The name of Cornelius Van Til is inseparable from Reformed, presuppositional apologetics. Due to the importance yet complexity of Van Til’s thinking and of the discipline of apologetics in general, I aim to provide in this brief article a few sketchy notes on this Reformed apologist’s background and basic thought, as well as a capsule summary of apologetics and its primary methodologies.
Cornelius (“Kees”) Van Til was born one hundred years ago (May 3, 1895) at Grootegast, in the province of Groningen, the Netherlands, as the sixth son of godly, Bible-centered parents. Raised in a “lovingly strict” Calvinistic home, the Three Forms of Unity (i.e., Belgic Confession, 1561; Heidelberg Catechism, 1563; Canons of Dort, 1618“1619) served as formative influences on Van Til and his interpretation of Scripture. In 1905 the Van Til family immigrated to Highland, lndiana to farm in a more prosperous area. They were devout members of a conservative Christian Reformed Church. As a teenager, young Van Til felt the weighty call of God to His service. Shortly thereafter, he attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he immersed himself in the treatises of philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer. After receiving an AB from Calvin, Van Til moved to Princeton, New Jersey for five additional years of study. In 1922 he matriculated at Princeton Theological Seminary where he earned a Th.M. degree. Subsequently, he acquired his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1927. His doctoral dissertation was entitled, “God and the Absolute.” Throughout his Princeton years Van Til studied under an impressive array of leading Reformed thinkers including Geerhardus Vos, Caspar W. Hodge, William P. Armstrong, Robert D. Wilson, Oswald T. Allis, W.P. Greene and J. Gresham Machen.
The 1920s proved to be a time of crisis for the once staunchly Reformed seminary at Princeton. The tradition of Archibald Alexander, Charles and A.A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield was being challenged increasingly by the infiltration of more liberal-minded professors. After a brief pastorate at Spring Lake Christian Reformed Church, Muskegon, Michigan (1927–1928), Van Til taught apologetics for one year at Princeton (1928–1929), and at its close was elected Professor of Apologetics in Princeton Theological Seminary by its Board of Directors, but was not confirmed by the 1929 General Assembly on account of the Assembly’s authorization of Princeton’s reorganization. Van Til returned to Spring Lake, determined to refuse teaching at either Princeton or the newly organized Westminster Seminary which aimed to carry on the tradition of “old” Princeton under the able leadership of Dr. Machen. Nevertheless, he was prevailed upon to join the Westminster faculty by Drs. Machen and Allis who traveled to Michigan to seek his and R.B. Kuiper’s services. From the founding of Westminster Seminary in 1929 until his emeritation in 1975 at the age of eighty, Dr. Van Til taught Reformed apologetics and related courses from a uniquely Biblical perspective and within the confines of traditional Reformed theology. His thinking on Reformed apologetics, philosophy and theology exerted a steadily growing influence on many graduate students and conservative Reformed evangelicals throughout the world. Today, his views continue to be developed by some of his students and are still frequently debated among orthodox Reformed theologians and apologists.
Van Til wrote more than twenty books during his teaching career, in addition to thirty unpublished class syllabi which were widely circulated and are still valued. Even in his eighties Dr. Van Til continued to stay abreast of developments in Reformed apologetics and contributed as enabled. His passing away in 1987 at the ripe age of ninety-two signaled the end of an era for both Westminster Seminary and Reformed presuppositional apologetics. (For additional detail on Van Til’s life, see the authorized biography of William White, Jr., Van Til: Defender of the Faith, 1979.)
VAN TIL’S THOUGHT
Two fields of study, distinguishable and yet closely related, have molded the person and work of Cornelius Van Til: theology and philosophy. Theologically, Van Til’s contours were always unequivocally Reformed in principle and practice. First, John Calvin, upon whose spiritual manna Van Til was nurtured throughout his life, was his primary theological influence. Second, the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism via his Dutch Reformed upbringing and the theology of the Westminster Assembly, due to connections with conservative presbyterianism at Old Princeton and Westminster seminaries, also cast their dye on the theological mind-set of Van Til. Moreover, in 1936 Van Til switched his church membership from the CRC to the newly organized Orthodox Presbyterian Church where he remained for the rest of his life. Third, Van Til’s theological convictions were self-admittedly influenced by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). Though Van Til rejected Kuyperian presumptive regeneration, he did embrace a number of Kuyper’s significant theological principles such as the centrality of the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation; the focus of all of life’s strands drawn to the heart of man as the center of his existence and relationship to God; the conviction that all of life is consequently religious and is acted out in either a Godward or anti-Godward direction; and the necessary pursuit of Christian philosophy in every subject area by examining its created order, dysfunction through sin and fall, and post-lapsarian restoration in Christ. Though Van Til often sought to rework and go beyond Kuyper and Bavinck, the Kuyper-Bavinck line of thought which proposed the principal thesis that “the Christianity set forth in the Bible is the one God-revealed religion, and that Calvinism is the clearest and most consistent expression of that religion-both in content and in its life-and-world presentation,” he accepted unmitigatingly all his life (White, p. 35).
Philosophically, Kuyper’s Calvinistic principles made a major impact on the school of philosophic thought sometimes denominated “Amsterdam Philosophy” or “Calvinistic Philosophy,” which in turn also influenced Van Til, particularly in his early Westminster years. Developed in the second quarter of this century, “Calvinistic Philosophy” grew out of the writings and teachings of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977) and Dirk Hendrik Theodore Vollenhoven (1892–1978), brothers-in-law who were simultaneously appointed to the chairs of jurisprudence and philosophy respectively at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1926. Dooyeweerd posited the following four ground-motives as functional throughout the course of history: first, the form-matter dualism in Greek philosophy; second, the nature-grace synthesis in medieval philosophy; third, the nature-freedom dualism in modern philosophy; fourth, the truly Christian ground motive based on the radical, Biblical motif of “creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit” (d. Herman Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought: Studies in the Pretended Autonomy of Philosophical Thought, pp. 39–52). For Dooyeweerd, only this fourth ground-motive can function in Christian philosophYi consequently, he seeks to build his philosophical system, known as “The Philosophy of the Idea of Law” or “Cosmonomic Idea” after one of his early major works, De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee, on the basis of the creation-fall-redemption ground-motive. In the last decades of his life, however, Van Til became critical of several aspects of the “Amsterdam philosophy,” despite his in “Amsterdam philosophy,” despite his indebtedness to it. For example, he criticized Dooyeweerd for moving away from a radically Christian and Calvinistic philosophy to an approach that allows more accommodation to, or at least more congenial dialogue with, non-Christian thinking (see Edward R. Geehan, Jerusalem and Athens, where Dooyeweerd and Van Til engage in a lengthy interchange relative to their differences).
Nevertheless, salient points of Kuyperian thought have directly affected Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven and Van Til in greater or lesser measure. Among others, these include the following: 1) science is dependent on philosophical considerations and underlying principles to function rightly; 2) to obtain a sense of totality in science or theology, a philosophical starting point is necessary, derived by spiraling down to the depths of any given; 3) non-Christian philosophy can have no point of transcendence, but must essentially remain within the cosmos; 4) faith and thought operate always as functions moving either in a right or wrong direction; 5) logic must not be elevated in philosophical thinking.
Against this background, Van Til developed his “new apologetic” in which he defends “old truth.” Though preeminently a preacher of the Word, Van Til has become known primarily through his pioneer work in the field of apologetics (d. Dr. E. Clowney, Westminster Theological Journal, fall 1984; John H. Piersma, Outlook, 35, 5 :16–17). Rightly, he has been called “the old guardian of a new apologetics” (Paul C H. Szto, Outlook, 35, 5 :12–13).
Apologetics has been defined as a branch of scientific theology which deals with the history and possibility of efforts to establish an effective defense of the Christian faith against any attack from those outside of that faith. As a subdivision of Christian theology, apologetics is a systematic, argumentative discourse in defense of the divine origin and authority of the Christian faith. Van Til himself has defined it as “the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life” (Apologetics, p. 1).
The English word, apologetics, is derived from a Greek root meaning “to defend, to make reply, to give an answer, to legally defend oneself.” In New Testament times, anapologia was a formal courtroom defense (2 Tim. 4:16). The Greek verb (apologeomai) occurs ten times in the New Testament, and the Greek noun (apologia) occurs eight times. In nearly every case, the key element involved is that of defense. This coincides with Van Til’s major work on apologetics, aptly titled, Defense of the Faith, which also provides the best summary of his thought.
The notion of some well-intentioned Christians that they are under no obligation to propound and defend their faith before a hostile world is not supported by Scripture. Besides the obvious fact that both Jesus and Paul repeatedly defended their claims of Messiah (Matt. 22) and apostle respectively (Gal. 1, 2; 1 Cor. 9; Acts 22–26), the classic Petrine admonition certainly implies that the Christian faith is capable of reasonable defense: “Be ready always to give an answer [i.e., a defense] to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15b).
Though the Scriptural mandate is clear that the Christian faith must be defended, that is, that apologetics is a significant and necessary task, how the method of apologetics ought to be carried out has often been and still remains a matter of intense debate. At least three different major schools of thought have emerged in addressing the “how” of Christian apologetics.
First, there is the school of revelation or presuppositionalism. This school has as its motto: Credo ut intelligam (“I believe in order that I may understand”). It presupposes the supernatural revelation of God’s Word as providing the only basis for the entire theological enterprise. Dr. Robert Reymond succinctly states: “Group characteristics here are convictions that 1) faith in God precedes understanding everything else (d. Hebrews 11:3), 2) elucidation of the system [of truth] follows faith, 3) religious experience must be grounded in the objective Word of God and the objective work of Christ, 4) human depravity has rendered autonomous reason incapable of satisfactorily anchoring its truth claims to anything objectively certain, and 5) a special regenerating act of the Holy Spirit is indispensable for Christian faith and enlightenment” (The Justification of Knowledge: An Introductory Study in Christian Apologetic Methodology, p. 8). This school is represented by the Augustinian and consistent Reformed tradition, including Van Til.
Van Til’s role has been one of developing presuppositionalism along Reformed lines beyond any before him. Harvie Conn provides an excellent summary: “Van Til constructed a presuppositional apologetic based on two fundamental assertions: 1) the Creator-creature distinction that demands human beings presuppose the self-attesting triuneGod in all their thinking; 2) the reality that unbelievers will resist this obligation in every aspect of life and thought. Insisting that all thought is analogical and self-consciously dependent on the reality of the Biblical God and the authority of His revelation, Van Til opposed autonomy, the attempt to think and live by some criterion of truth other than God’s Word” (Daniel Reid, et al., Dictionary of Christianity in America, pp. 1211–1212).
Second, there is the objective or evidentialist school, which may be represented by the motto, Intelligo et credo (“I understand and I believe”). The methodology of evidentialism stresses some form of natural theology as the point at which apologetics commences. As Reymond sums, “Group characteristics here are the following: 1) a genuine belief in the ability and trustworthiness of human reason in its search for religious knowledge, 2) the effort to ground faith upon empirical and/or historically verifiable facts, and 3) the conviction that religious propositions must be subjected to the same kind of verification-namely, demonstration—that scientific assertions must undergo. The Thomistic Roman Catholic tradition, the (inconsistent) Reformed evidentialist traditions, and the Arminian tradition are representative of this group” Justification of Knowledge, p. 9).
Van Til has done much pioneer work in exposing the fallacies of this methodology. He has shown that this approach neglects the radical effects of the Adamic fall, for it advocates that reason was only weakened but not crippled by the fall. Van Til attacked two major proponents of evidentialism frequently: Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholicism’s primary medieval theologian, and Bishop Butler, an eighteenth-century Anglican. Aquinas sought for a common ground between religion and philosophy by insisting that God’s existence, revealed in the Scriptures, could also be demonstrated by reason. His aim was to synthesize natural and supernatural thought, Christian and pagan thought, Augustinianism and Aristotelianism. Van Til argued that the Thomistic approach of going part way with the natural man and then leading him to supernatural truth, undermines the entire Biblical structure of one system of truth. Similarly, Van Til exposed the fallacy of Bishop Butler’s work, Analogy of Religion (1736), for arguing the truth of Christianity on the grounds of “mere probability.”
Third, there is an apologetic denominated as subjective methodology or experientinalism. Its motto is: Credo quia absurdum est (“I believe because it is absurd”). Experientialism stresses inward religious experience as the foundation of all theology. Its tradition accents the paradoxical character of Christian teaching to the point that it asserts that Christian truth is not capable of rational analysis. Typical of this school is the Barthian tradition which underscores the “otherness,” the transcendence, and hiddenness of God at the expense of His concrete Scriptural revelation of truth. Van Til has also done extensive work in exposing the fallacy of Barth, Barthians and others who espouse experientialism as independent of, or superior to, the objective character and authority of Scripture for establishing truth.
Van Til has played a major role in uncovering non-presuppositional methods or attitudes in both non-Reformed and also in otherwise Reformed thinkers-particularly in the Old Princeton apologetic as advocated by Warfield, et al. He has even detected signs of inconsistency in this regard in Kuyper and Bavinck. In short, Van Til has done able work in presenting a thoroughly consistent and Biblical Reformed apologetic, and in purging Reformed theology from non-Reformed apologetics. He has also provided a Reformed foundation for Christian ontology, epistemology and ethics. There is much for us to learn from Dr. Van Til, and we cannot recommend too highly his Defense of the Faith and Introduction to Systematic Theology for those who are serious about understanding Scripture and advancing in the knowledge of Reformed truth.
For those interested in pursuing further study relative to Van Til’s thought and apologetics, the following select bibliography represent a beginning:
Bell, Michael. “Analogy and Cornelius Van Til.” Master’s thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1981.
Frame, John. Van Til: The Theologian. Phillipsburg, NJ: Pilgrim, 1976.
Geehan, E.R., ed. Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornclius Van Til.
Nutley, NJ: Presbyterianand Reformed, 1971.
Halsey, Jim S. “A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: The Theologian.” Westminster Theologicol Journal 39 (1976):120–36. ___. For Such a Time as This: An Introduction to the Reformed Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed,1976.
Knudsen, Robert D. “Crosscurrents.” Westminster Theological Journal 35 (1972):303–314. Park, Aaron Pyungchoon. “The Concepts of Revelation in the Theologies of Paul Tillich and Cornelisu Van Til.” Ph.D. dissertation, California Graduate School of Theology, 1971 . Rushdoony, John Rousas. By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959.
Sproul, R.C.; Gerstner, John; Lindsley, Arthur. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
VanderStelt, John C. Philosophy and Scripture: A Study in Old Princeton and Westminster Theology. Marlton, NJ: Mack, 1978.
Van Til, Cornelius. “Apologetics” (syllabus). Westminster Seminary, n.d.
___. “Bavinck the Theologian.” WestminsterTheological Journal 24 (1961):48–64.
___. The Case for Calvinism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971.
___. Christian-Theistic Ethics. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980.
___. “Christian-Theistic Evidences” (syllabus). Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961.
___. A Christian Theory of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969.
___. Christianity and Barthianism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962.
___. Christianity and Idealism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955.
___. “Christianity in Conflict” (syllabi). 3 vols. Westminster Seminary, 1962–64.
___. Common Grace and the Gospel. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed,1973.
___. The Defense of the Faith. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955.
___. Introduction to Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974.
___. “Prof. Vollenhoven’s Significance for Reformed Apologetics.” Wetellschappelijk Bijdragen, Dr. D.H. Th. Vollenhoven, ed. by S.U. Zuidema. Franeker: T. Wever, 1951.
___. The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967.
___. The Psychology of Religion. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971.
___. The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974.
___. A Survey of Christian Epistemology. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969. Weaver, Gilbert S. “The Concept of Truth in the Apologetic Systems of Gordon Haddon Oark and Cornelius Van Til.” Ph.D. dissertation, Grace Theological Seminary, 1967.
White, William, Jr. Van Til: Defender of the Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979.
Young, William. Towards a Reformed Philosophy. Tfre Development of a Protestant Philosophy in Dutch Calvinistic Thought Since the Time of Abraham Kuyper. Grand Rapids: Piet Hein, 1952.
Dr. Joel R. Beeke is pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, MI, and editor of the periodical, Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth.