[This article is reprinted from Timothy Larsen, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003) 682-84. It is posted here by permission of the publisher.]
Van Til, Cornelius (1895-1987), Reformed theologian and apologist, was born in Grootegast, Holland. At the age of ten, he moved with his family to Highland, Indiana. The Van Tils affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, and Cornelius attended schools associated with that denomination, the Calvin Preparatory School, Calvin College and (for one year) Calvin Theological Seminary, all in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He transferred to Princeton Theological Seminary to complete his theological education and earned his Th. M. there in 1925. Simultaneously, he studied philosophy at Princeton University and completed his Ph. D. in 1927. His dissertation, supervised by Archibald Allan Bowman, entitled “God and the Absolute,” compared Reformed theology’s view of God with the absolute of philosophical Idealism.
In September, 1925, Van Til married Rena Klooster. The Van Tils had one son, Earl. Rena died in 1978.
Van Til pastored a Christian Reformed church in Spring Lake, Michigan, taking a leave of absence to teach apologetics at Princeton Seminary during the academic year 1928-29. The seminary offered him the chair of apologetics at the end of that period, but he turned down the offer and returned to Spring Lake. He was strongly inclined to remain in the pastorate, and he did not want to cooperate in the reorganization of the seminary mandated that spring by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. He believed that reorganization would purge the seminary’s historic stand for orthodox Calvinism and make it more representative of liberal theological viewpoints in the church. Those viewpoints included that of the Auburn Affirmation of 1924, in which 1,300 ministers declared that such doctrines as biblical infallibility, the virgin birth of Christ, his substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection and his literal second coming were humanly formulated “theories” and not to be required of ministerial candidates.
Other members of the Princeton faculty also opposed the reorganization. Chief among these was J. Gresham Machen, author of Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), who left Princeton Seminary with others to found Westminster Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, a school devoted to Presbyterian doctrine, but independent of denominational control. Van Til reluctantly left his pastorate to join the new school. He taught apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster until his retirement in 1972, and continued to teach occasionally until 1979.
In 1936, Machen was suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., for his founding and support of a non-denominational, theologically orthodox mission agency. He then founded, with others, a new denomination, originally called the Presbyterian Church of America, later the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In sympathy with Machen, Van Til transferred his ministerial membership from the Christian Reformed Church to the new denomination, where he remained the rest of his life.
Major influences on Van Til’s thought were the Dutch Reformed theologians, particularly Abraham Kuyper (who emphasized that Christ is Lord of all areas of human life) and the dogmatician Herman Bavinck. Kuyper and Bavinck disparaged apologetics because they believed it tended to put human reason above Scripture. Van Til’s teachers are Princeton, however, emphasized that Christianity has nothing to fear from rational scrutiny and is fully capable of rational defense. Van Til sought to do justice to both these insights, by developing an approach to apologetics that was rational, but based on a biblical concept of rationality.
Van Til’s studies of philosophical Idealism, first under Henry Jellema at Calvin, later under A. A. Bowman, and his interaction with writings of the British apologist James Orr, convinced him that all human thought is governed by presuppositions. (Hence, Van Til is sometimes called a “presuppositionalist,” though he was not enthusiastic about that label.) Presuppositions, he believed, cannot be proved by usual methods, since they serve as the basis of all proof. But they can be proved “transcendentally,” by showing that they are necessary for all rational thought and must be true if there is to be any meaning or order in the world. Van Til sought to reconstruct Christian apologetics so that it would establish the Christian God as the presupposition of thought, rather than one rational conclusion among many.
He disparaged the “traditional method” of establishing Christianity by theistic proofs and historical evidences, because he believed that this tradition began with data considered intelligible apart from God, and then proved God’s existence from them. On the contrary, he argued, if we concede that anything is intelligible apart from the God of Scripture, we have lost the battle at the outset. So we should, rather, use a transcendental method, showing that the various forms of non-Christian thought (“would-be autonomous reasoning,” as he put it) reduce to meaninglessness, that they can account for precisely nothing, and that the Christian world and life view can make sense of everything.
It is the doctrine of the Trinity, he argued, that provides the ultimate answer to the “problem of the one and the many,” the problem of how we can distinguish one thing from another, though we can identify them only by general properties. It is the doctrine of God’s sovereign, eternal plan that guarantees that the world is an intelligible whole. It is the doctrine of revelation that guarantees we can have true knowledge of God and his creation. There are mysteries in the Christian faith, but that is to be expected once we renounce the self-sufficiency of human reason and trust God on the basis of his Word. The creator-creature distinction, he argued, is the key to metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
Van Til was thought by some critics to have left no room for the use of evidence in apologetics, but he rejected this criticism: evidence is useful when used within a transcendental argument based on biblical presuppositions. But is this not, critics persisted, a circular argument, to prove Christianity on the basis of Christian presuppositions? Yes, said Van Til, it is circular in a sense. But (1) every system of thought is circular when arguing its most fundamental presuppositions (e.g. a rationalist can defend the authority of reason only by using reason). (2) The Christian circle is the only one that renders reality intelligible on its own terms.
Non-Christian thought, he argues, collapses into meaninglessness, because of the noetic effects of sin. The unbeliever knows God (Rom. 1:18-21) but suppresses the truth (1:18, 21-32). Therefore, there is an “antithesis” between Christian and unbelieving thought, between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. Although the unbeliever knows and states truth on occasion, he does that only by inconsistency with his presuppositions and by relying (contrary to his intention) on the Christian world view. The unbeliever knows truth as “borrowed capital.”
Van Til’s publications exceeded 300, including nearly 40 books. Among the most important are Christian Apologetics (1975), The Defense of Christianity and My Credo (1971), and The Defense of the Faith (1955, second ed., 1963). Most of Van Til’s writings, plus many audio lectures and sermons, can be found on the CD-ROM, The Works of Cornelius Van Til (published by Labels Army Co., available from P&R Publishers). On that CD, and also available separately, is the most complete bibliography of Van Til’s works, A Guide to the Writings of Cornelius Van Til, 1895-1987, by Eric D. Bristley.
Bahnsen, Gregory L., Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1998).
Frame, John M., Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishers, 1995).
White, William, Van Til—Defender of the Faith (Nashville and New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979).