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The Attractive Reductionism of Van Til

You can think of this post as “the brief confession of a former Van Tilian.” I don’t think I’ll ever truly get past my love for Cornelius Van Til. He is often derided as a notoriously confusing writer, but after many years of being immersed in his works, I have found his eccentricities of style to be no major hurdle. While G.K. Chesterton is no doubt superior to Van Til by every stylistic metric, I have found the learning curve to read both writers feels similar (and similarly rewarding). Once Van Til’s prose begin to sound familiar, he reads extraordinarily clear. There are few things as intellectually satisfying as being led by Van Til to conclude a cogently argued thought. Which is all to say, I absolutely do not blame those who find themselves deeply impressed by Van Til. There is a reason why my library’s “Van Til” section can rival the best of them. There is a beauty and attractiveness to his system. It is cohesive. It is neat. It is tidy.

Is the God of the philosophers the God of the Bible?

However, I just described myself as a former Van Tilian, and that qualifier needs an explanation. There are a lot of reasons why I would no longer consider myself a Van Tilian or a presuppositionalist, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on one characteristic of this system. We might get at this characteristic by considering the question, “Is the God of the philosophers the God of the Bible?” I answer that question differently than a Van Tilian. The circular nature of the way that Van Til and others in his camp pose the question is really problematic.If the only acceptably true conception of God is the conception that comes via special revelation, and if every other conception is thereby rendered “another god,” what does that imply for general revelation? Click To Tweet

For Van Til, the answer to the question is a clear and emphatic “no” because the “god” of the philosophers, by necessity, lacks essential biblical attributes of God and, similarly, includes non-biblical attributes. The final result of pagan philosophy’s picture of God falls embarrassingly short of the portrait painted by special revelation. There is some rhetorical satisfaction to answering the question, “Does Aristotle’s unmoved Mover look like the God of the Bible to you? No, the ‘god’ of philosophy (or natural theology) is not the God of the Bible; he is an idol!” The problem is, this construction is entirely unworkable and entirely unbiblical.

General and Special Revelation

For the God of the philosophers to be the God of the Bible, Van Til would say, the God of the philosophers would need to affirm his Triune nature, his personal providence, his lovingkindness, etc.—that is, truths theologians throughout history have agreed is only knowable by virtue of special revelation. If the standard for answering the question “yes” in any sense is as high as he insists, the only ones who can ever say that they have something true to say about God are those who have access to special revelation. If the only acceptably true conception of God is the conception that comes via special revelation, and if every other conception is thereby rendered “another god,” what does that imply for general revelation? It implies that general revelation can only reveal “another god.” This obviously contradicts those passages we all know and love, like Psalm 19 and Romans 1. This “all or nothing” approach is not biblical and is unrealistic. It becomes problematic, not only when we consider Old Testament believers (no Trinitarian theology!), but also when we consider receivers of only general revelation throughout history. The very thing that renders unbelievers “without excuse” is the fact that God does reveal enough of his nature (truth) through general revelation to condemn them. Again, God doesn’t reveal his triune nature through general revelation. If all God reveals through general revelation is the idol of another god, how then could unbelievers be without excuse?

When Aquinas and others throughout the classical tradition affirmed that Aristotle stumbled onto genuine truths about the God of the Bible, they were neither saying that Aristotle’s conception was accurate in toto, nor that the additional information we gain from special revelation was unnecessary or unimportant. The argument was always that the God of the Bible was more than Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but he wasn’t less. Those true attributes that Aristotle discovered were discovered by virtue of general revelation. Of course, he fills in the gaps with idolatrous information. Take as a whole, Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover does not harmonize with Scripture’s depiction of God. But certain features of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover do, because the divine author of Scripture is the same divine author of nature. There is authorial integrity between his two books.The argument was always that the God of the Bible was more than Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but he wasn’t less. Click To Tweet

It’s no contradiction at all to say that Aristotle was contemplating the God of the Bible when he was contemplating his Unmoved Mover, but his contemplations were incomplete and inaccurate. We’re not saying that Aristotle is in heaven, or that his understanding of the Unmoved Mover is saving in any way. What truth about God that Aristotle grasped was not enough to save him; it was enough to condemn him. If it is a contradiction to say such a thing, then the Apostle Paul has some explaining to do for presenting the God of the Bible to the Athenians as one and the same God as the one they built their monument for (“to the unknown God”).

What is the Standard?

Last comment, just some food for thought: what is the standard? This is the question that kept me up at night when I was a full-blown Van Tilian. My cognitive dissonance held this question at bay for a long time, but eventually it demanded reckoning: how “full” or “accurate” does your conception of God have to be according to the Biblical model for it to escape the condemnation of being “another god”? Over the years, my understanding of God has changed, even in some radical ways. Am I to conclude that some of my earlier years of thinking about and worshipping God constitutes as thinking of and worshipping an idol because it was inaccurate or incomplete? In the end, I think it’s far more accurate (and biblical), not to say that Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover was another god entirely from the one true God of the Bible, but rather that Aristotle’s conception of God was partially true, but erroneous (even significantly so) and insufficient. God is no less than Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover; he is gloriously more.

Samuel G. Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is associate professor of theological studies and director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor of teaching and liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is the author of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship Through Song (Rainer, 2019) and Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, forthcoming). You can follow Samuel on Twitter.

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