Van Til: A Review With Remembrance

I first met Cornelius Van Til back in 1978. I had, figuratively speaking, fallen off the back of a turnip truck in Chestnut Hill, Pa. and found myself on the campus of Westminster Theological Seminary, still clutching my Scofield reference Bible. Little did I know what lay in store for me. The seminary was at the height of the now infamous ‘Shepherd controversy’ which at the time I was totally unfamiliar with, but would soon find myself taking sides in this controversy which has lingered to this very day. I had come to Westminster at the recommendation of the late S. Lewis Johnson Jr., who had left Dallas Seminary and no longer felt comfortable sending students there, because Calvinism was not warmly embraced nor emphasized at DTS. I had become a five point Calvinist under the teaching ministry of Dr. Johnson at Believer’s Chapel in Dallas, Texas. So, here I was at the bastion of Reformed Theology, vaguely familiar with the name Van Til. Actually I had not read a single thing by him. I knew of Van Til’s name only because of him having been a major influence on Francis Schaeffer, whose works I had devoured as a philosophy major in college. As an incoming student I made my way one hot and humid August night to Van Til Hall for student orientation. The place was packed with people and the hum of voices sounded like a hive of bees. I was standing in front of a bulletin board looking at the class schedules when suddenly I heard this booming voice behind me say “Hello!” I turned around and saw this tall white-haired old man in a three piece blue pinned stripe suit. “I am Van Til,” he said even louder. My initial impression wasn’t all that favorable. He was munching on a white powdered donut and the powder was down his chin and speckled on his lapel and tie. I couldn’t help but notice his facial stubble and thought to myself, “I hope when I am that old somebody will make sure I shave properly before letting me out of the house!”

But that first impression would change as I got to know and love this verbi divini minister- V.D.M – a Servant of the Word God, a title that Van Til used to describe himself. Over the next few years, I made a number of walking trips with him around the spacious grounds of the seminary campus, had him over for meals in our home, and even took him to hear Gordon Clark lecture at Faith Theological Seminary in the early 1980’s. I also spent many an enjoyable evening in his home. On Thursday nights Van Til would open his home to students. We would drink hot chocolate and listen to him lecture extemporaneously on a wide variety of subjects: Aquinas, Calvin, Kant, Barth, Machen and Old Princeton, Gordon Clark, Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. He might not remember your name from time to time, but he was a master teacher with a commanding knowledge of all these subjects.

All of these memories came rushing back to me in the pages of John Muether’s newly released Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (P & R, 2008). This is the third installment in the American Reformed Biographies issued under the careful editorship of D. G. Hart and Sean Michael Lucas (Lucas did the one on Robert Lewis Dabney and Hart did one on John Williamson Nevin).

Muether is uniquely equipped to write this work. He served on the faculty of Westminster while Van Til was still living, and in addition to his theological education holds a masters degree in Library Science. I will forever be grateful to John for the course I had with him on Theological Bibliography and Research, where he taught us how to use and evaluate primary and secondary sources.

The subtitle of Muether’s book is most significant, Reformed Apologist and Churchman. In fact Van Til the Churchman, in many ways defines the man and his work apart from which, as Muether argues, Van Til can neither be properly understood or appreciated. Muether put it this way, “Without the ecclesial context of Van Til’s passion, his content becomes confused and even anemic. If Van Til considered it schizophrenic to establish Reformed theology on a non-Reformed apologetic, the situation today, twenty years after his passing, may be reversed. Van Tilian apologetics are often employed by apologists who are less than fully committed to what he would have regarded as a full-orbed Calvinism. In this way today’s church is expressing another form of incoherence: a Reformed apologetic is servicing a theology that is more generically Protestant. This de-contextualization eclipses the Reformed distinctiveness at the heart of Van Til’s system. (18)”

Every aspect of Van Til’s labors in the field of apologetics, and polemics are framed in this Sitz im Leben. Over the next two installments of this review, I will examine the individual chapters and weave into this review some personal reflections on Van Til as well as some cautionary observations that both Muether and I see with Van Til’s legacy and influence with his critics as well as his self proclaimed followers.

Gary Johnson

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21 Comments

  1. GLW Johnson said,

    April 9, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    a couple of corrections

    -Chestnut Hill, PA.
    -and the Latin expression ‘verbi divini minister’

  2. April 9, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    I wonder who Muether alludes to when he refers to those “less than fully committed” to Reformed theology. I don’t know many outside of confessional Reformed circles who even know about VanTil or pressup apologetics. Perhaps he is refering to our Reformed baptist friends like James White.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    April 9, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I bet John would be willing to clarify on the blog.

  4. W.K. Howard said,

    April 10, 2008 at 1:35 am

    Thanks for the review. It was good to walk down memory lane and remember SLJ, since I was raised in the Chapel. Dr. Johnson gave me my first book on the Westminster Standards and set me on this great journey through Reformed theology. It was he who introduced me to Van Til’s apologetics.

    W.K. Howard
    PCA Elder

  5. Paul M. said,

    April 10, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Dr. Johnson,

    I look forward to your upcoming installments. I’m sure your comments will add to my comprehsneion of Van Til’s life.

    I wrote my own, less robust review on this book too:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2008/03/cornelius-van-til-reformed-apologist.html

  6. magma2 said,

    April 10, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    I guess it was only a matter of time before Paul Manata made his way to this blog. This is the same man who wrote a piece referring to Dr. Clark as a manufacturer of Methamphetamine and Dr. Robbins and myself as his pushers.

    Is this typical of Van Til’s admirers and followers? Or is this kind of sycophantic and cult like devotion to a man and his teaching isolated to slanderers and other haters of the brethren?

  7. greenbaggins said,

    April 10, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Sean, some would find your comment highly ironic. Pot calling the kettle black, and all that sort of thing, although I make no judgment on Paul M, I can say that my experience with Van Til followers has not been what you describe. As is evident in the book, Clark and Van Til thought of each other much more highly than their respective followers did. I can say this without any partizanship at all, since my father was Gordon Clark’s best friend (my brother is named after him), and I went to WTS. I highly respect both theologians, and do not think they are nearly as far apart as some of their followers think.

  8. magma2 said,

    April 10, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Hardly Lane. I think Van Tilianism has eviscerated the Christian faith and have backed up my charge in any number of places, including here.

    While I think the gulf between Van Til’s epistemology and Clark’s is insurmountable and mutually exclusive, and only one of the two is actually biblical, I have never stooped to the level of sheer irrational abusive and personal attacks that Paul has engaged in. The above mentioned piece was an all new low for Manata whose usual screeds are bad enough.

    Let me ask, would you be willing to accept a piece critical of Van Til that describes him as, say, a pedophile out to molest and corrupt little boys?

    If not, then perhaps you can explain why this pot is calling the kettle black?

  9. Paul M. said,

    April 10, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Sean (#6 & #8),

    You are pressing the metaphor I used in the post you refer to, to an uncharitable extreme (and, I did not mention Robbins as a pusher in that post, to my recollection). You are not attempting to place the metaphore in its proper context. You are emotionally over-reacting, and engaging in some kind of post-modern reading of my text; as engaging in rhetorical revision and “politicianing” (didn’t you say you were into politics?) in an attempt to dirty my name. You’re running a smeer campaign.

    You also have no desire for honest debate. With that, we don’t need to interact any further as it is obvious that I cannot have any sort of a dialogue with you.

    So that your unwarranted public accusations can be shown to be false, I feel I must link to the post you’re referring to (since you did not):

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2007/05/just-say-no-to-scripturalism.html

    Now, this post is we’re jawing in is Dr. Johnson’s review of Van Til’s book. Your making it focus on me is off-topic and irrelevant to Dr. Johnson’s post. You have a blog, why don’t you flame me there rather than in someone else’s combox?

  10. greenbaggins said,

    April 10, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    So Sean, you are saying that I, as a Van Tillian, have eviscerated the Christian faith?

    By the way, I was referring to the second paragraph, not the first, such that the comment was directed more toward your following Clark and Robbins in such a lock-step way.

  11. its.reed said,

    April 10, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Ref. 6 & 8:

    Sean: me thinks it is enough. This post is about Dr. Johnson’s review (immediately) and Van Til’s book (ultimately).

    Kindly keep to that topic. Thanks!

  12. magma2 said,

    April 10, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Have you read the piece I linked to Lane? But, if you think truth is analgous and there is no univocal point between God’s thoughts and man’s, and, that Scripture is insolubly paradoxical, then, yes, I would include you in that group.

    As you know, I already have a profound difference with you after you exonerated Wilson in RINE on JBFA and imputation. Could your Van Tilianism be to blame? I don’t know? It certainly explains how other Van Tilians have embraced the heretical and contradictory doublespeak inherent in the entire FV/NPP movements. Maybe you’re just a little slower working out the implications of VT’s thought?

    Regardless, I make no apologies for being a Scripturalist and an admirer of the work of Drs. Clark and Robbins. I don’t blame others for being ardent supporters and admirers of Van Til. Some of my best friends are. However, Paul’s slanderous attack on Clark, Robbins and other Scripturalists crossed the line and by a long shot. His unthinking, slanderous and very personal attack on the man, your father’s best friend, which I suppose in his mind was some sort of satire, is unconscionable.

  13. David Gray said,

    April 10, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    >His unthinking, slanderous and very personal attack

    I hope everyone can agree such things are wrong. Do you ever make very personal attacks?

  14. greenbaggins said,

    April 10, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Sean, I would say that our truth is analogous to God’s thoughts (Isaiah 55 comes to mind). I would not say that Scripture is insolubly paradoxical. But Van Til doesn’t either. By “paradox” and “apparently contradictory,” Van Til means “beyond our comprehension.” Not the words I would have chosen to say that, but that is what he means. This is evident from the immediately following quotation from Calvin on pg. 142, right after the heading you quote: “And most certainly there is nothing in the whole circle of spiritual doctrine which does not far surpass the capacity of man and confound its utmost reach.” In fact, Van Til isn’t even talking about logic there. He’s talking about what is beyond our comprehension, as you must admit the Trinity is beyond our comprehension, though we can still attain a measure of understanding.

    As to whether there is a univocal point of understanding, I have not actually decided. I think there is a way past the impasse between Van Til and Clark on this. I think that God can know the way in which we know something, but we cannot know something the way God knows something. Let me explain. Take a pencil. We know about this pencil in a creaturely way. We cannot know this pencil in a Creator way. But God knows how we know the pencil, even while also knowing the pencil from a Creator way. In other words, Van Til is right to stress that there is a Creator/creature distinction with regard to knowledge, not just with regard to being (after all, as a man thinks, so he is: ontology and epistemology are not divorceable), but Clark is right to say that we can know things truly, and propositionally (I believe in propositions). Maybe I’m just a poor hybrid, but I think there might be fruitful avenues of thought here.

  15. Paul M. said,

    April 10, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    David,

    As anyone who reads my post can see, Sean’s comments are off-base. Perhaps the post was too sarcastic, but that’s it. I doubt even Lane, who’s father was best friends with Van Til, would note anything too bad in that post. Certainly nothing warranting Sean’s public accusations. Anyway, I linked to the post Sean is referring too, people can read it (the whole thing) and make an informed decision.

  16. greenbaggins said,

    April 10, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Actually, my father was best friends with Clark, but I assume that’s what you meant, Paul. As ultimate moderator of this blog, I think that the discussion needs to move on. I would certainly not have used that metaphor with regard to Clark, as I certainly did not and do not regard Clark as dangerous. However, in reacting to Robbins et al, it is only likely that rhetoric will tend to become somewhat inflamed. I suggest that the topic be dropped entirely, and we move on to what Van Til actually taught, or some such other topic related to Gary’s post.

  17. ReformedSinner (DC) said,

    April 10, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    I am personally looking forward to Gary’s review. I have finished the book and it moved me tremendously, and help me answered some “oddity” in the history of WTS and biography of Van Til that I have always found suspicious. This is definitely a tremendous book written by Muether, and I wish both sides of Van Til-debate take this book seriously, perhaps even make it a suggestive reading in the classrooms.

  18. Paul M. said,

    April 10, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Okay, since it was so offensive to you Sean, I have removed any and all reference to drugs, drug dealing, etc., in my above mentioned post. With that gone, the substance doesn’t go away, though.

    I will do these things because I don’t want Sean to sin in anger. Hopefully he is appeased and hopefully he accepts my asking for forgiveness for the offence. I thought Sean, of all people, wouldn’t mind the rhetoric. Since it bothers him so, I will try to be strictly objective, even robotic, in any future reactions with him

    Please take the removal of the offensive material in that post as a symbol of good will.

  19. Paul M. said,

    April 10, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    I meant “interactions” with him! :-P

  20. April 12, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    [...] Gary Johnson’s review is here. [...]

  21. June 19, 2008 at 9:29 am

    [...] Lane Keister: A former student of Van Til’s reminisces over his experience with Van Til as he reviews Muether’s biography. Further, while reading Muether’s book Keister speculates briefly on (a) Van Til’s view [...]


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