THE CONCEPTS OF CONDITIONALITY AND APOSTASY IN RELATION TO THE COVENANT - Dennis A. Bratcher
Last Updated: February 7, 2013
The work of Dr. Cornelius Van Til is immensely fruitful for all who would seek to be Reformed in thought and life. Van Til has always insisted that all we think, do and say must be done in a "Christian" way. Our starting point, method, and goal must be grounded in and controlled by "God, speaking through Christ by his Spirit in the infallible Word" (Van Til 1976, 180).
A central, if not the central, idea in Van Til's thought is that of "presupposition". By the term he means that which is "the final or ultimate reference point in human predication" (Van Til 1976, 180). There are only two: either man or the triune God speaking in Scripture. This idea of presupposition is something that is given with our very existence. Whether we are sons of God or of the devil, there is a complete framework for understanding life which pervades us totally. Involved with our very existence is a basic orientation either to worship and serve the Lord God according to His Word, or to worship and serve the creature by suppressing the truth of God revealed in all that exists.
To say that we must live by presupposing the God of Scripture means that we must ever seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as found in the Bible. Not only must we come to know many facts contained in Scripture but we must come to a fuller understanding of the system of truth that Scripture develops.
John Frame, in his study on Van Til (Frame 1980) presents VanTil's insights into the system of truth in Scripture. There is that in Van Til which is characterized as "pro-system" and that which is characterized as "anti-system." The concept of "pro-system" is grounded in the fact that God knows Himself and all creation exhaustively. It is therefore the case that men can have true knowledge. This knowledge is internally coherent and all aspects are interdependent. There is a profound unity that characterizes the Scriptures. But there is also that which is "anti-system." By this is intended the difficulty of neatly relating all that Scripture teaches. To use Van Til's words: "All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory" (Van Til 1972, 142 as cited in Frame 1980, 14). Logic must be used in our work of systematizing Scripture. Yet logic will bring various doctrines or teachings into tension. But no teaching of Scripture must be used to cancel out another. The failure to resolve the problems resides in us and not in God.
But Van Til does not rest here with an affirmation that there is a system in Scripture and there are "apparent contradictions.” He goes on to develop what is called "analogical reasoning" or the analogical nature of the system of truth. Van Til does not mean by the use of "analogy" or “analogical” some type of Thomistic methodology. (1) Rather, he means that reasoning which presupposes as its ultimate basis the reality of the biblical God and the authority of His revelation" (Frame 1980, 19). Stress is made on the fact that God, speaking in and through Scripture, is the ultimate authority. Our reasoning and conclusions are true only in so far as they faithfully reflect or "receptively reconstruct" God's interpretation. Analogical reasoning consciously recognizes that unless God reveals Himself and His purposes we have no knowledge of Him. God has chosen to reveal Himself in all creation and in Scripture. The two revelations are correlative to one another. Yet Scripture must always have the primacy or priority. The teaching of Scripture concerning itself and concerning all creation has first priority in interpreting and adjudicating conflicting truth claims. Analogical reasoning, because it recognizes its creatureliness, also recognizes it must live in subordination to God's reasoning presented in Scripture.
Analogical reasoning recognizes that in systematically relating Scripture to Scripture and general revelation to special revelation it must keep before it the limiting or supplementive character of its work. Our concepts are true, but not exhaustive, concerning the object to which they refer. Frame summarizes this quite well:
All doctrines are interdependent, in that none can be adequately understood except in light of the others. All doctrines are "apparently contradictory," in that none exhausts the fulness of the truth, and their, non-exhaustive character limits our ability to demonstrate formal logical consistency. Yet all doctrines are true as far as they go, are not "really" contradictory, and are intelligible in that even though they may be inassimilable to the forms of our logic, nevertheless provide clear guidance for God's people (Frame 1980, 37). (2)
Using the above as a general background, several areas of Van Til's thought can be discussed. The particular areas to be presented are logic, theological method and common grace. The topic of common grace will be further particularized into the idea of history as "early" and "later," remote and proximate causality, the conditional and the covenant. Each of these subjects shall be developed in order to set the boundaries and perspectives for the remainder of the thesis.
Of particular relevance to this thesis is the issue of the extent to which logic must determine, or guide, our theological formulations. Van Til writes that
The rules of formal logic must be followed in all our attempts at systematic exposition of God's revelation.... But the syllogistic process must be followed in frank subordination to the notion of a self-sufficient God (Van Til 1972, 28).
Just prior to the above Van Til asks, "Have we then the right and the courage to say that Christianity does not contradict the laws of logic?" To which he replies,
We do, by pointing out that it is God, the self-sufficient God, in whom is no darkness at all, who has made us His creatures. Then it appears natural that there should be in all that pertains to our relation to God (and what does not?) an element of mystery (Van Til 1972, 27).
In two works particularly, A Letter on Common Grace and A Reply to Criticism, (3) Van Til spends a considerable amount of space on how theology is to be done. He writes:
. . . [we must not let] logic rule over Scripture. Against both Hoeksema and Schilder I have contended that we must think more concretely and analogically than they did, allowing ourselves to be led only by scriptural exegesis. All the truths of the Christian religion have of necessity the appearance of being contradictory. But since we build our thinking on the ontological trinity and therefore on the relation of this triune God given in Scripture, we think analogically. We do not fear to accept that which has the appearance of being contradictory. We know that what appears to be so is not really so. . . as in the case of every biblical doctrine, we should seek to take all the factors of Scripture teaching and bind them together into systematic relations with one another as far as we can (Van Til 1972, 165-166).
Further on Van Til notes,
We therefore do not expect to be able to settle this difficult point, or any other difficult point, to the full satisfaction of either Hoeksema or the Arminians. We should do with this problem as we must do with all theological problems. We would take all factors into consideration simultaneously and thus "hem in the question" (Van Til 1972, 171).
In A Reply to Criticism, Van Til warns
. . . that if we do use such concepts as "essence" and "nature" without stipulating that they are limitative and supplementative of one another, we not only get into confusion and contradiction, but we are inadvertently led into positions which we were trying to avoid (Van Til 1972, 205).
And, in speaking of the great importance "to think as creatures who are called upon to give order to the revelation of God," Van Til goes on to say that
using human concepts analogically means to be deeply conscious, moment by moment, that each concept employed must constantly be subject to the whole of the revelation of God. And this implies the setting of such concepts as the essence of man and the nature of man in a definite relationship of correlativity to one another (Van Til 1972, 206).
Through these passages Van Til warns us of doing theology in such a way that apparently good and necessary deductions from certain portions of Scripture are used to level or deny what is taught elsewhere in Scripture. Logic is not to legislate the conclusions of theological reflection.
One of the controversies that Van Til entered was concerning the question whether God could genuinely have an attitude of favor toward those whom He has reprobated before the foundation of the world, or the question of Common Grace. Some, such as Herman Hoeksema, maintained that God never has an attitude of favor towards those who are the objects of His wrath. (4) Others, such as Arminians, accuse the Reformed, who do affirm Common Grace, of theological duplicity in seeking to maintain sovereign foreordination and the real accountability of all people for their every deed.,
Concerning the doctrine of Common Grace Van Til points out that it is something peculiarly Reformed. He writes as follows:
. . . only in Reformed circles could the question have arisen at all . . . . Only those who are seriously concerned with interpreting the whole of history in terms of the counsel of God can be puzzled by the question of that which is "common" between believer and unbeliever . . . . Only he who is committed to the basic absolute of God's counsel can, and will, be puzzled by the meaning of the relative (Van Til 1972, 12).
As was shown above, Van Til, in writing on Common Grace, developed most of his views concerning theological method at the same time. In developing a biblical and Reformed doctrine of Common Grace Van Til developed four particular areas or subsets of this doctrine. The four are: history as "early" and "later", ultimate/remote and proximate causation, the idea of the Conditional, and the Covenant. What Van Til has written concerning causation will be discussed later in this chapter. The other three will be discussed here.
By the "later" in history Van Til means when "history is finished [and] God no longer has any kind of favor toward the reprobate . . . God no longer in any sense classifies them in a generality with the elect" (Van Til 1972, 30). That which is "earlier" refers to the time "before the consummation of their wicked striving was made complete, [it is then] that God, even in a sense, classified them with the elect" (Van Til 1972, 12).
Van Til points out further along that,
Both parties (those for and those against Common Grace] . . . heartily agreed that God's counsel is the ultimately determinative factor. But the difference obtains with respect to the meaning of the historical. And here the problem is, more specifically, to what extent we should allow our notion of the earlier to be controlled by our notion of the later (Van Til 1972, 72).
Van Til then goes on to present the "earlier" as that which must be stressed. By this notion is meant our existence in Adam when he was created. We did, and we did not yet, exist. All received the same common mandate. God has a favorable attitude toward all. All are pronounced "very good." This is what obtained as being the case before the Fall. With the Fall there is a change. Now all mankind is under a common wrath. "Indeed," as Van Til notes, "the reality of the ‘common wrath' depends upon the fact of the earlier 'common grace'” (Van Til 1972, 74).
At this point Van Til begins to draw upon the idea of the Conditional. He points out:
But after the common, in each case, comes the conditional. History is a process of differentiation. Accordingly, the idea of that which is common between the elect and the reprobate is always a limiting concept. It is a commonness for the time being. There lies back of it a divine as if (Van Til 1972, 74).
It is mankind as a whole that is presented with the Conditional.
The general presentation comes to a generality. It comes to "sinners," differentiated, to be sure, as elect and reprobate in the mind of God, but yet, prior to their act of acceptance or rejection, regarded as a generality. To forget this is to move the calendar of God ahead (Van Til 1972, 76).
The threats and promises which God reveals to us are "real and genuinely revelatory of the attitude of God" (Van Til 1972, 80). Thus, what Van Til means by the Conditional could also be spoken of under the topic of the "well-meant," "sincere", or "free offer" of the Gospel. (5)
By the free offer the conditional is placed before the creature, man. But again, it is to mankind in general. All received the command. All fell through disobedience. But now there is the redemptive work of Christ. He is sent to redeem those who were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world. This too must be taken into account. For these His people, "are not yet His people except in the mind of God" (Van Til 1972, 78). And therefore,
. . . it is with them where they are that contact is to be made. The offer or presentation is not to those who believe any more than to those who disbelieve. The offer comes to those who have so far neither believed nor disbelieved. It comes before that differentiation has taken place. It comes thus generally, so that differentiation may have meaning (Van Til 1972, 78).
Therefore the free offer and the conditional must be seen in correlativity to the idea of history as "early" and "later." The devil is an example of that to which history as "later" has reference. Van Til speaks of the devil as an "historically finished product." But when the devil was an unfallen angel he was loved by God. The elect and the reprobate, though completely known to God, are, in the time prior to the day of judgment, still in the "earlier" part of history. The former will be converted and kept by the power of God. The latter will remain in their sins and be condemned by God's just verdict.
In back of and arising occasionally in Van Til's discussion of all the above is his doctrine of the Covenant. The covenant idea is found in many of his writings. (6) In particular Van Til discusses the relation of the covenant with Adam to the above ideas. He points out that "All too easily do we think of the covenant relation as quite distinct and independent of natural revelation. The two should be joined together" (Van Til 1972, 69). Here Van Til is merely paraphrasing the Westminster Confession chapter VII:1. Van Til goes on to say that
Man was originally placed before God as a covenant personality. . . . All the factors of his inheritance and environment are mediated through and expressive of the covenant relationship that God from the beginning established with mankind (Van Til 1972, 101).
Thus the idea of commonness is seen as "covenantally-conditioned" (Van Til 1967, 4).
Van Til draws together these various ideas in the following manner:
When we stress the commonness of the cultural task given to man, when we stress the commonness of the curse of God on man, the commonness of the non-saving grace of God to man the commonness of the offer of the gospel to men, the commonness of all those who by birth are in the covenant of saving grace that God has made with believers and their seed, this commonness does not in the least tend to reduce the genuine significance of the particular. On the contrary, this commonness is required in order that the process of particularization may be accomplished.
The commonness is one of the indispensable factors of the covenant which God has made with mankind. The other factor is the genuineness of the choice of man. And through the two factors operating in dependence upon one another God accomplishes His one great purpose of glorifying Himself through the deeds of men (Van Til 1972, 119-120).
And a little later Van Til points out that
Common grace must support special or saving grace; saving or special grace cannot be adequately presented except in relationship to and in connection with common grace. Together they form the covenant framework in which the sovereign God deals with man (Van Til 1972, 125).
The covenant embraces and impinges upon all areas of life and thought. This means that
All created reality is covenantally revelational. The facts of man's created environment are what they are as the field of operation for the covenantal reaction of man to God. Man, made in the image of God, is either covenantally obedient or covenantally disobedient in all of his reaction to all of the facts of God's revelational material (Van Til 1967, 67).
For Van Til the covenant, the conditional and common grace are aspects through which the process of differentiation is taking place. They have their meaning only as history is still in its "early" stage. Mystery that attaches to all our attempts to understand God and His ways, and our own sinfulness, prevent us from knowing the state of affairs as God knows them. We are all on our way. The final day has not arrived, though it is the last hour.
Relevant to this discussion is the distinction that must be made between God's will of decree and God's will of command. The former has regard to God's determination to do whatsoever pleases Him. The latter is described by Van Til in this way:
In His will of command God deals with man as a created person; He deals with him conditionally. God wants self-conscious covenant reaction to His will of command and promise. But the entire covenantal transaction takes place according to the counsel of God (Van Til 1972, 186-187).
As men we must think analogically. God is the original and man is the derivative. We must not determine what can or cannot be by argument that starts from the will of decree apart from its relation to the will of command. In particular we must not say that God cannot display any attitude of favor to the generality of mankind because we know that He intends that ultimately some are "vessels of wrath." On the other hand we must not argue from the revealed will of God with respect to man's responsibility to the denial of man's ultimate determination by the will of decree (Van Til 1972, 187).
By solemnly recognizing that we have true, though not exhaustive, knowledge of the facts of history, we can clearly and resolutely bring the whole counsel of God to all men. We do not seek to ascertain whether the person in front of us has the marks of election or the tell-tale signs of reprobation. God has a real attitude of favor toward the reprobate now and a real attitude of wrath toward the elect sinner now. "In neither case is it God's ultimate, or final attitude, but in both cases it is a real attitude" (Van Til 1972, 92).
We come now to the subject of secondary causality. Much of what Van Til has written on this topic is done through an exposition of Calvin's The Eternal Predestination of God (Van Til 1972, 65-83). Van Til prefaces his discussion of Calvin in the following manner:
The facts are correlative to the universals. Because of this correlativity there is genuine progress in history; because of it the Moment has significance.
To make progress in our discussion we must, it seems, learn to take time more seriously than we have done (Van Til 1972, 64).
The basic problem that Van Til seeks to confront can be set out in this manner:
God has determined whatsoever comes to pass.
Man's moral acts are things that come to pass.
Therefore, man's moral acts are determined and man is not responsible for them.
But one must distinguish between remote and proximate causes. Man's sin is the proximate cause while the will of God is the remote or ultimate cause. It is because God's will is the ultimate cause that the proximate causes have meaning. It is we who "are the true defenders of the meaning of second causes" (Van Til 1972, 67).
Van Til goes on to say that
There is, in fact, a beautiful harmony between remote and proximate causes. The harmony exists--of that, faith is sure. Faith is reasonable--of that, faith is also sure. Faith alone is reasonable--of that, faith is once more sure. Faith abhors the really contradictory; to maintain the really contradictory is to deny God. Faith adores the apparently contradictory; to adore the apparently contradictory is to adore God as one’s creator and final interpreter.
What Van Til calls "apparently contradictory" can also be called "mystery." It is only as we learn to know our place before the incomprehensible and irreproachable God that we will come to have comfort and understanding. By so doing we do not fall into rationalism or irrationalism in speaking of the relation that obtains between God's will and that of man, the creature, created according to His image. For, as Van Til points out: "Any tendency toward either rationalism or irrationalism lowers “the genuine significance of history" (Van Til 1972, 68).
Mystery envelops all that happens in space and time. But this is only for us, never for God. He knows the end from the beginning. He alone does all His will. Men do not know anything as God knows anything. Man's understanding, his comprehension of anything is either in a secondary or derivative manner or must be the result of divine self-disclosure or revelation. Man must always place his interpretation of whatsoever comes to pass in subordination to what God has spoken. As Van Til writes:
Natural revelation must not be separated from this supernatural revelation. To separate the two is to deal with the, two as abstractions instead of with one concrete situation. That is to say, natural revelation, whether objective or subjective, is in itself a limiting conception. It has never existed by itself so far as man is concerned. It cannot fairly be considered, therefore, as a fixed quantity, that can be dealt with in the same way at every stage of man's moral life. Man was originally placed before God as a covenant personality (Van Til 1972, 69).
Man, either as regenerate or unregenerate, can not simply look at either Scriptural data or extra-scriptural data, in isolation from each other, and make apodeictic conclusions. Both must be brought together, as Van Til often says,"in correlation," so that each will enrich the other. Scripture always maintains the place of priority in all interpretation. For man has always, even from the very beginning in the Garden, been spoken to by the true and living God.
In relation to this Van Til makes the point that, in order to
. . . set the problem before us as clearly as possible, we do well to think of it in connection with Adam in paradise. Would it be possible to maintain that only by the later revelation of God's final purpose could anything be known of His attitude toward man? Then Adam would at the beginning have known nothing of God's attitude toward him. No revelation of God's final purpose had yet been made. The whole future, as far as Adam's knowledge was concerned, was conditioned by his obedience or disobedience. But if this act of obedience or disobedience was to have any significance, it had to be obedience or disobedience with respect to God, whom he knew. His moral act could not be action in a void. He knew something of God and of God's attitude toward him without any unconditional revelation about God's final purpose (Van Til 1972, 71).
The same holds true, in large measure, now. Man's knowledge is bound by two facts: one, that the wrath of God is revealed against all who suppress the truth God has revealed concerning His deity and power in creation (cf. Romans 1-3), and two, that He sent His Son to be the propitiator of that wrath for all who would receive and rest in that work of redemption. The question is not concerning whether one is elect or reprobate. That concerns God's secret counsel relative to His final purpose concerning all people's destiny.
And so, the covenant too must be brought into the discussion of the relation between God's sovereign will and secondary causation. It is through the covenant that Adam, and thus all mankind, would "have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward" (Westminster Confession of Faith VII: l). Through the covenant relation do all peoples, in all places, come to receive their final reward (cf. Romans 2:1-16; Galatians 6:7-8). As Norman Shepherd comments:
From the perspective of the covenant there is mystery because man is the creature and God is the Creator. Man cannot know God exhaustively; God remains incomprehensible. Man can never know the decree as God knows the decree, and for that reason man cannot begin to reflect on his salvation from the point of the decree although his salvation originates in the predestinating love and purpose of God (Shepherd 1976, 60).
The reason why the covenant must be stressed is that in Scripture, covenant structures God's relation to mankind. Thus Scripture is our epistemological starting-point for understanding the relation between the will of God and the will of His creatures.
Because Scripture has this regulative character, the question of the relation between the divine will and human will, along with other questions, is seen as "one of those things that can only 'be fully understood or perceived in faith.'" Therefore we must rest on a "frankly revelational basis" (Van Til 1972, 77).
For men "taught of God" it is possible to see the harmony here between the attitude of wrath, which, in this sense, the elect share with the reprobate, and the eternal attitude of God's favor to the elect only. They distinguish between primary and secondary causes. They hold to two wills in God. They know there is no conflict between these wills. They know this not because they have been able to intellectually penetrate the relationship between the two. They know it by faith, and they know it intellectually so far as to see that, unless we may hold that harmony rests in Cod, all human experience is a farce (Van Til 1972, 79).
The Word of God is our source for comfort and assurance concerning these matters. Though His ways are beyond our ability to comprehend (as in the situations of Job and Joseph), yet what God has said is our anchor. The covenant points out that all our doings happen in a totally personalistic universe. In all areas of life we are confronted by the revelation of God Himself. Since every square inch of creation is His, it cannot fail to reveal Him.
But this can only be properly appropriated and understood by faith. All attempts to understand or interpret reality apart from faith ineluctably leads to error and sin. Though even when by faith we seek to understand God and His world we stand in absolute need of the "spectacles" of Scripture. Thus in Van Til's covenant idea the great truths of sola fide and sola Scriptura come to the fore as the irreducible presuppositions of the Christian or biblical view of truth.
Van Til's metatheological contribution can be summed up as follows: "we must have an 'analogical' system in which seemingly contradictory teachings of Scripture have justice done them"' (Van Til 1972, 232). The system produced will never be exactly like God's. But in that it faithfully reflects the teaching of Scripture and corresponds and coheres with revelation about and within us, it is true.
1.) Cf. Bell 1981. It is a generally helpful work. One rather surprising omission is any reference to or knowledge of Dr. Gilbert Weaver's "Man: Analogue of God" in Jerusalem and Athens, a critical symposium on the theology and apologetics of Van Til. Bell does refer to other articles in the symposium. His work would have been more complete if he had incorporated Weaver's work.
2.) Unless otherwise indicated all emphasis is in the original.
3.) In reply to Dr. W. Masselink, a most ardent critic of Van Til.
4.) As quoted in DeJong 1954, 45--"Hoeksema asks the rhetorical question: 'Do you, then, maintain that God is never gracious in time or eternity to the reprobate wicked.' He answers: 'I most emphatically maintain that this is true."' This quotation is found in the work The Protestant Reformed Churches in America by Herman Hoeksema (Grand Rapids: First Protestant Reformed Church, 1936). Further material concerning Hoeksema, from one within the Protestant Reformed, is found in Engelsma 1980.
5.) The use of several adjectives is due to the controversy. For further materials cf. DeJong 1954, Engelsma 1980.
6.) This is a part of Van Til's thought that has not, as far as I can determine, been researched. While it has been alleged that Van Til and Murray have different notions of the covenant, they are closer than might initially be thought. Both are opposed to the idea of the covenant being construed as a contract, cf. Van Til 1977, 81-82.