Cornelius Van Til

Andrew Moody

Like many others, I have been greatly enjoying the recently published biography of Cornelius Van Til by Mr. John Muether, the Historian of the OPC. The full title of this volume is Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman. Two helpful reviews of this work have already been printed in our denominational publications, and can be read by clicking on the following links:
L. Anthony Curto's review in New Horizons
William D. Dennison's review in Ordained Servant

Mr. Muether helpfully unpacks the context that Van Til emerged from as a Dutch immigrant raised on a farm in the rural Midwest. Especially helpful are his explanations of the history of the Dutch Reformed church and its two major denominational splits. There are many other strengths to the work, especially the emphasis of Van Til as a committed churchman. I heartily encourage you to read this book. You will be edified by it!

Here are a number of other very helpful Van Til resources on the OPC website:
Van Til the Evangelist by K. Scott Oliphant
Cornelius Van Til and the Identity of the OPC by Charles G. Dennison
Van Til Made me Reformed by Eric Sigward
Van Til the Controversialist by John Muether
Van Til's Critique of Human Thought by William D. Dennison
Why Machen Hired Van Til by D.G. Hart and John Muether

In his book, Mr. Muether refers to an article Van Til wrote while serving as the editor of the Chimes while a student at Calvin College. Van Til wrote the editorial Students and Controversies because of his disappointment with how his classmates responded to the controversial firing of Old Testament professor Ralph Janssen, for Barthian tendencies. Standing by sound Reformed doctrine, Van Til wrote:

Students and Controversies by Cornelius Van Til

Enrollment on the list of a college record makes one apparently a student, but not necessarily in fact. Though our names have graced the pages of the catalogue for a decade, we may still lack the characteristics of a genuine student. We may well call attention to this fact, for here lurks a far from imaginary danger.

We would call attention to this not so much in general, however, as to a specific instance that is indicative of the absence of a proper student spirit. A student’s attitude toward a living controversy is a fairly accurate thermometer with which to grade his quality as student.

A student’s attitude toward a controversy may be said to be normal if it reveals an intelligent and diligent following of all points in dispute. A student wants to learn. He is filled with an insatiable desire for knowledge. To gain knowledge, in the broad sense of the term, is his exclusive aim. For the purpose of acquiring knowledge he goes to the class-room. For that purpose he reads, reads much. With that purpose in mind he views current events and tries to ascertain the principles that impel men to act. With that purpose in mind he is to view, chiefly, any and all controversies of whatever nature.

But now in actuality we find that ofttimes we are not normal, but abnormal students. We are either too cold or too hot. If the controversies that fill the very air about us with their din do not even reach our ears, if we seal ourselves hermetically within the circle prescribed by our text-books, we are too cold or too narrow. We either overemphasize the student virtue of concentration on our school work, so that it becomes a vice, or our pulsebeat is too slow, so that we need a tonic to restore our lost vitality. Happily, however, it may be asserted that most of us do not manifest abnormality in this direction. If we did, it would be sad indeed, especially if it were due to lack of vitality. No, we more quickly display abnormality in the opposite direction. We are very much subject to fevers. In the past an occasional sufferer has become delirious as was evident from the look in his eye and the words of his mouth; fatalities have even occurred.

To explain this phenomenon fully would be difficult, but we may point to some factors that bring about our fevers. Many of us have a strong orthodox-instinct within us. When the premillenial question was urgent, we strutted through the halls as so many incarnations of sound Reformed doctrine condemning the heresy without having felt the force of its argument or understanding its implications. Others, again, have a would-be-scholarly-progressive instinct which need only be seen to be ridiculed. When one hears an undergraduate student talk about doing research work, while his amo, amas, amat, is still the result of distinctive effort, he has a fairly representative sample of the would-be-progressiveness among us.

Then, there is the desire of all of us to pose as though we know. We dislike to confess our ignorance. We wish to take a stand; we wish to have convictions. To have no convictions about a point in dispute, we consider to be a weakness. During the progress of the controversy engaging the attention of all at present it has happened that we took a far more definite stand than many of our leaders. While the soup was still much too hot for Professor B. K. Kuiper, so that he was afraid to touch it lest he burn his paws, many of us had already pushed our jaws to the bottom of the pan. We took definite stand for or against.

And do not say that this applies to the Seminary only, because that is too obviously untrue. The conversations of many college students are proof to the contrary.

Now this desire to pose as orthodox or on the other hand progressive, and the desire to appear as men of conviction does much harm. Surely, we wish to be orthodox, but we must first learn what real orthodoxy is. Surely, we wish to be progressive, but we must first have a basis to progress from. And to be mature in judgment, even were the givens all in our possession, is manifestly out of place for students.

It may be replied that the relentless wheel of time is about to cast us into the midst of actual life when we shall have to give leadership, when we shall have to take a definite stand on questions that vex us now. We often picture ourselves in the midst of actual life. There we see a host of troubled souls flocking to us for the solving of their problems. To give them answers of yes to this and no to that will be our business. But is this view of leadership the correct one? We are inclined to believe it is not, but that it is a bad source from which springs our wrong attitude toward controversies. To be leaders must we be some sort of encyclopedias? Must we give a material answer to every question that may be asked? To do that would presuppose a numerically, a mechanically complete world-and-life-view. But can anyone ever gain such a world-and-life-view? Evidently one can not. Now, since it is impossible in a lifetime to acquire a yes and no view on all questions, how absurd is it for students to take a definite stand on questions with implications about which little has yet been written. It may not be out of date for us to hand one another some "Certificates of Incompetency." The consciousness of the unfathomable depth and the sweeping width of the questions in debate should come upon us with such overwhelming force as to keep us from all rash statement or stand. How many of us have the ability to judge about a case of hyperbole in the Hebrew language? Remember Dr. Wilson.

If, on the other hand, the questions are as simple as some would have us believe, we students need not concern ourselves about it at all, because then they will surely be settled in the right manner without our aid.

May we then have no convictions; may we never take a stand? Would we advocate a fake, would-be scholarly attitude of which indecision and doubt are the prime characteristics? Not in the least. We can scarcely help having at least tentative convictions about questions at issue. Our entire psychological constitution compels us early to have certain tentative convictions, and to find logical reasons to bolster them up. Then, there is the fact that our instruction is often rather colored and tendential. I mean by this that in the class-room a line of argumentation is set forth which seems supremely convincing in itself, but which does not at every step present the difficulties that arise. Difficulties, if not ignored, are often quite unsatisfactorily presented. We do not make this an accusation. It is, I take it, almost unavoidable for any teacher, especially in controversial times, to try to make disciples. For a teacher to propagandize, however, presupposes either too much or too little ability in the students; too much if He thinks the student will independently weigh all difficulties; too little if he thinks the student will not some time or other throw over the card house. Thus it comes that we are almost sure to have convictions, and this need not harm if we only remember that they should always be tentative. Tentative convictions do not block the way for intellectual and moral progress as do permanent convictions. Tentative convictions do not rob us of the great gain we may derive from controversies as do permanent convictions. Permanent convictions among students must be destroyed.

Still another reason why we are in danger of losing much of the profit we might gain from controversies is our habit of group-debating. An individual always feels stronger when surrounded by a cohort of fellow-believers. In a group one says something very cute, another something rash; a third adds a little to both. An extreme statement of the opposing side is taken and pilloried as the very embodiment of backwardness or radicalism, as the case may be. The psychological effect of this group-debating is not easily over-calculated. The spirit of the mob lays hold on us; we run into extremes.

So it often occurs that due to our natural inclinations, our orthodox or progressive-instinct, our desire to pose as men of conviction, our teaching, together with our group-debating, we take an altogether harmful attitude toward controversies. We rob ourselves to a large extent of the benefits that especially students may derive from being moulded in a controversial period. We as students should look at the bright side of all polemics. We could not desire a better period of time to get an education than now. The problems under consideration are forced upon us with the irresistible push of actuality. They bid us revolve them in our minds, grapple with them, make them part of ourselves in the sense that we envelop them, that the strength of their various aspects has to us the reality of flesh and blood. Were we benefited by the pre-millenial controversy? Only if we have tried to understand its content, only if we have been pre-millenialists in the sense that we have allowed its current of appeal to overflow us unrestricted and have emerged to a higher level, are we come out the better for it.

Much profit we may thus obtain from following the arguments for and against different positions which our leaders take. A controversial time will help us gain this profit. If now we are only on our guard lest we be swept off our feet and carried along with the current. If we are swept along with the current, we are not educated but stunned in our intellectual growth because we cease to think when we begin to propagate. Then, we are stunned in our spiritual growth also because we allow a schism between a few mortals to widen the chasm between our Christ and us, and between our fellow-believers and us. We are in danger that our hearts grow cold towards those with whom we are in the future destined to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. That would be irreparable. Hence we are to be on the lookout lest our entrance into controversies does not dampen our appreciation of our fellow-students, lest our internal differences should later weaken our offensive against the enemies of our King.

And now you say: "These things are past, why touch upon it yet again?" Let me offer that these things are not past and that they will come up stronger than ever in the near future. The present controversy will soon come to its culminating point. Let us now as student body consciously, deliberately determine that we are going to benefit by the question at issue; that we shall try to acquaint ourselves with its different aspects, gain vital connection with all, not only some of the views offered for solution. Let us here and now decide that apparently plausible argumentation shall not lead us to premature judgments which in turn would lead to the intellectual and spiritual retardation of ourselves and our fellow-students.

We may thank God that we live now. The world is full of pressing problems. We live in an age of world-congresses and world-movements. World-situations in all their sweeping largeness appeal to our youthful romanticism. We want to do something big. But at the same time our period of training falls within a period of denominational controversy. For this also we may thank God because it contains many a blessing for our later lives. May we not turn away this blessing by our own rashness and lack of reflection.

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