Christianity and Idealism (Van Til)

Van Til, Cornelius. Christianity and Idealism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955.

Originally a collection of articles, this is actually a fascinating account of the final days of Anglo-American Hegelianism. When Van Til (and by extension, his interlocutors) say “idealism,” they do not mean it like Berkeley and others did, where the world is a product of the human mind. Not even Hegel meant that. Rather, for this kind of idealism, the Absolute is that which is either beyond all particulars or contains all particulars.

A note on terminology: a key concept for idealism is the concrete universal. If for Plato universals existed in some unattainable heaven, and where for Aristotle universals exist in the particular, for the later Idealists the universal contains the particulars.

For men like FH Bradley, reality is beyond the appearances. Reality is unreal to the degree that it is not comprehensible. This calls to mind the old Hegelian dictum: the real is the rational and the rational is the real.

Bernard Bonsanqet makes a similar argument: pluralism destroys knowledge (Van Til, 19). Unity must be basic to difference. I think this is correct and Van Til himself acknowledges its proximity to theism. Without a unity, everything is in flux. This means that the universe must be timeless. Now we are getting into dangerous waters. We are only a short step away from denying the passage of time altogether, as McTaggart later did.

As good as this sounds, Van Til highlights its weakness. It makes God and man correlative of one another. Being and nothing are correlative. All ends up as becoming. Yes, it’s pantheism. Another consequence is that there is no doctrine of creation, since particularity has always been there.

Van Til says the ontological Trinity is the true concrete universal. I think there is something to that. There is unity and particularity in the Trinity, but it does not function the same way as earlier Idealist models did. The unity for the Idealists served to ground the particulars. The difficulty here is that the particulars in the Trinity (i.e., the persons) are not functioning in the same way as idealist particulars are. Of course, Van Til never makes these claims, but it is an idea I have had for years when I read Van Tillians on the ontological trinity.

The book is worth getting to see how Van Til reacted to the last of the British Hegelians.

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