William D. Dennison
P&R Publishing and K. Scott Oliphint (editor) have provided the church with wonderful, fresh editions of two important works by Cornelius Van Til: Common Grace and the Gospel (2015) and Christian Theistic Evidences (2016). To Van Til’s corrected text Oliphint has added introductions and explanatory footnotes.
These works address two of the most controversial subjects in Van Til’s apologetic method: does he truly hold to common grace as well as evidences for Christian theism? The simple answer to both questions is yes! But in each case, he has his own construct that does not follow a traditional grid.
Concerning common grace, he notes how the subject matter is unique to Reformed thought because of its view of the fall into sin affecting all of our human faculties. If every aspect of one’s human nature is affected by sin, how can a fallen human have an accurate knowledge of anything? Reformed thought has responded with the notion of common grace.
In Van Til’s estimation, Reformed thought has suggested three different answers to the previous question: (1) the traditional position (Kuyper, Bavinck, Hepp): God restrains the sinful human state through history; (2) the denial position (Hoeksema): the term grace should only be applied to redemption and has no relationship with what the believer and unbeliever have in common; and (3) the reconstructionist position (Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven): in an integrated view of God’s creation, all creation ordinances are viewed in submission to God’s will, which demands a response from every human heart.
As Van Til distanced himself from the denial position, he maintained that the traditional position was foundational to his position as he expressed sympathy with the reconstructionist viewpoint. With this being said, Van Til presents his own unique contribution on common grace. In my judgment, it is genius. He grounds his position in pre-redemptive revelation (pre-fall) and bases his understanding of common grace on the federal headship of the two Adams.
Two terms become crucial in Van Til’s construction: sameness and difference. Applying biblical revelation in accordance with confessional fidelity, Van Til views all humans as the same in Adam’s original perfection. However, in light of God’s eternal decree, there is a difference among all humans in that some are elect in Christ and some are reprobate. After Adam’s fall, all humans became sinners and are subject to God’s wrath. Sameness and difference continue: all humans are the same as subject to God’s wrath, but they are different in that some are elect in Christ and some are reprobate. For Van Til, common grace between the elect in Christ and the reprobate in the post-fall era must be traced to the sameness that all humans share in the first Adam. Statements made by humans after the fall can be accurate only because the pre-redemptive revelation of God to Adam remains somewhat intact in humanity, even though all human faculties of the mind are fallen as it interprets God’s revelation. The reprobate will interpret the facts by exchanging the truth for a lie, whereas the elect in Christ will interpret the facts in submission to Christ.
Van Til’s work on Christian Theistic Evidences is also unique. He is not concerned with arguing the rational validity of theism and Christian theism on the basis of neutral empirical facts. This particular work is devoted to confronting modern science with a holistic and coherent view of Christian theism based upon the revelation of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and orthodox Reformed systematic theology. The reader is invited into a remarkable synopsis of the history of modern science. The breath of Van Til’s scholarly engagement should not be overlooked; his careful study and analysis of over fifty-five primary sources in multiple disciplines needs recognition—from such notables as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Newton, Laplace, Kant, Lamarck, and Darwin to lesser notables as de Vries, Cohen, Bavink, Conklin, Mather, Millikan, Joad, Eddington, and Jastrow.
Van Til’s basic theme throughout the volume is easy to follow: throughout history, the continual attempt of modern scientists to view the empirical world as brute facts without the need to understand and interpret those facts on the basis of the authority of Christian theism, is a failure. Specifically, any individual or scientific discipline that begins with the presupposition that brute facts are to be understood and interpreted entirely by human reason and/or experience has already fallen prey to a fallacious explanation of those facts.
The finite mind can only remain within the limitation of the finite. Thus, in such a construct, those brute facts have appeared upon the scene by chance. For Van Til, the modern scientists’ explanation of brute facts (object) has no analogical reference point except fallen, finite reason and/or experience (subject). Each autonomous mind provides its own meaning, understanding, and interpretation of the facts, and so their reference point reduces to absurdity. In the chance world of autonomous science, there can never be unity within diversity. Without presupposing the God of the Bible, there is no verifiable evidence at all for any discipline of science. Hence, in its holistic construct, modern science is mythology.
For apologetic purposes, it is not a coincidence that Van Til opens the volume with an extensive discussion of Bishop Butler’s apologetic method (Arminian/Thomistic) and David Hume. He points out that Butler’s argument for Christianity does not hold up to Hume’s skepticism, since Butler starts with Hume’s view of brute fact. The only way in which facts have meaning is within a full-orbed Christian theism. The facts are the absolute evidence for Christian theism. With this approach, the Christian engages modern science with a biblical view of the Creator, creation/providence, teleology, and psychology. The evidence for God’s person and character is revealed in the execution of his plan and purpose in history, centered in the exaltation of his Son and the glory of the church. Any truth that modern science has discovered (by common grace), in spite of its presuppositions, is “borrowed capital of Christian theism” (p. 113). Only God creates and verifies the evidence of empirical facts that science uses in its craft.
The author teaches at Covenant College. Common Grace and the Gospel: 328 pages, list price $17.99. Christian Theistic Evidences: 288 pages, list price $19.99. Both books are paperbacks, sold by P&R Publishing.