Van Til, the Full-Orbed Life, and the Spirit of Reconstruction

When Van Til got Crazy PoliticalEmilyCarr-Indian-Church-1929

by Dr. Joel McDurmon

Jan 2015

Cornelius Van Til usually did not express his view on politics and government. But in one place that he did, it came as a worldview tidal wave. I would like to share that with you today. It is not just political, it is crazy political—and in perhaps the most profound way it could be done, by anyone.

distant sunPreviously we discussed the question of presuppositionalism and Christian Reconstruction, or theonomy, particularly in regard to certain claims by John Muether, Greg Bahnsen, and especially the work of Cornelius Van Til. I gave you one of the few examples of where Van Til’s worldview trumped Van Til’s amillennial profession, and erupted in a profusion of the triumph over sin and darkness worldwide and in history. Using Greg Bahnsen’s phrase, we called it Van Til’s “spirit of reconstruction.”evening cross

This study began a few days ago when Gary North dropped by my office for a visit. He reads Van Til every Sunday afternoon, “Just to make sure I didn’t miss any,” he said, as I recall. And he found this time he had missed something. Buried deep in the Van Til corpus is a selection of essays on education, given probably in the early 1930s. They were published in two places: once in a book on foundations jointly-authored with Louis Berkhof, and then again in a collection of only Van Til’s essays on education. The essay in question is, “The Full-Orbed Life.” North quipped, “I have never read anything like this.”

He went on to relate how Van Til covered the past three hundred years of intellectual history with fiery metaphoric descriptions of how intellectual history manifests as real history. The whole becomes a sweeping panorama of how worldview and all areas of life are inseparably intertwined, and how a Christian worldview ought to interpret the various historical manifestations.

Even though Van Til didn’t express his political opinions often, the way he uses particular historical and political concepts in this essays provides an insight into how he viewed them. As it was with the previous article on how reconstructionism logically flows from his worldview, so here we can see that several of the assessments implied in his analyses fall clearly in line with even the most radical of Christian Reconstruction views.

What follows are some of the highlights. Van Til begins early on by singling out “modernism” and its great hope of pacifying the savages of mankind through Enlightenment:

Modern men said they knew where they were going. They claimed to have a definite objective in mind. If only the human intellect was given freedom in its exercise it would carve out for itself a marvelous estate of bliss in the unlimited and ungoverned territories of space and time. The few “Indians” that would be there could easily be subdued. Given full freedom the human intellect could educate the rising generation into complete happiness.

Thus, roughly stated, ran the slogan of the eighteenth century. It was the revolutionary war of intellectual independence that then was fought. And the battle was won. Rationalism gained control in many of the institutions of learning. There was traditionalism still, but the colony of rationalists was large enough to give their principles a fair trial. And a fair trial these principles of Rationalism had. Did they enable man to live the full-orbed life? We need but follow the course of events to find the answer.[1]

But what of this “revolutionary war?” Was it to bring about the freedom which it promised? Some thought it did, but there were other factors involved that lent momentum to a more ambitious faction. Van Til notes the factor inherent in too many such wars:

It was soon discovered that the struggle against a common foe had furnished the only cohesive principle binding the Rationalist colonies together. When the common foe had disappeared, the principle of cohesion had also disappeared.

There are, unfortunately, people for whom the loss of hegemony politically is a great threat. These will be the first and loudest to proclaim the virtues of “Union.” And we had such, beginning as early as the 1780s, notably under the federalist wing of the American framers, famously in Washington’s own Farewell Address. Intellectually speaking, the era was one of debate between freedom at the expense of government—more Jefferson style—or “strong energetic government” at the expense of individual liberties. Van Til speaks:

Some seemed to tremble whether the intellect of man even when untrampled and free was equal to the vastnesses and deeps of reality. Friction soon arose. A national constitution had to be adopted and no one had power or authority to do it. In desperation the drivers of the intellect when met in Constitutional Assembly exceeded all their delegated powers and provided for a government strongly centralized. The states could not secede at will or whim. Why then should they join? For the sake of life itself. To be or not to be that was the question. Thus it came about that self-contradiction based upon negation furnished the mortar for the imposing capital of Rationalism. It was a modus-vivendi nothing more; the civil war was in the offing when the revolutionary war was scarcely over.

There were other intellectual manifestations attendant to the political ones, but here is the metaphor Van Til applies to them all: a constitutional convention which exceeded its delegated powers and created a strong, centralized government.

This was, of course, the objection of the losing faction at the time. Today it is conceded in some scholarly forums that the Convention exceeded its powers, but it is almost universally applauded as necessary for national survival—just as Van Til said satirically above. Today, also, this fact is lamented only by the more radical of reconstructionists: Gary North, myself, and in addition to us the Covenanter tradition, some Southern Presbyterians, and the perhaps less religiously-motivated League of the South.

But Van Til knew, and his criticism of the Rationalism of the era assumes that he accepted the anti-federalist view of that event. And just as many of them had predicted as early as 1787, Van Til noted that the settlement entailed “the civil war” from the beginning.

But, as Van Til goes on, what followed the Rationalist settlement was Romanticism, and it was not the antidote. It only meant further trouble of the same sort:

But when once more the time for reconstruction came, the apostles of the heart had great difficulties facing them. The eighteenth century Rationalism had fought against a certain universal law, but the nineteenth century fought against all universal law. The Constitutional Assembly of Rationalism had to overstep its rights in order to frame a constitution, but the heroes of the heart were not even able to call a convention. No one would delegate any authority at all; all feared the capitalists of the intellect. The spectre of petrification stared them in the face whenever any renegade dared to speak of constructive thought. They believed in the future, not in the past. They wanted to live themselves out, not to be cramped in once more. Zola became the literary hero of the day; Walt Whitman’s terrific sympathy surged in their bosom.

You can see several decades passing in this paragraph: from the Romantics through Marxism/Socialism all the way to early Progressivism. Van Til does not linger. He moves right on into the evils Progressivism became. It is one of the most powerful passages he ever wrote:

Then that Titan Time turned the hands of the century clock once more. A new generation arose that knew not its Moses who had led their fathers out of the Egypt of traditionalism into the desert freedom of Rationalism nor its Joshua who had led them into the promised land of the swampy freedom of the heart. And as their fathers before them had been unable to see the symbolism and the typology of things so these secularists in a sacred land were baffled and dismayed. Were they not the chosen people of God? Why then did the Canaanite still dwell in the land? It seems that all the resources were exhausted.

It was in Theodore Roosevelt’s era that America experienced this very intellectual shift with a corresponding socio-political shift. Van Til is right: Rationalism and Romanticism had tried everything, and yet the world was still full of unreconstructed savages, beasts, evil men, oppression, and so much more. Did we not just the previous century vanquish Napoleon, slavery, and, finally, the Indians? Now Spain, Cuba, Philippines, Bankers, Corporations, and more. Yet men would not turn to God’s law, only man’s legalisms. Rationalism and Romanticism grew into Progressive Humanism. But this meant even greater centralized tyranny for the very mankind that mankind was claiming to enlighten and liberate.

Van Til thus relates, “Dictators appeared suddenly and everywhere upon the scene.” And just listen to who those dictators were:

Wilson in politics and Stalin behind politics; Barth in theology and Heidegger behind theology; Dewey in education and Dewey behind education—all of them spectres suddenly appearing in the gruesome shape of the Laocoon seeking in vain to escape and to help escape from the coils of the strangling serpent of despair. Never before have the eyes of men beheld such a scene. Democracy recalls the tyrants in order to accomplish its tyranicide. Theology storms the very heaven for transcendence in order to free the world from the “otiose deity” who once did rule the skies. Education begs for the shackles of the slave to set its freedom free.

It is clear from this awesome expression that Van Til’s point here is not only intellectual, not only metaphorical, not only political—but comprehensive of all of them. While the main idea is a grand metaphor for intellectual movements, he is nevertheless applying them in such a way that the intellectual movements themselves are only part of the metaphor. This is a comprehensive worldview that includes the intellectual, but only as expressed in all areas of life: politics, theology, education.

Thus, Van Til goes on to describe the outworking of these dictators in every area of life in very practical terms. Here, I think he has partly stepped outside the metaphor, and is speaking very plainly:

As to task, the dictator must rationalize the irrational. He must show meaning in a system of politics and social life or education which by its own presuppositions has no meaning. As to program, the dictator must be inconsistently inconsistent. He must go in all directions at once in the name of strategy; he must be either wiser than all men or a greater fool than any man.

Yet the dictator is not to be blamed particularly; he is but the fruit of an epoch; the surging sea has brought him forth. In an age that feeds upon the negation of all that is called absolute you may expect the strangest combinations of freedom and tyranny. Life is then no longer as a river following a certain course but as a shoreless ocean without direction. The freedom of the swimmer suddenly becomes the anguish of the drowning man. If all reality is but a temporal mass of fluidity, there may be sharks in it unbeknown to the innocent rowboat pleasure-seeker. Hence the appearance of the huge ocean steamers, the trust, the labor union, the chain stores; hence the syncro-mesh transmission from the wildest libertinism to the most rigid standardization of the machine; hence above all, the mob spirit and the power of the demagogue such as has never been seen before.

Then hope turns into fear. Men turn hither and thither in frantic fear lest the ship will sink. Thousands flock to this man here or to that man there saying, “Be thou king over us and lead us out of this.” Says Paul Elmer More, “Futility is the final word: the literature and art most characteristic of the day are criticized as chaotic, joyless, devoid of beauty, comfortless, fretfully original, or feebly conventional, impotent, futile.” Intellectual defeat and spiritual dismay stalk about everywhere.

It’s all Nothing. It’s all a world where bugs and emperors Go singularly back to the same dust.

Thus the humanist malaise manifests in art and literature, too. You bet it does. Van Til concludes the section:

The novelists offer no program of reform; as vultures they gloat over the carrion of modern life. And as for the philosophers, they too are “sicklied with the conscious depression of futility.” Man is seen “as a slave of his temperament, or as a mechanism compelled by complexes and reactions, or a vortex of sensations, with no will to govern himself, no centre of stability within the flux, no direction of purpose to rise above the influences that carry him hither and thither.” A la Mencken “they have come to realize that the morons whom they sweated to save do not want to be saved and are not worth saving.”

Just think of the nihilism of Hemmingway. Think of the gloating agendas and activism of Sinclair and Steinbeck. In philosophy, no one in the early twentieth century overcame Nietzsche, and few even in the late twentieth realized they still hadn’t escaped him entirely. Mencken, quoted last here, was the most Nietzschean of Americans, and saw none of them worth saving. He was fairly ahead of his time that way.

It was at this point, when the head of Rationalism and the heart of Romanticism had run together into nihilism, that human progress seemed to turn lastly to the works of the hand—Pragmatism. This uniquely American worldview is a conglomerate of American experience: Can-do meets assembly line meets the various techniques of mass communication and control which began somewhere between the public school movement and the efficiency strictures of Big Industry. No, really, which began in the supply lines of the Civil War.

But another specter had arisen when America (and the West) shifted from Nihilism to “the hand.” This meant war—real war. Progressive Humanism brought with it Empire, and with empire comes war. When it seemed that all the grand visions humanism had envisioned from the beginning failed, it was blamed upon those other guys. The only solution to these new Indians, savages, barbarians, Canaanites, was war—war against the enemy, and war against anyone who disapproved of the war.

Thus the easy victories that seemed to be in sight have receded into the far distant future. Thus also the sword has been thrust into every hand; a nation, not merely an army mobilizes now. Never before have free citizens realized “how irresistibly a modern government could impose its ideas upon the whole nation and, under a barrage of publicity, stifle dissent with declaration, assertions, official versions, and reiteration.” New Espionage and Sedition Acts were passed to make any criticism of the war program illegal now. If anyone will not follow the educational dictator, John Dewey, if any one dare to hold that evolution-theory is not the gospel truth to be poured down the children’s throats, let him be anathema.

Thus with the grand centralization that came with our new dictators in school, church, and state, Empire and War meant total war—every man, woman, and child must be brought into the service of the Empire and the War. And the means of doing this included mass propaganda, circled through mass public schooling to churn out progressive humanist children who will consume the propaganda with less questioning.

Referring to any opposition of the new schooling/propaganda as an “Alien and Sedition Act,” Van Til shines. During WWI, Wilson had passed these Acts which made it criminal to publicly criticize the war effort, and especially criminal to do anything that could be perceived as hindering recruitment. Massive fines and imprisonment loomed for offenders.

Ironically, here at one of his most overtly political references, he has moved back in to metaphor pretty squarely. He goes on to note how anyone questioning the faith in Evolution pouring into the schools as violating these Acts. In other words, the intelligentsia had moved into the realm of full coercion to eliminate their intellectual opponents, despite the vacuity of their own position.

But even here the criticism of the intellectual positions does not stand unless we accept the analogy as a criticism of the Alien and Sedition Acts themselves, too. Van Til’s overall point is, I believe, that the grand tyrannies a nation imposes are directly related—symbiotically related—to the degenerate and non-Christian worldviews the society embraces.

More importantly, this is even more lamentably true for those Christians who know better, but sit idle, do nothing out of the mainstream—no matter how degenerate it is—and even lend their own children to the vampires of Progressive Humanism to be “educated” in godlessness. Over time, these Christians are merely feeding the beast until it grows to consume them, too:

Surely Modernism, the heir to all this patrimony, has a message to bring to us. Do not marvel that its preachers sometimes wax impatient at our recalcitrance. Why still over forensic concepts of Luther and Calvin when art has replaced morality? Why not join Fosdick in preaching the holiness of beauty instead of beauty of holiness? It is all a matter of the tuned string, a matter of cosmic rhythm and resonance. If God himself has joined the union without fear of losing his creed then why do you stand back? For remember that if you do not join on your own initiative you will eventually join on the initiative of someone else. The intricacy of modern life ought to teach you that. This gospel of organic union and cosmic resonance must be taught unto the children of the nation. Suppose then that you refuse to have your children taught these doctrines; you would become dangerous to the state and would have to be dealt with accordingly. The state will have to extend its kind paternalistic hand to you to lead you gently and irresistibly into line.

Join, or die. Welcome to the society you let happen. Welcome, Christian—public enemy number one, you, “danger to the state”—welcome to the society you let happen.

Is there a way out? North mentioned that Van Til’s pessimism triumphed ultimately in this essay. Perhaps so, I won’t argue the point. But there is a glimmer of practical hope, should we take it. It begins by realizing that the biblical Christian worldview already has what these various humanist movements—Rationalism, Romanticism, Pragmatism, Progressivism, and if there be any other ism—sought in vain. We must start by acknowledging the fullness of the biblical worldview applying to every area of life:

What else, then, can we do but take the sword as well as the trowel? We are driven to a defense of our faith. The full-orbed life, that which the world has sought in vain, is in our possession. We have an absolute God in whose fellowship we have even now the full-orbed life. We have an absolute God who alone can give meaning to all our strivings for advancement. We have an absolute God who alone can guarantee that that which we have in principle now will be fully realized hereafter.

Is our position modern? If the principle of the organism is a modern one we have been modern for all these years and centuries that it took “modern thought” to become modern, for we have never separated head and heart and hand. And as to setting man in his environment we have never sought the full-orbed life by separating man either from the cosmos or from God. If then our brief review of modern aspirations has shown that our opponents themselves have felt, have admitted and have shouted from the housetops that the full-orbed life can only come in a union of man with his total environment, why should we fear to proclaim that we have the full-orbed life inasmuch as we have that total environment in our concept of God and of the world?

And then he moves into the first practical expression of this for our setting in the midst of our enemies. It is exactly where I started Restoring America, and I still believe it must be an utmost priority.

It is this point too that we will have to keep in mind when shaping our educational policies. Our educational ideals and those of our opponents are as the poles apart. How impossible, then, for us to inculcate our ideals in any satisfactory way unless we have the educational influence all to ourselves. The modern emphasis upon environment is itself a warning to us not to be satisfied with injecting a grain of religion here and there in cooperation with an educational program that is radically opposed to our own. Then too, the fact that the emphasis is no longer upon the liberation of the head or the hearts or the hand alone but upon the liberation of the whole personality, and the boldness with which this liberation is proclaimed ought to make us realize anew the extent to which the secularism of our age has advanced. The questionnaires that indicate a decrease in references to Deity in the readers used in schools today find their explanation in the movement we have traced above. How glorious a task it must be then to teach in a Christian school. In the educational field it is that the struggle for or against God is being decided today. Teachers fight on the most dangerous sector of the front.

Van Til agrees: pull your kids out of public schools. This is the warfare we must begin against our humanist masters. Christian children need Christian education, not secularism, and not even secularism mixed with a little bit of Christianity on weekends. And this is not just the warfare we need to fight, it is, Van Til says, the front line.

The long decline of Christianity in America and the West is laid at the feet of Christians who have allowed secular forces free enterprise, then to take leadership, then finally to become our taskmasters in school and in state. And we still sacrifice our children to their care—today, almost unhesitatingly so and without question. The propaganda has done its job. The hope is that we still have the ability to remove them. As Van Til says, the task of education is “impossible” unless we have the full influence to ourselves. Let us be at least interested enough to want to save our children from an impossible Empire and War. We have the goods, and we have every reason to fight for them.


[1] All quotations intra are from Cornelius Van Til, “The Full-Orbed Life,” in Essays on Christian Education (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, [1971] 1979), 169–184.

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