The Will in Its Theological Relations by Cornelius Van Til

4 Aug
The Will in Its Theological Relations.”
Three bound notebooks, handwritten, 78, 95, 57 pp. [Van Til Papers, WTS Archives]
A paper written at Princeton Theological Seminary and presented to C. W. Hodge, Jr., for which Van Til was awarded the Gelston-Winthrop Fellowship in Systematic Theology.
“Hence we seek not to subject any part of Scripture to the principium generale, nor subject any part of scripture revelation to any other part, for that amounts to the same thing as again subjecting it to our own judgment. We found . . . that the Reformed covenant theology remained nearest to this Biblical position. Other theories of the will go off on either of two byways, namely that of seeking an unwarranted independence for man, or otherwise of subjecting man to philosophical necessitarianism. Reformed theology attempts to steer clear of both these dangers; avoiding all forms of Pelagianizing and of Pantheizing thought. It thinks to have found in the covenant relation of God with creation .”
Download the complete PDF here:
The following selection is from this work by Dr. Van Til:

Biblical Theism

Thus we have reached the point in our discussion where we have to part ways with all exclusively philosophical methods of settling the question of the will. We have found that no metaphysics is available that can serve as a foundation for an adequate view, or rather that itself expresses an adequate view. At the last we even reached the conclusion that we shall have to choose definitely between the alternative of building on natural reason and, if we be logical, turn to despair, or admit that we must get down from our pedestals as judges and let God pronounce judgment upon us. This sounds like moral terminology but it has equal force epistemologically and metaphysically. Hence we must choose. We may feign to let the various theories of epistemology pass before us and judge them upon their merits, but in actuality we cannot do so. If we speak of our reason as the impartial bar of judgment we have already taken sides. We have then chosen ourselves as an absolute and final standard. Equally, on the other hand, if we chose to accept special revelation we have used our reason. It has declared itself bankrupt. But it is exactly here that the difference between the two roads becomes clear because he who accepts the fact of sin at the core of his being, posits a force entirely independent to himself to be moving him. We may for the time being call this only an external force, which we shall later find to be the Holy Spirit, because for the time being we are concerned only with the absolute necessity of choice between two principia, this term being taken in a pregnant sense. Either we ourselves shall ultimately determine what is our nature, the nature of God, or we shall accept the opposite principle that God must determine. Since it is for us impossible to take the stand on our own human consciousness because that can at best lead to illusion, we must choose the other. Not as though because we now see the logical untenability of the philosophical position do we finally take the choice. That would be in the nature of the case impossible. That would again be lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps, and our attempt to do so would be the denial of the necessity of a higher power, and we would still be on our old standpoint. Hence it follows that if God is to determine the relation between himself and us, he must be the originator in drawing us out of our own position.

Before we can even begin to work out the question of the will in its theological relations in the more technical meaning of that phrase the problem is thus, as it were, thrust upon us unawares, who is to decide. Either we must decide that we shall determine or that God shall determine. If we determine to decide for ourselves we have already by implication taken a stand on the relation between God and man. We have then refuse to accept two things. First, we have decided that sin is not of such a nature as to render us incompetent as judges. Secondly, we have refused to accept the position that the infinite must determine the finite. By virtue of the first we have refused the actuality and necessity of divine working upon us in the moral sphere and have thus asserted moral independence whether or not we actually possess it. By virtue of the second we have asserted metaphysical independence as well. If on the other hand we decide to let God determine our relation to him, that decision must be ex hypothesi already the result of God’s work in us, otherwise we were the originators of divine act. But that God shall decide what is the relation between Him and us means that he shall decide for both the moral and the metaphysical sphere. For we, when we decided to let God determine, recognized that we ourselves through sin were totally unable to come to an adequate conception of our moral relation to him. But if God determines the moral relationship it means that he is absolute, that he is infinite, and the only standard of all existence and thus also the only determiner of our metaphysical relation to him. This implies that the moral is based upon the metaphysical though our argument does not proceed that way, for that question must be considered upon its own merits and cannot here be taken for granted. Here we would argue that once having accepted the fact of sin we cannot assume a halfway position and determine further for ourselves what our metaphysical relation to him shall be. And all this then means total dependence in the metaphysical and moral spheres upon God. As soon as we fairly begin to consider the question of our relation to God at all we have already decided it in its fundamental aspect.

Since we know that we have been taken by the Spirit of God from out of the mire of our own judgment we take the stand upon revelation alone, fully conscious of the fact that in so doing we have given up the claim to any moral or metaphysical independence. We have justified our position on the basis of philosophy as far as it can be justified. Our apologetic has been negative, and as far as it has been negative, if not misrepresented, it must also be coercive for those that assume a different position form ours. We do not contend that the positive argument must therefore also be convincing. That would be a contradiction of our own position. If you have lost a child and I have found one, it does not therefore mean that the child I have found is your child. With this illustration Dr. A Kuyper makes the position clear which we, following him, have presented. It is exactly our position that the absolute alone can furnish the positive apologetic. He must draw us out of darkness to his marvelous light. For even if we should agree that reason needs a corrective, what guarantee is there that Scripture furnishes the same and that it is not a mere result of imagination?

The παλιγγενεσια splits mankind in two and consequently also the consciousness of mankind. Not at all as though the powers and the faculties of the soul were changed, as though the one could now think more logically than the other, as though creation were changed by recreation. “Het terrein der palingenesie is geen nieuw geschapen erf maar vrucht van herschepping, zoodat het natuurlijk leven er in gesubsumeerd is, en dus ook het natuurlijke bewustzijn, d. w. z. die krachten eigen schappen en bestaansregelen, waaraan het menschlijk bewustzijn, uit zijn natuur, krachtens de schepping onderworpen is. 39 The antithesis is therefore not physical as has often been held by mystics of every description. On the contrary, regeneration builds on the only sound psychological basis, namely that of faith. Faith is here taken not as saving faith but as the general formal action of our consciousness that precedes and makes possible all science. Faith and science are therefore no opposites; logic never gives certainty. There must be faith at the basis of logic. Faith is the basis of all perception; the subject must have faith in the reality of the objects of perception; faith is the only link between phenomenon and noumenon. So also with our further mental activity. We must accept axioms by faith or we cannot even begin to reason. 40 What is more, we must have faith in the reality of self-consciousness. If it should be objected that the entire constitutive activity of the mind is accounted for on the stream of consciousness theory of the soul which sees in the last thought a synthetic “psychic integer” which as a full-grown son springs from the forehead of his father, the previous thought, proudly bearing the title deed, it is replied with John Stuart Mill that we are then placed before a paradox. We must either believe that the self-consciousness is distinct from the phenomena, or consciousness, or we have to accept the paradox that a series of perceptions can be conscious of itself as a series. 41 Thus we believe that in self-consciousness we are dealing with a noumenon, with a reality immovable previous to all ratiocination. In self-consciousness, then, our own existence is revealed to us, an act of God, and we accept it by faith, an act of God. This fundamental fact of self-consciousness as revealed to us again in turn implies our faith in reality beyond ourselves. In spite of the Criticism and even because of it we build the firmer on the faith given in consciousness that the Ding an sich operates upon our spiritual apperception within us, in a mysterious fashion beneath the threshold of consciousness. 42 Thus by the very power of faith which is presupposed as a basis of all knowledge we are again driven to the conception of an infinite self-revealing God, and absolutely dependent, finite creatures.

Moreover, since the antithesis is not physical there may be territories in the field of science in which the unregenerate and the regenerate can cooperate, as e.g. in the collection of sense material, in the somatic aspects of the psychological science, and thirdly, in formal logic for the laws of reason were not abrogated by sin. But when it comes to an interpretation of facts there must be a parting of the ways, for then he that has fixed his foot on the basis of the παλιγγενεσια is guided by supernatural revelation because he recognizes that he himself has no light. He still has the machinery of perception and thought, but God must originate and guide its motion.

It would seem that an apologetic for Theism as has been presented is the only thorough and tenable one. Any apologetic for Theism that would base its claim to acceptance upon the positive coercive power of its arguments even for the unregenerated consciousness is foredoomed to failure, defeats its own purpose, and denies its principle. It is foredoomed to failure because it presupposes receptability in the unregenerate consciousness which only a Divine act can give. It defeats its own purpose of bringing others to its viewpoint; rather the drowning man is dragging him down. It denies its own principle which is that of the principium speciale, the nature of which is that it cannot be subjected to the judgment of the principium generale. Only when Biblical Theism builds firmly and exclusively upon this principium speciale can it expect to give a reasoned account of its faith and build up a metaphysic and system of theology that will do justice to both infinite and finite, and serve as a satisfactory solution for the problem of the will.

It is not necessary to exhaust every ounce of logic to show that the theistic arguments should be convincing for every unprejudiced mind. It seems that this is Professor Robert Flint’s mistake in his great work on Theism. He forgets that every man is prejudiced. Dr. Bavinck gives these theistic arguments an entirely different treatment. Take e.g. the argument from causality. Professor Flint thinks that it must necessarily lead us back to the idea of a personal absolute cause of the world, because we cannot rest in an infinite regress. “Reason, if honest and consistence cannot in its pursuit of causes stop short of the rational will. That alone answers to and satisfies its idea of causes.” In spite of such an assertion Dr. Bavinck maintains that all we can establish from the idea of cause is that the world needs a cause. “Wie uit de wereld tot eene oorzaak besluit, welke zelve ook eene oorzaak behoeft, heeft aan de logische kracht van dit bewijs genoeg gedaan. 43 A finite effect can lead to a finite cause and we may regress ad infinitum into a vicious infinite, but who gives us the right to span the gulf between the finite and the infinite, and then to a personal God? Our idea of causation is not satisfied with less, says Professor Flint, but is this not perhaps already due to our theistic consciousness? To be sure, we cannot rest in a vicious infinite; some absolute is presupposed and only on its presupposition can the cosmological proof lead us to an absolute cause. But whether this cause is transcendent as well as immanent, personal as well as impersonal, conscious or unconscious, cannot be determined by the argument.

The only tenable position accordingly is, as we have found, to take our Archimedian που στω in the Action of the Spirit on the heart of man whereby he is brought into a new and living contact with truth. So also Dr. Charles Hodge, though often appealing to the common consciousness of man in presenting the reasonableness of faith in Christianity, maintains that in the last analysis the truth of God is the basis of all knowledge. “That our senses do no deceive us, that consciousness is trustworthy in what it teaches, that anything is what it appears to us to be, that our existence is not a delusive dream, has no other foundation than the truth of God. In this sense all knowledge is grounded on faith, i.e. the belief that God is true.” 44

Building upon the results worked out by these men, Dr. Valentine Hepp has elaborated his work on the Holy Spirit. The Testimonium Spiritus Sancti generale, which he distinguishes from the speciale, is to him the last ground of trustworthiness of our human nature. “Het testimonium generale is die onmiddelijke en onwederstandelijke werking van den Heilgien Geist waarin Hij tot en in den mensch getuigenis geeft aan de waarheid in haar eentrum en daardoor in ieder mensch een onomstootelijke zekerheid doet geboren worden. Of philosophisch gesproken: het testimonium generale is de laatste zekerheidsgrond onzer kennis. 45 We are dependent for knowledge of self and God upon the Holy Spirit not only in the soteriological sphere but also in the natural. In conjunction with this, Dr. Hepp intimates that the knowledge of the truth of the content of Scripture is based on the testimonium speciale of the Spirit and this special testimony works on the basis laid by the testimonium generale. This is the logical consequence of the view of Reformed theology that creation is not abrogated by regeneration or recreation but is subsumed under it, or rather that regeneration builds upon the basis of creation.

Now we have stated and justified from a philosophical viewpoint the metaphysic and epistemology upon which alone, it would seem, an adequate conception of the relation between God and man or more specifically of the will is possible. The position has been called transcendental Realism and we believe it to be “theism come to its own.” To give a more explicit statement of this position, with direct reference to the problem in its more technical significance, to justify it as the only one true to the very concept of Theism and Revelation, and to trace how the history of Christian thought has wrestled through the ages to come to a clear statement of Biblical truth upon the question in hand remains for the remainder of this essay.


Notebook 2: Christian Theology Of The Will



Fundamentally anyone that has placed himself or who has been placed upon the basis of the principium speciale as before defined, will try to do justice to all the elements in revelation. He makes God’s revelation the standard and adjusts his concept of liberty accordingly. On the other hand anyone standing on the basis of the principium generale will in the ultimate sense make himself the standard, will not without reservation submit himself to revelation and thus either come to determinism, whether it be pantheistic, materialistic or rationalistic, or to libertarianism according as his views of psychology, epistemology and metaphysics may vary. All the forms of liberty that we have discussed so far were of that nature. But there is a large class of those who profess to recognize the authority and ultimacy of the special revelation, but that have not fully grasped the absolute nature of the antithesis between the two principia and who thus also want to maintain the authority of the principium generale. Dr. E. Beecher in his Conflict of Ages presents an admirable example of such a position. He recognizes the authority of Scripture, but alongside of them maintains as an equal standard the universal principles of justice etc., inherent in the common consciousness of man. We do not contend that there are no such principles, but only that it is unscientific thus to combine two principles without giving ample justification for doing so. He has indeed appealed to the authority of previous scholars but has not asked himself what exactly men like Charles Hodge etc. mean by these general principles. Anyone making these general principles of the consciousness of man a court of appeal cannot justly do so till he has subjected the present state of consciousness to a searching scrutiny and established its foundation capacity. This search he cannot carry on except by using Scripture as a standard and this already implies that these principles must at any rate be subordinate to Scripture. Then he will have to ascertain the epistemological influence of sin, and how far common grace has made it possible for us to base argumentation on this sin-affected foundation.

There is here a very subtle enemy that seeks to entrench itself within the theistic camp. Failure to distinguish clearly at this point and establish the exact bearing power of the common consciousness of man almost always tends to fraternization with the principium generale. Surreptitiously a new head arises from the serpent of rationalism, and there results confusion worse confounded. If this is not the case it is a happy inconsistency. The views of God and man and of their relations to one another, i.e. the views of the will, vary as they consistently or inconsistently keep out this rationalistic motif.

Even the very order in which the various loci of systematic theology are to be treated is controlled by the extent that this absolute character of the distinction between the two principia is recognized. Luther, for example, though claiming to base himself firmly on the Word, yet took anthropology as the starting point of his system and could therefore never do full justice to the theistic concept. It was inevitable that this false starting point of Luther would later wreak itself in the further development of the Lutheran system.

When we aim to place ourselves firmly on the principium speciale, our investigation will have to be entirely inductive. We shall have to trace the argument from all angles and then follow that argument whithersoever it may lead us. If we should come to find an absolute determinism taught in the Scriptures we would have to submit, or if we should find libertarianism or anything else taught we shall have to submit. Even if our own logic should have to recognize and openly declare its own bankruptcy to comprehend all the threads of revelation, we shall have to trust to a logic that is higher than ours. And this is then the logical thing to do for logic, because if it did not do this it would be placing itself back upon the principium generale. If we shall find that there are two parallel lines leading us on to eternity which do not meet on this side of the grave, we shall have to believe that they meet beyond. Scrupulously even, will we have to be on guard then, against subjecting one line of revelation to the other.

But you say that our search can no longer be purely inductive. Previously it has been stated that before we can fairly state the problem we have already taken position. This is true. Our position on the basis of the principium speciale demands that we make God the standard and we can never come to a strictly libertarian point of view. But our very position is given us by revelation, a revelation of the nature of ourselves which the Holy Spirit gives us by the very act of regeneration. Whether the Holy Spirit does this in conjunction with or in independence of the Scriptures may for the time being be left out of consideration. So much is clear that we could never have assumed our position upon the basis of the principium speciale or at least we could not work consciously upon that basis if we had no revelation of God about ourselves. This contention is not detrimental to the idea that the work of the Spirit within the individual is no objective revelation; it is the application of objective revelation and is thus a subjective revelation based upon the objective.

Moreover, our position so far has been entirely general. In the nature of the case we must begin with our own consciousness and because we have passed through the experience of sin and regeneration we must turn to post-redemptive special revelation and see what God there reveals of himself and his relation to man even before the entrance of sin and also after it.

Then we shall further impartially have to ascertain whether the relation of our will to God, in the condition that we are now, is to be taken as the normal standard that God adopts for man or whether we have perhaps in Adam the true test case of the concept of the will, or whether there is a more general concept of the will underlying both and inherent in the nature of man of which both Adam’s and ours are modifications. Now we believe with John L. Girardeau (The Will In its Theological Relations) that in Adam before the fall we deal with the original and real relation of God to man. The present condition after the entrance of sin is, to be sure, abnormal. Extreme Pelagianism even admits that Adam’s example has a rather seducing influence and we are fortunate if the whirlpool does not drag us down. And if we conceive of Adam’s posterity as it would be in case Adam had not fallen, their wills would not have been the same as Adam’s; they would have been confirmed by grace. We have our choice then between viewing Adam’s case as abnormal and not having any relation to ours, or viewing him as the only pure test case. We shall find our relation to God to be entirely independent of Adam because his was an abnormal case, or we shall find our relation to God exactly focused in Adam.

It will be our first task then, since we cannot accept the Pelagian position that we have no essential relation to Adam, to ascertain exactly what Adam’s relation was to God.

Our method in doing this will be to apply the several conceptions of the will that have been held through the history of the Church whether with direct reference to Adam or to man in general, and see whether they fit Adam’s case. Which of these conceptions moreover, if any, corresponds with the revelation of God concerning his own nature, attributes, and decrees, for that is our ultimate standard.

39 Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid (Amsterdam, 1894), 2:541.

40 Anne Anema Calvinisme en Rechtwetenschap,Amsterdam: Kirchner, 1897, 32.

41 Herman Bavinck, Wijsbegeerte der Openbaring, 1909, 51.

42 Jan Woltjer, Ideèel en Reèel,Amsterdam: Wormser, 1896, 34.

43 Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 2:61.

44 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:437.

45 Valentine Hepp, Testimonium Spiritus Sancti, 1914, 245.


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