Book Review – Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman

Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman by John R. Muether

D. G. Hart and Sean Michael Lucas should be commended for their work in editing the new P&R series of American Reformed Biographies. (Current volumes include, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist, and soon to be released James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman.) Some key members of American Reformed history have been neglected and one important figure especially, Cornelius Van Til.

Now, Van Til’s writing and thinking is not neglected. It is continued to be taught at Westminster Theological Seminary, particularly in the presuppositionalist apologetic he helped to systematize. Even at a dispensationalist school like my alma mater, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, we studied the presuppositionalism of Van Til. In this helpful new book by John Muether the life of Van Til is helpfully shaped. Particularly are how Muether traces Van Til’s life and shows the theological influences brought to bear on him from his Dutch Reformed heritage, his studies at Princeton, and other such factors. Muether catalogs his move from the Dutch Reformed church of his youth to the American Presybterian church (reluctantly) as he came to teach at the newly formed Westminster Theological Seminary. For a man who attempted to be simple and unassuming, his thinking became a hotbed for debate.

Many know of Van Til’s thinking (albeit they might not understand it), but many do not see him beyond his life as a professor. Van Til was a devoted churchman who sought to advance the church in its desire to obey the Great Commission in a thoroughly Reformed way. In this way, he was criticized during the various times of controversy in the life of the school and of the denomination. The devoted husband and father and dedicated student of modern theology and the Word of God was often under appreciated during his life and after. But many, knowingly or not, owe much of their Reformed epistemology to that layed out by Van Til. When others would capitulate to the unbelieving mind (as he criticized his former student Francis Schaeffer over) he sought to remain as consistently Reformed as possible in the knowledge that there is no “common ground” between the believer and the unbeliever. His motto of suaviter in modo, fortiter in re (gentle in persuasion, powerful in substance), sums up his life and teaching. He sought to be gentle as he taught the Word and as he sought to present the truth, but the truth was clear and powerful and able to change men’s hearts and minds!

While Van Til was criticized for being difficult to understand (I second that at times) his efforts paved the way for his students who helped to explain Van Til (men like Greg Bahnsen, and to a lesser degree John Frame). But, Muether presents a well-rounded treatment of the unusual life of a Dutch Reformed/American Presbyterian who loved the church and loved the truth and would not apologize for seeking to be consistent. We have much to learn from him in this way. Muether concludes this helpful biography in this way,

What makes Van Til’s life a compelling story and his theology one that merits a hearing is not so much a narrow analysis of his distinctive apologetic methodology. For this reason he is often disagreed with, and perhpas more often misunderstood. Van Til carbed out a way to be distinctively Reformed in the twentieth century. To be sure, that way involved apologetics, but it also involved much more. Van Til taught that the defense of the faith must be as Reformed as the exposition of the faith. Thus, to separate the man from his church is an abstract reduction of the richness of his heart and life. The unity of thought and life continues to be Van Til’s gift to the whole church of Jesus Christ (p. 240).

Besides having endnotes instead of footnotes (painful to check references!) the book is a helpful look at the life and labours of a man devoted to the church of Jesus Christ. I recommend you learn more about the life of this man and his efforts. It just might help you to better understand what he taught!

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