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CORNELIUS VAN TIL


MEET THE REAL CORNELIUS VAN TIL: Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) was professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, the school supplying pastors for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in America. Although he is well-known for developing the Presuppositional approach to biblical epistemology, Van Til was no ivory tower philosopher. Professor Ron Nash -- a theological opponent -- relates the time when he dropped by to chat with the aged Van Til and Van Tilís young pastor, fresh out of seminary. "Iím available for visitation at the hospital this afternoon if you need me, pastor," said Van Til, always ready to add "shoe leather" to his theology. One of his former students eulogized Van Til like this: "A young family came to live with him in his old home...The last time I saw him (in June 1985), he was pushing one of their children in a stroller and singing gospel hymns. On April 17, 1987, Cornelius Van Til, one of the towering Christian intellectuals of the twentieth century -- who could confound scholars and sing to children -- joined Ďall the saints who from their labors rest,í and now hymns Godís praise in heavenís choir. "Van Til "wanted to be a farmer....Instead he became one of the foremost Christian apologists of our time," wrote David E. Kucharsky in Christianity Today.
Greg Bahnsen, Van Tilís Apologetic (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1998), p. 20.
"At the Beginning, God: An Interview with Cornelius Van Til," Christianity Today 22 (December 30, 1977): 414.

Historical context. The church in the 20th Century lapsed into a state of weakness, retreat, and irrelevance via the corrupting influence of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. Even the evangelical wing of the church had been hamstrung by pietistic dogma, which reduced the Scripture to little more than a private devotional manual. The 20th century church in many ways resembled the church of Sardis, which Christ chastised as having "the name of being alive, and you are dead." (Rev. 3:1). At mid-century, a grassroots movement emerged which inaugurated a gradual return to the law of God as the standard for every arena of life. This movement was built on the groundbreaking work of Cornelius Van Til in the field of biblical epistemology, the study of the origins of knowledge: "how do we know what we know?".

Summary of Van Til's teaching. It has been observed that two general approaches to epistemology dominated the church for the first 2 millennia: 1) an empirical approach, and 2) a rationalistic approach. Both systems ask the natural man to evaluate and sit in judgment on the commands of God: the first in light of external evidence and the second in light of logical consistency or logical thought forms. In the process they elevated the authority of evidences or logic above that of the Bible.

By contrast, Van Til reintroduced a third, radically biblical approach, which challenges the unbeliever's presumptuous commitment to thinking autonomously. Instead of elevating the unbeliever to the position of a supposedly neutral judge over God and His Word the unbeliever is made the defendant. Instead of "you be the judge", the issue to which the apologist returns again and again is, "what's your excuse for unbelief?". The former was Satan's approach to Eve, the latter was God's approach to Adam. Rather than assuming a common ground in reason, which has in reality been darkened by the Fall, the presuppositional approach assumes the only point of contact to be the image of God in man. All men innately recognize their kinship with God, although they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Although he wrote nearly 30 books, Van Til's work is perhaps best summarized in Defense of the Faith (1955)(51) and in works of disciples like Larry Pratt's, Every Thought Captive (1979)(52).

Implications for subsequent history. "A Christian theistic philosophy, following in the footsteps of Van Til's work, can develop a world and life view which can unfold the law of God for every sphere of being. Philosophy, economics, history, political science, art, agriculture, science, and all things elseÖ." (53). At the turn of the century, the full impact of Van Til's teaching was only beginning to be felt. Although Van Til limited himself to the field of apologetics and was amillennial in outlook, many of his students went on to develop the full-orbed implications of his work. After a century of suppression, an optimistic, post-millennial eschatology reappeared and began to take root. A thriving home-school movement sprang up to challenge the state's educational monopoly, many of the parent-teachers never having heard the name of Cornelius Van Til. Literally hundreds of books and countless articles and papers were written developing the implications of the new approach to knowledge. The church awaits the blessing of God to see these ideas worked out into the culture of the 21st Century.

Biblical analysis. Presuppositionalism deals with the unbeliever as though the Bible is the ultimate standard by which to evaluate all truth. It does not, however, ask the natural man to accept this authority dogmatically (fideism). Rather, it argues transcendentally and indirectly that apart from the biblical worldview, it is impossible to know anything. After the pattern of Proverbs 26:4-5, the approach takes the form of 1) an argument by truth and 2) an argument by folly. The argument by truth is a forthright presentation of the biblical perspective: "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself." If the argument by truth is rejected, we turn to the argument by folly which points to the inconsistencies of the unbelieving system and asks the unbeliever to justify his allegiance to inconsistency: "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." The unbeliever is on trial, not God.

Corrective or Prescriptive Actions: The presuppositional approach calls for a sometimes radical shift in the Christian's thinking, away from attempts to "prove" the Bible and toward an approach that challenges the unbeliever to justify his natural tendency to set himself up as the judge of all truth. This approach actually simplifies the task of witnessing, eliminating the need to come up with clever responses to all the artful dodges of the unbeliever.