From Antithesis to Synthesis

A Neo-Calvinistic Theological Strategy in Herman Bavinck and Cornelius Van Til

in Journal of Reformed Theology
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Recent scholarship further substantiates the observation that Cornelius Van Til depends on Herman Bavinck for his own constructive efforts. This observation creates a stimulus for comparative studies on the two theologians. In this essay I offer one such comparison by tracing an antithesis-synthesis strategy present in both Bavinck and Van Til. Though they share a motivation from the doctrine of common grace, the two theologians apply the strategy in distinct (though related) ways: Bavinck applies it for theological construction in a manner symbiotic with his organic ontology, while Van Til develops it into a self-consciously transcendental mode of reasoning and apologetics. This observation gives us insights as to why both theologians have been received (and misinterpreted) in similar ways, and that Van Til, though deeply dependent and influenced by Bavinck, developed Bavinck’s synthetic tendencies in ways that Bavinck did not do.

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References

1

Laurence O’Donnell, “Neither ‘Copernican’ nor ‘Van Tillian’: Re-Reading Cornelius Van Til’s Reformed Apologetics in Light of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.” The Bavinck Review 2 (2011): 71–95.

9

Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 48.

10

Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 48. Cf. Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 40–44.

11

Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 51. See also, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., The Library of Christian Classics; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.14.2–3. Both Bavinck and Van Til, after all, drew from Calvin.

13

Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 58.

14

Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 50. The exegesis of 1 Cor. 2:14 here is identical with RD, 1: 78.

15

Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 50.

17

Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 58. Emphasis mine.

20

Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 41.

21

As reflected in Herman Bavinck, “Godgeleerdheid en godsdienstwetenschap” in De Vrije Kerk 18 (1892): 197–225 and his inaugural address at the Free University of Amsterdam, Godsdienst en godgeleerdheid (Wageningen: Vada, 1902). Cf. Michael Brautigam and James Eglinton, “Scientific Theology? Herman Bavinck and Adolf Schlatter on the Place of Theology in the University,” Journal of Reformed Theology 7 (2013): 27–50.

22

See the discussion in Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, pp. 67–69. Eglinton’s thesis demonstrates that Bavinck’s organic motif is the means by which he unifies several strands of his thought, consistently present throughout his oeuvre.

26

Bavinck, “The Pros and Cons,” 90.

27

Bavinck, “The Pros and Cons,” 93.

28

Bavinck, “The Pros and Cons,” 93.

29

See also Wolter Huttinga, “ ‘Marie Antoinette’ or Mystical Depth?: Herman Bavinck on Theology as Queen of the Sciences,” in Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution (eds. James Eglinton and George Harinck; London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 145–147, in which Huttinga observes that for Bavinck all of the sciences are theological.

30

Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 62.

33

Herman Bavinck, “Christianity and Natural Science,” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, trans. Harry Boonstra and Gerrit Sheeres, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2008), 97.

35

Bavinck, “Christianity and Natural Science,” 98.

36

Bavinck, “Christianity and Natural Science,” 99.

37

Bavinck, “Christianity and Natural Science,” 102.

39

Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 72. Emphasis mine. One could see this same application of the methodology in Bavinck’s treatment of innate Ideas. Cf. RD, 2: 68–72.

41

De Jong, “The Heart of the Academy,” 66–67.

43

De Jong, “The Heart of the Academy,” 67.

46

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 110–117, 176. See also Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 39–46.

47

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 394.

49

Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 262. Emphasis original.

51

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 45.

52

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 45, 46.

55

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 47.

60

Cf. Tipton, “Divine Incomprehensibility,” 303–304.

66

Cf. Anderson, “If Knowledge, then God,” 65–66.

67

Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 13. Man “must presuppose” God epistemologically and ethically, and man is “really presupposing God” metaphysically, because of his dependence upon God.

68

Don Collett, “Van Til and Transcendental Argument,” in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics. (ed. K. Scott Oliphint and Lane Tipton; Philipsburg; P&R Publishing, 2007), 270.

71

Cf. John Frame, “Divine Aseity and Apologetics,” in Reason and Revelation: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics (ed. K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton; Philipsburg; P&R Publishing, 2008), 115–130.

73

Collett, “Transcendental Argument,” 261.

74

Collett, “Transcendental Argument,” 261. One may argue that the argument remains deductive after all, as a deductive argument is that which determines the certainty of the conclusion. Either way, a formal and analytic rendering of Van Til’s transcendental argumentation is difficult because Van Til did not write in an analytic milieu.

75

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 122.

76

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 129.

78

Cf. Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 127–135.

80

Mattson, “Van Til on Bavinck,” 123. Emphasis original.

81

Mattson, “Van Til on Bavinck,” 123. Emphasis original. This is further substantiated when one considers that for Bavinck the first principles for every discipline is Scripture, even when he does affirm that each science possesses relatively independent starting points: “At every moment science and art come into contact with Scripture; the primary principles for all of life are given in Scripture. This truth may in no way be discounted.” Bavinck, RD, 1: 445. Emphasis mine.

89

Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 54.

90

Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 55.

91

Cf. Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 51–80.

92

Stoker, “Van Til’s Theory of Knowledge”, 53.

93

Stoker, “Van Til’s Theory of Knowledge” 54. On page 55 Stoker still admits the value of redefining philosophical categories from a Christian perspective: “Your predilection for using these terms (giving them genuinely biblical meanings) is probably a result of your intensive and extensive knowledge of the philosophy of the absolute idealists and of your conviction of the necessity to criticize them. Your use of the terms expresses accordingly a fundamentally reformative (i.e., genuinely biblical) criticism of this philosophy.”

94

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 11.

95

Cf. Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 1–24. The whole book, in part, was written as a response to these irreconcilable points of critique. The charge that Van Til was an absolute Idealist comes because of his usage of idealist terminology to convey orthodox Trinitarianism: “In fact, Van Til references no Absolute Idealist in the entire chapter on the Trinity! To assert that Van Til nevertheless owes his formulations to Idealist thought simply refuses to recognize the precedent Van Til in Hodge’s doctrine of perichoresis, and as a result fails to understand Van Til’s doctrine of the Trinity in light of the context which Van Til himself provides.” Tipton, “Perichoresis,” 304.

96

O’Donnell, “Neither ‘Copernican’ nor ‘Van Tillian,’ ” 94.

99

Mattson, “Van Til on Bavinck,” 123.

101

B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (Eugene: Pickwick, 2014), 59–148.

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