Van Til’s Unicorn

A few months back I wrote the following:

Eco also draws his reader’s attention to the manner in which a number of thinkers imposed preconceived conclusions upon the evidence that they encountered in their different fields and activities and failed to appreciate the manner in which the evidence actually undermined their familiar categories. For example, Marco Polo discovered the unicorn, but also discovered that it was black rather than white, had hooves like those of an elephant and a pelt like that of a buffalo. He was only able to speak of the unknown in terms of what he had expected to find. ‘He was a victim of his background books.’ It seems to me that this is a mistake that we have all made at some time or other. I am tempted to make a remark about certain theological debates at this point.

[I resisted]

I will resist no longer.

Mark Horne’s comments on Van Til really resonate with my own experience. I feel cheated by the way that many of the Reformed authors (Van Til being a perfect example) that I have read in the past have represented those outside of the Reformed tradition. A large proportion of the Reformed tradition seems to be quite incapable of truly encountering the ‘Other’ — the position that falls outside of our own categories.

When Reformed people encounter positions that differ from their own they tend to do one of two things. They either domesticate the position and paper over the real differences that exist or demonize the position and deny or marginalize the existence of real commonalities. They seem to be unable to call the sufficiency of their own categories into question.

Such a way of looking at the world has given us Augustine and Luther as great heroes of the faith (which they were) despite their holding to supposedly dangerous doctrines such as baptismal regeneration. Rather than acknowledge the importance of such doctrines in their theological systems these doctrines are marginalized and treated as if they could be lopped from their theological systems while leaving the rest intact (the way that Warfield neatly separates Augustine’s ecclesiology from his soteriology is a perfect case in point). Augustine and Luther are domesticated and reduced to being the same as us. They merely echo our own voices. We lack the ability to treat them on their own terms.

The same is frequently done with Calvin. From my reading of Calvin I do not believe that he can easily be claimed by any of the parties in contemporary disputes in Presbyterian circles. We really need to learn how to read people like Calvin without presuming that we already know what they are going to say. Domesticating someone is just as effective a way of silencing someone as demonizing them is. We do not although ourselves to be confronted by the ‘other’.

The other tendency is that of demonizing people who differ from us and denying or marginalizing the things that we genuinely have in common. By demonizing people in this way we absolve ourselves of the task of being attentive to what they have to say. Once again we presume that we already know what they are going to say. A tradition that treats people in such a way is self-obsessed and self-absorbed. All is polarized into positions of varying consistency with one of two diametrically opposed systems.

It is, frankly, infuriating to be at the receiving end of this. I have been in this position far too much over the last few years. People try to force you into traditional categories in order to silence you. Once they have put you into a familiar category they don’t bother paying attention to what you are saying. They hear what you are saying without really hearing. They merely hear what they expect to hear. You are a unicorn, no matter how loudly you point out the things that identify you as a rhinoceros.

On the one hand you are told that you are just saying what the Reformed tradition has always said. This protects the tradition from ever being confronted with anything outside or beyond itself that might challenge it to change. On the other hand you are told that you are utterly rejecting the Reformed tradition and that anything that you continue to have in common is a matter of ‘blessed inconsistency’. Once again, by dismissing you in such a manner, the tradition is freed from the task of engagement with the ‘other’. Unicorns only exist in the imagination, as do many of the theological positions that Reformed Christians categorize in terms of (Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Judaism, etc.).

This is one of the reasons why questioning the helpfulness of the categories of our confessional documents is important. Reformed people have been seeing unicorns in the writings of the apostle Paul, for example, for far too long. Much of what they are seeing is there (just as unicorns share certain prominent features in common with rhinoceri), but we really need to question whether our traditional confessional categories are really sufficient.

Recent years have witnessed a growing awareness of the ‘otherness’ of the apostle Paul and a realization that the tradition has domesticated him in various ways. At this time the tradition should be cultivating a new attentiveness to what the apostle was really trying to say. Whilst this has been taking place in many circles, there has been a significant reaction in others. To those who do not have categories sufficient to deal with the rhinoceros, to deny that it is a unicorn is a clear and inexcuseable denial of the truth. In response to this reaction many have sought to reaffirm their agreement with the traditional confessions and have admitted that it really is a unicorn. What difference is there between a rhinoceros and a unicorn anyway? In so doing they risk domesticating both Paul and themselves.

Whilst I will acknowledge that, in terms of the categories that they thought within, the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed did as good a job as could have been done of representing Paul’s position, I believe that these categories are seriously deficient and need to be significantly improved upon if we are really serious about the need to be attentive to Paul. I believe that those who recognize the manner in which traditional categories fail to do justice to Paul should be far more cautious in the way in which they assent to the confessions. Whilst acknowledging the genuine good contained in the confessions, there should be a willingness to be honest about the serious insufficiencies of the categories of the confessions.

At the very least it would help us to know what to do if we were ever to meet a rhinoceros.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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20 Responses to Van Til’s Unicorn

  1. Scott says:

    I hear you, Alastair, and I really do sympathize with what you’re saying, but what is unclear to me is how to apply the sort of openness and constant second-guessing that you’re advocating.

    At some point, a community has to embrace one set of categories and not another. At some point, people must say these categories will and do work and the others that are being used, they don’t work. Eventually, you have to stop critically reflecting and start exercising dogma.

    At one point the Church had to say, this is the case about such and such, and this is not. In certain cases, the ‘Other’ very well may be a demon and the proper thing to do in such a case is alienation.

    Now, it’s also unclear to me when is the proper time to start drawing lines and such – I am not very wise – but it seems that, unless you want to be all egalitarian about the whole thing, you may be overstating things a bit. To be sure, there is a lot of dishonesty on behalf of the “Reformed Police.” I certainly would like to see a bit more “epistemic humility” and all that. But the policing, in itself, may not be the actual problem.

  2. Al says:


    I would prefer for our categories to be less set in stone. I do not believe that the time has come or will ever come when we understand the apostle Paul, for example, completely and with perfect accuracy. We will always need to be attentive to the ways the Scriptures call into question the received tradition.

    It also seems to me that, when the Church has been doing a good job in seeking to conform its categories to Scripture it has left a number of things quite open whilst dogmatically ruling out certain erroneous positions (e.g. on the Trinity).

    It seems to me that, by the very nature of our existence and of the Scriptures, our various systems of meaning will never cease to be called into question by things that we have failed to see or excluded. Attentiveness to the other is a constant task. There is no point at which we can afford to cease to be attentive to the other and act as if we have fully grasped the other.

    That said, this inability to ever claim to have fully grasped the other does not mean that we have no grasp of the other. Even if we do not have the category of ‘rhinoceros’, we can assert that it is not the same as a horse or an elephant and state some of the things that we do know about it that might initially suggest that it is a unicorn, without immediately jumping to that conclusion.

    To the extent that the Reformed confessions ruled out certain readings of Paul as erroneous and highlighted certain dimensions of Paul’s message that had to be attended to, I think that they did us a great service. To the extent that they jumped to unwarranted conclusions on the basis of these dimensions, they did us a disservice.

    Unfortunately, many Reformed people believe that the Reformed confessions fully grasped Paul and so dispense with the need to attend to Paul on his own terms and question whether the confession has done justice to him.

    What I am calling for is continual humble attention paid to the other and greater caution in arriving at conclusions.

  3. solly says:

    preach it, brother!

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  6. Rod says:


    Thanks for your post. As a platypus, I am tired of being told that I am a beaver.

    Just as the Jews lumped all non-Jews into the category “Gentile,” all who are not TR get lumped into a single category variously called Arminian, Pelagian, Universalist or Pagan. And in the mind of the TR, they all mean the same thing.

    When one’s theology is already perfect, there is no need for open-mindedness.


  7. Pale African says:

    Amen and amen again!

    Categories exist in a philosophical framework. I’m not aware of any philosophical framework that has dropped from heaven, muck like Diana of the Ephesians! Second guessing – yes – our catgories might change, but that does not imply that our faith does. It is not OUR faith after all, as if it originated from us. Rather, since it is a God given faith, it is quite safe from the errors of our categories. No we only need to realise that in others, and it will save us from a lot of bitter fighting, and we can get back to constructive argument – if ever we were there, that is……

  8. Anonymous says:

    Nice post, Al. I like this quote:

    *In response to this reaction many have sought to reaffirm their agreement with the traditional confessions and have admitted that it really is a unicorn. What difference is there between a rhinoceros and a unicorn anyway? In so doing they risk domesticating both Paul and themselves.*

    Totally agree, Al. To whom much is given, much is required. If you see, don’t act like you don’t. Sometimes eyes are not the organ(s) people lack.

  9. Rob says:

    “Whilst acknowledging the genuine good contained in the confessions, there should be a willingness to be honest about the serious insufficiencies of the categories of the confessions.”


  10. Al says:


    I have in mind categories such as internal/external, visible/invisible, inwardly/outwardly, imputed/infused, spiritual/material and covenant of works/covenant of grace. All of these are used in the Westminster Confession, for example. Whilst each of these categories gets at something, I am increasingly convinced that they are clumsy and unhelpful in various ways. Internal/external dichotomies are in especial need of deconstruction.

    I also believe that the confession uses theological categories like justification, election, covenant, regeneration and Law in ways that differ markedly from their use in Scripture. Once again, most of what the Confession is trying to say is perfectly true, but the categories that it uses need to be taken to the cleaners.

    I think that we have all witnessed people imposing confessional meanings of these terms onto the Scriptures and misreading the Scriptures as a result. Whilst some want to carefully distinguish between biblical and confessional terminology (i.e. when we play the biblical language game we call it a rhinoceros; when we play the confessional language game we call it a unicorn — what’s in a name?), I really don’t believe that this is helpful.

    We should be more prepared to simply admit that, at the time of the confession, the categories that appeared most fitting were used. These categories have been shown to be inadequate to the reality that they attempt to describe in various ways. We now ought to move beyond the categories of the confessions, whilst recognizing and affirming their historical value and the many truths that they brought to light (given the fact that their categories were in many respects more appropriate than other categories to the truths of the Scriptures). I am convinced that we can be faithful to the spirit of the confessions even when we move beyond their terminology.

    The tradition that has followed the confessions has also given us dichotomies such as subjective/objective, ecclesiology/soteriology, forensic/participatory, declarative/transformative and individual/corporate. These also need to be questioned.

  11. Jon says:

    I know what you mean re. Calvin…

    However, if your problem with the Reformed Tradition is that they dismiss you in as many words, surely you should not fall foul of the same?

    I too have many problems with the Reformed view of most things and I know that they will lambast anyone else who doesn’t hold to what they “know they belive” as opposed to “believe”… But surely the problem comes from this pathological fear of being wrong? I’m convinced of this the more I meet it. So, for example, Reformed Christians can hold to something which can be clearly proved wrong merely because they are scared that it will rock the foundations of their epistemological base.

    I don’t know. I sympathise with you, but I thought I should offer some defence of the Reformed position. Not defence, but a reminder to you and the majority of those who read your blog that there are some “Reformed” people who understand the failings of the Reformed tradition and seek to work around it.

    But on the whole I agree. And I see vestiges of this attitude in myself too. Surely we are all brought to a point of mistrusting our own “humanity” at the point of salvation where we realise that this decision will rock our every ounce of being?

  12. Elbert says:

    I don’t know if this adds anything, but I do miss the aspect of ‘time’ in the story. Maybe the ‘objective’, timeless reading of dogmatic statements as if they are meant as timeless statements has lead people today to adopt an attitude of approaching the other with fixed categories in which they have to be moulded. Those categories often find their root in other ‘times’ where they where very appropriate for he church to adopt. But as cultures/times are shifting or progressing in a non-positivistic manner, those set categories sooner or later will wring with reality. This is not necessarily wrong. But it shows the inherent need for an openness/flexibility.

    Why is it a ‘reformed’ problem? I think it is not necesseraly confined to or to be identified with reformed theology/theologians or people in general. But the reformation took place during and went through enlightenment and modernism, which may have more of a lasting effect then is sometimes noticed, but indeed a reason for ‘continuing reformation’. Although perhaps it would be healthy to recapture the need for reformation with a different term, because I think this ‘category’ does carry what I call very modern connotations.

  13. Al says:


    Yes, you have a point.

    My relationship with the Reformed tradition is a complicated one. I default to a Reformed position and much of my theological development has involved a gradual movement away from common Reformed positions in some cases and beyond them in others.

    It is often those who are closest to us that we have the greatest temptation to subdue to familiar and safe categories. The ‘other’ is a far greater threat the nearer he or she is to us. Looking back over the last few years I can see that on occasions I have unwittingly photoshopped Reformed positions to make them appear as if they were saying the same as me (e.g. in my treatment of Calvin on occasions). I have also tended to demonize certain Reformed positions in a frantic attempt to disidentify from something that threatened me because it was too close to me.

    My awareness of this (sinful) tendency in myself has not stopped its manifestation from time to time. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Bill says:

    Your response to Rob’s question is helpful to me in sorting out your perspective because it is very direct. Now, in a nut shell, what do the categories look like after being taken to the cleaners?

    A straightforward answer to this is what I’ve been looking for since I started wading through the New Perspective. I’ve always been able to understand the general idea that Luther and others read their own conflicts into Paul and that Paul was not concerned so much with merit and works as identification and community. I can even intutively see how you think much of what the Confessions say is true. Yet, there seems to be some big implications of this realization that I’m missing. There seem to be those that get these implications and those that don’t. I must admit I don’t get “it”. I sense something eluding me in the vagaries of the discussions even as I, too, appriciate the joy you previously noted in being saved by God not by our theology. As you have directly stated what the problematic categories are, can you directly tell me what “it” is?

  15. Al says:


    Many of the dichotomies need to be rejected altogether. I have written on the internal/external and individual/corporate dichtomies in the past.

    The ecclesiology/soteriology dichotomy should also be abandoned. The Church is the shape that salvation takes. The resurrection is the answer to the declaratory/transformative dichotomy. God declares the vindication of Christ by raising Him from the dead. Our justification is comparable. The subjective/objective dichotomy should also be rejected for numerous reasons, not least because we are continually constructed by our reality and continually construct our reality.

    The following are some brief notes on some of the other categories.

    The Law. See Tim Gallant’s article here.

    Covenant. For the Westminster Confession the ‘covenant’ is an essentially ahistorical entity that is manifested in history at some second stage in various ‘dispensations’ (to use the words of the WCoF). If this were the case, the historical particularity of the various dispensations is downplayed in its significance. This understanding leads to the impression that redemption somehow already exists and the covenant is primarily there to reveal and ‘dispense’ this redemption. In this scheme, the outward (historical) form that the covenant takes is not to be confused with the substance of the covenant (which is constant throughout history). I believe that the historical character and development of the covenant should be far more central in our thinking.

    Election. Refocus this doctrine by focusing on the content of election (i.e. God has determined to form in new humanity in His Son, Jesus Christ), rather than on a primarily formal doctrine of election (i.e. that God has elected). Recentre the doctrine on Christ. We are not the immediate objects of election. We are only elect by virtue of a union with Christ that has been effected by the historical work of the Holy Spirit. Root election in the story of redemptive history.

    I have posted at length on election in the past both here and on 40 Bicycles.

    Regeneration. Regeneration is a redemptive historical event. Rather than thinking primarily in terms of an event in the ordo salutis, we need to think about Christ’s resurrection. See my post here.

    The above are all sketchy, but I think that they show some of the directions in which we need to move.

    One last point: bringing our terms to the cleaners is never a completed process. We continually need to call our terminology into question. Our language will always be compromised with unhelpful and unintended implications to some degree or other.

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  17. jean chauvin says:

    knowing Mark Horne, it scares me to think you trust his outlook, esp when it comes to Van Til.

  18. Al says:


    Somewhat against my better judgment I am responding to your comment.

    I don’t need to take Mark’s word for it, I have read Van Til extensively myself and have come to much the same conclusions. I don’t like the way you word your comment at all. Please address Mark’s argument; don’t just poison the well. This isn’t about personalities. I disagree with Mark on plenty of issues (his latest post is largely in response to positions that I have expressed in recent debate online), so this is hardly a matter of just trusting Mark’s outlook. I just happen to agree with him here.

  19. nike says:

    good posting, i surely enjoy this page, continue on it.

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