Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Van Til was “Prophetically True” on Roman Catholicism

Daniel the Prophet Accurately Describes Roman Catholicism

Van Til was “Prophetically True” on Roman Catholic syncretism
Leonardo De Chirico explicates Van Tils view of
the syncretism of Roman Catholicism
In his latest issue of Vatican Files, Leonard De Chirico has published an excerpt of a paper given at a September 2014 conference in Rome entitled “Rerum Novarum: Neo-Calvinism and Roman Catholicism”. Google translates “Rerum Novarum” as “of the new things”. That is also the title of a papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, by “Pope Leo XIII”, and the title indicates “the spirit of revolutionary change” – beginning with the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”.

This theme was an appropriate point of contact between neo-Calvinists of the late 19th century, and it was deemed to be the theme of a program in 2014 as well. Here is the theme of the program from the organizers:

Roman Catholicism was a world player when neo-Calvinism began to develop from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. At that time, both Catholicism and Protestantism went through substantial changes. For the neo-Calvinists, Catholicism functioned as both an antagonist and an ally in their struggle to uphold religion in the modern age of ‘rerum Novarum’. The neo-Calvinists were the first Protestants to cooperate openly with Roman Catholics in politics and on social issues. Theologically they were particularly interested in neo-Thomism, but remained critical of Roman Catholicism until after the Second World War and the Second Vatican Council.

The conference will focus on the theological, ecclesial, philosophical, political, social and cultural interactions between the two traditions: in what ways did they influence and approach each other, on which aspects did they continue to differ and why, and how could their relationship over a century and a half best be described?

This, it seems to me, is a useful approach that Reformed scholars and believers can take in addressing Roman Catholicism. Especially useful, it seems, is the paper given by De Chirico (excerpted here, and to be given in a fuller form in a book-length project soon to be released from this conference): “The clay of Paganism with the iron of Christianity: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Roman Catholicism”.

Van Til Gets it Right

I don’t recall the specifics of it, but De Chirico critiqued Van Til’s critique of Roman Catholicism in his 2003 work, “Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism”. Essentially a minor revision of his doctoral dissertation, De Chirico focused on one core lament:

The Evangelical perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism share a vivid concern for historical developments and doctrinal themes related to Roman Catholicism itself, but broadly speaking, must be judged to be deficient in theological insight, especially as far as the recognition of the systemic nature of Roman Catholicism and the theological core of the problem between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism are concerned (De Chirico, 303).

His analysis of Van Til was wrapped up in that assessment. (And of course, his analysis of Van Til was wrapped up further at that time with his critique of Barth).

But in this session, in this article, De Chirico seems to have further studied Van Til’s assessment of Roman Catholicism, and has come to a firmer conclusion, one which relies on the prophetic message of the Prophet Daniel, of a statue of which “The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay”:

Interestingly, Dutch philosopher and theologian Cornelius Van Til (1896-1987) used the metaphor of the mixture between “clay” and “iron” to describe his view of Roman Catholicism.

Van Til argued that “Romanists mix a great deal of the clay of paganism with the iron of Christianity”. The result is a religious framework in which a variety of different materials merge so as to form a composite and complex system of thought which is neither mere paganism nor mere Christianity: it is a synthesis of both, a combination of different materials. These metaphors suggest the idea that Roman Catholicism is not a random encounter between different elements, but rather a sophisticated mélange whereby clay and iron are joined together in something unique, distinct, and new.

This point is worth unpacking. Van Til argued that the fundamental nature of Roman Catholicism is not the on-going, organic development of the early form of Christianity, as John Henry Newman’s account of Catholicism suggests. On the contrary, it is characterized by a structural combination of Christian and non-Christian features that lies at the very heart of the Roman Catholic fabric. The theological task of a Reformed apologetic is to detect this combination, assess it, and constructively criticise it against the background of a Reformed worldview. The ultimate constitution of Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, marred by the co-existence of Christian and non-Christian elements.

I think that this is a tremendous project for Reformed philosophers and theologians to undertake. In the process of this article, De Chirico notes that Roman Catholicism is a “deformation” of Christianity, “whereby non-Christian presuppositions and pagan connotations are given a Christianised status and contribute to shaping the whole system in ways that depart from the original outlook.”

This deformation caused by the syncretism of pagan philosophies – both an “Aristotle-Christ synthesis” and now more recently a “Kant-Christ synthesis” – along with a measure of genuine Christianity “is to be found everywhere” in Roman Catholicism, “not in one particular locus” of doctrine or theology, “but rather is traceable in all loci”. “There is no epistemological safeguard that is granted by the Solus Christus principle, but the catholicity of the system makes it possible to expand it in various ways, depending on historical circumstances.”

And this of course is precisely what we are seeing, post Vatican II, and more recently, in the era of “Pope Francis”. The deviations from actual Christianity are prompted by Rome’s need to address current events one way or another.

To be sure, De Chirico is realistic about the limits of Van Til’s methodology:

Methodologically speaking, Van Til’s systemic approach sometimes prevented him from dealing more extensively with Catholic sources and allowing them to speak for themselves. He often seemed to deductively presume what Catholicism holds, rather than actually following the train of reasoning of individual Roman Catholic theologians or the official Magisterium. Less attention was given to important details and nuances than was granted to the big picture. Moreover, from a theological point of view, he did not invest as much energy in studying post-Vatican II developments as he had done in exploring Thomistic Catholicism. Because the Second Vatican Council is only touched on superficially and selectively, Van Til’s post-Vatican II perspectives are only sketched briefly and are in need of further elaboration in order to become plausible.

Without having been able to articulate it this clearly, I have often felt this to be the case. Yes, it’s true that Roman Catholicism “anathematized the Gospel” at Trent, but Roman Catholicism today is so much more than that. And in fact, “justification by faith alone” is, for current Roman Catholicism, a set of words, a concept, that is not even on the radar screen. Protestants who use this phrase, this concept, in talking to Roman Catholics, may as well be speaking a different language.

Going back to Daniel’s dream, Van Til helps to see the vision of the big statue as a whole and to notice its intrinsically weak foundation if iron and clay are to be found in its legs….

In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, evangelical theology should go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to grasp the internal frame of reference of Roman Catholic theology. Any analysis which does not take into account the fact that Roman Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of it. In this task Van Til was, and continues to be, a voice that may not sound ecumenically friendly, but is nonetheless prophetically true.

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