Van Til on Antithesis -- By: John M. Frame

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 57:1 (Spring 1995)
Article: Van Til on Antithesis
Author: John M. Frame

Van Til on Antithesis

John M. Frame

As we seek to make the best use of Cornelius Van Til’s thought in our own time, it is especially important that we come to grips with his concept of antithesis, the diametrical opposition between belief and unbelief and therefore between belief and any compromise of revealed truth. The concept of antithesis is one of Van Til’s own major concerns, and it is that element in his thought which has brought him the most severe criticism. In the present pluralistic theological climate, it seems particularly difficult to draw lines sharply enough to support Van Tilian talk of antithesis: lines between denominational traditions, between liberal and conservative, between Christianity and other religions, between belief and unbelief. Universalism is taken for granted in contemporary liberal theology, and conservative Christian thinkers, if not going that far, often tend nevertheless to play down the differences between themselves and others. Is it possible, even necessary, to maintain Van Til’s emphasis in our time and to repudiate all these tendencies toward accommodation? Or did Van Til overstate his case, unnecessarily inhibiting biblical ecumenism? Or is the truth to be found somewhere between these two evaluations?

As we consider the matter of antithesis, we must simultaneously consider the doctrine of common grace, which teaches that God restrains sin in the unregenerate. On the basis of common grace, Van Til maintains that unbelievers know some truth despite their sin and its effects. It might seem at first glance that antithesis and common grace are opposed to one another, at least in the sense that one limits the other. Whether or not that is the best way to look at it, it is certainly true that there are temptations to imbalance on either side.

Van Til’s concept of antithesis can be understood as a continuation of the work of two men who had great influence upon him: Abraham Kuyper and J. Gresham Machen. Kuyper devoted much thought both to antithesis and to common grace. Indeed, he also devoted much action to the application of these concepts in church and society. Machen’s fundamental insight was the highly antithetical point that orthodox Christianity and theological liberalism are not two differing Christian theological positions, as Calvinism and Lutheranism, but are rather two different religions, radically opposed to one another. For Machen, liberalism was not Christian at all, but was fundamentally opposed to

Christianity as it is defined in Scripture and history.1 Van Til applied this “antithetical” thinking to neo-orthodoxy2 a...

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