From Condition To State: Critical Reflections On Cornelius Van Til’s Doctrine Of Common Grace -- By: Jan Van Vliet

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 61:1 (Spring 1999)
Article: From Condition To State: Critical Reflections On Cornelius Van Til’s Doctrine Of Common Grace
Author: Jan Van Vliet


From Condition To State: Critical Reflections On Cornelius Van Til’s Doctrine Of Common Grace

Jan van Vliet*

I. Introduction

What Cornelius Van Til calls the “common grace problem” has received considerable attention in the theological discussions of, especially, the first half of the twentieth century.1 Beginning with an exhaustive (three volume) attempt by Abraham Kuyper to interpret all the implications of this doctrine for the individual and for society and through the various refinements of the Amsterdam School to the suggested overhaul by Cornelius Van Til, the doctrine remains an unsettled one upon which there is no mutual agreement.2 Opposition by theologians such as Herman Hoeksema

*Jan van Vliet is a Ph.D. student in historical and theological studies at Westminster Theological Seminary.

and Klaas Schilder who, respectively, strenuously denied any notion of common grace and actively sought to reconstruct it, still remains strong though in more muted form.

Van Til’s entry into the debate marked a significant shift in the understanding of this doctrine. He attempted to apply presuppositional apologetics to the understanding and nuancing of the concept of common grace. Van Til’s contribution was unique in that it resulted from his positioning the doctrine within a comprehensive presuppositional philosophy of history. In accounting for the many facts of history as being determined by, defined by, and following one pattern, Van Til saw the biblical doctrine of the self-contained ontological Trinity as a unique solution to what he called “the perplexing One and Many problem.”3 Only in light of the ontological Trinity does history have any meaning. The (Kierkegaardian) Moment can have significance only “upon the presupposition of the biblical doctrine of the ontological trinity.”4 As Van Til explains:

In the ontological trinity, there is complete harmony between an equally ultimate one and many. The persons of the trinity are mutually exhaustive of one another and of God’s nature. It is the absolute equality in point of ultimacy that requires all the emphasis we can give it. Involved in this absolute equality is complete interdependence; God is our concrete universal.5

Van Til held that history makes sense or has meaning only with the concrete universal in back of time as the interpretative grid. And only by knitting the thread of common grace throu...

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