Part 4. Were Cornelius Van Til’s views actually a lot like Karl Barth’s views?
A number of Reformed theologians have made the claim that there is some fatal similarity between the theology of Cornelius Van Til and the theology of Karl Barth. Naturally, there are agreements between these two theologians, just as there are agreements between nearly any two theologians, and many of the agreements are surely benign. But is there some similarity between the theology of Van Til and the theology Barth that is as fatal to the former as it is to the latter? That is, given that the various Reformed critiques of Barth have found fatal flaws in Barthianism, does Van Til’s theology suffer in some same way where it coincides with Barthianism?
To explore this I believe we need to look primarily at two related questions:
1.) To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of paradox similar to that of Barth’s?
(which this post will address)
2.) To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s “Wholly Other”?
(which Part 5 of this series will address)
Those who have claimed there to be fatal similarity between Van Til and Barth include Gordon H. Clark (who nearly all readers of my blog have considerable familiarity with); Robert L. Reymond (1932 – 2013), a Reformed theologian who taught at Covenant Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary and authored a textbook on systematic theology; and David J. Engelsma (Professor Emeritus at the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary).
First, Gordon Clark noted a Van Til – Barth connection as early as 1951 where in a letter to one of his publishers he wrote:
…he [Van Til] is an excellent example of how neo-orthodoxy [A name that has been applied to theologies of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner] has permeated contemporary thinking. Dr. Van Til ‘adores paradox,’ he holds that man’s mind is incapable of knowing any truth, that the Bible from cover to cover is not the truth, and that theological formulations, creeds, and so on are only ‘pointers’ to something unknowable. The dependence on Brunner, even the wording, makes Dr. Van Til an admirable example.”1
Robert Reymond (who, as I’ve argued here, was not fully on board with Clark’s “Scripturalism”) also saw a connection between Van Til and Barth. Reymond wrote:
Exceedingly strange it is that as ardent a foe of Barthian irrationalism as is Van Til comes nevertheless to the same conclusion concerning the nature of truth for man as does Barth. The only difference in this connection between Van Til and Barth is that Van Til insists that truth is objectively present in biblical propositions while for Barth truth is essentially existential. But for both religious truths can appear, at least at times, paradoxical.”2
And David Engelsma (a “friendly critic”3 of Gordon Clark) writes in The Standard Bearer:
It is not clear to me what the difference might be between the paradoxical nature of truth as espoused by Van Til and his disciples and the “theology of paradox” of Kierkegaard and his pupil, Karl Barth. To the same proposition in the same sense at the same time, both Van Til and Barth say “yes and no.4
1. To what extent is Van Til’s view of paradox similar to that of Barth’s?
To compare Van Til’s view of paradox with Barth’s view of paradox, we must first come to an accurate understanding of the respective views of each of these theologians.
What is Karl Barth’s doctrine of Paradox?
Gordon Clark contends that Karl Barth’s doctrine of paradox is that of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Clark wrote,
Despairing of intellectual solutions in a world of insane chaos, the theologians of the twentieth century remembered the iconoclastic Dane. The first of these was Karl Barth, who seized upon the notion of paradox and emphasized the opposition between time and eternity, but whose later writings toned down these themes.”5
Among theologians Karl Barth accepted Kierkegaard’s view of Paradox, and though in his later writings he restricted its extent, he never repudiated it. In the early pages of his Church Dogmatics he says that the law of contradiction is acceptable in theology only upon conditions that are scarcely tolerable to a scientific theologian.”6
and also said in an audio lecture,
“The point is important, not only for a correct understanding of Kierkegaard, but also for a correct understanding of Karl Barth, and the type of religion he has popularized since World War One. … One thing is clear however, in his various writings, Barth made use of Kierkegaard’s paradox. His eternity vs. time. Infinite qualitative difference.”7
So what is Kierkegaard’s view? In his audio lecture on “Irrationalism,” Clark noted:
Kierkegaard does not mean that the incarnation, and whatever other Christian doctrines he may have in mind, are surprising or psychologically incredible to heathen peasants and German philosophers. It is not as if the common sense of the sinful human race never expected atonement and resurrection. This is not what Kierkegaard means by paradox and absurdity. He means precisely that the doctrines are self-contradictory, therefore meaningless, therefore absurd.”8
For Kierkegaard a paradox is not something that at first seems puzzling or even impossible to common sense, but which can clearly be explained. … But Kierkegaard alters linguistic usage and speaks of paradox as inexplicable. … The absolute paradox therefore is the absolute contradiction. Kierkegaard far from shrinking back at the thought of denying the laws of logic and becoming irrational, glories in it.”9
The Christian believes that God became man, and he believes with equal fervor that God could not possibly have become man. Rather obviously, Kierkegaard is not the spokesman for Christianity. Who in the whole history of the church every believed these two contradictories? Where in the bible are they asserted? One may, from an atheistic standpoint, condemn Christians for being stupid enough to believe in God. Or from a mildly religious standpoint, one may call him superstitious for believing the impossible. But who with a straight face can characterize the Christian movement as a belief in contradictories? Christians believe God became incarnate. They emphatically do not believe that he could not become incarnate. What Kierkegaard means by faith is totally at variance with the Christian meaning of faith.10
From this I understand that Kierkegaard’s (and Barth’s) view is that there are doctrines in the Scriptures which contradict other doctrines in the Scriptures. Faith then, for them, is believing both of the doctrines despite the contradiction.
What is Van Til’s doctrine of Paradox?
Though there are some hints as to Van Til’s view of paradox in his article “Seeking For Similarities in Theology” in 1937 and in The Complaint which he signed in 1944, his view is first clearly defined in 1947 when he writes:
“Our position is naturally charged with being self-contradictory. It might seem at first glance as though we were willing, with the dialectical theologians [e.g. Barth and Brunner], to accept the really contradictory. Yet such is not the case. In fact we hold that our position is the only position that saves one from the necessity of ultimately accepting the really contradictory. We argue that unless we may hold to the presupposition of the self-contained ontological trinity, human rationality itself is a mirage. But to hold to this position requires us to say that while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former. If it is the self-contained ontological trinity that we need for the rationality of our interpretation of life, it is this same ontological trinity that requires us to hold to the apparently contradictory.”11
And in 1955, Van Til explains similarly:
A word must here be said about the question of antinomies. It will readily be inferred what as Christians we mean by antimonies. They are involved in the fact that human knowledge can never be completely comprehensive knowledge. Every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God. Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. We say that if there is to be any true knowledge at all there must be in God an absolute system of knowledge. We therefore insist that everything must be related to that absolute system of God. Yet we ourselves cannot fully understand that system.”12
“It appears that there must seem to be contradiction in human knowledge. To this we must now add that the contradiction that seems to be there can in the nature of the case be no more than a seeming contradiction. If we said that there is real contradiction in our knowledge we would once more be denying the basic concept of Christian theism; the concept of the self-complete universal in God. We should then not merely be saying that there is no complete coherence in our thinking but we should also be saying that there is no complete coherence in God’s thinking. And this would be the same as saying that there is no coherence or truth in thinking at all. If we say that the idea of paradox or antimony is that of real contradiction, we have destroyed all human and divine knowledge; if we say that the idea of paradox or antimony is that of seeming contradiction we have saved God’s knowledge and therewith also our own.”13
From these quotes I understand Van Til’s view on paradox to be that there are contradictions apparent to man’s mind between various Scriptural doctrines that are inherently irresolvable for man, but solved in God’s mind.
Different doctrines, same result.
In a recorded lecture in 1981, a student asked Gordon Clark the very question now at hand:
How does Van Til’s concept of paradox differ from Kierkegaard here?”
To this, Clark answered:
I hope to talk about Van Til before the semester is over, let me say this, my impression is, I could mention some differences between the two, but my impression is that in spite of the fact that Van Til denies he is an neo-orthodox apologete, I think he has been very deeply influenced by neo-orthodoxy, and unwittingly supports their position.”14
Thus we see that Clark recognized their being both differences and similarity between Van Til’s theology and Barth’s theology.
In the same lecture, Clark noted a similarity and hinted at a difference:
Kierkegaard alters linguistic usage and speaks of paradox as inexplicable. The definition of paradox that appeals to me the most is that paradox is a “charley-horse between the ears.” But that’s not what Kierkegaard meant. For Kierkegaard a paradox is a complete contradiction. We’ll talk about what Van Til or what Frame thinks a paradox is. But at any rate they both think that it is impossible to harmonize. At least by us. Maybe it can be harmonized by God, we’ll see.15
Based on the respective paradox doctrines of Van Til and Barth as understood above, I must agree with Clark on these points:
(1) A similarity in the paradox doctrines of Van Til and Barth is that they both hold that the supposed paradoxical passages of Scripture are impossible for man to harmonize.
(2) A difference in the paradox doctrines of Van Til and Barth is that for Van Til—but not for Barth—these paradoxes can be harmonized by God.
The Barthian and Van Tillian doctrines of paradox thus differ, but one result is the same: the exegete, regardless of his efforts, will be, in some places at least, unable to sort out or solve that which he finds to be conflicting doctrines in Scripture. Little good does it do to say that these conflicting doctrines are solvable by God, when to man they remain a mystery, as unresolvable according to Van Til as according to Barth.
The problems here, as much for Van Til’s view as for Barth’s, include A) the inability to distinguish between apparent contradictions caused by exegetical mistakes and apparent contradictions supposedly inherent in the Scriptures; B) the destruction of any claim of Christianity’s superiority to other systems based on it’s demonstrated consistency, and C) the destruction of the central Biblical hermeneutical principle of comparing scriptural passages with other scriptural passages based on the assumption of non-contradiction. Van Til’s doctrine of paradox, like Barth’s, is destructive to the entire enterprise of exegesis and Christian doctrine.
The next question “To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s ‘Wholly Other’?” will be continued in the next part of this series.
1 Gordon H. Clark to Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, October 15, 1951. In Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark, The Trinity Foundation, 2017, p. 124.
2 Robert Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979. p. 105.
3 David Engelsma, Review of The Incarnation by Gordon H. Clark, The Standard Bearer, Issue 17, 1989. https://standardbearer.rfpa.org/articles/book-reviews-294
4 David Engelsma, “Hoeksema on a Controversy in the OPC.” The Standard Bearer, Vol. 72, 1996. https://standardbearer.rfpa.org/articles/hoeksema-controversy-opc
5 Gordon H. Clark, “Revealed Religion.” in Fundamentals of the Faith, ed. Carl F. H. Henry, Zondervan, 1969, p. 18.
6 Gordon H. Clark, “Irrationalism” in Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics. Carl F.H. Henry, ed. Washington D.C.: Canon Press, 1973. http://gordonhclark.reformed.info/irrationalism-by-gordon-h-clark/
7 Gordon H. Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture, 1981.
8 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.
9 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.
10 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.
11 Cornelius Van Til, “The Christian Philosophy of History” (originally published in 1947) in Common Grace & The Gospel, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972. p. 9.
12 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 1955, 3rd Edition 1967, p. 44.
13 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 1955, 3rd Edition 1967, p. 45.
14 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.
15 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture. Min 30-31.