Author: John R. Muether
Any biographer of Cornelius Van Til needs to assume certain things. First, Van Til’s thought, though brilliant, is not always easy to divine. Second, this difficulty is made more problematic by the coming together of at least two obstacles: 1) Van Til’s sometimes awkward way of putting things, and 2) the difficulty many of us have in obeying the injunction to bring every thought into captivity to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Third, one who would write about Van Til must keep in mind that, owing in no small part to the foregoing points, the famed Westminster apologist is often not closely or sympathetically read by his opponents (many of whom have little or no acquaintance with his writings). Instead, these opponents often content themselves with the misrepresentations of Van Til which have been handed down as unquestioned truths over the years. Fourth, these characterizations help serve the agendas of conservative Christians who like to flirt with wayward evangelicals who, in turn, enjoy rubbing shoulders with non-evangelical intellectuals like Barth, Balthasar or Ricoeur.
For these reasons, the uncompromising thrust of Van Til’s thinking (and its consciously antithetical attitude toward unbiblical opinions) must be explained if his important work is to be appreciated, especially by readers who may desire to be introduced to the man and to understand his influence.
A life of Van Til, authored by a librarian and Church History professor at Westminster Seminary, would seem to be a good place to go to get such a balanced, friendly (though not uncritical) treatment of this important thinker. John Muether has given the Church his take on this one whom he calls a “truly great man” (p. 11), and he has been concerned to connect Van Til with his Dutch Reformed roots as well as his Presbyterian (OPC) commitments. Indeed, these come across clearly throughout the book. Muether charts the “protective isolationism” of his subject’s “Dutch-American upbringing” (p. 38), his minute reading of Kuyper and Bavinck, and how this led to Van Til’s enthusiasm for maintaining the antithesis between saved and unsaved ways of thinking.
Muether recounts the emotional turmoil of young Van Til’s decision to leave the familiar surroundings of Grand Rapids for Princeton—a decision which, however wise, would always be felt by both Van Til and his future wife. He did well at Princeton, winning two academic prizes and completing “four degrees in five years,” receiving his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the university in 1927 (p. 52). Even at this early stage of his life, it appears that the contours of his thought were pretty well cast. Muether notes the looming influence of Bavinck on his subject, “the evidence for which grows as Bavinck’s dogmatics is translated into English” (p. 56). Bavinck’s “Prolegomena” (Volume 1 of the Reformed Dogmatics) includes statements which would sit comfortably in one of Van Til’s syllabii (cf. Muether’s comment about him refining Bavinck’s basic approach, p. 116).
A most interesting feature of the biography is the record of how J. Gresham Machen eventually lured Van Til away from his rural pastorate in Spring Lake, Michigan, to join the newly formed Westminster Seminary in 1929. It is clear that Machen went to extraordinary lengths to secure Van Til’s services for the new Seminary, and how, after Machen’s untimely death in 1937, he found himself taking on much of the responsibility for the work that his mentor had left behind (p. 85).
The author also introduces us to critics (e.g. Buswell and Daane) who often misrepresented Van Til’s views and are the cause of misconceptions about Van Til which continue today.
Van Til & Gordon H. Clark
Chapter four provides one of the best parts of the book. Rejecting John Frame’s view of the Clark-Van Til controversy as a low point in the lives of both men (see pp. 106-107), Muether asserts that Gordon H. Clark’s rationalistic theology tended to make mere assent the basis of faith, instead of the embracing of truth by the whole man (e.g., p. 102). Muether observes that “Clark’s failure to acknowledge the qualitative difference” between Divine and human knowledge, “collapsed (in the words of the Complaint) the Creator-creature distinction that lay at the heart of a biblical doctrine of creation.” (p. 104).
Significantly in this chapter, Muether also shows that Clark’s supporters hoped to broaden the OPC membership and make it fit more comfortably within mainline evangelicalism. He also clarifies that, though Van Til signed the Complaint against the ordination of Clark, he did not take a leading role in the controversy (p. 104). And the language of the Complaint (though it borrows from Van Til’s terminology) was not his. Indeed, Muether suggests that it could more accurately be termed “the Clark-Murray debate” (p. 105), since the esteemed John Murray was one of the main protagonists involved in the dispute.
Despite the toll the episode took on their relationship, it is gratifying to read that Van Til always held Clark in high regard (p. 101). All who still carry a torch for Clark would be well advised to read this part of the biography.
Van Til & Karl Barth
The book moves next to Karl Barth. Meuther notes that Louis Berkhof praised The New Modernism, Van Til’s warning to evangelicals against Barth’s deceptive terminology. He writes,
For Barth… the resurrection happened in a time of pure presence; it was not an event in the past (Historie) but a present manifestation of Christ’s supreme sovereignty (Geschichte) (p. 123).
Evangelicals continue to be drawn to Barth’s dynamic theology through reading him as an evangelical absentee, rather than as a neo-orthodox thinker (cf. especially p. 128). In doing so, they lightly dismiss Van Til’s thorough acquaintance with the early and latter Barth and trot out well worn—but often unsubstantiated—criticisms of Van Til’s engagements with Barth. Some even attack Van Til’s scholarship so as to protect Barth from his censure. It is doubtful that a search of the bookshelves of these evangelical defenders of Barth would uncover carefully marked up and annotated editions of Barth’s Church Dogmatics in the original German! (p. 134). Van Til was both a brilliant theologian and philosopher (though Muether is right to say that he should not be approached as a philosopher, p. 154). Those who take aim at Van Til’s assessment of Barth should perhaps pause for more self-assessment before giving their opinions.
Van Til has always attracted criticism, and certainly some of it is justified. He tended to generalize. His choice of words (precise in its own way) was often confusing, and he was sometimes given to overstatement. These traits, coupled with his unflinching orthodoxy and presuppositional approach to knowledge, guarantee that a continuous line of left-leaning evangelicals, evidentialists and fence-sitting philosophers will take pot shots at his work.
Progressives at Calvin Seminary
The sixth chapter recounts Van Til’s spats with those in the progressive wing at Calvin Seminary, including his former teacher, W.H. Jellema. Van Til regarded Jellema’s pursuance of common ground between Christian and non-Christian systems of thought as a compromise of the antithesis between “covenant keepers and covenant breakers.” The book’s attention to Van Til’s disagreements with Herman Dooyeweerd (p. 175-177) and Francis Schaeffer (p. 197-199) is well done, as is the recounting of Van Til’s isolation from the next generation of evangelicals (Henry, Carnell, and even Edmund Clowney, p. 222). It is also nice to read a clearly articulated denial that Van Til was a closet Theonomist, despite his influence on certain aspects of their work (p. 216-219).
Weaknesses of the book
Having surveyed parts of the book, is there anything else to do but join the reviewers who have already given it a ringing endorsement? I think there is. Despite its success in providing a more detailed picture of Van Til’s life and its clarifications of important disputes (especially those involving Gordon Clark and the Calvin Forum), I was disappointed with the book as a biography of Cornelius Van Til, the thinker.
The biography was disappointing on several counts. First, it is not the controversy which surrounds Van Til that makes him important, but rather his thought. Yet the book does not clearly spell out or explain his thought anywhere (perhaps the closest the author comes is on pp. 114-116, but this is far too little to go on). Some initiation into the world of Van Til’s profound insights would have made his criticisms of Clark, Buswell, Jellema and Carnell more understandable—to say nothing of his views on Barth. The criticisms Van Til received from men like Ronald Nash and Carl Henry cannot be adequately assessed, because the book gives the newcomer to Van Til nothing against which to weigh them. Van Til’s differences with Dooyeweerd are not explored (other than a quick note on p. 176 to the effect that the Amsterdam polymath rejected inerrancy and an historical Adam). These would have thrown light on the contrasts between him and Francis Schaeffer and his followers (e.g. Os Guinness, or Nancey Pearcey). Just what is “Van Til’s transcendental approach” (p. 199, emphasis mine)? We are not told. And why is his response to Dooyeweerd in Jerusalem and Athens characterized as “less effective” (p. 202)?
Meuther mentions Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith (pp. 170-171), but does not delve into its contents. This lack of substance is even more pronounced in the case of Christianity and Barthianism, which Muether calls “his magnum opus” (p. 230). Meuther claims Carl Henry thought the book did not reconsider Barth in light of “Barth’s modifications of his system” (p. 189), but he does not say whether this judgment could be sustained (I believe it can not be, without abandoning a biblically-grounded epistemology).
Again, why does the author express doubts as to the Van Tilian foundations of the counseling approaches of Jay Adams and David Powlison, or the cultural analysis of Harvie Conn, or the work of John Frame (p. 223)? Surely each of these men believed themselves to be powerfully influenced by Van Til. And what does Muether mean when speaking of “Van Til’s novelty” (p. 234)?
Muether seems to have a penchant for annulling affirmative passages. He often inverts a positive evaluation of his subject by means of a negative opinion from a critic, named or unnamed. As the book comes to its close, a clearly drawn overall assessment is predictably lacking. Muether skillfully shows us Van Til the churchman, and Van Til the gentleman. What we hardly see is Van Til the thinker.
Dr. Paul Martin Henebury (London Theological Seminary; M.T.S., M.Div., Ph.D., Tyndale Theological Seminary) is the founder/president of Veritas School of Theology and lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife, Gina, and their four children. He is a member of Mambrino Baptist Church.