Van Til the Controversialist
John R. Muether
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.
Perhaps the most well known display of Van Til's Reformed militancy was his dispute with Gordon Clark in the 1940s. The so-called Clark–Van Til debate over the incomprehensibility of God is often cited as evidence for the incomprehensibility of Van Til, so technical were some of his points of contention. Many of Van Til's disciples seem embarrassed over the affair. This "was not Van Til at his best," wrote one analyst, who went on to describe it as "a low point in the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church."
Indeed, any one of Van Til's books leaves the reader with the impression that he seemed eager to pick a fight with any adversary, past or present. Why did Van Til seem so bellicose? Some of his critics who were least familiar with him attributed it to Dutch stubbornness. But Van Til had a shy and retiring personality. He was hardly one to seek the limelight of theological controversy, and there were many times when he actively worked to avoid it. After graduation from Calvin College and a year of study at Calvin Seminary, he and his close friend and classmate, John De Waard, enrolled at Princeton Seminary in 1922, in part because the former school was going through painful controversy, and the two determined that theological education would be better in a less divisive environment.
By the end of that decade, Van Til was teaching at Princeton Seminary, and when controversy came to Princeton in the form of the Seminary's reorganization in 1929, Van Til chose at first neither to continue his teaching post at Princeton nor to join J. Gresham Machen in the founding of Westminster Seminary. He opted instead for a quiet Christian Reformed pastorate in Spring Lake, Michigan. Only extensive lobbying from Machen succeeded in changing that decision, bringing Van Til to Westminster, where he remained for forty-six years.
A Consistent Method
During that long tenure, Van Til developed and championed a presuppositional approach to the defense of the faith. Some have argued that the distinctiveness of this apologetic methodology lent itself to a combative style of argumentation. There is some truth to this claim, and it can be traced to two significant influences on his thinking. First, as an undergraduate at Calvin College, Van Til devoured the writings of the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper stressed that there is a fundamental antagonism between believers and unbelievers in the world, and Van Til placed this antithesis at the forefront of his apologetic method. The authority for the believer was the Word of God, and there could be no common ground between the believer and the unbeliever who was committed to the authority of the autonomous self. A general appeal to the reasonableness of the Christian faith was doomed to fail, Van Til decided, because it was being made to someone in rebellion against God and blind to the truth of the gospel.
A second source was the training he received from Princeton University. His principal instructor, Professor A. A. Bowman, was a non-Christian who made a deep impact on Van Til's thinking. Although Van Til rejected the philosophical idealism of his mentor, he was impressed by its methodological consistency. When Van Til reviewed Bowman's books in the Westminster Theological Journal, he marveled at how "perfectly consistent" his former professor's thought was. This is a characteristic that Van Til himself would display throughout his life. As Scott Oliphint has noted, Van Til never altered the substance of his method at any point in his teaching. "Van Til," writes Oliphint, "while developing, expanding, and elaborating his approach throughout his career as an apologist, never wavered from his fundamental conviction that God is the presupposition behind all thought and all life. Whatever man thinks and whatever he does, God is there sustaining and maintaining."
Consistency, then, lay at the heart of what it meant for Van Til to be Reformed. When a letter writer asked him to define Calvinism, Van Til responded, "It is not the five points. It is rather the measure of consistency with which it applies all the doctrines of Christianity." Here is where Van Til parted company with the theological giants of Old Princeton, such as Hodge and Warfield, whose apologetics were corrupted by the influence of Arminianism, resulting in a "less consistent Calvinism."
Van Til's relentless drive for methodological consistency prompted a "take no prisoners" approach to theological issues. It was futile, he argued, to defend the Reformed faith by non-Reformed means. Reformed theology required Reformed apologetics, a consistency that was compromised by commitments to false principles, whether the rationalism of Gordon Clark or the irrationalism of Karl Barth. For his efforts, Van Til bore the constant burden of being misunderstood: for some, he was old-fashioned and conservative; for others, he was innovative and dangerous.
Van Til was aware of his reputation for belligerency, and he occasionally joked about it. When John Gerstner planned a visit to Westminster, Van Til wrote to warn him: "You may have heard that it is a great sin to differ with Van Til on his views of apologetics. You may also have heard that anyone who does and comes in striking distance of Philadelphia would have his head cut off. So I would advise you not to come near my office!" Van Til could get away with such rhetoric because friends knew how distant that reputation was from reality. In person, Van Til was a gracious, patient, and humble man.
At other times, Van Til was given to regret his calling as a controversialist, especially when it required him to refute the view of other apologists. Perhaps nothing was more difficult for him than assessing the work of E. J. Carnell, who was one of his most brilliant students. Van Til held the highest regard for Carnell's mind and his ability to write, and Carnell's departure from Reformed apologetics saddened Van Til deeply. He once confided to a friend at the publication of a book by Carnell, "I fear I shall again have to appear ungracious in dealing with it. Perhaps I was brought into the world to be a nuisance to others." And yet he did not abandon hope: "I want to win Carnell back to the Reformed truth in apologetics if I can."
To be sure, then, methodological consistency prompted much of Van Til's polemics. Still, this fails to get to the heart of the character of his work, for Van Til was not interested in consistency for its own sake. To fully understand Van Til's polemics, one has to look in a direction in which few of his interpreters have looked: his love for, and devotion to, the church. Simply put, Van Til was a controversialist because he was a churchman.
Although Machen had to twist Van Til's arm mightily to get him to join Westminster in 1929, he exerted little effort in 1936 when Van Til transferred his ministerial credentials from the Christian Reformed Church to the newly formed Presbyterian Church of America (renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939). The First General Assembly of the new church promptly dispatched him to Grand Rapids as a fraternal delegate to the CRC synod. Van Til's Reformed ecclesiology was on full display in his address to the synod. The Presbyterian Church of America, he conceded, was a "small, struggling church," yet it had a goal to make "Reformed theology live anew." He appealed to the synod to model what it meant to be truly Reformed. "You can be of great help to us … if you worry not too much about what other and larger denominations do, but simply ask what the genius of the Reformed faith and the Scriptures back of it require."
Two early episodes in Van Til's ministerial life in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church display his passion as a churchman. On Thursday, November 12, 1936, the Second General Assembly of the OPC convened in Philadelphia. The main item on its agenda was the report from the Committee on the Constitution on the adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as the doctrinal standards of the five-month-old church. The debate centered on whether or not the church should include the 1903 confessional revisions in its version of the standards. While it was generally agreed that those revisions were Arminian and anti-Reformed, some commissioners pragmatically suggested that the inclusion of those revisions would bolster the church's claim to be the "spiritual successor" to the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and thus help congregations leaving that church in their legal battles to retain their property.
Machen himself feared the outcome of this debate, and he privately expressed concern that what lay ahead for the church was a "calamity beyond words." But Machen knew that he could count on his younger colleague. At a crucial point in the debate, Van Til spoke in opposition to the appeals he heard for expediency. "Shall we be Arminians before the courts this year, with the full expectation of being Calvinists next year?" His and similar arguments eventually prevailed, and the Presbyterian Guardian described the outcome of the debate in this way: "When the vote was taken by roll-call on this all-important matter the result was the adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, without the obnoxious 1903 revisions, by the decisive majority of 57 to 20."
The second episode occurred seven years later. The 1942 General Assembly had established a special Committee of Nine with the incredibly broad agenda to "study the relationship of the OPC to society in general and to other ecclesiastical bodies in particular," in order that the OPC "may have an increasing area of influence and make a greater impact on life today." When that Committee reported to the 1943 Assembly, Van Til (who had been barely elected to the Committee on the fifth ballot) read a minority report that he filed along with ruling elder Murray Forst Thompson.
Van Til argued that the ambition of this "super committee" would usurp the Reformed church government found in the church's standards. "Centralization of power," he wrote, "was bureaucratic and unpresbyterian." Moreover, the effect of the Committee's proposals would actually impede the effective witness of the church, which comes not from paring down its testimony, but rather from "vigorous proclamation of our distinctive faith." The minority report ultimately prevailed after lengthy debate, and the church, in the words of the Presbyterian Guardian, emerged more confirmed in its Reformed identity.
This brings us back to the Clark controversy. The complaint against Clark originated in the Presbytery of Philadelphia over irregularities in the manner in which Clark was ordained (and Van Til was one of several complainants). When seen in light of these other debates in the early history of the church, this controversy was part of a larger battle over the church's Reformed identity. Clark was a pawn in the agenda of a faction of the church that was discontent with its Reformed identity. Ultimately, what was at stake was the question of whether the church's ecclesiology would be evangelical or Reformed. In the end, Clark's ordination was affirmed (and the complaint denied). But when the church rejected the agenda of a broader evangelicalism, Clark and his supporters left the church. In this larger context of Reformed ecclesiology, Van Til's role in the Clark controversy, far from being an embarrassment, becomes one of his finest moments.
The Triumph of Grace
Although ecclesiology was foundational to his life and thought, Van Til actually wrote little about the church. One place where he did reflect on the church was in a syllabus he wrote in 1962 for a class he taught at Westminster on the Heidelberg Catechism. In the introduction to The Triumph of Grace, Van Til notes how this profoundly existential catechism is at once an ecumenical confession as well. In reciting this catechism, the believer speaks his or her personal faith, not in isolation, but as a member of the one holy, catholic church. The Heidelberg Catechism, he wrote, was the confession of the whole church. The triumph of the grace of God in Christ enables the church to be the church.
Van Til reminded his readers that the Heidelberg Catechism, along with the other confessions and catechisms of the Reformation, were Protestant statements, and he sought to put the "protest" back into "Protestant." A Protestant confession, he wrote, is a protest against all those who "fail to proclaim the triumph of the grace of God in Christ." When the Reformed church confesses Christ, therefore, it registers its protest against the corruptions of Rome, the errors of Arminianism, and the unbelief of modernism.
And it is the protest of the whole church. It speaks in a corporate fashion. When the church fails to do this, "her corporate witness is grievously weakened." Here Van Til self-consciously invokes Machen's doctrine of the corporate witness of the churchthat the church must speak with one Reformed voice.
"Van Til," Charles Dennison once wrote, "was nothing if he was not a faithful churchman." Van Til was steadfastly consistent in affirming a Reformed doctrine of the church, and that, above all, is what rendered his work controversial. His apologetics was controversial because it was self-consciously ecclesiastical. The faith that he defended was the Reformed faith, which was found in the confessions of the Reformed churches.
The author is the historian of the OPC and the librarian at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2004.