Van Til: Philosopher of Paradox

John Frame has written an important article, which is important to the discussion of the Basinger article. Frame takes a different approach to the issues that Basinger has written on. He would be more comfortable siding with Packer (or Jimmy as Al would call him – they’re buddies) than Basinger.

Frame believes that Cornelius Van Til’s most distinctive contribution to theology was his reflection on the concept of a Christian “system of truth.” On one hand, Van Til will speak of the Scriptures being internally coherent – there are no contradictions. He also believed that Christian doctrines were interdependent – in one sense they required one another. “The parts depend on the whole; the whole depends on the parts.”

However, Van Til would say things that seemed to contradict what I just mentioned. Van Til also believed that the Bible is riddled with apparent contradictions. An example would be the relationship between God and evil. Van Til believed that God’s plan included evil, but He is not to be blamed for it. God foreordains sin, but man is still responsible for it. Van Til’s escape for this problem was to state that our belief in their being apparent contradictions have to do with our ignorance regarding the precise senses of certain key terms. Since God is all-knowing, there is no problem. He knows the precise senses intended for all terms. There is no contradiction for Him.

You can see that there is a tension for Van Til. In one sense he is for a Christian system. In another sense, he is against one. He believes this tension can be reconciled by a doctrine of analogical reasoning (not to be confused with how the term is used by Aquinas). For Van Til, analogical reasoning is reasoning that presupposes the reality of the biblical God and the authority of His revelation. Like most theologians Van Til differentiates and affirms a special revelation (the Scriptures) and a general revelation (nature, human constitution). What is unique for Van Til is his belief that general and special revelation have never existed apart from one another and that both require one another. As Frame says, “Scripture is unintelligible without those facts which it interprets, but the facts are also unintelligible apart from God’s spoken and written interpretation of them.” Even so, Scripture has primacy. Van Til goes back to Genesis to show that even before the fall, God’s spoken words had a “priority” over his revelation in nature (in that they were more authoritative than any human/Satanic interpretation of general revelation).

Most pertinent to the Basinger-Packer debate is Frame’s discussion of analogy and logic. Money quote:

“Since, however, our knowledge is limited both by our created status and by God’s sovereign limitation of revelation, we can expect to find paradox in Scripture. If we do not know all the truth, then we do not know all the interconnections between the truths. And paradox, as we have earlier presented it, is simply the result of our ignorance about interconnections.”

For Van Til, logic derives from the character of God. As discussed before, all of God’s actions are logically consistent – they flow from his nature. But, Van Til believes that logic needs to be used rightly. While reasoning, we must recognize that God is the foundation of logic. Curiously, Van Till can be quoted as saying he is against deducing things from Scripture. In other places, he is for deducing things from Scripture. In one place, logical deduction is permitted, while in another place it is forbidden. The question is, when is logical deduction permitted and when is it not?

Frame believes that logical deduction is permitted anytime, except when it puts us in conflict with the explicit teachings of Scripture. For Frame and Van Til, the primary purpose of exegesis is not logical consistency, but faithfulness to the text. “If no explicit logical consistency can be obtained without conflict with other biblical teaching, then we must remain satisfied with paradox.” When paradoxes are exegetically formulated, they must be fearlessly stated in any theological work.

Frame raises the question of intelligibility. If from our (human) perspective an apparent contradiction is indistinguishable from an actual contradiction, how can it be intelligible to us? For Frame, all interpretation is application. With this in mind, a paradoxical doctrine in Scripture can still be intelligible if it demands a particular response from us. An example of this is the image of God. For Van Til, the doctrine of humanity bearing the image of God is paradoxical. He believed that humanity has (in one sense) and has not (in another) lost the image of God as a result of the Fall. The senses are never distinguished, so we have an apparent contradiction. Does this render the doctrine unintelligible? No, because there is a clear application.

“We are to treat men as made in the image of God, even though they are fallen (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9)…The “loss” of the image motivates us to recognize our own need for renewal, the need to “put on the new man” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).”

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Although Frame doesn’t address some of the specific issues that Basinger (and Al) raises, I believe that what he says still stands. I am uncomfortable with doing away with the strongest exegetical formulation of a text because you can’t make it jive with another doctrine. Faithfulness would seem to dictate that you affirm a paradox, or at least as Basinger believes, suspend judgment.

Just so you know this isn’t a bunch of theology geeks getting worked up over inane theological debates, this discussion directly relates to the women in ministry debate. After about a year’s worth of reading, I believe that exegetically the complementarian position is correct, hands down. However, I have come across a philosophical argument via Becky Groothuis that says that the complementarian position entails a logical contradiction. So, do I go with Basinger and reinterpret the text (choosing a less probable interpretation) or do I “fearlessly” affirm an apparent contradiction via Frame? What do you think?