By What Standard? by ROUSAS JOHN RUSHDOONY
The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1959. 209 pages.
A recent issue of Time ( March 10, 1959) has featured theologian Paul Tillich, landing him as Theologian Number One and advertising on the front cover along with his portrait his Existentialism as “A Theology for Protestants.” Like the Athenian philosophers or Paul’s day, American Protestants today are always eager to hear “some new thing.” Unfortunately, what is being offered to them is not only a new theology but a new God. Time is certainly right in stressing the fact that Tillich’s “Christianity” is not Christianity. Nor is it Protestantism; Tillich has his own “Protestant Principle,” that no church and no man possess ultimate truth. Tillich’s rejection of the true Protestant principle of the self-contained God who speaks truth in an infallible Bible means that there is no Word of God; there is only the word of man. If in his “existential anxiety” man raises questions, he must, in the last analysis, provide his own answers. Man’s “ultimate concern” is to be concerned with himself rather than with God. This is idolatry. The God of Tillich is not only non-existentiai but non-existent. It is dear that Tillich’s “Theology for Protestants” is only an anthropology—a man-centered religion which, like a skyrocket, begins on earth and ends on earth.
On the side of orthodox Christianity, Professor Cornelius Van Til is now being recognized by an increasing number of people as the foremost defender of historic Christianity. Mr. Rushdoony’s excellent analysis of Van Til’s philosophy reveals the theological stature of a man who stands not a single step beneath his more famous contemporaries. In his teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary and also in his writing, Professor Van Til has brought into sharp focus the real issues between Christian theism and anti-Christian thought. He has contended against anti-theistic thought in all its most prevalent forms, including Romanism, Lutheranism, Arminianism, Neo-orthodoxy, and inconsistent Calvinism. He has dearly exposed and shown the implications of the common error which lies at the foundation of all these theologies, namely, the assumption that man is an autonomous being whose mind and will operate independently of God and his decree. This false assumption, so prevalent in modem theologies, is the root sin of humanity, having originated with our first parents who accepted as true the lie of Satan that man’s mind is capable of interpreting reality independently of God and his interpretation. Nor has this basic issue changed since Eden. “The temptation of man is ‘to be as God,’ knowing, that is, determining for himself what shall be good and what shall be evil. Man establishes his own law And decrees his own righteousness and is not bound to A point of reference beyond himself….Man sees himself not as a creature but as a god, not as dependent but as an independent and autonomous being” (p. 5).
That man has persisted in his original sin, his claim of autonomy, the history of philosophy and theology clearly reveals. Rushdoony gives a telling summAry of the history of philosophy from this viewpoint. He shows that the progress of human thought from Plato and Aristotle to Barth and Tillich has not advanced beyond the basic assumption of the authority and self-sufficiency of human reason. Not even Calvinists have been clear of guilt in this matter of self· appointed sovereignty; in fact, some of the strongest opposition to the consistent Calvinism of Van Til, says Rushdoony, has come from some “ostensibly Calvinist leaders” (p. 6). Berkouwer and Daane, for example, are frankly opposed to the idea of a self-contained God as the only valid starting point for man’s interpretation of reality, a principle which Van Til insists upon. The only alternative to a self-contained God in theology, states Rushdoony, is a man-contained God (pp. 5, 9). This alternative, if followed consistently, leads to relativism and nihilism, according to Van Til and Rushdoony. Man destroys himself when he destroys God. The one philosopher who came to this spiritual suicide w a s Nietzsche. “Believing God dead, he destroyed in turn every meaning he attempted to establish, recognizing that no God means no meaning, not even life” (p. 27). The fact that Barth, Brunner, Tillich and others who reject the self-contained God are not as consistent as Nietzsche does not prove their theologies to be, in the last analysis, any better than that of Nietzsche. These men do not believe in a self-existent God. God is revealed in Christ hut does not exist apart from him (pp. 165–173). God is not God accept in Christ. “But when God ceases to be God, man also ceases to be man,” inasmuch as without a self-existent God man is left without meaning in an ultimately mysterious universe (pp. 26, 27).
Van Til, says Rushdoony, calls upon men to examine their presuppositions and to become aware of their implications for man’s life. To do so is to be “epistemologically self-conscious” (p. 102). Both Christians and non-Christians ought to be made aware of the true nature of their basic assumptions. This is offensive to men because it is in this way that they are confronted with God and know themselves to be his creatures. Created in God’s image, man’s entire being is revelational of God. To think coherently, he must presuppose God. In order to have science, he must begin with Christian assumptions and presuppose the unity of science and knowledge. But, being fallen, he now presupposes his autonomy and attempts to suppress, wherever he becomes conscious of its implications, this basic presupposition of God. As a result, his thinking is inconsistent, reveals his tension and frustration, and lacks an epistemological self-consciousness. To live consistently in terms of his autonomy would plunge him into the shoreless and bottomless ocean of relativity, hut to live and tMIIk consistently in terms of the self-contained God would involve a total surrender to his sovereignty. The natural man tries, as indeed too many regenerate men do also, to live in terms of both presuppositions….but the results of this conscious and subconscious effort is tension and frustration. Van Til’s apologetics seeks to bring out this epistemological self-consciousness in both the regenerate and the unregenerate and to make them both aware of the nature of their reasoning” (pp. 103, 104).
The antithesis between the doctrine of the self-contained God and that of self-contained man is the basic issue in all areas of theological discussion. In modern Psychology of Religion, in Christian Ethics, in the questions of common grace, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and Christology, the basic issue is whether God is sovereign or whether man is sovereign. Rushdoony has not only Summarized but simplified the main lines of Van Til’s consistent Calvinism in each of these areas, devoting a well-written chapter to each subject.
Common grace, he contends, should not be regarded as a dead issue, since the Three Points of 1924 are only an elementary but not final definition of common grace. Just as the Apostles’ Creed had to be supplemented by the Creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon, in order to eliminate the heresies which followed it, so tile Three Points of 1924 n~ further development in order to clarify the issue and eliminate unscriptural notions of common grace (p. li5 ). The Three Points wisely eliminated those who with Hoeksema would “lose man” in order to maintain the sovereignty of Cod; more recently, however, the doctrine of common grace has been interpreted by another faction in the Christian Reformed Church who would “lose God” in order to maintain the autonomy of the natural man (p. 116). This issue, too, must be faced. “For his deviation, Hoeksema was properly challenged, and left the Christian Reformed Church. Daane, for his deviation, has not yet been brought to task, while the church has seen many voices raised against Van Til (not a member of thai communion). This is regrettable, but not surprising, but characteristic of the church as a whole in many an age since Paul’s day, for there is unhappily reason to believe that man often has more friends ill the church than God has”. (p. 119).
Two books have been written which analyze the Calvinism of Comelius Van Til. By What Standard? is a strong defense of that Calvinism. The other, A Theology of Grace, was written by James Daane, who attacks Van Til because he dislikes the idea of God-in-Himself, the ontological trinity as the starting point for theology. Lest anyone should assume, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the issue between Van Til and his critics is purely academic, without significance for the Christian Reformed Church, for Protestantism, and for everyday Christian life, we invite our readers to read and take seriously what Rushdoony says about the decline of Calvinism and the collapse of Calvinist churches in America. Some Calvinist churches have drifted into Modernism or have disappeared because, while holding ostensibly to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, they did not apply that doctrine consistently to the problems that confronted the church (p. 199). It is not too much to say that the whole of the Christian faith and the future of the church are at stake in the question posed by Rushdoony: “By What Standard?” Rushdoony has ably and correctly answered his own question. “By what standard shall we approach the problems of philosophy and the problems of everyday life? If we begin with anything other than the ontological Trinity, with the sovereignty of God as intellectually applied and systematically delineated in eve r y aspect and avenue of human thought, we end with the destruction of Christian life…The only standard that can he offered to this sinful world, the only standard which Calvinism can consistently adhere to, is the Triune God, the ontological Trinity” (p. 203). True Calvinism ends with God because it begins with God; any theology or science which begins with man must end with man.
JOSEPH A. HILL
An Exposition of John Seventeen by THOMAS MANTON
Published by the Sovereign Grace Book Club, Evansville, Indiana, 1958. 451 pages. Price $5.95.
These fine sermons on the High Priestly Prayer of our Lord comprise another volume in the valuable Puritan Commentary Series for which we are indebted to editor Jay Green and the Sovereign Grace Book Club. The author has also given us an Exposition of the Epistle of James by the same publisher.
Chapter Seventeen in John’s Gospel has been described as the most remarkable portion of the most remarkable book in the world. Melanchthon says of it: “There is no voice which has ever been heard either in heaven or earth, more exalted. more holy, more fruitful more sublime than the prayer offered up by the Son of God himself.” One wonders why not more expositions of it have appeared through the years. Perhaps the reason lies in its peculiar sacredness. The disposition to inquire may have been lost in the impulse to adore.
Every one of our ministers should have this volume of sermons in his library, Indeed. all of our people can profit from the reading of them.
Basic Christianity by JOHN R.W. STOTT
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 3, Michigan, 1958. 144 pages. $1.25 Pocket Edition.
This book was written to convince those who are not sure that Christianity is intellectually respectable. The author begins with the historical figure of Jesus and tries to show that he was the unique Son of God. The evidence for this belief. says he is good, strong, historical, and cumulative,…“to which an honest man can subscribe without committing intellectual suicide” (7). One must not only be convinced that Jesus is the Son of God; he must also believe that he came into the world to save sinners. But since Christianity is more than a creed one must translate his creed into Christian living. This book attempts to persuade men to commit themselves, “heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly to Jesus Christ” (8).
In chapter one the author deals with the “right approach”. God is said to be first. he seeks man before man even gropes after Him. He took the initiative in creation, in revelation. and in salvation. God not only says something; he has also done something in Jesus Christ for man’s salvation. Hence the gospel is good news, a declaration of what God has done in Christ. This is all very encouraging, but then the author turns right around and says that when man begins to concern himself with the quest for God (this is represented as part of his exploring, investigating nature ) he is baffled, because God is “an immortal and infinite Being, while we are mortal and finite creatures. Therefore our minds, wonderfully effective instruments as they are, cannot climb up into the infinite mind of God. There is no ladder” (10).
The fact that God created man a religious being, that is, in covenantal relationship to his Creator, so that from the beginning he had fellowship with God, which constituted life, is simply ignorance. Revelation, it is true, comes in later to fill the void, but the biblical picture of man’s original perfection in Paradise, is wanting. And the true reason for man’s alienation from God, namely, his fall into sin, is obscured, if not totally ignored. This is the basic weakness of the book. The fact of sin is not taken seriously. It is assumed that the natural mall can seek God diligently, humbly, honestly, obediently. What is more, God’s acts and words, found in the Bible, will remain there “unless we play our part” (13). In short, God cannot save man sovereignly. so that all things come to pass after the counsel of his will, but man can frustrate the grace of God; man is the final arbiter of his salvation. This representation is set forth dramatically in chapter ten which deals with making a decision. Holman Hunt’s picture of Christ, standing at the door knocking, but impotent to enter the human heart unless man who is lord of his own castle opens to him, portrays the plight of God. The emphasis. says the author is on the humility of Christ and on the freedom of man. Christ is said only to invite and not to command.
However, this involves a basic misunderstanding of the proclamation of the gospel. It is true, of course, that Christ invites sinners: but he at the same time sovereignly commands: “believe and be saved!” If we accept the interpretation of the author, Paul must be wrong when he says, “So then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God who showeth mercy” (Romans 9:16). Paul knew the answer to this paradox of human liberty and divine sovereignty and Luke has recorded it through the Spirit. He gives us the case of Lydia, who heard the things spoken by Paul, whose heart the Lord opened (Acts 16:14).
As to the exegesis of Rev. 3:20, which has ever been a deep ditch for Arminianism. the meaning is really quite clear from the context. Christ as Lord of his church and as Shepherd of his sheep is rebuking and admonishing the churches. He is addressing those who arc members of the church, but who have grown cold in their love and service. He says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock….To him that overcometh will I give to sit with me in my throne….” It ought to be patent that those addresses are members of the church; they have confessed the name of Christ. they have the sacraments and the oracles of God, but they have been faithful, negligent, and lax in the service of the King. To such Christ says, “I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice. I will come in and sup with him and he with me.” The fellowship with Christ has been interrupted by sin, but Christ will receive his people when they repent. This was also the message to the covenant people in the O!d Dispensation, when the prophets cried, “Return unto me, O house of Israel, why will ye die?” “Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found!”
Finally, I have one more basic objection to this paper-back on basic Christianity. The appeal to the natural man is made as though his only basic need is intellectual enlightenment, as if he has the proper discernment to judge the things that are spiritual. The assumption seems to be that if we can make Christianity rational, the unbeliever will accept it since he is a rational being. But this assumption negates the terrible reality of the fall which has darkened our minds as well as alienated our hearts, so that we hate Cod by nature. Besides, the sinner’s ability to judge of the troth of Christianity as presented to him, assumes the ultimacy of the mind of man, apart from the revelation of God. as reference point for truth. This is fatal. It confirms the sinner in his hubris! Instead. the Bible comes with an absolute: “Ye must be born again”; “repent and believe!” “But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us. even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, (by grace have ye been saved)….not of works, that no man should glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them” ( Ephesians 2:2–10).
HENRY R. VAN TIL