Remember the Antithesis!
In 2005, P&R Publishing initiated a series of American Reformed Biographies. The series got off to an excellent start with Sean Michael Lucas' Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, followed by D.G. Hart's John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist. The high expectations set by the first two installments are more than met by this splendid study of the life of Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), who taught apologetics for a little over four decades at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Full disclosure, for what it is worth: as a college student, I wrote letters to Cornelius Van Til on several occasions, and he always responded. This book even mentions my name in passing as one of the people with whom he had maintained a correspondence. Van Til not only answered my letters, he also sent me free of charge many of his books, syllabi, and pamphlets. And I read them all.
Reading the things that Van Til sent me was my introduction to Reformed theology, especially of the Dutch Calvinist variety. That's how I first learned the names of theologians—Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Klaas Schilder, Benjamin Warfield, Herman Dooyeweerd, E.J. Carnell and others—who, along with Van Til himself, came to influence my theological development in signficant ways. While I did not remain a consistent "Van Tilian," he set the agenda for many of my key theological and philosophical interests, and I still detect his influence on my way of viewing things. So I was immensely pleased when this new biography of Van Til appeared.
John Muether has done a particularly good job of making a scholar's life interesting—typically a daunting challenge for the would-be biographer—and he has done it by portraying Van Til's career in a larger-than-the-academy context. For one thing, the polemics for which Van Til is well known were not simply arguments that are "contained" within the academy. Michael Hakkenberg made this point nicely in an essay he once published about Van Til's rather acrimonious dispute with the philosopher Gordon Clark. The subject at issue was the doctrine of "divine incomprehensibility." But as Hakkenberg observes, there was more going on here than a simple theological argument. The struggle had something to do with who would control the theological direction of the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination. Clark's position had affinities with certain non-Calvinist elements in the broader evangelical movement, while Van Til insisted on the kind of stark contrast between divine and human knowledge that would reinforce a uniquely Calvinst piety and ecclesiology. Van Til was victorious in the ecclesiastical struggle, with Clark departing for other environs.
Much the same could be argued for other theological positions that Van Til staked out. Muether insists that Van Til's theological career cannot be properly understood apart from his deep commitment to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a denomination that was founded—along with Westminster Theological Seminary—by J. Gresham Machen when he led a movement out of both Princeton Seminary and the northern Presbyterian denomination. At first glance, that insistence may seem a bit of a stretch, especially when it is presented as the organizing principle for the chronicling of Van Til's career. Van Til was not a churchman in the sense of someone who flourishes in the doing of the sorts of things that keep a denomination running. But even so, Muether is right to see Van Til's teaching and scholarship as intimately linked to the fortunes of the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination.
Van Til experienced two significant departures in his career. One occurred when he left a teaching position at Princeton to join Machen at the newly established Westminster. The other, which occurred more gradually, was his increasing theological alienation from his Dutch Calvinist roots in the Midwest. Both of those separations were formative influences on his life and thought. In the Christian Reformed subculture in which Van Til was raised, loyalty to the denomination and its schools (Calvin College and Seminary) was taken with utmost seriousness. To change allegiances, and especially with a sense of having burned bridges in doing so, meant that for Van Til the combined causes of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church became an alternative defining presence in his life. Consequently, he came to see it as a profound matter of personal stewardship to protect his new ecclesiastical and academic homes from the theological shifts that he seen had seen occurring at Princeton and in the Christian Reformed Church.
In analyzing what had gone wrong in those previous homes, the inroads of Karl Barth's theology came to loom large in Van Til's mind, and he went after Barthian thought with a vengeance, proclaiming Barth's much vaunted "new orthodoxy" as nothing more than modernism in a clever disguise. Muether concedes that Van Til might have been guilty of considerable "rhetorical overreach" in his treatment of Barth. At the same time, though, he wants to credit Van Til with at least seeing some tendencies in Barth's thought that could not sustain a robust return to orthodoxy on the part of those who had been steeped in liberal theology.
However that may be, it is unfortunate that Van Til is mainly known by many folks these days for his harsh assessment of Barthianism. He deserves a better reputation than that, and perhaps this biography, along with the availability of Van Til's complete works (forty volumes) on CD-ROM,  will provide the occasion for a reassessment of his role in evangelical theology.
Those of us who have been influenced by Van Til are well aware, for example, that he anticipated the more recent critiques of "the Enlightenment project" in the broader intellectual community. Indeed, Harvey Conn has argued that Van Til's highlighting of the ways in which all thought is guided by presuppostions included a sensitivity to the inevitable role of "personal, class and social agendas" in guiding intellectual inquiry. Muether rightly demurs. But the factors that Conn points to can surely be seen as natural extensions of what was for Van Til a somewhat more limited understanding of presuppositions.
Again and again, Van Til exposed the extent to which the notion of human autonomy functions as a pervasive assumption in modern philosophical thought. And while he regularly singled out Kant as a special philosophical villain in this regard, he was really after much bigger game in his attack on autonomy. For Van Til, Kantian autonomy was merely a technical philosophical formulation of the Serpent's manifesto in Genesis 3: "and you shall be as gods." Basic to all sinful life is the desire to place the human self on the throne that is properly occupied by God alone. (One of Van Til's disciples is supposed to have proclaimed that Aristotle presupposed "Kant's autonomous man." The story, probably apocryphal, is not all that far off the mark in representing the gist of Van Til's thought.)
Indeed, Van Til probed the topic of autonomy more deeply than many of the recent critics of modernity. Another of his recurrent themes was the importance of recognizing that sin is essentially an "ethical rebellion." Our sinful state is not simply the awareness of our finitude, or an angst that emerges out of that awareness. The fall was not about finitude as such, since human beings were at one time both finite and unfallen. What introduced sin into the created order was an act of will, a rebellion against the command of God. What this suggests is that we do not cure what is wrong about the Enlightenment's elevation of human reason by substituting for it a Nietszchean elevation of the creative human will. The will itself needs to be turned away from its sinful projects and brought into harmony with the divine will. Van Til's Calvinist volitionalism, then, can be seen as equally opposed to both Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern volitionalism.
The proper theological framework for understanding all of this, for Van Til, was provided by the Reformed tradtion. Muether rightly makes much, in this regard, of Van Til's life-long attempt "to combine the best of the Dutch and Scottish Reformed traditions." This was no simple task. The "Old Princeton" theologians whom Van Til revered drew on philosophical resources that emphasized many elements of commonness (drawing on "common sense") between the redeemed and unredeemed ways of experiencing and understanding reality. In doing so, they paid less attention to what the Dutch Calvinists insisted was a fundamental "antithesis" between belief and unbelief.
The one thinker who provided—in a broad sense—room for both emphases was Abraham Kuyper, and Muether rightly construes Van Til's basic philosophical-theological project as struggling with "the Kuyperian dilemma of harnessing common grace with the antithesis." Of course, Kuyper's disciples have typically had a difficult time finding the right harness for holding the two together in a healthy tension: some have come down more on the common grace side while others have majored in the antithesis. Van Til was clearly one of the latter school.
Those of us—and I consider myself in this crowd—who are more tempted in the commonness direction would do well to learn from a nice little vignette that Muether relates. Toward the end of his life, Van Til returned to Grand Rapids and visited one of his Calvin philosophy professors, William Harry Jellema, who was close to death. Jellema was very much a common-grace type Kuyperian, well known for his expressed hope that he would meet Socrates in heaven. He and Van Til had long parted ways on many key philosophical and theological matters. On this occasion, however, Van Til thanked his former teacher for what he had learned from Jellema. Jellema responded: "Yes, but Kees, it was you who at times kept us from going too far." Jellema is not the only one with that kind of indebtedness to Van Til.