Sunday, July 17, 2005

John Robbins: man or myth?

Vincent Cheung has posted an op-ed by John Robbins about Cornelius Van Til. Before commenting on his opinion piece, we need to introduce a rather large caveat. You see, Mr. Robbins has a pretty unusual theory of knowledge. In his “An Introduction to Gordon Clark,” he says the following:

<< There are three sorts of cognitive states: knowledge, opinion, and ignorance. Ignorance is simply the lack of ideas. Complete ignorance is the state of mind that empiricists say we are born with: We are all born with blank minds, tabula rasa, to use John Locke’s phrase. (Incidentally, a tabula rasa mind – a blank mind – is an impossibility. A consciousness conscious of nothing is a contradiction in terms. Empiricism rests on a contradiction.) At the other extreme from ignorance is knowledge. Knowledge is not simply possessing thoughts or ideas, as some think. Knowledge is possessing true ideas and knowing them to be true. Knowledge is, by definition, knowledge of the truth. We do not say that a person "knows" that 2 plus 2 is 5. We may say he thinks it, but he does not know it. It would be better to say that he opines it.

Now, most of what we colloquially call knowledge is actually opinion: We "know" that we are in Pennsylvania; we "know" that Clinton – either Bill or Hillary – is President of the United States, and so forth. Opinions can be true or false; we just don’t know which. History, except for revealed history, is opinion. Science is opinion. Archaeology is opinion. John Calvin said, "I call that knowledge, not what is innate in man, nor what is by diligence acquired, but what is revealed to us in the Law and the Prophets." Knowledge is true opinion with an account of its truth.

It may very well be that William Clinton is President of the United States, but I do not know how to prove it, nor, I suspect, do you. In truth, I do not know that he is President, I opine it. >>

So, as we read his op-ed about CVT, we need to keep this caveat front-and-center, and put a mental asterisk by every indicative claim that is not deducible from Scripture.

We can begin with the attribution and copyright:

By John W. Robbins
© The Trinity Foundation

The op-ed is attributed to a certain John W. Robbins. Of course, if we are to take him at his word, then we can’t take him at his word, because this claim is not an object of knowledge. It is merely a piece of opinion.

Likewise, the copyright is sheer opinion. Indeed, it’s rather odd that the Trinity Foundation would bother to copyright its materials when Robbins’* theory of knowledge demotes the legal rules of evidence to one man’s dubious opinion over another’s. If his epistemology is sound, then how are intellectual property rights actionable?

After all, if Robbins’ opinion that someone has plagiarized his work falls short of knowledge, if his opinion isn’t demonstrably true, then what would count as the preponderance of evidence?

Indeed, this raises grave ethical questions. Isn’t Mr. Cheung in violation of the 9th commandment when he attributes this op-ed to Mr. Robbins? Cheung is passing along information which, by his own lights, he doesn’t know to be true, and cannot know to be true.

With these preliminaries out of the way, let us comment on a few of the claims made by Robbins* in his opinion piece:

<< Professor Van Til is the object of fierce loyalty and reverence by many of his students…They have been enthralled by the myth that surrounds the tall and handsome professor of theology…Hero worship is a prominent characteristic of many of Van Til’s followers, and the ordinary Christian is both baffled and embarrassed by the sounds and the spectacle of bowing and scraping that occur in certain circles. >>

Keep in mind that, by his own admission, Robbins* doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Robbins* is only opining about the existence of a tall* and handsome* professor* by the name of Cornelius Van Til* and his students* or followers*.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of hero worship, what about the “total lack of critical discussion” of Gordon Clark’s* distinctive ideas by Robbins* and Cheung* and other Clarkians?

I’d agree, though, that hero worship can be a problem, but it’s a short-lived problem. It dies out once the students and immediate disciples of the Master die out. After he is gone, and those who knew him are gone, the charismatic spell is broken.

<< Van Til’s prose is frequently unintelligible. >>

Notice that Robbins* is opining once again. Speaking for myself, I don’t find Van Til’s prose to be unintelligible.

One reason some readers find CVT hard to understand is that his vocabulary is a hangover from the days of British idealism—a philosophical school which has come and gone.

Yet that’s true of any thinker from the past. If you hope to understand Thomism, you need to bone up on Aristotelian and Scholastic nomenclature. If you hope to understand Rahner, you have to bone up on Kant and Hegel and Heidegger.

<< In an interview in Christianity Today in 1977, Van Til made the following statements, all in the same paragraph. Compare his third sentence with his sixth, and you will get some idea why understanding him is very difficult: “My concern is that the demand for non-contradiction when carried to its logical conclusion reduces God’s truth to man’s truth. It is unscriptural to think of man as autonomous. The common ground we have with the unbeliever is our knowledge of God, and I refer repeatedly to Romans 1:19. All people unavoidably know God by hating God. After that they need to have true knowledge restored to them in the second Adam. I deny common ground with the natural man, dead in trespasses and sins, who follows the god of this world”(Christianity Today, December 30, 1977, 22). In the third sentence he says, “The common ground we have with the unbeliever is our knowledge of God….” In the sixth sentence he says, “I deny common ground with the natural man….” Which is it? Or is the unbeliever not a natural man, and the natural man not an unbeliever? Do we have common ground with the natural man, the unbeliever, or don’t we? Or am I asking a foolish question based on mere human logic? >>

Yes, Robbins* is asking a foolish question. To begin with, a magazine interview is hardly the sort of forum in which you’d expect a complex thinker to throw in a lot of codicils and fine-spun distinctions.

In addition, CVT was hardly at the top of his game by the time he gave that interview. He suffered from dementia in his declining years.

At the same time, if you’ve done much reading in CVT, it is easy to reconcile these statements. On the one hand, CVT maintained that, owing to common grace, there was a measure of common ground between the believer and unbeliever.

On the other hand, he also held that there was very little common ground between believer and unbeliever when the unbeliever was an epistemically self-conscious unbeliever. And Van Til’s writing was generally directed against secular philosophers and liberal Bible scholars.

<< In the first sentence, what does “reduces God’s truth to man’s truth” mean? It certainly sounds bad, but does it mean anything? >>

What it means, as I understand CVT, is that fallen man is evasive. If you’re guilty, the truth is your enemy. So you redefine the truth to excuse your sin.

After citing some of “Van Til’s endorsements of the theistic proofs that have appeared in his published writings,” Robbins* goes on to say the following:

<< On the other hand, Van Til also makes statements such as this: “Of course Reformed believers do not seek to prove the existence of their God. To seek to prove or to disprove the existence of this God would be to seek to deny him. To seek to prove or disprove this God presupposes that man can identify himself and discover facts in relation to laws in the universe without reference to God. A God whose existence is ‘proved’ is not the God of Scripture.” He simultaneously maintains that “Reformed believers do not seek to prove the existence of their God” and that “the Reformed apologist maintains that there is an absolutely valid argument for the existence of God.”

The dogmatic assertion that the existence of God both can and cannot be proved places Van Til in his own school of apologetics. >>

All this proves is that Robbins* is a very inept reader. The key qualifying phrase is: “without reference to God.”


  1. Careful, Steve, or you'll make Robbin's list of heretics!


  2. "Careful, Steve, or you'll make Robbin's list of heretics!"

    You mean, Robbins' list of unjustified opinions about heretics ;-)

  3. Since on Robbins' epistemology he cannot know that he is a male, he therefore cannot know that he should be in a position of authority over men (with all his teaching, that is). So, Robbins can't know that he should ever preach or even have the attitude he has towards other men. Also, how can he proclaim others as heretics? Do women have the authority to do this? Also, why does he mention that Clark was an ordained minister? He should be critical and say that there is a possibility that it was a "Florence" and not a "Gordon" Clark that was ordained. So, how do they even *know* they shoudl ordain anyone? Is ordination more opinion? When Robbins and his wife have a dispute, and Robbins puts his foot down as the final decision maker, couldn't his wife say, "how do you *know* you're the head of this household??"

  4. P.S. I wrote some rants on Robbins (and others related) a while back:

  5. Robbins is also of the "opinion" that CS Lewis is in hell (from a paper he actually presented at the 2003 Annual ETS meeting):

  6. It's true that Lewis had a defective view of Scripture, as well as a defective view of salvation.

    On the other hand, Lewis was not your standard issue liberal. For example, he believed in the Incarnation, Virgin Birth, and Resurrection--as well as the Trinity and other fixtures of "mere" Christianity.

    I think allowance needs to be made for the fact that Lewis was a layman, as well as the further fact that the religious options for an Englishman of his generation were less than stellar.

    It is easy for us to be to the right of Lewis, but he was to the right of the religious establishment--not to mention the hallowed halls of academe (Oxford; Cambridge).

    On balance, I'd give Lewis the benefit of the doubt. But he's not a sound spiritual guide.

  7. If CS Lewis was a goat and not a sheep, I truly fear for myself in the most serious of fashions.

    Steve & Der Advocate --- do you agree at all with Robbins' assessment? Or, if you disagree, do you think Robbins makes a respectable case?


  8. Short answer: I think that Robbins has a valid point to make, but he's the wrong man to make it, he's making the right point the wrong way, and he's chosen the wrong man to illustrate his point. But other than that, it's a swell argument! :-)

    As far as who is damned, when it comes to individuals, I hesitate to venture an opinion except in more extreme cases.

    Lewis has a rather low view of Scripture. He holds to a pre-Reformation soteriology, which has affinities with the Greek Orthodox concept of theosis.

    Since Lewis was a Medievalist, I assume he picked up his soteriology from his reading of the church fathers.

    On the other hand, he believed in miracles. He believed in the ancient creeds. He was prepared to sacrifice his academic reputation in defense of the faith. This is not the way a liberal typically behaves.

    Also, his Grief Observed, while intemperate in parts, strikes me as an expression of authentic faith under extreme duress.

    His theology leaves much to be desired, but his religious environment was pretty poor soil in which to bloom, and under the circumstances, it seems to me that he was the genuine article.

    BTW, this comes through in his own powers of spiritual discrimination. See how he is goes about distinguishing between the superficial piety of Addison and the deeper, more recalcitrant piety of Swift. Literary Essays, 159.

    To me, this reflects the spiritual discernment of an insider, not an outsider.

  9. I know some pastors in the Wisconsin Ev. Luth. Synod who liked Lewis, with roughly the same caveats that you mention. They never expressed any such concerns about Lewis, but, like you, Steve, they thought Lewis conceded too many points.

    When I look at myself, I live in an era where Evangelicalism is big again, and where to a certain degree the sloppiness of po-mo thinking [if it can be called that] has dulled somewhat the cultural influence of the types of people who would oppose Lewis. Were I in the first half of the twentieth century, I may have been very Lewis-like and considered myself extremely conservative at that time.

    Lewis didn't back away from miracles, the supernatural, the Incarnation, Resurrection, etc. And, he certainly scrutinized other worldviews in antithesis to Christianity. But his view of scripture, for me at least, left me feeling a bit queasy.

    If anybody wants specifics, I can only offer generalities, as my books are in storage!

  10. Somewhere, btw, there is somebody who is quoted as saying that CS Lewis "is the most converted man I have ever met." I can't pin down the quote of course due to the whole books-in-storage thingie.

    For myself, Lewis helped me wrestle through many an intellectual demon.

    I also note that Lewis is the patron saint of the Boar's Head Tavern, fwiw.

  11. BTW, Robbins is in a poor position to throw stones and consign anyone to hell. Following Clark, he defines saving faith in Sandemanian fashion as dry intellectual assent, devoid of emotional resonance. This does not qualify, in traditional Reformed theology, as a credible profession of faith. Packer and Lloyd-Jones have both written on the grave error.

  12. Don't the consequences of this rather strikingly big subject of who is saved and who isn't seem out of scale to the conversational tone that carries the assessments of individuals and so on?

    I mean: saved and eternal life in the Kingdom of God


    Unsaved and eternal life suffering the wrath of God in pain and darkness.

    Think about this: if we all really felt the situation to be that stark and dire the first thing we'd do every morning is set out and proclaim this hard truth and the Gospel to everybody we laid eyes upon. Wouldn't we?

    The fact that we (1) don't, and (2) don't feel any kind of overwhelming remorse for not doing that, and are rather content to just let 'dead dogs lie', so to speak (even if it is your not-interested-in-Christianity father or mother or brother or sister) kind of gives away that there is more to all this (probably having to do with aspects of time we don't perceive but that we suspect, intuitively, or instinctively, exists), as I was saying, more to all this than: you are born; you get saved, or you don't; you die and go to heaven or you die and go to hell; for eternity.

    As a Bible-believing Christian I go with what the Bible says (and I have no problem with it). My understanding is the truth of the Bible is what a person needs to hear and to accept to have the change effected in them that needs to be effected. But then I also sense that people are on different tracks, in terms of time that is higher than time as we perceive it, otherwise I'd right now be out finding individuals and crowds and desperately proclaiming the truth of their situation to them. No matter the consequences to my reputation and lifestyle and career and all the rest of it.

    How does this elephant in the corner of theology room get dealt with, traditionally, if at all?

  13. 1. Christian blogging is one way of reaching the lost.

    2. We have a number of moral and spiritual priorities to juggle, depending on the number of prior obligations we assume, such as the care of family members, as well as friends and coworkers.

    3. We don't all have the same calling in life. That's why the church is like a body with different organs and members. Not everyone's vocation is full-time Christian ministry.

  14. These are, of course, eminently reasonable responses.

    1. Christian blogging is one way of reaching the lost.

    Yes, but isn't that more a comfortable activity (not to mention a preaching to the choir activity mostly) than actually apprehending (by the collar, so to speak) total strangers and telling them their dire situation? I'm going to go to a grocery store today, and I'm going to walk past several people - scores of people - and I'm not going to evangelize to any of them (it's not even, in the scheme of things, practical to do that, which makes my point that there is more going on in terms of people being on different tracks having to do with time, because the very fact that they are facing eternal hell normally would make me VERY active in apprehending them and giving them the hard truth, so to speak.). It may be practical to say "Jesus saves" as you walk by people. The hit you take as being seen as a weird person would be little compared to the seed you plant. Of course, then I'd be afraid they'd want to get in an interminable conversation! Then I'd say: "Jesus saves, read the Bible, don't yak about it. Get to work. Eternity calls. Up or down." And walk on. That would be a good splash of cold water.

    Either way you are forced to have the approach of a street performer, which is actually asking alot. Yet, there it is, nothing is more important because it involves eternity in heaven or hell, right?

    2. We have a number of moral and spiritual priorities to juggle, depending on the number of prior obligations we assume, such as the care of family members, as well as friends and coworkers.

    But, again, set against eternity in hell what weight do your worldly responsibilities have? Life and survival, yes. But what about the time you spend watching a movie, when you could have spent it introducing the hard truth of their situation to people?

    3. We don't all have the same calling in life. That's why the church is like a body with different organs and members. Not everyone's vocation is full-time Christian ministry.

    The subject as I am bringing it up is really beyond the Biblical/church roles people have (teacher, evangelist, preacher, etc.) What I am bringing up is the mismatch in scale between the striking Biblical fact of dying saved or unsaved, and where that puts you for eternity, and the rather casual approach we all have in discussing that striking fact, and in our approach to other people regarding it. If we really felt it to be true (i.e. as dire and matter-of-fact as it's presented in the Bible) we would be doing nothing else, beyond survival basics, but accosting individuals and groups with the terror of the situation.

    So, I ask again, without getting in to the subject of time and how God acts in people's lives from eternity, how does theology explain this scale difference between the dire, terror of the situation message of the Bible and our seemingly very natural ho-hum approach to delivering this message.

    Certainly we have to admit there is some "being ashamed" involved here. Or, maybe better put, "being embarassed". We don't want to sound like a "Jesus freak" right? Because, we're not like that. But how does one deliver the message in the manner needed without coming across like that?

    Plus, it doesn't help that the Faith is not exactly an easy sell (or easy to explain).

    I know the Bible covers these areas in for instance stating that people already have a knowledge of God in them that convicts them; and also issues of predestination and issues of the Holy Spirit illuminating and not 'me' illuminating people; but that all gets in to time issues too, don't they?

    I just think this subject should be taken on by theologians directly and not avoided, because it does become like an elephant sitting in the corner of the room, and true understanding of the Faith calls for more than just allowing elephants, unexplained, to be sitting in the corner of the room.

  15. 1. Back when I was younger and more energetic, I used to do street ministry and jail ministry. And the younger generation is welcome to take up where I left off.

    2. Christian blogging, like mass evangelism, is a one-to-many medium. You can reach more people this way. It's more efficient. And it's a way of equipping Christian workers.

    3. Saving the lost does not trump our "worldly" responsibility. If you want to do soul-winning full-time, don't get married and have kids. But since, according to Scripture, you do have a right to marry and have kids, and since, indeed, it would be imprudent for most of us to ignore these primal drives, that's a God-honoring life-style--and a very time-consuming one as well.

    4. BTW, having kids and raising them in a Christian home is one way of advancing the kingdom. And some recreational activities are also ways of befriending unbelievers.

    5. Many evangelical churches and parachurch ministries are involved in overseas mission and prison ministry and personal witnessing and friendship evangelism and every-member evangelism.

    6. Certainly it's possible to assume too little responsibility for the fate of the lost. It's also possible to assume too much responsibility for the fate of the lost. It's not my fault that they are lost. It's not my fault that they resist the gospel. I can only do what I can do. Ultimately, this is God's world, not mind. He's running the show, not me.

    7. By the same token, I have a limited responsibility for how other Christians spend their time. That is not under my control. So it's not something for me to fret over. They are answerable to God, not to me. I'm not their father-figure.

    8. The faithful few are just that--few. It's always been that way. Those who need to hear don't listen; those who listen don't need to hear.

    9. BTW, there is more to life than soul-winning. Why did Jesus go to the marriage of Cana when he could have been out on the sawdust trail saving sinners?

  16. PP,

    In answer to your question (and from my perspective), although there are aspects of Lewis' theology that I find problematic (and I would consider some of those areas to be rather substantial) - I have, nevertheless, always considered him to be a Christian who has made some important intellectual contributions to the church.

  17. I'm content to leave it at that. I think my own caveats have addressed your points for the most part, and that my main point is getting skipped by (for the record, again, my point is not a rebuke to Christians for not evangelizing enough, my point is the difference in scale between the fact of real individuals we know and see going to hell for eternity and our natural - read natural - in effect blase, blithe approach to that as we fill out our days; for that reality to not be an unacknowledged elephant in the corner of the room it seems that theologians would have to confront it and probably get into elements of the Bible that might have something to say about time, or something else I'm not aware of), but as I said I have no desire to pursue it further.

  18. Every time I see the 9th commandment raised it is a red flag that the writer is a theonomist. Looks like theonomists have no affection for John W. Robbins. The point of Robbins' theory of knowledge is that we only "know" science, etc., on the basis of someone else's authority or "opinion."


  19. Acknowledgment to the time scale dynamics with respect to the urgency of Romans 10:14 contrasted with the natural tendency to slow motion evangelism. Funny how I'm commenting in 2016 on posts from 2005. Every time an unbeliever I know dies and I hadn't witnessed to them, what excuse to I have... is their blood on my hands? Perhaps it is analogous to people asleep in a burning house and we pass by without trying to wake them up, and that should motivate us, but indeed street preaching (or phone call or email saying, "hi how have you been?... you need to repent and believe the gospel!" is impractical and we are called to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves etc. Once I reunited with a high school friend on Facebook and witnessed to him and it appeared to be instrumental in the Spirit's awesome work, and then the guy died shortly after that, wow. Not to be hypercalvinist but God's got it all covered. I pray that none of us will miss any opportunity to herald the gospel. I've been rationalizing/fantasizing about writing a book that all the people who have known me will read.
    I read somewhere that C.S. Lewis referred to Matthew 24:34 as the most embarrassing verse in the Bible, so he wasn't up on preterism (which is no way "consistent" throughout the NT).
    BTW John Robbins passed away in 2008 as I recall.
    Enjoyed this thread, thanks.