How to Avoid Being Theologically Lopsided – Teachings From Van Til

As humans, we are intellectual, volitional, and emotional beings. We have a rational mind by which to think, we have a will or capacity for agency by which we act, and we have emotions which lead us to punch stuff or eat bad food when we’re upset. But as fallen and finite human beings, we tend to elevate one of these perspectives beyond its station to the detriment of the others. Some will be more rationalistic, focusing on the primacy of the intellect in all matters. Others are more emotional, focusing on the affections- their own feelings or the feelings of others over against the truth of the matter. And still others focus on the pragmatic/volitional perspective, emphasizing action- “just do something!”- though they haven’t given their actions or the interpersonal consequences of their actions adequate thought.

As Christians, this is certainly true at the individual level, but it’s also true of our denominations. Some denominations focus on rigorous doctrinal exposition to the neglect of evangelism or the emotional needs of the church body. Others focus on the will, opting to turn their whole church into one big come to Jesus-evangelistic-seeker-sensitive-bonanza, to the neglect of sound teaching and the spiritual growth of the church. Still others focus on the emotional side of the faith: God’s love, our feeling of forgiveness, God’s presence, and worship songs that repeat the same verse for half an hour – though there’s hardly any teaching on what those doctrines actually mean or where the Church gets them from – indeed “doctrine” itself is too harsh a word!

So, what’s a lopsided person like you or me to do? Enter Cornelius Van Til. Van Til’s remedy for our self-referential overemphasis on the perspective that comes most naturally to us is… systematic theology? That’s right! Now you may be thinking, “but that’s just the rationalistic perspective overstating its case and swallowing up the other perspectives!” But you’d be wrong. Van Til argues that by studying systematic theology, we are forced to engage all areas of life, and those areas of theology that don’t come as naturally to 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 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.” (Introduction to Systematic Theology 2nd ed., 22.)

Study systematic theology in order to become a more whole human being! I bet you’ve never thought of that, but it’s a similar sentiment to that of exegetical preaching. Pastors who preach exegetically through books of the Bible or through the entire Bible as a whole, can’t hide from anything- it’s all right there, they know it and the congregation knows it, so what’re you gonna do with it? When you expose yourself to areas of study that you aren’t naturally inclined, you’ll grow in areas you wouldn’t have otherwise.

For those of you who are familiar with John Frame’s (and Vern Poythress’) “Triperspectivalism” might have noticed that there’s a couple Framean triads at play here. Humans are rational, volitional, and emotional. Rational is the normative perspective, volitional is the application of the rational in time and space so it’s the situational perspective, and emotional is…  well hard to explain, it’s personal and weird, thus it’s the existential perspective. Likewise, “the prophet, priest, and king” triad- made popular by pastors like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller (who credit its coinage to John Frame) is found in Van Til (and it probably came from someone else before him- namely John Calvin). Prophet is normative because prophets speak truth on behalf of God, they speak God’s norms-the ought. King is situational in that kings are charged with applying and enforcing the norms in time and space, and priest is existential in that priests make intercession to God on behalf of people.

All this to say, God made us to be whole people, not oblong, lopsided people. If we’re looking to be a whole, well rounded Christians, we need to make efforts to get outside of our comfort zones in order to grow. One way to do this, according to Van Til, is to study systematic theology.

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