Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

Van Til's Illustrations

There is an Arabian proverb that reads, He who speaks best must turn men's ears into eyes...Van Til's illustrations were always discreet, which made them all the more effective. He was no skyscraper preacher or theologian, who majored in stories.

  • Jim West,
Share this

There is an Arabian proverb that reads, He who speaks best must turn men's ears into eyes. We see this aphorism displayed in the ministry of Christ, who made frequent use of metaphors, similes, and especially parables in His public and private preaching.

The employment of colorful speech to illuminate Biblical truth can be a tricky matter, especially when we try to prove a point with an illustration. Actually, the best we humans can do with an illustration is to do just that, that is, we illustrate, but we do not prove. To prove, we must rely upon other criteria. Consider the compelling illustration of theologian Robert Dabney, who justified church unity, but without a mandate for actual, organic union. To accomplish this, he appealed to the coinage of the United States . There are dimes, nickels, one-cent pieces, Morgan dollars, Double-Eagles, etc. Thus, as there are different denominations of coinage and yet one nation, so (he argued) there can be different denominations of Christian churches, and yet one church. He argued from his Paradigm of the Mint the idea of unity without union.

Dabney's example is compelling, but not conclusive. It is only illustrative, and no more. If we want to dub illustrations with absolute authority, we should batten the hatches for illustrations against the Christian Faith, too. My favorite is from Richard Porson, a classical scholar of the early 19 th century. He was walking with a Trinitarian friend when a buggy passed with three men in it. There, said the friend, that's an illustration of the Trinity. Porson countered, No, you must show me one man in three buggies  if you can. The lesson is that only the Bible itself can infallibly establish the truth of the Trinity. The only exception is when Jesus Himself coins an illustration; Jesus' illustrations always prove and illustrate simultaneously.

Now, when we muster Dr. Cornelius Van Til's illustrations concerning Christian apologetics, we must always keep the previously stated rules before us. Van Til always proved before he illustrated; therefore the following samples must be viewed as confirming illustrations that follow his weightier, clincher arguments. None of his illustrations stand by themselves. They are the G.I.s who occupy the field after a city has been leveled. Or, better, they are supporting artillery that accompany the onslaughts of the infantry who alone win the field.

Two Circles

westill.gifThere is a renowned Van Tilian illustration. Imagine two circles, and these distinguish between the creature and the Creator (Rom.1:25). Man is not God; God is not man. Pantheism (all is God) is a lie; Pan en theism (All is in God) is a lie; and mysticism (man being absorbed into God) is a lie. Man is man and God is God, two circles! The Greek idea that all reality is one endless Chain of Being so that the only difference between man and God is gradational is also a lie. Elton John's popular song, The Circle of Life , is spurious because it envisions only one circle. There are two circles and these two circles illustrate the Creator-creature distinction. That is fundamental Van Tilian apologetics.

Yellowed Glasses

The sinner is born into this world harboring enmity against God (Rom. 8:7). He is not a white slate, nor a tablua rasa. Rather, what he sees he sees through colored glasses; his eyes are jaundiced and all is yellow to him. When the believer looks into the starry skies, he sees the glory of God. When the unbeliever looks, he sees Big Bang, evolution, and chance. When the princess kisses the frog and it turns into a handsome prince, the believer exclaims, Fairy Tale. But when Darwin says that frogs turn into princes, unbelievers call that science. It is thus impossible to be neutral; the unbeliever's understanding of the facts is distorted by his jaundiced subjectivity.

Sky-Rocket God

A skyrocket god is a projection of men's carnal minds. On the Fourth of July when we are mesmerized by the fireworks so that our eyes are in a heavenly trance, we are quickly brought back to reality when we consider that the skyrocket has been launched from this terra firma. Van Til used this illustration to show how the god of Neo-orthodox theologians, who appears to be the same God of the Bible, has really been launched from Cape Cerebrum. Thus the Christ of Karl Barth, who is cloaked in an orthodox wardrobe, is an entirely different god from the true God of the Bible. Van Til employed the skyrocket imagery to warn gullible evangelicals about the glittering wiles of Barthianism. The true God of the Bible descends (from heaven); the god of Neo-Orthodox theologians, no matter how spectacular, colorful, and explosive, ascends. He is a belly god, even if he presents himself with the name of Jesus (2 Cor.11:4).

The Brat Who Slapped Her Father's Face

Once while Van Til was a youth traveling on a train in Holland, he noticed a father with his young daughter sitting in his lap. Apparently, the father urged his daughter to do something when she suddenly slapped her father in the face. Van Til's application? The girl's behavior illustrates rebels who live in God's world and who are supported by God's common grace (Ps. 24:1). They sit, as it were, on the lap of God, and it is precisely because they sit on God's lap that they are able to deliver the slap of ingratitude. Thus unbelievers who toot their own independence and autonomy are only able to do so as they are supported by God Himself (Jn. 19:10 -11). Their denial of God is His affirmation. Atheism does not invalidate theism, but proves it because atheism is only possible given the premise of theism. As the atheist Nikita Khrushchev once described the Soviet Union, In Russia, thank God, there is no God (my emphasis).

The Man of Water

Perhaps alluding to the primordial ooze that is the hallmark of evolutionary philosophy, Van Til compared the natural man's search for truth as futile. His metaphor was vivid: the unbeliever is like a man of water standing upon a ladder of water in an infinitely extended and bottomless ocean of water, against a wall of water, trying to climb out of the water. So hopeless and senseless, said Van Til, a picture must be drawn of the natural man's methodology based as it is upon the assumption that time or chance is ultimate. The man-of-water analogy shows the futility of all thought that is not anchored in God's self-attesting Word. Darwin himself unwittingly acknowledged this when he asked that if man evolved, who would rationally entrust himself to the worldview of a monkey mind? He was not able to face the obvious answer to his own question.

The Stolen Ducks

In Holland there was a young boy with a father who was a thief. The young boy would often come to school and, unsolicited, blurt out, My father didn't steal no ducks! My father didn't steal no ducks! Reminiscent of Shakespeare's The lady doth protest too much, Methinks the boy's denial was an admission of guilt. The boy's denial is like the child who in family devotions reports on his sister, Mary didn't have her eyes closed for prayer! Or, like the Apostle Peter who began to curse and swear, saying, I do not know this man of whom you speak! (Mk. 14:71) Sinners are vulnerable; they shake at leaves and when their consciences are riddled with guilt, the very thought of stolen ducks incites a preemptive confession of their own criminality.

Borrowed Capital

There is another stellar Van Tilian metaphor that illustrates the doctrine of God's common grace, that is, that God bestows favor on both the just and the unjust. The unbeliever lives in God's world and even lives and moves and has his being in God, whether he acknowledges it or not (Ps. 24:1; Ac. 17:28). All of the contributions of the unregenerate in literature, science, mathematics, etc., are borrowed capital from the Bank of Heaven (Jn. 3:27). Few emulate the theological honesty of Samuel Morse who sent his first telegram in 1844. The text of his telegram read: What God hath wrought. Because men are prideful and defiant, they refuse to acknowledge the true source of their wealth. Like Nebuchadnezzar who was proud not only of his empire, but also the artistic and educational achievements of his kingdom, he thinks to himself, Is not this great Babylon that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty? (Dan. 4:30)

Ripley's Believe it or Not

Van Til often challenged the anemic apologetics of Evangelical Christians who capitulate too much in the interest of winning the unbeliever. One way this is done is by disclaiming the Bible as a dogmatic, self-attesting Book that bears infallible witness to the resurrection of Christ. Evangelicals might say that No book is self-attesting or that The statements of the Bible do not prove themselves to be God's Word. Instead, the Bible is presented as a history (like any other history book), and its doctrines as historically-verifiable truths that can be proven to men with neutral minds. It is thought that the unbeliever can be convinced of the resurrection of Christ on the basis of probability arguments from this reliable history book. Van Til argued that even if we are able to convince the unbeliever of Christ's resurrection that this would not bring him one millimeter closer to the kingdom of God . Why not? Because the resurrection would be viewed as a monstrosity (his word). The unbeliever admits that strangeness occurs in the universe. All kinds of miracles happen. So why, then, should there not also be random resurrections both here and there? Thus, even if the Biblical writers were right about the resurrection, it would prove nothing at all. Monstrosities occur. As Van Til writes, The resurrection of Jesus would be a fine item for Ripley's Believe It or Not. Why not send it in? What is really needed? Convince the unbeliever that the Bible is a self-authenticating authority and that both its miracles and interpretations of those miracles are infallible. Then the unbeliever would be convinced that Jesus not only rose from the dead, but that by rising He justifies sinners and is declared to be the Son of God with power (Rom.1:4; 4:25).

Block-house Methodology

Each fact in God's universe is like a block we use to build our house. But when we lose sight of the overall picture, which is that all facts are God-created facts and intelligible only in terms of God, we fall into the sin of Blockhouse methodology. A fair example is Eve when she was beguiled to eat the forbidden fruit. Satan's strategy was to woo her to analyze the block (in this case the forbidden fruit) in terms of her own autonomous rationality. She sought to interpret the block apart from God's infallible interpretation of the whole Tree. Therefore she was dead-meat for Satan. The unbeliever has a similar problem; Camus (reportedly) said that if there is even one fact in the universe that has meaning, then all is lost (from an existential, philosophical standpoint).

The Prodigal Son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son was perhaps Van Til's most popular Biblical metaphor. Van Til used the Prodigal as an illustration of the inability of the covenant-breaker to drown out the voice of the living God. His metaphor of borrowed capital was probably drawn from this story, too. He wrote, When the Prodigal left his father's house he could not immediately efface from his memory the look and voice of his father. How that look and that voice came back to him when he was at the swine trough! How hard he had tried to live as though the money with which he so freely entertained his friends' had not come from his father! When asked where he came from he would answer that he came from the other side.' He did not want to be reminded of his past, yet he could not forget it. It required a constant act of suppression to forget the past. But that very act of suppression itself keeps alive the memory of the past.

In short, the Prodigal's futile attempt to drown out the voice of his father was like the discharged servant of Immanuel Kant, who had been with him for years. Angrily, Kant wrote a famous entry in his memorandum book: Remember, from now on the name of Lampe must be completely forgotten.

Van Til's illustrations were always discreet, which made them all the more effective. He was no skyscraper preacher or theologian, who majored in stories. Yet he was wise enough to know the limits of his audience, especially when he was critiquing hard, philosophical concepts of autonomous sinners to whom everything was yellowed and thus confused.

  • Jim West

Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!

More by Jim West