Van Til and the Problem of Evil

I have been mulling over my next post about Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic for weeks now. While studying Van Til’s writings I found a short two paragraph statement of his regarding evil that is certainly worthy of a post all its own. Because of the reformed doctrine of the Absolute Sovereignty of God it causes all those who hold it, like Van Til, problems explaining why God is not responsible for evil.

Just so it is made plain I do believe that God is sovereign but I also reject that God is the author of evil. This requires that man have the ability to make decisions independently of God. This is what Van Til calls “the autonomy of man” a concept which he spends much ink rebutting and belittling. He spends much less ink defending God’s honor and denying that God is the author of evil. Of course I make that statement because I used my defective “human reason” and “Aristotelian” logic.

Here is what Dr. Van Til has to say on the topic:

Evil

Special emphasis should be placed upon the fact that even the evil that man does by virtue of his sinful will is still in accord with the plan of God and as such is revelatory of God. Man, not God, is the responsible author of sin. But man could not sin if his sinning were not, in spite of himself, revelatory of God. Man does not sin in a vacuum. He could not sin in a vacuum. The possibility of sin presupposes the all-comprehensive plan of God. God reveals his holiness in his wrath upon the sinner. God is angry with the wicked every day. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). Paul tells us that the sinner’s conscience excuses or accuses him according as he obeys or disobeys the revealed will of God (Rom 2:14–15). Man’s self-consciousness is moral self-consciousness. And as self-consciousness in general involves consciousness of God, so man’s moral self-consciousness involves consciousness of covenant relationship to God. To know himself at all man must know himself to be a covenant being. He knows he is either keeping or breaking the covenant.

Calvin greatly stresses the fact that all things that happen in history are revelational of God. Men ought to see God everywhere, he says. God is clearly to be seen by men whether they look round about them or within them, whether they look to the past or look to the future. The whole scene of history in all of its aspects reveals God to man. Men ought to see God as their Creator. They ought to see him as their bountiful benefactor. They ought to see him as their judge. He is everywhere clearly to be seen. Men cannot look in any direction without seeing the face and therewith the claims of God. Every man walks under the brilliant spotlight of the revelational claims of God.

Cornelius Van Til
Articles from 1950–1959
p 41

That type of stuff is why I will never be a follower of Cornelius Van Til. I have seen the tendency of certain theologies to lay at God’s feet attributes which make Him a monster. Even if there is a grain of truth somewhere in these philosophies I will shun them. I wonder if Dr. Van Til believes that God needs evil to accomplish His purposes? Or maybe to Dr. Van Til God just desires to do evil for some inscrutable reason that our sinful intellects just cannot comprehend. No good can come from such teachings.

Rather than rant and rave I will instead quote from Daniel Gracely book “Calvinism: A Closer Look” on this topic because he does it so much better than I can:

Calvinists attempt to solve their contradiction (as to who gets the final say in man’s choices) by doublethinking, the common type of solution applied in relativistic Hegelian philosophy. Georg Hegel (1770-1831) was a German philosopher who increased the pace of relativistic philosophy brought on by his predecessors, especially Immanuel Kant. Kant had appealed to reason rather than to revelation as the doorway to understanding. The problem with Kant’s philosophy from a biblical point of view is that man’s reasoning is often foolish and leads to the most outré results. As Hegel followed Kant he furthered the principle of irrationality by believing that opposing ideas are never either/or issues to be resolved but are equally true realities that are ‘qualified’ by each other. This means that Hegel believed that a person should not seek one true answer in religion or philosophy, as though one tried many shops in order to find the right shoes; rather, one ought to embrace the whole process of ’shopping’ itself. Thus, one shop is selling the idea that O’Brien is holding up four fingers, while another shop is selling the idea that O’Brien is holding up five fingers. “So what?” says Hegel, in effect. “Embrace the whole.” Philosophically speaking, Hegel called this cultural process of ’shopping’ the Spirit of History [Zeitgeist, literally Ghost (Spirit) of History]. Generally, philosophers refer to Hegel’s concept as dialecticism. When seen for what it is, Hegelian dialecticism is nothing more nor less than an endorsement for relativity of viewpoint. Yet it is not fair to lay the blame for the beginnings of Western relativism at Hegel’s feet alone, given the prior relativistic pantheism of Spinoza and German Idealism (or, arguably, even Heraclitus, et al.). And it is hard to say how much Hegel’s philosophy was influenced by remnants of the sovereignty/determinism ideas of the influential German Lutheranism of Hegel’s German predecessors (Luther was more of a ‘Calvinist’ than Calvin), or whether Hegel simply fertilized the ground in which the already existing Calvinistic contradiction lay planted (though rather dormant) in German congregants’ minds. At any rate, it all has proved consequential to Evangelicals in the West, who have largely failed to understand the roots of their culture’s philosophical relativism. Had they understood these roots, Evangelicals might have spotted the same dialecticism when it began appearing inter-denominationally within their own culture. Though saints we Evangelicals are, as sinners we ought to recognize how susceptible we remain to combining contradictory ideas with our faith. (As Jeremiah said—”The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can comprehend it?”).

My own personal experience (years ago) in embracing the doublethink of Calvinism was a frustrating one. I would liken it to riding a rocking horse. As a rider, I would throw my weight forward toward my belief in the absolute sovereignty of God until I could go no further, whereupon I would recoil backwards toward my belief in human freedom. Thus I would go back and forth in seesaw motion, lest on the one hand I find myself accusing God of insufficient sovereignty, or on the other hand find myself accusing God of authoring sin. All the while, there remained an illusion of movement towards truth, when in fact there was no real movement at all. Calvinist riders still ride out this scenario. This is why, among the Calvinistic writings of Van Til, Sproul, Boettner, etc., there are no unqualified statements about the absolute sovereignty of God or the free will of man. If one reads long enough, all forthright statements about them are eventually withdrawn by qualifying each statement with its exact opposite thought. This explains why every book and article advocating the absolute sovereignty of God ends with its terms unconcluded. Thus, Boettner, bold enough to open the main body of his text by saying that God’s sovereignty includes “all the activities of saints and angels in heaven and of reprobates and demons in hell” is found later to say that the Koran’s belief in “strict foreordination makes it necessary for us to qualify the sharper assertions of Predestination,” so that God’s absolute sovereignty will be in ‘harmony’ with human freedom (emphasis added). Boettner’s ‘harmony,’ of course, is his attempt, witting or not, to stake the tent of Evangelical apologetics within the camp of Hegelian dialecticism.

Calvinism: A Closer Look
by Daniel Gracely
Chapter 4 – Dialecticism: Like a Rocking Horse

The first philosopher to use dialectic that I am aware of was Plato himself. Plato is the fountainhead of a lot more of Calvinist theology than they will admit.

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4 Comments on “Van Til and the Problem of Evil”


  1. Hi Glenn,

    Interesting post. I think that there is a key distinction between being the ultimate cause of something and the proximate cause of something. If God has nothing whatsoever to do with evil as it’s ultimate cause he is still culpable for allowing something that is will within his causative power to remove. As Gordon Clark says of his own books, God is not the author of his books however he is the ultimate cause. This seems to be the key to understanding God’s causal relationship with evil. I would much rather have evil under God’s control than to have evil existing as an expression of a dualism that is outside of God’s realm of control.

    Grace,

    BBG

  2. Glenn Says:

    Hi BBG,

    First off thank you for stopping by and commenting. I always appreciate visitors!

    I understand what you are saying but I have never found such explanations to be satisfying. If God is in any way the author of evil it calls into question His Righteousness and Justice. That leaves me in a very uncomfortable place (and it should leave every other Christian there too). Both Van Til and Clark held to the Westminster Confession of Faith which makes statements such as:

    God’s decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will, whereby, from all eternity, he hath, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time, especially concerning angels and men.

    WLC Q&A 12

    You can believe that if you wish, it is your prerogative, but I cannot in good faith.

    Glenn


    • Hi Glenn,

      Thank you for your kind response. Beyond the apparent disagreement, would you be willing to share your personal explanation of the problem of evil? In other words, how do you explain the evil that we observe in the world? What do you make of the fact that God set parameters on what Satan could do to Job? I am really curious as to how you set about explaining evil.

      Grace,

      BBG

      • Glenn Says:

        Hi BBG,

        Thank you for your question, if you don’t mind I will give you way more background than you bargained for. I became interested in the problem of evil about seven years ago when I listened to a series of Bible studies called the Bible Framework taught by Charlie Clough. Clough is a good teacher and the Bible framework is very well done. While Clough follows a Dispensational outline of history and eschatology he based much of the Bible Framework series on Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics (he had me very enthused about Van Til for quite a while). Clough repeated many times throughout the Framework series that the problem of evil was probably the greatest problem that the Christian apologist has to deal with. This caused me to start studying and eventually reject Van Til’s apologetics.

        Several years ago I read an interesting review of Bruce Little’s “God, Why This Evil?” that convinced me to purchase it. At the present time Little’s approach to theodicy has influenced me more than anyone else I have read.

        Rather than try and summarize his ideas (there is no way I can do justice to them) I tracked down a two part interview with him from the time when the book was published. Please take a look at these:

        Why Greater-Good Theodicies Fail: Interview with Bruce Little (part one)
        Creation-Order Theodicy: Interview with Bruce A. Little (part two)

        I hope this answers your question.

        Glenn


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