Why Machen Hired Van Til

D. G. Hart and John R. Muether

When J. Gresham Machen left Princeton in 1929 to start Westminster he insisted that Cornelius Van Til be the professor of apologetics at the new seminary. To students who would later study with Van Til Machen's resolve was obvious; the Dutch Calvinist's presuppositional apologetics was the backbone of a truly Reformed education. But to Machen's former students and colleagues and Princeton his choice of Van Til was odd. Van Til's apologetical method broke with Old Princeton's evidentialism and appeared to undermine Machen's claim that Westminster was perpetuating Princeton.

Orthodox Presbyterians have tried to fit together the pieces of the Machen-Van Til apologetics puzzle if only because of the importance of both men in shaping the identity of their denomination. For instance, the late Greg L. Bahnsen argued that Van Til's presuppositionalism was fundamentally compatible with Machen's reliance upon rational proofs and that the apparent tensions between Machen and Van Til stemmed from a misreading of both.[1] In contrast, Charles G. Dennison has tried to show that Machen in his later years was learning from the new faculty at Westminster and so would have come around to Van Til's position in due course.[2] Whatever the merits of these explanations, Machen's choice of Van Til could not have been better given the context of the ecclesiastical and theological struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. That decision also continues to be instructive for Orthodox Presbyterians today who desire to preserve the unique and faithful witness of the church.

The Public Relations Value of Van Til

Cornelius Van Til was crucial to the founding of Westminster Seminary, not because he was brilliant, not because he was militantly Calvinistic, and not because he was Machen's trusted friend. All of these attributes may have been true of Van Till. But his importance to Machen was much simpler. In order for Machen to claim that Westminster was the perpetuation of Old Princeton he believed that at least half of the original faculty had to come from the older seminary. Westminster began with eight professors and Machen, along with Robert Dick Wilson and Oswald T. Allis, both of whom taught Old Testament at Princeton, were committed to serving on the faculty of the new seminary. But Machen needed a fourth and Van Til was the only one who could fit the bill of having taught at Princeton.

At first Van Til declined Machen's invitation. After serving as a pastor in rural Michigan from 1927 to 1928, Van Til taught apologetics at Princeton for the 1928-1929 academic year. He had no intention of remaining at Princeton after the seminary's reorganization that year put modernists on the board of trustees and after Machen, to protest the changes at Princeton, had decided to start a new seminary. But neither did Van Til want to teach at a fledgling seminary in downtown Philadelphia. He and his wife had just given birth to a baby boy and he was looking for a call to a Christian Reformed congregation back home in Michigan.

When Machen received word of Van Til's decision he was very disappointed. First he sent Ned Stonehouse, a fellow Dutchman, to Michigan to persuade Van Til to reconsider. When this did not work Machen himself traveled to Michigan despite his heavy responsibilities in creating a seminary virtually overnight. So desperate was Machen that he decided, with the consent of other faculty members, to give Van Til free reign in the department of apologetics and offered whatever salary was necessary. As a last resort Machen suggested that Van Til only come for one year in order to "rescue... the Princeton tradition." Under the pressure of Machen's arm twisting Van Til finally accepted the offer. The rest, as they say, is history.

The circumstances under which Machen chose Van Til may indicate that apologetical method mattered less than the politics of starting the new seminary. In other words, if Machen had been able to choose a professor of apologetics strictly on the basis of what he perceived as the theological merits of the individual, perhaps he would have chosen someone more in harmony with Old Princeton's tradition of evidentialism. Though this hypothesis is plausible, Machen's choice turned out to be astute because of the congruity between Van Til's apologetics and Machen's understanding of the relationship between church and culture.

The Problem of the Enlightenment

For a variety of historical reasons American Presbyterians throughout the nineteenth century were fully committed to the Enlightenment and scientific methods as the surest means for arriving at truth. Though still believing in the authority of Scripture, the best—or at least the most widely accepted—way of demonstrating the truth of the Bible was by appealing to reason and Scripture's harmony with nature and the self-evident truths of human experience. Even though the Presbyterian theologians who taught at Princeton Seminary, such as Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield, believed in and defended the sinfulness of man, including human reason, their fundamental acceptance of the Enlightenment also produced apologetics that in many cases deemed the mind to be a reliable and authoritative guide to truth, including the truths of the Bible.

Old Princeton's apologetic also implied a certain attitude toward the American nation. The United States was heavily indebted to the Enlightenment. Having rejected the crown or established church as a way to maintain social stability, the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason provided America with a rival form of cultural authority, one that was available to all right-thinking people and did not depend upon family blood and place/land. The scientific method and right procedures of argumentation gave to Americans public criteria for determining the true, the good and the beautiful. Thus, the church and the nation shared a similar outlook. Unlike the situation in Europe where the Enlightenment was explicitly anti-clerical (e.g. the French Revolution), in the United States most Protestants imbibed the ideals of the Enlightenment and supported the War for Independence which rested upon those ideals.

This was the tradition out of which Machen worked as an American Presbyterian and a member of Princeton Seminary's faculty. Yet, his argument against Protestant liberalism questioned the close identification of the church with American culture, a tradition that extended back to the American revolution. Machen recognized that the church was fundamentally different from society, and that its faith and practice stood above (and at times against) the norms of America. The mainline churches, he argued, had compromised their witness because they had substituted the ideals of liberty, democracy and equality for the good news of the gospel.

Machen's recognition of the antagonism between church and culture made him sympathetic to confessional ethnic communions like the Dutch Calvinist tradition from which Van Til came. He admired, for instance, the confessional witness of the Christian Reformed Church, its practice of catechetical sermons, its system of Christian schools, its college and seminary. He also esteemed the CRC's separateness from the wider culture, its ghetto mentality as it were, rooted in the conviction that the church must avoid all associations that might compromise its witness. In an editorial for the Presbyterian Guardian written shortly before founding of the OPC, Machen praised the CRC's practice of church discipline which "preserved its separateness from the world." This was precisely the opposite of what Machen saw in Protestant mainline denominations where in order to gain the acceptance of the world churches had adjusted their preaching and ministry. As Machen wrote in Christianity and Liberalism, "religion is thought to be necessary for a healthy community; and therefore for the sake of the community [people] are willing to have a church." But, he added, Christianity could not be treated this way. "The moment it is so treated it ceases to be Christian... Christianity refuses to be regarded as a mere means to a higher end...."

Van Til was not only reared in the CRC but he came out of a tradition with a fundamentally different attitude toward the Enlightenment. Because in Europe the great philosophical developments of the eighteenth century were so hostile to the church, Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, took a dimmer—if not hostile—view toward the Enlightenment. A good indication of this difference is the name of Abraham Kuyper's political organization in the Netherlands, the AntiRevolutionary Party. Van Til's apologetics extended this insight from the intellectual and political realms to that of theology and the defense of the faith. Thus, he made the antithesis, that is, the fundamental difference and antagonism between believers and non-believers, central to the task and method of apologetics. The authority for believers was God's Word, not reason. Appeals to the reasonableness of Christian truth were doomed to fail because without the effectual calling of God's spirit human rationality was in rebellion against God and would not be persuaded of the gospel's truth.

The Church Against the World

Van Til was a great choice to teach at Westminster because his apologetics provided the theoretical foundation for Machen's conception of the relationship between church and culture. If Machen wanted the church to be separate from the world, Van Til's methods supplied the reason for this separation. To be sure, believers and unbelievers hold some things in common—thanks to the grace God showers upon both groups through his providential care. But Machen recognized that the task of the church, namely, proclaiming the gospel and nurturing the faithful, was fundamentally different and at odds with the agenda of the world. Van Til simply put flesh on the skeleton of his mentor's understanding of the antithesis. Machen may not have blamed the Enlightenment for American Presbyterians' failure to maintain the antithesis. But remarks he gave before a Dutch Calvinist gathering on the importance of Christian schools suggest that only three years before the end of his life he saw how the project of a public rationality had undermined the identity and separateness of the community of faith.

...the religion of the Christian man embraces the whole of his life. Without Christ he was dead in trespasses and sins, but he has now been made alive by the Spirit of God; he was formerly alien from the household of God, but has now been made a member of God's covenant people. Can this new relationship to God be regarded as concerning only one part, and apparently a small part, of his life? No, it concerns all his life; and everything he does he should do now as a child of God. It is this profound Christian permeation of every human activity, no matter how secular the world may regard it as being, which is brought about by the Christian school and the Christian school alone... a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian conviction underlies not a part, but all of the curriculum of the school....

Machen recognized the deadly consequences of the church's failure to see that the claims of Christ upon his people were all-encompassing and excluded all other loyalties. He believed the church of his day had become worldly in the sense that it had exchanged "the glory of the cross" for "human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problem of sin." Rather than being intolerant of ideas and practices that denied God's truth, the church in America had become a public institution, tolerating all views and opinions in the same way that the United States protected freedom of thought. Even though Machen may not have understood or even agreed with all of Van Til's ideas, his choice of the Dutch Calvinist to teach apologetics was wise. For Van Til deepened Machen's insights and articulated systematically the fundamental antagonism between the church and the world.

The OPC has benefited mightily from the antithetical posture of Machen and Van Till. When tempted to compromise its Reformed identity for the sake of wider influence and outreach, either by forming alliances with non-Reformed Protestants or by confusing the spheres of the church and the state, the OPC has by God's grace insisted upon the otherworldly nature of the gospel and, thus, the anti-worldly character of the church. Is the situation today any different from that faced by Machen and Van Til? No matter what one's assessment of the culture in which the OPC now ministers, the antithesis is no less a reality now than it was for the early church. As Machen wrote, the antithesis was the "great principle" of the church and it continually needed "to be taken to heart." And he warned that "if the sharp distinction is ever broken down between the church and the world, then the power of the church is gone. The church then becomes like salt that lost its savour...."

Endnotes

  1. Bahnsen, "Machen, Van Til, and the Apologetical Tradition of the OPC," in Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, ed. Charles G. Dennison and Richard Gamble, (Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986), ch. 17.
  2. Charles G. Dennison, "Tragedy, Hope and Ambivalence: The History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church 1936-1962," Mid-America Journal of Theology 9 (1993), 26-44.

D. G. Hart and John Muether are coauthors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are ruling elders in the OPC—Mr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA and Mr. Muether at Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, FL. Extracted from Ordained Servant 6.3 (July 1997).

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