Review: Common Grace and the Gospel

common-grace

Common Grace and the GospelCornelius Van Til (foreward and edited by K. Scott Oliphint). Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015 (2nd edition).

Summary: A collection of essays by presuppositional theologian Van Til with introduction and annotations by K. Scott Oliphint, articulating Van Til’s understanding of a Reformed doctrine of common grace, engaging views of others in this tradition that differ from his own.

Cornelius Van Til represents a stream within the Reformed theological tradition known as presuppositionalism. At the risk of oversimplifying, this stream contends that it is impossible to argue from human reason to the existence of the Triune God and the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation. Van Til would contend rather that it is by these realities, revealed by the witness of the Spirit alone to the elect, that it is possible to understand everything else about God, about human beings made in God’s image, God’s work in the world and through Christ, and the destiny of both the saved and the lost.

Common grace is often advanced as a counter to these ideas, that there are things that may be known of God common to the experience of all human beings. In part, the appeal of this is a response to the Reformed idea that God saves some, and not others, simply by his sovereign will, apart from human choice. It allows that humans may contribute something to their salvation, or alternately their damnation on the basis of this knowledge–an idea held in various ways in both Wesleyan and Roman Catholic circles.

In this collection of essays, recently re-issued with a quite helpful introduction to the thought of Van Til by editor K. Scott Oliphint, a student of Van Til, we have a chance to see the arguments against this idea, consistent with Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Van Til would argue, as I understand him, that common grace is simply God’s love for all human kind made in his image before the fall. After the fall, this “knowledge of God” is something fallen human beings suppress as they assert their own autonomy. The assertion of autonomy fundamentally shapes how we know, or epistemology such that we can know neither God, nor his world or purposes, apart from the sovereign grace extended to the elect in salvation. Van Til would go so far as to say that even in supposedly “neutral” fields of science, for example, the different ways of knowing of autonomous man versus the elect rule out a “common ground” around common grace.

In these essays, it is interesting that while he clearly sees his own position as consistent with the Reformed tradition over and against the Wesleyan (Arminian) or Catholic positions, his criticism is actually most pointed toward others in the Reformed tradition from Kuyper to Barth to Bavinck to Hoeksema. A common criticism is that while they affirm Reformed orthodoxy, they open the door to rationalism in their view of common grace and undermine the sovereign grace of the gospel.

Reading all this has a bit of a feeling of listening to arguments from another time, although I am well aware of those in the Reformed tradition who continue to be vociferous in their advocacy. Yet there are several things I appreciate in Van Til. One is an unwillingness to try to rationalize some of the very concrete language of scripture around these things in ways that minimize logical conflict. Another is a sensitivity to how both Greek and Enlightenment thought often creep into theological formulations. Furthermore, as this bears on the work of the apologist, I, like Van Til, have found that rational proofs for God largely confirmatory for Christians but unhelpful, apart from the witness of the Spirit in engaging those who do not believe. The question of what might be called “incommensurable epistemologies” seems more challenging. In many discussions, it does seem like there is a certain amount of common ground, as well as incommensurable aspects. How, theologically, do we account for both?

This is a collection of essays, which means that there is overlap (probably helpful in understanding Van Til) as well as engagements with particular thinkers, many who may be unfamiliar to the reader, although Oliphint’s annotations help. The most engaging for me was Chapter 6, “A Letter on Common Grace” in which Van Til lays out his ideas of common grace while engaging his critics.

For those who are not sympathetic to the Reformed tradition, it is easy to dismiss a thinker like Van Til. But his influence extends to the present through theologians like John Frame, and the late Francis Schaeffer as well as in the work of many in Reformed seminaries across the country. It is a perspective that would inform the thinking of many in The Gospel Coalition. Reading Van Til reminds me of the continuing challenge of thinking clearly and living consistently with “the faith once delivered” and yet living with grace and compassion toward all. I know little of his personal life and ministry but I miss the latter in this example of Van Til’s writing. Conviction and compassion are hard to hold together, yet those who follow the Christ who came full of grace and truth (John 1:14) are called to no less.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

FrameA History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015

Summary: This is a survey and critique of the major philosophers and theologians of the West beginning with the Greek philosophers and early church fathers up to the present day, written from a reformed perspective.

Yes, this really is what you think it is, a one volume survey of Western philosophy and theology! It is a massive volume, coming in at over 800 pages, and yet to distill the material Frame covers even to this length is a not insignificant undertaking.

Here’s what you will find in this book if you decide to dig in. Frame begins with a discussion of philosophy and the Bible and reveals his own approach at the outset. Frame was deeply influenced by his association with Cornelius Van Til, his teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary, and writes as a presuppositionalist. In brief, he begins with the belief in a God who reveals God’s self, as basic to all else and a commitment to the authority of that revelation as found in the Bible. He contrasts this with philosophy, which he understands as a human endeavor of autonomous reason. This is not without worth but in his view exists in a rational-irrational tension that can only be resolved by divine revelation and he traces this idea throughout his survey. In the following twelve chapters he surveys the major philosophers and theologians beginning with Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, medieval philosophy, early modern thought, theology in the Enlightenment, Kant and his successors, nineteenth century theology, Nietzsche, pragmatism, phenomenology and existentialism, twentieth century liberal theology and language philosophy, and recent Christian philosophy.

His format is to outline the thought of the theologian or philosopher in question, situating them in the context of ideas of their time. Then, more briefly he gives a critique. Fundamentally, he will evaluate on the basis of the degree to which the philosopher or theologian in question roots his ideas in revelation versus autonomous reason. Yet I did not find this repetitive but nuanced to the specific thought of the person in question. In most chapters, he will cover the thought of several major thinkers, and then more briefly touch on others. Each chapter concludes with a glossary of terms, a bibliography for further study that includes print, online, and audio materials (the latter consisting of lectures by Frame available at iTunes).

In addition to this survey, the volume includes twenty appendices, consisting of a number scholarly articles and reviews Frame has written on subjects related to the book. I found a number of these quite illuminating and good resources for apologetic (Christian defense of the faith) discussions including essays on the ontological argument, self-refuting statements, and on God and biblical language. Of personal interest to me was his essay on certainty and his discussion of the work of Esther Lightcap Meek, an epistemologist teaching at Geneva College. She asserts that while we cannot hope for certainty, we can attain to a proper confidence in knowing. Frame would argue that if one presupposes revelation, then there are some things pertaining to God’s nature, our condition and salvation that we may know with certainty. This challenged my own thinking (I have tended toward Meek’s ideas) and actually is something I want to pursue further. One also glimpses some of the scholarly “battles” he has engaged in such as his dialogue with Gordon Clark.

This touches on what I thought was the value of Frame’s work. In addition to surveying the sweep of Western philosophical and theological thought, his discussions served to whet the appetite for pursuing some of these in further depth. I would not have know, for example, of Meek’s books (Longing to Know, Loving to Know are two of these). Along the way, I also found myself longing to read Anselm, to re-read Pascal, to dig into the common sense philosophy of Thomas Reid. Frame even made me curious to explore some Van Til, who I’ve never read. Frame has a teacher’s ability to unravel complex ideas in a highly readable form.

I fully suspect that a number who do not share Frame’s perspective will take issue with his judgments on philosophers and theologians. He is less charitable, for example, to Barth, than many contemporary writers, although not uncharitable in his judgments of any. One has to understand the deep passion for truth as he understands it that under girds Frame’s writing.  And certainly, any specialist would probably take issue with his treatment of this or that figure. Yet that is always the challenge of undertaking a work like this.

For those sympathetic with a reformed, presuppositionalist perspective, this will provide a thoroughly engaging course on Western thought that will deeply inform one’s own intellectual life. For pastors, this is useful for understanding various currents of thought through history. For those working in university ministries or engaged in discussions at the philosophical level, this is an especially useful reference.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”