In the book Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchmen, John R. Muether presents an interesting and highly readable introductory volume to the life of the eminent Reformed Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til. While Van Til is most well known for his apologetic methodology, which came to be known as “Presuppositionalism” he was also an ardent churchman as evidenced by his early devotion to the Christian Reformed Church and his longtime fidelity to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Van Til was born in the Netherlands, where he lived until immigrating to Northern Indiana at the age of 10. Coming from a large Dutch farming family; Van Til grew up tending fields and feeding farm animals; a vocation he would love and long for his entire life. Many believed he would work the ground as a successful farmer; but the call of God toward the ministry led him away from agriculture. An academic career flourished at Calvin College and later Princeton Seminary and University where he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy. After a brief stint as a Pastor in Michigan, he eventually taught at Princeton until the more conservative wing of the faculty departed, led by Gresham Machen, to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Machen, who's charisma suited him well for founding a seminary, initially recruited Van Til to Westminster as he saw early on Van Til's unique and insightful intelligence. In many ways Van Til assumed the mantle of leadership for Westminster after Machen's surprising death in 1937. But Van Til, for all of his brilliance, lacked Machen's leadership skills.
Much of the book deals with Van Til's academic and theological career, highlighted in the latter sections by the numerous controversies he found himself embroiled in as he sought to defend the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” On one hand, we can admire his zeal to defend the truth against any attempt to dilute it, major or minor. But in another sense, Van Til occasionally comes across as a theological nit-picker who found fault in any and all; even those with whom he had vast amounts of agreement with. His famous and longstanding critique of Swiss theologian Karl Barth in many ways defined him for much of the spiritual world. Van Til railed against Barth's neo-orthodox theology, which he said served to water down the gospel and deceive many American Christians. Van Til also was well known for his role in opposing Gordon Clark, a fellow reformed philosopher whom he considered a friend.
Van Til also frequently butted heads over the proper way to defend the faith. His presuppositional apologetics led him to publicly disagree with many of his brothers in Christ and more than a few of his former students. He was unashamedly reformed in his theology and believed that reformed theology deserved an equally reformed apologetic. Therefore any attempts by Christian apologists or evangelists that sought an initial appeal to sinful man's rationality was sure to draw Van Til's ire. The natural man could not see the things of the Spirit; but he knew the one true God; though he suppressed this knowledge. Van Til, then, sought to point out the inconsistency of this viewpoint and remind man that God was the legitimate staring place in his thinking.
Through his four decades of service to Westminster Seminary; Van Til never wavered in his staunch beliefs. His influence had ripple effects throughout American Christianity, not only through his teaching, but also through his writing. In addition to this he eschewed attempts by his denomination to merge with other Reformed groups and he bristled at more broad thoughts of ecumenical alliances.
To a much lesser extent, Van Til's private family life is presented in the book. A devoted husband and father, Van Til and his wife Rena, always longed to be closer to their family in the Midwest and to reconnect with their Dutch heritage. In many ways this tempted Van Til to seriously consider the numerous overtures from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan; yet he always eventually turned them down. His life's work would be played out at Westminster in Philadelphia and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as he carried on the torch of Machen, his mentor.
Van Til outlived both his wife and his only son Earl and died in 1987 at the age of 91. His writings and thought are still considered quite revolutionary as he sought to drive the reformed church to an unbridled consistency. Indeed his legacy lives on and is very much honored in this volume. Muether shows a clear admiration for his subject, yet is not afraid to point out some of Van Til's faults; many of which Van Til himself also admitted. This book was eminently readable and a joy to take in. The author does a fine job of presenting, what could be, dense theological subject matter in a very understandable format. And in so doing provides the church with an excellent biographical study of one of it's most interesting apologists and churchmen.