I took a stab at the Controversy a few years ago after reading (or trying to read) Herman Hoeksema’s book. That post remains quite popular. I’ve been meaning to read Van Til on the incomprehensibility of God, but more important matters have hindered me from investing the time necessary.
But I finally began John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Early on in the book, he interacts with the Controversy and makes what I think are some helpful comments on it. I’ve been meaning to blog about this, but have been (yes) busy. Since today is something of a sick day, I’ve got a bit more time.
“We should be gentle with those who differ from us; they may not be rebellious or sinful in their disagreement, only immature (in other respects they may surpass us). And, of course, we must always recognize the possibility that we may be wrong, that a brother or sister who disagrees with us may have something to teach us.”
Frame asserts that this controversy was not the highlight of either man’s career, and that they seriously misunderstood one another. As the first, such controversies tend to bring out the worst in us. This is why many godly men offered warnings about how to conduct themselves in theological controversy. It is quite easy for pride to deceive us and distort our thinking, motive and goals. Part of that deception ties into the misunderstanding of the other person’s actual views that takes place. As I mentioned in the earlier post, controversy tends to move us to further extremes in the quest to be right (as opposed to understanding truth).
Both, however had valid concerns. Van Til wished to preserve the Creator-creature distinction in the realm of knowledge, and Clark wished to prevent an skeptical deductions from the doctrine of incomprehensibility, to insist that we really do know God on the basis of revelation. Van Til, therefore, insisted that even when God and man were thinking of the same thing (a particular rose, for example), their thoughts about it were never identical– God’s were the thoughts of the Creator, man’s of the creature. Such language made Clark fear skepticism.
Here is how they were talking past each other in some ways (there was a real disagreement, but not as vast as either made it out to be perhaps). They wanted to protect different ideas in their discussion of the topic. Different agendas or concerns, which led to different expressions and therefore misunderstanding.
Frame notes that Van Til distinguished between incomprehensibility and inapprehensibility. Additionally, Van Til thought Clark was making a similar distinction. But he didn’t. Some of the issue was “a failure to communicate.” Frame argues that Van Til wrongly thought Clark thought God was knowable apart from revelation. While Van Til was correct to say that we only have true knowledge of God as a result of revelation, he was wrong to think that Clark disagreed with him on this point.
What Clark fails to appreciate, in my opinion, is the fact that “God lisps to us” (Calvin) or accommodates to us in revelation points to the fact that our knowledge and his knowledge is not identical. This does not mean we don’t have true knowledge. This is where Van Til’s distinction comes into play. We are able to apprehend truth, but we do not comprehend truth due to both our finitude and sinfulness. Clark misunderstood him to say something more like we don’t apprehend true. Thus he charged ( and his followers still charge Van Til, Bavink and lots of other Dutch guys with) skepticism.
So, the issue revolved around the qualitative differences in God’s knowledge and ours. Frames argues that those with Clark wanted those with Van Til to clearly articulate the Creator-creature distinction regarding the qualitative difference in knowledge. But to be able to clearly articulate it would mean that it was comprehensible (therefore denying the distinction). In other words, as a human I can no more understand how God’s mind works than an ant can understand how mine works. I can know what God reveals to me, but since he necessarily lisps to me (speaks baby talk so to speak) I don’t know it like he knows it. The metaphor breaks down a bit since I will never move beyond ‘baby talk’ in this life. It is not a matter of maturity alone, but also nature.
It is not skepticism to say that we have true knowledge, but incomplete knowledge. We know the truth God has revealed to us, but we don’t know it in the same way he knows it- in relationship with every other truth in creation AND apart from creation. Frame argues that when Van Til and Bavink speak about “adequate” knowledge of God, they are using the classical meaning of the term which is more like comprehensive knowledge than how we use it today. But Clark and his followers use the more modern usage and find basis for their charge of skepticism.
This is why it is SO IMPORTANT to make sure you are using the same terms in the same way as your opponents. It was this that made the ECT document so utterly meaningless (in my opinion). The Protestants and Catholics meant very different things by key terms. You can’t have a meaningful discussion on justification and sanctification if you mean different things by them. The document was written as if there was some (though not total) agreement on them. Frame acknowledges that Bavink didn’t help matters, since at times he was ambiguous.
So, Clark and Van Til were not as far apart as they thought they were. They had real differences: significant differences. I agree with Van Til far more than I agree with Clark on this matter. But we must avoid straw men and magnify the differences. I can’t fathom anyone thinking Van Til falling prey to skeptism, yet Clark’s followers still repeat this charge. I see far more bitterness on the part of his advocates than Van Til’s (which makes sense since Van Til won the ecclesiastical battle). It is time to lay the false charges behind by seeking to understand them instead of putting your own interpretation on them and condemning them for something they don’t believe (yes, this transcends this discussion).