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You and Me and Van Til

Pastor Wilson has a helpful post here explaining his own relationship with Van Til, and I thought that, given my distant and recent past, I should do something of the same. Of course, I am a far less significant figure than Pastor Wilson, and my own pilgrimage shouldn’t be seen as all that important in the world scope of things, but it may be a helpful complement, since my trajectory is the opposite of Pastor Wilson’s.

You see, I became “Reformed” through the Van Tillians and Reconstructionists. I was handed some of the typical material from a more general perspective—John Piper, Steele and Thomas, etc—but I was also given Greg Bahnsen and Van Til himself from the earliest of days. I remember reading The Defense of the Faith in my second year of college at the age of 18 (I was young for my grade). I definitely learned from the Van Tillians and Reconstructionists that C. S. Lewis was fine for fictional reading, but he was not to be trusted when it came to theology and certainly not politics and apologetics. Francis Schaeffer was also suspect, with some of my mentors appreciating him but feeling he was “compromised” and others saying he was downright dangerous. And so I read neither of these men for many years.

A few things happened to shake me loose from this sort of outlook. The first is that I began reading outside of the Reformed tradition. That detour was a direct consequence of the “Federal Vision” and “New Perspective on Paul” controversies. The advocates of both seemed to suggest that the Reformed tradition had major holes in it, some of which could be fulfilled by contemporary writers from the Roman and Eastern churches, as well as liberals and postmodern philosophers. The critics of both of those movements definitely thought this is what they were saying and condemned them for it, and so I was interested for both reasons. I wanted to see what was up.

I found that Van Til had not prepared me for this sort of diversity. He had instilled in me a deep commitment to the Bible, and so I never considered compromising on that, but he definitely led me to believe that one’s interpretation of the Bible and “theological system” eventually, at the end of the road, was to be decided by appeals to authority. For Van Til, this authority was mostly subjective, a work of the Holy Spirit in personal regeneration, but it was supposed to match the Reformed Confessions (with his philosophical modifications, of course). He may have been very kind and open in person, but I think John Frame is correct to say that Van Til’s writing style was a sort of “Reformed chauvinism.” The choices were always “the Reformed position” (which was what Van Til said) or some measure of compromise with “autonomy.” One particularly striking statement appeared in The Defense of the Faith where Van Til said that not even the Lutherans could “make sense out of reality.” As I read further, especially in church history, it became clear that the kind of taxonomy used by Van Til was unsustainable and inaccurate. As Richard Muller and others have convincingly shown, none of the Protestant Reformers worked in such hermetically-sealed “systems” and “paradigms.” Additionally, the vast majority of theologians conversant in both men will admit that Van Til was extremely inaccurate and unfair in his treatment of Thomas Aquinas. The generalizations were far too hasty, and this opened up a lot of doubt in other directions.

This means that my “worldview” and “system” no longer matched Van Til’s “Reformed” position, which meant that there was some other authority needed to direct me. And again, Van Til had convinced me that all such questions come down to authority claims—by what standard?—and so I was at sea. Certain members of the “Confessionalist” school tried to convince me that a strict adherence to their reading of the Westminster Confession would do the trick, but I had the same problems. They seemed to be missing various truths, and besides, why should I accept an ecclesiastical magisterium if it wasn’t infallible? Perhaps Protestantism really does lack a satisfactory mechanism to provide such authority. And then the beginnings of convert vertigo set in. My gut was never interested in Rome or Orthodoxy, but my brain sure was having trouble. There’s much more to say about all of this, of course, and the process took a number of years, but the problem was clear, and the force of it was compelling.

I was still reading writers with weird names, and I was even digging into the church fathers. During this time, I had several friends and acquaintances convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Were my choices really to just stop reading “outside the bounds” or convert? I couldn’t accept that. And then, just as it all seemed so bleak, two things happened. I developed a strong friendship with my associate Peter Escalante, whose influence will have to be told at another time, and I began reading C.S. Lewis.

Lewis was a breath of fresh air. He was smart (so smart!), irenic, powerful, persuasive, and not at all dangerous to mention around folks who held to different theological distinctives. He was, quite literally, a godsend.

The first book was Screwtape Letters, and there’s more than a little bit of serious theological discourse to be found there. Lewis definitely hits on the wrong kind of clericalism and sacerdotalism as errors, he defends the doctrine of the invisible church, and he critiques partisan churches who are always caught up in “movements.” Then I moved on to Mere Christianity, which really hammered home the apologetic value of natural law and natural theology. From there I consumed The Abolition of Man, which might be one of the most important little pamphlets of the modern era. In a concise but powerful way, Lewis there shows why the denial of natural law is also tied up with the denial of objective truth and morality, reducing everything to community response, even if it is the ecclesiastical community. He also adds the evidence of the common law tradition, which even if imperfect and incomplete, is still significant. By the time I got to English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama, I was ready to learn at the master’s feet. The section on the Puritans and Richard Hooker, with some slight give and take, explains nearly exactly my view of Reformed irenicism today. Add to this list That Hideous Strength, and my perspective on sociology and politics also becomes nearly predictable. This was exactly the brand of Protestantism that the church needed, even if it wasn’t always expressed in the technical terminology of systematic theology nor in direct dialogue with contemporary theological and ecclesiastical controversies, which were still very important.

But through all of this I knew that something big had changed under my theological feet. Whereas Van Til begrudgingly allowed the non-believer and non-Reformed some accidental truth and morality, Lewis positively expected it (even if he was a bit too optimistic from time time, e.g. the conclusion of The Last Battle). The Van Tillian methodology was negative, to reduce the opponent to absurdity. The Lewisian methodology was affirmative, to persuade the opponent that they actually needed and wanted the Foundation and Anchor of Truth. And the bottom line was that uncertainty and complications were not problems at all, but rather good. The glory of God is to conceal a manner. The glory of kings is to seek it out. The believer has no need to fear free and open dialogue, and the only “authority” which wins out is the conscience persuaded by a reasonable exegesis of the Scriptures. Here I stood and I stand. I could and I can do no other.

You could say that Lewis was a sort of presuppositionalist. But he didn’t presuppose Scripture as such, certainly not for purposes of natural revelation. Nor did he presuppose dogma—indeed, he demanded that it always be proved by reason and exegesis. Lewis presupposed reality. He presupposed logical and intelligible existence and an objective meaning behind all of that, something which was inescapable and immediate to every man. And so if one wishes to use the language of presuppositionalism, I would suggest that they become presuppositional realists. And I do think, though it would be a conversation for another time, that this is basically the correct way to understand Francis Schaeffer. God is there, and He is not silent.

And so that’s where I am. I’m with Schaeffer. I’m with Lewis. I’m with Bavinck and Calvin and the rest. This is Christian Humanism, and it happens to also be the way of the Magisterial Reformation. Though there are variations and disagreements on the more particular issues between each of these men, the prolegomena is one and the same, and that is actually what sets the guidelines for both the asking and the answering of questions.

If the pursuit of the objective and external good, which is just another way to say the pursuit of God, is really your goal, it seems to me that we are walking along the same path. We may use different names and try different strategies, but we are going to the same place. But if my use of different names and different strategies is to you “proof” that something is deeply wrong, down there on the subterranean level, then I don’t think we are going to the same place at all. I think one of us is committed to a sort of ideology which claims priority over the pursuit of God, and John Calvin would probably say that another i-word is called for.

But perhaps another line of thinking is in order, a Biblical one. Natural theology would say that all truth leads to God, and so following out any argument to its clear, logical, and reasonable conclusion is always good. Biblical theology would say the same thing in different words: If this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.

What has Lewis’s theological legacy come to? What has Schaeffer’s? It seems to me that they greatly revitalized the Christian world in the last century and brought many men to faith. Perhaps we should continue giving it a shot.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

5 replies on “You and Me and Van Til”

Thanks for this post.

Would you consider interacting with Dr. Leithart’s ‘Natural Law: A Reformed Critique’?

Also, is this a mere matter of apologetics or are there other issues at stake?

Not going to lie. This post and Pastor Wilson’s from earlier have taught me more about the subject at hand than any of the other “natural revelation” posts swirling around lately.

Thanks!

Charles,

I think the larger issue of metaphysics and epistemology is involved, which means that it is broader than apologetics. If one group reserves the right to define “reality,” then they also have supremacy in other fields, and this is true before any argument need take place.

http://www.frame-poythress.org/van-til-the-theologian/

I like what Frame says beginning on page 24 of the above regarding the correlativity of general and special revelation.

Frame’s comments beginning on page 26 regarding the primacy of God’s Word, namely that the data of natural revelation “are unintelligible apart from God’s spoken and written interpretation of them”, seem pretty compelling, at least to someone steeped in Van Til.

I think a Van Tillian would see themselves as committed to the Word of God which claims priority over all, conscience included.

Again, thanks for the post and dialogue. I’ll hang up and listen for more in the days, weeks, months to come.

BTW, I pulled a little Van Til in a conversation a few weeks back and was quickly met with Lewis’ ‘Tao’. The conversation quickly moved into the area of theopolitics.

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