Sunday, September 16, 2007

James Swan, Systematic Theology, and Catholicism


James Swan, one the members of the “Team Apologian” crew, put up this morning, what may very well be his most ill-conceived post (in my subjective opinion), on either the AOMIN blog, or his own Beggar’s All blog. James is reading through Cornelius Van Til’s An Introduction To Systematic Theology and takes a quote from the book which references some “fifty-seven varieties of heresies with which our country [USA] abounds” and then tries to apply it to Catholic converts! I kid you not; here is the greater context:

I've been reading Van Til's An Introduction To Systematic Theology. Van Til notes systematic theology seeks to offer an ordered presentation of what the Bible teaches about God. He says "the study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work."

Here was the point that I found most interesting:

"It is but natural to expect that, if the church is strong because its ministry understands and preaches the whole counsel of God, then the church will be able to protect itself best against false teaching of every sort. Non-indoctrinated Christians will easily fall prey to the peddlers of Russellism, spiritualism and all of the other fifty-seven varieties of heresies with which our country abounds. One-text Christians simply have no weapons of defense against these people. They may be able to quote many Scripture texts which speak, for instance, of eternal punishment, but the Russellite will be able to quote texts which, by the sound of them and taken individually, seem to teach annihilation. The net result is, at best, a loss of spiritual power because of loss of conviction. Many times, such one-text Christians themselves fall prey to the seducers voice."

Of course, I had the converts to Roman Catholicism in mind, rather than Russellites. I wonder how many of these Catholic converts actually attended churches that proclaimed the whole council of God? A question I would ask is how many Catholic converts previously went to churches with strong systematic confessions of faith, like the Westminster Confession, and how often were they taught the confession, like in a Sunday School class, and how well did their minister cover all the doctrines in the confession of faith? I would expect some rather weak answers. (James Swan, http://www.aomin.org/index.php?itemid=2270 - italics in the original post.)


My-oh-my, where to begin…

Has James so quickly forgotten the fairly recent converts to Catholicism who not only went to “went to churches with strong systematic confessions of faith”, but also received seminary training in conservative Reformed schools; some of whom went on to pastor the type of church James makes reference to! (E.g. Scott Hahn, James Akin, Robert Sungenis, Steve Wood, and Jerry Matatics.)

And then there is myself. I was mentored and discipled by a ruling elder of the ultra conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who I had met at the Christian bookstore he was working in which specialized in classic Reformed works. After reading through the entire systematic theologies of Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, and W.G.T. Shedd (along with the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Longer and Shorter Catechisms, and numerous other Reformed works by such authors as B.B. Warfield, John Owen, John Murray, Jonathan Edwards, et al.), I became a member of the OPC. And my Reformed readings continued, but it was not long after my conversion that I began to see the incredible amount of schism that existed among the conservative Reformed churches. Their inability to exist together in ecclesiastical unity led to my deeper studies into history, including the early Church Fathers. (And we all know what Newman had to say about history!)


Now, I am certain that my response is not one of the “rather weak answers” James was hoping for when he penned his post. And I am quite sure that the examples of the Hahn, Akin, Sungenis, Wood, Matatics, and myself are not the only ones which make James’ post incredibly suspect.

But there is perhaps an even larger issue that needs to be addressed: the differing types of systematic theologies. Van Til (and James) acts as though the only systematic theologies that have been written are Reformed. Fact is there are Arminian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Catholic systematic theologies. And there is a considerable amount of diversity among the Reformed systematic theologies. How is the simply lay person going know which of the dozens of extant systematic theologies out there is one he needs to read and embrace?

I am not going to bore everyone with my personal favorites, but I would like to end this post on one important note: Van Til’s An Introduction To Systematic Theology is certainly not one of the better ones, even when we allow for the fact that it is only an “introduction”. Van Til was a brilliant philosopher, but not a great theologian; his teaching concerning the doctrine of the Trinity is but one example of his sometimes muddled thought. Van Til stated:

We do assert that God, that is the whole Godhead, is one person…He is one person. When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective “personality” may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality; He is absolute personality. Yet, within, the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences. (Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction To Systematic Theology, pp. 229, 230.)

Me thinks I smell a whiff of modalism…


Grace and peace,

David

14 comments:

Rhology said...

You do realise that English was not Van Til's 1st language, right? Why foist your own interps on his words? (I mean, you tell Prots they can't do that all the time.)

He said person and he said subsistences. ISTM you're just looking for sthg to badmouth.

Peace,
Rhology

David Waltz said...

Hello Rhology,

Welcome to my little blog. You posted:

>>You do realise that English was not Van Til's 1st language, right?>>

Me: Yes, his first language was Dutch. But, do you realize he came to the US when he was but 10, and that all of his subsequent schooling was in English? Further, the vast majority of his writings, lectures and sermons were given in English. I suspect that his English was/is probably better than most people born in the US.

>>Why foist your own interps on his words? (I mean, you tell Prots they can't do that all the time.)>>

Me: I did not interpret his words; I merely quoted them.

>>He said person and he said subsistences. ISTM you're just looking for sthg to badmouth.>>

Me: I have great respect for Dr. Van Til; and I suspect, a much greater respect than you probably have for any contemporary Catholic philosopher and/or theologian.

Now, I have a question for you: how do you interpret Van Til’s musings on the Trinity?


Grace and peace,

David

CrimsonCatholic said...

David:
I find it interesting that there was no mention of the potential bias of Van Til in trying to preserve his own Dutch Reformed heritage. Such bias seems to be a common (and unfounded) accusation against Catholics, but no one ever seems to admit that Reformed theologians might be trying to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear that Calvin handed them. That's my read on Van Til anyway; he seems to be completely uncritical of anything that comes out of his tradition. I admire your backbone in criticizing these guys whom you obviously respect. Van Til and others like him show how hard that can be even for extremely smart people to maintain the discipline to correct themselves when they're emotionally invested in the culture.

David Waltz said...

Hi Jonathan,

Excellent points. Though it is not very hard to find some pretty frank criticisms from Van Til’s pen directed at his American Reformed brothers, one must search long and hard for similar criticisms of his Dutch brothers.

After I found out that the 4th volume in the English translation project of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is being delayed until the middle of 2008, I went ahead and ordered the first 3 volumes, and have been slowly working my way through them. There is no question in my mind that Van Til borrowed wholesale, and pretty much uncritically, from Bavinck’s writings.


Grace and peace,

David

CrimsonCatholic said...

I suppose I am remiss in failing to note that Van Til did disagree with Dooyeweerd et al. on philosophical matters. I had in mind Dutch Reformed theology more than the associated philosophical movements, and it appears that your read of Bavinck essentially corroborates my opinion.

David Waltz said...

Jonathan,

I assumed (correctly is seems) that you were referring to theologians and not philosophers.

Just now found an interesting article online at First Things; here is a quote:

>>Among evangelical theologians in the twentieth century, this opposition to natural law found an especially influential voice in the scholarship and teaching of Cornelius Van Til, who argued that the unregenerate are "as blind as a mole" in matters of truth. "The sinner," cautions Van Til, "has cemented colored glasses to his eye which he cannot remove. And all is yellowed to the jaundiced eye." To be sure, most American evangelicals have never heard of Cornelius Van Til or his presuppositional theology. Nevertheless, his Word-centered epistemology makes him, along with Barth, a major reason American Protestantism became uncomfortable with the natural law tradition.

There is, of course, another factor that has contributed to the crisis in natural law thinking, and that factor has little to do with theology per se. There can be little doubt that much of American Protestantism’s reluctance derives from the close association of natural law with Roman Catholicism. For much of this century a virulent strain of anti-Catholic bigotry infused Protestant fundamentalism. Ironically, however, it is within the cultural dynamic of the historically hostile evangelical-Catholic relationship that we find an explanation for the renewed interest in natural law addressed by Cromartie and Budziszewski. (Dean C. Curry, “Written on the Heart - & Preserving Grace” -- http://sandbox.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3751&var_recherche=Van+Til .)>>

Though perhaps a bit too simplistic, Curry may be on to something…


Grace and peace,

David

pilgrim said...

I recently bought Budziszewski's book "Written on the Heart", but have yet to read it. I believe he was Protestant when he wrote it, but is now Catholic. Perhaps that illustrates why Protestants may want to keep their distance from natural law.

David Waltz said...

Hi Pilgrim,

Once you have finished the book, could you send me an email, letting me know what you thought of it?

Grace and peace,

David

pilgrim said...

Sure, but it may be a while.

Thos said...

David,

Interesting post. You have displayed greater perseverance than I at the Beggars All blog.

I didn't know of you/your blog - another OPC convert, wow! There seem to be many, and if any denomination is strict to its Confession (the WCOF) and teaches it carefully, it's the OPC! I have visited many OPC churches and am a PCA member. I just heard last night of an OPC pastor that uses the Book of Church Order for his personal devotions... Anyway, I'm wrestling with the Catholic and Orthodox claims, and was raised under the tutelage of the Heidelberg Catechism - I think to say that those considering conversion weren't properly schooled in Reformed doctrines is made bogus by my experience.

[Aside about Beggars All and my giving up over there - I wrote up a piece on whether their Reformed Baptist claim that True Catholics are hell-bound. Trying to explain it in their combox became too time-consuming.]

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

David Waltz said...

Hi Thos,

Welcome to my blog! You posted:

>>Anyway, I'm wrestling with the Catholic and Orthodox claims, and was raised under the tutelage of the Heidelberg Catechism - I think to say that those considering conversion weren't properly schooled in Reformed doctrines is made bogus by my experience.>>

Me: Truth be known, I am still “wrestling with the Catholic and Orthodox claims”. But, I am just not comfortable with any of the other options within the Christian paradigm. Catholicism ‘makes sense’ of the history of Christendom that no other denomination can do. I would also submit, apart from apart from the unique claims of Papal authority and jurisdiction, that almost all of the doctrines affirmed by the RCC can be found in one or more of the other ecclesiastical communities, especially those that deal with the gospel and salvation.

Anyway, so nice to see you posting here. Hope to see more in the near future.

God bless,

David

Pilgrim said...

David,
This is off topic, but I was wondering if you have read any of Fr. Giussani's books, and if so, what you thought of them? I'm trying to decide if I should add him to my need-to-read list of authors.
Thanks!

David Waltz said...

Hi Pilgrim,

The name is not ringing any bells. Is this the same Giussani you are thinking of:

http://www.communionliberation.ca/about/dg_bio/

If it is, I definitely have not read any of his works--if it is not, could you list a few book titles?

Grace and peace,

David

Pilgrim said...

That's him.