Cornelius Van Til. Common Grace and the Gospel. Ed. K. Scott Oliphint. 2nd ed. Philllipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015. 328 pp. $17.99.
In this second edition of Van Til’s 1972 volume Common Grace and the Gospel, Van Til expert Dr. K. Scott Oliphint offers a helpful and lengthy foreword and clarifying footnotes that illuminate this important work and provide a valuable aid for its comprehension, especially for those less familiar with Van Til’s thought. Van Til is probably most known for epistemology and apologetics, yet Oliphint in the foreword notes that “the foundation for everything Van Til sets forth is his thoroughly biblical and Reformed theology” (vii). Furthermore, Van Til begins his thinking about everything, including common grace, with the ontological trinity; “the reality of God as God must be the assumption and controlling reality behind everything else that is said” (ix, emphasis original). Oliphint spends the bulk of the foreword explaining and discussing the three themes that permeate Common Grace and the Gospel: fearless anthropomorphism, concrete thinking, and limiting concepts.
In the first essay Van Til provides a brief survey of the principles of Christian philosophy, which will help in understanding the literature dealing with common grace. He also highlights the main issues in the common grace debate of his day and shows that the question has no simple solution. Furthermore, through this essay we see the necessity and importance of both affirming and being critical of those who affirm common grace as well as those who deny it. The second essay looks at Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, investigating its general characteristics and then examining its positive and negative aspects before bringing these together into one concept. In bringing the two aspects together Van Til states, “In a general way we may affirm that, for Kuyper, common grace is primarily a restraining power of God, working either with or without man as an instrument, by which the original creation powers of the universe are given an opportunity for a certain development to the glory of God” (25). Van til also comments on the opposition from Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof and the three points at the center of that common grace debate.
Chapter 3 is by far the longest, weighing in at 83 pages. Here Van Til first provides a brief survey of the “recent” common grace debate, focusing on the reconstructionists (D. K. Schilder). The bulk of this chapter is in the second part, suggestions for the future. Van Til deals first with the danger of abstract thinking, applying the analysis to the Kuyper-Bavinck form of theological statement itself and noting the remnants of abstract thinking present in the epistemology of Kuyper, Bavinck, and Hepp. Second, Van Til addresses the positive line of concrete thinking, noting the importance of stressing the idea of the earlier and the later and the need to be fealessly anthropomorphic. “A fearless anthropomorphism based on the doctrine of the ontological trinity, rather than abstract reasoning on the basis of a metaphysical and epistemological correlativism, should control our concepts all along the line” (111).
In the next essay, “Particularism and Common Grace,” Van Til puts forth a standard objection to the Reformed doctrine of election and posits a hypothetical conference of Christian theologians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, orthodox Protestant and modern Protestant, tradtional Protestant and dialectical Protestant, to see who they would reply to this objector. He notes in particular those who speak for Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Barth. In the end, the objector is left with only the representative of Calvin. In the fifth essay Van Til continues to address objection to election, looking at Barthian, Romanist, and Remonstrant views of common grace. He concludes this essay explicitly affirming a point that’s beneath the surface at all times in this volume – the importance of holding a balanced view of common grace that neither veers to the right by denying common grace nor strays to the left by affirming a theory of common grace patterned after natural theology.
The next essay is a response to William Masselink’s Common Grace and Christian Education. Here Van Til responds to criticisms such as teaching absolute depravity rather than total depravity and holding to an absolutist position out of accord with the Reformed confessions. In the seventh essay, another response to criticism from Masselink, Van Til tackles the charges that he begins his system of thought with the idea of the Absolute Ethical Antithesis and that the laws of logic have been destroyed in the sinner. Chapter 8 is a review of Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics that originally appeared in The Westminster Theological Journal in 1968. The main idea that Van Til addresses in this review is whether Hoeksema’s work was helpful in maintaining the biblical teaching of the total depravity of man and the sovereign grace of God. He concludes that “Hoeksema did not succeed in advancing the cause of biblical and Reformed theology at the points of the ‘remnants,’ the ‘proofs,’ and the image of God” (251). Finally, in the last chapter, Van Til examines neo-orthodoxy and Jochem Douma’s comparison of the views of Kuyper, Schilder, and Calvin. This essay and the book as a whole concludes with the following:
The gospel of God’s sovereign grace to men can be presented to men for what it is in all its saving power only and alone if it is presented as being a challenge to repentance to the natural man at every point of his interest. If he does not repent and turn to Christ he will be lost and his culture with him. Only if the idea of common grace is Christ-centered and therefore biblically constructed can it help the Christian apologist as he pleads with men to forsake the wisdom of this world and accept the “foolishness” of the gospel of Christ, through which it pleases God to save those that believe.”
In this revised edition of Common Grace and the Gospel Oliphint and P&R have again offered a valuable gift of making Van Til more accessible. The foreword itself is bound to become a valuable resource for all with an interest in Van Til’s thought, especially for the beginning student. Here Oliphint explains key themes that recur throughout the volume, and when they do reappear the reader realizes how helpful the explanations in the foreword were. Oliphint also provides very helpful footnotes throughout the volume that explain possibly unfamiliar terms, clarify areas of Van Til’s thought that have been misunderstood, and notes categories and ideas central to his theology and apologetic. This second edition of Common Grace and the Gospel should be read not only by those interested in Van Til, but also by those who are passionate about Reformed theology/soteriology.
Thanks to my friends at P&R for the review copy!