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New Horizons

October, 2004: Remembering Cornelius Van Til

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Van Til the Controversialist

In 1976 Cornelius Van Til published an article entitled "Calvin the Controversialist" in a collection of essays in honor of John H. Gerstner, a former student of his. The article was a fitting tribute to Gerstner, himself no stranger to theological controversy and one with whom Van Til had crossed apologetic swords. Moreover, by writing about Calvin, Van Til wisely chose to appeal to his and Gerstner's common theological forefather. In explaining Calvin's life and work, Van Til noted that Calvin's life of controversy began when he embraced Protestantism. As a Protestant, controversy was no option for Calvin. In outlining the contours of Calvin's theology, Van Til underscored that throughout his work the Genevan reformer bore a practical and ecclesiastical burden. For Calvin, the Protestant Reformation was the recovery of the Christian story for the Christian community.

At the time he wrote the article, Van Til was eighty-one years old, and he had recently retired from his long tenure of teaching apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Accordingly, the article took on a subtle autobiographical character as well, and Van Til likely used the occasion to reflect on his vocation as a theological controversialist. Van Til's career was controversial at every turn. He polemicized against fundamentalists and evangelicals, modernists old and new, and both pre- and post-Vatican II Roman Catholics. Read more

Van Til Made Me Reformed

In one of his writings on romantic love, C. S. Lewis alludes to a man skulking through the streets looking for a woman. This, says Lewis, is not true love. True love seeks to have and to cherish, while lust only desires for itself. That would seem to be a coherent Christian statement, but Cornelius Van Til would have considered it to be inadequate. Was that man not a sinner in need of Jesus Christ? What is the difference between Christian and non-Christian love? Without a proper Christian context, Lewis's statement expresses merely an idealism not much different from refined paganism. Van Til said, "Ideals are like a highway in the sky. There are no entrance ramps."

The skulking predator would have to change his attitudes and behavior to comport with gentlemanly ideals. But for Van Til, Christians need a more consistent Christianity based upon the authoritative Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the historic creeds of the church. The legacy of C. S. Lewis has been the diminution of theology. One of his famous followers, Elizabeth Elliot, once said, "If more people read C. S. Lewis, there would be less need for seminaries." Harvard professor Armand Nicoli maintains that Lewis's reasoning is based on God-but is this the God of the Bible or the God of Platonism? The tendency in many pulpits today is to portray theology as an addendum to Christian life, to treat doctrine as an unpleasantness and to regard action as the only test of faith. Read more

Van Til's Critique of Human Thought

Educators have always been concerned about how information is transferred from the teacher to the pupil. Specifically, does the student acquire a sufficient understanding of a subject in order to apply it to life? Over the years, students have voiced this concern with regard to Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987)—they find his language difficult to understand and difficult to apply to apologetic situations.

One reason for this is that they are not trained in philosophy. Even so, their failure to comprehend and apply Van Til's philosophical language has not diminished their enthusiasm for his apologetic starting point, which is the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. For them, the authority of God's Word and the preeminence of Jesus Christ transcend their own ignorance of philosophy. They know that the apologist is not to compromise the Christ of Scripture with any principle or system of secularization! Even if Van Til's philosophical language is unclear, his students support his initial commitment to the gospel found in the infallible Word of God. Read more

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