Cornelius Van Til and Charlie Clough’s Bible Framework Course
It is my conviction that there are issues with Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional approach to apologetics which Dispensationalists in particular are not generally aware of. Through Charlie Clough’s popular Bible Framework series Van Til’s apologetics are taking hold in dispensational circles. My goal is not to tell anyone what they can or cannot believe. Rather I want to encourage our next generation of Dispensational pastors, seminary professors, and Sunday school teachers to be Bereans and look good and hard at the implications of this system!
Courses emphasizing Van Til’s apologetics are currently being taught at both Chafer Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary. I am certain that Van Til’s philosophy is also being taught at other Dispensational seminaries in the United States. I don’t know if any of the students attending these seminaries have wrestled with the same questions on this topic as I have. If you have this post is for you. If you haven’t maybe you should.
To help establish I am legitimate and not someone trying to subvert solid biblical teaching I am going to provide some biographical information. I have organized this post so that if any reader is not interested in my background it will be easy to skip over.
I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior when I was five years old. Since that time I have never seriously doubted my salvation or worried about where I would spend eternity. The biggest theological influence on me has been R.B. Thieme, Jr. (aka Colonel Thieme) who pastored Berachah Church in Houston, TX for over fifty years. For many years Colonel Thieme was a rather influential Dispensational pastor here in the United States.
For those of you not familiar with Colonel Thieme’s ministry, you might be surprised to know that he emphasized daily intake of Bible doctrine. We did not live in Houston so we ordered reel-to-reel tapes every month from Berachah’s Tapes & Publications unit. If we could not order enough lessons to make it through the month we would just start listening to that month’s batch over again until the next month’s order arrived. Many years we never missed a day.
There probably weren’t many kids in junior high school that could discuss the divine decrees or the doctrine of kenosis, but I could. I estimate that I have listened to somewhere between three and four thousand hours of his teaching.
By the time I got out of college and established myself, I began to listen only sporadically to his teaching. There were certain things that he had started teaching that I wasn’t comfortable with. It would have been nice to find a local pastor who held to solid dispensational teaching but I couldn’t find anyone.
Somewhere around 2004 I began doing web searches trying to find Dispensational online resources. It was because of these searches that I found Chafer Theological Seminary and subscribed to their journal. An article in the Chafer Theological Seminary Journal (CTSJ) provided a link to Charlie Clough’s Bible Framework series. I checked it out and was immediately hooked. It filled in huge gaps in my knowledge and I drank it in like a sponge.
Colonel Thieme was a great teacher but he stopped teaching from the Old Testament in the 1970s. On the other hand Charlie Clough’s Bible Framework series started with Genesis and worked forward to the Book of Revelation. Pastor Clough (it turns out he was ordained by Colonel Thieme) taught things about creation, the flood, and the covenants with Israel that I hadn’t heard before. When he got into the New Testament there wasn’t as much new material for me to absorb, though topics like the development of the church creeds and the filioque were very interesting. I still use Pastor Clough’s written materials to reference topics like the Roman Catholic view of justification and sanctification or the differences between premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism
Pastor Clough ingrained in me the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til which was the master framework that Clough hung his Bible Framework course on. It wasn’t until later that I began asking questions and having second thoughts about Van Til’s approach.
Though I do not listen to Colonel Thieme’s teaching any more I have found solid scriptural teaching from a dispensational perspective available from other sources (all those web searches finally paid off!). I believe that the Dispensational hermeneutic is the best way of interpreting scripture. I don’t believe that any man made theological system is perfect, but until I find one that I believe interprets the Bible in a more perfect way I shall remain a Dispensationalist.
Though my undergraduate and graduate degrees involve Chemical Engineering and Mathematics, I have learned that native intelligence and formal education do not always translate into wisdom.
The Search for More Information and the Seeds of Doubt
A web page titled “God’s Nature” details Van Til’s view about what is called univocal knowledge:
In the 1940’s there arose a bitter debate within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church between Cornelius Van Til versus Gordon Clark. Van Til taught that even when God is thinking about a particular thing (like a rose), their thoughts about it were never identical. God thought the thoughts of a Creator while man thought the thoughts of a creature. Clark insisted that there is NOT a discrepancy between God’s knowledge versus man’s knowledge at every point; otherwise, man could not be said to know anything.
Clark would argue that the statement “2+2=4” has the same meaning for God that it has for man.
Van Til challenged Gordon Clark to name one truth that he could know in the same sense that God knows. Clark replied, “David slew Goliath.” He was saying that his knowledge of that event, although not exhaustive as God’s knowledge, was nevertheless of the same nature as God’s knowledge.
Those paragraphs caused me great concern. In his Bible Framework series Charlie Clough emphasized that unbelievers are not capable of interpreting any spiritual truth, such as the creation and flood accounts in Genesis, correctly. What I did not understand from his teaching is that according to Van Til even believers, due to our being finite creatures, cannot comprehend truth!
I did some additional research and found that Van Til and Clark both held to the Westminster Confession of Faith and were five point Calvinists. Even with all of this in common Van Til tried to keep Clark from being ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church because he believed Clark’s views on human knowledge violated the Creator/creature distinction.
According to the “God’s Nature” article, Van Til believed that mankind’s knowledge of the truth is equivocal which means that mankind can understand nothing in the same way that God does. If this is true then all people, saved and unsaved, by being finite cannot know any truth.
Other references claim that Van Til taught that man’s knowledge is analogical to God’s:
Third, there is the Van Tilian notion of analogy; that is, that all human knowledge is, and can only be, analogical to God’s knowledge. There is no point at which God’s knowledge meets man’s knowledge. Dr. Van Til is not just teaching that there is a difference in the quantity of God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (a belief with which all Christians should agree), but that there is also a difference in the content of knowledge. Astonishingly, Dr. Van Til writes: Man could not have the same thought content in his mind that God has in His mind unless he were himself divine. Elsewhere he states that man’s knowledge of God and His Word is at no point identical with the content of God’s mind.
To get more information on the Clark-Van til controversy controversy from a Gordon Clark friendly site please follow this link.
What Is This “Aristotelian Logic” You Speak Of?
During the course of the Bible Framework series Charlie Clough regularly mentioned that traditional Christian apologetics is wrong because it used “Aristotelian Logic” and “Aristotelian Categories.” I remember him making that point on many occasions but didn’t really give it much thought until I began interacting with another blogger by the name of Bobby Grow.
Bobby Grow usually has several blogs going at once and he seems to really love the more philosophical side of theology. Bobby is also a follower of Karl Barth’s neo-orthodox theology. So when I saw Bobby make the same accusation as Charlie Clough, that Aristotelian logic is flawed, it really caught my attention.
Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth were strongly opposed to each other’s theology. Charlie Clough included in his Bible Framework a section on Karl Barth where he showed that Barth rejected a literal, physical resurrection by Jesus Christ thereby marking him as a heretic. I found it very strange that both men would reject historic apologetics and logic for the same flaw of being “Aristotelian.”
I did more digging and found out that Karl Barth’s theology is called “dialectical theology.” I had heard the term “dialectic” before (Colonel Thieme defined it as “thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis”) but I didn’t really know the details. Without going into too much detail I did find out more about the dialectical method and discovered that it denies objective truth. As a Christian with a math and engineering background I find this approach laughable. [For a discussion of dialectic please see The Devil’s Logic and Dialecticism: Like a Rocking Horse.]
So, what about Van Til, why did he reject Aristotelian logic? I continued to do research and was able to piece together Van Til’s view. Van Til’s reasoning goes back to mankind’s being finite. Because we cannot know comprehensive truth we run into situations where there are “apparent” contradictions. God, because He is infinite, knows that these “apparent” contradictions are not “true” contradictions. Van Til rejected a fundamental rule of [Aristotelian] logic called the Law of Contradiction (also called the Law of non-Contradiction) because of this! Van Til’s logic is certainly somewhat different than Barth’s but the final destination seems the same.
Maybe Vern Poythress Can Help
Maybe I had misunderstood Van Til and needed to dig a bit deeper to get a true picture of his theology? With that in mind I went through the notes supplied with the Bible Framework looking for a reference to a paper or book that I could track down. I settled on a paper written by Dr. Vern Poythress titled “Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy”. I thought at first that this article was custom made to answer my questions. But when I read it, it probably contained the most opaque writing that I had yet found from a field famous for its opaqueness. You can follow the link above and judge for yourself. Rather than try and provide a comprehensive critique of the paper I will provide a quote from it that sets its tone. I will then provide several comments that summarizes my opinion of it.
From the paper:
John 1:1 shows that understanding the Trinity involves three aspects inextricably. First, there is classification. Each Person of the Trinity is classified as God. Second, there is instantiation. Each Person is particular, an “instantiation” of God, distinct from the other Persons. Third, there is an associational aspect. Each Person exists in association and communion with the other Persons (“the Word was with God”).
The language describing these aspects of the Trinity works by analogy with language used in describing the classificational, instantiational, and associational aspects of creaturely things. Since the Trinity is ontologically ultimate, the aspects of creatures derive from and depend on the aspects of the Trinity.
It turns out that this is very much in line with Van Til’s approach to scripture. According to Van Til it is only through a believer’s understanding of the “ontological Trinity” that we can understand reality. This understanding of reality is still, I think, analogical so I am not really sure what it is that we understand.
As I plodded through the paper the first thing that struck me is that this concept is impossible to apply in our daily Christian walk. If I got two Van Tilians in a room, gave them a real life situation, and asked them how to apply the “classificational, instantiational, and associational aspects” of the Trinity to it could they agree on a single coherent answer? I believe that the sign of any mature believer is the ability to rightly divide the word of truth. Yet I don’t know if that is even possible with this theology.
According to Dr. Poythress a proper understanding of three aspects of the Trinity is absolutely necessary to use logic properly. Suppose that in addition to the classificational, instantiational, and associational aspects of the Trinity there is another aspect of the Trinity that hasn’t been revealed to us? God is infinite after all, can we be confident that all the information necessary to reform our logic has been revealed to us? If there are one or more additional aspects of the Trinity we don’t know about does that invalidate Poythress’ Trinitarian logic? In the end Poythress’ article seems speculative to me.
I can understand Aristotle’s logic but I don’t understand Poythress’ logic at all. This paper by a highly respected scholar of Van Tilian theology did nothing to convince me that this approach to logic and apologetics is correct.
The Work of D.R. Trethewie
I recently stumbled upon the work of D.R. Trethewie who has written several papers on “Kuyperians” (this includes Cornelius Van Til) and the problems posed by their theology. In his papers he pulls together a coherent critique of this “Kuyperian” approach to apologetics.
Before anyone claims that I have chosen to highlight Pastor Trethewie’s work because he is biased against Reformed teaching please think again. Pastor Trethewie is most definitely reformed in theology belonging to a Congregational church. He just thinks all Kuyperians, including Van Til, are wrong.
These three papers are worthwhile reading for anyone, such as myself, who has doubts about Van Til’s system:
- A Critique of Cornelius Van Til [a ninety page tour de force]
- A Critique of Kuyperianism
- A Critique of Francis Schaeffer
In some of the quotes below I have changed the font color to purple for emphasis. I have neither added or deleted any text from the quotes.
Cornelius Van Til and the Law of Contradiction
A faithful Christian in considering some scriptural matters may feel that a contradiction may be present, but acknowledging the possibility of weakness in perception and rational capacity, will affirm, because of confidence in the inerrancy of inspired Scripture, that the contradiction is apparent only. It is facile and confusing for Van Til to say ‘we embrace with passion the apparently contradictory’ (emphasis mine). The possibility of contradiction in Van Til follows obviously from his attempt to synthesize Kuyper and Princeton. Despite having said that he ‘shuns as poison the idea of the really contradictory’, Van Til greatly compounds the risk of contradiction, and adds to his deceptive subtlety, by rejecting the application of the law of contradiction (because it is a principle of reason) to Scripture, “Shall we……….say that the contradiction that we think we see (in Scripture) is no real contradiction at all? We cannot follow (this way).” Toward a Reformed Apologetic, page 4, an undated paper. See also his Introduction to Systematic Theology, pages 36 and following, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1971
To say that Scripture is consistent with sound reason which is within the grasp of non-Christians, is not to affirm that Scripture is to be squared with the tenets of a false philosophy, which is rationalism. Kuyperians seem unable to perceive the validity of this distinction.
I had realized some of this myself when going through the Bible Framework and it concerned me. I knew that Van Til was a five point Calvinist and assumed that he did this to get around some uncomfortable Calvinist “antinomies” such as: God decreed in eternity past who would be saved and who wouldn’t but we are still responsible for our decision to reject the Gospel. The truth of the matter is that his reason for rejecting the Law of Contradiction goes to the very core of his philosophy which I believe is irrational or, as Pastor Trethewie puts it, “a priori dogmatic transcendental irrationalism.”
Van Til’s Rejection of the Theistic Proofs
It should come as no surprise that Cornelius Van Til rejected the Theistic proofs for God (e.g. the Teleological Argument). I am not reproducing some of Pastor Trethewie’s discussion of this to try and argue for the Theistic proofs but because of the other charges he makes against Van Til’s philosophy in those sections.
Before proceeding I must comment that Van Til’s view that men have constructed the theistic proofs ‘upon the assumption of man as autonomous’, is a figment of the Kuyperian imagination, falsely read into man’s humble tracing of God’s hand in the works of creation. Van Til’s procedure caricatures the traditional theistic proofs. Anyone who speaks not the Kuyperian shibboleth is imperiously labeled ‘autonomous’, and charged that he would be like God. In time I hope to show that it is Van Til who would be like God, and that there is an objectionable pantheistic tincture in his system, resulting from his failure to grant to human reason the limited autonomy, which God has given it, as is attested by Romans 2:14, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law (of Moses), do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves (in other words autonomous)”. Emphases and interpolations mine.
Stating that Van Til’s system has an “objectionable pantheistic tincture” is a very serious charge to make against another Christian. Anyone reading this quote who has been using Van Til’s apologetic needs to be absolutely convinced that Pastor Trethewie’s charge here is unfounded if they want to continue using the apologetic in good faith. If you believe that Van Til’s system is tainted by pantheism then you need to walk away from it now.
Van Til’s System Hostile to Unbelievers and Some Christians?
I found these paragraphs to be of great interest:
The apostle James teaches this clearly, “Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.” James 2:19. To the unregenerate king, Agrippa, Paul says, “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.” Acts 26:27. Paul’s bold remark includes the affirmation of their common agreement in this belief. Paul also, in a spirit of gracious acknowledgment, intrinsic to the glorious gospel of peace, and quite contrary to the aggressive unfriendliness of Kuyperianism to the lost, over whom Christ would rather weep, affirmed common ground with the Greeks in Athens, when he said, “As certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” Acts 17:28. A gracious argumentum ad hominem, to which he rejoins his agreement, “Forasmuch then as we (i.e. you and I, attested to by your own poets) are the offspring of God.” Verse 29. Jesus’ gracious and encouraging remark to a scribe, not yet a Christian, clearly acknowledges this man’s reasoning ability, “And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said to him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” Mark 12:34. The context shows Jesus agreement with this as yet unregenerate scribe in their common affirmation of the two great commandments.
These texts destroy root and branch the pretensions of Kuyperianism. They also put to shame their explicit hostility towards unbelievers, and the arrogant claim implicit in their theory, that they alone, as true Christians, have knowledge. The best construction that can be put on this aspect of their theory is that it is an example of Christ being “wounded in the house of (his) friends.” Zechariah 13:6.
A Critique of Cornelius Van Til
Trethewie also accuses reconstructionists, an offshoot of Kuyperianism, of even being intolerant of non-Kuyperian Calvinists such as Congregationalists:
This movement is linked to a re-emergent intolerant Presbyterianism which affirms the Solemn League and Covenant of Scotland, which seems to be regarded as analogous to God’s Covenant with Moses and the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The Solemn League and Covenant includes Intolerance clauses, which are explained more fully in the Acknowledgment of Public Sins and Breaches of the Covenant, see Westminster Confession of Faith, pages 359 and 367. They hold also, according to Chapter XXIII of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that it is the “duty” of the Civil Magistrate “to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all (emphasis mine) blasphemies and heresies be suppressed”. Ibid. page 102. Among the ‘heresies’, according to the Acknowledgment, are included congregational church government and Baptist theology.
I am not accusing anyone of being intolerant like this, but there is a temptation when a person is absolutely convinced they have a lock on “the truth,” to get carried away. I think it is also appropriate to mention that Charlie Clough said in the Bible Framework series that he personally knew R.J. Rushdoony (credited as the founder of the modern reconstructionist movement in the United States). I also Remember Charlie Clough saying that he gave a congressman (I can’t remember if it was a U.S. or state congressman) a copy of Rushdoony’s “The Institutes of Biblical Law“. To be fair I know that Charlie Clough does not agree with everything Rushdoony taught (I don’t believe that he agrees with Rushdoony’s postmilleniallism) and I don’t know how far their agreements go. I do know that Kuyperians are generally aggressive in the political sphere.
The Creator/Creature Distinction or the Nature/Grace Distinction?
In the Bible Framework study I doubt that a lesson goes by where Charlie Clough does not mention the Creator/creature distinction. It has been only recently that I discovered that this is basically an attack on the much older idea of the nature/grace distinction developed by Thomas Aquinas (Aquinas being the ultimate advocate of Aristotelian logic). Says Trethewie:
This is a second study in a series examining Kuyperianism today. The present paper is a critical review of key features of two of the works of Francis Schaeffer: 1. Escape from Reason, and 2. The God Who is There. As I have studied both Schaeffer and Van Til, I have come to the opinion that we who prefer the ‘old paths’ have two main objectives in dealing with the systems of these men: 1. To free theology from their philosophical impositions, and 2. To free secular studies from their clericalism. This runs to the centre of the debate, i.e. ‘Is the nature-grace distinction just?’ I contend that it is. Deny this distinction as they do, and what follows – theology is embroiled in philosophy, and secular studies in clericalism.
Because Kuyperianism does not make this distinction, not only is theology spoiled with philosophy, but in addition the doctrines necessary unto salvation are not given the distinctive definition and priority they merit. Van Til rejects a category of doctrines necessary unto salvation as usually understood by Reformed theologians, and at the very least Schaeffer interferes with their priority. Against Kuyperianism it can be justly argued that in fact the Church’s special role is to expound the doctrines necessary unto salvation. She has an interest in the doctrines discoverable by the light of nature, but they are not her prerogative: philosophers, scientists and men generally may discuss these teachings with some authority and without the need for church patronage.
A special aim of this paper is to protect the abiding usefulness of the Historical Witness. Schaeffer’s doctrine was first presented to me in 1969. What concerned me then, was its threat to the established doctrinal and practical theology bequeathed to us from former generations. It was implied that this theology, in its presentation, was not up to date enough for the twentieth century. Schaeffer deceptively invites us not to change the doctrine, just the manner of its presentation.
The old exegesis proceeds on a plan of plainness and simplicity. Schaeffer wants a change in line with twentieth century philosophy. Philosophy, especially when inaccurate, and Schaeffer admits that the twentieth century systems are erroneous, is notoriously difficult for the ordinary man. The scripture message thus cannot be made plainer on Schaeffer’s advice, and the corruption of its substance is very likely.
As I read more and more of this “debate” I realize that rather than being a theological discussion it is really a continuation of a philosophical debate that has been going on for centuries.
Calvinist or Dispensationalist?
At this point I think it is fair to ask this question: if a person holds to Van Til’s apologetic are they Calvinist or Dispensationalist? My answer to that question is “yes.” A person can be both at the same time. Before anyone asks me how I can possibly say that a person can be both a Calvinist and a Dispensationalist at the same time, I agree with Laurence Vance’s working definition of Calvinism:
All Calvinists, whether they be Presbyterian or Reformed, Primitive Baptist or Sovereign Grace Baptist; all Calvinists, whether they be premillennial or amillennial, dispensational or covenant theologist; all Calvinists whether they go by the name or not; all Calvinists have one thing in common: God, by a sovereign, eternal decree, has determined before the foundation of the world who shall be saved and who shall be lost.
The Other Side of Calvinism
by Laurence Vance
The Bible Framework is More Than an Apologetic
When I listened to the Bible Framework course I treated it as a Bible study with a heavy emphasis on apologetics. I have now come to the belief that it is much more than that. As the name implies the Bible Framework course is a framework for interpreting scripture; it is a hermeneutic. To be more specific it is a decidedly non-Dispensational hermeneutic. I do believe that a person can be a Calvinist and a Dispensationalist at the same time (see above) but I am not sure that a person can be a Van Tilian and a Dispensationalist at the same time. I will not state dogmatically that the two cannot be reconciled in some way but I have strong doubts that it is possible.
Anyone who has listened to the Bible Framework series has heard Charlie Clough state that the most difficult problem for Christian apologetics is the problem of evil (theodicy). I am not so sure that is true for all Christian theologies but I do believe it is true of Calvinism. The reason for this is that Calvinism in general holds to the idea of compatibilism (also called soft determinism which is a kind of causal determinism). In my opinion this view promotes the idea that a clockwork God created a clockwork world that he works in through His divine decrees[i]. If you believe that God predetermined everything in eternity past, including evil, then you are going to have problems explaining the existence of evil without tainting God with it.
At the present time I lean toward another apologetic approach called by various names such as Molinism, middle knowledge, and soft libertarianism. The major advantage of Molinism over Calvinism in my opinion is that it places the ultimate responsibility for evil solidly on man and not God. This approach isn’t perfect either and, just like compatibilism, it gets very philosophical in a hurry which, for me, counts against the system.
One of the prominent advocates of Molinism is William Lane Craig who identifies five problems with the traditional Calvinist apologetic (see Molinism vs. Calvinism):
- Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.
- Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.
- Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility.
- Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency.
- Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce.
When listening to a Bible study such as the Bible Framework it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep these problems in mind.
The one point that I do want to make clear is this: the power in Bible studies such as the Bible Framework comes from the scripture itself and not the apologetic! A Bible study just as powerful can be made using Molinism as the framework.
I have written this post in the hopes of getting the word out about the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til to some of the Dispensationalists in the blogosphere. His philosophy is dangerous on several levels but the issue that concerns me the most is its increasingly heavy influence in Dispensational seminaries. Can the Dispensational hermeneutical principle of a “consistently literal or plain interpretation of the Scriptures” be reconciled with Van Til’s theories of knowledge? Can a Van Tilian agree that there exists “a plain or literal interpretation” of Scripture? I doubt it.
There are plenty of seminaries and Bible colleges that teach non-Dispensational hermeneutics so why do we need more of them?
[i] The decree of God is His eternal, holy, wise, and sovereign purpose, comprehending simultaneously all things that ever were or will be in their causes, conditions, successions, relations, and determining their certain futurition.