William D. Dennison
Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, by John R. Muether. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2008, 288 pages, $24.99.
John R. Muether's, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman is a triumph as an ecclesiastical biography! Muether's well-written and easy to read volume is not for the casual reader of biographies; rather, his achievement comes with a challenge as each page demands reflection and candid engagement. Our OP historian masterfully coordinates the narrative to entice the reader into being an engaging spectator of Van Til's life journey. If you have a passion for the Reformed faith, then you will share in the concerns, anxieties, disappointments, frustrations, delights, joys, and triumphs of this churchman, apologist, seminary professor, husband, father, grandfather, confident uncle, and respectful sibling. You will be gripped by a penetrating look into difficult decisions: farmer or academician, Christian Reformed or Orthodox Presbyterian, Calvin Theological Seminary or Westminster Theological Seminary (a few occasions), the nature of his respect and critique for fellow Reformed comrades (e.g., Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, Bavinck, Jellema, Daane, the DeBoers, Masselink, Clark, Carnell, Dooyeweerd, Schaeffer, Gerstner, and Clowney), evangelicals (e.g., Buswell, Henry, Graham, and Lewis), and the modernists (e.g., Barth, Marty, etc.). While using primary and secondary sources effectively, Muether's exhaustive labors into letters of correspondence and personal interviews pull the reader into the inner dynamics of his subject.
Usually the work of a good historian and biographer is timely. Muether's effort is prompt for the life of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). He correctly appraises Van Til's contribution to the identity of the first fifty years of the OPC and the first generation of Westminster Theological Seminary. In my estimation, the highpoint of Muether's urgent challenge and thesis comes from the words of Van Til himself: "By 1979 Van Til regretfully described the student population at the seminary as 'a generation that knows not Van Til'" (224). In the same paragraph, Muether carries the same idea into the OPC, pointing out that Van Til also feared "that the OPC was losing its militant edge" (224). The author's assessment of Van Til's concern for the OPC is crucial. Herein, Muether's aim comes to the forefronthe informs us from the beginning that the volume is about an apologist and a churchman (15-20). He is not writing another volume on Van Til's apologetic method and system, although he demonstrates a firm grasp of both. Rather, Muether pleads that the OPC must self-consciously reflect upon the Lord's work in Van Til. After all, the faces among OP church officers and membership have changed significantly over the last fifteen years. Do most in the OPC know Van Til and the identity that church took over the course of his generationi.e., no compromise with the Christ of Scripture as articulated in the orthodox creeds and the Reformed Confessions? While the world, modernism, and evangelicals have despised such a commitment to biblical revelational theology, by God's grace, this is the identity that Van Til carved for the OPC. Sadly, like Machen before him, the twilight of Van Til's life was an experience of continued marginalization and disenfranchisement, even within the churchman's OPC. Nevertheless, Muether's closing section on "the ecumenical Van Til" (237-240) may be his most brilliant and most penetrating section to the soul of the reader. Muether captures what ecumenicity truly looked like through the eyes of a biblically conscious and militant Van Til and how it needs to be defined currently if the OPC is going to be truly an ecumenical denomination within Protestantism. Does such an ecumenical spirit exist in the OPC today?
Before moving to specifics, I must stress that I found each section instructional and a delight to read. In light of personal interests, I found chapters 4 and 5 particularly enlightening. "Reformed or Evangelical?" (chapter 4) contains an excellent section on "debating the theology of Gordon Clark" (100-113). "The New Machen against the New Modernism" (chapter 5) expounds Van Til's assessment of Karl Barth's theology and the personal pain that accompanied his appraisal. Also, in terms of some general observations, Muether grasps correctly Van Til's view of the antithesis of the Creator-creature distinction as well as Van Til's view of the relationship between antithesis and common grace. Furthermore, Muether has correctly understood that Van Til's view of antithesis is grounded in the history of redemption, conditioned by God's covenant. On this exact point, he has correctly assessed the influence of Geerhardus Vos upon Van Til's apologeticoften missed by others. From here Muether notes well that a wrong assessment of the depth and breadth of Van Til's antithesis leaves the door open for evangelicalism, or modernism, or secularism.
Are there some gaps in the work? Like any work, there are, but those gaps do not damage its fine quality. For example, although I understood Muether's point, I found his section on "Van Til and Hodge" in the last chapter (232-234) to be a trivial inclusion. Also, I found his discussion on "debating common grace" (152-153) lacking a clear synopsis of Van Til's unique and intriguing position on common grace.
Permit me to conclude by issuing a challenge to Mr. Muether and the OPC. First, I wish to encourage Mr. Muether to write a study volume, essentially a synopsis of each chapter and questions that relate to the main substance of each chapter. Mr. Muether, your masterful volume needs to be studied in the Sunday schools of our churches. Second, every officer in the OPC needs to read this volume; it is essential reading for understanding the identity of the OPC and its humble tradition. Third, Candidates and Credentials Committees in the OPC need to consider it as required reading for any candidate for licensure and/or ordination. Last, it is imperative to reflect upon what it means to be a churchman. In some circles, the term has received popular use, yet it seems to have a vague meaning.
Mr. Muether, thank you for a splendid study; it is truly a gift to Christ's church from our church historian!
William D. Dennison
Lookout Mountain, Tenn.
Ordained Servant, October 2008.