An Interview with Professor C. Van Til

This article is a report on an interview which Dr. J. Van Bruggen, professor of New Testament at the Theological Seminary in Kampen, the Netherlands, had with Dr. C, Van Til, well-known retired professor of Westminster Theological Seminary, for Nederlands Dagblad. It was translated into English by W. F. Horsman and appeared in Clarion, the Canadian Reformed Magazine and we reprint it with their permission. Their co-editor, C. Starn observes in a concluding note that “We do have the impression that Dr. Van Til might have been somewhat more specific in answering certain questions, for at times the pOint seems to be evaded, e.g., with respect to the P.C.A. and Calvin Theological Seminary. . . ,” We are sure that this interview with its colorful anecdotes will be of interest to many of our readers. EDITOR

During a recent visit to Westminster Theological Seminary, I met Emeritus Professor C. Van Til, one of the co-founders of the seminary. Professor Van Til gained recognition for his work in apologetics. His books defend the faith against the assault of modern theology. We asked Prof. Van Til, still alert in spite of his 80 years:

Did you always live in America?

I was born in Grootegast in the province of Groningen. There were eight boys in the family, and one girl, but she died early. My mother said that I was the biggest cry-baby she ever had. We moved to a farm near Enumatil; my father kept cows, but he was also a dealer. I sometimes went with him to Market in the city of Groningen. When a deal was closed they slapped each other on the hands: good luck with it. We would eat there too; my father would order pork chops and bacon for two and I was only 8 or 9 years old.

Later we lived in Oldekerk for one year, and then we moved to Leek, because my father had bought 17 acres of land in Zevenhuizen, Friesland. I can remember pulling flax. .1 went to the Christian school in Leek; also in Enumatil; four years in the Christian School. The first thing we had to learn was question and answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism (What is your only comfort in life and death?). Then we boarded a boat of the Holland-America Line.

When was that?

In 1905 we left DePoffert where my grandfather lived, and we arrived at Hammond, Indiana, on the 18th of May, 1905.

To what church did you belong?

We were members of the Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland. My father was “A” and my uncle was “D.”

And your mother?

She went along with my father. I don’t know of any differences.

Your father grew up in the tradition of the secession. Do you feel he consciously tried to raise you in this tradition?

Yes, they had their arguments for it, and they were sincere about them.

Also somewhat against the “Doleantie”?

No, not against; Kuyper‘s daily newspaper was discussed every week at Men’s Society and my father attended faithfully, but he was definitely not “D” as far as he was able to understand the difference. He was a farmer, but he read and in those days everyone fead Kuyper‘s Pro Rege as well as other works. I have read a lot of Kuyper myself. I read his Encyclopedia of Theology, especially Volume 11 about reborn and unregenerate men, and the absolute antithesis in all disciplines except mathematics and somatology. In my Common Grace I have demonstrated how Kuyper only saved himself at the last moment, or should I say: was saved. I also read Doedes and Van Oosterzee.

I may assume, then, that although your family background was “secessionist,” you were also intensely interested in the works of Kuyper and the leaders of the Doleontie and that did not become a stumbling block to you?

Oh no, not at all. I read Smilde‘s book and my initial sympathy was toward “A,” but I devoured much of Kuyper’s writings.

By then, of course, you were already in the U.S. because you were only 10 when you emigrated. Could you tell us about the years after 1905?

Oh, certainly. We were quite surprised. We had never seen bananas or oranges, for example, and here they were a dime a dozen. It was great: Een luilekkerland. We arrived in America and my father was able to afford 2nd class train fare. At the station I saw a black man and 1 said to my mother, “That’s a negro,” and she answered “Must nait wiesen mit vinger” (dont point). That was not polite. But I had never seen a black man before. The train was incredibly slow. My youngest brother Sidney was still a baby. My mother and I had to sit for 24 hours, no sleeping car for us. Genesis describes the early Railroad when it speaks of everything that creeps upon the earth. That’s what it felt like anyway.

My oldest brother Reinder and his wife had already emigrated and were temporarily living with relatives. He had written that it would be better if we all came together, so that the family would not be split between the Netherlands and America. My brother Hendrik was already doing military service in Assen. That’s how we came to Hammond, Indiana. Reinder met us with a horse and buggy. Later my father bought a small farm.

After our arrival, my brother Jake, who was six years old I was 10 at the time and I went to school in Clifford. We were complete strangers there. Both of us were placed in Grade One. I liked reading and by the end of the year I was in Grade Four. They called me “The Big Ciampa” and my brother “The Little Clompa.” When my brother Nick (13) joined us, they were at a loss, so they called him “Brother of the Clompas.”

I was the first student from a Christian school. My parents were sorry there was no Christian school. In the Netherlands we carried our school money to school with us.

For a few years we attended a public high school in Highland, Indiana. It was then that a small Christian school was started in Munster, Indiana. At age 19 I decided I was going to study for the ministry. Instead of high school you attended prep school at Calvin College. Our professors were university-trained. There were several students of my age or slightly older. We came in separate groups. Van Andel taught us Dutch History and Art. At our students’ club we discussed Dr. Machen’s lectures on the virgin birth of Christ. I had read Pro Rege and Bavinck’s Philosophy of Revelation. I studied theology for eight years. Prof. F. ten Hoor was anit-Kuyperian and my reaction was to become pro-Kuyperian. But he was a good man. Heins gave us practical theology. On Friday afternoons we all met together and presented sermon concepts. My first text was Revelation

3:20 (Behold, I stand at the door and knock). My second text was from Clossians 1. Prof. ten Hoor‘s reaction to my sermon was typical: “Everything the brother said was true but the text doesn’t say that.”


Where did you study after Calvin College and one year at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids?

I studied at Princeton for three years. Once J took Dr. K. Schilder into the great hall where the organ was located. I asked the organist to let Schilder play. I have never heard anyone play the organ like Schilder did that day. I also heard him preach in the Dutch Reformed Church in Paris (N. J.). He did not use a glass of water but a jug. He used the jug six times: six glasses of water. That’s how he perspired. It was incredible.

In what year did Schilder preach here? Was he a professor already?

He was here two times. The first time he was accepted in all the Christian Reformed Churches. I was in the reception committee. The second time he was persona non grata.

Were you impressed with Schilder during his first visit?

Yes, I had met him previously in the Netherlands, and I had read his books.

Where did you meet him in Holland?

In his own home.

Did you visit the Netherlands in the 30’s?

I left in 1905. I spent some time with an aunt and uncle in Groningen in 1926. I was eligible for a call then. When I returned I accepted a call to Spring Lake. That was a small village congregation. I thought a congregation in the city would be too much for a novice minister. I visited Europe again later. At that time I visited Paris. In Debrecen (Hungary) I received an honorary doctorate. I also visited Rome, Geneva, Brussels, Holland, arid London.


On your second visit you were already a professor. How long were you a minister?

I was at Spring Lake for one year. Then, one week before classes started, I was appointed professor at Princeton. The president, J. Ross Stevenson, wanted some renewal. He wanted a seminary where all views were represented, a kind of liberalization. I knew Dr. Gresham Machen and Dr. Hodge wanted me to accept the appointment. I was replacing Johnson. When he heard of my appointment he wanted to come back because he didn’t want me in his place. I was asked to teach apologetics, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of religion. This amounted to 2 or 3 hours more than anyone else had ever done.

I accepted the appointment and Stevenson replied, “I hope you will put just as much enthusiasm in your work and your lectures as you put in your letter of acceptance.” That was meant sarcastically, of course, but what could 1 do? I only had one week to decide. On Sunday I preached my farewell sermon and the next morning I had to leave for Princeton.

I was only at the Princeton Seminary for one year. Then came the debacle in Minnesota. Gresham Machen was promoted from Assistant Professor to Full Professor, but that was politics.

And then Westminster was established?

Yes, in the summer of 1929. We began in the city. Dr. Allis’ uncle made a house available there. Westminster rented it for $1.00. That was a good year. Lots of enthusiasm.

How many years did you teach there? When did you retire?

I lectured until I was 75. Then I did some individual tutoring.

You met K. Schilder during your visit to Europe and on his first visit to America. Did you meet him again at any other time?

Yes, later when he came for Hoeksema. He came to Machen Hall and I suggested that he and Hoeksema did not agree on several matters. He was reluctant to admit that, although he believed that Jacob and Esau were both in the covenant, while Hoeksema was convinced that God never shows any form of grace to the nonelect. I wrote in Common Grace. Then God could never be unfavorably inclined toward the elect and Christ would not have made His appearance in history.


May I ask you about the church situation ill the U.S.? You had a long and troubled tenure at the Seminary. You have closely watched the ecclesiastical and theological happenings in the U.S.A. You are also aware of the situation in the Netherlands. What is your 01)inion of the Reformed-Presbyterian movement in the U.S.? Do you see growth or decline? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Well, there was an attempt to unite the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church. But that failed because the O.P.C. could not get the majority to go along. I was happy about that because Boswell had had too much influence in the

R.P.C. Prof. Berkhof once wrote: Dr. Boswell, I dont understand the difference between your Calvinism and your Arminianism.

Even so, they have good people. too, and a good Confession. But there is also a lot of chaff among the grain. Here in the O.P.C. the attitude is more typically Schilderian: What God says is right, because He says it.

Do you think this attitude is strictly maintained in the a.p.c.

Not everywhere. Many of our ministers are unable to persevere. The temptation is great when few people come to church. When they become a little more tolerant, attendance improves. They have their families, too. It is easy for me to talk, of course.

Then there is the Presbyterian Church of America. You know. of course, how it originated. The Christian Education Committee of the O.P.C. is presently working with P.C.A. We will have more influence there. We also exercise influence by means of the Presbyterian Trinity Hymnal which is used in many churches. It was prepared by O.P.C. people.

Do you see a future union of the P.C.A. and the O.P.C.?

I dont know.

I understand that within tile P.C.A. there are divergent attitudes and tendencies. Is it your opinion, too, that the P.C.A. lacks unity?

I have heard things, but I have no firsthand information.


When we look to the United States from the Netherlands we often think of fundamentalism because we see results of it there. In the meantime I have found that the word “fundamentalism” has several meanings in America. What is your reaction?

My best answer is to repeat what Dr. C. Machen always said: “I am Reformed. Fundamentalists are brothers in the Lord; they will go with me to heaven, Liberalists, however, are not Christians.”

Fundamentalism is strong in so far as it stresses the inerrancy, infallibility, of the many Scriptures, is it not?

Yes, certainly that is its bulwark.

The word “dispensationalism” is also common in America. During my visit to Dallas I found a lot of literature on dispensalionalism, e.g., Walwoord, Pentecost, Ryrie. Do you think dispensationalism has much influence on American Christianity? And if so, why?

Yes, I think so, the Scofield Bible had a wide influence, and the first president of Dallas Seminary wrote a lengthy systematic theology which is all dispensationalism.

What do you think is the most dangerous point of dispensationalism?

Their unwillingness to take the Bible (literally). There are no Bible passages that speak of a distinct dispensation in paradise or of later dispensations. Actually the law dispensation then constitutes an alternate means of salvation. That is not Scriptural at all. Some have said: This is a heresy of the right.

I have noticed that in the U.S.A. Christian ethics is rather neglected. Many seminaries do not even have an ethics professor. It seems to me that keeping the Sabbath day is a weak point even with Bible-believing Christians. What is your opinion on this?

John Murray wrote a book on the Christian lifestyle. Generally speaking it is the liberals who have ethics. I think you are right in your observation that neither the Reformed nor the fundamentalists pay enough attention to it. They dont have the time.


Westminster wants to remain faithful to the Confession of the Reformation. Do you know of any other seminaries like it in the U.S.?

Yes, Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids and the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. New Brunswick has always been liberal. The Reformed Seminary in Holland, Michigan, is a little more conservative.

When we compare Grand Rapids and Wesiminster we note quite some differences.

In what way?

In our opinion Grand Rapids is not defending the Scriptures and the Reformed Confession the way it used to.

You should not overemphasize that.

Do you see a fundamental difference between

Westminster and Jackson?

Not really. Jackson is younger, of course, and we have a much better library.

Tile difference is only in age then. Jackson has iust started while Westminster has been long established?

Yes, that is the biggest difference. Besides, we are extraordinarily blessed. John Murray wrote that brilliant commentary on Romans in two volumes.

Does anything going on in the Netherlands excite your interest?

Not really. I don’t really know the situation that well. Not the way I did when Schilder was still around. I visited him for tea: “Van Til, a cigar and tea?” He had written in his weekly about the strengthening of the Reformed element at Princeton. J wrote him: Professor, if half of the professors at Amsterdam resigned and Haitjema replaced them, would you describe that as a strengthening of the Reformed element at the V.U.?

How do you think things went wrong at the V.U.?

I think with Berkouwer. He did a lot of writing. Many people read him. In his first work on Barth he wrote: Barth is more nominalistic than Occam. Initially he was essentially still in full agreement with Assen–1926. Later he visited Rome. Then he wrote two books. All they do is ask questions, or pose problems. Kuitert calls the second volume about the Holy Scriptures “that magisterial work,” and it’s exactly in that volume that Berkouwer starts to go wrong. Everything is a problem, problems with no answers. In 1963 he wrote an article: “The Strength of the Confession.He was deviating already then, and, of course, Kuitert has gone even further. Kuitert admits being a Berkouwer disciple. Maybe Wiersinga will go a step further yet. In those five booklets: Cahiers for the Congregation, what is left of the Scriptures?

Are you. not afraid that the same development will take place in the Christian Reformed Church in the next ten years?

Yes, that‘s possible. May God prevent it. It will come to that. The only thing that can save liS is holding fast to the Gospel. There is a tremendous similarity between K. Schilder and J. Gresham Machen. They were both men of determination: Christ is King above all.

I hope with all my heart, Dr. Van Til, that Cod will provide men at Westminster who will continue in the right direction.

I hope so too. We are dependent on grace. He who stands, beware, lest he faJI.

I am glad you hove been so ready and willing to grant me such a lengthy interview. A heartfelt thank you for your cooperation.

DR. J. VAN BRUGGEN (translation: W. F. Morsman, Burlington)