Van Til Tool

Using the Van Til Perspective as the tool to discover what life means and how it ought to be lived.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

An Epistemology Position Paper On The Controversy Regarding The Thought Of Van Til As It Pertains To The Clark Case and the Shepherd Case






By Forrest W. Schultz

Introduction and Scope

The Clark vs. Van Til controversy is a complex one not only because of the nature of the epistemological issues it raises but also because of the related controversy of defining the exact position of each of these theologians and the related historical controversy concerning the events in the “Clark Case” which occurred in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the still later events which occurred in the handling of the “Shepherd Case” by the Westminster Theological Seminary. Since I do not consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable in the matters of the exact positions of Clark and Van Til here and of the historical events noted, I shall not deal with those matters here – I shall leave the resolution of those matters to the Van Til scholars, the Clark scholars, and the church historians and historians of theology.

But I do have a very definite position on the epistemological issues involved and the scope of this paper will be confined to that.

Orthodoxy and The Canon of Truth

Of far great concern than the debasement of our nation’s coinage is the debasement of our theological vocabulary. A good illustrative example of this is the false meanings which are now given to the two foundational terms in our epistemology – orthodoxy and canon. The canon now is taken to mean the list of books which the church decided to include in the Bible, and a typical dictionary definition will say that orthodoxy means that which is customary, conventional, and traditional. To many people orthodoxy has also acquired such pejorative connotations as stodginess and closedmindedness.

Both of these foundational epistemological terms were coined and defined correctly by Irenaeus, a man of great brilliance and righteousness, whom God mightily used to defeat the onslaught of Gnosticism, and his ability to discern the true meanings of these terms was very instrumental in his ability to gain the victory he did.

The term orthodoxy means “straight thinking”, which is not surprising because it is compounded from the Greek adjective orthos, meaning “straight”or “properly aligned” and the Greek noun doxa, meaning “thinking”. This is an excellent and most appropriate term to use in opposition to the sneakiness and crookedness of the Gnostics. The “straight” in this “straight thinking” had for the Greeks the same good connotations it has for us, which is found in such expressions as “give it to me straight”, “straight from the shoulder”, “straight arrow”, “ you need to straighten up”.

The term canon is a transliteration of the Greek noun kanon, which was an instrument used to insure the proper construction of a building: e.g. a ruler is a kanon which is needed to insure that the boards are cut to the right lengths; a plumbline is a kanon
which is used to insure that the walls are perpendicular to the foundation. Irenaus took this term and adapted it for epistemological purposes when he coined the term “canon of truth”. First of all, straight thinking, orthodoxy, means thinking which is done in accord with the canon of truth. And the canon of truth does not mean the books in the Bible; it means the Biblical thought-system, which means everything explicitly taught in Scripture, and everything presupposed by that teaching and everything deduced from that teaching. It is of utmost importance to note that this canon of truth is a thought-system which is only correctly interpreted in terms of the perspective of that system itself, and not of any alien perspectives.

The Bible Does Not Contain Any Antinomies – Real or Apparent

My approach to this subject is the same as that followed by Robert L. Reymond in his great epistemological treatise – The Justification of Knowledge. He gives Van Til well-deserved credit for developing the principles of what is now called The Van Til Perspective, an essential tool for learning and defending the Biblical world-view, but he also rebukes Van Til for teaching (or, at least seeming to teach) that the Bible contains antinomies. I follow Reymond in maintaining that any expositions of Scripture claiming to show that Scripture teaches an antinomy are based on faulty interpretation and are never due to the fact that the Bible’s authors (and esp. not The Supreme Author !) intends to teach an antinomy. In short, the antinomy is in the eyes of the interpreter, not in the Scripture itself.

This is not the place to fully refute these antinomous interpretations but rather to point to the principle needed for that purpose. I shall give two quick examples of what I mean.


First, the clue to perceiving the harmony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is to reject the false notion that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are to be placed “side-by side”, as many theologians have done. Rather,
divine sovereignty is the context within which human responsibility functions, and in fact, as the Westminster Confession of Faith (III:1) puts it, it is the former which “establishes” the latter, which puts the whole thing into a radically different perspective than the “side-by-side” perspective. Now it is clear that the Scripture’s own perspective is that of starting with God and seeing everything else within the context of God’s plan. Any perspective which starts with man or which has two starting points – God and man – is false. So, the side-by-side perspective is clearly spurious. Now since God sovereignly established human responsibility and since man and his responsibility exist within the
creation-system established and controlled by God, it is obvious that the
sovereignty of God is not going to be in conflict with the human responsibility He established.

Second, the clue to refuting the notion that the doctrine of the Trinity is an antinomy is by refuting the false individualistic notion of personhood and replacing it with the Biblical perspective, which entails the equal ultimacy of the unity and the diversity with respect to personhood. This means that in a community it is not just the individuals in it
who are personal; the community is also personal. This must be the case for these reasons: 1. God is the Supreme Standard for all matters including the definition of the meaning of personhood; 2. since God is one personal community composed of three individual persons, this means that the community is personal as well as the individuals in the community. We must not look at God from the standpoint of a pre-established definition of “person” and then try to determine if God is personal or not. No! We must
recognize the all important truth that the nature of God is the only true definition of personhood. And that divine personhood is not individualistic – the community of the three individual persons is also personal, and it has to be, lest we adopt the outrageous notion that the unification of God rests on some impersonal ground. In short, the equal ultimacy of the personal unity and diversity is derived from the very Being of God. What it means for theology proper is this: God is One Communal Person and Three Individual Persons. It would be an antinomy to say that God is both one individual person and three individual persons. But it is not antinomy to say that God is One Communal Person and Three Individual Persons. Note again, that the solution to this matter is only found on the basis of the perspective of Scripture, which is the canon of truth. Using any other perspectives leads to falsehood and confusion.


Now in both of these examples the problem is due to looking at the Scripture from an erroneous perspective. When the true perspective is used to examine the Scripture, the supposed antinomy is not present. Let me repeat that – the antinomy is NOT in the Scripture; the antinomy results from looking at the Scripture from an erroneous perspective. There is no antinomy when the perspective is right. That true perspective,
that Scriptural perspective, is the canon of truth. And straight thinking means thinking in accord with it. I trust that the examples of this provided here will help the reader gain a better understanding of the meaning of canon and of straight thinking and how essential they are in clearing up matters such as the ones above.

The “Antinomies-In-The Bible” Notion is Unvantillian

Now what is very strange about this is that Van Til did not say what I have said above but appears to teach that the Bible contains antinomies – real or apparent. Why is that strange? I will tell you why. Look at the thinking I just showed you which is the clue to solving this matter. I LEARNED that kind of thinking from Van Til. That kind of thinking is one example of the tool involved in the Van Til Perspective. So, what I am saying here is that Van Til’s biblical-antinomies notion is due to the fact that in developing it VAN TIL DID NOT PRACTICE WHAT HE PREACHED.

Now I have had many critics – both Vantillians and Clarkians – who claim that I have no right to call myself a Vantillian if I do not accept Van Til’s antinomies-in-the-Bible notion. And some of them get enraged at my supposed audacity in saying that this notion is Unvantillian – who am I to claim that something Van Til said was Unvantillian – isn’t that arrogance? No, it is not arrogance, and let me tell you why. I think very differently now than I did before I became a vantillian. I LEARNED this kind of thinking from Van Til. I did not come up with it myself, and therefore it WOULD BE arrogant if I were to call my position Schultzian, as some have suggested. What I have just done above is to use THE VAN TIL TOOL, i.e. the kind of thinking which Van Til taught, and showed that in a particular instance in Van Til’s writings that Van Til himself did NOT follow the principles he set forth in his teachings about Christian thinking. WHY Van Til did this I am not prepared to say because I do not know – I will leave that to the Van Til scholars and biographers to decide.


But what I do know is Van Til did indeed in this matter teach something that is out of accord with the Van Til Perspective which he labored so hard to establish and which has been such a blessing to those of us who know it AND USE IT. Frame pointed out a long time ago that few Vantillians actually use the Van Til Tool. Now anyone who does not actually use it may not even understand it and therefore will be unable to see how the antinomies-in-the-Bible notion is at odds with it. This may be why there seem to be so few who seem to be able to understand what I am saying here. Being a Vantillian does not mean reading his books and then simply mouthing what he says there. Being a Vantillian means understanding the principles of Christian thinking set forth in what we now call the Van Til Perspective. Now if anyone really understands them, then I do not see how he can fail to come to the conclusion I reached above. Now if what Van Til wrote about Biblical antinomies had not been known and if these writing were to be taken by a Professor and given to a Van Til student for critique with nothing changed except that Van Til’s authorhip were to be removed and the student told that they came from Barth, then how do you think the student would handle them? You see the problem here is that this garbage is something Van Til wrote and therefore the student figures it has got to be true and therefore must be part of Vantillianism.

Now it is true that this Biblical antinomies notion IS found in the corpus of Van Til’s writings just like a cancer growing in a person is found in that person’s body. The cancer is indeed IN the person’s body but IT DOES NOT BELONG THERE !! So, just showing that some idea is found IN the writings of Van Til does NOT prove that it BELONGS in the Van Til Perspective. Anyone who really understands the Van Til Perspective should be able to see this just as any doctor who knows the human body will know that the cancer is both different from the cells in the body and is, in fact, harmful to the body.

There Is A Coherent Thought-System In The Bible And The Master Concept Of That System Is God

Both Van Til himself and his chief exponent John Frame are correct in stating that there is no master concept in Scripture – no FINITE master concept, that is, which I assume is what they mean. But what they do not say, insofar as I am aware, is that the reason for this is that the master concept is God Himself. It is not due the fact that there is no master concept at all.


The best discussion I have ever seen of this is, surprisingly, not in a theology book but in a speech given by a character in one of the best fictional writings ever written, That Hideous Strength, which is the third volume of C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. In this story Lewis has one of the characters give a long speech about this in which he claims that because God cares about everything, each thing is central some times and in some respects and also peripheral some times and in some respects. You do not have the EXCLUSIVE centrality of a particular entity or idea or whatever, as is found in the typical master concepts. What you have is that each thing is sometimes central and sometimes peripheral. Another way of putting this is that the reason it seems so hard to find a plan is because everything is planned! And this, of course, is what we Calvinists believe, or say we believe, when we speak of the decree of God: it is ALL planned.

The analogy which Lewis uses – a beautiful one – is that of certain dances which were popular on the American frontier, such as the Virginia Reel, in which for a while one couple is in the center of a large circle composed of all the other couples who dance in a circle around this central couple. Then, after a while, the couple in the center goes to the circumference and a couple from the circumference moves to the center. And so on until each couple has been in the center for a while and then on the circumference the rest of the time.

Now, God’s plan is what it is because God is what He is. His nature determines and expresses itself in the plan. Now God is characterized by ALL the aspects of reality – in fact His aspects are the Supreme Standard and Archetype of what the aspects are. (In saying this I differ radically from Dooyeweerd, who did not believe God had the aspects. That was probably the worst error he ever made.) The reason men have all of these aspects – biotic, lingual, economic, epistemic, aesthetic, historical, familial, juridical, etc etc etc, is because man is a finite analogue of God, which means that each of our aspects are finite reflections of the corresponding aspects in God. Now the upshot of this is that GOD CARES ABOUT EVERYTHING !!! This is why any supposed “key” to understanding Scripture or history is false because all of these keys – all of these master concepts – are finite. They do not have it all together! Now since God cares about EVERYTHING, then His decree or plan for His creation has been established accordingly which means that everything is important and there is no EXCLUSIVE centrality of any one thing. Now since God really did decree all this, we can only conclude that GOD IS THE MASTER CONCEPT !!!


Man’s Analogical Nature Is The Basis For Man’s Ability To Gain Knowledge;

It Is Not The Basis For Calling That Ability Into Question

Van Til has become well known both for his emphasis upon the Creator/creature distinction and also for his magnificent phraseology concerning the greatness of man:
“Man is the finite analogue of the Infinite God!” and “Man is the finite replica of the being of God insofar as this is possible for a creature”. Wonderful! Unfortunately, though, it is very sad to have to relate that he also made some ambiguous statements making it look like man’s analogical status called his epistemic ability into question. And that makes me furious. Let all theologians be required to adhere to this motto: “Say what you mean and mean what you say!” I will let give the Van Til scholars the unenviable task of trying to sort out what Van Til really meant.

But let there be do doubt about this. The epistemology of the Biblical thought-system is clear in teaching that man is able to gain knowledge, and man’s being made in the image of God is the ontological basis which makes that knowledge possible. And there is no excuse for Van Til not to have said so and said so loud and clear!! He is to be rebuked for his lack of clarity about this all important matter. At any rate, the Van Til Perspective must in no way be associated with any confusion about this all important and fundamental epistemological matter.

Man Is Capable of Acquiring Extra-Biblical Knowledge

Now, we turn to Gordon Clark, and here our task is much easier because Clark is very clear in his position and that position is so clearly wrong it is nothing short of amazing that a man as astute as he was could believe such absurdities. Clark has written some works which are helpful and for that we can be grateful – although it was many years ago I still remember the enjoyment of reading A Christian View of Men and Things. However, his own position – that the only knowledge we can have is the Bible and its
good and necessary consequences – is not only preposterous but is self-contradictory because the Biblical teaching is that man is capable of gaining ordinary knowledge, not just the knowledge in the Bible. Now Clark’s position on this has already been amply critiqued by others so there is no need for me to do so here. I have nothing to add to it.


I would just like to note that taking the Clarkian position seriously has consequences which some may not realize. In a Clarkian email discussion group recently I read email messages from a Clarkian who admitted that on the Clarkian basis one cannot know if he is converted or not. Since he is not mentioned in Scripture then the Clarkian conclusion must be that he cannot know anything about himself, including whether he is saved or lost. He says that all he can have is an opinion about this; he can have no knowledge of it. Now, to fully carry this out, he would also have to admit that he cannot even be sure he exists. Descartes tried to prove his own existence by his famous “I think; therefore I am”. The Clarkian, on the other hand, should say something like this: “I am not in the Bible; therefore maybe I do not exist”.

The Purpose of Thought

Another thing that needs no discussion here is Clark’s radical rationalistic reductionism, i.e. the outrageous notion that all that exists is thought. This too has been amply critiqued, thus obviating any need for me to do so. All I wish to do here is to emphatically disassociate myself from Clark’s rationalism and to mention a few things which may not have been mentioned in the critiques – it has been so long ago that I read them that I do not remember. The first of these is one of the greatest breakthroughs in philosophy in our day which occurred when Mortimer Adler made the profound observation that ideas are NOT what we know; they are the MEANS by which we know. In other words ideas are used to know reality. It is reality which is known by means of ideas. One must never say that all we can know is ideas, because then on that basis we can never know reality, which is indeed what some thinkers have said, i.e. that ideas or propositions can only be about other ideas or propositions, never about reality.

Although we can engage in a second-order thinking, i.e. thinking about thinking, the primary purpose of thinking is knowing reality, and this direct knowledge of reality, this first-order thinking, is the main purpose of thought. Having made that point clear, I now wish to go on to amend what I just said to make it more accurate. Strictly speaking, thought cannot be separated from reality the way I just did because thought is part of reality! Thought is not in a realm separate from reality; that spurious notion is what has led to all the epistemological blunders since then. No. What we have is a multi-aspectival reality. Thought is one of the aspects of reality. It is that aspect which is responsible for knowledge – both knowledge of itself (by means of second-order thinking) and knowledge of all the other aspects of reality (by means of first order thinking).


I want to say just one thing more to drive this home. Thought would make no sense if there were not something out there to think about. This is true of each aspect. For example, the main purpose of language is talking about what is out there, not about language itself. Beauty has no meaning unless there are things out there to be beautiful. Energy makes no sense unless there are objects which can have energy – energy is not something floating around – it always possessed by some object or system of objects. With no objects at all in the universe there would be no energy. The same is true with space. Space refers to the spatial aspect of objects and of distances between objects. If there were no objects there would be no space.

The Shepherd Case and the Rise of False Views of Justification in the Reformed Camp

I assume that the reader is aware of the alarming rise of false views of justification which have been spreading through the Reformed camp and that, although most of these views are not identical to those of Norman Shepherd, that it is Shepherd who is usually credited with being the originator of this trend toward these false views. Now what the reader may not be aware of is the recent allegations that the influence of the thought of Van Til is responsible for the defection of Norman Shepherd. The most recent example I have seen of this allegation is a paper entitled “The Evisceration of the Christian Faith” authored by Sean Gerety and published in July 2005 by the Clarkian organization called The Trinity Foundation and available in the archive on their website. In it he dubs Van Til as “The Father of Norman Shepherd”. Now let us look at why he says this and how we should reply to his allegation.

You will recall that I referred to Van Til’s fallacious notion of Biblical antinomies as a “cancer” in the body of the Van Til Perspective. It is in the writings of Van Til but does not belong there because it is radically at odds with the Van Til Perspective. Now my analogy of a cancer has proven to quite appropriate because cancers grow and the more they grow the more of the good cells of the body they destroy. John Frame has admitted in his very important book Van Til The Theologian that the notion of antinomies, which he calls paradoxes, do not just apply to the two subjects I dealt with in refuting the Biblical antinomies notion (i.e. The Trinity; and the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility), but that it also applies to the doctrine of justification. So, you see the cancer of antinomies has now grown to gobble up the doctrine of justification, thus showing the aptness of the cancer analogy. So, if antinomies can involve justification, then all kinds of stuff can be said about justification, which is what is now happening. This is one more reason why it is imperative for Van Tillians to disassociate themselves from the Biblical antinomies (or paradoxes). If Biblical antinomies and paradoxes are Vantillian, then the Van Til
Perspective would indeed be responsible for the false views of justification, as Gerety alleges. This is why it is so important to carefully distinguish between the Van Til Perspective, which is true, and the notion of Biblical antinomies, which is false.

To repeat, Van Til personally bears some responsibility for the origination of the false justification views. But it does not logically follow from this that the Van Til Perspective is false, because this Biblical antinomies notion does not belong in the Van Til Perspective, just like a cancer does not belong in the body.

Is Clark vs. Van Til Debate Relevant Now?

In a recent post on a theology email discussion group Calvinists were attacked for
spending time in debating Clark vs. Van Til because that is an old debate and instead we ought to talk about what is happening now. I do not agree with that assessment. The Clark vs. Van Til Debate deals with extremely important matters, which need to be properly understood and handled. What is dealt with there are matters of eternal relevance not something that was only relevant when it happened.

Look at the questions discussed here; they are extremely important. It is important to know whether we can know anything, and if so, whether all we can know is what is in Scripture or not. It is very important to know whether it is possible for the Bible to contain antinomies. And it is very important to distinguish between the great truth Van Til discovered – the Van Til Perspective – and the radically false cancerous notion of Biblical antinomies.

That is all I am going to say. It is obvious what we must do. To add an exhortation would be superfluous.



  • At Monday, February 20, 2006, Blogger KosmicEggburst said…

    Normally, the problem with Clark was he is the biggest proponent of fideism. Shepherd is workable if carefully defined. The glaring difference in Clark and Shepherd is Clark's trinitarianism as an ontological misgiving, and Shepherd is keyed-in on economic trinitarian concerns that hinge on whether the force of St Paul's exposition was jewish legalism or not. I am certain that there is something bigger at work in Paul than just jewish legalism.

  • At Thursday, February 23, 2006, Blogger KosmicEggburst said…

    Not certain if you have worked in this area at length, but one of the problems years ago in the Reformed camp - and still prevalent somewhat today - is the preterist eschatology. Of the various fields of study in eschatology, the literalist, historicist, dispensationalist, futurist, and preterist views became the classics.

    It turns out that preterism is the most resilient of the groupings, but this has to be carefully defined. Full preterism is quickly a heresy, but a carefully defined partial preterist view is more than worthy. I do glean some from the other views.

    What has happened is the preterist controversy has become greatly individualized, and some kind of convention should be developed and applied.

  • At Tuesday, February 28, 2006, Blogger Forrest Schultz said…

    Preterism differs not just in saying the Tribulation etc. happened in the past, but also in saying that it was localized (to Jerusalem and Israel) rather than a worldwide phenomenon. Now although the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem was a tremendous tribulation to the Palestin,, it did not have worldwide Tribulation effects.


  • At Sunday, March 05, 2006, Blogger KosmicEggburst said…

    To be honest I had not considered this aspect and agree that it is a good way to look at what it does.

    Localization is a problem, particularly in some views of the presence at communion, e.g., consubstantiation.

    It seems that a great many prophecies were indeed fulfilled in 70AD, particulary noteworthy is the prophetic destruction of the temple.

    "Full" preterism creates a microcosm from Christ's birth to 70AD and can even militate against the second coming with an eccentric post-mil style accompaniment.

    There is no doubt that preterism brings much more light to bear on eschatology than the other classic groupings. With the emergence of the "partial" preterist classification, there is much hope to reclassify preterism.

  • At Sunday, March 05, 2006, Blogger KosmicEggburst said…

    To be honest I had not considered this aspect and agree that it is a good way to look at what it does.

    Localization is a problem, particularly in some views of the presence at communion, e.g., consubstantiation.

    It seems that a great many prophecies were indeed fulfilled in 70AD, particulary noteworthy is the prophetic destruction of the temple.

    "Full" preterism creates a microcosm from Christ's birth to 70AD and can even militate against the second coming with an eccentric post-mil style accompaniment.

    There is no doubt that preterism brings much more light to bear on eschatology than the other classic groupings. With the emergence of the "partial" preterist classification, there is much hope to reclassify preterism.

  • At Monday, March 13, 2006, Blogger Forrest Schultz said…

    To return to the time focus, it is very dangerous to overemphasize either the past or the present or the future or the eternal. They must be kept in balance.

    Let's use the Temple as an example. Now the preterists put this huge emphasis on the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD but they are totally silent about the plans which the Jews are making to rebuild the Temple. As another example -- the state of Israel. The preterists make a big deal about the destruction of the state of Israel in 70 AD but say almost nothing about its re-establishment in 1948. On the other hand many dispes spend all the time talking about the rebuilding of the Temple and say almost nothing about its 70 AD destruction. This is why I am very reluctant to put myself into a box labeled preterist or presentist or futurist.



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