Common Grace and the Gospel, Cornelius Van Til (foreward and edited by K. Scott Oliphint). Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015 (2nd edition).
Summary: A collection of essays by presuppositional theologian Van Til with introduction and annotations by K. Scott Oliphint, articulating Van Til’s understanding of a Reformed doctrine of common grace, engaging views of others in this tradition that differ from his own.
Cornelius Van Til represents a stream within the Reformed theological tradition known as presuppositionalism. At the risk of oversimplifying, this stream contends that it is impossible to argue from human reason to the existence of the Triune God and the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation. Van Til would contend rather that it is by these realities, revealed by the witness of the Spirit alone to the elect, that it is possible to understand everything else about God, about human beings made in God’s image, God’s work in the world and through Christ, and the destiny of both the saved and the lost.
Common grace is often advanced as a counter to these ideas, that there are things that may be known of God common to the experience of all human beings. In part, the appeal of this is a response to the Reformed idea that God saves some, and not others, simply by his sovereign will, apart from human choice. It allows that humans may contribute something to their salvation, or alternately their damnation on the basis of this knowledge–an idea held in various ways in both Wesleyan and Roman Catholic circles.
In this collection of essays, recently re-issued with a quite helpful introduction to the thought of Van Til by editor K. Scott Oliphint, a student of Van Til, we have a chance to see the arguments against this idea, consistent with Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Van Til would argue, as I understand him, that common grace is simply God’s love for all human kind made in his image before the fall. After the fall, this “knowledge of God” is something fallen human beings suppress as they assert their own autonomy. The assertion of autonomy fundamentally shapes how we know, or epistemology such that we can know neither God, nor his world or purposes, apart from the sovereign grace extended to the elect in salvation. Van Til would go so far as to say that even in supposedly “neutral” fields of science, for example, the different ways of knowing of autonomous man versus the elect rule out a “common ground” around common grace.
In these essays, it is interesting that while he clearly sees his own position as consistent with the Reformed tradition over and against the Wesleyan (Arminian) or Catholic positions, his criticism is actually most pointed toward others in the Reformed tradition from Kuyper to Barth to Bavinck to Hoeksema. A common criticism is that while they affirm Reformed orthodoxy, they open the door to rationalism in their view of common grace and undermine the sovereign grace of the gospel.
Reading all this has a bit of a feeling of listening to arguments from another time, although I am well aware of those in the Reformed tradition who continue to be vociferous in their advocacy. Yet there are several things I appreciate in Van Til. One is an unwillingness to try to rationalize some of the very concrete language of scripture around these things in ways that minimize logical conflict. Another is a sensitivity to how both Greek and Enlightenment thought often creep into theological formulations. Furthermore, as this bears on the work of the apologist, I, like Van Til, have found that rational proofs for God largely confirmatory for Christians but unhelpful, apart from the witness of the Spirit in engaging those who do not believe. The question of what might be called “incommensurable epistemologies” seems more challenging. In many discussions, it does seem like there is a certain amount of common ground, as well as incommensurable aspects. How, theologically, do we account for both?
This is a collection of essays, which means that there is overlap (probably helpful in understanding Van Til) as well as engagements with particular thinkers, many who may be unfamiliar to the reader, although Oliphint’s annotations help. The most engaging for me was Chapter 6, “A Letter on Common Grace” in which Van Til lays out his ideas of common grace while engaging his critics.
For those who are not sympathetic to the Reformed tradition, it is easy to dismiss a thinker like Van Til. But his influence extends to the present through theologians like John Frame, and the late Francis Schaeffer as well as in the work of many in Reformed seminaries across the country. It is a perspective that would inform the thinking of many in The Gospel Coalition. Reading Van Til reminds me of the continuing challenge of thinking clearly and living consistently with “the faith once delivered” and yet living with grace and compassion toward all. I know little of his personal life and ministry but I miss the latter in this example of Van Til’s writing. Conviction and compassion are hard to hold together, yet those who follow the Christ who came full of grace and truth (John 1:14) are called to no less.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Editor’s Note: Thank-you to Bob Trube for sharing his reviews with Emerging Scholars! Bob first posted the above review on Bob on Books. In the comments in the original post, attention was given to Greg L. Bahnsen (one of “Van Til’s students who went on to become skilled defenders of presuppositional apologetics”), John Frame and E. R. Geehan’s “Jerusalem & Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til” (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971). As some of you know, there is a strong influence of presuppositionalism in my thought, going back to my religion classes at Grove City College. More on that another day. . . . ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network