Augustine – Calvin – Van Til
When Dr. Cornelius Van Til was eighty-eight years old, I asked him, "Now that you are old, what do you believe to be the most important thing in life?" I had expected to hear something like, "Spending time with my family and friends," or some such answer that would focus on the blessed but often overlooked and undervalued graces of God to His people. Instead, without hesitation or consideration, he cocked his forearm and punctuated his answer with his index finger: "To be FAITHFUL to the end." And that he was.
Faithful from the Beginning to End
To the very end of his life, Van Til was a man who ate, lived and breathed the Word of God. He was often unable, due to his years, to keep to a specific subject in conversation. He was prone to wander. Yet even his wandering was in terms of the Word. He would often quote verse and chapter from Joshua or Revelation in the middle of discussions. When he was semi-conscious, he could be heard uttering the Lord's Prayer in Dutch. Faithful to the end.
But I suggest that the unique contribution of this man of God to the Church of Jesus Christ was his call to be faithful from the beginning. Van Til's greatness can be seen in his attempt to be consistent all along the route. He dealt in systems of thought. This accounts for the difficulty many have in understanding him. You may pick up any book by Van Til and find on any page that he is not requiring his readers to accept one or two particular points of doctrine. Rather, the reader is asked to swallow the WHOLE truth, as God has revealed it in His Word and as the church has understood it in its Reformed confessions, and then, to apply it as it is, without modification. Consequently, just like the Word of God, and (not coincidentally) just like the Reformed creeds, any part of Van Til's apologetic implies the rest. It is an understanding of the faith found in the Bible, insisted upon by Augustine, systematized and developed by Calvin, and presented to the unbeliever in a wholly consistent form by Van Til. Faithful from beginning to end.
The Gospel Message must Determine the Method
Van Til reminded us that there is a necessary and inseparable connection between our message and our method. Are we telling unbelievers that they are basically OK but need to add Christ to their lives to be complete? If so, the apologist might assume an integrity of thought on the part of the unbeliever and would try to persuade him to use his "impartial" reasoning faculties to examine the "evidence" for our particularly Christian claims, hoping that the unbeliever would come to see the overwhelming probability of the truth that belongs to the Christian faith alone, and finally, accept Christ as his personal Savior. But our faith is not "very probably true" it is absolutely, certainly true, and perfectly capable of proving itself to be true against any and all rivals.
Therefore, "Uncle Case" exposes the error of this "blockhouse method" (of assuming intellectual neutrality, then "proving" probability of God, of Bible as true, etc.). That mistaken method is principally consistent with Roman Catholicism and not Reformed faith, despite its good intentions and despite the imprimatur given to it by the able men of Princeton, most notably, B.B. Warfield. For Van Til had learned from Abraham Kuyper that the antithesis between light and dark is complete. One may not presuppose the impartiality of the unbeliever's reasoning, for this carries with it a host of implications which would actually undermine our ability to bring him to faith in the Christ of Scripture. Besides, the Scripture clearly says that unbelievers are not neutral. If that were the case, their unbelief would be "God's fault" for not making Himself clear. No, the problem with neutral man is not what he doesn't know, it's what he does know yet suppresses (Romans 1:18).
It was just here that Van Til corrected Kuyper who, in recognizing a total antithesis, wrongly concluded that there was no point of contact and that there could, therefore, be no fruitful reasoning with him. Dr. Van Til relied on the ineradicable image of God in man as that which gains entrance for the Word. "Deep down in your heart you know very well that what I have said is true." (Why I Believe in God, p. 18) Van Til's method would then continue to confront the unbeliever with even his epistemological sin, in which he has enlisted reason as a servant in his rebellion against the Most High.
Dr. Greg Bahnsen (Van Til's choice to succeed him at Westminster Seminary, though his wishes have not yet been honored) outlines Van Til's procedure as follows:
- We deal in WORLDVIEWS (not a piece-meal approach)
- We conduct an INTERNAL CRITIQUE OF OPPONENT'S SYSTEM
a) Logic impossible on their principles
b) Generalization of scientific laws impossible on their foundation
c) Universally binding moral precepts impossible on their presuppositions
- We conduct an EXTERNAL CRITIQUE of their system.
Their worldview neither fits "the facts," nor can it account for them. In other words, they don't really believe it. They don't even live like they believe it.
- CHRISTIAN THEISM ALONE JUSTIFIES KNOWLEDGE, ETHICS, ONTHOLOGY.
The Church of Jesus Christ is greatly indebted to Augustine and Calvin for going to the Bible and explicating just what faith in it as the Word of God implies for systematics, for teaching us our reasonable faith. We also owe a debt to Dr. Cornelius Van Til for showing us what we can do with it. Through him, God has given us the key to understand that we need never betray our theology in bringing the gospel to the world, nor do we need to retreat and keep our faith to ourselves (which amounts to the same thing). The transcendental apologetic of Dr. Van Til takes the Triune God of Scripture as the INDISPENSABLE presupposition of any and all intelligible predication. It avoids the Scylla of rationalism and The Charybdis of mysticism-fideism. This vigorous and potent method of defending the faith once for all delivered, enables us to consistently believe all that our confessions teach, and to do all that our King has commanded. With the Bible in our hand we need never grovel for intellectual respectability. The confessing Reformed Christian ALONE possesses it, by the grace of God.
Therefore we need never compromise. We need only to trust and obey, to be faithful, beginning to end, like Uncle Case, whom we'll sorely miss.