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Posts Tagged ‘Cornelius Van Til’


From the 20th century, Francis Schaeffer cast a long shadow that is still seen in the 21st. L’Abri and his disciples like Os Guinness, Jerram Barrs, and Nancy Pearcey continue his work. I enjoyed his book True Spirituality, but got bogged down in He is There and He Is Not Silent. I’ve been meaning to read some of his other books.

As a result, I decided to read Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality by William Edgar on my study leave. Reading a book in this series has been my practice for the last few years. As I consider our changing place in American culture, I thought this would be a helpful read. In some ways it was. In other ways it wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped.

The book was written by one of his disciples: William Edgar. Edgar was a college student seeking truth when he visited L’Abri and met with Schaeffer. Francis was instrumental in his conversion and growth as a Christian. He teaches apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

He begins the book with that personal reflection of his experience with Fran, as close friends like Edgar called him. This volume is not hagiography, however. He’s honest about Schaeffer’s shortcomings. He tries to present a balanced volume, and I believe he succeeds.

One of the flaws that Edgar mentions is his interaction with Cornelius Van Til, who was his professor for a time. Their apologetic method was very similar, but they seemed to dwell on their differences. In Edgar’s opinion they often talked past one another, as is often the case in such debate.

He then moves to Schaeffer’s life in two parts. The first is his early life, and life after the beginning of L’Abri. Little is known of his ancestors prior to his grandfather’s arrival in America in 1869, after the Franco-Prussian War. He apparently burned all of the family records.

His father only received a 3rd grade education. He apparently was a thoughtful man, as Fran would later reflect that working-class people could be deep intellectually. He worked hard, including time in the Navy. They attended a Lutheran church and believed the gospel. They would struggle financially even as they tried to leave behind the poverty of their parents. As a result, they only had one child (Francis). No books were in the house. The only vacations were trips to nearby Atlantic City.

In addition to this obstacles, Francis likely had dyslexia. Despite this he had a thirst for knowledge. He was driven by consistency. He wanted it to all fit together. He had an interest in Greek philosophers. He read the Bible through so he could reject it with integrity. Instead he became convinced that it was the most consistent way of looking at life that answered all the big questions.

At college he met Edith, who grew up in China because her parents served as missionaries with the China Inland Mission. This experience may have influenced L’Abri’s position as a “faith mission” (not sharing financial needs with others but simply praying for them). They both attended a meeting at First Presbyterian Church to hear a Unitarian attempt to refute Christianity. She responded to him citing J. Gresham Machen and Robert Dick Wilson from the new seminary down the street. This caught Francis’ ear and attention. He walked her home and requested she break off a date with another young man to go out with him. They were well suited for each other and complemented each other well.

Francis would end up at the new seminary, Westminster, as a student. There were two issues that the seminary left open: the millennium and Christian liberty. This would become a big issue in the also new Orthodox Presbytery Church in addition to the seminary. The last exam that Machen administered was to Francis, at his bedside.

Some in the community forming around Westminster and the OPC were historic premillennial and abstained from Christian liberties. They struggled with those who weren’t so inclined. It was not enough for them to separate from the Presbyterian Church in America (the liberal northern denomination that no longer exists and not to be confused with current PCA), and they separated from the OPC to found the Bible Presbyterian Church.

This was pertinent for his spiritual crisis. Schaeffer realized that he was not gracious and kind to those with whom he disagreed. He realized he was wrong. Hopefully most of us come to this understanding as we age in years and mature in Christ. That is counter-cultural in this age of outrage. It is one thing Edgar probably could have spend more time.

While the pastor of a church in St. Louis, God seemed to be calling Schaeffer to Europe. When he left St. Louis, his friend and one of my former professors Elmer Smick took over his responsibilities. At this time Schaeffer met Martyn Lloyd-Jones who similarly called evangelicals to leave the Church of England. He also met C. Everett Koop (who treated his daughter) and Hans Rookmaaker who would become life-long friends.

Image result for L'AbriSchaeffer talked much culture and was often critical. His views were not the conservatism of, say, D. James Kennedy, but those of the revolutionary. While they may have overlapped at points, Schaeffer wanted Christians to buck the trends and lived in a counter-cultural fashion. This was to exhibit the reality of Christianity.

His spiritual crisis in 1951-52 resulted in True Spirituality. It was about living in the reality of Christianity. We are really guilty, and Jesus has really made atonement for sin. Schaeffer stressed the authority of Scripture. “Wherever it touches upon anything, it does so with true truth, but jot with exhaustive truth …” He focused on propositional truth as conveyed by the Scriptures. The Bible spoke about how things really were.

A large part of his apologetic was to point out to people how their worldview didn’t match up with their lives, and often couldn’t. He looked for the inconsistency, the borrowed capital (as David Bahnsen calls it) of their view. He wanted to bring people to square with reality.

“All of us battle with the problems of reality … Reality is not meant to be only creedal, though creeds are important. Reality is to be experienced on the basis of a restored relationship with God through the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.”

This brings freedom to the Christian. We are free from the bonds of sin and the bonds of legalism to live free in Christ to live godly lives of faith and love as expressed in the Ten Commandments. That is because we’ve been delivered from the Law’s loud thunder. Still sinners, we have both died with Christ and die daily. Self-denial is a central reality in the Christian life.

As subversives we sometimes have cobelligerents: people with whom we agree on a particular issue but do not share the Christian faith and worldview. This seems to be his view of common grace. We both see the truthfulness of this issue and work together even though we don’t see all of life the same way.

Prayer was an important and ordinary part of life at L’Abri. Edgar draws heavily here from Edith’s writings. He often does this since her writings were more about the practical aspects of their lives while Francis was looking at the bigger pictures. This was one of the ways their writings complemented each others’. Prayer is one of the ways we show we believe in God- we rely on Him in prayer. The cross invites us to ask for His help.

In terms of guidance, Edith writes that they didn’t really have a long range plan for L’Abri. They responded to the challenges that came their way. As finite people, making grand plans we can’t actually accomplish didn’t seem to make sense to her. As I face the realities of pastoral ministry, this seems to be what happens no matter how much I want to plan long-range. Cavman plans and God laughs.

Edgar then moves us into the topic of affliction which will surely come upon Christians in various forms. He addresses how Schaeffer dealt with Albert Camus’ dilemma as expressed in the plague. Do you fight against God to seek a cure or against humanity by rejecting one? Schaeffer sees this as a false dilemma. God loves humanity and to fight for a cure would be to fight on God’s side. In Camus’ atheistic world, there is no way to evaluate good and evil, there is no standard of justice.

Schaeffer had a complex relationship with the Church. He loved the Church as Christ’s bride. But he was critical of the ways the evangelical church strayed from its calling. Many who spent time at L’Abri would struggle in church life as a result. Schaeffer would not point to external problems like modernism or liberalism as the Church’s biggest threat, but to trying to fulfill its calling the power of the flesh. The middle class evangelical church is also risk adverse. We don’t want to risk our middle class life and compromise as a result.

“Schaeffer taught the general principle of form within freedom, an freedom within form- especially in the church.” They were not antitheses but needed on another to be meaningful. Jesus has set us free and life finds form within this spiritual freedom. We have patterns that emerge. Within those forms we are able to enjoy a measure of freedom. As one who needs to know the boundaries but wants to play within them rather than be straitjacketed by them, I grasp this. Form is meant to be a guide, not stifling.

“Unlimited freedom will not work in a lost world; some structure and form are necessary.”

He then moves into engagement with the world. This is the application of a revolutionary Christianity to a fallen world. His expectations were not perfectionism- either in the Christian life nor in society. The historical (having taken place in space & time, not simply the belief of the Church) Christianity has historically changed the cultures in which it has taken root like yeast affects dough. It speaks to the issues of any day, calling society and individuals to forsake sin.

As I noted, this book stirred up an interest to read more of him. I saw ways that I had been greatly influenced by what I have read of his. Or picked up from professors who read him.

I tended to see this book as more like Schaeffers views on a variety of subjects than how to live as a Christian in this world. It seemed less than helpful in this regard. It seemed too philosophical at times. Perhaps it was just how Edgar structured the book, and the big themes he addressed. I was left without it making a big impression on me as other volumes in this series have. Interesting? Yes. Impactful? We’ll see.

“I have never met anyone anywhere like Francis Schaeffer, who took God so passionately seriously, people so passionately seriously, and truth so passionately seriously.” Os Guinness

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Some of my uncles growing up were in construction. Most of my brothers-in-law are in construction. So as I think about the 2nd part of Bavinck on the Christian Life, I think about a construction metaphor. If the first part was the foundation, the second would be the framing.

There were only two chapters in the second part. Recall that the foundations were creation in God’s image, the Law and union with Christ. The two chapters in this section are Imitating Christ and Worldview.

Bavinck understood the Christian life as one of imitating Christ. We need to see this in terms of God restoring His image in us, in accordance with the Law, through our union with Christ. I say this because may have seen the Christian life as imitating Christ, but meant something different.

Recall as well that this is intended to be an ordinary life, not viewed as radical. We partake of earthly goods, but they are not ultimate goods. We enjoy them as part of God’s good gifts, but they are temporal and temporary. As the song goes, hold on loosely.

Bavinck looked at the historical patterns of this theme. Bolt summarizes this for us. Bavinck identified dangers and wrong turns.

The early Church was a persecuted Church. This is because they claimed to be the only true religion, and Christ claimed their ultimate allegiance. Rome did not like that. With martyrdom a real possibility, it unfortunately became “regarded as a matter of glory and fame” (pp. 106). It became pathological, similar to what we see with radical Islam today.

Monastic separation created a divide between clergy and laity. Professional Christians tend to breed “incompetence and an unspiritual life-style.” He noted the rise of the Waldensians, and others, who simplified doctrine and emphasized holiness. Soon you also saw the rise of the “mendicant armies” who exalted poverty above all other virtues. Medieval mysticism came to see Jesus as model, not Mediator and Redeemer.

Any view of imitating Christ that neglects Him as Redeemer is sub-biblical and rejected by Bavinck. This brings us back to union with Christ as the primary element of imitation. He believed we were not to simply look and act like Jesus, but to be transformed inside.

Bolt then brings us to the Sermon on the Mount. Bavinck’s views shifted, with his latter view more nuanced. World War I lay between point A and B. It helped him see some problems with his understanding, and deepened his understanding. Bavinck understood it in its original context as to His disciples who would face persecution. We cannot simply woodenly apply it to our circumstances. The Sermon was about obeying the law of God in your circumstances. Our circumstances may be different, and therefore our obedience may look differently. They lacked power in culture, and were to let their light shine. “If the early church had tried to transform its world through cultural engagement, it “would have quickly drowned in the world’s maelstrom.” (pp. 115)” As Christianity loses power in the West, we need to recognize how we imitate Jesus will change. We will become more like the early church. We can’t focus on cultural engagement, but “simply” preach the Good News.

Bolt summarizes all this with “our following Jesus in lawful obedience is grounded and shaped by our union with the whole Christ. (pp. 117)” Therefore we focus on our obligations, not our rights. This is hard for sinful, self-absorbed people.

The chapter on worldview is more theoretical. Bolt covers specific aspects of the worldview in which we fulfill our vocations and imitate Christ in part 3 of the book. The concept of a Christian worldview appears to be first articulated by Kuyper in his Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton. Bavinck would also talk and write much about this topic. While the particulars were nearly identical, their methodology was different, as was their application. This lead to some conflict between the two men in later years. Kuyper was the more “dogmatic” of the two, and comes across as an autocratic leader. Bolt traces this history, and I won’t repeat it.

But one key area went back to regeneration. Kuyper viewed, at the risk of reductionism, regeneration creating two kinds of people with two kinds of science. Bavinck was more open to receiving the science done by unregenerate Christians. As image bearers, they could see something of the truth too. Kuyper was engaged in cultural conflict, Bavinck was more open to learning from non-Christians.

For Bavinck, a worldview broke down into thinking, being and doing. The relationship between these is important. For Bavinck,, being is first. As we become self-aware we think and do. Bolt notes that “worldview follows faith and union with Christ; it does not create faith and is no substitute for it. (pp. 125)” Worldviews are how we navigate our way through the world, other humans and God.

For the Christian, our worldview is about God revealing Himself to us, as well as revealing truth about ourselves and the world. God is faithful and good, revealing these things truthfully and reliably. While he acknowledges the distortions caused by sin, he doesn’t focus on them like Kuyper and Van Til.

“The essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God, and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.”

These frames, built on the foundation, will direct our understanding of the Christian life. We’ll get to that next time.

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In the 5th section of The Doctrine of the Christian Life, John Frame touches on the question of culture. This is an important question regarding the Christian life. No one lives it in a vacuum. We each live it in a particular culture, and that raises issues and questions. It is a big part of the circumstances making up the situational component of triperspectival ethics.

“So culture is not only what we grow, but also what we make, both with our hands and with our minds.”

He begins the section with a chapter on the question, what is culture? In terms of Scripture, this is a word not found there, but one that must be derived from good and necessary consequence. He starts with some basic facts about the origin of the word, and some definitions posited by others, like the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism. He then distinguishes between creation (what God has made) and culture (what we make with creation). This, of course, leads us back to the Creation Mandate. Adam and Eve (and their children) were to fill the earth, subdue the earth and rule the earth. They were to utilize it, not preserve it (or exploit it). As a result, culture for Frame is what we make of God’s creation.

“God creates the world, but he does not depend on the world at all. The world depends entirely on him. But in human life, there is a mutual dependence between ourselves and the world. The world depends on us to fill and rule it, but we depend on the world for our very existence.”

As made in God’s image, the various cultures we create and maintain reflect something of the goodness of God. But as sinners marred by the Fall, our cultures also reflect that descent and distortion of God’s glory. No one culture, this side of Eden, is either all good or all bad but a rather tar babyish mix of the two.

Into this, Frame develops a view of Common Grace. This is another word not found in Scripture, but a concept taught in Scripture. It is gracious because it is undeserved. It is common because it does not lead to salvation. It does maintain the stage for salvation, like what we see in the Noahic Covenant.

By common grace we mean that God restrains sin. He actively keeps people from being as bad as they could be. An example Frame provides is the Tower of Babel, scattering the nations so they won’t accomplish their evil intent. Satan is on a short leash, as we see in Job; and even shorter as we see in Revelation 20.

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Some books are written and read as labors of love. Some books are written and read as “necessary evils”. The author wishes they did not have to write the book, and you wish you didn’t have to read it. Sometimes their labor of love is your “necessary evil”.

The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis by Guy Prentiss Waters is probably one of those necessary evils. I’m sure he probably wishes he could have spent the time and energy writing on some other project. Because he loves Christ and his denomination (the PCA), he felt compelled to write this book.

Because I am now serving in the PCA, and love Christ and His Church, I felt it necessary to read this book that I might better understand the Federal Vision since it is present in the PCA. Since I appreciated his earlier book Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, I thought this would be a helpful book. It was. I just wasn’t happy that I had to read it, and at times found it difficult to wrap my head around what the Federal Vision actually is.

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In my second year of seminary, John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God became required reading in the first year. Oh, well. It has only taken me about 20 years to read the book.  I began to read it 2 years ago, I think, while I was home “watching” the kids while CavWife taught a group exercise class on Monday afternoons. Last year I spent that time studying and developing a curriculum for the Book of Revelation. Though I no longer watch the kids on Monday afternoons, I resumed reading the book this Fall as time permitted. It was worth the work.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (an interesting title) is the first in Frame’s A Theology of Lordship series, of which I have already read The Doctrine of God (Salvation Belongs to the Lord is a shorter version that is quite readable). The title of this book suggests the main concern of the book- how can we know God. This is a book about epistomology, the study of how we know. We often take this for granted and never think through it. Those presuppositions drive many of the debates and arguments we have with people. We often fall into bad argumentation (logical fallacies for instance).

“Our criteria, methods, and goals in knowing will depend on what we seek to know.”

Frame wants to examine our presuppositions, and argue for a presupposition understanding of how we know what we know and what we can know.  He starts with knowing God, as Calvin did in The Institutes of the Christian Religion. But he starts with God as Covenant Lord. As Covenant Lord, He made us to think and understand as receivers of revelation. As Covenant Lord, he determines what is revealed to us.

“We do not come to know God, or anything else, in a vacuum. … Still, one has to start somewhere; he cannot relate everything to everything else at once, for otherwise he would be God.”

He touches on subjects like transcendence (God as head of the covenant) and immanence (God’s nearness or involvement with creation), authority,  control and presence, knowability and incomprehensibility etc. He moves out of the theoretical at times to show how these tensions reveal themselves in theological debate, particularly the disagreement between Van Til and Clark. In other words, he examines many of the implications of the Creator-creature distinction.

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Some pastoral questions have brought the disagreement between Van Til and Gordon Clark to mind.  It isn’t so much the views of those men, but some problems I see emerging when reason is elevated above revelation.

This is one of the dangers of “Christian rationalism”.  The mind subtly usurps the authority of Scripture, or special revelation.  They wouldn’t admit to this (I think), but you see it when there is the denial of various doctrines because it does not make sense in light of other doctrines.  They have a hard time reasoning these apparently opposite doctrines that are found in Scripture.  Rather than submit their minds before Scripture, they make the Scriptures submit to their “rational” theology.

There are 2 doctrines in particular that have been problematic for many who espouse Clark’s views.  They affirm the doctrine of election or predestination.  This is the problem, so to speak.  They have a difficult time with both common grace and the free offer of the gospel.  These don’t doctrines don’t make “sense” in light of election, but our minds are not the measure of truth.  Our theology is not to settle for “reasonable” but to reflect revelation.

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Some time ago I had told a commenter that I planned on reading Van Til’s chapter in Introduction to Systematic Theology on the Incomprehensibility of God and blog on it.  I never seemed to find the time.

Since my computer was “resting” on Tuesday, I was flipping through my copy of the book.  Lo and behold, I have already read that chapter.  Silly me.   So here I go!

Van Til starts with the problem of knowing the “living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise…” as our Confession summarizes the Scriptures regarding God.  Such a God, according to Kantian epistemology is beyond our experience.  In their view, God is not just incomprehensible, but unknowable.  The theology of Van Til’s day often embraced such views.  God become unknowable, and faith became irrational.  It was no longer a faith seeking understanding since there is nothing we can understand about an absolute God.

Aquinas put forth the “way of negation” by which we know God negatively instead of positively.  We speak about what God is not rather than what He is.  His dependence on Aristotle means he embraces a non-Christian epistemology that descends into a similar irrationalism.

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