Cornelius Van Til
May 3, 1895 – April 17, 1987
I The Early Years
In the northern part of Holland in the province of Groningen is a small town called Grootegast. In the town lived the Reinder Van Til family. The grandfather was an owner and manager of an inn. Reinder also considered himself a theologian. He and his family were members of what we know as the Gerefemerde Kerken in Nederland. These people had separated from the state church in 1834 under severe stress and at times persecution. Initially they were barred from worshiping in formal church buildings and had to meet in barns and public buildings. The Van Tils were godly people.
Like many other people in that region, Reinder’s son Ite became a dairyman, buying and selling cattle and farming his 40 acres which produced vegetables for market. On this farm on the 3rd of May, 1895 in a farmhouse that was attached to the barn a sixth child was born to Ite and Kiazina Van Til. The world did not know about this birth as the birth of one whose name would be written about in the annals of history. To the Van Tils it was the birth of a covenant child and that God had blessed them with a healthy baby. God gave them eight sons and one daughter. The daughter died at an early age in a childhood accident. The young boy was soon to gain the name “Kees” as he was known as by friends and family to his death. For those of us who were younger and out of respect he was “Oome Kees.”
The influence of the Christian home was seen at every point. Family worship was also a vital part of the Van Til home as it was in “Oome Kees’s” home as long as I can remember. The Bible was always read at mealtimes followed by prayer. In his youth Dr. Van Til soon learned the Heidelberg Catechism as did his brothers. The first question and answer were well ingrained in his mind and he often made reference to it.
Christian school was never a question in the minds of the Van Til family. It was part of what made up the training of children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. The Van Til children walked two miles to go to the Christian school. As an adult Oome Kees made reference to the fact that sometimes they ate beans instead of meat in order to pay the Christian school tuition. Worship in the church on the Lord’s day was a regular part of the spiritual development of the family.
Not long after Kees began his schooling his family moved to the village of De Leek located close to the boarders of the provinces of Friesland and Groningen. There father Ite had a twenty acre farm that was productive in the raising of vegetables and also peat which the family sold for fuel and fertilizer. But their stay in De Leek was not for long. Word of the promise of a better life for the family in America reached the ears of father Ite and he began thinking of what there might be for his sons in a new land. Many Dutch families were making such moves and the idea intrigued Mr. Van Til. In addition, the sons were coming of age when they would be called to military service. One of the sons, Reinder, married and with his father’s permission left Holland and headed for America with his bride. They settled in Highland, Indiana. His letters continued to urge his parents to come there as well.
II. THE IMMIGRATION
In the spring of 1905 when Kees was just 10 years of age, the family left their homeland and their son, Hendrik, and the many relatives and friends who were so much a part of their life. They sailed on one of the ships owned by the Holland-America Lines and arrived in New York on the l9th of May, 1905. From there they took a train to Hammond, Indiana. The trip was remembered as a grueling trip especially for the seventh son, Sidney. Sidney became a Christian school teacher and served for years in Christian school in Paterson, New Jersey. He predeceased Kees as did all of his brothers.
Reinder was at the station in Hammond to meet his parents and the rest of the family. In a horse drawn wagon he brought his family to Highland which in that day consisted of a post office, a Christian Reformed Church a school house, blacksmith’s shop, a round house and a saloon. Reinder had rented a house for them there.
They immediately got to know the minister of the church, Pastor Sherda, who was an influence in the formative years of Kees’s life. Once again, the church was the center of this family’s life. The boys went to the two room school house in the town. Kees, at ten years of age, was put in first grade but by the end of the year had advanced to the fifth grade. He was known as Big Klompa and his brother as Little Klompa. When another brother came to school he was called, Brother of the two Klompa.
Father Ite began fanning and again raised vegetables for sale to the market and to make wine from the wild grapes on the land he farmed. Kees loved the soil. That was a characteristic he never lost. Even in older years he enjoyed that. He always loved to visit farming country and to see what was being done in the production of crops. At his home at 16 Rich Avenue in Flourtown, he always had a large garden from which they ate all summer and canned much of what that garden produced.
I remember well his telling me how as a boy he would take loads of vegetables and sell them in towns near to Highland. They worked hard in the field and in delivering what they harvested. He said occasionally on the way home he would stop and buy a 5 cent glass of beer. He never worried about getting home because the horse knew the way.
After 10 years in Highland Ite decided to move to Munster, Indiana which was a few miles away. It would be here that Kees met the love of his life, Rena Klooster, who later became his bride and to whom he was married for 53 years.
III. THE STUDENT
As the years passed, Kees felt more and more that God was calling him to the ministry and away from the farm. At the age of 19 he left his family and his sweetheart and went the 150 miles or so, to Grand Rapids, Michigan to attend Calvin Preparatory School and College. It was here that he became devoted to the writings of Abraham Kuyper and little did he know at that time, Kuyper’s work would become part of the backbone of the Apologetic he himself would formulate in the years to come.
In 1921 Kees enrolled in Calvin Seminary. After a year at Calvin Seminary, he found himself at a crossroad. He had originally thought of finishing at Calvin and then taking a church in the Christian Reformed Church. But the possibility of going to Princeton Seminary would give him access to the great scholars such as Gerhardus Vos, Casper Wister Hodge and J. Gresham Machen. It would also enable him to take courses in philosophy at Princeton University. After much deliberation, he decided to go to Princeton. In that day the University was influenced by relativism but the Seminary still recognized the Scriptures as the final authority.
It was here at the Seminary Kees came to know Gerhardus Vos not only as a teacher but as a friend. When discussing the writing of this paper with Dr. Richard B. Gaffm, he also reflected how in his later years Oome Kees often spoke of the privilege it was to study under Vos and then to know him personally. He had a great influence on Kees’s life and Kees considered Dr. Vos one of the four persons who made a significant impact on him. The other three were Abraham Kuyper, Klaas Schilder and J. Gresham Machen. The evidence of their friendship is seen in the fact that when Dr. Vos died in 1949, Kees was asked by the family to conduct the funeral service in the little Pennsylvania town of Roaring Branch. His text was II Cor. 5:1: “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
In the spring of 1925 Kees finished his Th.M. at Princeton Seminary and that fall, on September 15, married his sweetheart, Rena Klooster. Their first home was in Princeton, New Jersey where Kees continued his studies at the University and famished his Ph.D. in the spring of 1927. They then returned to Indiana to wait for a call to a Christian Reformed Church. While traveling in The Netherlands for a few weeks, he received a call from Bates St. CRC, in Grand Rapids which he declined. Immediately thereafter he received a call from Spring Lake CRC. This being a small somewhat rural community he took the call and began his first and only pastorate.
IV. THE CALL TO BE A SCHOLAR
While Oome Kees expected to be in the pastorate in Spring Lake for several years, his time there was not going to be long. In the summer of 1928, not even a year after he had assumed the pastorate, he received a call to teach Apologetics at Princeton Seminary that fall. This was the beginning of the teaching of presuppositional apologetics at Princeton Seminary.
After his one year assignment was completed, he and Rena returned to Spring Lake and he was glad to take up his pastoral work again. Trouble was brewing at Princeton Seminary with a total reorganization of the board structure underway. The changes would move the seminary in a more liberal direction. It soon became clear that several professors would leave Princeton to form a new seminary. The only position left to fill was in Apologetics. A call was made to Spring Lake for Kees to return to the east coast but this time to a new seminary called “Westminster.” He declined the invitation. Then Dr. Oswald T. Allis journeyed to Spring Lake but Kees would not change his mind. The next set of visitors were J. Gresham Machen and Ned B. Stonehouse. The answer was still, “no.”
Undoubtedly, Oome Kees must have thought of an earlier conversation with Dr. Vos who urged Kees to be involved in the debate bringing about the change in Princeton Seminary. Dr. Vos told Kees, “this is going to be a much broader matter than a single denominational issue.” And further, speaking to Kees, “You cannot, you dare not, stand by and look on like an indifferent spectator when conflict is being fought in the arena.”
However, by the middle of September, 1929, he changed his mind. He felt God’s call to be part of the new seminary and for a final time he said goodbye to his congregation in Spring Lake.
V. OUR FIRST MEETING.
In the winter of 1951 my parents were in Grand Rapids, Michigan and through a mutual friend, met Dr. Van Til. While they were together, they struck up a friendship and my parents invited Dr. Van Til to come and spend some time in our home in California. Dr. Van Til accepted the invitation and planned to come for a whole month. That summer of 1951 Dr. Van Til took his wife back to her family in Munster, Indiana and then boarded a train for Sacramento. There my parents met the train and brought Dr. Van Til to Ripon California. I had just graduated from the 8th grade the first time Dr. Van Til came to our home.
My Mother was very concerned about having such a great man be with us for several weeks. What would he be like and what would his demands be? That question was answered the first morning after breakfast when Oome Kees got up from the table and picked up the dishes, walked into the kitchen, put on my Mother’s apron and began doing the dishes. This we later learned was a task he joyfully did in his own home, chattering as he worked. My Mother knew then, Oome Kees was a very down to earth person and would fit into the family well.
Oome Kees developed a great love for my Mother. He saw her as a very spiritual person and one who had a heart for people. It was my Mother who gave me the insight into much biblical truth. It was she who six months before her death gave me all the Puritan writings then published by Sovereign Grace Publishers which came into existence at approximately the same time as the Banner of Truth Trust. Dr. Van Til came to our house every summer for a month for almost ten years until my Mother died in 1960 six months before I went to Westminster as a student.
In a letter to an uncle and aunt, he wrote of my Mother, “I am happy you recall your last visit with Gilbert and Jessie in Heidelberg Germany. I have never known a person whom I think had a nobler Christian character than she. She was very much like her father. She had genuine piety, good humor, and a deep conviction of the truth with a determination not to compromise it.”
And to us in a card he wrote: “How deeply you must feel the loss of your Mother. Our prayers are with you in your sorrow. May the God of all comfort in whom she trusted so completely, sustain you.” Following her death in April, 1960 he only returned to Ripon the summer after she died and maybe on one other occasion. Two years later he published his book, Christianity and Barthianism and on a single page are the words, In memory of Jessie den Dulk
As mentioned above, Oome Kees loved the farm. When he was at our house, at least every week he would go with my grandfather to see what the sons and son-in-laws were doing each of the farms. My grandfather probably never had more than a sixth grade education but he was well read and would discuss with Oome Kees those developments which were taking place in the Netherlands and the development in the thinking of G. C. Berkouwer. Grandpa was aware of the thesis of Dr. Alexander de Jong and wanted to discuss it with Oome Kees. These discussions were a regular occurrence between these two as they did “roadside farming.”
VI. THE DEVOTIONAL AND PERSONAL LIFE OF VAN TIL
The first six weeks I was in seminary I lived in the home of the Van Tils after which time my wife came with our new baby and we moved to an apartment. What I saw there was only a continuation of what I had seen when Oome Kees was in our home. You were in the presence of a very godly man who felt a deep need for the forgiveness of sins and who in every aspect of his life wanted, out of thanksgiving, serve God with his heart and soul and mind.
His day began with God. His mealtime was not only a time of fellowship but also a time when the Bible or some devotional meditation was read. It was a time when a hymn was recited or sung. That was something Kees and Rena always did together. In letters he refers to singing Psalms in the hospital with Aunt Rena and how when she came out of the anesthesia of an operation she was singing a Psalm.
Dr. Edmund P. Clowney shared with me he made a visit to the hospital during Aunt Rena’s last illness. When he arrived there the door to the room was closed. He thought maybe a nurse had closed it. He heard what he thought was a groan. He quietly opened the door to learn it was not a groan at all but two loving people singing a Dutch Psalm together. He said he felt like he had intruded in a holy time.
Oome Kees knew himself as a sinner saved by grace. In a letter to my Father’s brother Bill, telling of Aunt Rena being hospitalized because of a fall, on 1/2/73 he wrote, “I wish I were not such a horrible sinner as I am, constantly worrying. ‘Be careful for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplications make your requests known unto God.’ Only if we do this will the peace of God keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Yet at this point I fail every day. Pray for us.”
And in a private conversation with Uncle Bill, he said, how when he was young man, he seemed tempted of the devil in so many ways and thought that as he got older those temptations would go away. However, he said, as you get older the temptations are no less but actually greater.
VII. THE EVANGELIST
The Van Tils lived at 16 Rich Ave. in Flourtown, Pa which is about 5 miles from Westminster Seminary. Their home was a big stone house with three stories of which they basically used the first two floors. The house was almost at the end of a dead end street and had a large area where they had a garden every year. On the front porch sat two rocking chairs which were well used by them and by guests who came to learn from the gifted professor. But also here lived C. Van Til, the evangelist.
At least once a day Oome Kees would walk at least a couple of miles. The people in the neighborhood knew him as Dr. Van Til and he would always strike up a conversation with those who were on the route he took that day. While walking with him, you would pass various houses on the way, and he would talk about his contacts with this or that family. He had a deep passion for the souls of those he met and those who were his neighbors. In one of the areas where he walked was a convent and he would talk to the nuns and the priests.
In the last years of his life he had a large print Bible. Just as he would make notes in the margins of the books he was reading, he did the same in his Bible. Here is the note on the two pages where Psalm 35 to 37 were printed: For years I have prayed for George and Reba Moody: give them the gift of a new heart by thy Holy Spirit 0 Lord my God. Aug.23, 1982.
On the same page was written: For several years I have prayed daily for the Guyons, The Rexes, The Dicksons,… and two other ladies… may they repent and be saved from the wrath of the Lamb.
What had to be within the last two years of his life, known by the changes in the character of his hand writing, still on the same page of his Bible, he wrote: I still pray every morning for Mr. & Mrs. Moody, for Mr. & Mrs. Guyon and Dan, then for Mr & Mrs. Rex, for Mrs. Dickson, for Mr. & Mrs. Rich, give them 0 Lord, a new heart, repentance that they forever see thee face to face.
Directly south of the seminary grounds was several acres of trees and brush and on the property was an old house, you might almost call a shack. In the shack lived an elderly man. From time to time Oome Kees would go visit the old man and talk to him about Jesus. One day when Oome Kees came there he found the man to be sick. He saw to it the man was cared for. Before his death, professed faith in Jesus Christ and when the man died, Dr. Van Til conducted his funeral.
On another occasion I went to the hospital with Oome Kees to visit a student who had just had an appendectomy. After visiting the student we walked out of the hospital and were in the parking lot, he turned around and had that look on his face of reminiscing of the past. Then he said to me, “For years I used to go to the hospital every Sunday afternoon and go from bed to bed to read and pray with people and share the gospel.” And then he told me about a patient who was there who was losing her eyesight. Oome Kees selected a group of texts and had one of the secretaries at the seminary make up large cardboard sheets with the verses written in large letters. He then brought the card boards to the person. A year later, the same person was back in the hospital with the “cardboard Bible.”
Someone m Philadelphia shared with me a story of a man from Middletown, Pa. traveling to Philadelphia on business and stopping at a Horn and Hardart coffee shop. In walked another man who sat down next to him and they began talking. The second man asked the first, “do you go to church?” The first man replied by saying how he had not gone to church but after he came home from the war he had decided to go to church especially since he now had young children. They had become members of this Orthodox Presbyterian Church and how wonderful it was and the doctrines of Grace which they taught and they were part of denomination that supported a seminary named Westminster. As the second man got up, he said, “let me introduce myself, I am Cornelius Van Til.”
Dr. Van Til was not ashamed of the gospel. He used every opportunity. As a boy, when Oome Kees would be at our house for a month in the summer, I remember him going to visit a patient of my Father’s who was dying and who didn’t have long to live. That was not an isolated experience. I drove him to Carlisle one day in the late 70s. We stopped for a cup of coffee and gas on the turnpike. Another man was waiting for his gas to be pumped and within a few minutes Oome Kees had turned the conversation to the need to know Jesus Christ. His lack of fear of sharing the gospel led him to preach on the streets of Philadelphia and to Wall Street when he was in his 80’s.
VIII. OOME KEES, THE WISE COUNSELOR
Oome Kees was one of those people you trusted with the most intimate information and whose advice you sought whenever possible. I learned that already as a young man working both at home and on the farm. It was not unusual for him to walk out to where I might be working in a field or doing tractor work and he would talk with me for awhile. In those formative years as well as all the years I knew him, you took his counsel very seriously.
There is one time when what he had to say was indelibly written on my mmd. It was in the early 1970’s and I had an offer for a top position at a company that has now become a national company. I also had an inquiry from another institution. Oome Kees knew of these offers and so he took me for a walk on the circular drive around Machen Hall at Westminster in Philadelphia. We talked about the possibility of my leaving the seminary and what it would mean to me personally and to the seminary and then he said, “The beachhead of the Reformed faith is so small. We need everyone down to the janitor.”
I never forgot those exact words. There have been many occasions since then that those words have influenced the decisions I have made.
IX. OOME KEES, THE HUMORIST
Oome Kees had a wonderful sense of humor. It was a regular occurrence for him to send humorous mail to his many friends. Let me give you just a few examples.
He would often write to my Uncle Bill in German. When he sent him a copy of his classic, Defence of the Faith, he included a picture of the cannibal and under the picture was the sentence, “Here is the last of the cannibals. This old tribesman remembered the feast in which (and here Oome Kees inserted) K. Barth was eaten. Oome Kees. Karl Barth had referred to Oome Kees as a “menschenfresser” and Oome Kees often referred to himself that way in fun.
In another letter, he says, “Last spring I heard the great Barth lecture three evenings at Princeton. At one of them, as they were rushing him out, Dr. Hendry of Princeton said to him: ‘Here is Dr. Van Til.’ Barth looked at me as though I were a Frankenstein Monster and said, ‘are you Van Til? Are you Van Til? You have said many bad things about me.’ But patting me on the shoulder) ‘I forgive you, I forgive you.’ I was so flabbergasted that I didn’t have presence of mind to say anything but admit to the great crime of being Van Til.”
Continuing in the letter he said, “The day before Rev. B. Jones, whom I have known since Princeton days had Barth plus his secretary in his car, having picked him up on the street as he was going somewhere. Jones told Barth that he knew me. “You know Van Til? You know Van Til? Tell him he is a bad boy. He’s not going to heaven.”
“But since his last word was that he forgave me and since I heard that with my own asinine ears I take courage.”
In a letter from the Van Tils who were on vacation in Cedar Grove Wisconsin to my wife in 1962 he wrote:
We got a letter today from “The Benson Beast”, the new Modern Bible Translation, Inc. and from Bob, Nellie, Gil, and Tim Casey. (Tim was born on Oome Kees’s birthday) How confusing can you get? So I am writing a “line” at once. Life is so busy here that it would be easy to forget. We saw in one day: one ship, one robin, one dozen sea-gulls, two gentlemen, two ladies walking on the beach. So we are nearly exhausted with all sources of amusement. It’s 9:30 p.m. now and coffee is on the table. And that is the end of another perfect day. Read all day; eat – sleep! Oome Kees.
Probably one of the funniest events I remember is when my brother sent Oome Kees a page out of a magazine published here in the west. It was an advertisement for MJB Coffee. In the ad it said, “What could be worse than one weekend in Philadelphia without MJB coffee but two.”
Oome Kees took the ad and wrote MJB coffee in San Francisco a letter and said the following:
Dear MJB Coffee:
I have your expression of deep sympathy for people who have to live in Philadelphia and have no MJB coffee. I am one of those poor people and I deeply appreciate your expression of sympathy. It is really terrible to have to rise up in the morning and have to retire at night without a cup of MJB coffee all day long. Certainly the least you can do to express your commiseration existentially is to send your humble servant a pound of your marvelous coffee.
Sincerely yours, Cornelius Van Til
In response the following letter came back:
Dear Humble Servant:
You are absolutely right. Sending you a pound of coffee is the least we can do. Your letter was so nice, in fact, that we’re sending you two pounds. Thank you so much for writing. Your interest in MJB coffee and our advertising is greatly appreciated.
Oome Kees wasn’t done. He made a copy of his letter and also the response he received and sent them with the following letter to my brother:
From your early training in the Ripon Christian School you may recall the story of Joseph and his brethren. His brethren sold Joseph to Egypt. They meant it for evil, but as it happened their evil was overpowered for good. Your original letter containing the matter of an old man named O ome Kees, your humble servant, was meant for evil. As it turned out Mr. William J. Meyers of MJB coffee made it turn out for good. The enclosed letters will convince you of these facts.
Sincerely yours, Cornelius Van Til, Th.M., Ph.D.
On another occasion he sent a letter to my brother just addressed Mr. Clarence A. den Dulk, Carlisle, Pa. The large dairy farmer right by the turnpike entrance.
X. OOME KEES, A MAN OF COMPASSION.
While being an arch defender of the faith and plowing new ground with the development of presuppositional Apologetics, Oome Kees yet had a heart of compassion. He had his differences with J. Oliver Buswell who taught at Covenant Seminary. When both men were retired and Buswell was living at the retirement home in Quarryville, Pa. Oome Kees drove there one day to see friends and included a visit with Dr. Buswell.
William Harry Jellema had a distinguished career as professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and he was there when Oome Kees was a student. Dr. Jellema had been influenced by the study of Idealism. While philosophically the two men differed, they remained friends. On a visit to Grand Rapids when Jellema was in his declining years, Oome Kees went to visit him and commended him for his work. Jellema’s response was “Yes, but Kees, it was you who at times kept us from going too far.”
When James Daane, with whom he had crossed swords in print, was dying, Oome Kees wrote him a letter not about their differences but about the fact that eternity was near. He received a most warm spiritual letter back from Dr. Daane which he read to me at the time. Oome Kees’s compassion and concern for these people and others as well as his neighbors continued to come through.
Oome Kees was a terrific correspondent. To my parents he wrote a letter almost every Sunday while my Mother was alive and frequently to my Father thereafter. They were not the only people he wrote on a somewhat regular basis. He did some by dictation and many by hand. Unfortunately, not many of the letters were saved. During those last fifteen years of his life there was no one to file his letters or the letters he received nor anyone keep them. I once read a letter from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones which Dr. Van Til received on his 7Oth birthday. It was a beautiful letter and one that should have been saved. That is most disappointing because so much of it was a reflection of the personal life of the man. One of the letters you can see is his last letter to John Murray when Prof. Murray was dying of prostate cancer. It is found in the third volume of Prof. Murray’s collected works (Banner of Truth). I would urge you to read it.
XI. OOME KEES, THE LOVE OF READING
Oome Kees was an avid reader. Whether it was his Bible or a the book he as reading you would find all kinds of notes in the margins on the sides of the page. His reading was not just works of philosophy. Every year he read through such things as Dante’s Inferno and Pilgrim’s Progress. During the week of Easter he always read one of the volumes of Klaas Schilder’s Trilogy on the death of Christ.
He loved to read the Puritans. I so well remember his reading of Arnold Dallimore’s first volume of the life of George Whitefield. He was thrilled with the reading of that volume. He called my attention to a word picture of Whitefield preaching on the deck of one ship and the other two ships being side by side and Whitefield being heard by all of the passengers. It is found on page 158. He was so moved by that.
He told Ernie Reisinger after reading that volume he would love to be able to spend his time reading books like that but he would deal with the giants that seek to undo the Christian faith.
XII. OOME KEES, THE PREACHER
I had intended to include a section on the preaching of Oome Kees. I only wish that copies of his sermons from Revelation and Job and on Good Friday had been preserved. There are some which can be obtained from Westminster Media in Philadelphia or from Mt. Olive Tape Library.
The reason I have not included a section is because there is an excellent article which was part of the Van Til lecture series given by Dr. Edmund P. Clowney. This lecture was published in the Westminster Journal, Fall 1984 and also as an appendix in John Frame’s book, Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought. Dr. Clowney makes it very clear that Oome Kees’s apologetics and his preaching began at the same point, with the God of the Bible and he applied his preaching to the culture of the day. I would urge you to read this wonderful article.
Oome Kees spoke of being influenced by four people: J. Gresham Machen, Gerhardus Vos, Klaas Schilder and Abraham Kuyper. My life has also been influenced by four people. One of them is Cornelius Van Til.
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