23 May, 2019

A Break-Down of (and Response to) the Issues Surrounding “Paradox,” “Apparent Contradictions,” and “Van Tillianism,” etc.

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Common Grace Considered (2019 edition), pp. 306-312]

Those who profess to be Calvinists and who hold to the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity are committed to the truth of the sovereignty of God in the work of salvation. That sovereignty is expressed also in the decree of election and reprobation, according to which God determines and wills that some whom He has chosen in Christ be saved and others be damned in the way of their sin.

This insistence of Calvinism on election and reprobation stands diametrically opposed to the idea of the “gracious gospel offer to all men.” The “gracious gospel offer” means exactly that God wills the salvation of all men, earnestly desires it and announces His desire in the preaching of the gospel. The question then is: How can God both will the salvation of the elect alone on the one hand, and the salvation of all men on the other hand? This would seem to be an insurmountable problem.
Efforts to overcome the problem have been made by the adoption of a new and novel theory of the knowledge of God. I briefly outlined the idea, two articles ago, and quoted R. Scott Clark as a proponent and defendant of this position. He was not, however, the author of it. The first one, so far as I know, to develop this idea was Cornelius Van Til, who introduced the idea in connection with his defense of the “well-meant gospel offer” when he was professor in Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His position was a part of the so-called “Clark–VanTil” controversy over the question of the incomprehensibility of God.
Briefly, the position of those who defend “apparent contradiction” is this. God’s knowledge of Himself and of all things is infinite and divine. But because of His greatness, mere man, with his limited capacity for knowledge, is unable to know as God knows. Hence, what knowledge of God man has is limited, analogical and not identical with God’s knowledge. There are, so to speak, areas in which God’s knowledge of all things is so much greater than our knowledge, that what we know, while it may seem to be contradictory, is nevertheless perfect in God. Hence, in our perception, God’s will to save all and God’s will to save some appear to be contradictory, but in God, the two are perfectly compatible with each other.
Various terms have been used to describe the discrepancy between God’s knowledge of all things and our knowledge of what God reveals. Sometimes our knowledge is described as containing “apparent contradictions,” that is, ideas which, while they seem contradictory to us, are not contradictory to God. Our knowledge is analogical knowledge, that is, our knowledge is only an analogy of God’s knowledge of the same proposition.

In this installment of our discussion of the subject of the “well-meant gospel offer,” I want to make some remarks about this strange argument behind which defenders hide themselves, for the argument, for some inexplicable reason, has become a keystone in the defense of what is obviously an unbiblical position.
I am aware of the fact that to repudiate such a position is to invite the charge of rationalism. But, once again, as I said in a previous installment concerning the charge of “Hyper-Calvinism,” it is easy to call names, but it is more difficult to come with sound biblical exegesis and hard study to learn what the Scriptures say. I am not a rationalist, and in fact hate rationalism with great intensity. Rationalism is the proud insistence that we with our minds can know things better than God, for our minds are the canon of all truth. I had my fill of the siren call of rationalism in my years of the study of philosophy in college. It is the sin of intellectual pride. If I remember correctly, Dorothy Sayers, in her book Born to be King, makes intellectual pride the chief sin of Judas Iscariot, and the deepest reason why he betrayed his Lord.
To bow in humility before the final authority of the Word of God is not rationalism; it is the calling of everyone who insists on being faithful to the truth of God. But, and here is the point that needs emphasis more than anything else, when it comes to this question of “apparent contradiction,” if God can both will the salvation of all men and will the salvation only of the elect, then Scripture is no more the canon of truth and the source and fountain of all our knowledge of God. If Scripture presents us with propositions that are logically contradictory, it is impossible to trust Scripture to reveal anything true about God.
This, it seems to me, is easy to demonstrate. If I pick up a book that is intended to teach me the basics of arithmetic, and I learn in chapter 1 that 2 + 2 = 7, I would not want to rely on that book to tell me anything about arithmetic. Or, even worse, if the first chapter of the book teaches me that 2 + 2 sometimes = 4, but sometimes = 9, I would probably put the book down as being totally unable to teach me anything I need to know about arithmetic.

This is equally true of Scripture. If Scripture tells me in one place that God loves all men and wants all men to be saved, and somewhere else that God loves only His people whom He wills to save, then I cannot trust Scripture to tell me anything about God that is true. My knowledge of God may, as the defenders of the “well-meant gospel offer” say, be analogical; but my knowledge of arithmetic has got to be more than analogical. My teacher may say, 2 + 2 = 4, and my arithmetic book may say, 2 + 2 = 9 (or worse, my arithmetic book may say both are true); but my teacher will not earn my trust if she says, “Well, both can be true, because our knowledge of this equation is analogical. Both are arithmetic propositions; both have to do with addition of numbers; and so the analogy between them is sufficient to accept both as true. The arithmetic book was written by a man far superior to us in the field of mathematics, and so we, of lesser minds, can only understand that in the mind of the author of the book, the two thoughts are harmonious. We lesser minds will have to put up with the contradiction.”
If Scripture reveals contradictory propositions, it is impossible for us to know anything about God, for Scripture may be telling us something that lies beyond our comprehension. Scripture, after all, is written by God. We are mere men.
I wonder sometimes, and really suspect, that the idea, so frequently promoted even in conservative church circles, that what Scripture says is relative, but not absolute truth, is not the fruit of this nonsense about “apparent contradiction.” I read a report submitted to the highest assembly of a “conservative” denomination on the question of creationism vs. evolutionism; the report opted for evolutionism (of the theistic brand—if there is such a thing) and justified its rejection of the clear teaching of Scripture on the grounds that Scripture spoke differently to different people in different areas of the world and at different times in the world’s history. Scripture may very well have meant to ancient people that God created the world in six days of 24 hours; but we, in our scientific age, are obligated to interpret Scripture differently in order to make it relevant to our times. This is a flat-out denial of the divine inspiration of Scripture.
But does not the position that we can understand Scripture because there are no logical errors in it make us rationalists? Does it not lead to the position that God is not incomprehensible, but can be understood by mere mortals? Is not our position “the epitome of pride” when it claims that man is able to understand God?
The charge must be answered.
Reformed people, including Calvin, have always insisted that God is, indeed, infinite and beyond all human comprehension. He is far, far above all His creation, which He made and which He upholds by His providence. He is, in His knowledge of Himself infinitely greater than Scripture, which reveals Him. Our knowledge of God is roughly comparable to the water in a small thimble compared with the vast expanse of oceans, seas, lakes and rivers. Calvin speaks of the miracle of Scripture in which the infinite God stoops down to whisper in our ear concerning Himself and must, because of our humanity and sin, speak “baby-talk.” I believe that. But “baby-talk” is still the truth.
There is one more important point. Scripture is not a book that gives us some information about God, but Scripture has the power to bring us to God, through Jesus Christ, who is revealed in Scripture. This knowledge that Scripture gives us is the knowledge of the one with whom we can live in covenant fellowship. The knowledge we have is personal, experiential, saving knowledge of God revealed in Christ. It is the knowledge of God as our Friend, our Bridegroom, the one with whom we live in most intimate fellowship. When we are finally in heaven and see Christ—not through a mirror darkly, but face to face—we will say: “He is the same as I knew him while I was on earth. He is exactly the one in whom I believed as He described Himself on the pages of Scripture. He is far greater, far more beautiful, far more wonderful; but He is the same. I may exclaim with the Queen of Sheba, “The half has not been told me,” but the half that was told me was correct in every respect. He does not now—He never did—love every man. His blood was not spilled on Calvary for all men, but for me—and this innumerable host of redeemed of which I am a part.
Sometimes a man and a woman who have never seen each other carry on a courtship by mail. It would be a dreadful thing if all the letters they exchanged were only “analogies” of what these two actually were. Both are human; one is a male and the other a female. But if they did not describe themselves as they truly were, then when they finally met, both would say, Your letters lied; your personality is entirely different; further, my impression was that you love just me and now I learn you love all kinds of others. You are different from what I was told in your mail.” The one would not, I am sure, satisfy the one to whom he was engaged by saying, “Well, the knowledge of myself that I gave you was ‘analogical.’ In my thinking, the two are not contradictory.” So it must be with those who speak of apparent contradictions in our knowledge of God.
The only surprise we will have in heaven will be the surprise of the overwhelming greatness of the glory of God, which glory we now see only by way of passing glimpses. But it forever shall be the same glory.
Does this mean that we can comprehend God? Of course it means no such thing. There is a profound difference between comprehending something, that is, having exhaustive knowledge of something, and knowing something. They are two different aspects of knowledge. I can have the latter without having the former. Knowledge is organic.
The wonder of knowledge, even in this world, is like that. I know a rose bush very well. I have some in my flower gardens. I know a rose bush sufficiently well that I can recognize a rose bush wherever I go in the world and whatever variety of rose I see. I know how to prevent diseases in the bush. I know what kind of fertilizer it must have. No one can deceive me by coming with an orchid and telling me that it is a rose. Nevertheless, there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of botanists who know rose bushes far better than I. They can write books about roses that are learned treatises and scientific explanations of the life of a rose bush and its intricate parts. Whether they have exhaustive knowledge of roses is another thing. No man has exhaustive knowledge of anything in God’s creation. Nevertheless, if you ask me, “Do you know a rose bush?” My answer would be, “Yes, of course.” If he would ask, “Do you enjoy roses?” my response would be, “Indeed I do!” In other words, a true knowledge of anything is not an exhaustive knowledge. A true knowledge of God is not, need not be, cannot be, never into all eternity will be an exhaustive knowledge. But if someone would ask me, “Do you know God?” my answer would be, without hesitation, “Yes, of course, I know God. We spoke together this morning.” And if the questioner would persist, “Is your knowledge of Him as He truly is?” My answer would be emphatically in the affirmative, because if I did not know Him as He truly is, I do not know Him at all. But if, again, the questioner would persist and ask whether I “know all that there is to know” of God, I would only look at him in amazement that he should ask such a question. “Why, of course not. He is the infinite One, beyond all human comprehension.”
We know Him from the sacred Scriptures as He is revealed in Jesus Christ. We have such true knowledge of Him that we know what is true about Him and what is a lie. We know Him intimately and personally as our Friend and Redeemer. That is the joy of our knowledge of Him.
To claim that He both loves every man and, at the same time, loves only some men gives me no knowledge of God, but is convincing proof that they who claim this do not know Him—not as He is revealed in the holy Scriptures. That is the truth concerning this cruel description of a God filled with contradictions.

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