My non-existent neo-Plantingian Interview

This interview never happened.  It is between me and myself.  On a more serious note, I have noticed that my philosophical readings do not fit into any specific category.  That is good, I suppose, since “joining a school” is not the best start.

Question: You read Van Til, doesn’t that make you a Van Tillian?

Answer:  Not really.  I don’t find all of his apologetics convincing, but I do appreciate his reading of Greek and medieval theology.  I think he has a lot of promise in that area.  More importantly, Van Til, better than anyone else at his time, showed the importance of God as a Covenantal, Personal God.

Q.  But didn’t you used to promote Thomas Reid’s Scottish philosophy?  All the Van Tillians I know reject it.

A. There are two different “Van Tillian” answers to that question, and his reconstructionist disciples only knew one of them.  In Survey of Christian Epistemology (p. 132-134) he notes that if the Scottish school takes man’s cognitive faculties as a proximate starting point and not an ultimate one, then there is no real problem.  Further, we see Thomas Reid and Alvin Plantinga saying exactly that.   Elsewhere, however, Van Til was not as careful in his reading of Reid, and the reconstructionists read him as condemning Common Sense Realism.

Q.  So, is there a contradiction between the two schools?

A.  If the above distinction is made, I am not convinced there is.

Q. You keep mentioning Alvin Plantinga.  Are you a Reformed Epistemology guy?

A. I’ve read quite a bit of Wolterstorff and Kelly James Clark.  I like what they have to say.  I am not an expert on Plantinga so I have to demur at that point.  I do think there is a dovetailing between Thomas Reid and Plantinga, and if that convergence holds there is an exciting opportunity to unite Reformed guys along different epistemological and even geographical lines.

Q. What do you mean?

A. The guys in Westminster (either school) claim Van Til.  There is a debate on how well they understand him, but that’s beside the point. I think I have demonstrated above that there is no real contradiction between the two at least on the starting point.  This means that guys who hold to some variant of Common Sense epistemology and/or Van Tillian presuppositionalism do not have to be at loggerheads.

Q.  There is still one other Dutch giant you haven’t mentioned.

A.  You mean Herman Dooyeweerd, right?

Q. Correct.

A.  If you trace the development of the Reformed Epistemology school, you can find something like Dooyeweerd at the very beginning.  When Wolterstorff and Plantinga edited Faith and Rationality, they were at that time strongly influenced by Dooyeweerd. I am not saying that’s where they are today.   However, I do believe that Dooyeweerd’s contention that all men have a pre-theoretical “faith commitment” from the heart is in line with what Kelly James Clark and Van Til say about pretended neutrality.

Earthy-ing the Imago Dei

I read Van Til, Dooyeweerd, and Rushdoony for reasons most other people don’t read them.  I couldn’t care less about specific apologetic methodologies.  Their true genius is in the fact that they–more than anyone else–allowed the Creator-creature distinction to inform their understanding of creation and imago Dei.

Any discussion of the imago-dei is better served, not by speculating on essences and accidents, but on man’s role as priest-king-prophet in creation and New Creation.  We must firmly resist any scheme that says the higher part of man is the soul while the lower part is the body (John of Damascus and Aquinas say exactly that).

Survey of Christian Epistemology (Full)

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.

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 points out 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 Institutesvol 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).

Survey Christian Epistemology: The Greeks

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.

Epistemology and non-being participation

Some of this will be my own reflections on CvT’s A Christian Theory of Knowledge and the rest will be towards a construction of anti-scale of being philosophy.  I am not reviewing the whole book because it’s unnecessary.   Why do a review of any CvT work after Bahnsen’s magnum opus?  Further, the last 150 pages of CTK could have been left off and the book would have been better.

While CvT’s critique of Romanism was good, he didn’t integrate his earlier (and fine) critique of Plotinus, Augustine, and being/non-being into his larger critique of Romanism, which likely could have buried Romanism.  Instead, he got sidetracked on showing how Karl Barth is secretly in line with the nouvelle theologie of post-Vatican II theology.  That simply doesn’t wash.   For all of Barth’s problems, he rejected the analogia entis and the substance metaphysics upon which Rome is built.

CvT gives a fairly good summary and critique of the early church fathers.  There is some difficulty in this, since no one, even anchoretic traditions, are entirely clear on who constitutes (and when!) the ECFs.  Even admitting Tertullian is a heretic, I don’t think you will find many exceptions in the ancient world to the epistemology CvT is summarizing.   The later Palamite epistemology is simply a refinement (and perhaps bungling) of some neo-Platonic themes, so to the degree that CvT accurately summarizes and critiques the being theologies of Augustine, Plotinus, and Eurigena, the criticism applies to Palamas (and Palamas and Augustine are closer than one might suspect).

CvT writes that the early church could not find a Christian view of freedom to coalesce with a Christian view of necessity, with the result the fathers opted for a nonbiblical view of free will.

Non-Christian Continuity and Discontinuity

A non-Christian view of continuity sees an identification of God and man, as seen below:

The higher on the scale, the more real and “true” the thing is.  Van Til notes that Tertullian sees sin as “the opposite of good.”  This sounds correct until we realize that means sin is “lower” on the scale of good.   Sin has “slenderness of being.”

On the principle of continuity it is hard to see how Tertullian (and Justin)’s view of God is different from the Stoics’.  But when he argues against Marcion, he says the Christian God is “Other” than man (107).

Later Platonisms

Moving to the fathers (Origen and Clement) we see the scale of being hardened in place.   CvT quotes Plotinus to the effect, “thought is motion” and this is inferior to ecstasy.   (Rowan Williams has a helpful summary on this point).

Here our chart is modified. God is now seen as hyper-ousia, above ousia.  How does one then get from the highest point on the scale of being to “above being?”   Mysticism, ecstasy.   Van Til can then make the critique that many of these fathers employed both rationalism (scale of being, continuity principle) and irrationalism (ecstasy, mysticism).  In fact, rationalism and irrationalism on this gloss are dialectically correlative.

If man is on the scale of being and participates in good, then consistently we must say he also participates in non-being.

Is Finitude Evil?

This is the key point: on metaphysical accounts (and yes, I used the word “metaphysical”) man is defective because he is finite (he participates lower on the scale of being, even to participating in non-being.   Biblical religion, by contrast, sees man’s problem as ethical:  he is in rebellion to God.   CvT then gives a helpful discussion on “total depravity.”  We are not saying that man’s noetic capacity is ruined.   It is in rebellion.

A Metaphysical Fall from Oneness

Augustine is very clear (City of God section on the Platonists) that One = Truth = Being.   The further away from the One we get, the more irrational we get.   The problem is that historical facts are in the realm of the many (further, since history is contingent).  This is similar to Plato’s problem of learning by experience.  Van Til writes,

When Plato took his line and divided it sharply between eternal being of which there was genuine knowledge or science, and non-being of which there was no knowledge, he was faced with the question of how learning by experience is possible (129).

Back to Augustine:  Eternal Truth and History are dialectical opposites.  If Christ is the Eternal Word (and true) then how could he be historical? If historical, then not eternal, and thus not true, and thus unknown.  This is where one’s onto-epistemology leads.  As Van Til says, “The first option leads to truth without content.”

Van Til has a nice phrase to summarize all of this:  slenderness of being.  (And that is where these traditions find man’s free will).

Other notes:

Rejecting the Augstino-Platonic view of Time:  sheer timeless (moving image of eternity) would swallow up all distinctions.


I almost understand what CvT means when he says pure rationality and pure irrationality demand one another (144).  I wish he would have clarified it.

I understand his criticisms of Barth and some of them are valid.  I don’t think he fully showed how Barth’s actualist ontology is at odds with Rome’s analogia entis.

Covenantal Ethical Epistemology Diagrammed

The following helpful charts are taken from

Two faiths - one and many

(Above is THE spear-thrust through the heart of Anchoretism and hyper-ousia theology.   You cannot understand anthropology without knowing the above chart and why we Reformed reject it.  This is where seminary failed me miserably, and I failed in trying to originally respond to anchoretism)

On the recent Triablogue discussion

One of my posts raised a  discussion on triablogue.   My intention in the post was simply to show that EO’s claim of “Well, we offer communion with God” isn’t unique.  That’s it.   I pointed out how other traditions can offer the same claim.  I did not intend to say that EO = Hinduism = Islam = Mooneyism.   My state was simply a literary rhetorical flourish.   Many simply did not see that (I’ve long suspected that Modern Reformed’s over-analyticism precludes its ability to see literary patterns.  I now have proof).

One gentleman asked, “But EO believes in the Incarnation and these other traditions do not.”

To which I say, “Yeah, but…”

EO believes that the Logos instrumentalizes a generic form of human nature for the sole purpose of deifiying the flesh (all of the Eastern Fathers are very clear on this point; cf Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, Routledge).   We believe, by contrast, that the Logos assumed a human body (remember the catechism’s language on this point) within the larger narrative of redemption.  So when the EO speaks of incarnation and Rho speaks of incarnation, they have two fundamentally different goals in mind.

We have a narratival ontology of the Word that Speaks; EO has a classical metaphysics of a substance “behind the thing” (which fits in nicely with their doctrine of essence/energies).

I noticed, interestingly, that many of my challengers didn’t respond to my comments about the Instrumentalization Thesis.

Let’s ask the question another way

What’s man’s basic problem?   As a good Reformed you would say something like “sin” or “rebellion against God.”  That would be correct.  That is covenantal, ethical religion.

Metaphysical religion will say that man’s basic problem is the fundamental slide towards nonbeing.

It really does come back to Chain of Being vs. Covenant.   Sharp EO apologists also know this, which is why they will decry Covenant theology as “nominalist” or “nestorian” or some other n-word.   They are wrong, but they are sharper than the sons of light in this matter.
One of the not-funny ironies of the Van Til tradition is that they really didn’t understand what Van Til was saying.  I disagree with CvT more than I agree with him, but I notice when I quote CvT on the influence of Greek thinking, Reformed people get very, very nervous (this isn’t necessarily true of the Triablogue folks–though it might be–I am making a general observation).  In fact, the only people who truly understood CvT were the recons.  I remember going on Puritanboard some months ago and saying, quoting Michael Horton word-for-word,
“Instead of copying Plato’s “two-world idea” scheme, maybe we should rather go with St Paul’s Two-Age scheme.”   That line was probably the most important line of ontology I’ve ever read.  The responses on PB were anywhere from silent nervousness to “We can’t have that.”

Retractare After Seven Years

My friend Daniel Ritchie has offered his own version of retractare in the past.  I want to do mine.  These are in no particular order.

The Theonomy People

I’ve listed problems with theonomy before.  They are to be commended for influencing Reformed scholars to go back to careful study of the Old Testament (Poythress said he wouldn’t have written his work if it weren’t for Rushdoony).  They are to be commended for their critique of absolute statism, but there are problems.  The post-theonomy (for lack of a better word, this would be the third generation theonomists) are probably guilty of violating the 9th commandment.  Their unceasing attacks on men like Michael Horton and others at Westminster Seminary California are uncalled for.  I disagree with Horton and Co.’s  social ethic, but the man is a minister in Christ’s church and Horton has probably done as much as anybody in spreading the Reformed faith.  I admit; it’s sometimes funny to watch D.G. Hart get riled up, but the falsely so-called “R2K” guys have majored on the majors:  The doctrine of worship and the church.  Modern American Theonomy, by contrast, has largely failed in this area.

  1. As for my own position, I believe the Old Testament law can be used today when necessary.
  2. This does not preclude natural law, but presupposes it (more below)
  3. Theonomy is not the position of the Reformers; natural law is.  Yes, Bucer used the Mosaic judicials, but only because he saw them as part of his natural law heritage.  We should do likewise.
  4. This is where I am different from most natural law amillennarians:  I do not believe common grace is sufficient as an ethical category for government.  It merely describes how unbelievers are not as bad as they could be.  I remain unconvinced that it has ethical content.

Van Til

I’ve gone back and forth on Van Til for some time now.  I think when it comes to Roman Catholicism and explaining what Reformed theology is, Van Til is as fine as anybody.  His lectures on “chain-of-being” theology are quite good.  His apologetic method, though, is completely indefensible.  I think Reformed people are better served by a mix of Reformed scholasticism and Common Sense Realism.

  1. As for my own position, I think the TAG method is an open-door to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.   It explicitly attacks the foundations of knowledge and inadvertently relativises truth-claims.  No longer having a clear revelation from God, one has Tradition (as interpreted by a certain community).
  2. As for a positive apologetic, I don’t really care.  I think Anselm is interesting and his ontological argument has some subordinate value.


This is a difficult one.  I think the Reformers (and quite frankly, the entire church) were wise never to use the “millennial” terms in explaining what they believe.  More often than not, modern Reformed eschatological questions are more political than anything else.  Saying, “I am postmil” or “common grace amil” implies more than the timing of Christ’s return.

  1. As for my own position, I am certainly a Reformed historicist.  This is the Reformed position.
  2. I appreciate a lot of what Kim Riddlebarger has to say on Covenant and New Testament eschatology.  I’ve always liked Vos and Ridderbos.
  3. Historic premillennialism, while having a respectful pedigree, simply entails too many difficulties.  Further, I have found that the deeper I dig into historic premillennialism, the harder it is to be Reformed.
  4. I think it is more important to be clear on eschatological hermeneutics than on identifying a millennial position.


For around five years I’ve been a fairly staunch defender of limited monarchy.  That’s still the case.  My only difference now is that I do not see the Bible requiring it (or any specific mode of government).  Each style of government has its strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Monarchists (like myself) need to admit that 1 Samuel 8 does place some restrictive parameters on the glory of monarchy.
  2. Republicans (small “r”) need to admit that the Torah did provide (and I think expected) a monarchy.   If that’s not the case, then why is Deuteronomy 17 in the Bible?  Nelson Kloosterman has made a fairly convincing case that there existed a possibility that Israel could have had a king and not sinned in asking so.  Here is how I think it would have worked:  the end of the book of Judges essentially begs for a monarchy.  Deuteronomy 17 had already provided for a shepherd-king (the Christological overtones are deliberate).  Had Israel wanted a shepherd to guide them, I believe God would have praised their request.  Further, biblical eschatology moves in the direction of monarchy, not republicanism.
  3. I am an adherent of an Althusian-style natural law theory.  The problem many theonomists had was that their critics (and the theonomists themselves) had said, “Natural law OR God’s law.”  But this is where theonomists and their critics were wrong.  Natural law is God’s law, provided natural law is defined as creation ordinances.  The problem here is the inferences people drew from that phrase.   I won’t go into that now.  More to the point, Reformed natural law theorists could gladly appeal (and did!) to the Mosaic judicials.   Modern Calvinism’s embarrassment over Moses doesn’t help.   God’s law is morally just and should be consulted.  Theonomists, by contrast, never provided satisfactory accounts of the New Testament’s modification of the Mosaic law.
  4. I have no problem with the two kingdoms doctrine, provided the difference between the two kingdoms is in administration, not ethical norms.

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.