Van Til has described very clearly the basic issue and area of conflict between Biblical and modern thought:
That issue may be stated simply and comprehensively by saying that in the Christian view of things it is the self-contained God who is the final point of reference while in the case of the modern view it is the would-be self-contained man who is the final point of reference in all interpretation.
For the Christian, facts are what they are, in the last analysis, by virtue of the place they take in the plan of God.1
Man’s thinking, however abstract, has a personal frame of reference. Thus, whatever conclusions man may come to with respect to the cosmos and life, it is one by which a person is the ultimate point of reference. Van Til, has shown us plainly the implications of this:
In the last analysis every theology or philosophy is personalistic. Everything “impersonal” must be brought into relationship with an ultimate personal point of reference. Orthodoxy takes the self-contained ontological trinity to be this point of reference. The only alternative to this is to make man himself the final point of reference.2
In order to maintain himself as the ultimate point of reference, fallen man must deny the word of God. For God to speak an infallible word means that God is the ultimate point of reference and the ultimate Person and authority. For man to have the freedom to be that authority and point of reference means that of necessity the infallible word of God must be either openly denied or its authority nullified by reinterpretation. The word of dominion must be preserved for man.
Van Til has described the marks of this fallen man, the covenant-breaker and champion of man’s word as against God’s word. First, this would-be autonomous man “thinks of himself as the ultimate judge of what can or cannot be.” As he interprets facts or events, he allows no other word to interpret, govern, or predict history. Second, this lawless man denies that God, if He exists, can control and determine any and all phenomena. There can be no word of authority, dominion or predestination from God. Third, it is held that “man’s thought is, in the final analysis, absolutely original.” If there is any determination or interpretation in history, it is by man. Fourth,
The facts of man’s environment are not created or controlled by the providence of God. They are brute facts, uninterpreted and ultimately irrational. The universe is a Chance controlled universe. It is a wholly open universe. Yet, at the same time, it is a closed universe. It is so in this sense: it cannot be what Christ says it is, namely, created, governed, and redeemed by him. In this one respect the cosmos is closed - there can be no such God as the Bible reveals. This is the universal negative of the open-minded men of philosophy and science.3
Fallen man strips God from the universe and denudes it of law and meaning in order to be free to play god therein, and to issue his own law and meaning. Man can speak only the word of dominion in an empty universe, a cosmos awaiting man’s spirit to move over it and to provide it with form and meaning. Man therefore wills that the cosmos be a chaos so that its order will become the product of his own life-breathing word. Man does not approach reality in any spirit of neutrality: he approaches it either as God’s covenant-keeping man or as a covenant-breaking man whose will it is to be his own god. There is thus inescapable conflict as to who speaks the word of dominion, the infallible word which is the ultimate point of reference. Van Til has written:
In saving us from sin, Christ saves us unto his service. Through the salvation that is ours in Christ by the Spirit, we take up anew the cultural mandate that was given man at the onset of history. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we want now to do all to the glory of God...
The cultural mandate is to be fulfilled in our handling of the facts or events of our environment. Man must subdue, to the service of Christ, the earth and all that is therein. As the Christian constantly does so, he is constantly conscious of the fact that he is working on God’s estate. He is not himself the owner of anything, least of all himself. He is the bondservant of God through Christ. Therein lies his freedom. Those who still think of themselves as owners of themselves and think of the world as a grab-bag cannot properly evaluate the situation as it really is. Unbeknown to them, they too are working on God’s estate.4
As usual, Van Til puts his finger clearly on the basic point. Man was created for God’s service, to be His priest, prophet, and king and to make of this earth God’s developed and glorious kingdom. This calling is basic to man’s nature. Fallen man does not abandon this calling. Instead, he seeks to convert it to his own perverse goal, to establish the kingdom of Man with man as god and as the ultimate point of reference. The beginning of that revolt is the question, “Yea, hath God said?” (Gen. 3:1). The authoritative and infallible word, the word of dominion, the tempter held, is not from God but from the creature. The task of exercising dominion and subduing the earth will be made easier, he held, if man begins by denying God’s word and asserting his own word as the word of knowledge and the word of dominion. By reserving the tree of knowledge to Himself, God reserved dominion to Himself. God declared thereby that the interpretation of facts and the moral character of all things was determined by His word. God’s word is the word of dominion because His is the creative word. Having made all things, He has established the character, meaning, and purpose of all things. Good and evil are determined by His being and purpose, so that the ultimate point of reference in all things is God and His word, the binding word and the word of dominion.
The tempter’s belief was and is that the creature, in order to fulfil his calling to dominion, must exercise it independently, i.e., that the image of God in man requires man to be god. Man must therefore become his own source of the word of dominion; man must declare that things are good and evil insofar as they serve or do not serve man’s purpose and glory. Man must begin the construction of his true kingdom, the kingdom of Man, by declaring that he himself is the tree of knowledge, the source of the word of dominion. It is not the triune God out of whom the river of life proceeds, and who is the source of the tree of knowledge (Rev. 22:1-2), but man himself.
Note that Van Til points out, “In saving us from sin, Christ saves us unto his service.” Arminian salvation serves fallen man; it “frees” him supposedly from the consequences of the fall to pursue his own independent way in building the kingdom of Man. But salvation is not merely fire insurance, and preaching which stresses heaven and hell as motives for salvation is clearly humanistic and serves the interests of fallen man. It is worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). The call to salvation is a word of command from the sovereign God to cease from our self-service and self-worship and to serve and worship Him. It is the word of dominion which rescues us from the evil and anarchy of the kingdom of Man to the service of the kingdom of God.
Thus, wherever this creation mandate (or cultural mandate) is ignored in preaching and in the plan of salvation, it should not surprise us that the infallible word is subtly replaced or altered into the word of man. Fire insurance establishes no responsibility.
As a result, while Harold Lindsell’s very able and conscientious defense of the infallible word is to be commended, the history he recounts should not surprise us.73 Men whose idea of salvation is a self-serving one will soon have only a self-serving word. They can tolerate no other word.
This is exactly what we see. If the world is not to be viewed as God’s kingdom, God has no dominion word and law for it; then man’s dominion word is the answer. If there is no dominion word of sovereign grace in salvation, then there is no dominion word for any realm.
1. Cornelius Van Til, “Introduction,” in Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield: The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948). p. 18.
2. Ibid., p. 66
3. Cornelius Van Til: The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture. DenDulk Foundation. (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1967). p. 13.
4. Ibid., pp. 1f.