On Monday, I mentioned how helpful I’ve found Cornelius Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology. I first read it during my first year in seminary. Recently, I’ve been re-reading it in Logos and taking advantage of digital highlighting. It’ll be interesting to compare what I highlighted then and now. In the meantime, I thought I’d pass along some of the quotes I can’t quite tweet.
On the different branches of study:
Exegesis takes the Scriptures and analyzes each part of it in detail. Biblical theology takes the fruits of the exegesis and organizes them into various units and traces the revelation of God in Scripture in its historical development. It brings out the theology of each part of God’s Word as it has been brought to us at different stages, by means of various authors. Systematic theology then uses the fruits of the labors of exegetical and biblical theology and brings them together into a concatenated system. Apologetics seeks to defend this system of biblical truth against false philosophy and false science. Practical theology seeks to show how to preach and teach this system of biblical truth, while church history traces the reception of this system of truth in the course of the centuries.
The creeds of the Church are, as far as their content is concerned, no more than a systematic statement of the truth of Scripture. They are distinguished from the systematic statement of Scripture given by systematic theology (a) by their brevity, limiting themselves as they do to the most essential matters; and (b) by their authoritative character, since they have been officially accepted as standards by the councils of the Church.
Creeds must be revised and supplemented from time to time. But it is not until systematic theology has progressed beyond the creeds that the creeds themselves can be revised.
What the church needs is a more exact formulation of its doctrines against heresies as they appear in every new and changing form, and a fuller statement of biblical truth.
On the purpose of systematic theology:
The question of value is not the first question we should ask. The question of truth and of duty is primary. It is a God-given duty that we should take the content of Scripture and bring it together into a systematic whole. It is plain that we are required to know the revelation that God has given us.
On systematic theology’s ability to balance us:
The unity and organic character of our personality demands that we have unified knowledge as the basis of our action. If we do not pay attention to the whole of biblical truth as a system, we become doctrinally one-sided, and doctrinal one-sidedness is bound to issue in spiritual one-sidedness. As human beings we are naturally inclined to be one-sided. One tends to be intellectualistic, another tends to be emotional, and still another tends to be activistic. One tends to be only prophetic, another only priest, and a third only king. We should be all these at once and in harmony. A study of systematic theology will help us to keep and develop our spiritual balance. It enables us to avoid paying attention only to that which, by virtue of our temperament, appeals to us.
On the importance of systematic theology for preachers:
There are many “orthodox” preachers today whose study of Scripture has been so limited to what it says about soteriology that they could not protect the fold of God against heresies on the person of Christ. Ofttimes they themselves even entertain definitely heretical notions on the person of Christ, though perfectly unaware of the fact.
If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a 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.
The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the ministry has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually.
On the importance of a Christian method:
The question of method is not a neutral something. Our presupposition of God as the absolute, self-conscious Being, who is the source of all finite being and knowledge, makes it imperative that we distinguish the Christian theistic method from all non-Christian methods.
On the importance of a two-level understanding of knowledge:
For this reason, Christians must also believe in two levels of knowledge, the level of God’s knowledge which is absolutely comprehensive and self-contained, and the level of man’s knowledge which is not comprehensive but is derivative and re-interpretative. Hence we say that as Christians we believe that man’s knowledge is analogical of God’s knowledge.
On God’s incomprehensibility:
At the same time, God is incomprehensible to us because he is ultimately rational. It is not because God is irrational that we cannot comprehend him; it is because God is rational, and in the nature of the case, ultimately rational, that we cannot comprehend him. It is not because God is darkness that he is incomprehensible to us, but it is because he is light, and, in the nature of the case, absolute light. God dwelleth in a light that no man can approach unto. We are not blind because of the light of God; it is only in God’s light that we see light.
On distinguishing rationalism from irrationalism:
In other words, modern thought believes in an ultimate irrationalism, while Christianity believes in an ultimate rationality. It is difficult to think of two types of thought that are more radically opposed to one another. It is the most fundamental antithesis conceivable in the field of knowledge. It is nothing short of astounding that orthodox theologians should fail to make this basic distinction between Christian and non-Christian thought. The very foundation of all Christian theology is removed if the concept of the ultimate rationality of God be given up. It is upon it alone that we hope to build anything like a systematic interpretation.
On the nature of all human knowledge:
All analogical knowledge may be called theological knowledge. We can even, if we wish, identify the concept of analogical knowledge with the concept of theological knowledge. We cannot do without God any more when we wish to know about physics or psychology than when we wish to know about our soul’s salvation. Not one single fact in this universe can be known truly by man without the existence of God. Even if man will not recognize God’s existence, the fact of God’s existence none the less accounts for whatever measure of knowledge man has about God. We can readily see that this must be so. The idea of creation is implied in the idea of the self-sufficient God. Now if every fact in this universe is created by God, and if the mind of man and whatever the mind of man knows is created by God, it goes without saying that the whole fabric of human knowledge would dash to pieces if God did not exist and if all finite existence were not revelational of God.
I could definitely, and will definitely add more, but these quotes from just the first two chapters give you a nice flavor for the book. Van Til can be heavy reading at times and is not always the clearest communicator. I’ve found that his thought is worth the effort to dig into and if you need some help, I’d recommend getting John Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought or Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. The former is the best introductory overview while the latter digs deeply into Van Til’s apologetic methodology. I would commend both to you and all three authors as well!