The tide has been shifting in the modern reformed world. Debate over theology proper in reformed circles is finally reaching the question of epistemology. K. Scott Oliphint has argued that, in light of Van Til’s epistemology, “much of systematic theology that’s done, especially in theology proper, needs a complete revision and re-write.” The crux of the issue is the role of logic. Van Til taught that when Scripture presents us with statements that violate the human law of non-contradiction, we must embrace both. We must embrace the paradox with faith that what is contradictory in our minds is not contradictory in God’s mind, whose thoughts are above our thoughts.
When ARBCA stated in its position paper on the doctrine of divine impassibility that Scripture is non-contradictory, they were accused of engaging in natural theology.
We affirm the unity and analogy of Scripture, which states that unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages are to be interpreted with clear and unambiguous passages that touch upon the same teaching or event (2LCF 1.9). We deny that the purported meaning of any text may be pressed in isolation or contradiction to other passages of Scripture. (26)
Why? Because they were using reason to interpret Scripture, rather than submitting their reason to Scripture. This was, according to critics, Scholastic Thomism. One critic said
The TC [ARBCA Theological Committee] explicitly deny the ideas of ‘tension’, ‘paradox’, ‘antinomy’ in hermeneutics in their Long Paper. Their explanation reveals a hostility to the chastened hermeneutic of the Princeton-Westminster tradition of Vos, Van Til, and Murray – which explicitly rejected scholastic hermeneutics.
The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos
In response to that line of argumentation, J.V. Fesko has written an essay for the RTS Journal titled The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos. He argues that the epistemological connection between Vos and Van Til is unsubstantiated. “This essay presents the thesis that Vos’s use of the pure-mixed articles distinction disproves that Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology.”
Vos employed the distinction between pure and mixed articles in his doctrine of creation, a theological distinction that owes its origins to Lombard and was adopted by Aquinas. In brief, articuli puri / mixti derive their origins from the disciplines of theology and philosophy. Those articles derived from theology alone are “pure,” and those that originate from both philosophy and theology are mixed. The idea that stands behind these terms is that human beings acquire some knowledge of God through the use of reason and other knowledge exclusively from special revelation. In other words, this set of terms requires that a theologian define the precise relationship between philosophy and theology. In short, to admit mixed articles means that one employs some form of natural theology.
The example he provides is from the doctrine of creation.
In the first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics Vos treats the doctrine of creation in his sixth chapter. Vos asks a series of questions: What is creation? How do theologians divide the external works of God? Where does the doctrine of miracles belong? In the fourth question Vos poses the following: “Is the doctrine of creation an articulus purus [pure article] or an articulus mixtus [mixed article]?” Vos provides his answer by first explaining his use of terms. Pure articles “are those that cannot be derived both from reason and from revelation but depend entirely on revelation.” Mixed articles, on the other hand, “flow from both reason and revelation.” With his terms defined, Vos zeroes-in on the specific nature of his question: “Whether creation can be proven by reason.” Some have tried to answer the question by starting with the concept of God. God could not have remained enclosed within himself because he needed a world to love. Vos rejects this argument because it would deny God’s aseity. He counters that one can reason from the world up to God, but we cannot descend from God to the world by “logic,” that is, by reason alone. Human reason alone will eventually run out of road and conclude that the creation is mysterious and unique but cannot determine that it arose ex nihilo. Thus, Vos concludes that creation ex nihilo is a pure article; we learn of it solely from special revelation. Vos qualifies his answer, however, by specifying that creatio ex nihilo is a pure article, not the general idea of God’s creation of the universe.
I think Fesko successfully proves his thesis. It echoes the conclusion that I reached in my essay The Silent Shift on WCF 7.1 – Van Til’s epistemology (and misunderstanding of WCF 7.1) was not derived from Vos. I encourage those interested to read the full essay.
The Use of Reason
Fesko helpfully lists ways in which reason was used by some in the reformed tradition.
Early modern Reformed theologians acknowledged the instrumental use of reason in theology… According to Johannes Heidegger (1633-98), reason had a fourfold function with mixed articles. Reason:
- Attempts to understand the content of revelation. We receive the word of God in both our hearts and minds.
- Defends principles of faith by showing that there are no logical contradictions and refuting the errors created by perverted reason. He aimed this use of reason against other religions such as Judaism and Islam. He traces this aspect from Aquinas to others in his own day such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645).
- Draws conclusions from revealed principles to confirm one’s faith and salvation from a rational point of view. The apostle Paul used reason in this manner in Acts 14 and 17.
- Judges simple things used in the articulation of doctrine, such as natural words and concepts (“man,” “body”) and the construction of propositions from these simple terms. Heidegger illustrates the point with the simple terms of “God” and “blood” and explains that only faith comprehends what Luke states in Acts 20:28, “God acquired the church by his own blood.”
Heidegger then gives a fourfold function of reason in the explication of pure articles. Reason:
- Receives God’s revelation—only the spiritual person can do this (1 Cor. 2:24).
- Is the instrument of judgment in doctrine concerning what is true and false. This judgment operates according to the rules of good and necessary consequence. The light of Scripture and regenerate reason are necessary to reach correct conclusions.
- Formulates doctrine through all means of knowledge: grammar, logic, rhetoric, ethics, mathematics, physics, and metaphysics.
- Compares the Old and New Testaments, supernatural and natural revelation, one doctrine with another, and argument with argument.
Clark/Van Til Controversy
All of this has a very interesting, unintended consequence: a necessary re-evaluation of the Clark/Van Til controversy. In the Strimple Festschrift, Edmund P. Clowney says
Another controversy that influenced that development was the debate that emerged between the faculty members of Westminster minster and Dr. Gordon Haddon Clark. Here the division was less between John Murray and Clark and more between Cornelius Van Til and Clark. While a student at Wheaton College (I graduated in 1939), I took all the courses that Dr. Clark offered. While still teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, he had published Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy. Dr. Clark’s history of philosophy presented it as a continuing chess game in which one master after another would pass from the scene, but the game would go on. We kept waiting for the philosopher who would bring the checkmate. In the sequence of his courses, everything pointed toward a contemporary Christian philosopher. Dr. Clark presented Cornelius Van Til as the philosopher to be studied, and referred to a copy of his syllabus. Dr. Van Til, however, concluded that Dr. Clark was a rationalist rather than a presuppositionalist. Van Til pronounced a plague upon both rationalism and irrationalism as positions that made human reason supreme. Instead, we must begin by presupposing the existence of the living and true God, the Creator and Redeemer, the Alpha and Omega of our faith. Both Van Til and Murray emphasized the history of redemption. In chapel talks at Westminster, both showed the influence of Geerhardus Vos’s biblical theology. (Kindle Locations 438-446).
Why was Clark a rationalist? “Dr. Clark has fallen under the spell of rationalism. Rather than subject his reason to the divine Word he insists on logically harmonizing with each other two evident but seemingly contradictory teachings of that Word” (The Complaint). This was “a failure to maintain a qualitative distinction between the knowledge of God and the knowledge possible to man, thus denying the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God and impinging in a most serious fashion upon the transcendence of the Creator over the creature.”
Floyd Hamilton (with Alan Tichenor, Robert Srong, Edwin Rian, and Gordon Clark) wrote The Answer, a defense of Clark in response to The Complaint. It said “without specifically amending our standards any attempt to exalt one method [of apologetics] as alone orthodox and to repudiate all appeal to the a-priori truths of reason is intolerable.” Note carefully his appeal to Hodge and compare with Fesko above.
A.A. Hodge, also, in his Outlines of Theology appeals to reason. On page 19, 8, 2d, he refers to “the light of nature.” Just below he speaks of “the demonstration of the a-priori possibility of a supernatural revelation.” On page 37 he answers Hume by an appeal to “a universal and necessary judgment of reason.” On page 45 he says, “It is certain that the intuitions of necessary truth are the same in all men. They are not generalizations from experience, but presupposed in all experience.” See in particular his defense of natural theology on page 53, 1, 1st, page 54, 2, 2d; also page 61, 10. On page 62, 14, 1st, he also says, “Reason is the primary revelation God has made to man, necessarily presupposed in every subsequent revelation of whatever kind . . . Hence no subsequent revelation can contradict reason acting legitimately within its own sphere . . . To believe is to assent to a thing as true, but to see that it contradicts reason, is to see that it is not (italics his) true.” Again on page 63, 15, 1st, “The first principles of a true philosophy are presupposed in all theology, natural and revealed. 2d, The Holy Scriptures, although not designed primarily to teach philosophy, yet necessarily presuppose and involve the fundamental principles of a true philosophy.”
The result of the controversy was that Dr. Clark was exonerated from the charges of The Complaint. The OPC General Assembly voted 2:1 in favor of Clark. However, he could tell he was quite unwelcome at WTS (where he was planning to teach) so he left the OPC. As a result Van Til’s thought continued to dominate. For more than a generation, reformed Christians have believed that seeking to resolve contradiction in a system of theology is rationalism. Only a few years ago a PCA seminary professor was nearly denied the transfer of his credentials to pastor an OPC church because he disagreed with Van TIl’s epistemology. The tide is shifting as people are finally seeing the problem with Van Til that Clark pointed out for 50 years. Perhaps reformed Christians will now be willing to seriously consider Gordon Clark’s substantial contribution to reformed philosophy (see Doug Douma’s recent biography The Presbyterian Philosopher), seeing that he is not quite the boogeyman he has been made out to be.