Reformed Apologist and Churchman
(American Reformed Biographies)
John R. Muether
Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008
Hbk, 288 pp, £16.99
Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) is seemingly something like marmite: either loved or hated. Or as Muether puts it: "…Van Til's readers could be divided into those who did not agree with him and those who did not understand him." (p 15) This excellent biography has certainly helped me to understand Van Til as a person a little more.
Van Til was the longest serving member of J Gresham Machen's then newly founded Westmister Seminary. He remained there teaching apologetics until his retirement in 1972. As a polemicist and controversialist he fought against modernism, arminianism, Barthianism, new evangelicalism, and Catholicism. He wasn't a populariser, and he regretted that he couldn't write as clearly and accessibly as Machen in Christianity and Liberalism. Nevertheless, John Frame described him as "perhaps the most important Christian thinker since Calvin.”
Van Til developed an apologetic method known as presuppositionalism. He maintained that
"that unless God is back of everything you cannot find meaning in anything. I cannot even argue for belief in Him without already having taken Him for granted. And, similarly, I contend that you cannot argue against belief in Him unless you also first take Him for granted. Arguing about God's existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not, but as we debate the point we are both breathing air all the time. (In Why I Believe in God)He attempted to forge a path between the views of Kuyper and Warfield. Francis Schaeffer was influenced by his approach though Van Til didn't fully approve of Schaeffer's adaptations; he thought that it wasn't consistent. For Van Til Calvinism was the most logical and consistent worldview. No other approach was consistent and he took it upon himself to point out where inconsistencies lay.
Muether posits that we can't understand Van Til's theological commitments without understanding his ecclesiology: "His apologetic was self-consciously ecclesiastical as much as theological" (p 15). Consequently, the biography focuses more on Van Til's ecclesiastical life than on other aspects of his long academic career. But this means that what it doesn't do in any depth is explain Van Til's more novel ideas. But then perhaps that's going beyond what Muether aims to do. As Muether notes "To focus solely on Van Til's novelty fails to appreciate the many ways in which he tried to preserve tradition by standing on the shoulders of those who went before him."
For Van Til, and Kuyper before him, Calvinism alone does "full justice to the cultural mandates of Christ." The touchstone for Van Til was consistency. The problem with everyone else such as Schaeffer, Gordon Clark, Oliver Buswell and Barth et al was that they were not being, as Van Til saw it, consistent Calvinists.
Van Til comes over as someone who is zealous for truth and is keen to defend it at any cost. He seems to see things in black and white there are few greys. Perhaps because of this he was involved with a number of controversies. These are dealt with well in the book. Murther even suggests that the Clark-Van Til controversy should really be the Murray-Van Til controversy. His disagreements with Dooyeweerd are mentioned only briefly. The issue of common grace is dealt with somewhat more fully.
In the useful bibliographic essay that concludes the book Muether suggests books and papers that could provide more information on the novelties of Van Til. (Muether recommends Banshan's Van Til's Apologetic and Frame's Cornelius Van Til)
Muether writes with great respect and understanding for Van Til. He has drawn on a wide range of resources, including interviews with many of Van Til's colleagues, family, and friends, as well as having access to many of Van Till's personal letters.
The book is a pleasure to read. It is well produced - a rarity in these days of POD - and well written. It explains Van Til the man. It gave me a much better understanding of the motivations of Van Til and helped me to appreciate the man more. We can't ask more from a biography.
Series Preface 9
Introduction: Apologist and Churchman 15
1. A Child of the Afscheiding 21
2. “Fit Modesty and Unreserved Conviction” 41
3. From Dutch Reformed to American Presbyterian 65
4. Reformed or Evangelical? 91
5. The New Machen against the New Modernism 119
6. Through the Fires of Criticism 149
7. Presbyterian Patriarch 179
8. Steadfast, Unmovable, and Abounding 207
Conclusion: Against the World, for the Church 229
Bibliographic Essay 265