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.

Eschatology

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.

Politics

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.

Is Barth-speak even possible?

I come not to praise Barth, but to bury him.   The bad theology that men do lives on in Reformed message boards, while the good is interred in libraries.   In the early 20th century one would occasionally come across monographs asking, “Is Talk of God possible after Kant?” with the implied answer, “Not really.”  We see the same intellectual cul-de-sac in modern Reformed discussions about Barth.  In this proposal I seek to evaluate where Barth was really wrong, where the conservative Reformed world really misread him, and where he was really correct in a few key areas that Reformed are woefully under-prepared on.  Not to pre-anger my Reformed readers, they should rest assured knowing I reject what Barth says (or rather, denies) concerning propositional revelation.  I am more interested in his reconstruction of substance-ontology based on God’s acting.

Ask someone, usually a disciple of Cornelius Van Til, what Barth taught, and you will get an erratic answer along the lines that he denied the propositional revelation of the Word of God.   What you won’t get, however, is why he denied it, where he denied it, and what else he also said.  In other words, you see the same template here that you see everywhere else in the Reformed world.  Is it any wonder so many are leaving for Rome and Mother Russia?

Contra a Neo-Orthodox Existentialist Revelation-Encounter?

Is it true Barth taught the above?  I’ve read 1,000+ pages more of Barth than 99.99% of Reformed people, and I can honestly plead ignorance to the above question.  In I/1 of Church Dogmatics Barth gives about three different answers to the question, “Who/what is the Word of God?”  Admittedly, Barth’s inability to give a clear, concise answer to this question is problematic for Barth, but here’s the refreshing thing:  that gets to be his problem, not mine.   I get to say, “Hmm, I disagree with you there….moving on.”  The problem with Van Til’s disciples is that they focused on this one problem of Barth and wrote more pages against it than Barth wrote for it.  It made for laborious reading.   Even worse, it made the uninformed lay person think that this is all that Barth said.

Was Barth an existentialist?   Depends on what you mean by the term.  Putting him in Camus’ camp probably isn’t accurate.   Further, Barth specifically distanced himself from other neo-Orthodox theologians like Brunner and Tillich, so even pegging him as “neo-Orthodox,” while somewhat accurate according to seminary textbooks, isn’t all that helpful.

But Didn’t Barth’s Influence Destroy Mainline Churches in America?

I used to think this–and it is a specific argument that Van Til advanced–but I don’t think it is all that tenable (did Calvin’s influence destroy evangelism?  My point exactly).  There are several lines of response.  Most mainline churches are more influenced by Martin Buber and Paul Tillich than by Barth.  The easiest and simplest answer is that mainline Christianity accepted the status quo and didn’t challenge it, and it’s hard to argue that Barth caused the status quo Zeitgeist in 1960s America.

But Didn’t Barth Deny the Supernatural, in particular the Virgin Birth?

No.  Read Church Dogmatics I/2, pp. 190-207.  He engages in overkill in arguing for it.

His Creative Disciples

Most of Barth’s serious followers critiqued and challenged his views on major issues.  I have in mind Colin Gunton, Bruce McCormack, and Robert W. Jenson.  While clear Barthian influences can be found, they did not limit their theologies to simply parroting Barth (as is seen in their take-it-or-leave-it approach to the Filioque).

How many conservative Reformed folk benefit from Barth?

One line of argumentation that got the status-quo Reformed world with its pants down was the Patristic Christology argument against Calvinism.   Now, there are some devastating responses to this argument, responses which if pursued in full completely undermine Anchoretic Christianity, but such a response requires a patient working through of historical theology and philosophy–something Reformed seminaries do not specialize in.  For all of Barth’s problems, he knew historical theology–particularly Reformed Scholasticism–better than most and could work through the debates effortlessly.  And for the most part, he was fairly knowledgeable of the philosophical background.

Most Reformed folk, on the other hand, aren’t.  Take a volume published by P&R.  With the exception of Robert Letham and Keith Mathison, does it really stand up to Pannenberg?  Oliphant is close, though.  (off topic:  Letham came very close to endorsing Barth’s trinitarianism.  How did the Reformed world not call him on that?).

The Reformed world loves Jonathan Edwards.  I love Jonathan Edwards.  Jonathan Edwards did not love “substance-based ontologies drawn from classical metaphysics.”(see footnote).  The problem, if such it be, is that Reformed theology in particular, and ante- and post-Nicene theology in general, presupposes a substance ontology.  How is this not a deviataion of sorts (and for the record, I stand with Edwards on this one)?

Therefore, the Reformed have nothing to fear from Anchoretic attacks.  A working knowledge of Barth, Edwards, and ontology can turn the tide and force the Anchorites to own up to the limitations in substance ontology.

Footnote:  True, he held to the basic Western Trinitarian model, evidenced by his quotations of Peter von Mastrict, but his work “The End for which God Created the World” is clearly not based on a substance metaphysic.

Review Bavinck Prolegomena

Bavinck’s project consists of drawing upon the strengths of the Magisterial Protestants while formulating theology in response to the modernist crisis of his day.  To do so, he realized he could not slavishly mimic older platitudes and simply “hope for the best.”   Bavinck represents a very exciting yet somewhat embarrassing hero for modern Calvinists.  Exciting, because his work is simply awesome and coming into English for the first time ever.  Embarrassing, because modern Calvinists generally dislike the movement “neo-Calvinism,” yet Bavinck is the unofficial godfather of it.

Bavinck takes the traditional terminology of principia, yet in the background is an ever-present urgency to respond to modernism.   Therefore, he takes the terminology and reframes it around the neo-Calvinist slogan, “Grace restores Nature.”  There is an antithesis and dualism, to be sure, but it is not between nature and grace, but sin and grace.

Principia

God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi).  Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi).   The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge.   This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book:  there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation.  This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.

Contrary to the convertskii, everyone’s reception and evaluation of his or her ultimate authority will be subjective in some sense.   One often hears the refrain, “You Protestants make yourself the Pope and judge of authority while we simply submit to the Church.”  Unfortunately, at one time this convertskii had to make a decision–using his own sinful Western-influenced reason–between Rome, EO, Assyrian Orthodoxy, Monophysitism and Nestorianism.  Whatever the external source of knowledge-the Church, God’s Revelation, etc.–the religious subject will have to respond to it.  Since the subject is responding, the response and evaluation is, quite naturally, subjective.   Bavinck hits a grand slam on this point.

Circular Reasoning and First Principles

Bavinck does not try to hide the fact of circular reasoning.  He asserts, quite rightly, that first principles in any science are by definition circular.  If they were proven by other principles, they would not be first principles!  With this acknowledged, Romanism and Orthodoxy are in no better position than Protestantism.  Positing either the Pope or the Church as the external principle of knowledge is highly laughable–and bears witness to my argument given that few even try to do that.

Towards the Future of Reformed Epistemology and Apologetics

It’s obvious that Van Til read Bavinck.  It is also obvious, if perhaps less so, that the Reformed Epistemologists follow in Bavinck’s train.   It’s interesting that while Van Til drew heavily from Bavinck, I don’t think they are always saying the same thing on apologetics.   Bavinck used the categories of presuppositionalism, but he knew when to stop the train.  I think he kept himself from many of what would later be some of Van Til’s errors, or at least weak points.

Criticisms

The book isn’t always easy to read.  If the reader does not have a background heavy in European Rationalism, many of Bavinck’s sparring partners will be over one’s head.  Conversely, if one does have such a background in those disciplines, then there is little point to read Bavinck on them, since he is merely given a cursory reading of them.

Opening critique of Van Til

Smith, Ralph. Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity.

NOTE: In the first few paragraphs I accidentally typed “divine essay” instead of “divine essence.” It should read “divine essence.”

The beginning of this essay will review Ralph Smith’s work on Cornelius Van Til as it relates to the Trinity.  As the essay progresses, more attention will be paid to Van Til’s Trinitarianism.  My critique seeks to be different for several reasons.  Most people who criticize Van Til focus on his apologetic method.  I really have nothing new to add in that department.

Smith’s goal is to compare and contrast the recent arguments of “social Trinitarian” Cornelius Plantinga with the unique approach of Cornelius Van Til. Supposedly, traditional Trinitarianism is stagnant and the insights of these two can revive it.

The introduction is somewhat humorous because Smith (rightly) bemoans the fact that Evangelicals have ignored the Trinity for essentially of their history, and if you take away the doctrine of the Trinity for Evangelicals, nothing will change in their day-to-day lives. At this point Smith begins reviewing Plantinga’s now-famous essay “The Threeness/Oneness Problem of the Trinity” along with a very brief survey of recent Evangelical developments of Trinitarianism. Smith wonders why none of these writers (Plantinga, Stanley Grenz, James Sire) discuss the work of Cornelius Van Til or even John Calvin. What Smith does not realize is nobody outside a microscopic subset of the Reformed world (which itself is already microscopic) has even heard of Van Til or let alone even cares. As for Calvin, contrary to what people might think, Calvin really didn’t say all that much on the Trinity. He simply repeated some conclusions while thinking he meant what the Fathers have always meant (a dubious proposition). Smith does rightly note that Van Til “stands in utter contrast to this tendency” (Smith, 2002, 18). We shall see. One suspects the irony is that Van Til will offer a solid critique of this failure but inevitably commit the same mistakes.

Before we begin we will quote a section from the falsely-named “Athanasian Creed,” which is referred to in this book:

“The Father is the Divine Essence; the Son is the Divine Essence, and the Holy Spirit is the Divine Essence, yet there are not three divine essences—but only one.”

Smith’s first chapter deals with Plantinga’s essay on the Trinity. Plantinga, following many recent moves in theology, suggests the West is fundamentally “modalist,” or something similar. Smith then reviews Plantinga’s charge by examining Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. In short: Augustine, due to his strong neo-Platonism and view of divine simplicity, said each person is synonymous with the divine essay. The conclusion is not hard to draw: if each person is identical with the divine essay, and the divine essay is absolutely simple and admitting of no distinctions, then each person is identical with the other. Ergo, modalism (24-26). Thomas Aquinas essentially hardens Augustine’s position. Each person is identical with the whole divine essence, yet we distinguish them by “relations of opposition,” with each person identical with his “relation.” Plantinga remarks, “If the Father, Son, and Spirit are taken as mere names for the divine essence…then this is modalism. If the statement means the Father, Son, and Spirit are taken as names of Persons, then the statement reduces persons to essences, which are abstract. Each person would be a set of properties and the three sets of properties are identical. The persons themselves would disappear” (27).

In some ways chapter two is the heart of the book: what did Van Til really mean about the trinity? Many of his critics, and not a few of his followers, have charged him with being innovative about the Trinity, with some saying he denies Nicea. As is always the case in intra-Reformed polemics, there is more heat than light and nobody knows what anyone is talking about. In some ways the discussion of this chapter will go beyond the scope of the book, since it is Smith’s most important chapter (his other chapters seek to avoid the absurdity of identifying all of God’s attributes with one another and the book ends with a call to a practical Reformed worldview. More on that later.).

I will go ahead and say that Van Til was not innovative on the Trinity, but rather restated the exact same thing Augustine said in close to the same language.i Remember, Augustine said that each of the persons was identical to the essence: the essence is identical to the attribute, and the attribute is identical to the person; ergo, the person is identical to the essence (Plantinga, quoted by Smith, 25). Van Til draws the Augustinian conclusion: the Trinity is one Person. Of course, Van Til realizes that the Trinity is also three persons, so he says that, too. Did Van Til contradict himself?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he didn’t.

I am quoting Introduction to Systematic Theology from memory for this next part, but I think it is fairly accurate.   Van Til goes on to say that the persons of the Trinity mutually exhaust one another.  Normally, Christian theologians would have said that the persons mutually exhaust the essence (e.g., fully posses the essence).  Van Til takes it to mean that they take on the characteristics of the other persons.  This is fundamentally wrong.  The Father does not take on the hypostatic characteristics of the Son, for the Father is not begotten!  Interestingly, this is precisely the critique Eastern Orthodox theologians make of the Filioque, and this is what critics of Van Til, who were correct to point out the error of his theology, failed to note (for they, too, held to the Filioque).

The reason that Van Til says the Trinity is one Person on one level is because he cannot fathom that the divine nature exists in “brute factuality,” and so posits the divine persons as what/who conditions the divine essence. In short, he wants to say that the “essence” is “personal.” More on that later.

The Covenant as the Missing Link

Smith suggests that covenant theology provides the missing link in Reformed Trinitarianism (73). He rightly suspects that Augustinian Triadology is at an impasse, and while he appreciates Van Til’s reworking of the Trinity, he notes it is still inadequate. He takes his definition of covenant from Jim Jordan (!!!!!!) as a “personal structural bond which joins the three persons of God in a life-giving community” (73). In one sense Reformed theology has always followed this principle in its doctrine of the Pactum Salutis, but Smith, following Abraham Kuyper, takes it even further.

Smith notes that traditional Reformed theology “proposes something Van Til objects to” (84), the idea that the essence of God is an impersonal substratum (it’s hard to follow the discussion at this point, since Van Til fully subscribes to the Augustinian view of divine simplicity). Without fully acknowledging the problem his definition of divine simplicity entails, Smith, in order to speak meaningfully about the attributes of God in a way that doesn’t simply reduce each to the other (and thereby make any talk of the attributes irrelevant, which is apparently the case), suggests that the “covenant” allows these words to really come into their expressive nature (85).

Following this framework, Smith goes on suggest that attributes like “love,” even the idea of “love,” make sense only in the context of “covenant,” a suggestion, which if flawed in the sense of placing an analogical limit on the Trinity, is fundamentally correct: love’s definition must come from the Bible, not from cheap, American culture.

Criticism and Conclusion

This book is both useful and frustrating. Smith has done an able job surveying and simply (no pun intended) explaining many difficulties in modern Trinitarianism. His discussion of Augustine’s unique revision of divine simplicity is remarkably helpful and succinct (even if Smith is unaware of his own presupposition). The book’s section on covenant has many helpful insights that detach “justification” from its forensic setting within Reformed theology (or better, to show that the forensic category is itself relational and covenantal). Smith utilizes humor where appropriate (the footnote response to Norman Geisler’s (and evangelicalism in general) neutered view of God and Politics is almost worth the price of the book!).

The book is frustrating because Smith (1) fully realizes the difficulty Augustine’s take on simplicity entails, but (2) never challenges it and assumes—without argumentation—that this is always what the Church has believed. With these two points he tries to resuscitate Van Til’s Trinitarianism: in other words, he/Van Til identifies Augustine’s problem, yet posit an equally problematic response and call the whole thing “a paradox.”

So, can one call the divine essence “personal?” St John of Damascus said that every heresy deconstructed on the same point: they all identify person and nature. What would a personal essence look like? Would it be ascribing personal attributes to the essence? Or rather, would it simply be tha that the essence has some abstract notion of “personality?” If the former then Van Til has added another person to the Trinity. If the latter, then he is back at the very thing he set out to reject: abstract notions of the Trinity.

While one should be very careful in reading modern notions of “personality/personalism” back into ancient expressions (a mistake Van Til appears to be making), there is a point of similarity, though: personality implies a person doing the acting/self-expressing/whatever, which leads us back to the main problem: it adds another person to the Trinity.

The next part of the criticism is the hardest to write: The Van Tillian project, if the above few paragraps are true, has failed and failed at the most fundamental level. If you err on the Trinity, while you may be personally holy person, your theology necessarily will be flawed in every point. Indeed, is not Smith’s claim that the Trinity should not only affect, but effect every other aspect of our theology? Indeed it should. I say this having spent seven years trying to orient my entire mental outlook around Van Tillian epistemology.
Smith seems to miss this point. He notes Van Til was innovative in saying that the persons of the Trinity “mutually exhaust one another” (whatever that means), but that’s not the point his critics charged him on: they thought Van Til was innovative in identifying the Trinity as one person—but that is precisely what Western Triadology has been tempted to, and sometimes explicitly says that!

J. B. Aitken