How to Read Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel

September 10, 2015

by Scott Oliphint

As Van Til notes in the beginning of Common Grace and the Gospel, this book is a collection of essays. The essays were written over a period of (roughly) twenty-five years. I provide comments throughout the book in an attempt to clarify and explain Van Til’s arguments. In order to understand this important book, here I want to introduce a general point about the uniqueness of his approach to common grace, and then I will mention three overriding themes (discussed in detail in my foreword) that are found throughout this book, and that must, therefore, guide the reader through each essay.

Van Til’s Third Way

First, the more general comment. Throughout this collection of essays, Van Til wants to provide a “third way” to think about “the common grace problem.”

Going off to the right by denying common grace [as with Hoeksema] or going off to the left by affirming a theory of common grace patterned after the natural theology of Rome [as in some of Kuyper’s formulations] is to fail, to this extent, to challenge the wisdom of the world (p. 148).

The “third way” that Van Til proposes will be a way that goes neither to the left nor to the right. Unwilling to move “to the right,” Van Til will not deny common grace. Such a denial, as he will make clear, is unbiblical, and it presupposes an improper application of the rules of thinking. Those who deny common grace think “abstractly” and “deductively,” so that certain truths of Scripture are squeezed out because they cannot fit the constraints of abstract reasoning.

It is impossible to understand the beauty of Reformed theology properly until the theology in this book becomes a part of our theological thinking as well.

The primary point to keep in mind, therefore, with respect to the rejection of the doctrine of common grace (which Van Til opposes) is that it is based on a fallacious logical deduction from the truth of God’s eternal decree, a decree both to elect a people and to pass over others. Such deductions deal with “abstractions” and thus fail to be biblically concrete. In the Preface, Van Til summarizes for us “the point of view that binds the several chapters of this book together.” The “point of view” of which Van Til speaks is that, due to the Christian notion of a “limiting concept,” “…there is an intelligible, though not an exhaustive, intellectually penetrable basis for human experience.” Not only so, but they undermine a biblical philosophy of history. It is this practice of fallacious deductions that Van Til is concerned to address, and he addresses it with deep biblical content in each of these essays (though his terms may not, on the surface, betray that content).

So Van Til cannot move to the right. Neither, however, will his “third way” move “to the left;” it will not allow for a notion of neutral concepts or activities (as in the “theology of Rome”) in which there can be no Christian challenge because there is thought to be, in such concepts or activities, no real, actual rebellion against God. This is the view of common grace that is most predominant in current discussions. There can be no view of common grace in which it is supposed that the Christian and non-Christian have certain concepts and ideas which are, at root, in “common.” This kind of “commonality” can be no part of “common grace,” according to Van Til, in part because if such “commonality” were the case there could be no challenge to the non-Christian in those very areas of his life and thinking. In this view of common grace, there are areas, likely large and important areas, in which the principles of Christian truth cannot—even should not—apply. Such thinking does not give due credit to the biblical and Reformed notion of the antithesis; it presumes that a person’s status before God is irrelevant except for “churchly” activities.

Three fundamental and interconnected themes are central to Van Til’s doctrine of common grace.

Three Central Themes for Reading Van Til’s Book

Because Van Til will not move to the right or to the left in his articulation of the doctrine of common grace, some significant revision is necessary. That revision has its focus in three fundamental and interconnected themes that are central to Van Til’s doctrine of common grace. It is crucial to understand these themes and to recognize their presence throughout this book. They are assumed throughout each chapter in the book and provide an interpretive grid through which to read them all. These themes are not necessarily dominant terms that Van Til repeats; rather they are dominant concepts that serve to help us understand the substance of Van Til’s arguments and his development of the doctrine of common grace throughout each essay. Using Van Til’s own language, then, these three themes are: (1) Fearless anthropomorphism; (2) Concrete thinking; and (3) Limiting concepts. I discuss each in my foreword.

A Biblical Way of Doing Theology

The crucial importance of this collection of essays is not only Van Til’s substantial and significant “purging” of unbiblical elements that made their way into this doctrine. If that is all Van Til did in this work, it would still be important. But in this collection of essays Van Til does what, in my estimation, he does best throughout his career: he teaches us how to be more thoroughly biblical in the way that we think. Learning to think biblically is a lifelong task; it is the warp and woof of what it means to love God with all of our mind. Van Til gives us tools that too few in the church have given, so that the task of thinking biblically can be, rather than a burden, a sanctifying delight.

My own conviction is that it is impossible to understand the beauty of Reformed theology (or of Van Til’s thought) properly until the theology in this book, including the way of doing theology, becomes a part of our theological thinking as well.


See Dr. Oliphint’s newly released edition of Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel, with new introduction and explanatory notes throughout.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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