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Van Til the Evangelist

K. Scott Oliphint

Unlike some readers of Ordained Servant, I never had the opportunity to study under Cornelius Van Til. My initial introduction to him came through his many writings. I immersed myself in those writings, seeing, for the first time in my Christian life, a man whose method (based as it was on Reformed theology) was able to decimate all pretensions and permutations of unbelief, including those residing in my own heart.

When I determined, as a result of reading Van Til, to attend Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to stay with him for a time. One of the advantages of staying with him was the occasion to walk with him on his "daily constitutional." After almost thirty years, two things still stand out to me about those walks. (1) Even as an octogenarian, Van Til could maintain a rigorous pace. More importantly, (2) I remember that every one of Van Til's neighbors, to whom I was introduced by him, said virtually the same thing to me: "I suppose he's talking to you, too, about this Jesus."

What became clear to me during that time has become even clearer to me since. I had read it in his writings, but now I had also seen it in action. The central point of Van Til's teaching and ministry is this: for Van Til, there could be no separation between a defense of the Christian faith, on the one hand, and the preaching of the gospel, on the other. As obvious as this may sound to us now, we should not miss the fact that it is only obvious because of the profound and sweeping impact that Van Til's thought has had in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Perhaps a couple of reminders will serve to highlight this central point.

First, any student of Van Til's will readily see the influence both of his Dutch Reformed roots (in Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck particularly), as well as his Princeton education (in Machen, and the influence of Warfield behind him). It could easily be argued that to understand properly the ways in which Van Til incorporated the best of Kuyper and Warfield is to understand the scope of Van Til's project. But a proper understanding of Van Til's incorporation of these two Reformed giants requires, as well, an understanding of just where he was forced to distance himself from them.

For Kuyper, the discipline of apologetics was a relatively useless enterprise. As Warfield indicated, Kuyper's theological taxonomy relegated apologetics to "a subdivision of a subdivision."[1] In his massive three volume, Encyclopædie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid, Kuyper's discussion of apologetics occupies around ten pages of volume 3.[2] The reason for this "misprision of apologetics" (as Warfield calls it) in Kuyper is due, as Van Til makes clear, to Kuyper's (mis)understanding of the antithesis. The antithesis, as Kuyper develops it, is unable to take into account the notion of the sensus divinitatis (the knowledge of God within all human beings), which notion came to its fruition in Calvin (following Paul in Romans 1:18ff.). Therefore, it takes on the connotation of a kind of metaphysical antithesis, in which the "two kinds of men" of which Kuyper speaks, really and truly have nothing (religiously) in common.

In fairness to Kuyper, we should not miss the historical point that, in Kuyper's own time, there was not much available to him in terms of a consistent, Reformed approach to the discipline of apologetics. Due to the influence of the Enlightenment, in which reason was pitting itself against all calls of submission to God's revelation, apologetic approaches that had their foundation in some notion of neutral reasoning had shown themselves to be thoroughly bankrupt, unable to address the prevailing onslaught of unbelief.[3] For Kuyper, then, it was the principium of revelation, not of reason, that alone was able to rescue men from the foolishness of would-be autonomy. Since revelation was the acknowledged principium of the church, there seemed to be no common ground between the regenerate and the unregenerate, according to Kuyper.

Warfield rightly saw the weakness in Kuyper's approach to apologetics. He saw that such an approach would relegate the question of Christianity's truth-claims to an appendix, at best. Speaking of the other theological disciplines (such as systematic theology, church history, and biblical exegesis), Warfield says, "Not until all their labor is accomplished do they pause to wipe their streaming brows and ask whether they have been dealing with realities, or perchance with fancies only."[4] According to Warfield, the "truth question" in Kuyper's construal was anything but paramount in the theological encyclopedia.[5]

The genius of Van Til was that, due to his thorough grounding in Reformed theology, he was able to address the weakness in Kuyper's view of the antithesis by highlighting the strengths of Reformed thought. Van Til sought to make clear that the radical nature of the antithesis, which Kuyper was concerned to stress, itself presupposed a universality that was embedded in who we are as God's covenant creatures.[6] That universality is the image of God. In other words, the fact that all men are either in Adam or in Christ has its final reference point in the prior fact that all men are covenantally related to the God who made them and to whom, ultimately, they relate.[7] And this objective fact of our universal relationship to God—a relationship that is characterized either by wrath (in Adam) or by grace (in Christ)—has its subjective ground in the fact that God has never, and will never, leave himself without a witness. More specifically, just because we are all covenant creatures, we inevitably and for eternity, know this covenant God who made us, and to whom we owe allegiance (Rom. 1:18-19, 32).[8]

This leads to the second reminder. What is distinctive about Van Til's approach to apologetics, and what was instrumental in giving him critical insight into all forms of unbelieving thought, was his thorough acquaintance with Reformed theology. This, too, may seem obvious, but the emphasis and implications of this point have not always been properly understood.

What is, perhaps, the most radical apologetic point that Van Til asserts, especially given the history of apologetics before him, is his insistence that apologetics, like theology (indeed, like all of life) must begin with the ontological Trinity. Van Til puts it like this:

According to the principle of Protestantism, man's consciousness of self and of objects presuppose for their intelligibility the self-consciousness of God. In asserting this we are not thinking of psychological and temporal priority. We are thinking only of the question as to what is the final reference point in interpretation. The Protestant principle finds this in the self-contained ontological trinity. By his counsel the triune God controls whatsoever comes to pass. If then the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting-point, it remains true that God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate or final reference point in human interpretation.

This is, in the last analysis, the question as to what are one's ultimate presuppositions. When man became a sinner he made of himself instead of God the ultimate or final reference point. And it is precisely this presupposition, as it controls without exception all forms of non-Christian philosophy, that must be brought into question. If this presupposition is left unquestioned in any field all the facts and arguments presented to the unbeliever will be made over by him according to his pattern. The sinner has cemented colored glasses to his eyes which he cannot remove. And all is yellow to the jaundiced eye. There can be no intelligible reasoning unless those who reason together understand what they mean by their words.

In not challenging this basic presupposition with respect to himself as the final reference point in predication the natural man may accept the "theistic proofs" as fully valid. He may construct such proofs. He has constructed such proofs. But the god whose existence he proves to himself in this way is always a god who is something other than the self-contained ontological trinity of Scripture.[9]

To put the matter simply, Van Til argues that one must "begin" one's apologetic with the ontological Trinity.[10] Contrast this with the view of apologetics set forth by Aquinas. For Thomas, and those who follow him, there is a "twofold mode of truth in what we profess about God." There are those truths which can be proved by natural reason, unaided by revelation. "Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like."[11]

In other words, for Thomas and Thomistic apologetics, what is to be proved is that God is, perhaps that he is one, and other similar matters. What should be most obvious and shocking to any who espouse a Reformed approach to theology is that this approach to apologetics, by definition, eschews any idea that God's revelation in general, and Scripture in particular, is the principium from which we are to reason and argue.[12]

And now we can begin to see why and how it is that, for Van Til, apologetic methodology is itself inextricably bound to the preaching of the gospel. Given what we have said above, the following points can be seen to converge:

  1. God is only truly known as he has revealed himself. For this reason, it will not do simply to attempt to show that God exists, or that he is one. Any attempt of this nature seeks to limit the knowledge of God to what can be comprehended by reason alone. But it is not within the purview of man's responsibility before God to conjure up a notion of him that is rationally palatable. Our responsibility, instead, is to submit ourselves to what he has said, especially and primarily, what he has told us about himself.
  2. Creation is what God says it is. With respect to the antithesis, therefore, it is not the case, as Kuyper argued, that there is no way (apologetically) to reach those who are unregenerate. Objectively, we all have, and are responsible to, the same Triune God. Subjectively, it is the sensus divinitatis that provides the "bridge" between those who are in Adam and those who are in Christ. To what, then, do we appeal in our defense of Christianity? We appeal to that which God himself has provided in all men, i.e., to the knowledge of God that renders us inexcusable before him.

If we see the connection of these two crucial points in Van Til's approach, we'll begin to see that the preaching of the gospel itself must inevitably be the telos (ultimate object or aim) of this approach. Given that we must begin our discussion with what God has said about himself, we begin with the Triune God of Scripture. This is simply to say that we do not ask one who is outside of Christ to use the best of his rational capacities to move, with us, toward theism. Rather, we appeal to the true theism, the only true theism, that is already embedded in their souls. Given that they know God already, and that such knowledge, as suppressed, will bring sure condemnation, we "connect" that knowledge with the content of our apologetic in order that the unbeliever, by the Holy Spirit, might move from suppression to submission.

And just what is the content of our apologetic that will inevitably "connect" with the unbeliever? It is, in sum, the gospel itself. It is that this God who is known (though not acknowledged) has commanded repentance, and that such repentance can only come as one bows at the foot of the cross, recognizing that God alone can rescue us from the slavish quagmire that is our own deep and murky sinfulness.

In other words, to begin with the ontological Trinity is to begin with biblical revelation. And to begin with biblical revelation is not to pick and choose certain generic aspects of that revelation that might suit an unbelieving mind. Rather, it is to begin with "the whole counsel of God." A Reformed theology demands a Reformed apologetic. Conversely, any apologetic that is not Reformed has, at its root, a non-Reformed theology.

This is the depth, the richness, and the beauty of Van Til's Reformed approach to apologetics. In the last essay of the festschrift in Van Til's honor, Jerusalem and Athens, Fred Howe criticized Van Til for not making clear the distinction between his apologetic approach and evangelism. Van Til's response to Howe is worth quoting in full:

Dear Dr. Howe:

You are certainly right in saying that I did not, in the discussion among Mr. White, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Black, make any sharp distinction between witnessing to and defending the Christian faith. I am not convinced by the evidence from Scripture which you cite that any sharp distinction between them is required or even justified. My defense of the truth of Christianity is, as I think of it, always, at the same time, a witness to Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We do not really witness to Christ adequately unless we set forth the significance of his person and work for all men and for the whole of their culture. But if we witness to him thus then men are bound to respond to him either in belief or disbelief. If they respond in disbelief they will do so by setting forth as truth some "system of reality" that is based on the presupposition of man as autonomous. I must then plead with them to accept Christ as their Savior from the sin of autonomy, and therewith, at the same time, to discover that they have been given, in Christ, the only foundation for intelligent predication.

— C. V. T.[13]

In a sidebar comment to Van Til's interview in Christianity Today, Grady Spires noted: "Van Til's task was to make both despisers and defenders of the faith 'epistemologically self-conscious.' For him the journey from philosophical apologetics to evangelism was a mere adjustment in style, not in basic content."[14]

A "mere adjustment in style, not in basic content." For that reason, it seems to me accurate to think of Van Til's apologetic approach as "pre-meditated evangelism." It is an approach to the gospel that carries with it a biblically directed thoughtfulness, thinking through the truths of Scripture and their implications for those who are outside of Christ.

But isn't this "pre-meditation" what ministers of the gospel do each and every Lord's Day as they seek to bring the truth of Scripture to bear on the Lord's people? Of course it is.[15] While the emphasis may be different when we prepare to speak to those who are not in Christ, the fact remains that any time we seek to apply the truth of Scripture to the lives of people, we are involved in pressing the claims of Christ on them.

Edmund Clowney rightly drew attention to this radical aspect of Van Til's approach:

Van Til, then, is not simply a philosopher with a heart for preaching. Indeed, he is not merely a theologian with a heart for preaching. He is a preacher, concerned to begin where a preacher begins, with the authority of God's own revelation, and to do what a preacher does, confront unbelief and nourish faith with "thus saith the Lord." In all his apologetic labors he continually stands with the Apostle on Mars Hill, not debating the probability of God's existence, but proclaiming the Creator God who holds all men accountable before the judgment of the risen Christ.[16]

No other apologetic method allows for such a deep and penetrating application of the Word of God. No other apologetic incorporates "the power of God for salvation" in the warp and woof of its method. No other apologetic moves seamlessly from philosophical objections to the Christian faith to a call for faith in Christ. Therefore, if I may be so bold, no other apologetic is worth the time or the effort. Any apologetic approach that cannot abide the authority of God's revelation is simply vanity, and a striving after the wind.

If I may offer one final anecdote—I met a man years ago who, as a Westminster student in the fifties, had been given the task of driving Van Til to Johns Hopkins University to speak to a group of philosophers. The man related to me that, due to a traffic jam, they arrived at the meeting with little time for Van Til to deliver his address. Realizing that his time was short, I was told, Van Til took what little time he had, laid aside his talk, and preached on Jonah. It was not that he decided to do "something else" in his address to these philosophers; instead, he went straight to the conclusion.

Many have seen the picture of Van Til, standing on Wall Street in New York City, Bible in hand, preaching to any and all who would stop and listen. To those who could not see, he was just an old man, past his prime and past the point of embarrassment, looking for any who would listen. To the rest, he was doing what he had been doing for almost half a century—holding forth the claims of the self-attesting Christ of Scripture as the power which alone can break the chains of unbelief. Is it any wonder that his neighbors were convinced that any who spent time with him would inevitably hear those same claims?

Endnotes

[1] Warfield contends that if Kuyper's classification and delineation of the task of apologetics is correct, then Christianity remains "the great assumption." B. B. Warfield, "Introduction to Beattie's Apologetics," in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 2:95.

[2] Note, for example, the place of apologetics, according to Kuyper: "That which [apologetics] must defend is Dogma, either in its specific details, or in the grounds wherein the Dogma rests, or in the conclusions (gevolgtrekkingen), which follow from the Dogma. It is not diathetical, since it does not describe Dogma, it is not thetical, since it does not postulate Dogma, nor prove it, but it is antithetical, since it directs its plea in behalf of Dogma over against that which pseudo-philosophy raises against Dogma, its grounds or effects. Its place is thus not before but after Dogmatics and Ethics." Then, further on, Kuyper says: "From this it follows that Apologetics is confined to two tasks. In the first place to disqualify pseudo-theology from its vitium originis, which men come to adopt from the side of philosophy,: and in the second place to maintain the principles which are inseparable from Dogma, as actually the only trustworthy ones to maintain, over against false principles of wayward Philosophy." Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopædie Der Heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3 vols. (Amsterdam: J. A. Wormser, 1894), 3:459, 461.

[3] For an insightful critique of the failure of apologetics in nineteenth century academia, see George Marsden, "The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia," in Faith and Rationality, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).

[4] B. B. Warfield, "Introduction to Beattie's Apologetics," 2:96.

[5] Of historical interest (and the reason that all M.Div. students at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, are required to take two courses in apologetics) is Machen's assessment of this discussion. In private correspondence, Machen wrote, "You will not take it amiss that I still agree rather strongly with Dr. Warfield about the place of apologetics" (emphasis added). Machen to Gerrit H. Hospers, Ontario, New York, December 27, 1924, Machen Archives; quoted from Paul Kjoss Helseth, "The Apologetic Tradition of the OPC," Westminster Theological Journal 60, no. 1 (1998): 127.

[6] Note Van Til's point, "For myself, I have chosen the position of Kuyper. But I am unable to follow him when from the fact of the mutually destructive character of the two principles he concludes to the uselessness of reasoning with the natural man," (emphasis mine), Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 351.

[7] So, says Van Til, "For the spiritual deadness of the natural man is what it is as suppression of the knowledge of God given man by virtue of creation in God's image. Hence Warfield was quite right in maintaining that Christianity is objectively defensible. And the natural man has the ability to understand intellectually, though not spiritually, the challenge presented to him. And no challenge is presented to him unless it is shown him that on his principle he would destroy all truth and meaning. Then, if the Holy Spirit enlightens him spiritually, he will be born again "unto knowledge" and adopt with love the principle he was previously anxious to destroy," Van Til, Defense, 352.

[8] For this reason, among others, it seems best to dispense with the terminology of "presuppositionalism" as an adequate description of Van Til's approach. The term itself is fraught with confusion, especially given postmodernism's co-opting and abuse of it. Van Til's approach is best described, rather, as "Covenantal."

[9] Van Til, Defense, 100-01.

[10] "Begin" is in quotes here because it is not the case that Van Til thinks we must begin our conversation, or our discussion, with an assertion of the ontological Trinity. Rather, to "begin" with the presupposition of the ontological Trinity is to recognize that unless God is who he says he is, we (meaning all human beings) cannot think or live consistently. We cannot, therefore, think that there is an area of neutrality in which we might reason with unbelievers. If we "begin" with God and who he says he is, we recognize that the unbeliever himself depends on the God he will not acknowledge in order to reject, in his thinking and living, this same God. Thus, a nice summary of Van Til's approach can be this: "Atheism presupposes theism."

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. Charles J. O'Neil, 4 vols., vol. 4 (Notre Dame and London: Notre Dame University Press, 1957), 1:63.

[12] For one example of how Thomas's approach disallows a direct appeal to Scripture, see the essay by William Lane Craig, "Classical Apologetics," in Stephen B. Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2000), 25-55. In that essay, after arguing for a generic theism, Craig can only resort to a notion of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which is itself quite independent of the Word. The separation of Scripture from apologetics is, as this essay illustrates, a necessary part of its methodology.

[13] E. R. Geehan, ed. Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977), 452.

[14] David E. Kucharsky, "At the Beginning, God," Christianity Today XXII, no. 6 (1977): 20, my emphasis.

[15] Not only so, but since apologetics is mandated in Scripture, all Christians are called to apply the truth of Scripture to any aspect of unbelief, whether in our own hearts, our congregations, or to those who do not know Christ. For a fuller discussion of this, see K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003).

[16] Edmund P. Clowney, "Preaching the Word of the Lord: Cornelius Van Til, V.D.M.," Westminster Theological Journal XLVI, no. 2 (1984): 242-43.

K. Scott Oliphint, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, serves as professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia Ordained Servant, October 2008.

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