Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?

I’ve been asked by several folk to share my thoughts on J. V. Fesko’s article, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos.” (Side note: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Fesko as a colleague following his recent appointment to the faculty at RTS Jackson! The following comments are offered respectfully and in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17. Semper reformanda!)

Geerhardus VosA great deal could be said in response to the various points Fesko raises in his essay, but I’ll restrict myself to some remarks on his core argument and a few other related matters. Fesko’s main target is the “Vosian Van Til thesis” which maintains that “Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology,” that there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Vos and Van Til,” and that “Van Til learned a unique epistemology from Vos.” Fesko readily concedes that Van Til was significantly influenced by Vos, but he wants to challenge the stronger claim that Van Til adopted a distinctive epistemology from Vos which served as a kind of course-correction for Reformed philosophy and apologetics.

Fesko’s central argument can be easily summarized:

  1. Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
  2. Van Til rejected both of the above.
  3. Therefore (contra the Vosian Van Til thesis) there’s significant discontinuity between Vos and Van Til. Vos stands in line with the historic Reformed tradition; Van Til does not.

There’s also a subsidiary argument, which I won’t assess here:

  1. Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  2. Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  3. Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.

Some comments:

1. It’s important to recognize the scope and nature of Fesko’s argument. It’s really an argument against the claims of certain Van Tilians. It isn’t a refutation of any distinctive element of Van Til’s thought. (I don’t mean to suggest it was intended to be, but some might fail to recognize what the argument, if sound, would actually prove.)

2. Along the same lines, we should acknowledge that the article is an exercise in historical theology: it concerns the intellectual relationship between two Reformed thinkers (and also their relationship to earlier Reformed theologians). Historical claims do not establish philosophical or theological theses. Fesko’s argument tells us little if anything about whether Vos’s position, Van Til’s position, or some other position is the right position to hold. The mere fact that Theologian A’s position aligns with Theologian B’s position, or stands in continuity with Tradition C, doesn’t as such give us any reason to agree with A, B, or C.

3. Some readers will take (and have taken) the article to provide support for Reformed scholasticism or Reformed Thomism. But again, I think that misses the scope of the argument. Nothing in the article constitutes a defense of scholasticism or Thomism as such. For example, there’s nothing here that vindicates the use of Aristotelian metaphysics or Aquinas’s nature-grace scheme.

4. The article refers to “Van Tillians” as though that’s a homogeneous group partly defined by a commitment to the Vosian Van Til thesis. But there have been considerable disagreements among self-described Van Tilians about how to interpret Van Til’s claims and implement his apologetic program. Van Tilians are no more a homogeneous group than Thomists. Fesko takes the claims of William Dennison and Lane Tipton to be representative of all Van Tilians. But on what grounds? Why think they speak for everyone who endorses a Van Tilian approach to apologetics (especially with respect to historical theses about lines of intellectual influence)?

Moving to matters of more substance:

5. The reader is likely to come away from the article thinking that Van Til repudiated natural theology outright (e.g., “Van Til completely rejects natural theology”). This is misleading to say the least. See, for example, Van Til’s essay “Nature and Scripture” in which he articulates a very strong view of natural revelation (arguably stronger than the view of most Thomists!) and distinguishes between “the natural theology of the [Westminster] Confession” and “the natural theology that has its origin in Greek thought” (which Van Til associates with Aquinas, Butler, and even Kant). Now, one can certainly argue that Van Til is mistaken in drawing this distinction, or that he has misrepresented Aquinas, Butler, et al. (I myself have reservations about aspects of Van Til’s analysis.) But it’s not accurate to say that Van Til rejects natural theology as such. His concern is that natural theology be conducted in a way consistent with Reformed convictions about natural revelation, special revelation, and the Creator-creature distinction.

6. A similar point applies to the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles. Does Van Til reject this distinction altogether? Well, it depends on exactly how the distinction is understood and what implications are drawn from it. Fesko writes:

In brief, articuli puri / mixti derive their origins from the disciplines of theology and philosophy. Those articles derived from theology alone are “pure,” and those that originate from both philosophy and theology are mixed. The idea that stands behind these terms is that human beings acquire some knowledge of God through the use of reason and other knowledge exclusively from special revelation. In other words, this set of terms requires that a theologian define the precise relationship between philosophy and theology. In short, to admit mixed articles means that one employs some form of natural theology. If one rejects mixed articles, then he must rest all of his theological claims about God exclusively on Scripture. This naturally has implications for one’s epistemology, or the doctrine of how and what a person can know about God.

Would Van Til disagree? As I’ve already noted, Van Til had a robust doctrine of natural revelation. He insists in various places that every human being knows that God exists (the God of the Bible no less!) even those that lack the special revelation of Scripture. Does this natural knowledge of God count as “some knowledge of God through the use of reason”? Yes, although Van Til notes that unbelievers will proceed to use (or rather misuse) their natural reason so as to suppress the natural knowledge of God. Remarkably, in chapter 7 of his Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til argues that men can and should reason to God from nature. The issue isn’t whether one should do so, but rather how one should do so.

In any event, on my reading of Van Til, he would readily agree that there are some truths about God that can be known by natural revelation alone, and there are other truths that can be known only on the basis of special revelation. Nowhere does Van Til claim that all knowledge of God depends on special revelation. Quite the contrary! What he does maintain is that one can only rightly interpret natural revelation through the lens of special revelation; the two are designed to work together to give us a proper understanding of God. But isn’t that just Calvin’s view (Institutes, 1.6.1)?

Furthermore, as I’ve pointed out, Van Til does indeed advocate “some form of natural theology.” Should we therefore conclude that he too “admits mixed articles”? Perhaps so! In any event, I’m not persuaded that a clear demarcation has been drawn that includes Vos but excludes Van Til. Again, to repeat the crucial point: Van Til doesn’t reject natural theology as such. What he rejects is a particular approach to natural theology which he takes to be inconsistent with Reformed commitments. He may be misguided about that, but it’s crucial to recognize what he’s targeting and what his own position is.

Consider also the implications of Van Til’s “transcendental argument” for the existence of God (TAG), according to which “all predication presupposes the existence of God.” Van Til refers to this as a proof of God’s existence; indeed, he claims that if God did not exist, it would be impossible to prove anything! Thus, the very possibility of knowledge implies the existence of God (indeed, not just any God, but the “All-Conditioner” as Van Til puts it in “Why I Believe in God”). Why wouldn’t that count as an exercise in “some form of natural theology”? Doesn’t TAG imply that natural reason as such presupposes God’s existence?

For this and related reasons, Van Til insists that every fact — whether historical, scientific, psychological, or whatever — is “revelational of God.” That’s hard to square with the idea that knowledge of God can be found only in Scripture or on the basis of special revelation.

7. In sum, unless I’ve badly misunderstood Van Til, he doesn’t “rest all of his theological claims about God exclusively on Scripture” and he doesn’t “completely reject natural theology.” If those are the distinguishing marks of someone who “rejects mixed articles,” then they’re not marks that Van Til bears. I think it would be more accurate to say that Van Til (1) accepts the basic distinction between pure and mixed articles (at least implicitly, given what else he says), (2) likely disagrees with some other Reformed theologians about the specific content of each category, and (3) expresses concerns about how we articulate the relationship between reason and revelation (both natural and special) in accounting for our knowledge of the pure and mixed articles.

9 thoughts on “Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?”

  1. Brandon Adams

    Thank you for the post. You said

    Nowhere does Van Til claim that all knowledge of God depends on special revelation. Quite the contrary! What he does maintain is that one can only rightly interpret natural revelation through the lens of special revelation; the two are designed to work together to give us a proper understanding of God. But isn’t that just Calvin’s view (Institutes, 1.6.1)?

    In my reading, the difference between Calvin and Van Til on this point is that Calvin refers to the necessity of special revelation “spectacles” post-fall, while Van Til says they are necessary always, even pre-fall.

    We are told [WCF 7.1] that man could never have had any fruition of God through the revelation that came to him in nature as operating by itself… revelation in nature was never meant to function by itself. It was from the beginning insufficient.
    (Nature & Scripture)

    Would you agree?

    1. Good question, Brandon. Yes, Calvin is speaking about our post-fall situation, whereas Van Til argues in N&S that special revelation was necessary from the outset.


      1. Since all natural theology is now post-fall, that’s enough for my argument.

      2. It would be fallacious to argue that since Calvin was speaking here only of the post-fall situation, he would have rejected the idea that special revelation was necessary even before the fall. He isn’t addressing the latter point here (and I’m not sure he addresses it anywhere else). So we can only speculate about how Calvin would have answered that question. Van Til offers quite a subtle argument for his claim that special revelation and natural revelation were designed to function together from the beginning. I suspect Calvin would have been sympathetic to it, but again, that’s no more than a speculation. We can at least say that there’s no reason to think Calvin disagreed with Van Til here.

      3. We should bear in mind that Scripture and special revelation aren’t co-extensive. The latter is a broader category. So when Van Til argues that special revelation was necessary pre-fall, he’s not referring to Scripture (i.e., the canon of inscripturated special revelation that we have now).

  2. Brandon Adams

    Thanks for the reply.

    It seems to me that the uniqueness of Van Til is his claim that natural/general revelation was insufficient to reveal God pre-fall. Fesko’s article did not hone in on or address this specific point, but doing so would provide greater specificity to his argument, I think. For example, Van Til claimed that WCF 7.1 taught his view of the relationship between natural and special revelation as it relates to knowledge of God. Vos, however, made no such claim. Vos understood 7.1 to refer to God’s voluntarily offer of eternal life upon the condition of perfect obedience in the Covenant of Works.

    So I think Van Til’s reading of 7.1 as a statement on epistemology is where we see the clearest break. For example, Fesko mentions how the use of reason in mixed articles “Defends principles of faith by showing that there are no logical contradictions” and in pure articles it “Is the instrument of judgment in doctrine concerning what is true and false. This judgment operates according to the rules of good and necessary consequence.” Van Til would disagree and argue that it was always necessary to correct or “limit” logic by special revelation.

    To clarify, I do not agree with a Thomistic approach to natural theology. I agree that fallen man’s attempts at natural theology have only produced idols. I’m just interested here in narrowing the discussion a bit (perhaps along the lines of your closing 3 points in #7).

    1. Good points. I think there are multiple questions here that need to be disentangled (I mean in general, not in your comments):

      (1a) Did Vos and Van Til disagree about the need for special revelation pre-fall? (Same issue I noted with Calvin: lack of affirmation doesn’t entail denial.)

      (1b) If they did disagree, who’s right?

      (2a) Did Vos and Van Til disagree about how to understand WCF 7.1?

      (2b) If they did disagree, who’s right? (Three options here: Vos, Van Til, or neither!)

      (3) Are Vos and Van Til on the same page regarding post-fall natural theology?

      (4) Are Van Til’s arguments for the necessity of pre-fall special revelation cogent in their own right?

      (5) If Van Til’s wrong on this point, what are the implications (if any) for his apologetic methodology?

      (6) How important is it (in the broader context of Reformed theology and apologetics) to have right answers to these questions?

      1. Brandon Adams

        Sorry for the delay. I did not get an email notification (or it went to spam). Thank you for delineating the points. My opinion:

        (1a) If Vos held that natural/general revelation sufficiently revealed God to man and he never said that supernatural revelation was a necessary supplement to general revelation for this purpose, then Vos disagreed with Van Til. I believe this is precisely what Vos held, therefore I believe he disagreed with Van Til. (See Biblical Theology p. 19-20 where Vos says that “nature within and nature without” together provide “an adequate conception of God.” He says that natural revelation only needed to be corrected by special revelation after the fall.)

        (1b) Vos

        (2a) Yes

        (2b) Vos (he correctly understood 7.1 as a statement about the reward offered for obedience in the CoW)

        (3) This is tricky, given (1a). If they disagreed on the matter pre-fall, can they agree post-fall? I don’t think so. Even aside from that I don’t think they agreed, as Vos seems to have held that regenerate man may construct a system of natural theology through reason apart from Scripture.

        (4) No

        (5) Significant, particularly with regards to the role of logic (non-contradiction may not be used to determine truth of a matter, and use of deduction limited)

        (6) Vital (at least with regards to (5) above.)

  3. I have just been reading Fesko’s new book that criticizes Van Til, Reforming Apologetics. Fesko makes the same argument in his book, although he concentrates on “common notions.” He makes unqualified statements that Van Til rejects common notions between Christians and non-Christians, although Fesko also says that Van Til’s endorsement of common grace is confusing given Van Til’s rejection of common notions. As you argue with respect to natural theology, Van Til did not reject common notions, just a certain kind of appeal to them that ends up as an endorsement of anti-Christian elements of pagan philosophy, with Aquinas’ appeal to Aristotle being the prime example. Anyway, here is one quote where Van Til explains his position on common notions and equates them with natural revelation:

    “’Common notions’ may be thought of as nothing more than revelation that comes to man through man. . . . As made in the image of God no man can escape becoming the interpretive medium of God’s general revelation both in his intellectual (Romans 1:20) and in his moral consciousness (Romans 2:14, 15).” (Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 53)

    1. Thanks, Mike. That’s helpful. I plan to start reading Fesko’s new book soon. I may even blog through it. We’ll see!

  4. Thanks for the assessment! Some thoughts:

    To your points 1 and 4: I find the disdain for Fesko’s alleged assessment of “homogeneity among Van tillians” strange. Yes, not all Van Tillians are exactly identical (as I’m sure Van Tillians want to make clear considering the recent events concerning Oliphint), but are the differences among Van Tillians really even nearly as substantial as Thomists? Or perhaps more appropriately, do you have in mind any other Van Tillians that have denied or would contest the “Vossian influence” thesis? If not then I don’t see why asking Fesko to be more clear on this point is relevant.

    #3: I didn’t take Fesko’s article to be an argument for Reformed Thomism, but it is a defensive argument that arises in a particular rhetorical context. In my understanding, Fesko is defending its viability as a response against those who claim Van Tillianism is the *only* reformed apologetic. Thus, if valid, it does seem to give at minimum an indirect support for the “Reformed Thomism” view.

    #5: I don’t think its fair for Van Til/tillians to create a unique definition of natural theology and then cry foul when they are criticized as rejecting natural theology *as such*. For example, you claimed it wasn’t right for Fesko to claim Van Till “completely” rejected natural theology even though Fesko only said that after quoting Van Till as saying “that no form of natural theology has ever spoken properly of the God who is there”. Why does Van Till use such different language here than he does in Nature and Scripture?

    #6 It seems to me like you’re claiming that because Van Till clearly had a *category* for natural theology therefore its plausible that he implicitly affirmed the mixed article distinction. Is that the idea? If not then I apologize, but if so I’d think thats hardly necessary or even likely. The pure/mixed article distinction presumes and rests upon the differing principia in various fields of knowledge. Thus, the principia discussion isn’t a side issue, but is crucial to this question. Its why Fesko elaborated on it in his article and, with respect, I think it weakens your case by ignoring it.

    1. //Fesko only said that after quoting Van Till as saying “that no form of natural theology has ever spoken properly of the God who is there”. Why does Van Till use such different language here than he does in Nature and Scripture?//

      Zack, Romans 1 says that God is clearly revealed through nature, and but it also says men suppress this truth, resulting in the worship of created things rather than the Creator. So we have to maintain the clarity of natural revelation while also recognizing that sinful man’s reaction to that revelation will be to distort it so as to deny God’s existence. When Van Til rejects “natural theology” as in the quote you reference, he talking about sinful man’s reaction to God’s revelation. There are times when Van Til speaks positively about natural theology, as in this quote from “Nature and Scripture,” where he commends the natural of theology of the Christians who authored the Reformed Confessions, while also condemning the natural theology of pagans:

      “There is the position of the Confession. This position consists of a natural theology that serves as the proper foundation for the full theology of grace that is found in the Reformed Confessions alone. . . . For all its vaunted defense of reason, the natural theology of Aristotle and his modern followers destroys reason. The autonomous man cannot forever flee back and forth between the arid mountains of timeless logic and the shoreless ocean of pure potentiality.” “Nature and Scripture” in The Infallible Word, pp. 300-01.

      One of the main contradictions of “Reformed Thomism” is that, given human depravity as explained in Romans 1 and embraced by Reformed Theology, it should be contrary to our expectations, if not completely ruled out, that a pagan like Aristotle would strongly advocate for and develop a rigorous argument for the existence of God. According to Romans 1, his arguments should lead to idol worship, not acknowledgment of the true God. Van Til adds to that doctrinal position his argument that Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is inconsistent with the nature of the biblical God and destroys the possibility of reason because the Unmoved Mover is presented as pure Form in the Greek Form/Matter scheme of reality. The Unmoved Mover is an impersonal, empty, abstraction that does not know the world, could not create the world, could not reveal infallible knowledge to creatures, could not become incarnate in the hypostatic union, and could not redeem sinners by a propitiatory sacrifice or impute perfect righteousness to them.

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