Many who follow the theology of Cornelius Van Til also support strict subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Examples include Morton H. Smith1and R. Scott Clark.2 Even a whole denomination, the recently-defunct RPCUS (1983-2020) was committed to both Strict Subscriptionism and Van Tillian Apologetics.3 But for all the support of the Westminster Confession among Van Tillians, there is at least one considerable—I believe irreconcilable—difference between the theology of the Confession and the theology of Van Til.
As one reads from WCF Chapter 1, Article 5, the phrase, “the consent of all the parts” is easily overlooked.
WCF I, 5: We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
While the major point of that article is that the Holy Spirit alone gives us full assurance of the truth of the Scriptures, it first notes various arguments which “abundantly evidence” to man that the Bible is the Word of God. Included among those evidences for the truth of the Holy Scripture the Confession points to “the consent of all the parts.”
This phrase has been described by various commentators on the confession in the following ways:
“The internal marks of a divine origin in the Bible are such as—(1.) The phenomena its presents of a supernatural intelligence: in unity of design developed through its entire structure, although it is composed of sixty-six separate books, by forty different authors, writings at intervals through sixteen centuries, in its perfect freedom from all the errors incident to the ages of its production, with regard to facts or opinions of whatever kind…” – A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession of Faith, A Commentary, p. 36
“the entire harmony of their several parts, though written by different persons, and in different ages” – Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 14.
“The consent or logical consistency of the whole is important; for if the Bible contradicted itself, we would know that some of it would be false.” – Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe, p. 18.
“The Bible, though written by many different prophets and apostles, who lived in different times and places, and under very different circumstances, customs and the like, has never been shown to contradict itself. (Many people say that the Bible contradicts itself, but no one has yet proved that it does even in a single instance.)” – G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes, p. 11.
“The majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts. Is that not an interesting affirmation to make in the seventeenth century? When the Enlightenment philosophers laid an ax to the root of the tree of biblical authority, they intended to chop down all the alleged inconsistencies and contradictions. Even in light of the higher criticism to which I was exposed in my academic background, I have been most impressed by Scriptures incredible symmetry. The most infinitesimal details in Jeremiah or Ezekiel fit together so perfectly with what was proclaimed centuries later by James, John, or Paul. This harmony of Scripture is a beautiful melding and merging together in a unified proclamation of truth. This confession, like other Protestant and Roman Catholic confessions, cites the unity and coherence of Scripture (“the consent of all the parts”) as a testimony to its divine origin.” – R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, p. 16
I believe it is accurate to summarize the consent of all the parts as the agreement of all the parts; not only between the various authors, but within each book and even down to “the most infinitesimal details.” The evidence of the consent of all the parts is the lack of evidence of contradiction.
Van Til’s theory of paradox is at odds with this point of the confession. While the Confession says that an evidence to man of the truth of the Scriptures is the consent of all its parts, Van Til’s theory has it that in the Scriptures there are various paradoxes that while resolvable in God’s mind cannot be reconciled in the mind of any man. For Van Til, man cannot see the consent of all the parts; it is not an evidence to man.
A theory that man cannot see consent between some parts of the Scripture is a theory that denies that man can see the consent of all the parts. If there were some small number of paradoxes in the Scriptures then there is only the consent of MOST of the parts. This is not a very strong evidence for truth of the Scriptures. Surely the consent of most of the parts is a feature of many well-written books. The confession makes the greater claim that the Scriptures evidence their divine author and truth with the consent of all the parts. And to be clear, this is an evidence TO MAN. The confession is not claiming merely that God knows that the parts of the Scriptures all consent, but that the evidence of such is visible to man. The consent of all the parts is not merely an intrinsic property of the Scriptures that is assumed, but an observable evidence.
Van Til’s theory of paradox goes further however. He does not limit the number of paradoxes in the Scriptures, but claims “all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.” (Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 142) The result of this theory is not merely a reduction to consent of most of the parts, but results in a consent of NONE of the parts.
Perhaps a Good-Faith Subscriptionist and Van Tillian like Lane Keister4 would escape the problem in taking an exception to the confession regarding “the consent of all the parts.” The better move would be to reject Van Til’s theory of paradox.
1 The Subscription Debate: Studies in Presbyterian Polity and The Case for Full Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church in America (Greenville: GPTS Press, 1992.)
2 Granted R. Scott Clark subscribes to the Three Forms of Unity (as he is ordained in the URNCA) and not to the WCF.
3 See: “RPCUS Distinctive and the Westminster Standards”, by Rev. John Otis, The Counsel of Chalcedon, 2004, Issue 2, pp. 9-16.