Thursday, July 14, 2005

Why I'm not a Cramptonian

Vincent Cheung has posted a fluffy article on his blog--or should I say an article on his fluffy blog?--by Gary Crampton entitled “Why I am Not A Van Tilian.”

I’ll content myself with a few comments on what he’s said:

<< Where is it that Van Til has gone astray? Using Robbins’ book as a guide, I will begin with Van Til’s view of presuppositional apologetics. >>

Why is he using Robbins’ book as a guide? Can’t he read or think for himself? Is reliance on a hostile, Cliff Notes version of Van Til his idea of scholarship?

<< Presuppositionalism, by definition, excludes the use of proofs for the existence of God. >>

It does? Is presuppositionalism now a brand name? Presuppositionalism™?

I’m not going to fight over a word. Whether we call Van Tilian apologetics presuppositional apologetics or transcendental theism matters not to me. But it’s not as if the Clarkians had some prior claim on the term.

<< Presuppositionalism, by definition, excludes the use of proofs for the existence of God. Not so, however, with Dr. Van Til. >>

Indeed, Van Til did believe in theistic proofs. Leave it to a hostile Clarkian correct the popular misconception that Van Tilian apologetics is fideistic.

However, as I recall, Gordon Clark also had his own theistic proof, which took the form of an alethic proof for the existence of God. According to Clark, truth had all the attributes of God. And since truth is undeniable, on pain of self-refutation, God must exist.

So, by Crampton’s standard, Clark was not a bona fide presuppositionalist.

<< Dr. Van Til demurs. He writes:

We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person…. We must maintain that God is numerically one, He is one person…. We speak of God as a person; yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead…. God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being…. [T]he work ascribed to any of the persons is the work of one absolute person…. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person…. [W]e must therefore hold that God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity. And even within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person (18-19). >>

Clarkians never tire of exhuming the moldering bones of this old canard. And it’s true that, in this one instance, Van Til’s formulation had a modalistic cast to it. Since modalism is a heresy, modalistic formulations, whether intentional or not, should be studiously eschewed.

Not only is this formulation unorthodox, it is also contrary to Van Til’s fundamental commitment to the equal ultimacy of the one and the many, grounded in the ontological Trinity. So this is an odd lapse on Van Til’s part.

But while we’re on the subject of modalism, consider Clark’s modalistic version of the Trinity:


Therefore, since God is Truth, we shall define person…as a composite of truths…theologians will complain that this reduces the Trinity to one person…This objection is based on a blindness toward certain definite Scriptural information…I am referring to the complex of truths that form the Three Persons. Though they are equally omniscient, they do not all know the same truths. Neither the complex of truths we call the Father nor those we call the Spirit, has the proposition, “I was incarnated.” …The Father cannot say, “I walked from Jerusalem to Jericho.

G. Clark, The Incarnation (The Trinity Foundation 1988), 54-55.


Notice how, according to this framework, the individuating principle which differentiates one person of the Godhead from another consists in existential propositions concerning the economic Trinity. And that conduces straight to modalism. On such a view, the Trinitarian relations are contingent rather than necessary.

Now, it’s harder to salvage Clark’s orthodoxy than Van Til’s. For, as I’ve said, the equal ultimacy of the one and the many is quite fundamental to Van Til’s philosophy.

By contrast, Clark’s propositional definition of personhood as the principle of individuation and personal identity is fundamental to his philosophy. But that is the very thing which generates his modalistic model of the Trinity, whereas Van Til’s one-time formulation is an aberration, at odds with his essential oft-stated outlook.

<< Lamentably, this peculiar teaching has spread. John Frame, a disciple of Van Til and professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, also says that “Scripture…does refer to God as one person.” >>

Two problems here:

To begin with, Crampton’s charge is trading on ambiguities of reference. Take a comparison:

Suppose I’m a bank-teller. Suppose I’m subpoenaed to be a witness at the trial of a bank robber. The lawyer points at the defendant and asks me if I’ve ever seen him? I answer in the negative. He then proceeds to impeach my credibility by showing the jury a shot of the defendant taken by a security camera. The photo shows me handing money over to a masked man.

So, was I committing perjury when I denied having seen the bank robber? Obviously the answer turns on ambiguities of reference. I saw a person who was a bank robber. And the person I saw was the defendant. But I didn’t see his face. And I didn’t know at the time that the defendant was the bank robber.

Let us be clear on what Frame is doing here. Frame is being true to the usage of Scripture. It is a demonstrable fact that Scripture usually refers to God as a singular grammatical object. And, at the same time, it describes God as a personal agent--by ascribing personal attributes and deliberate deeds to God. As a rule, Scripture doesn’t differentiate between the persons of the Godhead when picks out God as the referent. That’s especially true in the OT.

So there is nothing the least bit heretical about Frame describing and affirming the way in which the Bible itself ordinarily refers to God.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not based on the conventionalities of linguistic reference. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is a theological construct. It takes the raw data of Scripture, then analyzes and synthesizes that data at a higher level of abstraction. That’s the methodology of systematic theology.

Now, if Crampton is really that incompetent in his grasp of theological method and theories of reference, then he has no business writing about theology in the first place.

Second, if he were really interested in knowing what Frame believes about the Trinity, he would read Frame’s book on The Doctrine of God (P&R 2002). So either Crampton is too lazy to read Frame’s major and mature statement on the doctrine in question, or else he has read it, but not finding what he was looking for, chose to deceive the reader. Either he’s an indolent ignoramus or an oily prevaricator. Take your pick. It matters not to me.

If that comes across as harsh, that’s how it was intended to come across. Anyone who poses as a Christian rationalist assumes the burden of acting with a modicum of intellectual responsibility.

I realize that Crampton's article originally came out before the publication of Frame's book, but since it has gone on to life as a web document, there's no excuse for Crampton not to update it.

<< Dr. Van Til is well known for his assertion that the Bible is full of logical paradoxes, apparent contradictions, or antinomies. >>

True. And in The Doctrine of God, on p512, Frame breaks ranks with Van Til on this very issue.

Again, either Crampton read it or he didn’t. If he didn’t, he’s culpably ignorant--since it’s he has elementary duty to acquaint himself with Frame’s position if he’s planning to attack it. And if he did read it, then why doesn’t he point out to the reader the difference between Frame and Van Til at this juncture?

<< It is true that in some places Van Til implies that logic is not created. But in other places he says the opposite, that is, that logic is created. >>

Once again, Crampton is retailing in equivocations.

The word “logic” doesn’t mean “the way God thinks.” Here are some standard definitions of logic from the OED:

“The branch of philosophy that treats of the forms of thinking in general, and more especially of inference and of scientific method.

“Logic may be more briefly defined as the science of reasoning.”

“A system or a particular exposition of logic; a treatise on logic. Also, the science or art of reasoning as applied to some particular department of knowledge or investigation.”

“Logical argumentation; a mode of argumentation viewed as good or bad according to its conformity or want of conformity to logical principles. Also, logical pertinence or propriety.”

Crampton is confounding standard usage with an ontological theory of logic, as if the meaning of the word and the metaphysics of the concept were interchangeable.

Again, if Crampton is really that fuzz brained, he has no right presenting himself as a rationalist. For the least we should expect from a rationalistic is rational clarity.

<< Thankfully, they are not correct. As Clark has pointed out time and again in his writings, the laws of logic are the way God thinks, and he has given us a rational revelation by which to live. In fact, Clark states, Jesus calls himself the Logos (word from which we get “logic”) of God in John 1. He is Logic incarnate, and if we are to think in a manner that pleases God, we must think as Christ does: logically. >>

Three blunders:

i) Observe the childish, etymological fallacy--as if you can read the import of the English derivative back into the Greek word. Does Crampton also suppose that we should render dunamis as dynamite wherever it occurs in the LXX and Greek NT?

ii) Crampton must be a unitarian since, in the above quote, he refers to God as though he were one person. Shouldn’t he refer to God as “they” rather than “he”?

iii) The Johannine logos is an LXX loanword which has its conceptual background in the OT “word of the Lord.” Doesn’t Crampton know that? And if he’s really that ignorant of Biblical usage, then…but you know by now how the rest goes.

<< The difficulty is that Van Til gave us no test by which we might distinguish between a real and an apparent contradiction. >>

True. And what test did Clark give us? Or Robbins? Or Crampton?

What makes an apparent contradiction apparently contradictory is that it looks just like the real thing, right? So there is no general criterion to distinguish the one from the other.

This doesn’t mean that we can never tell the difference. But it isn’t based on some universal rule-of-thumb.

<< The root of the problem here is Van Til’s belief that all human knowledge is (and can only be) analogical to God’s knowledge. >>

How’s that a problem? God’s knowledge is the exemplar of human knowledge. Sounds just right to me.

<< Writes Van Til: “Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical” >>

I agree that this would be a problem, were it so. But the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. So I part ways with Van Til with respect to the conclusion.

<< Clark, of course, is not denying that there is a difference in degree between God’s knowledge and our knowledge — that is, God always knows more than man does. >>

Only a difference of degree? God merely knows more? I can only guess that Crampton is piggybacking on Clark’s denial of infinite divine knowledge. Cf. The Incarnation, p62. As I’ve explained once before, this is based on his pre-Cantorian concept of the infinite.

So Clark’s solution is to substitute the finitude of God for the incomprehensibility of God. It’s for reasons like this that I don’t believe that either side had the better of the Clark Controversy.

<< That is, there must be a univocal point where truth in the mind of man coincides with truth in the mind of God. >>

This is an assertion, not an argument. Taken to its logical extreme, there must be one mind, not two. Indeed, that’s what Clark’s rationalism leads him to. He dissolves the subject/object duality in a wash of pantheistic idealism.

Crampton is assuming, without benefit of argument, that analogy without a point of identity reduces to equivocation. But this is an armchair theory of knowledge.

Human knowledge is often approximate. For example, we can often take things in at a glance without engaging in any sort of direct comparisons. I perceive that one side of the auditorium has more people seated than the other side. I don’t do this by a painstaking process of elimination, counting empty seats in a one-to-one correspondence.

Likewise, a chess-player with good sight-of-the-board can size up the game without thinking through every move. He relies on intuition.

I agree that if God knows A to be true, and I know A to be true, then we both know A to be true. But “univocity” is a linguistic term. And semantics is not the model of all knowledge.

<< “Scripture,” says Frame, “does not demand absolute precision of us, a precision impossible for creatures…. Indeed, Scripture recognizes that for sake of communication, vagueness is often preferable to precision.” >>

Crampton doesn’t like the sound of this statement. But just because you don’t like the consequences of a position in no way invalidates the position.

There is a measure of vagueness in the spoken and written word. For one thing, we have far more objects than words to name them. Hence, words function as abstract universals to capture concrete particulars. But the fit is approximate, precisely because the words are more general than the objects they take.

Moreover, the relation between word and object is an arbitrary social convention. There is no internal relation between word and object. Furthermore, definition is a circular exercise.

Yet we’re still able to communicate. And that’s because we don’t have to start from scratch, in stepwise fashion. God has equipped us with an innate capacity for classification. And he’s filled the world with natural kinds. In addition, we don’t learn things atomistically, as discrete particulars. Rather, we register relations and sets tout ensemble.

So the whole is already given in experience, through the holistic act of perception—as sensation and preconception unite. The Augustinian paradoxes of learning are fallacious because they assume a stepwise process from scratch.

<< Apparently the Van Tilians have forgotten the Reformed doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses it this way: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (1:7). >>

How is this inconsistent with Frame’s position? To the contrary, what the Confession has to say about the perspicuity of Scripture is carefully caveated.

In a footnote, Crampton also refers the reader to a critique of Frame’s position by Karlberg. But he doesn’t refer the reader to Frame’s reply, reprinted in appendices B and C of The Doctrine of God. How do we account for Campton’s omission? Is this due to ignorance or mendacity? Neither excuse does him much credit.

Who is Karlberg, anyway? Answer: Karlberg is a slavish little Klinean. And that’s his beef with Frame. Frame has made use of Kline, but Frame is not a lockstep Klinean, and for Karlberg, any deviation from his Master’s voice is unforgivable.

It is ironic that Frame’s orthodoxy would be measured by Kline and Kline’s doglike disciples when Frame’s view of church/state relations is far more faithful to the Westminster Divines than Kline’s desacralized theory of common grace.

Remember Lee Irons? He comes in for favorable mention in the archives of the Trinity Foundation.

Remember the heresy trial of Lee Irons? He got into hot water when his wife posted an essay defending same-sex civil marriage on the church website. Yet this was simply a logical and consistent application of Kline’s contra-confessional theory of common grace to the public square.

Irons was eventually defrocked on account of his antinomian theology, which is the lineal descendent of Kline. Irons’ canon lawyer was T. D. Gordon--a man who denies sola Scriptura and upholds the new perspective on Paul. Is this the sort of company that the Trinity Foundation is keeping these days?


Here are some good resources on CVT:

Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (P&R 1998)

John Frame, Cornelius Van Til (P&R 1995)


  1. I am wondering if anyone has read wherein the author presents defenses when speaking with presuppositionalists. I would be interested in your views on Witmer's talk.

  2. If you deny Clark's view of person, I have a question to ask you:

    Clark posited a two person theory to the incarnation that is tightly commensurate to his defintion of persons in the trinity. All Orthodox Christian that i am aware of teach as the 6th council, Christ has two wills, one human and one divine.

    All Reformed Christians that i am aware of teach that there is one will in the Trinity, a monergism. One determining will.

    If you believe the hypostatic union where the two wills are hypostatized into the Second person of the Trinity in one Person. Does this not deny Monergism?

  3. Amen for this edification. The Clarkians and crew do not like to mention just how controversial Gordon Clark really was. Tommy