Theonomy Files, no.4: The Van Til Problem

This post does not seek to attack or criticize Van Til.  I am simply stating that Van Til represents a dialectical problem for the modern American Reformed church.  And for the record, I like Van Til the theologian and Van Til the churchman and Van Til the preacher.  I reject Van Til the apologist.

Van Til is the default position of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, for better or worse.  I only say that to illustrate that Van Til is a mainstream, normative figure in conservative Presbyterianism (The PCA does not have the Van Tillian ties that the OPC has, as is evidenced by RTS-Jackson).  The corollary to the previous sentence:  the implications of Van Til’s thought should be normative, yet they are rejected.    In The Doctrine of Scripture Van Til said (and I am quoting from memory) that “the earth cries out from man’s sin and demands an account” (p. 6).  Now, some could say, “Yes, but he is just paraphrasing Genesis 3.”  I say he isn’t. Van Til’s larger context is not simply that Adam did this in Eden, but that covenant-breaking man does this in general.

You might ask, “So what?”  Well, this is precisely the presupposition (pun intended) behind Gary North’s and Ray Sutton’s 5 Point Covenant Paradigm, point three:  ethical sanctions.  All of the old recons had argued (and I think quite cogently) that there is a causal correlation between sin/covenant-breaking and the earth itself.  So my question to the Institutional Reformed:  how can you agree with page 6 of The Doctrine of Scripture and yet reject the idea behind point 3 of Sutton’s Covenantal Paradigm?

That’s not even the biggest problem for the Institutional Reformed.   Is natural law an application of natural theology?  Most say it is.  Yet Van Til destroyed natural theology (distinct from Common-Sense realism, as I will prove in my later review of Van Til).  But the Institutional Reformed accept Van til’s theology, so how can they accept natural law?

The above is more of a problem for northern, OPC-ish communities on Van Til.  The southern, PCA-ish communities do not have quite the problem.   The PCA was created apart and outside of the Van Til narrative.  RTS-Jackson was not Van Tillian.  They were not anti-Van Tillian, either.  They knew that Van Til was a good ole boy from up North, so they couldn’t openly attack him, and true, many of the profs I sat under didn’t care too much for natural theology.   Later, other prominent pastor-professors would come and say we need to use “Common Sense,” of which I was hostile at the time.  I never noticed any syllabi or reading lists on Common Sense epistemology.   I asked them specifically, “What is common sense?”  They couldn’t answer.  Now, I admit I was a bit wrong there, too.  There is a good answer and good use to Common Sense epistemology.  I suspect their real reason to Common Sense epistemology was two-fold:  1) too many Van Tillians were theonomists and 2) CSR was sort of Scottish and Southern Presbyterian, to which they saw themselves the rightful heirs.

So far I’ve defended CVT in this post.  I’ll point out some problems.  Most people critique his writing style.  They say he is too difficult to read.  I no longer think that is true.  CVT for the most part is saying plain things from traditional Reformed scholasticism (with a few exceptions).  The problem is that Reformed seminaries no longer teach this and so the students can’t understand basic concepts that older generations thought were foundational.  The problem isn’t Van Til; it’s the academic world.

A real problem, though, is that most of the 3rd generation recons didn’t understand Van Til (or traditional reformed theology) but thought they did and went ahead doing theology–with disastrous results.

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5 comments on “Theonomy Files, no.4: The Van Til Problem

  1. Fr. John+ says:

    “The PCA was created apart and outside of the Van Til narrative.”

    Thanks for clarifying that point for me. It’s been over three decades since I left the Orthodox Pharisees, but thought the PCA was in the same mould- yet, couldn’t reconcile what clearly was a total departure from the ‘regulative principle of worship’ via the Rock bands of the PCA, and allowing such perversions as Anfernee Bradley- the PCA just seemed too “squishy.”

    I now understand why. They left behind Reformed thought, when they imbibed the ‘spirit of the age.’ And are reaping the whirlwind, thereby.

    (Glad I left when I did)

  2. Benjamin P. Glaser says:

    I guess I should say thanks for moving me to re-read Van Til. 🙂

  3. No problem. Same here. Though Van Til is actually moving me towards a hard Bavinck reading line. The guy to go to is the late F. N. Lee. The following lecture is simply outstanding. He covers Van Til, Vollenhoven, and Dooyeweerd. http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=102704111855

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