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How Vosian Is Van Til? A Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

Servant Reading

How Vosian Is Van Til? A Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

In Defense of the Eschaton: Essays in Reformed Apologetics, by William D. Dennison, edited by James D. Baird. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015, xxviii + 197 pages, $27.00, paper.

In his 1985 book, Paul’s Two-Age Construction and Apologetics,[1] William Dennison argued that the Apostle Paul used a two-age construction for the starting point of a Christian apologetic. Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 1–3 that the church defends the wisdom of the age to come against the wisdom of the present evil age. Dennison then argued that Cornelius Van Til’s Reformed apologetic corresponded to this Pauline structure and imperative. For Van Til, apologetics was the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life (the wisdom of the age to come) against non-Christian philosophies of life (the wisdom of the present evil age).

During the thirty years that have followed, Dennison, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has filled out this thesis with articles and reviews. These writings have been collected and edited by James Baird in the anthology In Defense of the Eschaton: Essays in Reformed Apologetics.

Dennison understands that Van Til put forth his apologetic within the traditional rubric of systematic theology. Dennison embraces that apologetic, but he seeks to show that historical and eschatological elements were also foundational for Van Til’s system. Namely, he argues that Van Til followed after his teacher Geerhardus Vos as Van Til grounded his apologetic in the history of redemption as revealed in Holy Scripture.

This redemptive-historical emphasis put Dennison at odds with two other leading Van Tilian proponents, John Frame and the late Greg Bahnsen. Dennison interacted with Frame in a 1995 essay marking the one hundredth birthday of Van Til, “Analytic Philosophy and Van Til’s Epistemology” (9–35), and with Bahnsen in his 2004 review of Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic.[2]

In the former, Dennison praises Frame for acknowledging that Van Til presented a holistic biblical system. Frame rightly refers to the first principles of Van Til’s thought, the theological introduction that lies behind the theological system. Where Frame falls short is that he focuses primarily upon analytic philosophy and modern language theory when dealing with Van Til. Van Til used the language of idealism, but the entrance into Van Til’s methodology is not idealism, but history. Dennison writes, “According to Van Til, his epistemology is built upon the foundation of a philosophy of history. It is within this context that Van Til developed his famous Creator-creature distinction and the other aspects of his epistemology. To my knowledge, Frame’s writings have not noted this key point” (21). Dennison continues:

In the broad context of analytic philosophy, [Frame] rejects (or at least has the tendency to overlook) a sole Archimedean point that explains the whole picture of an individual’s thought. Hence, his Van Tilian epistemology is formulated within the context of a perspectival conception of knowledge, whereas the main rubric of Van Til’s epistemology—the philosophy of history—is not even investigated or presented. (21)

Frame for his part does not recognize himself in the critique. In his endorsement of In Defense of the Eschaton, Frame writes, “Professor Dennison and I have not seen eye-to-eye with regard to Van Til, and after twenty years I am still bewildered by his critique of my approach (chapter 2 of this book).” He then graciously adds, “But Dennison and I both seek to honor Jesus Christ and to recognize his claims on human thought, and I honor him for that.”

Dennison praises Bahnsen even more than he does Frame, but ends up with the same criticism. Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic is a “welcome addition” (155). Bahnsen “provides insightful commentary as he maps out the position of Van Til’s opponents while providing further analysis into Van Til’s own position” (156). Dennison concludes, “Bahnsen’s work may be the finest and fairest encapsulation of Van Til’s apologetic system to appear in print” (158), but he adds that it has a flaw. In Dennison’s judgment, “it fails to grasp the control that biblical progressive revelation had upon Van Til’s apologetic” (158).

To prove his point, Dennison interacts with Bahnsen’s discussion of Van Til’s view of logic. Bahnsen rightly quoted Van Til as saying, “Human logic agrees with the story, because it derives its meaning from the story” (158). Rather than Bahnsen penetrating why Van Til declared this, Dennison notes that Bahnsen turned to a discussion of the laws of logic. Dennison writes:

Ironically, as a Van Tilian, Bahnsen fails to apply Van Til’s transcendental analysis upon Van Til. In other words, he fails to grasp the transcendental starting point of Van Til’s view of logic and how Van Til applied his starting point to the philosophical issues dealing with the “laws of logic.” In more than one place in his writings, Van Til was clear that “logic” and “facts” only have meaning in the context of the “story.” For Van Til, the “story” is the “Christian story”—meaning the story of redemption unfolding progressively upon the pages of Scripture. Specifically, logic and facts have no meaning outside the redemptive-historical revelation of Christ. (158)

In Dennison’s judgment, the area where Frame and Bahnsen struggled in their analysis is the area where John Muether succeeded in his biography, Cornelius Van Til. In his glowing review of the book, Dennison writes:

Muether has correctly understood that the history of redemption, conditioned by God’s covenant, grounds Van Til’s view of antithesis. On this exact point, he has correctly assessed the influence of Vos upon Van Til’s apologetic—often missed by others. (161)

This thesis, that the history of redemption grounds the antithesis in Van Til’s apologetic, is a thread that runs through the chapters of In Defense of the Eschaton, even though Part 1 (chapters 1–5) is labeled “Van Til Studies” and Part 2 (chapters 6–8) is labeled “Redemptive History and Apologetics.” The trump card that Dennison smartly plays in multiple essays is illustrating Van Til’s doctrine of common grace. Dennison contends that Vos’s redemptive-historical teaching was foundational to Van Til’s reassessment of this doctrine.

This comes out clearly in Dennison’s 1993 essay, “Van Til and Common Grace.” According to Dennison, Van Til appreciated the traditional Reformed position on common grace, that God restrained man’s sinful state through history, and God enabled man to express gifts as an image-bearer through history. But, Van Til also believed that common grace had to be understood eschatologically. He believed common grace dealt with the question, “What do entities which will one day be wholly different from one another have in common before the final stage of separation is reached?” (48).

The example that Dennison supplies to explain Van Til’s position is that of a Christian and a non-Christian fishing. One catches a bass. They measure it and agree that it is sixteen inches long. However, they disagree on how the bass came to be. The Christian believes God created it. The non-Christian believes it the chance product of evolution. Apparently, the result is a commonness of description but a difference in explanation. Dennison opines that most Christians would rest content with that explanation, but not Van Til. Dennison writes, “Van Til maintained that every description is an explanation of a fact—the description of a fact is not a neutral category that exists irrespective of God” (46).

Van Til did not accept the dichotomy between description and explanation because he believed that definition and description belong to God alone. The believer is self-conscious of his dependence upon God to describe and explain the facts. The non-believer is self-conscious of his rejection of God to describe and explain the facts.

This is why Van believed that Christian and non-Christian cannot have any fact in common. They stand opposed in their epistemological self-consciousness. At the same time, the two stand together in that they are both created in the image of God and living in the same universe. This is why the two can agree that the bass is sixteen inches long.

In coming to this conclusion, Van Til appealed to a right understanding of pre-redemptive revelation, which Vos had laid out in The Biblical Theology.[3] In the garden, Adam, created upright, fellowshipped with God. Furthermore, Adam’s relationship to God was covenantal at every point. There was no interpretation of what was before Adam in the garden apart from God. Adam was in an environment where natural and special revelation were not separated. Dennison remarks:

For Van Til, herein lies the notion of common grace. In this pre-redemption state, all men in Adam (the elect and reprobate) have a unified understanding and interpretation of the revelation of God and his creation. God’s revelation is everywhere; all men have a consciousness within them that God created them in his image and all men have a testimony of God that he is the Creator and sustains all things. In this condition, all men have a common ethical reaction of goodness to the common mandate of God (which some refer to as the cultural mandate); according to Van Til, “they are all mandate-hearers and mandate-keepers.” God has the same favorable attitude to all. Being in union with Adam’s original status, mankind has a holistic consciousness of pre-redemptive revelation within them and the testimony of a holistic pre-redemptive revelation to them that continues throughout all the stages of history, even to the final consummation. Van Til calls the continuation of this original status common grace. (50)

In his 2011 article “Antithesis, Common Grace, and Plato’s View of the Soul” (55–80), Dennison revisited Van Til’s conception of common grace to help examine Christian education. He observed that many historic Reformed institutions of higher learning had become secularized. In asking why, he concludes that Christian scholars too often invoked the doctrine of common grace and allowed natural and general revelation to become a shared point of integration with non-Christian scholars. The result was the loss of antithesis at the institutions.

According to Dennison, Van Til had anticipated this decline and urged Christian scholars to proceed with the understanding that antithesis must precede common grace. A particular element in the non-Christian’s system may be a common grace insight, one shared by both Christian and non-Christian. But, it is only a common grace insight if it is in compliance with the truth of God’s Word.

As an example, Dennison turns to an analysis of Plato’s teaching that the soul is immortal. Is Plato’s teaching the same as Scripture’s teaching? Plato’s conception demands a belief in reincarnation and the existence of a Form world at the top of a chain of being. Dennison writes:

Simply put, the interrelationship between the Form world and the immortal soul is not the Archimedean point on which the Bible predicates the immortality of the soul. For this reason, Plato’s holistic construct of the immortality of the soul is antithetical to the holistic teaching of the immortality of the soul found in Holy Scripture. (73)

The Bible teaches that God created man after his own image with an immortal soul, which distinguished human beings from brutes.

After showing the difference that exists, Dennison challenges scholars to prove that the decline of once outstanding Christian institutions is the result of stressing the antithesis between Christian thought and non-Christian thought too much. He declares,

The secularization of any such institution occurs because the epistemological, metaphysical, ontological, and ethical truth of the integrative and progressive infallible revelation of the triune God of the Bible has been compromised under what Reformed thought refers to as common grace. (77)

In his 2011 essay “Van Til and Classical Christian Education” (81–103), Dennison questions whether Christians should be enthusiastically embracing the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) in educating their children. Van Til pointed out that the Greeks thought that it was reasonable to ask what the facts are before they asked where the facts come from. If God himself followed this method of the Greeks, then God could deny his own being in order to gain knowledge and interpretation of the facts. When Christians adopt the Greek model in education, human reason enters into a partnership with God with a goal of producing a moral life. But, there is nothing inherent in the trivium to bring about the ethical transformation of a person in the biblical sense. Dennison writes:

Human beings have no release from the bondage of sin and corresponding freedom unto eternal life without Christ’s central redemptive-historical work. Life in Christ through his Spirit is absolutely and solely the gift of grace; our reconciliation comes solely from the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Can the Christian find such a truth in classical pagan literature? No—nor can it be found in any construct of the trivium in classical education. (99)

The opening two essays in Part 2 of In Defense of the Eschaton, “The Christian Apologist in the Present State of Redemptive History” (105–17) and “The Eschatological Implications of Genesis 2:15 for Apologetics” (118–31), share the same thesis. The believer, united by faith to Christ in the heavenly places, is called to defend the holy presence of Christ from every evil advance against Christ and his kingdom.

In the “The Christian Apologist,” Dennison contends that Christians and non-Christians do not share in a common cognitive process of reasoning and experiencing. The non-Christian binds reason and experience to an earthly existence. The Christian binds reason and experience to being joined to Christ in the heavenly places. This contrast is why the apologist must not make a neutral appeal to reason (logic) or temporal experience (empirical data). The believer, through Christ’s Spirit, is already draped in the glorious atmosphere of Christ’s presence in heaven. Hence, the apologist’s task is a defense of the final state of heavenly life, or as the title of the anthology proclaims, a defense of the eschaton.

In “The Eschatological Implications,” Dennison appeals to Genesis 2:15 (“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it”) to explain the relationship between eschatology and apologetics. Following the exegetical insights of Gregory Beale and Meredith Kline, Dennison sees Adam as a priest, and the garden as a creational representation of the heavenly temple of the Lord. Adam is immediately placed in God’s presence to guard the garden-sanctuary. In that defense, Adam does not begin with natural revelation and then move to special revelation. Rather, God condescends and reveals himself to Adam. Dennison writes:

According to Genesis 2:15, Adam is to perform his apologetic task by defending and serving the Lord and his Word; he is to live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. The eschatological dimension of God’s revelation determines the method of the apologetic task: He must start with God, and he must end with God; or it can be said that he must start with God’s Word, and he must end with God’s Word. (125)

The last essay in the book, “A Reassessment of Natural and Special Revelation” (132–53), holds personal meaning for Dennison as he acknowledges a dependence in writing it upon the insights of his older brother Rev. Charles G. Dennison (1945–1999). It is apparent that William enjoyed a great period of creativity/productivity when Charles was living, and the two could bounce redemptive-historical conclusions off each other, and this essay seven years after Charles’s death is a fine tribute.

In the essay, Dennison challenges the traditional Reformed reading of Psalm 19:4 as belonging to the category of natural revelation in light of Paul’s use of Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18. Dennison believes that Paul quotes Psalm 19:4 in regard to the gospel, that is, in regard to special revelation. He writes, “Paul tells us by quoting Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18 that the heavens have witnessed the supernatural activity of God upon the plane of the natural creation, and furthermore, that the creation proclaims that testimony every single day to all men” (145). Although there are two forms of revelation, natural and special, the biblical teaching is that they are inseparable. He explains:

The creation (natural revelation) declares the supernatural deeds/acts of the Lord (special revelation). This observation does not mean that the creation (natural revelation) tells us that the death of Christ will be on Calvary, or that Christ’s resurrection will occur in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38). Even so, the creation witnesses that Christ died on the cross, and the creation witnesses that the resurrected Christ broke the bonds of the tomb (Matt. 27:45, 50–54; 28:2–3). The creation has witnessed the entire story of redemption and testifies to that entire story by virtue of its pattern of existence—suffering waiting for the exaltation of Christ and the church! Within the fabric of natural revelation lies the essential blueprint (pattern) of special revelation. (144)

In many ways, reading Dennison is like reading Van Til. Both are unashamed about being militantly Reformed, that is, standing fully behind the divinely inspired Word of God, the Reformed confessions, and ecumenical creeds. Both are criticized for not understanding properly those with whom they disagree. Both tend to make their case more easily in the negative, showing the inconsistencies of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, and liberal Protestantism. When stated positively, their arguments can at times sound like abstractions.

Where they differ is often not in content, but in the exegetical emphasis that Dennison adds. Van Til allowed Vos, and his colleagues at Westminster Theological Seminary, John Murray, Ned B. Stonehouse, and Edward J. Young, to provide the exegetical arguments. Van Til was focused more on running with that exegesis in a systematic fashion. Dennison is more focused on running with the same exegesis in a redemptive-historical direction.

Consequently, it is not without significance that Dennison dedicates the book to Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Gaffin self-consciously endeavored to unite Vos and Van Til in theology; Dennison as Gaffin’s student has self-consciously endeavored to unite Van Til and Vos in apologetics. In a sentence that could serve as a summary statement of what unites Van Til and Vos, Dennison writes:

What belongs to believers in Christ’s redemption is grounded in one’s state of existence prior to the fall, and what was designed in the pre-fall state was predicated upon the final eschatological existence in Christ’s total redemption for all believers of Christ’s bride. (77)

The centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ, and the significance of believer’s union with the risen Christ take center stage. When you are standing in the presence of God in Christ, 1 Corinthians 2, you are not dependent upon rational proofs.

In Defense of the Eschaton is attractively laid out, and Baird is to be commended for his efforts in convincing Dennison to go along with the project, but certain editorial decisions are puzzling. Baird changes the wording of the original article titles for many of the chapters. The omission of Dennison’s article “Dutch Neo-Calvinism and the Roots for Transformation”[4] was a missed opportunity to explore how Dennison does not agree with certain elements of Neo-Calvinist activism, even though Abraham Kuyper influenced Van Til greatly. The nineteen endorsements, “Forward,” “Preface,” “Acknowledgments,” and two-tiered “Introduction” that covered nearly forty pages left this reviewer wondering what could be added in a review article even before reading page one of the first essay.

Those are minor quibbles compared to what Baird does right in his systematic ordering of the articles chosen. Baird allows Dennison to build his case for a right understanding of Van Til’s apologetic and Vos’s biblical theology in a manner that benefits both layman and scholar.

Endnotes

[1] William D. Dennison, Paul’s Two-Age Construction and Apologetics (Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1985; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2000).

[2] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic, Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998).

[3] Geerhardus Vos, The Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 19–44.

[4] William D. Dennison, “Dutch Neo-Calvinism and the Roots for Transformation,” JETS 42, no. 2 (June 1999): 271–91.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, May 2016.

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