Honors to Dr. Cornelius Van Til

Readers of Christianity Today‘s last 1977 issue were confronted by a fullpage front cover picture of Dr. Cornelius Van Til. Inside a fivepage feature article by the former senior editor, David E. Kucharsky, described the way this one-time Christian Reformed pastor of the Spring Lake church has in a half century of teaching apologetics, over forty of them at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, gained a reputation as one of the staunchest defenders of the Christian faith in the academic world in our time. Although “Van Til has been perhaps the most controversial of the really great thinkers of the twentieth century,” the article observes that, personally “he is gracious, gentlemanly, humble and considerate” and “highly charitable toward those with whom he disagrees.”

The Professor’s Lighter Side

The article mentions the lighter side of life in his classroom where “he has been enough of a wit to arouse gales of laughter among his students. He admits to throwing chalk at anyone who dared to doze. ‘One of these bullets drew blood,’ he says. ‘The next class the victim of my violence wore a steel helmet.’”

Standing on God‘s Inerrant Word

Asked by the interviewer, “How do you know that what you believe is true?” Dr. Van Til replied, “I am sure of my faith because its source is the Bible, the revealed Word of God.” Asked whether it doesnt then become necessary to prove that the Bible is true and really is the Word of God, Dr. Van Til’s answer is that a Christian must assume this because the Sovereign God has claimed it. Recognizing this claim of God requires that we acknowledge the inerrancy of the Bible. To pretend, in order to argue with unbelievers, that we must begin on neutral ground that they too will accept, as many Christian scholars have done, is already at our starting paint contradicting the truth we are trying to prove. No one can prove the claims that God makes if he starts his line of argument by conceding that those claims mayor may not be true. That starting point is already a humanism, a worship of man that puts him and his ideas as judges above God and His revelation. In other words, we must stop betraying the gospel in the way we try to win the unbeliever. This is essentially Dr. Van Til‘s position as it is described in this article and as it is worked out in his many books. It is Dr. Van Til‘s conviction that humbly beginning with what God has said, we must call “spiritually dead people to repentance and life,” laboring “always to win people to the triune God of Scriptures.” Faithfully doing this, he maintains, demands that we, in the academic world as well as elsewhere, not neglect “to declare the wrath to come for those who reject God.” Dr. Van Til would “like to be remembered as one who was faithful to him, ‘from whom, through whom and unto whom are all things.’”


Over the span of a career approaching fifty years Cornelius Van Til has attracted many students to Philadelphia. They wanted a defense of the faith that is methodologically consistent with the faith. His apologetic stands in stark contrast to the classic deductive and inductive rationalism that they had found religiously and scientifically dissatisfying.

Van Til, the pedagogical performer, proved as vigorous in lecture and discussion as the polemics of his writing would suggest. Every student of Van Til can instantly recall the characteristic Van Tillian blackboard graffiti: the foremost symbol being two circles, a big one for the creator, the other for creation with no ontological bridge between. The entire history of philosophy or Christian thought, including most heresy, would be strewn in names and phrases across the board. He scrawled Latin, Greek, German, and Dutch wherever there was room. By the time he finished lecturing his hands, his clothes, and even his face would be chalk-smudged.

Van Til composed complete syllabi for his courses that were virtual textbooks, in many cases en route to publication. His students treasured those hyllabi and quoted from them as if they had already been published. Few of his students could easily digest his running critique of the different historical forms of apostate thought, the unfortunate wedding of Christian theology to the apostate system, and his own constructive “theontology” based on the ontological trinity, the creator, and the creator‘s analogue, man.

The consumption of chalk and the whir of ideas were symptomatic of an excitement generated not from brilliant eruditions, though some of his skyrocketing digressions could be called that, but from the strong and systematic emphasis on the antithesis between a biblical world and life view and the several intellectual and scientific versions of the carnal mind. Students began to see how far-reaching were the differences between believer and nonbeliever. For example, the problem of finding a common ground for discussion with non-Christians became a matter of making clear what God has freely given to all of us. Students felt that their minds were freed from a twentieth-century way of thinking. Van Tils task was to make both despisers and defenders of the faith “epistomologically self-conscious.” For him the journey from philosophical apologetics to evangelism was a mere adjustment in style, not in basic content.

To a man of Van Til’s radical vision, there is much to deplore in the world and in the Church. Yet Van Til is magnanimous, hopeful, and ecumenical; sometimes these qualities come through when he is most polemic. I recall his debating liberal and neo-orthodox champions at Boston University. He graciously, respectfully, but incisively told them that they were going to hell. Van Til lives what he believes.

T. GRADY SPIRES, former student of Van Til and associate professor of philosophy, Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

Copyright 1977 and used by permission of Christianity Today.

The Reformed Fellowship has from its beginning been deeply appreciative of the labors of Dr. Van Til to maintain and defend the Christian faith in the crosscurrents of life and thought in our time. It has appreciated his support and encouragement often given to its own efforts in the same cause. There is reason for thankfulness to God that Dr. Van Til’s faithful labors are gaining the growing recognition and influence which this Christianity Today article indicates. Many people all over the land are becoming weary of prevailing confusion and double-talk and welcome plain speech that says what God has said. May people everywhere be drawn to and join in the same confession.

Our deepest sympathies are extended to Dr. Van Til in the recent death of Mrs. Van Til. Let us pray that the Lord may continue to use and bless the 82year career of His servant.

The interested reader who would like to become acquainted with Dr. Van Til’s view of the way we should try to maintain and defend the Christian faith may find that one of the simplest and most useful introductions to it is his little 20-page booklet, Why I Believe in God. Copies may be obtained from Great Commission Publications, 7401 Old York Road, Philadelphia, PA 19126, for 30¢ each.