Van Til: A Review With Remembrance (Part II)

I drove up in front of Van Til’s home in an old faded blue 1966 Peugeot that I had bought for $400 from a fellow WTS student, Greg Reynolds, who had graduated and moved to New York (as many of you may know, Greg is now the editor of the OPC magazine Ordained Servant). The floor board had rusted out and plywood now served to conceal the road from appearing under your feet. Van Til was sitting out on the porch waiting for my arrival. I jumped out of the car and shouted, “Are you ready?” He waved and got up and slowly made his way down the sidewalk to greet me. “You got a good Reformed automobile there!” he exclaimed. “Huh?” I puzzled out loud. “I’ll tell you all about on the way,” he said, as we climbed in to make the short trip over to Faith Theological Seminary in Elkins Park. Peugeot, as Van Til went on to explained , was founded by a Reformed Christian, Armand Peugeot, and Peugeot donated many a car to Reformed ministers in France. He had no more finished telling me this interesting tidbit then we arrived at our designation. Faith seminary occupied the old Widener estate at the time. The estate, built early in the twentieth century, looked like something out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby” – but it had seen better days. The once neatly trimmed hedges that surrounded the mansion had the disheveled appearance of having been tended to by one disinterested seminarian after another for many years. Weeds sprouted up through the cracks in the parking lot, and the grand fountains out front had long ceased to function. Still, it was an impressive place. Marble floors, Greek columns, flying arches, tall double doors, all served as reminders that this was once a magnificent palace. The chapel originally had been a majestic ballroom with fine walnut walls and mounted chandeliers. Around the top of the walls were moldings of little angelic cherubs peering down. But the most impressive thing were the paintings in the ceiling. The center one, the largest of them all, depicted in classical style a Greek scene involving Venus. Surrounding the huge center painting were four smaller paintings depicting the four classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire. But we had not come on a sight seeing tour. We had come to hear Gordon Clark lecture in that spectacular chapel on Empiricism, particularly its dangers.

Dr. Clark, like Van Til, was in his 80’s, but was in fine form that night. Van Til and I sat in the front and he nodded frequently in agreement, as Clark lectured. After the lecture was over, Clark came over and the two of them shook hands and posed for pictures – one with me in between the tall Dutchman and the diminutive Clark. We lingered for over an hour listening to Clark field questions and then said our goodbyes and climbed back into my Calvinistic chariot and drove to Van Til’s home. I was chattering like a magpie asking question after question. Then there was silence. I looked over at Van Til. He had nodded off to sleep!

Late that same week, Gordon Clark had dinner with my family. He was a delightful conversationalist and spent a good part of the time discussing mathematics, when he discovered that my wife had been a math major at San Diego State University. After dinner we retired to the living room for coffee and dessert. Clark spoke highly of Van Til and mentioned that he even used Van Til’s apologetics syllabus when he taught back in the late 30’s and early 40’s at Wheaton. Above all Clark said that CVT treated him kindly all through the now famous Clark case. Ned Stonehouse, he declared, was the guy in the black hat. I asked Dr. Clark if he would sign about a half-dozen or so books of his that I had in my library – which he did. I took the books back to my study and returned to the living room to find that Dr. Clark had nodded off to sleep in the wingback chair in which he was sitting!

Given the significance of the Clark/Van Til controversy, I am going to focus on this in Part II and Part III of my review. Chapter 4 in John Muether’s biography of Van Til is entitled “Reformed and Evangelical” and gives us a blow by blow account of the now famous Clark/Van Til controversy. But, as pointed out in Part I, this cannot be understood in isolation from Van Til’s identity as Reformed Apologist and Churchman. Muether’s provides us with this context in the first three chapters. He traces Van Til’s background as a child of the Afscheiding in the Netherlands and the influence of Abraham Kuyper. From here Muether details Van Til’s family migration to the United States and Van Til student days at Calvin College and the various theological controversies that embroiled the Christian Reformed Church during his formative years.

Van Til’s determination to pursue seminary training at Princeton stemmed, to a large degree, from the desire to leave the confines of Grand Rapids and broaden his horizons in the foremost Reformed seminary in the world. In this part of the chapter, the decisive influence of Geerhardus Vos and J. Gresham Machen on Van Til is delineated with the kind of attentiveness that Boswell bestowed on Samuel Johnson.

The decision to leave Princeton to help establish Westminster Theological Seminary is likewise dealt with by Muether with the meticulous care of someone who has combed through the archives at Westminster. Of particular interest was this juicy morsel: “As early as 1928, Machen saw Van Til’s potential when he observed that “Van Til is excellent material from which a professor might ultimately be made.” If some interpreters exaggerated the affinities between the two by suggesting that Van Til prompted Machen’s movement away from evidential apologetics, others have less ground in proposing that their differences were irreconcilably great. Allan MacRae, an early member of the faculty of Westminster, maintained that Machen privately told him in the ‘the strongest language’ that he ‘stood with Warfield and against Van Til.’” Machen, MacRae recalled, was too busy during Westminster’s early years to address the “harmful effects” of Van Til’s teaching. Had Machen devoted the time to studying the matter, he would certainly have asked Van Til to leave” (p. 68). Muether hints here and elsewhere that MacRae’s recollection is difficult to reconcile with Machen’s attitude towards Van Til as well as Machen’s own deep suspicions about Premillennialism – especially the dispensational kind that MacRae embraced. For instance, MacRae later served as one of the contributors to the Revised Scofield Reference Bible. Secondly, not only Van Til, but John Murray also had serious issues with premillennialism and MacRae’s disconnect with the Westminster Standards on this very point. A year after Machen’s death MacRae would side with Carl McIntire and Oliver Buswell and split off to form Faith Theological seminary and the Bible Presbyterian Church. Interestingly, the first thing this group did was to revise the Westminster Standards so that Premillennialism could be explicitly affirmed. Thirdly, Van Til was actually relieved that the MacRae/McIntire faction broke away. In light of this I am of the opinion that Machen would have preferred that MacRae and not Van Til leave Westminster. Like Machen, Van Til wanted very much a confessional Reformed seminary as opposed to one that was more broadly Evangelical and less distinctively Reformed. I well remember one Thursday night gathering at Van Til’s home when he became very animated and in a stentorian voice declared,” You are not Evangelicals! You are Reformed! There is a big difference. Do you understand?” There was some muttering and the like from some of the fellows who had come out of a Campus Crusade for Christ background, but Van Til pressed his point with even more forcefulness. One of the front burner issues at the time was the ‘Joining and Receiving’ overture between the PCA and the OPC. Van Til was very much opposed to it and let it be known whenever he was asked. He had some well-founded doubts about the makeup of the PCA and that denomination’s broad evangelical background, i.e. churches that had left the old Southern Presbyterian Church as well as the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (that had split earlier from McInTire and MacRae’s Bible Presbyterian Church).

This aspect of Van Til the churchman factors prominently into the developments that gave raise to the controversy with Gordon Clark’s ordination in the OPC as Muether writes, “The debate over the ordination of Gordon Clark, therefore, was part of a larger battle over the denomination’s Reformed character. Clark was an instrument in the agenda of a faction in the Church that was discontented with its Reformed identity. Ultimately, what was at stake for the likes of Robert Strong (a Clark supporter) was whether the church’s ecclesiology would be Reformed or evangelical.”(p.107). I will return to this in Part III of this review-which will extend beyond the scope I had intended.

Posted by Gary Johnson


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