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The Life of Cornelius Van Til: A Review

Category Book Reviews
Date June 13, 2008

I was somewhat hesitant in writing this review of John R. Muether’s Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (CVTRAC) since I fear that you, the reader, could have devoured three-quarters of this biography of Cornelius Van Til (CVT) in the time it took you to read my review. (This assumes, among other things, the existence of not only time, but readers of my review!) Not only that, much more detailed, better-written, and informative reviews are in the works.

This book reads fast, looks handsome and smells good too! The latest edition to the American Reformed Biographies series, (P&R), CVTRAC weighs in at 240 pages (complied into eight chapters plus a conclusion chapter). 264 pages counting the endnotes. 277 pages counting, not a bibliography, but a ‘bibliographic essay.’ It comes complete with endorsements by K. Scott Oliphint, David VanDrunen, and Peter Lillback (what, no John Frame?!). Does it come with content too? You bet.

Muether structures his biography more around themes than in following a strict timeline (though there is definitely a chronological flow). In these thematic chapters are the fascinating events that either characterized Van Til’s life, or that he characterized. The meta-theme (of this book) Muether wants to stress is that the vast majority of CVT’s life: his decisions, his controversies, his apologetic, his philosophy, etc., cannot be interpreted apart from an understanding of ‘Van Til the churchman.’ One must not view CVT apart from his devotion to the Reformed Church and the Reformed faith as expressed in the Westminster Confession, and the three-forms of unity. If this grid is excluded from your analysis, you will go wrong from the start. Slightly less important, but almost equally vital for proper interpretation, is to put CVT in the line of Calvin, Bavinck, Warfield, Kuyper, and Vos. Van Til sought to stand in the historic line of Reformation theology, rather than seeking to be an innovator of new-fangled ideas. He sought to pull the best from all of them, noting where they were weak or inconsistent with the Reformed theology, and present a rigorous, robust, consistent expression of the Reformed faith that could be applied to the challenges of unbelief in his age. He was not content merely to re-state older versions of Calvinism. In this, he found agreement between what he was doing and what Old Princeton and the Dutch School had been trying to do.

Muether briefly traces the history of the Reformation, specifically as found in the Dutch expression, up until Van Til’s birth. This provides a road map of sorts for later discussions. CVT’s birth, childhood, move to America, schooling, later schooling, professional life and work, myriad debates and controversies, relationships with friends and foes, theological, philosophical, and apologetical developments, involvement in the church, influence on students (those who both agreed and disagreed with their beloved teacher), death of friends and family, retirement, post-retirement, and death are all discussed in vivid, smooth prose. Almost nothing (and certainly nothing of importance) slips through the cracks. From whether CVT was a child of the Afscheiding or the Doleantie, from sitting under Harry Jellema at Calvin to his Princeton days, from his position as pastor to his recruitment to Westminster Theological seminary, from his membership in the CRC to his transfer to the OPC, from his debates with Gordon Clark to his debates with the Dutch in Michigan, from his critique of New-Princeton to his critique of Barth and the New-modernism, from his millennial position to any affiliation or linking to theonomy, all of this, plus hundreds of other events and factoids in between, are discussed in engaging fashion. In a much more thorough fashion that any other biography too.

I have seen some questions floating around in cyber-space, and to answer them might be disappointing to some. There is no thorough development of Van Til’s apologetic in CVTRAC (though some key distinctions and qualifications are presented). Nothing in CVTRAC will provide apologetic ammunition for dealing with unbelievers. However, through admiration of CVT as a Reformed apologist (and what that means), proper apologetic character can be developed. There is no detailed interaction with Greg Bahnsen or John Frame (and hardly any, if any, interaction at all with the latter). Theonomy is mentioned, and CVT’s desire to be disassociated with it is pointed out, but there is no critique of that position. Same with postmillennialism (expect when CVT wrote that solid exegetical work ends up pointing to amillennialism, and in Vos all that needed to be said in favour of amillennialism has been said, why improve on it?). Mention is made of Van Til’s involvement in the Shepherd case, if one can call it an ‘involvement.’ CVT was thoroughly confessional, and did not deny the forensic nature of justification. Furthermore, it is not clear to what extent he knew of the Shepherd case, as, according to Robert Strimple, he never attended any of the meetings. Thankfully, Muether downplays those who try to distance CVT from Shepherd by pointing to the problems of old age. He offers more objective reasons for why CVT would not have agreed with Shepherd’s position (but this too is briefly touched on). To focus too long on any of these would have been a mistake, in my opinion. A bright light of those issues many on the web want to see discussed is Muether’s discussion of the Clark controversy. A fair amount of attention is given to that debate, and CVT’s involvement with it. Rather than side with John Frame’s analysis of that debate as a ‘low-point’ in the career of both men, Muether describes it as a high point. It provides clear evidence of the ‘churchman’ aspect to CVT.

What really comes through was the character of Van Til. Muether makes much of the motto associated with CVT: suaviter in modo, fortiter in re, gentle in persuasion, powerful in substance. Reformed apologists (like me!) could learn much by way of example. Van Til was noted by many enemies as offering levelheaded critiques. Objective. Un-biased. He was definitely human too. As a child he shot his neighbour’s chickens with a sling-shot. During his adult years he was plagued by doubts about many of the choices he had made (or had to make) as well as health issues, which took a toll on him. Van Til was a loyal and fiercely devoted friend, and was personally hurt when those he considered close friends publicly attacked him. He was aware of his failings, and readily admitted when he stepped outside of his area of expertise. He knew he did not write for people as (say) a Machen did, and he regretted this. CVT was funny too. I found myself laughing out-loud more than a few times. One example of this can be seen in a phrase Van Til was fond of invoking to summarize his attitude toward his violent critics: ‘”Nulli bastardo carurundo” . . . (roughly translated “Don’t let the bastards wear you down . . .”‘ (CVTRAC, p. 168). Perhaps most touching was the account of how he was with his wife as she prepared to die. In his last visit to her hospital room, he recorded what he said to his wife, Rena Van Til (who was his childhood sweetheart as well); Muether portrays the event in a captivating way:

‘Do you see Jesus your Savior all glorified now? Do you see your own mother and dad with Jesus in glory? Are you anxious to occupy one of the many mansions which Jesus promised his disciples and, through them, promised to all who believe in him?’ He prayed for her and sang her favorite hymns in Dutch and English. He recalled her countenance as smiling, and when he promised to join her soon, with a nod of her head and a squeeze of his hand ‘she was trying ever so hard to tell me – of course you must, of course I want you to come.’ On January 11, Van Til’s wife of fifty-two years passed away. (CVTRAC, p.212)

Respected Westminster Seminary professor Paul Woolley told Van Til the day after Rena’s death,

‘You have been, and are, probably the most remarkable husband I have seen. No one else could have given Rena the care, support, and admiration which you have given her over the years . . . It has been a most remarkable demonstration of Christian love and tenderness and is a pattern that I am sure no one will equal for uncounted time.’ (CVTRAC, p. 213).

And such was the man . . .

This book will play various roles in various people’s lives:

Whatever it is, this book will affect you. I heartily recommend John R. Muether’s Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman to you. You only have a few hours to lose by reading it. What’s stopping you?

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