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Review: Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of his Thought by John Frame

Greg Bahnsen has responded to some elements of Frame's critique against Van Til, and can be listened to here.

Book description

This volume, marking the one-hundredth anniversary of Van Til’s birth, combines deep appreciation with incisive critical analysis of the renowned Westminster apologist’s ideas. John M. Frame offers warm personal reflections on Van Til’s life and a close examination of his thought, including his interaction with prominent figures in the Reformed, evangelical, and secular communities. In terms of its spirit, scope, clarity, and profundity, this volume is a must-read for serious students of apologetics and theology.

About the author

John M. Frame is a retired American Christian philosopher and Calvinist theologian especially noted for his work in epistemology and presuppositional apologetics, systematic theology, and ethics. He is one of the foremost interpreters and critics of the thought of Cornelius Van Til.

At a glance

Rating: 7.5/10.

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Contents at a glance

Part 1: Introductory Considerations

  1. Starting Point

  2. Van Til’s Life and Character

  3. Van Til’s Place in History

Part 2: The Metaphysics of Knowledge

  1. God: Self-Contained Fullness and Absolute Personality

  2. The Trinity

  3. The Sovereignty of God

  4. Analogical Knowledge

  5. The Clark Controversy

  6. Revelation

  7. Presuppositions

  8. The Primacy of the Intellect

  9. Logic

  10. The Analogical System

  11. Evidence

Part 3: The Ethics of Knowledge

  1. Antithesis

  2. Common Grace

  3. Rationalism and Irrationalism

Part 4: The Argument for Christianity

  1. The Traditional Method: The Church Fathers

  2. The Traditional Method: Thomas Aquinas

  3. The Traditional Method: Joseph Butler

  4. The Traditional Method: Edward J. Carnell

  5. Spiral Argument

  6. Reasoning by Presupposition

  7. Apologetics in Action

Part 5: Van Til as Critic

  1. Greek Philosophy and Scholasticism

  2. Immanuel Kant and Karl Barth

  3. Herman Dooyeweerd

Part 6: Conclusions

  1. Van Til’s Successors

  2. Van Til and Our Future


Part 1: Introductory considerations

I enjoyed reading part 1 a lot when I started with the book. It gives some cool insights into what it was like to sit in a class with Van Til and engage with him as a student.

It is clear Frame has a lot of appreciation for Van Til. However, it is interesting that Frame paints Van Til as someone who would shut down students who disagree with him / or question him, (calling them Arminians) but yet also give them low marks if they simply repeat his sayings in their papers whilst rewarding them if they question or disagree with him. Frame lists a few cases where Van Til gave him near-perfect marks for disagreeing with him! This struck me as a slight inconsistency in painting Van Til's character.

Frame's portrayal of Van Til goes contrary to what I've heard from Bahnsen and Oliphint. But this is perhaps because Frame was more critical of him, whereas Bahnsen and Oliphint not so much. Nevertheless, our relationship with people differ from person to person, and it remains interesting to get a glimpse of Van Til's character from Frame's perspective.

Part 2: The metaphysics of knowledge

In part 2, Frame discusses Van Til's metaphysics of knowledge. From Frame's point of view, there's almost no criticism here.

In preparing to write a review (which is hopefully the first of many to come), I read a lot about what other people had to say about the book. Most seem to agree that part 2 is where the heart of the book lies. Part 2 captures Van Til's system in a few pages and describes various aspects that are important toward understanding Van Til (e.g. the problem of the one and the many, analogical reasoning, the central importance of the doctrine of the Trinity).

Part 2 is also by far the longest section of the book.

I do appreciate Frame's attention to the isolated controversies during Van Til's time. After outlining Van Til's analogical system, Frame discusses the Clark controversy in quite some detail. His contribution here is extremely valuable, is it gives us a practical/historical example to see what Van Til meant with his analogical reasoning (which is not like the doctrine of analogy in Aquinas).

Part 3: The ethics of knowledge

In part 3 Frame discusses the antithesis between believers and unbelievers, as well as common grace. It is here where I would place the difference between Van Til and Frame, and it is their differing ideas in this section, that leads to the differences explored in part 4. Although Frame agrees with Van Til in theory on antithesis and common grace, he departs from Van Til in practice when engaging with unbelievers.

Part 4: The argument for Christianity

Frame outlines Van Til's criticism of past apologetics (that of the church fathers, Aquinas, Butler and Carnell). He then outlines how Van Til how believed apologetics to be practised. He spends a great deal of time going through Van Til's popular pamphlet called Why I believe in God which is also a very useful resource to the reader.

Part 5: Van Til as a critic

Part 5 was very tedious for me. I found myself lost in Frame's discussion of Dooyeweerd and Barth, but I was very intrigued by his handling of Scholasticism (Thomism). There's some great food for thought here that I wish Frame could have fleshed out more. I appreciated him adding one of his papers from university (which is in a dialogue format) to the book. It really makes his arguments on Thomism easy to follow.

Part 6: Conclusion

In part 6 Frame outlines the current state of presuppositionalism. He mentions a few familiar names in the field and some names that were "up and coming" that are unknown today. It intrigued me that there was no mention of Bahnsen's passing away in this section, so I looked up the date of the book's publishing to compare dates. It is interesting to note that Frame's book was published in 1995, the same year in which Bahnsen passed away.

There's not much value in this section for someone reading in 2021, but it is interesting to see how the things Frame mentions have panned out.

The great points

Clear language. Easy to read and to follow. I might be a bit biased here because I've spent nearly three years now reading and learning about presuppositional apologetics before reading this book. I wouldn't recommend an outright beginner read Frame's book, but I certainly think that anyone that puts their mind to it will be able to make a great deal of sense out of what Frame wrote. There's something in here for everyone.

Like I mentioned before, if the critics of Van Til were to give Frame's book an honest read before putting pen to paper, we'd be living in a slightly better world!

The book did stimulate my thinking on the role of evidence and traditional arguments a lot. I'll go back and read those sections again soon.

Room for improvement

Frame, unlike Van Til, is wary to be critical of other positions. This isn't in and of itself a bad thing. I've also come to learn that it's best to keep quiet and get to know your stuff before you put pen to paper and humiliate yourself.

Frame discusses Van Til's critique of other thinkers (e.g. Aquinas, Butler, Barth, Dooyeweerd), but Frame is a lot more charitable than Van Til. At the beginning of the book he even makes a joke along the following lines (paraphrased):

Van Til believed he was right, and others were wrong. Frame believes Van Til has most elements right and others have some elements right. Poythress believes everyone's right from a certain perspective!

It's hard for me to place Frame's analysis of these other thinkers in any useful place. He demonstrates that there are ways in which we can interpret other thinkers in more charitable lights than Van Til did and that these charitable interpretations would reduce the antithesis between the two men - but I'm not really convinced that this is the way we ought to go. If we interpret everyone in such a way as to not bring out the differences, how will we make progress? I agree with Frame that Van Til was very critical when engaging with other thinkers, but this criticism allows them to state their position clearly and articulate themselves better. This is something useful that came out of the Clark controversy.

The not-so-great points

In my opinion, the weakest part of Frame's work is when he discusses Van Til's doctrine of common grace and the transcendental argument.

He rightly points out that unbelievers have no knowledge (in principle), but because of the restriction of their evil via common grace, unbelievers are not wholly destroyed by their rebellious thoughts and commitments.

If, Frame argues, unbelievers can know due to common grace, why can't we give them the traditional arguments? Is it not possible that through common grace someone might actually follow the argument to its conclusion, and that it might be a means by which the Spirit can lead someone to repentance?

I think the answer is an obvious yes. There are numerous testimonies of people who found Christ via the work of a classical or evidentialist apologist. But just because God hits straight blows with a crooked stick does not mean that we must be content with using crooked sticks. We must still strive to develop the best, and most Scripturally sound and consistent arguments we can. That is what Van Til was after.

In discussions with friends in South Africa, a similar question was asked of me. If TAG doesn't lead to a surefire conversion, why can't we just use the other arguments as well as they accomplish the same thing! My counter-point was this: We can also argue with unbelievers by literally throwing rocks at them, which won't lead to a surefire conversion. But is it Biblically faithful? That's the question.

Frame agrees with Van Til's metaphysics of knowledge. The question is then why he doesn't see that any argument that doesn't distinguish between the epistemology of the unbeliever and the epistemology of the Christian, that attempts to build on some kind of neutral ground (facts that are equally available to both believer and unbeliever), already concedes to the unbeliever that they're fine as far as it goes?

I did mention, however, that Frame forced me to think about the role of evidence and argument within presuppositionalism a lot. If someone were to ask me how I know Christ rose from the dead, would I start by giving extra-Biblical arguments? Frame seems to think that would be alright. I wouldn't be against it per se, but as Bosserman notes in his interview with Parker Settecase, there's no way to try and overcome radical scepticism with the simple addition of more facts. We must call the unbeliever to the full submission of his or her intellect from the start. If there is no submission from the start, there'll be no full submission at the end.


I enjoyed Frame's book and look forward to reading more from him. I'd recommend it to people interested in Van Til no matter where they find themselves in their studies. Perhaps it's even better to give it a read whilst you're still early - it might just save you countless hours of head-scratching.

The book ends with an appendix on Van Til as a preacher. I'd like to end this review with the final words of the book, as all-in-all, this book is a testimony to the greatness of Van Til's thought. He was greatly blessed with a mind like no other, and a love for God and zeal for preaching that is rarely matched today.

Amazingly, however, for all the sweep of his vision of preaching, for all the crusading fevour with which he storms the citadels of humanistic pride, Van Til never loses his focus on the gospel. The Christ who is Lord of all is the Christ who was crucified. I like to remember a picture in a Westminster Bulletin that showed Corneluis Van Til preaching the gospel in the open air on Wall Street, New York. At an age when most surviving Ph.D's would be drowsing over a novel, he was still ready to be a street preacher, a fool for Christ's sake, Cornelius Van Til, V.D.M (Verbum Dei Minister)

Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching the Word of the Lord: Cornelius Van Til, V.D.M


Published by Apologetics Central

At Apologetics Central, we are committed to providing biblically grounded, Reformed presuppositional apologetics resources to equip believers in defending the Christian faith. As a ministry, we strive to uphold the truth of God's word and present it winsomely to a world in need of the gospel.


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