The Reformed Doctrine Of Scripture
The following is the unedited unabridged Chapter One of “The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture”
by Cornelius Van Til
Recently, a large number of “statements” and discussions on the doctrine of Scripture written both from the “conservative” and from the “liberal” view have appeared. It is not the purpose of this pamphlet to deal with these. Its purpose is rather to deal with some quite striking differences between representative “evangelical” and Reformed Christians on their view of the necessity, the authority, the clarity, and the sufficiency of God’s revelation in Scripture as they, from the Scriptures, seek to present the message of saving grace to men.
It is the Christ who speaks to us in Scripture. In it he tells us who he is and what we are. He tells us that he has come to save us from our sins. For that purpose the Father sent him into the world. In order to bring that work to completion in individual men the Holy Spirit takes the things of Christ and gives them unto us (Cf. Jn 16:14–15).
In saving us from sin, Christ saves us unto his service. Through the salvation that is ours in Christ by the Spirit, we take up anew the cultural mandate that was given man at the outset of history. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we want now to do all to the glory of God. Moreover, we want our fellow men with us to do all things to the glory of God. We are bound, as we are eager, to inform them of that which we have been told, namely, that we shall continue to abide under the wrath of God and eventually be cast out into utter darkness unless, by God’s grace, we seek to do all things to the glory of God. Calling upon all men everywhere to join with us in fulfilling the original cultural mandate given to mankind—which we may now undertake because of the redeeming work of Christ—is our joy each day.
The cultural mandate is to be fulfilled in our handling of the facts or events of our environment. Men must subdue, to the service of Christ, the earth and all that is therein. As the Christian constantly does so, he is constantly conscious of the fact that he is working on God’s estate. He is not himself the owner of anything, least of all of himself. He is the bondservant of God through Christ. Therein lies his freedom. Those who still think of themselves as owners of themselves and think of the world as a grab-bag cannot properly evaluate the situation as it really is. Unbeknown to them, they too are working on God’s estate. As they construct their temples to themselves God looks down from heaven and watches them; he yet cares for them. He has infinite patience with them. Will they not finally understand that neither they nor the world belongs to them? Will they not repent? Can they not observe the fact that the wisdom of this world is but foolishness in the sight of God? Has not the whole of the history of human philosophy shown that if the “facts” of the world were not created and controlled by the redemptive providence of God, they would be utterly discrete and therefore undiscoverable? Has not the whole history of philosophy also shown that when man regards his logical powers as positively legislative for Reality, he winds himself into a knot of contradiction? Has not the history of thought displayed the fact that if man takes the laws of logic as negatively legislative with respect to the facts with which they deal, then his logic and his reality stand over against one another in an absolute contrast, or else, when they do come into contact, they immediately destroy one another?
In other words, it is the Christian’s task to point out to the scientist that science needs to stand on Christ and his redeeming work if it is not to fall to pieces. Without Christ he has no foundation on which to stand while he makes his contradictions. A scientific method not based on the presupposition of the truth of the Christian story is like an effort to string an infinite number of beads, no two of which have holes in them, by means of a string of infinite length, neither end of which can be found.
How awesome then the responsibility of the Christian. He must proclaim the Christ as the only name given under heaven by which man, the whole man, by which mankind, with its cultural task, must be saved from sin unto God. What a joy to tell the scientist and the philosopher that they may labor for eternity if only they will labor for the Christ. But when the Christian does thus witness to the promise of great joy that is in the Christ who saves the whole man with the whole of his culture, then inevitably what is a “promise” to some becomes a “curse” to others. Paul says:
“Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: to the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life” (2 Cor 2:14–16).
Even as some accept, so also others reject the word of God’s grace. To them the Word becomes a savour of death. Then they, with their culture, are lost. The work of their hands, their science, their art, their philosophy, their theology, in short their culture, will ultimately profit, not themselves, but those who have obeyed the word of grace in Christ. To be sure none of the cultural efforts of any man will be lost, for all things are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. But there are men who will lose their cultural efforts. They will lose the fruit of their labors because they have refused to labor unto Christ. They will reap the reward of Baal who sought to curse Israel and, most of all, Israel’s God. They will seek in vain, to die the death of the righteous.
It is therefore the same God who reveals himself both in nature and in Scripture. It is this God and only he who is “infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection, all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” It is, to be sure, from Scripture rather than from nature that this description of God is drawn. Yet it is this same God, to the extent that he is revealed at all, that is revealed in nature.
Contemplation of this fact seems at once to plunge us into great difficulty. Are we not told that nature reveals nothing of the grace of God? Does not the Westminster Confession insist that men cannot be saved except through the knowledge of God, “be they ever so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature; and the law of that religion they do profess”? Saving grace is not manifest in nature; yet it is the God of saving grace who manifests himself by means of nature. How can these two be harmonized?
The answer to this problem must be found in the fact that God is “eternal, incomprehensible, most free, most absolute.” Any revelation that God gives of himself is therefore absolutely voluntary. Precisely here lies the union of the various forms of God’s revelation with one another. God’s revelation in nature, together with God’s revelation in Scripture, form God’s one grand scheme of covenant-revelation of himself to man. 1
1. The Necessity Of Natural Revelation
To bring out the interrelatedness of God’s revelation in Scripture with his revelation in nature, we speak first of the necessity of natural revelation. It is customary to speak of the necessity of supernatural revelation because of the fact that there is no revelation of grace in nature. However, it is equally true that the revelation of grace would operate in a vacuum if it did not operate in nature as revealing God. The supernatural can never be recognized for what it is unless the natural is recognized for what it is: both must be recognized in the light of God’s supernatural revelation. Everything that man does with respect to nature, he does either as keeping or as breaking the covenant of grace that God has made with man. Thus the scientist in the laboratory and the philosopher in his study are both dealing with their materials either as a covenant-keeper or as a covenant-breaker. All of man’s acts, all of man’s questionings, all of man’s affirmations, indeed all of his denials in any dimension of his interests, are covenantally conditioned.
2. The Authority Of Natural Revelation
Naturally, if all of man’s acts with respect to nature, as well as with respect to Scripture, are covenantally conditioned, this is because everywhere Christ speaks to him, and speaks always with absolute authority. The scientist, may or may not recognize this fact. If he is not a Christian, he will argue that any such thing as Christ having authority an absolute authority—with respect to his scientific procedure, is utterly destructive of the very idea of science. The idea of science, he will argue, presupposes freedom on the part of the scientist to make any hypothesis that he thinks may fit the facts. Any such absolute authority also excludes, he will continue, the idea that the words of Christ may and must be tested by facts and the order of facts, i.e., by natural laws already known to man from his earlier experience and experimentation. Suppose, he may say, that I had to work under the absolute restriction of the idea of an all-controlling redemptive providence of God such as the Bible teaches. That would be against the idea of an absolutely open universe. My hypothesis would then have to be of such a nature as to be in accordance with, and even subordinate to, the idea of this all-controlling Providence. This would exclude all newness in science. All would be already fixed. On the other hand, the idea of an all over-arching and redemptive providence would require me to allow that God could arbitrarily come into the “unity” of nature which science has discovered through many toiling efforts, and destroy this “unity” with miraculous insertions. We would then have to allow for the arbitrary createdness of every fact with which we deal. We would have to interpret the idea of scientific “law” as being subservient to that of the biblical account of sin and of redemption controlled by the fiat of the sovereign God. This cannot be, and we will not have it!
Put in other words, the methodology of science which is not definitely based upon the redemptive story of the Bible is based upon the assumption that on the one hand the universe must be wholly open and on the other hand that it must be wholly closed. In expressing this idea, Morris Cohen says that science needs both the idea of the open and the idea of the closed universe, but it needs these not as constitutive but as limiting concepts of one another 2
If man does not own the authority of Christ in the field of science, he assumes his own ultimate authority as back of his effort. The argument between the covenant-keeper and the covenant-breaker is never exclusively about any particular fact or about any number of facts. It is always, at the same time, about the nature of facts. And back of the argument about the nature of facts, there is the argument about the nature of man. However restricted the debate between the believer and the non-believer may be at any one time, there are always two world views ultimately at odds with one another. On the one side is a man who regards himself as being unable to find an intelligible interpretation of experience without reference to God as his Creator and to Christ as his Redeemer. On the other side is the man who is certain that he cannot find any such an interpretation. He assumes that there resides with him the power to make a universal negative statement about the nature of all reality.
The scientist who is a Christian therefore has the task of pointing out to his friend and colleague, who is not a Christian, that unless he is willing to stand upon the Christian story with respect to the world which has been redeemed through Christ, there is nothing but failure for him. Scientific effort is utterly unintelligible unless it is frankly based upon the order placed in the universe of created facts by Christ the Redeemer.
3. The Sufficiency Of Natural Revelation
Christ tells us in his word that nature was never meant to function by itself apart from the direct word-revelation of God. From the beginning, it was insufficient without its supernatural concomitant. It was inherently a limiting notion. It was but the presupposition of historical action on the part of man as covenant personality with respect to supernaturally conveyed communication. But for that specific purpose it was wholly sufficient. It was historically sufficient.
After the fall of man natural revelation is still historically sufficient. It is sufficient for such as have in Adam brought the curse of God upon nature. It is sufficient to render them without excuse. Those who are in prison and cannot clearly see the light of the sun receive their due inasmuch as they have first abused that light. If nature groans in pain and travail because of man’s abuse of it, this very fact—that is, the very curse of God on nature—should be instrumental anew in making men accuse or excuse themselves. Nature as it were yearns to be released from her imprisonment in order once more to be united to her Lord in fruitful union. When nature is abused by man she cries out to her creator for vengeance and through it for redemption.
It was in the mother promise that God gave the answer to nature’s cry (Gn 3:15). In this promise there was a twofold aspect. There was first the aspect of vengeance. He that should come was to bruise the head of the serpent, the one that led man in setting up nature as independent of the supernatural revelation of God. Thus nature was once more to be given the opportunity of serving as the proper field of exercise for the direct supernatural communication of God to man. But this time this service came at a more advanced point in history. Nature was now the bearer of God’s curse as well as of his general mercy. The “good,” that is, the believers, are, generally, hedged about by God. Yet they must not expect that always and in every respect this will be the case. They must learn to say with Job, be it after much trial, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Jb 13:15). The “evil,” that is, the unbelievers, will generally be rewarded with the natural consequences of their deeds. But this too is not always and without qualification the case. The wicked sometimes prosper. Nature only shows tendencies. And tendencies point forward to the time when tendencies shall have become the rules without exception. The tendency itself is meaningless without the certainty of the climax. The present regularity of nature is therefore once again to be looked upon as a limiting notion. At every stage in history God’s revelation in nature is sufficient for the purpose it was meant to serve, that of being the playground for the process of differentiation between those who would and those who would not serve God. 3
4. The Perspicuity Of Natural Revelation
Finally we turn to the perspicuity of nature which corresponds to the perspicuity of Scripture. We have stressed the fact that God’s revelation in nature was from the outset of history meant to be taken conjointly with God’s supernatural communication. This might seem to indicate that natural revelation is not inherently perspicuous. Then too it has been pointed out that back of both kinds of revelation is the incomprehensible God. And this fact again might, on first glance, seem to militate strongly against the claim that nature clearly reveals God. Yet these very facts themselves are the best guarantee of the genuine perspicuity of natural revelation. The perspicuity of God’s revelation in nature depends for its very meaning upon the fact that it is an aspect of the total and totally voluntary revelation of a God who is self-contained. God’s incomprehensibility to man is due to the fact that he is exhaustively comprehensible to himself. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. As such; he cannot deny himself. This God naturally has an all-comprehensive plan for the created universe. He has planned all the relationships between all the aspects of created being. He has planned the end from the beginning. All created reality therefore actually displays this plan. It is, in consequence, inherently rational.
It is quite true, of course, that created man is unable to penetrate to the very bottom of this inherently clear revelation. But this does not mean that on this account the revelation of God is not clear, even for him. Created man may see clearly what is revealed clearly even if he cannot see exhaustively. Man does not need to know exhaustively in order to know truly and certainly. When on the created level of existence man thinks God’s thoughts after him, that is, when man thinks in self-conscious submission to the voluntary revelation of the self-sufficient God, he has therewith the only possible ground of certainty for his knowledge. When man thinks thus he thinks as a covenant creature should wish to think. That is to say, man normally thinks in analogical fashion. He realizes that God’s thoughts are self-contained. He knows that his own interpretation of nature must therefore be a re-interpretation of what is already fully interpreted by God.
The concept of analogical thinking is of especial significance here. Soon we shall meet with a notion of analogy that is based upon the very denial of the concept of the incomprehensible God. It is therefore of the utmost import that the Confession’s concept of analogical thinking be seen to be the direct implication of its doctrine of God.
One further point must here be noted. We have seen that since the fall of man God’s curse rests upon nature. This has brought great complexity into the picture. All this, however, in no wise detracts from the historical and objective perspicuity of nature. Nature can and does reveal nothing but the one comprehensive plan of God. The psalmist does not say that the heavens possibly or probably declare the glory of God. Nor does the apostle assert that the wrath of God is probably revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Scripture takes the clarity of God’s revelation for granted at every stage of human history. Even when man, as it were, takes out his own eyes, this act itself turns revelational in his wicked hands, testifying to him that his sin is a sin against the light that lighteth every man coming into the world. Even to the very bottom of the most complex historical situations, involving sin and all its consequences, God’s revelation shines with unmistakable clarity. “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there” (Ps 139:8). Creatures have no private chambers.
Both the perspicuity of Scripture and the perspicuity of natural revelation, then, may be said to have their foundation in the doctrine of the God who “hideth himself,” whose thoughts are higher than man’s thoughts and whose ways are higher than man’s ways. There is no discrepancy between the idea of mystery and that of perspicuity with respect either to revelation in Scripture or to revelation in nature. On the contrary the two ideas are involved in one another. The central unifying concept of the entire Confession is the doctrine of God and his one unified comprehensive plan for the world. The contention consequently is that at no point is there any excuse for man’s not seeing all things as happening according to this plan.
In considering man’s acceptance of natural revelation, we again take our clue from the Confession and what it says about the acceptance of Scripture. Its teaching on man’s acceptance of Scriptural revelation is in accord with its teachings on the necessity, authority, sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture. The Scriptures as the finished product of God’s supernatural and saving revelation to man have their own evidence in themselves. The God who speaks in Scripture cannot refer to anything that is not already authoritatively revelational of himself for the evidence of his own existence. There is no thing that does not exist by his creation. All things take their meaning from him. Every witness to him is a “prejudiced” witness. For any fact to be a fact at all, it must be a revelational fact.
It is accordingly no easier for sinners to accept God’s Revelation in Scripture. They are no more ready of themselves to do the one than to do the other. From the point of view of the sinner, theism is as objectionable as is Christianity. Theism that is worthy of the name is Christian theism. Christ said that no man can come to the Father but by him. No one can become a theist unless he becomes a Christian. Any God that is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not God but an idol.
It is therefore the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts that alone effects the required Copernican revolution and makes us at the same time both Christians and theists. Before the fall, man also needed the witness of the Holy Spirit. Even then the third person of the Holy Trinity was operative in and through the naturally revelational consciousness of man so that it might react fittingly and properly to the works of God’s creation. But then that operation was so natural that man himself needed not at all or scarcely to be aware of its existence. When man fell, he denied the naturally revelatory character of every fact including that of his own consciousness. He assumed that he was autonomous; he assumed that his consciousness was not revelational of God but only of himself. He assumed himself to be non-created. He assumed that the work of interpretation, as by the force of his natural powers he was engaged in it, was an original instead of a derivative procedure. He would not think God’s thoughts after him; he would instead think only his own original thoughts.
Now if anything is obvious from Scripture it is that man is not regarded as a proper judge of God’s revelation to him. Man is said or assumed from the first page to the last to be a creature of God. God’s consciousness is therefore taken to be naturally original as man’s is naturally derivative. Man’s natural attitude in all self-conscious activities was therefore meant to be that of obedience. It is to this deeper depth, deeper than the sinner’s consciousness can ever reach by itself, that Scripture appeals when it says, “Come let us reason together.” It appeals to covenant-breakers and argues with them about the unreasonableness of covenant-breaking. And it is only when the Holy Spirit gives man a new heart that he will accept the evidence of Scripture about itself and about nature for what it really is. The Holy Spirit’s regenerating power enables man to place all things in true perspective.
Man the sinner, as Calvin puts it, through the testimony of the Spirit receives a new power of sight by which he can appreciate the new light that has been given in Scripture. The new light and the new power of sight imply one another. The one is fruitless for salvation without the other. It is by grace, then, by the gift of the Holy Spirit alone, that sinners are able to observe the fact that all nature, including even their own negative attitude toward God, is revelational of God, the God of Scripture. The wrath of God is revealed, Paul says, on all those who keep down the truth. Man’s sinful nature has become his second nature. This sinful nature of man must now be included in nature as a whole. And through it God is revealed. He is revealed as the just one, as the one who hates iniquity and punishes it. Yet he must also be seen as the one who does not yet punish to the full degree of their ill dessert the wicked deeds of sinful men.
All this is simply to say that one must be a believing Christian to study nature in the proper frame of mind and with proper procedure. It is only the Christian consciousness that is ready and willing to regard all nature, including man’s own interpretative reactions, as revelational of God. But this very fact requires that the Christian consciousness make a sharp distinction between what is revelational in this broad and basic sense and what is revelational in the restricted sense. When man had not sinned, he was naturally anxious constantly to seek contact with the supernatural positive revelation of God. But it is a quite different matter when we think of the redeemed sinner. He is restored to the right relationship. But he is restored in principle only. There is a drag upon him. His “old man” wants him to interpret nature apart from the supernatural revelation in which he operates. The only safeguard he has against this historical drag is to test his interpretations constantly by the principles of the written Word. And if theology succeeds in bringing forth ever more clearly the depth of the riches of the biblical revelation of God in Scripture, the Christian philosopher or scientist will be glad to make use of this clearer and fuller interpretation in order that his own interpretation of nature may be all the fuller and clearer too, and thus more truly revelational of God. No subordination of philosophy or science to theology is intended here. The theologian is simply a specialist in the field of biblical interpretation taken in the more restricted sense. The philosopher is directly subject to the Bible and must in the last analysis rest upon his own interpretation of the Word. But he may accept the help of those who are more constantly and sore exclusively engaged in biblical study than he himself an be. 4
It is this stress—that from the beginning, revelation both in the facts of the created universe and by means of direct thought communication to man from God with respect to those very facts and man’s task with respect to those acts—that marks the particularity of the Reformed outlook on Christianity. It is the idea of the interrelatedness of every aspect of the revelation of God to man that is all important. It is only when this interrelatedness is stressed that, as Christians, we can effectively challenge the wisdom of the world and show that it has been made foolish by God. Only thus can the total interpretation of life and the world, as given by Christ in Scripture, be that on which alone every aspect of human experience must be based in order to have significance.
5. Analogical Thinking As Scripture Teaches It
According to Christ speaking in the Scripture, man has sinned against him by declaring his independence. When man listened to the temptation of Satan it was, in effect, to deny his own creaturehood. Adam was no longer willing to love his Creator and to show this love by obedience to his voice. He wanted to make himself the center of his own interpretative effort.
Involved in this was the idea that man rejected God’s prediction with respect to what we now, after Kant, call the phenomenal realm. He said in his heart that God did not know that death would be the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit. Why did Adam think that God did not know? There were no records of what had happened to people who had eaten this fruit in the past. Could not Satan’s hypothesis be as good as God’s? Does not the scientific method require that, at the outset of any investigation of the facts of the physical universe, any hypothesis be placed on a par with any other hypothesis? Surely any hypothesis that anyone makes with respect to the future configuration of facts must be tested by those future facts themselves. And these future facts must not be interpreted in advance.
Here then, are the marks of the natural man in his attitude toward the interpretation of the facts (events) of the world:
(1) He thinks of himself as the ultimate judge of what can or cannot be. He will not allow any authority to stand above him revealing to him what may or may not have happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future.
(2) This assertion or assumption of autonomy on the part of man makes a covert, if not an overt assertion about the nature of God. God (it is assumed if not asserted) cannot be of such a nature as to control any and all phenomena.
(3) These two assertions or assumptions imply a third: that man’s thought is, in the final analysis, absolutely original. Whatever his ultimate environment may be, the area of interpretation that man makes for himself will be true for him because his thought is in effect legislative with respect to that environment.
(4) The facts of man’s environment are not created or controlled by the providence of God. They are brute facts, uninterpreted and ultimately irrational. The universe is a Chance controlled universe. It is a wholly open universe. Yet, at the same time, it is a closed universe. It is so in this sense: it cannot be what. Christ says it is, namely, created, governed, and redeemed by him. In this one respect the cosmos is closed—there can be no such God as the Bible reveals. This is the universal negative of the openminded men of philosophy and science.
Herbert Feigl seems to see this great gulf fixed between the men of science and philosophy and the people of God when he says: If by religion one refers to an explanation of the universe and a derivation of moral norms from theological premises, then indeed there is logical incompatibility with the results, methods, and general outlook of science. 5
The basically important point about all this is that the scientist as well as the philosopher and the theologian, unless he be converted to Christ by his Spirit, follows the method that was introduced into the world by Adam when he listened to Satan. The essence of this method is that man starts and finishes his interpretation about any and every aspect of life with the assumption of his own autonomy, with the assumption of the brute factuality of the material with which he deals; and with the assumption of abstract formality of the logic which he uses to relate the brute facts to one another.
The Christian, on the other hand, has been saved by the blood and tears of Christ from this God-insulting and self-destroying methodology.
The two positions can be well illustrated by Descartes on the one hand and by Calvin on the other. Descartes starts with man as though he were sufficient unto himself and could make himself the final reference point in his interpretation of himself and the world. Descartes thought he had a clear and distinct idea of himself apart from his relation to God. It was after he had determined who he himself was that he sought to place himself in relation to the world and to God. These relations were therefore secondary relations.
In complete contrast with this approach is that of Calvin who also started with man—and who can help but do so?—but who started with man as set, from the beginning, in relation to his Creator and his Redeemer. After this establishment of a primary and immediate relation, Calvin proceeds to interpret himself and his world in detail. Seeing himself as redeemed by the blood of Christ, he knows that sin still remains within him. He still tends to fall back into his naturally autonomous ways. Calvin keeps telling himself and us, that all things (of nature as well as grace) must, from the outset, be seen in their relation to the story of God’s creation and redemption of the world. Since the Redeemer speaks to him, not through individual mystical insight but by the word that his Savior has given to his church in the form of Scripture, the believer will go to the record of that redemptive work which Christ has accomplished for the world. That record will shed light on every fact in every relation in the world. The record of the redemptive work of Christ is the record given by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the prophets and apostles. God has not left man alone with the event of redemption, leaving it to man’s own sinful heart to interpret it. On the contrary, God has with the facts given the interpretation of the facts. It is the triune God that is active in saving the world. The Father sent his Son to secure objective redemption for it. Then the Father, with the Son, sent the Spirit to inspire his servants to interpret the facts of redemption. The one without the other is meaningless. It is the triune God who tells us what he has done for sinful man’s redemption. The final aspect of this redemption is that, by the regenerating power of the Spirit, sinful man learns to submit his own interpretation, once based on the idea of human autonomy, to the interpretation which the God of grace has provided for him in the Word through the inspiration of the Scripture. This is a truly biblical and therefore a truly analogical methodology.