Thursday, May 12, 2016

Studying “Theology Proper” As a Means of Avoiding Chaos In Our Thinking

People have asked me, “why do you focus only on Roman Catholicism?” My wife used to ask me, for example, “why don’t you talk about Islam the way that you talk about Roman Catholicism?”

I’ve been thinking about the best ways to answer those questions. I’d have to say that, because of my own personal struggles in leaving Roman Catholicism, I came to research it with a thoroughness that few people get into. And further to that, I’ve always believed that Christ is the only hope for our world.

But recently, Van Til has provided me with the words to understand why I feel as strongly as I do about Roman Catholicism. I’ve frequently said that Roman Catholicism is a bastardized form of Christianity. But more specifically, it introduced a kind of chaos (Van Til’s word) into Christianity, beginning with some of its appropriations (plural) of Greek philosophy – most profoundly, with the additions of Aristotle via Aquinas, but also by placing its own “Tradition” (largely “Thomism”) alongside of Scripture, and even, for practical purposes, ahead of Scripture.

It’s that Roman Catholic chaos, which Luther and the first Protestants understood, through its “authoritative” anathematization of the Gospel at Trent, but continuing today in the recent pronouncements of crazy “Pope Francis” that’s causing a major hindrance in the ability of Christianity to be “good news” for the world in the way that its Founder intended.

Philosophy: A History of Wrong Turns

I’ve been reading through Van Til’s 1962 typescript, “Christianity in Conflict” (that is, conflict with philosophy, specifically Greek philosophy) – edited and updated in 1995 by Steven T. Vander Hill, and available through the Westminster Bookstore. Seems as if John Frame borrowed somewhat from this for his recent “A History of Western Philosophy and Theology” (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, October 2015), although Frame says he has also relied on another un-published Van Til work, “A Survey of Christian Epistemology”. Many of Van Til’s unpublished works may be found here, by the way.

Both works are excellent and both take the position that, in Frame’s words, the history of philosophy “might be to an extent a history of wrong turns” (Frame pg. 36). I want to provide a couple of snippets here, but I also want to continue to examine these themes in the future. First:

It is the responsibility of Reformed theology to point out that a truly positive approach to Greek theism can be made only if it is shown that it, as the highest and best product of the natural man, leads man to chaos. After this has been done, then it can be shown that, in spite of the self-destructive character of Greek theism, those who have constructed it, were all the while indirectly building the kingdom of God. Plato did not get his wisdom from Moses [as Justin Martyr had suggested], for if Moses is right then Plato is wrong. But in spite of the fact that Plato is wrong [about his conception of God] he is still in all his labors unwillingly serving the God of Moses (pg 63).

And second:

If the idea of common grace is to be used in connection with the Christian’s appreciation of Greek culture as something to be made subservient to and even taken up into Christianity [as Rome has, for example, “baptized” these things], then this must be done in conjunction with the biblical teaching of total depravity. Greek monotheism was the product of apostate man. It was a system of thought by which apostate man sought to suppress the revelational pressure of the true God upon him. Common grace increases and intensifies this revelational pressure.

In receiving the benefits of common grace the “noblest” minds of Greece were challenged to forsake their policy of making gods in their own image so that they might serve the true and living God. But [the writer that Van Til is quoting] makes common grace an instrument by means of which the Greek, the natural man is not called to repentance. The result is an idea by which the Greeks are regarded as being at least on the way to truth in terms of their apostate culture (pg. 64).

I say this in response to what Andrew Fulford of Calvinist International calls “Aristotle’s ‘common sense’ metaphysic”. Fulford writes glowingly about Feser’s book “Scholastic Metaphysics”. He says:

Scholastic Metaphysics is a well written defense of common sense beliefs about the nature of reality itself, and if read carefully, will probably persuade many. Establishing the veracity of this metaphysic entails supporting classical theism, the reality of universals, the efficacy of natural reason, and the normativity of natural law. In turn, when held along with the teaching of special revelation, supporting these doctrines means supporting something like the tradition of classical Reformed Protestantism, since it was formed out of a synthesis of these two streams.

Or to put it even more briefly: scholastic metaphysics is part of classical Reformed Protestantism. To defend the former is to support an important part of the latter. For those interested in such a goal, this book will be a valuable tool.

Fulford is also, as Van Til said, fostering “an idea by which the Greeks are regarded as being at least on the way to truth in terms of their apostate culture”

We have to ask ourselves, is that truly the case? The Reformation and the Reformed Orthodox, at least, did not hold this to be the case.

I, for one, am not interested to defend “scholastic metaphysics”. It’s not at all evident to me that Aristotle’s metaphysic is in any way “common sense”, and I’m much more inclined to believe, with Van Til, that Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas following him, have, in their thinking, “led man to chaos”. And the chaos that I’m thinking about feeds directly into the Medieval Roman Catholicism that the Reformation rejected.

This is, of course, going to lead into quite wide-ranging discussions of Prolegomena to theology, Sola Scriptura and “the Doctrine of God”, among other things. I think that such a thing is needed in our chaotic world today. We Christians are living in a very hostile world, and large numbers of Christians have no idea what a Biblical Doctrine of God entails.

Just yesterday, I came across this on Facebook:

Of all the loci that have been butchered in Reformed circles in recent years, I'd have to say that the doctrine of God has suffered the most (no pun intended). I thought people had lost their way on Christology, but I find myself having more in common with Roman Catholics than certain Reformed evangelicals on the doctrine of God.

“Doctrine of God” is a synonym for “theology proper”. It’s taught in seminaries, but it doesn’t seem to make its way through pulpits to the pews. It’s an arcane subject, drawing on all kinds of source materials, but it’s a matter of great importance that Reformed people, specifically, understand it, and that they understand what’s at stake if we don’t get these things right. Sola Scriptura is somewhat understood by Protestants today, but theological Prolegomena are also not well understood.

The thing is, we now have the means (via the Internet) to understand and disseminate better information about these things. That’s what I’m hoping to do in the coming weeks and months, Lord willing. I’ve already been talking about Aquinas and the “Reformed Scotism” of the “Reformed Orthodox”. I’m hoping to go further in those directions.

I’d like to invite comments and questions as I go along. Please let me know if you have any questions right off the bat.

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