by John M. Frame
[Presented at Cornelius Van Til’s memorial service, May, 1987.]
Beneath all of Cornelius Van Til’s technical terminology and philosophical depth was a warm faith in Jesus Christ. He loved to quote the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.
At the most fundamental level, that was the message of Dr. Van Til. He saw his work in apologetics and theology as a form of preaching, preaching that wonderful, warm, comforting gospel. Reflecting on his childhood experience, he wrote,
Every minister in those days had a V.D.M. degree: Verbum Dei Minister. [That is, minister of the word of God– J.F.] When, therefore, I became a teacher of apologetics it was natural for me to think, not only of my Th. M. and my Ph. D., but above all of my V. D. M. The former degrees were but means whereby I might be true to the latter degree.1
So in presenting his ideas, especially in popular settings, Dr. Van Til often reverted to something more like preaching than like teaching. Not that he was at all hesitant to bring philosophical issues before his audiences. He spoke readily of Aristotle and Aquinas, of Kant and Hegel, of Barth and Brunner; but often in the same lecture of Adam and Eve, of Noah, Abraham and David, and of his faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
Any account of Van Til’s technical concepts, his system of apologetics, must take seriously his claim to be a gospel preacher. This fact is not only of biographical interest, but has a conceptual importance as well. “The self-attesting Christ of Scripture,” he wrote, “has always been my starting point for everything I have said.”2 His favorite professor at Princeton Seminary was not the apologist William Brenton Greene, but the biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos, and not only because Vos was Dutch. Van Til admired the depth of Vos’s Christ-centered approach to Scripture and emulated that approach often in his preaching and occasionally even in his apologetic writings. His goal was to develop an apologetic system which would not make nonsense of the biblical Christ, but would rather display his glory just as Scripture presents him.
Scripture presents Christ as “self-attesting.” That is to say, he is Lord. All authority in heaven and on earth is his. He will not submit to man’s standards, to sinful man’s pathetic ideas of what he must be. He speaks for himself.
And he speaks with a voice that is unmistakable, in Scripture, in the world, and in man himself. He is the cosmic Lord in whom all things consist; therefore nothing in all creation can be rightly understood apart from him. His mark is on everything he has made, including ourselves, his creatures, made in his image. “Logic,” “fact” and “value” are what he says they are. They do not validate Christ until he first validates them. The truth of his word is not merely “possible” or “probable,” as compromising apologists would maintain; rather, it is more sure than any other certainty. There is no excuse for unbelief; indeed, everyone knows God, however much one may try to suppress that knowledge.
This is not a message that unbelievers like to hear. They would rather believe that they can judge Christ by their own standards. But Christ himself says that they cannot. Moreover, he says that they are dead in trespasses and sins and cannot even see the kingdom of heaven unless they are born again. Van Til shows how pathetic the unbeliever is as he tries, comically, to be the judge of all things. On the one hand, he claims an ultimate, absolute knowledge, for only by such knowledge can he show that Christianity cannot be true. On the other hand, when this arrogant claim fails, as it always must, then the unbeliever reverts to the opposite view, that there is no certain knowledge, no absolute truth. But in saying that he reduces his own argument to nonsense.
How do we communicate the gospel to such foolish people? By telling them what they least want to hear, that Christ is Lord, not themselves. By showing them what they least want to see, that their own pretentious efforts at intellectual self-justification are hopeless and ridiculous. Apologetics, you see, is serious business, a matter of life and death. Cruel indeed is the physician who tells his cancer patient that he can get by on aspirin. The apologist must break the bad news to those with terminal cases of sin.
But the bad news is only the first installment of the gospel, the good news. Jesus died for sinners and rose victorious from the grave. His spirit raises the spiritually dead, in Christ, to newness of life. And that newness of life has epistemological implications too: for in Jesus is found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Such was Van Til’s gospel preaching: a system of apologetics, indeed a philosophy of being, knowledge and value, which had as its goal nothing more or less than to honor Van Til’s faithful savior, the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. Thus as we remember the apologist, we are inevitably driven to worship his Lord.
1 C. Van Til, The Defense of Christianity and My Credo (Philipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), p. 80.
2 Ibid., 75.