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.