Not So Fast! – Comments on Keith Mathison’s “Christianity and Van Tillianism”

First there was J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. Then there was Cornelius Van Til’s Christianity and Barthianism. And now there is Keith Mathison’s “Christianity and Van Tillianism.” Machen’s contention was that Liberalism is not Christianity but an entirely different religion. Van Til was making the same point regarding Barthianism when he likewise contrasted it with Christianity. Now, there is Mathison’s article. On the one hand I quite like the title as there are definitely some differences between Van Til and orthodox Christianity, and the title gives Van Tillians a taste of their own medicine in so bluntly rejecting another’s views. But on the other hand it is a stretch to consider Van Tillianism in general as something other than Christianity. Van Til was wrong in many particulars but cannot be likened to Barth or Liberalism as propounding in whole a religion other than Christianity. Maybe I’m reading too much into Mathison’s title; he does in fact refer to Van Til as “A godly Christian churchman.”

The criticisms Mathison gives of Van Tillianism are essentially ones that Gordon H. Clark and his students have been raising for decades. Van Til’s “maddening revisionist use of vocabulary,” his “almost complete lack of biblical exegesis,” and his “fundamental ambiguity,” are all troubling methodological issues that have been noted repeatedly by Clarkians. But even more troubling are Van Til’s actual views. Here Mathison again says little that Clarkians haven’t been saying for decades. Van Til has “a lack of clarity on what unbelievers know.”[1] Van Til “at times makes statements that appear to contradict these general affirmations of confessional Trinitarian theism.”[2] Van Til “misrepresents” “the teaching of a number of historical figures.”[3] Writing for the popular Tabletalk magazine, Mathison gets more visibility than anyone writing for The Trinity Review or some other Clark-friendly publication. But while in most cases it was Gordon Clark who first noted these problems in Van Til, Mathison never mentions Clark’s work in his article. Clark isn’t that scary—R. C. Sproul himself thought highly of Clark and predicted that of all twentieth-century theologians it would be Clark who would still be read in 500 years time.

I agree with many of Mathison’s arguments against Van Til, but when it comes to disposing of presuppositionalism, I must say “Not so fast!” There is another form of presuppositionalism and it lacks all of the problems that Mathison has detailed against Van Til. That is, Clarkian presuppositionalism; the simple (but profound) contention that we start with the Bible as the basis of all Truth.



1“But, may I ask, when you say knowledge is knowledge and love, what does the second knowledge mean? Naturally the definiendum cannot occur in the definition. How does this second knowledge occur? Within this strict sphere has the regenerate no common ground with the unregenerate? My impression is that you oscillate between love and that second knowledge to an extent which makes your simple word knowledge too ambiguous for exact usage.” – Clark to Van Til, August 28, 1937, Clark and His Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark, Douma and Juodaitis, Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2017, p. 64)

2 “The Trinity,” Gordon H. Clark, The Trinity Review, 1979. (See also:

3 See for example Gordon Clark’s “Studies in the Doctrine of The Complaint,” Appendix C of The Presbyterian Philosopher.

14 thoughts on “Not So Fast! – Comments on Keith Mathison’s “Christianity and Van Tillianism””

  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention Doug! I have not got Tabletalk for a few years now but I will have to borrow a friends copy to read this article. Your assessment of the title is appropriate although Mathison was probably going for shock like Robbins did with his book “Can the Bible Presbyterian Church be Saved?” or something along those lines.

    As a Classical Apologist however I do not think Clark’s apologetic is much better than Van Til’s! J.V. Fesko has a good book out called “Reforming Apologetics”.

    1. I hope to write something on Fesko’s book at some point. He actually references my The Presbyterian Philosopher! So I know that I’ve made it in life. 🙂

        1. Are the other parts of Waldron’s review available? What is fascinating about his review is that all of the problems he notes that have come out presuppositionalism (such as Theonomy, and deviation from Classical Theism) are again from the Van Til school!, not from Clark!

  2. Mathison must have had a tremendous headache after having slaved over such an essay figuring out how to write it without one mention of Gordon Clark – owww, my aching head!

  3. Doug, I have never read anything by you on Theonomy. If you have would you kindly reference it? As you know I’m a yuge! fan of GHC and I’ve always thought JRob was usually right. However, JRob’s criticisms of Theonomy left me thinking he was whacking a straw man. I think GHC was a theonomist. Now that ought to stimulate some comment, huh?

    Blessings and merry Christmas, December 2019!

    1. I had it from Clark’s son-in-law Dwight Zeller that Clark did not agree with Theonomy (as Bahnsen outlined it).

      I also have notes of Clark’s critiquing a paper of Bahnsen’s, but that was on apologetics not Theonomy.

      Well, here are some things I’ve written. In the second post I answer the question with a “no.”

      So Clark was not a theonomist.

      And neither was Van Til.

      1. >He certainly believed we should get our ethics from Scripture, he just didn’t come to the same conclusions as Bahnsen/Rushdoony etc.<

        Theonomy like so many "onomies and ologies" is not monolithic in that everyone who claims the name agrees on the details. My view of theonomy or government by God must first answer the question How do you know what government or what laws God commands? The answer to this question raises a whole host of other questions regarding which laws, e.g., sabbath laws, have or have not been abrogated. My simple and hopefully not simplistic answer is:

        If you're going to have a government of laws the knowledge forming the basis of the laws of that government should be found in God's revealed law and or the general equity thereof.

        I can't imagine a Clarkian or really any reformed man objecting to this construct simple though it may be. GHC believed any knowledge of ethics came from Scripture and there is no basis for a just law that does not find its origins there.


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