by John M. Frame
[This essay was originally published in Walter Elwell, ed., Handbook of Evangelical Theologians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 156-67. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 1993. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. www.bakerbooks.com; https://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.]
Cornelius Van Til was born on May 3, 1895, in Grootegast, the Netherlands, the sixth son of Ite Van Til, a dairy farmer, and his wife Klazina.1 At the age of ten Cornelius moved with his family to Highland, Indiana. He picked up English quickly and spoke thereafter with very little trace of an accent.
The first of his family to receive a formal higher education, Van Til in 1914 entered Calvin Preparatory School in Grand Rapids, where he remained to study at Calvin College and at Calvin Theological Seminary. These institutions were all schools of Van Til’s denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, which was made up mostly of Dutch immigrants like himself. But after his first year of seminary, Van Til transferred to Princeton Theological Seminary. In those days, Princeton was an orthodoxCalvinistic school, as was Calvin, and there was much mutual respect between the two; but Princeton’s roots were in American Presbyterianism rather than in the Dutch Reformed tradition represented by Calvin. While in seminary, Van Til was also admitted to Princeton University as a graduate student in philosophy, working on a doctorate as he completed his seminary course.2 In 1925 he completed a Th.M. at the seminary and married his childhood sweetheart, Rena Klooster; in 1927 he completed a Ph.D. at the university.
During his years in the Dutch Reformed community, Van Til became very impressed with the great Dutch church leaders Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. Kuyper was a Renaissance man: scholar, university founder, politician (briefly prime minister of the Netherlands), newspaper editor. With boundless energy and intellectual creativity, he sought to claim all areas of human life for the lordship of Christ. Bavinck, his colleague and follower, focused more narrowly on the discipline of systematic theology and produced a monumental four-volume Reformed Dogmatics. The work of Klaas Schilder, a more recent Dutch thinker, also commanded Van Til’s deep respect and interest.
Van Til arrived in Princeton too late to study with B. B. Warfield, arguably the greatest theological scholar America has produced, who had died in 1921; but Warfield’s name was legendary during Van Til’s student days, and Van Til respected him deeply, as well as Warfield’s predecessor, the great Princeton theologian of the previous century, Charles Hodge. While at the seminary, Van Til became a close friend of Professor Geerhardus Vos, like himself a Dutch immigrant who had left Grand Rapids for Princeton. Vos brought to Princeton the discipline of “biblical theology,” which sought to understand Scripture as a history of redemption. Van Til himself was more philosophically than exegetically inclined, but one can find echoes of Vos in Van Til’swritings. Van Til’s preaching and much of his classroom teaching also contained a great deal of biblical theology; he would, for instance, trace the human epistemological predicament from the Garden of Eden to the judgments of Revelation.
The philosophical influences upon Van Til are a bit harder to define. At Calvin his most famous teacher was W. Harry Jellema, described in my hearing by a well-known non-Christian philosopher as “the best teacher of philosophy in the United States.” Jellema himself had studied with the Harvard idealist Josiah Royce, and may have motivated Van Til to study idealism atPrinceton. Van Til’s dissertation advisor at Princeton University was Archibald A. Bowman, whose sympathies also were with idealism and with the developing personalist movement. As did James Orr, with whose writings Van Til’s apologetics shows some affinity, Van Til made liberal use of the idealist vocabulary (the philosophical use of the term presupposition originated in idealism). Nonetheless, Van Til always insisted that he rejected the substantive content of idealism, which identified the creator with the creature and made them subject to one another within an impersonal universe.
The most important philosophical influences on Van Til were distinctively Christian rather than idealist. Kuyper himself had urged that all human thought be governed by a Christian worldview derived from Scripture. To Kuyper, this worldview was antithetical to every secular ideology, whether philosophical, political, economic, aesthetic, or whatever. Kuyper’s disciples sought to bring the Christian worldview to bear on politics, education, and journalism; naturally, some sought to express it in philosophy as well. Thus in the 1920s Herman Dooyeweerd, D. H. Theodoor Vollenhoven, and others in the Netherlands founded a school of thought called the “philosophy of the idea of law.” It is unclear whether this school influenced the initial formulations of Van Til’s apologetic, or whether he had developed his approach before his contact with the Dutch philosophy. Certainly there are many similarities, but also important differences. At any rate, Van Til wrote favorably about the early work of the Dutch school; and they, in turn, named Van Til as an editor of their journal, Philosophia Reformata. Though Van Til later became critical of this group, he was always aware of the developments among them. Surely, then, in a broad sense at least, we must list the Dooyeweerdian school as one significant influence on Van Til’s thought.
After his graduation in 1927, Van Til spent one year as the pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Spring Lake, Michigan, a work which he deeply enjoyed. He took a leave of absence from the pastorate to teach apologetics at Princeton Seminaryduring the academic year 1928-29. When the seminary offered him the chair of apologetics (in effect, a full professorship) at the end of that period, Van Til turned down the offer and returned to Spring Lake. He was strongly inclined to remain in the pastorate,and in addition he did not wish to cooperate in the reorganization of Princeton Seminary which had been mandated that spring by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The reorganization was intended to purge the seminary’s historic stand for orthodox Calvinism and make the school more representative of “all the points of view found in the church.” To be included were the points of view of the thirteen hundred ministers who in 1924 had signed the notorious Auburn Affirmation, which declared the doctrines of biblical inspiration, the virgin birth of Christ, his substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection, and literal second coming to be humanly formulated theories; hence, ministerial candidates need not be required to subscribe to them.
However, there were those in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. who fought against the unbelief growing throughout the denomination and the church at large. The most notable of these was J. Gresham Machen, a teacher of New Testament at Princeton Seminary. Van Til did not study under Machen but knew him well and admired his scholarship, his ability to articulate the truth, and his stand for orthodox doctrine. Machen must be added to our list of men who influenced Van Til, for almost everything Van Til wrote and taught reflects Machen’s theme that orthodoxy is indispensable to a Christian profession.5 The great doctrines of the faith are not human inventions, but the teachings of God himself to us in his Word. One cannot claim to be a Christian while rejecting the teachings of Christ in Scripture. Indeed, Van Til went one step beyond Machen, seeking to show that orthodox Christian doctrine is, in one sense, necessary for all rational thought and conduct (see pp. 164, 166).
In response to the reorganizing of Princeton Seminary, Machen with other faculty members (Robert Dick Wilson, Oswald T. Allis) determined to start a new seminary that would be independent of the General Assembly’s control and would continue to give students orthodox instruction in the tradition of Warfield, Vos, and Hodge. Younger men, R. B. Kuiper, Ned B. Stonehouse, Allan MacRae, and Paul Woolley, were added to the faculty; and Machen was eager to obtain Van Til’s services in the area of apologetics. Van Til was extremely reluctant to leave Spring Lake, but after much correspondence and personal visits by Allis, Stonehouse, and Machen himself, Van Til, several days before opening exercises, accepted the offer. Westminster Theological Seminary opened its doors in Philadelphia in the fall of 1929, and Van Til remained on the faculty there until his retirement in 1972.
In 1936, Machen and several others were suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. for their unwillingness to resign from an independent mission board which Machen had founded. The independent board represented conservative dissatisfaction with the official mission board, which tolerated among its missionaries liberal teaching along the lines of the Auburn Affirmation. Machen and the others did not accept this church discipline; among other irregularities, the ecclesiastical court had not permitted Machen to make a scriptural case for his conduct. So Machen and 130 other ministers founded a new denomination, originally called the Presbyterian Church of America,6 but later forced to change its name under legalthreat. Eventually the body called itself the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In sympathy with Machen, Van Til transferred his membership from the Christian Reformed Church to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he remained until his death in 1987.7
Van Til’s first book, The New Modernism, caused a storm.8 In it he attacked the idea that Karl Barth and Emil Brunner were basically Reformed evangelicals. As he elsewhere expressed his conclusion, “Barth simply does not believe the Christ of theScripture at all.”
Van Til’s second book tackled the subject of Common Grace. The Defense of the Faith followed in 1955, the first complete public presentation of his distinctive apologetic system.11 Incorporating much of his basic unpublished syllabus Apologetics, it included answers to his critics. For after Van Til had taught at Calvin Seminary for one semester in 1952, a number of articles attacking his positions appeared in the Calvin Forum. James Daane, a Christian Reformed minister, wrote a whole volume critical of Van Til, A Theology of Grace.12 Earlier, J. Oliver Buswell had written a very negative review of Van Til’s Common Grace in his publication The Bible Today. Van Til addressed both Buswell and the Daane- Calvin Forum group in The Defense of the Faith. In 1963, the book was released in an abridged form that left out most of the debate between Van Til and his critics. In 1962, Van Til published his second major critique of Barth, Christianity and Barthianism (the title intentionally reminiscent of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism). A Christian Theory of Knowledge appeared in 1969. A somewhat expanded version of the syllabus of the same name, it incorporated some of the debate between Van Til and his critics that had been left out of the second edition of The Defense of the Faith.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Van Til seems to have lost much of his reserve about publishing. A great many books came out in rapid succession: Is God Dead? The Confession of 1967, Christ and the Jews, The Sovereignty of Grace, The New Hermeneutic, The New Synthesis Theology of the Netherlands, The God of Hope. Most of these are fairly minor works, less important, at least, to the understanding of Van Til’s thought than are some of his more basic syllabi. Of those books still considered unpublished syllabi, some are among Van Til’s most important writings: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Christian-Theistic Evidences, Christian Theistic Ethics. His original syllabus, dating to 1929, was re-released in the 1970s as A Survey of Christian Epistemology– still an unpublished syllabus.14
Van Til also published a great many articles and reviews. Of his many pamphlets, Why I Believe in God deserves special notice. Perhaps the only writing Van Til actually directed toward unbelievers, it raises more questions than it answers, but it is well worth reading, for it contains some of the best writing Van Til ever did.
Van Til quickly developed the reputation of having a brilliant mind with an encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy and theology. Personally, he was gracious and charming, with a sometimes wild sense of humor. He was said to be like the apostle Paul in that his writings were weighty and powerful, but his physical presence meek (2 Cor. 10:10). He spent as much time with simple people as with brilliant intellectuals. He would regularly visit sick friends in the hospital and minister to others in the hospital rooms, engaging them in conversation and prayer. He was generous with his time and resources—often willing to preach in little struggling churches and nursing homes, or supplying correspondents with some of his syllabi at his own expense.
As to his communication skills, perhaps the jury is still out. His preaching was very eloquent and challenging; in some ways it was better than his teaching. His teaching method was to assign readings in some of his unpublished syllabi and in the writings of others, and then to conduct a class discussion punctuated by ad hoc lectures on various topics which happened to come up. The discussion proceeded fast, too fast for many of the students, for they had no philosophical (and little theological) background. Van Til would write names and concepts on the board, usually just the first few letters of each word; at times the pace was dizzying. He rarely defined his concepts precisely. When students asked for definitions or tried to reduce his arguments to a logical sequence, Van Til usually resisted. What he did in such cases was to back up and start over, using essentially the same language he had used before. He seemed to think that regular repetition of certain ideas would result in their entering the students’ minds by a kind of osmosis.
Van Til did have a great knack for illustrations and slogans—reducing complex ideas to homely, familiar dimensions. His lifelong love of farming revealed itself in stories about chickens and cows. Or consider some of his similes describing the unbeliever. The unbeliever’s mind is like a buzz saw that works very efficiently but in the wrong direction.17 The unbeliever who tries to explain the universe as the product of sheer chance is like a man made of water who tries to climb out of the water on a ladder made of water. The unbeliever is prejudiced about everything, like a man with yellow glasses cemented to his face—”all is yellow to the jaundiced eye.”19 Students tended to latch on to these illustrations and short formulations (e.g., “the point of contact is deep within the natural man”)20 and would begin to feel that they had understood Van Til. Unfortunately, too often that understanding was rudimentary at best and erroneous at worst. Van Til himself was quite aware that there is only so much that one can learn through slogans and illustrations; eventually there must be careful analysis. (Thus he told us that term papers that merely repeated his slogans and illustrations without careful analysis would be graded no higher than “C.”) But teaching the process of analysis was not Van Til’s gift. Therefore even today there are many– both friends and opponents of Van Til’s ideas—who have extremely confused notions of what he actually taught.21
Thus his modest reluctance to publish may not have been without basis. His books and syllabi contain some of the same problems: the force of his bold, exciting summaries, illustrations, and exhortation is weakened by inadequate definition, analysis, and argument. This reflects, to some extent, deficiency in communication skills, but also—and perhaps more significantly—Van Til’s isolation.
Van Til always was something of an outsider in the theological, philosophical, and apologetic discussions of his day. A Dutchman teaching in a distinctively American environment, a rejecter of mainstream liberal theology who sought to excel as a theologian and philosopher, a Christian apologist who rejected virtually the entire tradition of apologetics as it had been practiced since the second century. He often spoke of the isolation of the Reformed faith, even as he made strongly negative comments about Roman Catholic, Arminian, and “less consistent Calvinist” theology. His negativity naturally led to more isolation. Rarely did Van Til engage in dialogue with other positions; rather, his style was confrontation.
Van Til’s language, too, contributed to his isolation. Unlike most of the popular apologists, he used a great many technical philosophical and theological expressions, often inadequately defined and analyzed; even his homely illustrations could notcompensate for his daunting style. Beyond this, his philosophical vocabulary was not the kind easily understood by other philosophers. Van Til’s philosophical background was idealist, and increasingly during his career the philosophical climate turned awayfrom idealism. In America, the newer movements were various forms of language analysis, which took great pride in their clarity, sharp definitions, and minute analysis of individual propositions—not the skills for which Van Til was known. And his theological language was often very technical as well. Though he could preach the gospel very simply to children and to the childlike, he preferred in his teaching to focus upon the more difficult areas of theological debate. He was not, like C. S. Lewis, a defender of “Mere Christianity.” He intended to defend the entire Reformed faith down to the smallest detail.
Another facet of Van Til’s isolation is that he was a brilliant philosopher in a denomination where, for most of his career, no one else was capable of discussing matters at his level (except, perhaps, Gordon H. Clark for a time; but Clark’s presence meant more confrontation, not dialogue). Nor was Van Til challenged by book and journal editors, for most of his articles were published in-house by the seminary’s own Westminster Theological Journal, and his books were published by Presbyterian and Reformed, which was equally uncritical of him.
Such isolation may sometimes be necessary for the free development of important and controversial theological ideas. However, it creates obvious difficulties. For one thing, an isolated thinker has little opportunity to influence theology and the church atlarge. Thus Van Til is still not taken seriously by many people who ought to be very interested in what he had to say (e.g., the new Reformed-epistemology movement of Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff).
Another result of the isolation was that Van Til was not effectively challenged during his career to define his terms, to explain the logical structure of his arguments, to examine his ambiguities. That kind of analysis now falls to others. Some years ago I reviewed a book that was friendly to Van Til, but that frequently misunderstood his ideas. I concluded with an exhortation that we supporters of Van Til set higher standards for ourselves. Van Til himself (then retired) wrote a note commending thosesentiments, even though he was aware that they could lead to some negative conclusions about his teaching. Often he seemed to flee from such analysis; but at some level he probably knew that he had missed something by not having experienced the benefits of iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17) or of a multitude of counselors (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6).
The Essence of Knowledge
Nevertheless, for all of Van Til’s weaknesses he is an important thinker indeed— perhaps the most important Christian thinker since John Calvin. That statement (coming from a not uncritical disciple) may at first seem extreme. To appreciate it, one must come to understand Van Til’s contribution to contemporary theology.
Now to say that Van Til is the most important Christian thinker since Calvin is not to say that he is the most comprehensive thinker, or the clearest. Certainly it not to say (as some of his more fanatical followers assume) that he is beyond criticisim. Nor is it to say that he has had a greater impact on present-day Christian thought than anybody else; indeed, his isolation continues, and his influence remains small. It is, rather, to say that he has made the Christian community aware of the only epistemology that is appropriate for it, thus laying a necessary foundation for all subsequent Christian reflection.
In describing his theory of knowledg Van Til wrote, “Now the basic structure my thought is very simple,”23 and in essence it is. It is, one might say, the opposite of the secular philosopher Immanuel Kant’s view and of the modern thought that follows his lead. Although Kant professed a kind of theism and an admiration for Jesus, he was clearly far from orthodox Christianity. Indeed, his major book on religion (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone) has as its chief theme that the human mind must never subject itself to any authority beyond itself. Kant radically rejected the idea of authoritative revelation from God and asserted the autonomy of the human mind perhaps more clearly than had ever been done before (though secular philosophers had always maintained this notion). The human mind is to be its own supreme authority, its own criterion of truth an right.
In other words, Kant argues that what makes our experience intelligible is largely; perhaps entirely, our own minds. We do not know what the world is really like; we know only how it appears to us, and how it appears to us is largely what we make it out tobe. Thus not only is the human mind its own ultimate authority, but it also replaces God as the intelligent planner and creator of the experienced universe. Kant also regarded the human mind as the author of its own moral standards.
Kant is widely regarded as the most important philosopher of the modern period, for he showed the modern human, the secular, would-be-autonomous individual, what one would have to believe about knowledge and the world in order to be consistent with this presumed autonomy. In other words, he made the modern secular man epistemologically self-conscious. If modern individuals are not to bow to God, they must bow before themselves, and be Kantians.
If Kant taught secular unbelievers the essentials of their (until then subconscious) theory of knowledge, Van Til did the same for the Christian. While Kant said that we must completely avoid bowing before an external authority, Van Til taught that the only way to find truth is to bow before God’s authoritative Scripture. This is Van Til’s distinctive contribution to modern theology. Because of Van Til, we can at last define the essential philosophical differences between the Christian and the non-Christian worldviews.
For Van Til, God is the Creator, the world is his creature. Over and over again in class Van Til would draw two circles on the blackboard: a large circle representing God and a smaller circle below representing the creation. He insisted that Christianity has a “two-circle” worldview, as opposed to the “one-circle” worldview of secular thought. Secular thought makes all reality equal. If there is a god, he is equal to the world. But in Christianity God is the supreme Creator and therefore the supreme authority over all human thought. Kant told us to ignore the demands of any alleged revelation external to ourselves. Van Til tells us that the very essence of knowledge is to bring our thoughts into agreement with God’s revealed Word.
Thinking God’s thoughts after him is to be the rule not only in narrowly religious matters, but in every sphere of human life. (Here Van Til displays his Kuyperian heritage.) Studies in history, science, psychology, sociology, literary criticism; human
activities such as business, sports, family life, worship, politics—every thought must be brought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Van Til supported Christian schools, for he considered it of first importance that children be taught all subjects from a biblical point of view. Not that Scripture teaches the details of plumbing or auto repair, but it “speaks of everything” at least in general terms. It teaches the fundamental values that must govern even gardening and boat maintenance.
The essence of Van Til’s message is that God calls us to “presuppose” him in all our thinking.25 This means that we must regard his revealed truth as more important and more certain than any other, and find in it the norms or criteria that all other knowledge must meet. No Christian can find fault with this message. Yet all of us must admit that we need to take it more seriously. So often what passes for Christian thought is secular ideas dressed up with a few biblical quotes taken out of context. We need to be far more conscious of Christ’s lordship over all, so that (injurious though this may be to our pride) we will be more interested in what God’s Word says than in what any secular thinker has to say.
The Effects of the Fall on Knowledge
Complications begin to set in when Van Til attempts to take into account the fall of humankind in Adam and the doctrine of sin. According to that biblical teaching, we are from conception (Ps. 51:5) guilty of Adam’s first sin and bearers of a sinful nature(Rom. 3:10-18). In the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, fallen humans are wicked in all thoughts, words, and deeds (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Isa. 64:6). Only the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ can enable us to do anything good. Therefore those without Christian faith are utterly unable to please God (Rom. 8:7-8).
The fall means that all our decisions and actions are directed against God rather than motivated by the desire to glorify him. Thinking is one of those actions. Just as there is godly thinking, trying to think God’s thoughts after him, so, as a consequence of the fall, there is universal ungodly thinking, rejecting God’s revelation and seeking to oppose his plan for us. Hence the biblical antithesis between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God (the Book of Proverbs; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16).
Van Til is fond of quoting the description of unbelievers that is found in Romans 1. He emphasizes that because of the clarity of God’s revelation (w. 18-20) unbelievers know God (w. 20-21). However, they reject, in some sense, the knowledge they have. They do not glorify God or give thanks (v. 21), but become fools (v. 22) and exchange the glory of God for idolatry (v. 23), leading to even worse moral degradation (w. 24, 26-31). So they have exchanged the truth for a lie (v. 25). Nevertheless, they continue to know God’s law (v. 32), and that increases their responsibility.
Unbelievers, then, know God (Rom. 1:21), but in some sense do not know God (1 Cor. 2:14). They reject the knowledge they have. This paradox makes it difficult to characterize the unbelievers’ mentality fully. Van Til, somewhat uncharacteristically, admits that this is a “very complicated” matter, a “difficult point.”26 Perhaps he should have left it at that. But he goes on to characterize unbelievers in various ways which are neither adequate to the biblical data nor consistent with one another.
Van Til often seems to insist that the unbeliever has no true knowledge at all, and thus there can be nothing on which the believer can and should agree with the unbeliever:
The natural man cannot will to do God’s will. He cannot even know what the good is.
It will be quite impossible to find a common area of knowledge between believers and unbelievers unless there is agreement between them as to the nature of man himself. But there is no such agreement.
But without the light of Christianity it is as little possible for man to have the correct view about himself and the world as it is to have the true view about God.27
This is a frequent theme in Van Til. If it were really true, it would seem that there can be no communication between believer and unbeliever, no common ground for apologetic discussion, and it would be impossible to maintain the apostle Paul’s conviction that the unbeliever still knows God in some sense. Elsewhere, however, Van Til vehemently rejects the apparent meaning of these statements: “[I have] never denied that the unbeliever has true knowledge,” he says with some sense of frustration.28
At this point the reader may well be thoroughly perplexed and ask, What kind of knowledge do unbelievers then have? Often Van Til characterizes their knowledge as “formal.”29 That is to say, unbelievers formulate sentences that sound true, but whose meaning differs from the usual in such a way that they are actually rendered false. That, however, would not normally be considered a form of knowledge, but an odd sort of ignorance. Doubtless, unbelievers sometimes engage in such language distortion as part of their rebellion against God, but surely not everything they say has this character. When unbelievers say, “Washington is the capital of the United States,” they certainly are not talking about Peoria. Besides, Van Til himself often characterizes unbelieving thought as true in more than a formal sense. He describes idealist ethics as “lofty”30 and Plato’s god as noble.”31 He insists, too, that unbelievers’ lowledge is not a mere potentiality but actual.32 This would not be the case if their knowledge were purely formal. Van Til describes the unbelievers’ knowledge in many other ways. It is, for instance, merely intellectual understanding without a moral stance. But elsewhere he admits that this is an artificial distinction, for we cannot separate our logical powers from our moral powers.34 He says sometimes that unbelievers are wrong on basics but often right on incidentals, but then he also says that unbelievers (like the devils in James 2:19) can confess God and even accept an argument for his existence — hardly incidental matters. Sometimes he suggests that the unbelievers’ knowledge is subconscious,37 but that sounds more like sigmund Freud than Van Til. Besides, Van Til warns us elsewhere not to make too much of the distinction between unconscious and self-conscious action. Clearly in Scripture devils and unbelievers consciously make true statements.
Van Til’s most characteristic explanation is that unbelievers disagree with believers most often when they are “epistemologically self-conscious,” that is, when they are most aware of trying to formulate and act out the implications of their unbelief.39 This is true as a general empirical observation, but there is no biblical principle that requires us to accept it as some kind of rigid mathematical proportion. For all of Satan’s epistemological self-consciousness, he does manage occasionally to utter true statements—for his own purposes, of course.
It is difficult to make sense out of all this. Clearly we need to go back to the drawing board. The solution may be something like this: The depravity of unbelievers leads them to use their knowledge against God, but it does not always or necessarily lead them to make false statements as such. Often, of course, unbelief will result in false beliefs and statements; but it may also result in a misuse of true ones. Of course, to rebel in this way against a God who is known to have all power and infinite love is in itself an unintelligent act; thus depravity always does affect the intellect, as Van Til says. But the concrete effects are not at all as evident to us or as predictable as Van Til sometimes seems to think. Accordingly, Christian apologists do not need to be embarrassed when they find themselves agreeing with unbelievers about something. Contrary to Van Til, a biblical apologetic need not exclude common notions or ideas, but may legitimately draw conclusions from them.
Traditionally, apologists have developed their defense of Christianity in two steps: (1) a philosophical argument (or arguments) for the existence of God; and (2) historical arguments for the truth of the New Testament, which usually focus on prophecy and miracle (especially the resurrection of Christ). Both these steps have presupposed some common ground between the apologist and the unbeliever. Arguments for the existence of God typically require initial agreement on the meaning of terms like “cause,” “purpose,” and “being.” The historical arguments usually require some initial agreement on what is historically possible or probable.Van Til objects to this traditional approach because it assumes common notions between believer and unbeliever. As we have seen, that criticism is flawed. But Van Til has further objections: (1) the traditional method seems to assume that we can understand the meaning of “cause,” “purpose,” and “being” without presupposing God; and (2) at best it yields only a god who is in some degree possible or probable, not the God of Scripture who is the standard of all possibility.
Objection (1) seems to be gratuitous. An apologist using the traditional method may very well presuppose that God is the author of cause and purpose, and that they are unintelligible apart from him; indeed, the apologist may be using the traditional arguments to establish that very belief. But having that presupposition in no way prevents the apologist from discussing “cause” before discussing God. As for objection (2), Van Til does teach that the evidence for God is “absolutely valid” rather than “merely probable.”40 But he also admits that our formulation of the argument may not be as cogent as the evidence itself.41 To say that the argument is “merely probable” is not to say that the evidence for God is “merely probable”; rather, it is to confess honestly that our argument has not attained the level of cogency which God has placed in the evidence itself. Argument and evidence must be more carefully distinguished.
What does Van Til propose to put in the place of the traditional method? Sometimes he suggests a “presuppositional” form of the traditional method: (1) formulate proofs for the existence of God in which the theistic presuppositions regarding “cause,” “purpose,” and “being” are set forth explicitly42 and then (2) present historical arguments using the biblical criteria for historical possibility, probability, and truth.43 The circularity involved in invoking biblical criteria to prove their own validity is really the same circularity involved in any argument for a supreme criterion of truth, whether in Christianity or rationalism or some other worldview. To prove that human reason is the supreme authority, we must use human reason; in order to prove that God’s revelation is supreme, we must appeal to God’s revelation. If the unbeliever objects to accepting our biblical criteria, we will use them anyway, just as we would reason with mental patients who have constructed their own dreamworld. In that case we do not reason on the basis of their false worldview, nor on some neutral position, but on the basis of our own worldview, which we know to be true.
More often, Van Til suggests an indirect method in which the believer accepts the unbeliever’s position for argument’s sake in order to show that no intelligible thought is possible on the presuppositions of unbelief. He proves that thesis by showing that the only genuine alternatives to Christianity are (1) systems of logic which seek to unify reality, but cannot account for everything in the real world; and (2) the view that attributes everything to pure chance, which destroys the possibility of any unity or rational explanation. Van Til observes that unbelief necessarily drives people in one of these two directions, or to an unstable compromise between them. By contrast, the unique doctrine of the Trinity (God and therefore the world are equally one and many) keeps Christians from the dilemma of having to choose (1) or (2). Van Til uses many ingenious examples from the history of philosophy and theology to buttress this point. We have much to learn from Van Til, but must reject the claim that his suggested method must replace everything that was done by the more traditional apologists. Rather, we should focus on his development of an epistemology that can serve as a basis for what the traditional apologists have sought to do.
Much more can be said about Van Til’s contributions: his analysis of modern philosophy, science, and theology, as well as the peculiar emphases in his work as a systematic theologian (e.g., common grace as “earlier grace,” God as three persons and one person, Reformed theology as what must be true if God is to be God). But space does not permit.
Van Til’s ideas are being taught by various individuals and groups today. The “theonomists” or Christian reconstructionists (e.g., Rousas J. Rushdoony) are thoroughgoing Van Tillians in their epistemology. Van Til himself never accepted their thesis that the details of the Old Testament law are to be applied to contemporary civil governments, but he did appreciate their support. Among them, Greg L. Bahnsen especially perpetuates Van Til’s interests, emphases, and distinctive methods. Some, such as Gary North, have mounted criticisms of Van Til’s amillennial eschatology, even though Van Til himself had almost no interest in the subject.46
Francis Schaeffer studied both with Van Til and with J. Oliver Buswell, and his apologetics incorporated elements from both. His emphasis on the Trinity as the solution to the “one and many” problem, for example, came from Van Til, as did much of hiscritique of culture. The L’Abri community continues, therefore, to perpetuate much of Van Til’s work, even though Van Til himself was highly critical of Schaeffer.
Robert D. Knudsen, Van Til’s immediate successor at Westminster Seminary, is a Dooyeweerdian who maintains a number of Van Tillian emphases, including Van Til’s high doctrine of Scripture. William Edgar, who also teaches apologetics there, is influenced by both Van Til and Schaeffer. For some reason, most of those today who know Van Til’s work are either totally opposed to him or uncritically devoted to him (lambasting anyone they think is not a simon-pure Van Tillian).47 The failure of Van Til to encourage critical analysis of his work may lie behind this phenomenon. It is our hope that the evaluation of his thought will from now on rest with critical disciples rather than with the debunkers or slavish followers.
1 The biographical information in this article is (except for some items of personal knowledge) taken from William White, Jr., Van Til: Defender of the Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979). This book is an excellent introduction to Van Til’s life and character, but it has weaknesses, especially in explaining his thought; see John M. Frame, review of Van Til: Defender of the Faith, by William White, Jr., Westminster TheologicalJoumal 42.1 (Fall 1979): 198-203.
2 Princeton University and Princeton Seminary have always been distinct institutions.
3 Only a large part of volume 2 has been translated into English—Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. and ed. William Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977).
4 See especially Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964) and Christian Theistic Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1958).
5 In my judgment, Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923) remains to this day the best presentation of this theme.
6 This should not be confused with the Presbyterian Church in America, which was founded in 1973 and still bears that name.
7 Van Til’s Christian Reformed colleague at Westminster, R. B. Kuiper, also joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936, but he returned to the Christian Reformed Church later when he became president of Calvin Seminary.
8 Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946).
9 Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory ofKnowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 229.
10 Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1947). This volume was later reissued as the first section of Common Grace and the Gospel (1964).
11 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955). A revised and abridged edition was issued in 1963. Unless there is indication to the contrary, future references to this work have the 1963 edition in view.
12 James Daane, A Theology of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954).
13 Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962).
14 This “unpublished” business was something of a joke among students. The books were, in fact, available to all; they were sold by mail-order companies and in bookstores. Still, Van Til remained rather modest about these syllabi and insisted on labeling them “unpublished.”
15 For a complete bibliography of Van Til’s works up to 1971, see Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R. Geehan (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 492-98.
16 Cornelius Van Til, Why I Believe in God (Philadelphia: Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1966).
17 Van Til, Defense, 74.
18 Ibid., 102.
19 Ibid., 77, 231.
20 Ibid., 94.
21 Almost all of the published criticism of Van Til falls into this category. That includes most of the negative articles in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. Geehan, as well as R. C. Sproul, John H. Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zonder-van, 1984); see John M. Frame, review of Classical Apologetics, by R. C. Sproul et al., Westminster Theological Journal 47.2 (Fall 1985): 279-99. The same must be said of those who published critiques in the 1950s—Buswell, Daane, and the Calvin Forum group. As for misunderstandings by Van Til’s friends, see Jim Halsey, “A Preliminary Critique,” Westminster Theological Journal 39.1 (Fall 1976): 120-36, and the reply in John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God(Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), esp. 38-39, 51-52. Also note Frame, review of Van Til, by William White, Jr., and the interchange with White and others in Journey 3.2 (March-April 1988): 9-11; 3.4-5 (July-Oct. 1988): 45-46; and 4.1 (Jan.-Feb. ): 14-15, 22-23.
22 Space does not permit a full discussion here of this controversy within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. See Frame, Knowledge of God, 21-40. Neither Van Til nor Clark was at his best in the debate, and the controversy (on rather technical philosophical matters which few actually understood) detracted much from the work of the gospel in the little denomination and at Westminster Seminary.
23 Van Til, Defense, 1955 ed., 23.
24 Van Til, Defense, 8.
25 Van Til is often called a “presuppositionalist.” Unlike Gordon Clark, Van Til rarely used that term to describe himself. When he did, it was in deference to someone else’s description of him (e.g., J. Oliver Buswell—see Van Til, Christian Theory of Knowledge, 276; see also 258). Furthermore, as far as I know, Van Til himself never defined “presupposition.”
26 Van Til, Defense, 50; Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), 25-26, 78.
27 Van Til, Defense, 54, 67, 73. I have about fifty more quotations to this effect in my notes! And they are taken from only six of his books.
28 Van Til, Defense, 1955 ed., 285.
29 Van Til, Defense, 59, 74, 77, 106, 206, etc.30. Ibid., 63.
31 Van Til, Introduction, 107.
32 Van Til, Defense, 156.
33 Ibid., 17, 301.
34 Van Til, Introduction, 92.
35 Van Til, Defense, 83; Introduction, 32,
36 Van Til, Defense, 175; Introduction, 197.
37 Van Til, Defense, 98; see also 94, 173, 231.
38 Van Til, Introduction, 90.
39 Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 5, 84, 151.40. Van Til, Defense, 103-4.
41 Van Til, Defense, 200; Christian Theory of Knowledge, 289.
42 Van Til, Defense, 201; Introduction, 199.
43 Van Til, Defense, 202, 207; Introduction, 147.
44 Van Til, Defense, 100; Christian Theory of Knowledge, 18.
45 Van Til characterizes his own work this way in Defense, 146.
46 Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel does develop a theory that wickedness becomes worse and worse over the course of history. Like North, I do not find this theory to be biblical.
47 For examples see Journey 3.2 (March-April 1988): 9-11; 3.4-5 (July-Oct. 1988): 45-46; and 4.1 (Jan.-Feb. 1989): 14-15, 22-23.