Cornelius Van Til
Reformed Apologist and Churchman
Publisher: P & R Publishing
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Although Cornelius Van Til is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century he remains relatively unknown outside of Reformed circles. A number of books have been written on Van Til’s thought, yet the only full treatment of his life and ministry has been William White’s memoir of 1979. While many insights can be gleaned from White his book is largely uncritical of its subject. Thankfully, John Muether has written Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman. In this biography the author treads new ground by providing a detailed look at Van Til within the context of the church at the local, denominational and trans-denominational level. Muether’s interpretation of Van Til is well rounded and paints a portrait “warts and all.” Such historical honesty frees readers to appropriate Van Til – positively and negatively – within his immediate context of American Reformed Christianity and in the larger contexts of Christian history and contemporary thought.
John R. Muether is librarian and associate professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Muether has published a number of scholarly works including two volumes that he co-wrote with Darryl G. Hart. The first is a history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the second is an examination of Reformed worship. His Cornelius Van Til is the third volume in American Reformed Biographies which is a relatively new series edited by Hart and Sean Michael Lucas.
In a festschrift published for John Gerstner in 1976 Cornelius Van Til contributed an article entitled, “Calvin as a Controversialist.” In light of the events of Van Til’s ministry, Muether could well have subtitled his book “Cornelius as a Controversialist.” Van Til’s contribution to apologetics have rightly been understood in “Copernican” dimensions, yet it is beneficial to see that Van Til’s legacy is just as significant on an ecclesiastical spectrum. Muether has done an excellent job at exposing both of these emphases. While discussions of presuppositionalism appear in the book, they are left to the periphery. Therefore, if one wanted to develop a greater understanding of Van Til’s overall apologetic, readers should consult works by John Frame and Greg Bahnsen.
Much of what has been said of Van Til over the years is the stuff of legend. In light of this one of Muether’s most significant contributions to Van Tilian scholarship is the balanced perspective he gives to common misunderstandings. Take for instance the now infamous controversy between Van Til and Gordon Clark. While Frame has written that the debate between the two apologists was an unfortunate footnote on the career of Van Til, Muether argues that it “should be interpreted as one of his finest moments” (108) because of Van Til’s burden to maintain the purity of Christian theology within the church. Indeed, after explaining the role that John Murray had to play in critiquing Clark – and Van Til’s relatively lesser involvement – Muether suggests that the controversy could rightly be called “the Clark-Murray debate” (105). Instead of viewing Van Til in a negative light, one comes away from reading the section on Clark having learned a key pastoral insight from Van Til: the appropriate way to deal lovingly with a brother in error. Van Til sought out Clark and wanted to discuss their differences privately instead of allowing them to divide the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In this one controversy a clear example is given of Muether’s thesis that Van Til was at heart both an apologist and pastor. As an aside, Muether’s interpretation of the debate is a testimony to his mettle as an historian in that he is willing to expose some of the errors and omissions of his colleague John Frame.
A concern shared by those who read Van Til is that his writings are often obscure, dense and overabundant in philosophical language. What is interesting to learn is that Van Til was all too aware of his inability to write well. Muether explains: “Van Til believed that he lacked both the power of expression and the physical stamina to write as others did, and he frequently mocked his lack of productivity as ‘a lot of noise and no results’” (142). While recognising some of the difficulties of Van Til’s style, Muether sees that Van Til was too hard in his self-evaluation. One only has to consider Van Til’s legacy as a church leader as proof of the clarity of his scholarship. Van Til’s influential critique of Karl Barth, for instance, owed much to his ability to communicate to evangelicals the danger of Barthianism’s philosophical underpinnings.
As an historian Muether makes good use of primary sources such as letters written by and to Van Til that are housed in the library of Westminster Theological Seminary. He provides background information to many of the positive and negative relationships that Van Til had with key evangelicals such as James Daane, Herman Dooyeweerd, Herman Hoeksema, William Jellema and R. B. Kuiper. One comes away from reading this book believing that what was just read is an accurate portrayal of the events as they happened in Van Til’s time.
For those interested in the nexus of the academy and the church, Cornelius Van Til is a necessary read. Likewise, it is necessary to consult as the authority on Van Til’s life and ministry. The bibliographic essay at the end of the book should prove to be very helpful for those who want to continue in their study of this great Reformed theologian. Cornelius Van Til taught a generation of students to take every thought captive to Christ – John Muether provides insight into how Van Til lived out this philosophy in the life of the church.