Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, by John R. Muether, Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 2008.
Any biographer of a man like Cornelius Van Til needs to assume certain things. First, Van Til’s thought, though brilliant, is not always easy to divine. Second, that this is made more problematical by the coming together of at least two different obstacles: a. Van Til’s sometimes awkward way of putting things, and, b. the difficulty many of us have with obeying the injunction to “bring every thought into captivity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Third, one who would write about Van Til must keep in mind that owing in no small part to the foregoing points, the famed Westminster apologist is often not closely or sympathetically read by his opponents, who content themselves too much with the misrepresentations of him which have been handed down as unquestioned truths over the years. Fourthly, these characterizations help serve the agendas of those conservative Christians who like to flirt with wayward evangelicals who enjoy rubbing shoulders with non-evangelical intellectuals like Barth, Balthasar or Ricoeur. It is for reasons such as these that the uncompromising thrust of Van Til’s thinking, and its conscious antithetical attitude towards unbiblical opinions must be explained if his important work is to be appreciated, especially by readers who may desire to be introduced to the man and to understand his influence.
A life of Van Til authored by a librarian and Church History professor at Westminster Seminary would be a good place to go to get such a balanced, friendly, though not uncritical treatment of this important thinker. John Muether has given the Church his take on one whom he calls “this truly great man” (11). And he has been concerned to connect Van Til with his Dutch Reformed roots and his Presbyterian (OPC) commitments. These indeed come across to the reader very clearly throughout the book. Muether charts the “protective isolationism” of his subject’s “Dutch-American upbringing” (38), his reading of Kuyper and Bavinck, and the way this led to his enthusiasm for maintaining the antithesis between saved and unsaved ways of thinking.
Muether recounts the emotional wrench of the young Van Til’s decision to leave the familiar surroundings of Grand Rapids for Princeton; a decision which, however wise, would always be felt by both Van Til and his future wife. He did well at Princeton, winning two academic prizes and completing “four degrees in five years,” receiving his PhD from the University in 1927 (52). Even at this early part of his life, it appears that the lineaments of his thought were pretty well cast. And Muether notices the looming influence of Bavinck on his subject, “the evidence for which grows as Bavinck’s dogmatics is translated into English.” (56). Anyone who studies Bavinck’s “Prolegomena” (Volume 1) can read statements which would sit comfortably within one of the syllabii of Cornelius Van Til (Cf. Muether’s comment about him refining Bavinck’s basic approach – 116).
A most interesting feature is the record of how J. Gresham Machen eventually lured Van Til away from his rural pastorate in Spring Lake, MI. to join the newly formed Westminster Seminary in 1929. It is made clear that Machen went to extraordinary lengths to secure Van Til’s services for the new Seminary, and how, after Machen’s untimely death in 1937, he found himself taking on much of the responsibility for the work that his mentor had left behind (85).
The author also cleverly introduces us to those critics (e.g. Buswell, Daane) who would often misrepresent Van Til’s views, and who would be the cause of misconceptions about Van Til which survive him into the present day.
And here (Chapter 4) we enter one of the best parts of the book. Rejecting John Frame’s opinion of the Clark-Van Til Controversy as a low point in the lives of both men (see 106-107), the author tells how Clark’s rationalistic theology, among other things, tended to make mere assent the basis of faith instead of the embrace of the truth by the whole man (e.g. 102), and that “Clark’s failure to acknowledge the qualitative difference” between Divine and human knowledge, “collapsed (in the`words of the Complaint) the Creator-creature distinction that lay at the heart of a biblical doctrine of creation.” (104).
What is significant about this chapter is how Muether shows that the supporters of Gordon H. Clark had an agenda which included broadening the OPC membership and making it fit more comfortably within mainline evangelicalism. He also shows that even though Van Til signed the Complaint against the ordination of Clark he did not take a leading role in the controversy (104), and the language in which the Complaint was written, although borrowing from Van Til’s terminology, was not his. Indeed, Muether suggests that it could more accurately be termed “the Clark-Murray debate” (105) since the esteemed John Murray was one of the main protagonists involved in the dispute.
Despite the toll the episode took on their relationship, it is gratifying to read that Van Til always held Clark in high regard (101). All who still carry a torch for Clark would be well advised to read this part of the biography.
After this the author moves on to deal with Karl Barth. He notes that Louis Berkhof praised The New Modernism, Van Til’s warning to evangelicals against the deceptive terminology of the Basel theologian. For instance Muether writes, “For Barth,…the resurrection happened in a time of pure presence; it was not an event in the past (Historie) but a present manifestation of Christ’s supreme sovereignty (Geschichte).” (123). Evangelicals have been and continue to be drawn to Barth’s dynamic theology through reading him as an evangelical absentee rather than as a neo-orthodox thinker (Cf. esp. 128). In doing so they lightly throw off Van Til’s thorough acquaintance with the early and latter Barth and trot out well-worn but too often unsubstantiated criticisms of Van Til’s engagements with Barth, even attacking Van Til’s scholarship so as to protect Barth from his censure. It is doubtful whether a search of the bookshelves of these evangelical defenders of Karl Barth would uncover carefully marked up and annotated editions of the Church Dogmatics in the German! (134). Van Til was both a brilliant theologian and philosopher (although Muether is right to say that he should not be viewed as a Christian philosopher – 154), and those who take aim at his assessment of Barth should perhaps pause for a little more self-assessment before giving their opinions.
But Van Til has always attracted criticism. And certainly some of it is justified. He tended to generalize, his choice of words was annoyingly confusing, and he was sometimes given to overstatement. These traits, when coupled with his unflinching orthodoxy and his presuppositional apologetic approach will guarantee a continuous line-up of left-leaning evangelicals, evidentialists and fence-sitting philosophers to take pot shots at his work.
The sixth chapter retells his spats with the progressive wing at Calvin Seminary, including his former teacher W.H. Jellema, whose pursuance of common ground between Christian and non-Christian systems of thought was thought by Van Til to compromise the antithesis between “covenant keepers and covenant breakers.” The historical attention given to the eventual disagreements between himself and Herman Dooyeweerd (175-177) is well done; likewise with Francis Schaeffer (197-199), and his isolation from the next generation of evangelicals (Henry, Carnell, and even Edmund Clowney – see 222) is documented. It is also nice to read a clearly articulated denial that Van Til was a closet Theonomist, for all his influence on certain aspects of their work (216-219).
Having then surveyed parts of the book, is there anything else to do but to join those reviewers who have already given it a ringing endorsement? I think there is. For despite its success in providing a more detailed canvass against which to view Van Til’s life, and despite its clarifications of important disputes (especially with Gordon Clark and the Calvin Forum), I came away feeling disappointed with the book as a biography of Cornelius Van Til the thinker.
I will not belabor the point, but there were several things about the biography that were disappointing. Firstly, Van Til’s thought is the reason for his importance, as well as for the controversy which surrounds him. But his thought is nowhere clearly spelled out and explained (perhaps the closest the author comes is on pages 114-116, but this is far too little to go on). It is everywhere taken for granted. Some brief initiation into the world of Van Til’s profound insights would have made more sense of his criticisms of Clark and Buswell and Jellema and Carnell, to say nothing of Barth. The criticisms Van Til himself received from men like Ronald Nash and Carl Henry cannot be assessed because the newcomer to Van Til is given nothing to weigh them against. Van Til’s differences with Dooyeweerd are not explored (other than a quick note on page 176 to the effect that the Amsterdam polymath rejected inerrancy and an historical Adam), even though these would have thrown light on the contrasts between him and Francis Schaeffer and his followers, like Os Guinness, or Nancey Pearcey. Just what is “Van Til’s transcendental approach”? (199. My emphasis). We are not told. And why is his response to Dooyeweerd in Jerusalem and Athens seemingly characterized as “less effective”? (202).
Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith is mentioned (170-171), but its contents is not disclosed. And this lack of substance is even more pronounced with Christianity and Barthianism, which Muether calls “his magnum opus” (230) . We are told that Carl Henry thought it did not reconsider Barth in light of “Barth’s modifications of his system” (189), but we are not told whether this judgment could be sustained (I believe it can not be without abandoning a biblically founded epistemology).
Again, why does the author express doubts as to the Van Tilian grounding of Jay Adams’ Nouthetic Counseling approach? Or the cultural analysis of Harvie Conn, or the work of John Frame? (223). Surely each of these men believed themselves to be powerfully influenced by Van Til? And what is “Van Til’s novelty”? (234).
Muether seems to have a penchant for anulling affirmative passages. Several times a positive evaluation of his subject is inverted with a negative opinion of a critic, named or unnamed. In fact, as the book came to its close the anticipation of a clearly drawn overall assessment was predictably frustrated. Muether skillfully shows us Van Til the Churchman, and Van Til the gentleman. What we hardly see is Van Til the thinker.