Dr. Van Til at Ninety Old Guardian of a New Apologetics
The Indiana Farm-boy
Cornelius Van Til was born on May 3, 1895, at Grootegast in the Province of Groningen, The Netherlands. In 1905 his family migrated to the Highland-Munster area of Indiana, near the Illinois state line, about 25 miles from Chicago.
In a family of eight sons, Van Til had to work on the farm for a number of years. His father, who helped found a Christian school in the community, had a strong Christian influence on his growing son, who finally decided to prepare for the gospel ministry in the Christian Reformed church.
After the beginning of the first World War he went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to study at Calvin College. Describing his education there, Van Til wrote, "The faculty of the college taught us high school preparatory work as well as proper college subjects. While we were in the 'prep school' and in the college, one of the seminary professors taught us Bible history and later, Reformed doctrine one hour per week. We were taught Greek as well as Latin in the 'prep school' and Hebrew as well as German and French in the college" (p. 6 of an unpublished manuscript entitled, "Toward a Reformed Apologetics").
He obtained his B.A. degree in 1922 while he included some seminary work in his last year of college. (Like King David, from a family of eight sons) Cornelius was the first of the family to graduate from college. He went on to develop into (in the words of Meredith G. Kline) "the prince of 20th Century Christian apologetics."
Deeply attached to his Christian home and Christian Reformed Church, he found it a difficult decision to transfer to Princeton Seminary in the fall of 1922. His study at Princeton, however, brought him into contact with Dr. Machen, who gradually changed the direction of his ministry and service.
Dr. Machen, the "Older Guardian"
In May of 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick had preached his sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" bringing the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy to a new peak of intensity. Dr. Machen contributed many articles to The Presbyterian to combat this modernist movement, and in 1923 published his Christianity and Liberalism.
In the meanwhile, Van Til received the Th.B. degree in 1924 and a Th.M. in systematic theology in 1925. He married Rena Klooster (born July 24, 1895), an Indiana neighbor and girl friend for many years. Then he continued his philosophical studies under Archibald Allan Bowman from Scotland, at Princeton University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1927 with a dissertation on the subject, God and the Absolute. He accepted a call and was ordained as the pastor of Spring Lake Christian Reformed Church in western Michigan.
While Van Til pursued his graduate studies at Princeton, Dr. Machen (1881-1937) was being recommended by the Board of Princeton Seminary as professor of apologetics to succeed William Benton Greene, Jr. (1854-1928). However, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1926 refused to approve the appointment and decided to investigate the seminary instead.
As a result, Dr. Machen withdrew his acceptance in June, 1928 and opened the way for the appointment of Van Til as an instructor in apologetics for one year. Machen wrote his mother that "Van Til is excellent material from which a professor might ultimately be made" (p. 437 of J. Gresham Machen, the biography by Ned B. Stonehouse.) In fact, Van Til "was so extraordinarily successful in his instruction that the Board elected him (as full professor, to the Chair of Apologetics) the following spring." Yet he resigned with Machen when Princeton was reorganized in 1929 and began his work as Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary.
New Guardians of the Old Orthodoxy
The founding of Westminster Seminary at Philadelphia in the fall of 1929 changed the lives of Machen and Van Til and many others in the years to come, years that paralleled the Great Depression and the New Deal.
Machen was deeply interested in foreign missions. Some of the graduates of the new seminary were not accepted by the Board of Foreign missions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. With the publication of Rethinking Missions in 1932 and the Pearl Buck case in 1933, Machen was drawn more and more into a concern for truly biblical foreign missions. On June 27, 1933 the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions was organized with Machen as its president.
As a result of this challenge to the Church's official agencies, Machen was brought to trial and suspended from the ministry on March 29, 1935. The Constitutional Covenant Union was formed on June 27 to preserve true Presbyterianism at whatever cost. A year later, on June 11, 1936 that Union dissolved itself in order to form what is now named the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. As a close coworker with Machen, Van Til became a minister in the new denomination.
In the following years, by the grace of God, both the seminary and the church have stood up well, particularly with the help of the New Apologetics of Van Til, who became "the old guardian" of the faith. In 1975 a new classroom and chapel building at Westminster were dedicated as Van Til Hall in a tribute to him and his half century of labors as guardian and watchman for the faith.
Dr. Van Til's first love was the pastoral ministry. After a year as pastor, he asked for a leave of absence to teach at Princeton, but returned to the pastorate after resigning from Princeton. Only very reluctantly did he accept the invitation and challenge from Dr. Machen to join with another Christian Reformed minister, the Rev. R.B. Kuiper (1886-1966), in coming to Westminster.
The young professor soon developed a love for teaching and for his students. He continued to preach from time to time. In fact, he has been one of the most powerful preachers of the gospel during those years. His preaching was both biblical and practical.
With a Dutch background and a training at Princeton, Dr. Van Til in his teaching uniquely combined the best of these two traditions and made them more consistent with the self-attesting Christ of the Scriptures. In the early thirties he began to develop a series of syllabi for his courses. These came to include The Metaphysics of Apologetics, Christian Apologetics, Evidences, The Psychology of Religion, and Theology of Crisis. Thus a new apologetics was developed at Westminster, and came to full expression in the volume, In Defense of the Faith. Van Til is convinced that the Reformed faith alone does anything like full justice to the cultural and missionary mandates of Christ.
A Continuing Defense of Reformed Truth
As Dr. Van Til was developing this Christ-centered apologetics, he discovered that there was a group of professors at the Free University of Amsterdam seeking to work out a truly consistent Christian and Reformed philosophy. Thus he not only read the works of H.Th. Vollenhoven (b.1882) and Herman Dooyeweerd (b.1894), but encouraged many of his students to pursue graduate studies under these men after the second world war. One of these students was H. Evan Runner, who began teaching at Calvin College in 1951 and in turn sent many of his students to the Free University.
During the 1969-1970 school year, an important project began to take shape under the initiative of a former student of Van Til. Edward R. Geehan did his graduate work at Utrecht in the Netherlands and edited a book to honor Van Til on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday and fortieth anniversary as professor at Westminster. Jerusalem and Athens, when published in 1971, immediately produced lively discussions about the theology and apologetics of Dr. Van Til. In the volume among other items from his pen was a short piece by Van Til called "My Credo."
At the end of the school year in 1972 Dr. Van Til retired from full-time teaching, though he continued to serve for a while as a part-time lecturer. In a pamphlet, "Toward a Reformed Apologetics," he indicated the chief purpose he had in his writings. His aim throughout had been "to show that it is the historic Reformed faith alone that can in any adequate way present the claims of Christ to men for their salvation." The pamphlet displayed the pastoral passion and compassion of an "old guardian" for Christ and His church.
In Jerusalem and Athens, Dooyeweerd contributed a long letter to which Van Til gave a lengthy response, pointing out that in his later writings Dooyeweerd began to waver in his commitment to Scripture and to fall back to some sort of neutrality. Van Til concluded his response by saying,
I hope too that this interchange of ideas between us may help others, after us, to listen more humbly to the words of the self-attesting Christ of Scripture in order that they may better bring the word of truth to all men everywhere — all to the praise of our triune God. Soon we shall meet at Jesus' feet" (p.127).
Van Til closed his pamphlet on Reformed Apologetics with some retractions and clarifications. "I beg forgiveness of those whom I have hurt..." (p.24) — the true Christian humility of an "old guardian." He expressed the hope for the future that he "may be given grace to be more true to the Christ of the Scriptures" (p.26). May the triune God and the self-attesting Christ of the Scriptures continue to guard this "old guardian" and faithful servant of the Lord.