Introduction to the Thought of Cornelius Van Til: The All-Sufficient God
Because so much of what is said on this blog is undergirded and rooted in the thought of Cornelius Van Til, I thought it would be a good time to finally give my readers a more formal introduction to his contribution to both Christian theology and apologetics/worldview studies. These entries will be a bit longer than my usual posts, so please bear with me.
Dr. Van Til (1895-1987) was Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Seminary from 1929 to 1972. Raised squarely in the Reformed tradition, Van Til cut his theological teeth on the Three Forms of Unity. Much of his approach to both theology and apologetics was greatly shaped by several leading Reformed theologians, from the Dutch wing of Reformed thought, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and Abraham Kuyper, and from the Princtonian American tradition, B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge. Though he differed from them at crucial points, his approach was essentially an outworking of what he believed were their most penetrating insights. He sought to correct what he believed to be their inconsistencies and follow the path they pointed out but never quite walked. For instance, Van Til’s critiques Warfield’s approach to apologetics often noted that Warfield wasn’t consistent with his biblical anthropology.
Several key themes, or master motifs, dominate Van Til’s thought. If one can master these central concepts, much of his work will open up with greater ease. For the purposes of this series, I have selected only a few of these themes. Here we’ll examine Van Til’s (VT) teaching concerning the nature of God, his doctrine of creation and providence, and his biblical anthropology (with it’s corollary regarding the function of Scripture).
God, the all-sufficient. For Van Til, a genuinely Christian philosophy must first properly hammer out its doctrine of God. If this essential task fails, all else is doomed. The chief principle in VT’s doctrine of God is what Frame calls “God’s self-contained fullness.” In rooting all things in God, VT, following Scripture, stresses God’s independence from anything in His creation. In VT’s words,
Basic to all the doctrines of Christian theism is that of the self-contained God, or, if we wish, that of the ontological Trinity. (The Defense of the Faith [Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975], 100.)
A truly Christian philosophy should, it seems to us, begin with the notion of God as self-contained.” “We must take the notion of the self-contained, self-sufficient God as the most basic notion of all our interpretative efforts. (Christianity and Idealism [Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955], 85)
A truly Christian philosophy should, it seems to us, begin with the notion of God as self-contained. (Ibid., 88.)
In fact, VT finds that this concept of a completely self-sufficient God, one in need of nothing to define either His character or attributes, is completely original to Christianity. He states, “There is no speculative system that entertains the idea of such a self-contained God. It is only the Scriptures which teach us about this God.” (The Triumph of Grace [no publication data, 1958], 28)
God’s plurality does not depend any contrast between Him and creation, for within the Trinity, the persons of the godhead are clearly distinct from one another. Thus, unity and plurality exist in God, without the need of creation to introduce this distinction. Neither is God’s goodness anything that He is dependant upon outside of his own nature.
All of this though, ties in quite consistently with Van Til’s two-circle metaphysic. According to Frame:
Over and over again in class he would draw two circles on the blackboard: a large circle representing God and a smaller circle below it representing the creation. The two were connected by lines representing providence and revelation, but Van Til emphasized the distinctness of the two circles from one another. He insisted that Christianity has a “two-circle” worldview, as opposed to secular thought, which only has “one circle” thinking. Nonbiblical thought makes all reality equal: if there is a God, he is equal to the world. But for Christianity, God is the sovereign Creator and Lord: The world is in no sense equal to him. This is, in essence, the “simple structure” of Van Til’s thought. (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 53)
Nearly every additional point in Van Til’s system is an outworking of this crucial distinction, if you get this you’re half way to understanding Van Til.