Dr. Cornelius Van Til – The Christian View of Education and Culture
Cornelius Van Til Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987), born in The Netherlands, was a Christian philosopher, Reformed theologian, and presuppositional apologist.
Born on May 3, 1895, in Grootegast, The Netherlands he was the sixth son of Ite and Klazina Van Til, who emigrated to the United States when “Kees,” as he was known to friends, was 10. He grew up helping on the family farm in Highland, Indiana.
Van Til graduated from Calvin College in 1922, receiving a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1925 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1927. He began teaching at Princeton, but shortly went with the conservative group who founded Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught for forty-three years of his life as a professor of apologetics.
He was also a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from the 1930s until his death in 1987, and in that denomination, he was embroiled in a bitter dispute with Gordon Clark over God’s incomprehensibility known as the Clark-Van Til Controversy in which, according to John Frame, neither man was at his best and neither quite understood the other’s position.
Van Til is perhaps best known for the development of a fresh approach to the task of defending the Christian faith. Although trained in traditional methods he drew on the insights of fellow Calvinistic philosophers Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd to formulate what he viewed as a more consistently Christian methodology. His apologetic focused on the role of presuppositions, the point of contact between believers and unbelievers, and the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian worldviews.
He didn’t particularly care for the label describing his approach as “presuppositional,” which more accurately represents the apologetical method of Gordon Clark, but he (and his students) accepted it as a matter of convention because it is at least useful in grouping methods into those which deny neutrality and those which do not.
In Van Til: The Theologian, Frame, a sympathetic critic of Van Til, describes Van Til’s contributions to Christian thought as comparable in magnitude to those of Immanuel Kant in non-Christian philosophy. He indicates that Van Til identified the disciplines of systematic theology and apologetics, seeing the former as a positive statement of the Christian faith and the latter as a defense of that statement — “a difference in emphasis rather than of subject matter.” Frame summarizes Van Til’s legacy as one of new applications of traditional doctrines:
Unoriginal as his doctrinal formulations may be, his use of those formulations — his application of them — is often quite remarkable. The sovereignty of God becomes an epistemological, as well as a religious and metaphysical principle. The Trinity becomes the answer to the philosophical problem of the one and the many. Common grace becomes the key to a Christian philosophy of history. These new applications of familiar doctrines inevitably increase [Christians’] understanding of the doctrines themselves, for [they] come thereby to a new appreciation of what these doctrines demand of [them].