During the 1960’s my late father-in-law was studying for the ministry in seminary. As to whether or not he had Dr. Cornelius Van Til for a class is uncertain. In among the books he gave me was a set of unpublished class notes from an Apologetics course taught by Dr. Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1963. Over the years I have enjoyed reading these notes and have found them to be so insightful. Hence most of what will be shared in this blogpost today derives from those notes.
When we speak of the term “apologetics”, we are referring to the defense and communication of the Christian faith amidst its opponents. The point of today’s post is to understand how theology (the study of God and the things of God from the Bible) relates to the defense and promotion of the Christian faith.
Who was Cornelius Van Til?
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter Ewell, introduces Cornelius Van Til in ints article on his life and work: “Reformed theologian and philosopher. Van Til was born in Grootegast, Holland, on May 3, 1895, and moved with his family to Highland, Indiana, in 1905. He attended Calvin Prepatory School, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary (all in Grand Rapids, Michigan). Later on in the same article, Van Til’s main contribution is noted: “He vigorously maintains that Christian thought has no parallel in secular thought and that our fundamental presuppositions govern the whole of our system, whether we know it or not.”
So what are presuppositions? In a nutshell, presuppositions deal with the most fundamental foundations and assumptions underlying any given worldview. Presuppositions represent what we “presuppose” about fundamental issues such as “how do we know?” and “what is real?” and “does God exist, and if so, what kind of God?”, as well as other key issues. In Van Til’s scheme, the apologist’s strategy is to help people understand their own presuppositions. The second stage then is to communicate the presuppositions of the Biblical worldview (or for Van Til, a specifically Reformed Christian worldview). The third phase aims to show why Christian presuppositions are the only acceptable ones. Perhaps what is most intriguing about Van Til’s approach is that in the course of the apologetic task, non-Christians are actually shown that in order to hold to their worldview, they have to borrow from the Christian worldview!
The article in the “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology then notes concerning this feature of Van Til’s thought: The Christian begins with the presuppositions of the ontological Trinity (that is, God in His Triune existence apart from creation), the doctrine of creation and the infallibility of scripture. The secular or non-Christian mind begins with a false view of God, a vague sort of pantheism and the autonomy of human reason.”
At this point it must be understood that Dr. Van Til’s system was not always received warmly by his fellow theologians. Certainly there are areas in Van Til’s thought with which this author would not agree, however there is much to commend when it comes to defending the Christian faith and communicating it in our Post-modern world. The article then concludes: “Van Til’s significance lies in his ability to penetrate the falsity of secular thinking and force the believer to go back to the beginning by affirming the fundamental postulates of the Christian faith.”
How Christian theology is to be understoood and applied in defense of the Christian faith
With a brief introduction to Dr. Cornelius Van Til, we can now approach his method for using theology in defense of the Christian faith. What follows is an abbreviated excerpt from Cornelius VanTil’s unpublished class notes on “Apologetics”, mentioned above.
To begin, he describes how various theological disciplines are related in what he terms: “theological encyclopedia”: “These disciplines are all centered about the Bible because there is nothing in the universe anyone can know about unless they take the Bible into account. There are first of all the Biblical departments dealing with the Old and New Testaments respectively…dealing with the original languages, exegesis and biblical theology. The specific truths of Christianity must be defended as soon as they are stated.” When Van Til speaks of “Biblical Theology”, he is referring to that particular discipline that considers the major themes that weave their way through all 66 books of the Bible.
Dr. Van Til writes on: “Then comes systematic theology which takes all the truths brought to light from Scripture by the biblical studies and forms them into one original whole.” In the discipline of systematic theology, one takes the fruits of labor in Biblical theology and begins to lay out in “systematic” order how the Bible fits together. Systematic theology attempts to communicate the Christian faith from scripture in terms that interact with current culture and attempts to answer questions raised by the Bible for eventual application, which leads to Dr. Van Til’s next point, practical theology.
Notice what Dr. Van Til states concerning this third vital discipline: “In practical theology the matter of preaching the Word is taken up. Here too defense must be coupled with positive statement.” When Dr. Van Til expresses his thoughts about practical theology, he is concerned with that discipline that takes theology out of the abstract and puts it into the concrete world. Theory becomes practice and “what I believe” (i.e Biblical and Systematic theology) is communicated in practical theology by the phrase: “how then shall we live”. Dr. Van Til’s entire method is not only concerned with defending the Christian faith amidst current thought, but also ensuring that the theological conclusions drawn in all three above-mentioned disciplines are on track.
For Dr. Van Til, the discipline that ensures that Christians are not going into left field is the field of historical theology or the study of church history. Dr. Van Til notes: “then church history takes up the story as to how this preaching of the Word has fared throughout the ages. Have those to whom the preaching and teaching of the Word was entrusted brought it faithfully…have men readily received it when it was preached faithfully? Such questions as these will be asked in church history.”
Then as a matter of drawing a close to explaining how the study of theology relates to the defense of the Christian faith (i.e apologetics), Van Til states: “this really completes the story of the Christian encyclopedia.”
An illustration of how one Christian thinker put Dr. Van Til’s thought into practice
Perhaps the greatest communicator of Van Til’s ideas was the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen. Dr. Bahnsen utilized Van Til’s approach in his debates with Atheists by evoking one of Van Til’s most powerful arguments: the “transcedental argument for God’s existence”. Dr. Bahnsen’s use of this argument appealed to the very laws of logic, mathematics and reason as the “proofs” for not merely the existence of a generic Monotheistic God, but the particular Triune God of the Bible. In short, the very fact that you and I can have a conversation and use laws of logic in understanding one another proves the existence of the God of the Bible, since He is the Creator of the laws of logic. I would encourage readers to view the classic debate between the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen and his opponent, athiest Dr. Gordon Stein at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anGAazNCfdY
This brief post about Dr. Cornelius Van Til and his method of using theology in defense of the Christian faith has hopefully been useful for the reader. I would encourage readers out there to consider reading more of the wonderful insights of Dr. Van Til on matters pertaining to apologetics, theology and practical Christian living. As a final thought, here are some reliable websites featuring his writings and ideas: