too quickly and key points aren’t always elucidated. Still, if you work through what he is saying and continually reference Greek thought and Bavinck, many gems are within.

Survey of Christian Epistemology

Typical van Til book. Numerous interesting insights on Greek philosophy. Sort of spirals out of control on Idealism as he (likely) tried to fit his dissertation into three chapters.

Abstractness and Greek Epistemology

For Plato “abstract” is the opposite of empirical (33). The sense-world is associated with ultimate plurality. It is the world of “Becoming.” Because all is in flux, there is no unity in the sense world. It can only find its unity in the world of ideals.

But the world of Ideas cannot solve the problem of knowledge, either. Further, Which Idea is most ultimate and why? It appears then that the world of Ideas has a diversity in it as well.

The world of the ideas, on the other hand, is Absolute and unchanging. To which world, then, does the soul belong?

If the soul belongs to the world of Ideals, and as such is eternal, then why did it leave it that world in the first place?

Who Can Think in Eternal categories?

We can’t use temporal categories to talk about the non-temporal world. Further, we can’t use eternal categories to talk about the temporal world, since the former are immutable and the later mutable. We need a God who can reveal this manner of speaking to us.

Medieval Epistemology

CvT is friendlier to Augustine in this volume than he was in A Christian Theory of Knowledge. Here he emphasizes the differences between Augustine and Plato and focuses the discussion on the problem of knowledge that Plato raised in the previous chapter: what is the principle of Unity (One) and Diversity (Many)?

For CvT this solution lies in the doctrine of the Trinity.

Without a doctrine of creation, the sense world is seen as an “ultimate” (48). And if we start with an ultimate plurality, how will we get to unity? Plato never found unity in the Ideal world, for the Idea of the Good never acquired supremacy over the other ideas, and there remained the problem of the Idea of mud, hair, and filth.

The scholastics accepted the Greek idea of the soul, which parallels the chain of being. At the lowest level is the vegetative part, then the appetitive, then the cognitive (this also parallels comments made by John of Damascus).

Universals and Paganism

The problem of universals is simply a restatement of the problem of the One and the Many.

Donum Superadditum

Something (image of God) received with man’s being. The origin of this thought lies in the pagan idea of a material universe with an evil inherent in it existing independently of God (62). It’s hard to see on this gloss how God could have created man “good” apart from endowing him with a little something extra.

Modern Epistemology: Lutheranism

Luther thought of the image of God in purely moral categories, neglecting such as the will and intellect.

Van Til analyzes the Lutheran view of the sacrament as it relates to the person of Christ, and as such to epistemology: the human can become divine. It is an intermingling of temporal and eternal (70). As such, Lutheranism also finds itself facing the same difficulties that Platonism faced.

Original Sin and Representation (78)

Van Til has an illuminating discussion on original sin. He addresses the common challenge to it: it is illogical because we can’t be tried for someone else’s actions. But he pointsout that this only works if we reject the category of representation.

He says that the principle of representation holds because the members of the Trinity are mutually representational. That is an interesting suggestion, but I am not sure what he really means by that. He goes on to say that God creates in representational categories (78-79). Again, very intriguing but not really that clear.

Modern Epistemology: Arminianism

For Watson finitude involves evil (82). “No creature can be entirely perfect because he is finite” (Watson, Theological Institutes vol 1, p. 33). This mutes the distinction between general and special revelation. But as Van Til points out, this is paganism. It posits a world independent of God. If God created the world there is no reason why it can’t be perfectly good (Van Til, 82). Van Til asks the question, “Why [on the Arminian gloss]could not God create a perfect though finite being?” The only real answer for the Arminian is that there must be laws and conditions above God to which he must answer (90).

Van Til then employs the standard (and in my opinion, devastating) objection to Arminianism: was it in God’s plan that man should fall into evil? If he says yes, then he is a Calvinist. If he says no, then he posits a Platonic man outside the plan and power of God (83). Like Plato, this posits a world independent (to some degree, anyway) of God.

Van Til then goes on to discuss the Arminian contention that for an ethical act to be truly free, it must occur in an impersonal vacuum (Miley, Systematic Theology, I: 409, quoted in Van Til, 87). The problem with this is given what we confess about God, and that all facts are in a God-vacuum, then on Miley’s gloss it’s hard to see how any action could occur. Van Til points out this is an anti-theistical position. He writes, “[this] act could not occur except in the Void” (88).

Modern Epistemology: Calvinism

Van Til links Calvin’s project under the “Covenant” (96). He notes that we see his “representation” in the Trinity as well. The persons of the Trinity are exhaustive of one another. This allows man to find the principles of unity and diversity within the Trinity (and hence, within eternal categories).

If the Trinity is representational, then man, too, thinks in representational categories (97). Representation = Covenant = Covenantal Categories


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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