If this is a correct reading of Van Til, and if his point is that non-Christian epistemological systems are false, then it would be far clearer simply to say so, rather than repeatedly to assert that unbelievers have no true knowledge and then turn around and say that unbelievers do have true knowledge. This ambiguous use of the words true and knowledge renders one of the central features of Van Til’s system at best uncertain and at worst unintelligible.
The Doctrine of God
I noted above that Van Til, as a confessionally Reformed theologian, affirms the doctrine of God found in the Nicene Creed and the Westminster Confession. He generally affirms classical Trinitarian theism and makes it foundational to everything else he teaches. He does, however, at times make statements that appear to contradict these general affirmations of confessional Trinitarian theism. This is significant because as Van Til says, one’s doctrine of God affects everything else: “Every doctrine is bound to be false if the first and basic doctrine of God is false.” What, then, does Van Til say regarding God that is problematic?
First, on more than one occasion, Van Til states that God is one person and three persons. He says, “We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person.” Within the being of this one person there are “three personal subsistences.” God, therefore, is one person and three persons. Those familiar with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity will be aware that the orthodox formula is “three persons, of one substance” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2.3). In Greek, it is one ousia and three hypostases. In Latin, it is one substantia and three personae (or subsistentia). This language was worked out in the fourth-century Trinitarian debates.
The departure from the language of the orthodox creeds and the Reformed confessions and the introduction of this theological novelty is made worse when we examine Van Til’s definition of person. In one place, Van Til appears to define person in terms of consciousness, saying in connection with his discussion of God as one person and three persons that “God is a one-conscious being, and yet, he is also a tri-conscious being.” Why is this definition such a problem? Because Van Til also claims that in God, being and consciousness are coterminous. Van Til says, “It should be noted that it is only if we hold to the cotermineity of the being and the consciousness of God that we can avoid pantheism.” But if God is “a one-conscious being, and yet, he is also a tri-conscious being” and if consciousness is coterminous with being, then we potentially have a God who is not only “one person and three persons” but also “one being and three beings.”
Given the fact that Van Til tends to use language ambiguously, let us not automatically assume that he actually believes that God is one being and three beings. Instead, let us simply consider the formula “one person/three persons.” In the best-case scenario, the word person is being used here in two different senses. If that is the case, then Van Til’s formula is inherently confusing because of the equivocation required to maintain some semblance of orthodoxy. In the worst-case scenario, the word person is being used in the same sense in both halves of the formula. If this is the case, then the formula is self-contradictory, and one half or another of it (or both) will be heretical depending on the definition of person that is used in each half. It is going to result in some form of Unitarianism (e.g., modalism) or some form of tritheism (e.g., if person is defined as “being”) or a “quadrinity” entailing four persons (e.g., if person is defined as “being” and if God considered as one person is separated from God considered as three persons).
If we were to take seriously Van Til’s own definition of person in terms of consciousness and consciousness as coterminous with being, it would be almost impossible to maintain any best-case scenario. It is only because Van Til elsewhere affirms the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity found in the creeds and confessions that we are able to assume he doesn’t mean what he says here and is, in fact, orthodox. If we assume this about Van Til and read him in the most charitable light possible, we can conclude that he is an orthodox Trinitarian who was carried away here and foolishly introduced this formally heretical theological novelty into conservative Reformed churches.
The Reformed confessions to which Van Til subscribed at various points in his ministry maintain the Trinitarian language that was painstakingly formulated in the first centuries of the church. Article 8 of the Belgic Confession, for example, speaks of one God, “one single essence, in whom there are three persons.” Question and answer 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “these three distinct persons [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] are one, true, eternal God.” The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of God in terms of “three persons, of one substance” (2.3). The Reformed confessions maintain consistently the orthodox formula. Nowhere do we find them speaking of God as one person and three persons, and we should not find anyone who honestly subscribes to the Reformed confessions speaking of God in such a way.
Van Til is not unaware of how significant the doctrine of the Trinity is for the Christian faith. He explicitly says that the triune God defined in the Nicene Creed and the Reformed confessions is the foundation for everything and that the existence of this God and this God alone is the presupposition for all predication. Yet by redefining the Trinity as “one person and three persons,” Van Til is at least implying that the teaching of the Reformed confessions is in error on a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. His “one person/three person” variation on the doctrine of the Trinity should not be casually accepted as if it were an inconsequential doctrinal refinement.
A second example of problematic statements concerning God has to do with the divine attributes. As mentioned above, Van Til affirms the classical theism of the Westminster Confession. He affirms the doctrine of divine simplicity, going so far as to say that this doctrine answers the ancient philosophical problem of the one and the many. He also affirms aseity, eternality, immutability, and the rest of the incommunicable attributes. However, in some places, Van Til makes statements about immutability that are unclear in their meaning. He says in one place, for example: “Whether Adam was to obey or to disobey, the situation would be changed. And thus God’s attitude would be changed.” Does this mean that God changes? In the same context, Van Til indicates that God’s attitude changes but that “God in Himself is changeless.” But what exactly are “attitudes” in God, and how are they distinguished from “God in Himself”? Van Til’s answer to that question remains unclear.
Reading Van Til in the most charitable light possible, we can attempt to understand such unclear statements in light of his repeated clear assertions of commitment to Nicene Trinitarianism, Chalcedonian Christology, and the doctrinal formulations of the Reformed confessions. If we do this, we could chalk up the “one person/three person” formulation to Van Til’s penchant for equivocation and for giving words his own novel definitions, and we could chalk up his comments about immutability to a lack of theological clarity or to an unclear way of talking about the Bible’s anthropomorphic language. We could conclude on these assumptions, then, that Van Til is a classical theist in spite of these problematic statements.
Let us assume then that Van Til is in fact a classical theist. If this is the case, then serious questions are raised about some contemporary Van Tillians. We have to remind ourselves that for Van Til, the presupposition of the God described in the confessions—and only this God—is necessary for all predication. In other words, if Van Til is a classical theist, then according to him, the classical theist doctrine of God is at the heart of his presuppositionalism. What, then, would we have to conclude about contemporary Van Tillians who have rejected classical theism? If Van Til’s doctrine of God is the classical theist doctrine of God and if Van Til’s doctrine of God plays the role in his system that he says it plays, then we would have to conclude that those Van Tillians who have rejected classical theism have not only rejected the teaching of the Reformed confessions, but they have also betrayed the heart of Van Tillian presuppositionalism itself.
A third and broader issue with Van Til’s doctrine of God has to do with the way that he contrasts the Reformed doctrine of God so absolutely with all that came before it. As we have seen, Van Til affirms the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon, but he also inadvertently undermines his professed commitment to them by drawing a hard line between the doctrine of God found in the early and medieval church and the doctrine of God found in the churches of the Reformation. Recall what Van Til says about the significance of the doctrine of God: “Every doctrine is bound to be false if the first and basic doctrine of God is false.” Is the Reformed doctrine of God, then, the same as the pre-Reformation doctrine of God?
According to Van Til, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have nothing in common on any point of doctrine. The Roman Catholic doctrine of God, which Van Til identifies as the early and medieval doctrine, differs from the Reformed doctrine because, according to Van Til, Rome sees God and creation on a scale of being. Rome, therefore, blurs the distinction between the being of God and the being of His creation. In short, Van Til is saying that the pre-Reformation doctrine of God is inherently pantheistic. Van Til connects the classical pre-Reformation doctrine of God with the philosophical position that he refers to as “classical realism.” According to Van Til, classical realism is incompatible with the true biblical doctrine of God, creation, and providence.
Classical realism, therefore, must be rejected. But if the metaphysical framework that provided the context for the church’s development, formulation, and defense of the doctrine of God is rejected, then that doctrine of God itself becomes problematic. Does Van Til himself reject the doctrine of God as formulated by theologians in the classical realist tradition? No. He affirms the doctrine of God found in the Nicene Creed even though he repeatedly rejects classical realism. So, should truly Reformed Christians accept the Nicene Creed or not? Van Til himself affirmed it, but his rejection of classical realism as he understood it left the door open for those who followed him to make a different choice.
One issue that often causes Christians confusion when considering the premodern philosophical tradition is that Greek philosophical terms and concepts were regularly borrowed and used by Christians to explain certain elements of Christian theology. This borrowing, however, was not, as the German liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack argued, due to the Hellenization of Christian theology. It was due instead to the fact that the church understood that the human ability to know some truth about the world God created was not annihilated by the fall of mankind into sin. Van Til himself allows for such borrowing from philosophers. He himself granted that there can be “elements of truth” in non-Christian systems. He is, however, highly critical of borrowing when the philosophers in question are in what he calls the classical realist tradition.
Does this mean that the early and medieval church accepted everything that philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle taught? No. The church critically appropriated what they believed to be true and rejected what they believed to be false. They looked for the “elements of truth” in Plato and Aristotle. The early and medieval church recognized that if a philosopher happened to discover something true about the nature of being or knowledge, it remained true regardless of who discovered it.
Why is all of this significant? Christian theologians, from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the early and medieval church to John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Francis Turretin in the Reformed church, carefully and critically used the philosophical concepts of the premodern philosophical tradition. There were obviously some differences between Augustine and Aquinas, but those differences did not destroy the fundamental areas of agreement and overlap that allowed for classical Trinitarian theism to be stated coherently and defended consistently throughout the first 1,500 years of church history. It is significant that the same general metaphysical and epistemological framework found in the writings of theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas continued to be used and taught by the men who wrote the Reformed confessions and the textbooks of Reformed scholastic theology. The Reformed theologians did not contrast their doctrine of God with what had been taught in the early and medieval church.
The generally accepted premodern philosophical framework first began to come under fire by a small minority of thinkers in the Middle Ages. With the broader spread of nominalism beginning in the fourteenth century, the rise of skepticism during the Renaissance, the rise of rationalism and empiricism during the Enlightenment, and then Kantianism and idealism in the following centuries, the older philosophical framework was eventually discarded. The rejection of this philosophical framework has had a dramatic impact on the doctrine of God.
When we examine the history of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theology, particularly regarding the doctrine of God, it becomes abundantly evident that when the older philosophical framework is abandoned, classical Trinitarian theism is not far behind. The rise of Unitarianism, deism, pantheism, and panentheism during and after the Enlightenment is not a coincidence. Theologians who adopted the metaphysics and epistemology of the rationalists reformulated their doctrine of God to fit that new philosophical framework. Theologians who adopted the philosophy of the empiricists reformulated their doctrine of God to fit that framework. Theologians who adopted the philosophy of Kant or Hegel or Whitehead reformulated their doctrines of God to fit those philosophical frameworks.
This brings us back to Van Til. As we have seen, Van Til, in agreement with most post-Enlightenment philosophers, rejected the older philosophy (Van Til calls it “classical realism”). In short, he rejected the metaphysics and epistemology that provided the conceptual framework within which classical theism was developed, stated, and defended. Historically, what has happened when this context is rejected and replaced with a different philosophical context is that an internal tension is introduced, leading to different and novel doctrines of God. Van Til’s commitment to the Reformed confessions seems to have enabled him to live with the tension for the most part. The tension, however, remains for those who follow Van Til in the rejection of the older philosophy.
If history is any guide, Van Til’s rejection of the older philosophy will eventually result in the denial of classical theism by some who follow his lead. In fact, this seems to have already begun to occur. Some of his students have already begun to redefine and reject essential elements of classical biblical and Christian theism in order to bring their doctrine of God in line with Van Til’s metaphysical views. In other words, Van Til’s adoption of post-Enlightenment metaphysical views and his attempt to synthesize them with Christian theology created an unstable mixture of ideas that has already begun to undermine the orthodox Reformed theology he wanted to defend.
Poor Historical Theology
Another serious problem in Van Til’s thinking that must be addressed is his poor historical theology. The teaching of a number of historical figures is misrepresented throughout his works. This problem, too, has been observed for decades. Presumably, this misrepresentation was unintentional, but it remains a serious problem because so much of Van Til’s case for his new apologetic methodology rests upon these mistaken historical theological claims. It is also a problem because many of his misrepresentations continue to be taught by his students to this day. Van Til seems to be particularly responsible for continued misreadings of Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism (of both the medieval and Reformed variety).
Regarding Thomas Aquinas, Van Til makes a number of fundamental errors. For example, Van Til asserts throughout his writings that Aquinas denied the Creator-creature distinction and taught that God and His creation exist on a scale of being. According to Van Til, Aquinas taught that God and His creatures participate in the larger category of “being in general.” Thomas “reduces the Creator-creature distinction to something that is consistent with the idea of God and the cosmos as involved in a chain of being, with varying degrees of intensity.” He claims that Aquinas based his views on Aristotle’s idea of the “analogy of being.” All of this is a fundamental misreading of Aquinas. The irony of Van Til’s claim is that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is actually necessitated by Aquinas’ radical distinction between the Creator and the creature, the very thing that Van Til says Aquinas denies.
Even a cursory reading of Aquinas reveals that there is probably nothing more foundational to his theology than the distinction between God and His creation. The idea is emphasized in his early work On Being and Essence, for example, where Aquinas explains that God’s existence “is distinct from every other existence.” In the later work On the Power of God, Aquinas again emphasizes this basic point, saying, “God’s being which is his essence is not universal being, but being distinct from all other being: so that by his very being God is distinct from every other being.” In the same work, he adds, “God’s relation to being is different from that of any creature’s: for he is his own being, which cannot be said of any creature.” In the Summa contra Gentiles, Aquinas repeats the same idea, saying that God’s “being is distinct from all others.” According to Aquinas, God is distinct from all creatures in many ways. God alone is pure act, for example. He is the uncreated source of all created being, which He created ex nihilo (not ex Deo). The distinction between God and His creation is foundational to Aquinas’ discussion of the proofs for God’s existence as well as to his discussion of God’s attributes. It’s at the heart of his theology. Even some Van Tillians have noted that Van Til’s reading of Aquinas on this point is inaccurate.
Van Til’s comments on scholasticism are likewise incorrect. In the first place, he speaks of scholasticism as if it were a monolithic school of thought or doctrine based on Aristotelianism. It is, he says, the old doctrine that says man can come to a knowledge of some things by the use of his reason but can come to the knowledge of other things only by means of revelation. Scholasticism is, thus, the epistemology of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a “monstrous synthesis of Aristotle and Christ.” True Christians, therefore, cannot continue to cling to it.
Van Til’s view of scholasticism may have been influenced by the secondary literature available to him in the early and mid-twentieth century. The understanding of scholasticism found in those sources, however, has been subjected to intensive scrutiny in the last several decades and has been found wanting. Scholasticism is not a particular doctrine. It was a method designed for schools—thus the name “scholastic.” The term scholasticism “indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well.”
Van Til’s misunderstanding of scholasticism in the Reformed tradition goes hand in hand with the old Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis, which has also been thoroughly debunked. That Van Til holds something akin to the Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis seems evident in his almost exclusive reliance on Calvin as the representative of a pure early Reformed theology as well as in his statements to the effect that theologians of the next generation retained too much of the older medieval philosophy. His adherence to the Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis leads him to reject the Reformed scholastics on those occasions when he does not completely ignore them.