John Frame on Cornelius Van Til: The "Limiting Concept" (A Review Article)

Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, by John M. Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1995. 463pp. $24.99 (cloth)/$19.99 (paper).

In commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Cornelius Van Til, Professor John Frame has written what must be the definitive single-volume analysis of his mentor's thought. Frame is a sympathetic analyst. He acknowledges Van Til as "the major theological influence upon me" and lauds him as "the most important Christian thinker of the twentieth century."

Indebtedness and admiration do not, however, blunt Frame's critical faculty. He recognizes Van Til's weaknesses, e.g., his lack of clarity in teaching and writing; his related failure to define terms; and his heavy-handed, take-no-prisoners conduct in the controversy with Gordon H. Clark. Frame sufficiently differs with Van Til in the area of apologetics as to leave an outsider wondering whether certain "gnesio ('real')-Van Tilians" might not charge Frame with apologetical apostasy.

The value of Frame's magisterial study is that it presents the whole of Van Til's thought in a systematic manner, making the distinctions, venturing the definitions, and offering the careful explanations of difficulties that are lacking in Van Til's own writings. Van Til becomes intelligible.

Frame devotes some 240 pages to Van Til's theology, including his doctrines of the Trinity, the sovereignty of God, revelation, the antithesis, and common grace, before treating of Van Til's "apologetics proper." He concludes with some observations on Van Til's successors and influence.

Of greatest interest is Frame's explanation, defense, and criticism of Van Til's presuppositionalist apologetics. Van Til "believed that God's revelation has absolute authority (and thus a certain priority) over all human thought" (p. 135). With this, Van Til urged the reality of the antithesis between believer and unbeliever. Spiritually, believer and unbeliever have nothing in common. The unregenerated sinner is totally depraved. Depravity affects the sinner's mind so that he can know nothing truly. It is senseless to reason with him, appealing to his mind and attempting to prove the verities of the Christian faith to him on his own grounds. Worse, this approach is the acknowledgment of his autonomy.

The trouble is that Van Til, rather than consistently holding the Reformed, biblical doctrine of total depravity, compromises the doctrine by his "limiting concept," common grace. Common grace is fundamental to Van Til's theology and apologetic. There is a gracious operation of the Holy Spirit "'deep down' in the heart of the unbeliever" that produces knowledge of God in him. This is the "point of contact" in the natural man for the practice of Reformed apologetics (p. 206).

This work of grace in the unbeliever occurs with and through the revelation that God gives of Himself in creation, according to Romans 1:18ff. — "general revelation." There is grace in the revelation spoken of in Romans 1:18ff., according to Van Til, so that the knowledge of God that the ungodly has from creation can serve the revelation in Scripture. At least, it can serve as a positive point of contact for the Reformed defender of the faith or evangelist: "all men know the true God through natural revelation, to which special revelation adds supplementary content" (p. 248; cf. pp. 116-119).

But this is nothing other than the natural theology of semi-Pelagian Rome. There is no point of contact in the natural man for the gospel, whether the gospel is being defended or proclaimed. The unregenerated sinner is dead spiritually. The gospel finds nothing in the unbeliever, appeals to nothing in the unbeliever, attaches to nothing in the unbeliever, builds on nothing in the unbeliever. In the unbeliever whom God has chosen to salvation the gospel creates its contact by the regenerating Spirit. We call this contact faith, and faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).

The knowledge of God that the pagan has from creation is at once held under in unrighteousness. Not for one split second does, or can, the unregenerated sinner use this knowledge rightly. The sole purpose of God with this knowledge is to render the pagan inexcusable. This knowledge, turned as it is immediately into the lie of idolatry, is never a point of contact, but always a point of conflict. It rages against the gospel; the gospel wars against it. There is no room in the inn for Christ.

Our Reformed criticism, therefore, of the apologetics of Van Til is not at all that this apologetics is presuppositional and antithetical, or even that it is too presuppo-sitional and antithetical. Rather, the criticism must be that Van Til's apologetics is not presuppositional and antithetical enough. Van Til has compromised Reformed apologetics by the semi-Pelagian notion of common grace.

Frame, however, is favorable toward Van Til's weakening of his own antithetical stance by means of the "limiting concept" of common grace. The vehemently antithetical Van Til is troublesome to Frame. In this connection, Frame shows himself soft on Armin-ianism:

Arminianism ... (has) much in common with the Reformed faith at the deepest level.... I am confident that Reformed believers are, in general, of one heart with their Arminian brothers and sisters (p. 212).

That Van Til holds, or claims to hold, both the antithesis and its opposite, common grace, points up the contradictory nature of Van Til's theology. This is the significance of "limiting concept" in Van Til's thought. Every doctrine is contradicted by another doctrine that is its "limiting concept." The "limiting concept," in reality, does not limit, but contradicts. Not some, but "all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory" (cited in Frame, p. 159). "Apparently" is misleading. For there is no possibility of reconciling the contradictions. Nor does Van Til make any effort to demonstrate the real harmony of the apparent contradictions.

There is no difference between Van Til's theology in this fundamental respect and the neo-orthodox "theology of paradox" that Van Til castigated as the new modernism. 

Contradictory thought makes knowledge impossible. A theology of contradiction makes the knowledge of God impossible.

Frame recognizes the gravity of the problem in Van Til.

Once we allow that Scripture contains contradictory teachings, we must also admit that anything at all may be validly deduced from Scripture. Indeed, if Scripture contains even one contradiction, it implicitly teaches everything, and therefore nothing. The presence of contradictions in Scripture would entirely invalidate the statement of the Westminster Confession that the counsel of God is to be found in the "good and necessary consequences" of Scripture as well as in Scripture's explicit statements. If there are contradictions in Scripture, then everything, and therefore nothing, is a "good and necessary consequence." ... apparent contradiction poses the same problems as real contradiction for the logical analysis of Scripture.... If we are to draw logical inferences from Scripture, as the Westminster Confession prescribes, will we not find ourselves in the same bind, deducing nonsense from apparently contradictory premises? ... if "all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory," then any logical deduction from scriptural premises would seem to be ruled out. Since there are apparent contradictions not only in the doctrine of the Trinity, but also in the doctrine of the divine attributes and the doctrine of God's overall relation to the world, how can we draw any logical inferences at all from biblical teaching? (p. 160)

Fair enough, although Frame ignores the implications of the charge, or admission, that "all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory" for one's doctrine of Scripture. If the entirety of Scripture is contradictions, can Scripture be divine revelation? Can the Word of God be essentially apparent contradictions throughout?

Frame tries to mitigate the seriousness of Van Til's view of Scripture by observing that, in fact, Van Til is usually quite logical in his theological work. But this only suggests that, in accordance with his view of truth, Van Til himself is paradoxical: affirming one thing, namely, the contradictory nature of all truth, he proceeds on the basis of its opposite, namely, that truth is logical.

This paradoxical position enables Van Til to inhabit the best of all possible theological worlds. When teaching, he can be logical to a point (and how else can one teach?). But when someone challenges one of his teachings, e.g., that the predestinating God also loves all men and sincerely desires to save all, he can readily take refuge in the "apparent contradiction."

Frame too opts for the paradoxical nature of truth. He does so in a statement that ranks with the classic examples of paradox: "revelation presents apparent contradictions to our minds, while also overwhelming us with its own logical unity" (p. 175).

Say what?

For Van Til and Frame, the first and fundamental contradiction is the biblical doctrine of God as Trinity. Frame defends Van Til's controversial statement that God is one person as well as three persons. Frame's defense compounds the confusion. For Frame proposes that "it is also orthodox to say that God is one substance and three substances."

It is surely not orthodox to say this, but heterodox. Orthodoxy for Presbyterians is determined by the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Confession clearly says, "In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance..." (2.3). To say that God is one person as well as three persons and that God is one substance as well as three substances creates mass trinitarian confusion. Now we have a purportedly Presbyterian doctrine of the Trinity that teaches that God is one person and three persons, as well as one being and three beings.

Frame thinks that such a formulation is "valuable in curbing human intellectual pride." In fact, such contradiction amounts to nonsense. It makes mockery of the sanctified mind of the Christian, reduces theological affirmation to meaninglessness, and destroys faith's knowledge of God in His trinitarian life.

The source of this bad theology is "the idea of the apparently contradictory" (pp. 65-71).

I challenge any practitioner of Reformed apologetics, whether presuppositionalist or eviden-tialist, to explain, defend, and promote such a doctrine of the Trinity to an unbeliever, cultist, or heretic: one person and three persons; one substance and three substances. Will they not say that the defender of the faith is mad?