142. “The Clay of Paganism with the Iron of Christianity”: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Roman Catholicism

October 1st, 2017

This is an excerpt of a much longer paper soon to be published in Rerum Novarum: Neo-Calvinism and Roman Catholicism, James Eglinton and George Harinck, eds. (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

In the book of Daniel (chapter 2), Daniel tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he saw a great statue. This statue had several parts made of different materials, but the narrative is particularly interested in describing its feet. They were made “partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron”. The text goes on to associate some distinctive properties to both materials: the iron speaks of “firmness”, while the clay is materially and metaphorically “soft”. The statue’s feet were partly strong and partly brittle (3:42). After describing the feet, Daniel becomes the interpreter of the dream. The mixture of iron and clay gave the statue a very weak foundation because iron and clay don’t hold together. The statue therefore seemed powerful and looked frightening, but in reality it stood on shaky legs and weak feet. It was going to be broken into pieces by a stone that was “cut out by no human hand” (3:34) and carried away by the wind.

Interestingly, Dutch philosopher and theologian Cornelius Van Til (1896-1987) used the metaphor of the mixture between “clay” and “iron” to describe his view of Roman Catholicism.

Clay and Iron in Roman Catholicism

Van Til argued that “Romanists mix a great deal of the clay of paganism with the iron of Christianity”.[1] The result is a religious framework in which a variety of different materials merge so as to form a composite and complex system of thought which is neither mere paganism nor mere Christianity: it is a synthesis of both, a combination of different materials. These metaphors suggest the idea that Roman Catholicism is not a random encounter between different elements, but rather a sophisticated mélange whereby clay and iron are joined together in something unique, distinct, and new.

This point is worth unpacking. Van Til argued that the fundamental nature of Roman Catholicism is not the on-going, organic development of the early form of Christianity, as John Henry Newman’s account of Catholicism suggests.[2] On the contrary, it is characterized by a structural combination of Christian and non-Christian features that lies at the very heart of the Roman Catholic fabric. The theological task of a Reformed apologetic is to detect this combination, assess it, and constructively criticise it against the background of a Reformed worldview. The ultimate constitution of Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, marred by the co-existence of Christian and non-Christian elements.

Shifting the focus from categories to contents, Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, the historical outcome of a process of assimilation of non-Christian and pagan thought-products by what used to be authentic Christianity, which has led to a radical transformation of the latter. Actually, Van Til went so far as to argue that Roman Catholicism is, strictly speaking, “a deformation of Christianity”[3] itself, whereby non-Christian presuppositions and pagan connotations are given a Christianised status and contribute to shaping the whole system in ways that depart from the original outlook. Thus, the Christian “iron” and the pagan “clay” are constitutive parts of the system and are the two legs maintaining the system. Or, in Van Til’s terms, “the concrete blocks may be those of Christianity, but the cement is nothing other than the sand of paganism”.[4]

What is important to underline here is that, according to Van Til, the combination of “iron” and “clay” is to be found everywhere in the Catholic system, perhaps not always in the same measure and balance, but nevertheless throughout the whole spectrum of its theological horizon. The point of difference between the Reformed and the Roman Catholic systems is not in one particular locus on only a few isolated doctrines (e.g. ecclesiology, Mariology, soteriology), but rather is traceable in all loci. The synthesis may be less evident or consistent in some domains than others, but it is to be found everywhere because of the constitutive composite nature of Roman Catholicism. For Van Til, there may be “formal” occasional agreements with the Reformed view, but a closer scrutiny will highlight the presence of iron and clay scattered everywhere beyond the surface of apparent convergences.

The Roman Catholic “Aristotle-Christ” and “Kant-Christ”

Van Til’s view of Roman Catholicism can be summarized in this way: Roman Catholicism is a dynamic and evolving synthesis of Christian and pagan elements. The iron and the clay stand intermingled, forming an inextricable combination that mars the whole fabric of the system. The most established forms are the Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the Kant-Christ synthesis. In the Middle Ages, the Church’s reliance on the writings of Aristotle ended up suffocating the Catholic Christ. In modernity it is Kant who has become the destroyer of the Catholic Christ. There is a significant difference between these syntheses, but also substantial continuity because of the stability of the overarching system that supports them. Roman Catholicism does not stand on Christ alone, but on Christ plus something else.

According to Van Til, the system is governed by a thoroughgoing et-et (both-and) epistemology that needs – indeed requires – the supplementation of Christ with something else. In Van Til’s way of putting it, “the former Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the former Kant-Christ synthesis have joined hands to form the Aristotle-Kant-Christ synthesis”.[5] Modern Catholicism is therefore “a synthesis of medieval essentialism and modern existentialism”.[6] There is no epistemological safeguard that is granted by the Solus Christus principle, but the catholicity of the system makes it possible to expand it in various ways, depending on historical circumstances.

Limits and Insights

Methodologically speaking, Van Til’s systemic approach sometimes prevented him from dealing more extensively with Catholic sources and allowing them to speak for themselves. He often seemed to deductively presume what Catholicism holds, rather than actually following the train of reasoning of individual Roman Catholic theologians or the official Magisterium. Less attention was given to important details and nuances than was granted to the big picture. Moreover, from a theological point of view, he did not invest as much energy in studying post-Vatican II developments as he had done in exploring Thomistic Catholicism. Because the Second Vatican Council is only touched on superficially and selectively, Van Til’s post-Vatican II perspectives are only sketched briefly and are in need of further elaboration in order to become plausible.

Nonetheless, his apologetic method, which looked for the “heart” of a religious worldview in order to figure out what is at stake as far as its basic orientation is concerned, is an asset that cannot be underestimated. Much ecumenical dialogue focuses on minutiae and loses sight of the big picture. Going back to Daniel’s dream, Van Til helps to see the vision of the big statue as a whole and to notice its intrinsically weak foundation if iron and clay are to be found in its legs. This is not only true for Roman Catholicism, of course. Every Christian tradition needs to ask itself to what degree iron and clay are mixed in its building blocks and to be self-critical about the Gospel sustainability of its foundation.

What Van Til argued is that although there is considerable diversity in its forms of expression, Roman Catholicism is a basically unitary reality whose underlying tenets can be discerned. In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, evangelical theology should go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to grasp the internal frame of reference of Roman Catholic theology. Any analysis which does not take into account the fact that Roman Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of it. In this task Van Til was, and continues to be, a voice that may not sound ecumenically friendly, but is nonetheless prophetically true.

[1]  Defense of the Faith, 221.

[2] e.g. Newman’s classical work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: James Toovey 1845).

[3]  Christian Apologetics, 41; DF, 71 (italics in the original).

[4]   DF, 221.

[5]  Christian Theory of Knowledge, 185. Later in the same book, Van Til writes: “the (Catholic) church has enlarged the vision of herself and of her mission by means of adding the Kant-Christ synthesis with which neo-orthodox Protestantism operates to its own Aristotle-Christ synthesis”, 192.

[6]  CTK, 193.

 

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