Muether on Van Til: A Review

John Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).

Audio Interview with John Muether

It is hard to overstate the influence of Cornelius Van Til on confessional and conservative Reformed theology since the early 20th century. I’ll use myself as an an example because I think that what I experienced is fairly representative of what others experienced who became Reformed in the 20th century. My entire experience of Reformed theology is completely intertwined with the work of Cornelius Van Til. When I first entered a Reformed congregation in 1980 his name was one of the first I remember hearing. My pastor, Vern Pollema, was his devoted student. I think I read his Case for Calvinism and The Defense of the Faith as an undergraduate. I am sure I would not have survived my undergraduate education at a large state university without the influence of Van Til on our college group which was strongly oriented to Reformed apologetics. When, during that same period, a member of the philosophy dept was converted and when he became Reformed and began to attend our college group he gave a series of apologetic lectures that drew sizable crowds to our little group. He defended the faith from a Van Tillian approach. Hearing a professional philosopher set forth a militant defense of Christianity which began unapologetically with Christian theism as its starting point, was a seminal point in my education.

I chose to attend Westminster Seminary California because my friend Chuck Hill, who was a couple years ahead of me, reported that I would learn Van Til there and do so in the sunshine! As a pastor in Kansas City, when I came into contact with a large fundamentalist creation science society there I was asked to give lectures on apologetics and I endeavored to wean them from their rationalist approach to apologetics and to introduce them to Van Til. In the years since 1980 I have read most of the major books on Van Til and I have read a good bit of Van Til himself. Those students who have had me as teacher in our Christian Mind course and in even in historical courses where the connection to Van Til might not seem as direct, will tell you that Clark frequently exhorts the students to “read Van Til” (CVT).

Nevertheless, anyone who has read CVT can testify that he is not always as easy to read as he might be and thus a good introduction is useful. The other introductions to Van Til have their virtues. White’s earlier, hagiographical biography of CVT is fun and edifying and initiates the newcomer into some famous CVT stories. Halsey, Pratt, and Rushdoony are clear and generally easy to understand. Bahnsen communicates the main ideas while mostly resisting the urge to make over CVT into a theonomist. Frame is helpful in some ways and is reasonably clear about where he parts company with Van Til.

Most volumes on CVT, however, are written by those with more or less purely philosophical and theological interests. The result usually is that Van Til is usually reduced to a talking head. In a way this is appropriate because, in his syllabi, CVT often did the same to his subjects. Muether, however, has drawn the reader into Van Til’s own world in order to help the reader understand CVT on his own terms. This is no dewey-eyed portrait, two-dimensional, medieval stick figure. Here we have a portrait, painted by a sympathetic but skilled and critical historian, of CVT as human being in his social-historical context and perhaps most importantly, in his ecclesiastical context.

We live in late modernity, a post-Christian time when most of the culture is or seems to be hostile to the Christian faith. Thus, apologists are highly valued and most necessary. CVT made a great and important contribution to the defense of the faith, chiefly by defending it in a way that is consistent with the faith itself. Some other approaches to defending the faith do not really defend the Christian, Trinitarian faith as much as generic theism. Other approaches attempt to defend Christianity by trying to make it seem reasonable or probable to modern autonomous man. Van Til defended Christianity come to its own. He defended the Reformed faith and he did it as a Christian. As simple as that sounds it was fairly revolutionary when he began to propose it.

This volume is interested in that revolution but it is just as interested in the apologist himself. There is a sort of mythos that surrounds Old Westminster and Old Princeton that works against telling the history of those places and people. Because of the aura that surrounds them it is easy to see them as saints but harder to see them as flesh and blood people. Perhaps the best thing about this volume is that Muether succeeds in humanizing Van Til.

He does that by deliberately setting CVT not only in his social-historical context but by situating him in his ecclesiastical context. First the former. Van Til was not born in the USA. He was an immigrant raised who came to the USA and who had to learn English after he arrived. He was raised in, what is to many of us, a relatively unfamiliar world of cultural-linguistic isolation. In many ways he was raised in a pre-modern, pre-technical world. There probably was not much difference between the immigrant community in which he grew up in Indiana and the Netherlands in which he was born.

Van Til not only adopted a new country, as it adopted him, but he also adopted a new church. Raised in the Christian Reformed Church, by virtue of his call to WTS, he became, as much as a Reformed Dutchman can, an American Presbyterian. Muether traces his roots to the Afscheiding (separating) of 1834 and the sense of alienation from the mainline that necessarily accompanied that separation. Van Til was not raised in the mainline. That background and inherited memory of the suffering of his forebears was a sort of preparation for the the suffering that would be entailed by his identification with another separating body, the Orthodox Presbyterians.

Muether does a very good job of telling the story of Van Til’s adaptation of his mixed theological heritage: Kuyper, Bavinck, Vos, and Warfield. Just as he represented a synthesis of the Dutch Reformed and American Presbyterian church traditions, he also synthesized continental and American Reformed theology. Thus, though his groundbreaking work in apologetics should not be underplayed neither should it be overplayed. In many respects, CVT did not see himself as an innovator. He was the heir of streams of Reformed orthodoxy inherited by those four giants and mediated to Reformed theology around the turn of the 20th century.

Van Til was “ahead of the curve” in diagnosing the fundamental weakness of non-confessional evangelicalism. In the 1930s he was warning the Reformed community about the necessity of an antithesis not only with unbelief but also with revivalist evangelicalism. In the current discussions about what it is to be Reformed there is an adjective that well describes CVT that also should describe genuine Reformed theology, piety, and practice: confessinalism. Van Til was the original warrior children of Machen.

Some final thoughts. WTS (Phila) is a large institution today but for most of his career, WTS was a small to medium-sized school. That fact makes Van Til’s influence even more remarkable. He did not have the platform that he would have had at Princeton or some other institution. By leaving Princeton he faced potential obscurity. He also identified with a small denomination and to do so he had to walk away from his church. Today Van Til’s original church, the CRC is a little less than 10 times larger than the OPC. It is also interesting to learn that CVT often struggled to write and to communicate in a way that could be understood by those who did not share his background. Van Til was not a myth. This volume is a worthy introduction to a remarkably useful flesh-and-blood minister of God’s Word (VDM).