Frame's Book on Van Til

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Puritanboard Clerk
I want to clean this up before I put it in the review section. It is a very rough draft of Frame's book on Van Til. It is about 3 pages single-spaced and at present is more intended to be a running commentary on Frame's work than a review, but I plan to clean that up.

Review of John Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought

Goal and thesis of the book: To provide a much-needed critical analysis of the legacy of Cornelius Van Til (8).

The Metaphysics of Knowledge: God as Self-Contained Fullness

This is Frame’s favorite aspect of Van Til’s thought, and probably the best section in the book. This is another way of saying God’s aseity. God is sufficient in himself. From God’s self-containment, we may say that God’s unity implies his simplicity: “If there is only one God, then there is nothing “in” him that is independent of him” (55). How does God’s revelation play into this? Due to the richness of God’s nature, we could never know him left to ourselves. However, if God, a self-contained God—and a self-contained God who meets the standards of immanency and transcendence, reveals himself, then we have certain, sure knowledge of who this God is (transcendence) and how his revelation applies to concrete situations (immanence).

Absolute Personality
Non-Christian systems die on the altar of personality. Either they posit personal, but finite gods (Greek pantheon) or impersonal, infinite gods (Eastern religions). Only Christian theism posits a personal, absolute God. They do so because of the Trinity. To quote CVT, “the members of the trinity are exhaustively representational of one another” (qtd. Frame, 59). To end this section with a quote and call to action from Frame, “Impersonal facts and laws cannot be ultimate, precisely because they are not personal. They cannot account for rationality, for moral value, for the causal order of the universe, or for the universal applicability of logic” (60).

The Trinity
Ah, this is where the heresy charges come in! And given the renewed interest in Trinitarianism, this section can be very useful. Van Til begins by stating and affirming what the Church has taught on the Trinity. His position can be summarized in the following moves: Trinitarianism denies correlativism, the belief that God and creation are dependent on one another. God is three persons and one Person. Watch closely. He calls the whole Godhead “one person.” He is not saying that God is one in essence and three in essence. The main question is “the one being personal or impersonal?” (67). Van Til is calling the whole Godhood one “person” in order to avoid making the essence of God to be merely an abstraction. Frame argues, “If the three persons (individually and collectively) exhaust the divine essence (are “coterminous” with it), then the divine essence itself must be personal” (68). And if God is an absolute person (he is), and he is one (he is), then there must be a sense in which he is a person. Granting the Augustinian circumincessio, every act of God is a personal act involving all three persons acting in unity (68).

The Problem of the One and the Many
I think Rushdoony was more excited about this than Van Til (see Van Til’s response to Rush in Jerusalem and Athens). How do we find unity in the midst of plurality? Unbelief cannot answer this question. It always tends toward one or the other extreme. If abstract being is ultimate, then there are no particulars. If abstract particular is ultimate, then there is no truth. The Trinity is both personal one and many.

Soverignty of God and Analogous Reasoning

Van Til takes the standard, Dordtian view of election and reprobation. He twists it into his own language: equal ultimacy. He defends God against being the author of evil by saying God is the ultimate cause, not the proximate cause. Frame suggests that this doesn’t get God off the hook and Van Til would have been better to stick with the Jobian theodicy.
There has been much confusion on Van Til’s use of analogy. Aquinas used analogy between God and man in Neo-Platonic terms, suggesting a continuum of being between God and man. Van Til does not espouse Neo-Platonism. He should be interpreted that the language between God and man is different, but we should think God’s thoughts after him.

The Clark Controversy

I am not going to review this part. Suffice to say he makes Clark look good.


Contrary to popular opinion, Van Til does hold to general revelation. Given his view of God’s sovereignty, all things reveal God’s decree. (Man is receptively reconstructive of God’s revelation. It is his job to re-interpret previously God-interpreted facts.) In short, Van Til holds to the typical Kuyperian view of revelation. From this Van Til posits a three-fold division in God’s revelation: a revelation from God, from nature, and from self (120). This is perspectival, btw. As to Scripture, it is self-attesting and bears God’s full authority. As such, it must be inerrant.

A presupposition is not a belief that one must have before (temporally speaking) one comes to believe in other things; rather, it is a belief that is independent of some other knowledge and governs that knowledge to some extent.

CVT also distinguishes between proximate and ultimate presuppositions. Frame didn’t develop this section as thoroughly as he could have. One of my few faults with the book.

CVT does not disparage the use of evidence, many critics to the contrary. Rather, he denies the use of “brute facts.” Given the Trinity, all facts and laws are correlative. Brute facts are “uninterpreted facts” and therefore meaningless, the constituents of a universe of pure chance. This means we cannot separate facts from meaning. We cannot challenge the unbeliever on a particular fact if we do not challenge his philosophy of fact. Again, see RJ Rushdoony on facts and evidence (JBA).

Part 3: The Ethics of Knowledge

Frame argues that Van Til was right in stressing the antithesis but his language rendered his own view of it ambiguous. To state it clearly: The natural man in principle is opposed to the truth of God. Psychologically, however, he does not live that way (cf. Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, “The Psychology of Epistemology”).

Common Grace
CVT holds to a “well-meant offer of salvation to a generality of men, including elect and non-elect.”

I did enjoy Frame’s interaction with Gary North’s critique of Van Til on this point, mainly for Frame’s humor. North’s position: God gives ethical rebels enough rope to hang themselves for all eternity. “North accuses CVT of an implicit contradiction: as an amillennialist, he believes that the wicked will be victorious over the course in history, but how can they be victorious if the gifts of common grace are gradually withdrawn” (229). If I {JBA} can restate it another way: when the covenant-breaker becomes epistemologically self-conscious, he will not progress in knowledge and culture.

Frame notes that much of North’s analysis is helpful but critiques him on the ambiguities of the word “favors.”

Conclusion: overall quite good section of the book. Would have done better to show the tension between adhering to a Van Tillian epistemology but seeking a neutral, natural law ethic.

The Argument for Christianity

Spiral Argument

CVT points out that a true, biblically-faithful argument will be circular in nature. The starting point, the method, and the conclusion are involved in one another. CVT will point out that if the object under discussion were just another fact, then the charge and objection of circularity would have more warrant. But the object under discussion is not merely another fact, but the God of the universe! If I {JBA} may state it another way: when you are seeking to establish your highest authority, you will reason and prove it by your highest authority. If you validate your highest authority (A) by something other than your highest authority (B), then A is no longer your highest authority, but now B is.

Reasoning by Presupposition

Frame now analyzes the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG). CVT claimed that unless you presuppose the God of the Bible, you cannot know anything. Frame modifies this bold claim by pointing out that what CVT actually gave us in his formulation is a conclusion and a practical strategy.

Other Thinkers

Frame then analyzes CVT on Scholasticism, Kant, Barth, and Dooyeweerd. He then proceeds to evaluate the current Van Tillian school of thought. The most consistent (and vocal) followers of CVT are the theonomists. If CVT destroyed neutrality (which he did) then the question, now applied to civil law, is if not pluralism, then what law? They answer God’s law. There are other Van Tillian thinkers: Edgar, Poythress, Knudsen, and even Schaeffer.

This book is a joy to read over and over again. It differs with Greg Bahnsen’s magnum opus in that it deals with Van Til the theologian whereas Bahnsen dealt with Van Til the apologist. The two books complement one another. Another less known, but equally potent Van Til summar is R.J. Rushdoony’s By What Standard: An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til.
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