Attention must be called to Van Til’s idea and application of the “limiting concept,” which is closely related to his notion and use of the “paradox.” Let us quote him:

“If we hold to a theology of the apparently paradoxical we must also hold by consequence to the Christian notion of a limiting concept. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept has been developed on the basis of the non-Christian conception of mystery. By contrast we may think of the Christian notion of the limiting concept as based upon the Christian notion of mystery. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of would-be autonomous man who seeks to legislate all reality, but bows before the irrational as that which he has not yet rationalized. The Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of the creature who sets forth in systematic form something of the revelation of the Creator.

“The Christian Church has consciously or unconsciously employed the notion of the limiting concept in the formulation of its creeds. In these creeds the church does not pretend to have developed the fullness of the revelation of God. The church knows itself to be dealing with the inexhaustible God. The creeds must therefore be regarded as “approximations” to the fullness of the truth as it is in God. This idea of the creeds as approximations to the fullness of the truth as it is in God must be set over against the modern notion of the creeds as approximation to abstract truth. The modern notion of approximation is based on the modern notion of the limiting concept. The modern notion of systematic logical interpretation as approximation is therefore based on ultimate skepticism with respect to the existence of any such thing as universally valid truth. It is really no more than a hope and that a false hope, as we must believe, that there is in human interpretation an approximation to the truth. The Christian idea on the other hand rests upon the presupposition of the existence of God as the self-contained being that Scripture presents to us. The Christian idea is therefore the recognition that the creature can only touch the hem of the garment of Him who dwells in a light that no man can approach unto.”

Much of this may be Greek to our average reader, and, therefore, I will make an attempt to reproduce these statements in more popular language without distorting Van Til’s meaning.

Very briefly expressed, Van Til means that whenever we say something about the truth as it is in God we know and confess, that we have only said something about it, but we have not expressed the fullness of the truth. We limit it, we put t fence around it, we approach it. Whenever we use a limiting concept, we really do nothing else than narrow the scope of the fenced off truth. And so, seeing that we are dealing with the inexhaustible God, we never come to an end. We can never say that we have expressed the truth. All our conceptions and declarations are, ultimately only approximations to the truth as it is in God. And a limiting concept is such an attempt at approximation.

To this we can, of course, have no objection, provided that the scope and purpose of the limiting concept itself be clearly defined. We cannot afford to let the notion of the limiting concept run loose. That would be rather dangerous, even for the Christian notion of the limiting concept. It will hardly be safe to allow anyone, Schilder, Van Til, myself, for instance, to determine what in a given case must be considered a limiting concept. That would make all our knowledge of the truth relative and uncertain. The statement that creeds must be regarded as approximations to the fullness of the truth as it is in God is capable of a correct and sound interpretation, but as it stands there without further definition it cannot pass unchallenged. For that certainly would raise the question whether or not these “approximations” to the truth are themselves truths, or whether they will, perhaps, have to be revised as we approach more closely to the fullness of the truth.

It seems to me that the need of working with limiting concepts must have a definite cause. And the fundamental cause lies in the fact that God is infinite, and we are finite, and that the latter can never comprehend, nor even approach unto the former. Van Til is quite right when at the close of the paragraph quoted above he writes: “The Christian idea, is therefore the recognition that the creature can only touch the hem of the garment of Him who dwells in the light that no man can approach unto.” But this must be maintained in the strict sense of the word. God cannot be approached unto at all. This means, first of all, that we cannot approach Him, and that, if we are to have knowledge of Him at all, He must approach us. And this approach of God to us is His revelation. But this also implies that this revelation is the limit of our approach to God. In other words, it is possible to speak of an approximation to the fullness of the truth as it is revealed to us by God, but it is not possible to continue our approximation beyond the limit of revelation. Strictly speaking, therefore, the Christian idea of the limiting concept cannot be said to have its basis in the fact that theology is an approximation to the fullness of the truth as it is in God. The finite does not approach or approximate the Infinite at all.

With a view to the proper use of the “limiting concept” it seems to me, we must add two more factors,. The one is that the revelation of God as we now have it in the Scriptures is a light in darkness, the truth over against the lie. The light always shines in darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it. And, secondly, we should remember that the revelation of God in Christ Jesus concerns things that “eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, and that never entered into the heart of man.” These things are heavenly. They belong to the wonder of grace, which the natural mind cannot discover or understand.

Bearing this in mind, it seems to me, we can speak of a threefold use of the “limiting concept.” The first is caused by the fact that all our conceptions are finite, while God in infinite. Whenever, therefore, on the basis of revelation, we form conceptions of God, we hasten to add that all these conceptions are but limiting concepts, lest we worship an idol instead of the living God. Thus we confess that, while God certainly is knowable, and our concepts of God as they are based on revelation are certainly the truth, yet God is beyond the scope of our finite concepts: He is the Infinite. The first article of the Confessio Belgica deals with such limiting concepts: “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that He is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.” Notice that such terms as “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, infinite” are strictly limiting concepts. They are not meant to be mere negative terms. They do not merely deny something about God. That God is infinite does not merely mean that He is not finite, but positively signifies that He is the Not-Finite. That He is said to be the Invisible does not simply deny His visibleness, but positively declares that He is the Not-Visible. And thus it is with all the others terms. They are, therefore, limiting concepts in the proper sense of the word.

The second proper use of the limiting concept finds its cause in the calling of the believer and of the Church to confess the truth concerning the mystery of God and salvation over against the lie. Perhaps this element is already present in the above confession concerning God. On the one side lies the mystery which we cannot comprehend, even though we conceive of it on the basis of the Word of God; on the other side is the darkness, the lie over against which the truth concerning the mystery must be maintained and definitely fenced off. For this purpose, too, the Church uses the limiting concept. An example of this we find in the declarations of the council of Chalcedon concerning the mystery of the Incarnation, particularly as to the relation of the two natures in Christ, stating that: “We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly (asunchutoos), unchangeably (atreptoos), indivisibly (adiairetoos), inseparably (aeharistoos); the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence (eis hen prosoopon kai mian upostasin), not parted or divided into two person, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. Here the Church deals with limiting concepts almost throughout, occasioned on the one hand by the revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation, and on the other hand by the attack upon this mystery by the lie. This is especially evident from the well-known formulation of the relation of the two natures in Christ: “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”

The third proper use of the limiting concept in theology is caused by the difference between the earthy and the heavenly, and the necessity of expressing in earthly terms the reality of heavenly things. How crowded with limiting concepts, for instance, is the last part of that glorious fifteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians! “It is. sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. . . .Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed,” etc. And the same is true, as might be expected, of the last two chapters of the book of Revelation.

Perhaps, Van Til differs with me, but to me it seems that there is need of defining the proper use of limiting concepts, lest we become arbitrary, and leave the impression that all the truth as confessed by the Church is relative and uncertain.