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Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (American Reformed Biographies) Hardcover – March 30, 2008
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"John Muether does a masterful job of tracing the personal history of this father of presuppositionalism. He also shows the inextricable link between Van Tils own call as a minister of the gospel and his task of training men for gospel ministry to be self-conscious in their apologetic method. As Muether weaves together the various strands of Van Tils life and career, one can readily see, in a way not clearly seen before, that it was Reformed theology, and not philosophy, that shaped Van Tils work as a Christian apologist. I could not put this book down." --K. Scott Oliphint, professor of apologetics and systematic theology, Westminster Theological Seminary
"Highly interesting and engaging. Particularly helpful is how Muether sets Van Tils work in the context of contemporary academic and especially ecclesiastical debates. He presents many new angles on Van Tils life that promise to enrich our appreciation and evaluation of him." --David VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics, Westminster Seminary California
"An outstanding introduction to the life and thought of Westminster Seminarys premier apologist. Muether writes with the spirit of Van Tils apologetic: suaviter in modo, fortiter in regentle in persuasion, powerful in substance. Read and be persuaded by the powerful impact of Van Tils gentle yet confrontational blend of vigorous thought, gracious service, and Presbyterian churchmanship. This is essential reading for understanding Van Tils unique and creative integration of the best of the Dutch Reformed tradition with the strengths of American Presbyterianism, which gave birth to presuppositionalism and continues to energize interest in worldview analysis." --Peter A. Lillback, president, Westminster Theological Seminary
About the Author
John R. Muether (MAR, Westminster Theological Seminary) is librarian and associate professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. The coauthor of four volumes, Muether has served on the Harvard Divinity School library staff and has been librarian at Western Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He has served on the editorial board of Regeneration Quarterly and on the board of directors of Mars Hill Audio. He is historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves on that denominations Christian Education Committee.
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Muether wants the reader to be clear: Van Til's apologetics and his theology cannot be separated from his life as a churchman. His ecclesiology drove his work, and his apologetic is not an apologetic for general theism, or even for general evangelical Christianity, but is firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition inasmuch as the Reformed tradition is rooted in Scripture.
I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Van Til the apologist or Van Til, man of the church.
Despite the wide influence of Van Til: the entire OPC, Greg Bahnsen and John Frame's ministries, and anticipating, as scholars now note, elements of a postmodern, non-foundationalism--Van Til has lacked biographers, objective ones anyway.
Muether does a good job in describing the early Van Til (hereafter CVT). He places CVT in his Dutch context, an element indispensable for understanding the later contexts. I was particularly impressed with his handling of CVT's early farm life. He really did capture the essence of life on the farm.
Muether covers the Clark controversy (defending CVT's defense of the incomprehensibility of God), the Barth controversy (Barth was really a revived liberalism), and the Evangelical controversy (see the nonsense that is any evangelical church today).
A FEW QUALIFICATIONS
Muether rightly noticed the connection between CVT and the theonomists. CVT was NOT a theonomists, but--as Muether grudgingly hints--theonomists have been the most vocal and militant and consistent Van Tillians.
While CVT was a Vosian amillennialist, if Vos was really an amillennialist, he did endorse Greg Bahnsen's explicitly postmillennial tape series on Revelation.
This book was good and well-written. The scholarship was competent and the writing style was fluid.
But, similar to my experience with the Dabney volume in this series which I read a few years ago, I finished it feeling less drawn to its subject than before I started.
I am more impressed than ever by Dr. Van Til's commendable traits: his constancy, his discipline, his wide-ranging knowledge. And I remain convinced of the basic rightness of his 'presuppositional' model for Reformed theology. But in these pages I learned that this man was much harsher, divisive, judgmental, and narrow than I previously imagined. The portrait is one of a man who sees all of life as theological combat, and almost everyone, even the most conservative Reformed colleagues, as enemies. He seemed to operate much more out of fear of any diversity of opinion, more than a holy longing for engagement with brothers.
I am familiar with Muether's other historical works. While I appreciate his clear writing style, and his thorough research, I am not very surprised that he celebrates as virtuous some of Van Til's most tragic characteristics.
A few random thoughts:
* Did not know the extent to which Van Til had such a wideranging audience among elites who disagreed with him, but respected and listened. This was much truer early on, as van Til's extreme rigidity and his unwillingness to treat his opponents as fairly as he could have, seems to diminished the patience of so many over time. But in 1956 he addressed the faculty of (liberal Methodist) Boston Univ. School of Theology. In 1938 he was given a visiting professorship at one of Hungary's top universities. Barth read his critique of him and commented, as did Torrance and others. No less than five times Calvin College or Seminary tried to recruit him for a professorship. In 1955 Van Til participated in a symposium with Tillich and Nels Ferre' (p. 80). In 1936 Gordon College tried to recruit him.
* Muether locates Van Til's main influences as Calvin's theocentrism, Vos's biblical insights, Kuyper's antithesis, and Machen's confessionalism (p. 18).
* Van Til (persuasively) believed one can not have a Reformed theology without a Reformed apologetic (p. 55).
* Muether convincingly shows that Van Til's value is not simply as an apologist, but as a Reformed theologian.
* Van Til shows no signs of the most minute changes in his theology after age 40.
* Muether and Van Til routinely overuse the word 'heresy' (making their enemies heretics) in regard to theological errors like Arminianism (p. 22).
* Van Til hated 'classical education' because it was as pagan as post-Enlightenment (p. 98; 151).
* Van Til wisely located the big problems of human thought not with the Enlightenment but with the Fall.
* Muether and Van Til seem to celebrate the exodus of 13 of 28 Westminister Board members in 1936. This was exasperation on the board's part over the growing militancy of Machen and Westminister. But Van Til saw this as a welcomed cleansing. Same for the exodus in 1937 of several faculty such as Oswald Allis, Allan MacRae, etc. in two separate schisms. Amazes me.
* Muether positions Van Til as a halfway point between the extremes of upholding common grace and emphasizing 'antithesis' between unregenerate and regenerate. Its as if he were halfway between Herman Hoeksema and Kuyper. But this study shows very little appreciation for common grace in Van Til, and lots and lots of antithesis. He is much closer to Hoeksema than Kuyper!
* Muether and V.T. assume that most of the early premil. people in their Reformed circles (Buswell, MacRae) are 'dispensational' -- a HIGHLY debatable fact (p. 82).
* In debating the value of evidences with Buswell, Van Til does acknowledge value in apologetics such as Machen's which he viewed as doing "partial" work, even if it were incomplete (p. 85-86)
* Repeatedly Muether and Van Til seem unable to conceive of anything that could promote the growth of the OPC or Westminster that would not consequently water down its Reformed witness.
* Van Til convincingly argues that Reformed theology is far easier to defend than a less accurate theology.
* Repeatedly uses terms about Westminster or the CRC or OPC being attacked by 'non-Reformed' when he is referring to VERY Reformed people (like Gordon Clark or Buswell or EJ Carnell or Rev. Robert Strong or Francis Schaeffer or Harold O. J. Brown or Dooyeweerd) who simply disagree on a debatable point with him. Clearly, Van Til thinks he is right, and also thinks that he has Reformed precedent on his side many times, but its alarming that he thinks his opponents are all less than Reformed. Small disagreements with the WCF seem to mark one as "UnReformed" (see p. 105). Likewise Muether is very critical of John Frame's basically friendly engagement with Van Til's thought (p. 106).
* Muether amazingly seems to see teh Gordon Clark trial (whereby a very Reformed man, one who later was asked to speak at Westminster, who used Van Til works in the courses he taught etc.) as a genuine high point in Van Til's career and in the OPC's history! (see pp. 107-9 "finest moment").
* For Van Til his distinctives as absolute core essentials. (see p. 111).
* Amazingly I learn that the term 'presuppositionalism' is coined by Allan MacRae (!!!)... p. 113.
* Van Til seemed to think that all attempts at cultural or ecumenical engagement in the OPC were plots to steer it in a "less than Reformed direction" (p. 117, and p. 137).
* Van Til saw Barthianism as not a corrective or supplement or varient on Reformed theology, but a radical break from calvinism (p. 122). He sees it as a "thin sheet of dogmatic asphalt" over the problems of modernity (p.136).
* When Van Til's father dies on the same day as FDR, Van Til remarks that one went to heaven and the other did not (!) p. 130.
* Van Til seems to stand in constant, even when sometimes quiet, judgment fo all his orthodox, Reformed, presuppositional colleagues. Clowney he mistrusts as a sell-out. Ditto for Ned STonehouse's efforts to get the OPC in the ICCC. EJ Yong is not sufficiently Reformed to write a short popular apologetic. Etc. Muether hints that all the later Westminister developments that claim Van Til (Adam's nouethic counseling, Harvie Conn's missiology, Frames apologetic refinements, etc.) are suspect (p. 223). Only John Murray seems blameless. And (surprisingly) Norm Shepherd, perhaps the only person accused of heresy in Westminster or the OPC that Van Til DEFENDED.
* Van Til's "bellicose" manner is even treated as virtuous (p. 224).
* Van Til is repeatedly depicted as humble, and certainly that seems to be a part of his personality. He refuses honors such as being moderator of the OPC. (Though we can wonder if this is more due to shyness or busyness than humility!). BUt he also comes off as very proud in ways that Muether will not acknowledge -- He impossibly brags in 1967 that he has 'never unlearned the ability to speak the simple person's language" p. 142 (Van Til was a famously unreadable writer!)....In his last days Van Til laments that a generation has grown up at Westminster who "knew not Van Til!" His constant criticism of colleagues and others who are mostly on his side.... all signs of tremendous pride...
* William Masselink argues that Van Til fails to distinguish between 'total depravity' and 'absolute depravity' (p. 162). There's Van Til antithesis again.
* It is possible that Muether has shaded Van Til slightly more militant than other biographers might.
* When the story ends with van Til in his early 90s imagining a great estrangement with Westminster, this seems inevitable.
I recommend this book. Full of great data and insight on a truly great man. But its tragic how Van Til's militancy muted what could well have been a much more powerful voice for Reformed theology.