Who was Cornelius Van Til?

Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) revolutionized the world of apologetics. A 20th -century philosopher and theologian, Van Til attended Princeton Theological Seminary, wherein he received his ThM in 1925 and subsequently his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1927.



During this time he benefited from solid biblical instruction, including direction from C. W. Hodge Jr., the grandson of Charles Hodge and the successor to B.B. Warfield. He likewise lived on the same floor as J. Gresham Machen, who, during this time, published his Christianity and Liberalism (1923).


Van Til thus had been surrounded by and received perhaps the greatest Reformed theological training one could hope to attain in the early 20th century.


Shortly after receiving his Ph.D., the seeds of Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic were already evident. In two issues of the Princeton Theological Review (1927 & 1929), Van Til reviews two authors – Alfred North Whitehead and Hermann Bavinck. Within these reviews, we most prominently see Van Til’s treatment of analyzing opposing presuppositions, the impossibility of neutrality between the Christian and non-Christian, and arguing that Christian theism is the only viable alternative to autonomy. [1]


At the turn of the 1930s—by which time he was at Westminster Theological Seminary—Van Til procured his first significant publication in apologetics in 1932 – The Metaphysics of Apologetics. [2]


His apologetic had thus evolved and matured even more into what it is known as today. Crucial to Van Til’s apologetic is the acknowledgment—contrary to the classical and evidential methods—that neutrality is both impossible and immoral. It does not proceed from a neutral position wherein the Christian’s beliefs are forfeited to appease the non-Christian opponent for the sake of pretended open-mindedness.


For Van Til, Christ’s words reign supreme: “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Matt. 12:30, cf. Luke 11:23). Moreover, Van Til recognized both the futility of unbelieving thought and the necessity of presupposing the truth of the Christian worldview in order to make sense of anything whatsoever. Not only was this presupposition of Christianity’s truth necessary for intelligibility, but the actual truths of the Christian worldview themselves must be true lest we fall into abject skepticism and end up in the same position as the non-Christian. Van Til argues that this must be shown transcendentally. He writes that in the transcendental method:

… we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize.

Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology


However, coming from a solidly Christian background, Van Til’s transcendental program differs starkly from Kant’s or any in contemporary literature. Van Til writes:

… we may speak of our method as being transcendental. But if we do we should once more observe that our meaning of that word is different from the Kantian or modern meaning. Kantian thought does not really find its final reference point in God. Modern thought in general does not really interpret reality in eternal categories. It seeks to interpret reality by a combination of eternal and temporal categories. For all non-Christian thought, as we have observed before, eternity is nothing more than a correlative of time. It is only the Christian who really interprets reality in exclusively eternal categories because only he believes God is self-sufficient and not dependent upon time reality.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology


Moreover, Van Til’s apologetic seeks to turn sinners away from their pretended intellectual autonomy by showing that only on the Christian worldview can such intellect be possible. They must acknowledge that which they already know to be true in their heart of hearts – that they are made in the imago Dei, that God their Creator exists, that they are living in rebellion, and that they must turn from their wicked ways and submit to the one, true holy God.


We can thus summarize the uniqueness of the presuppositional transcendental method against the secular use of transcendental arguments as such:


  • Van Til’s transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter TAG) begins first and foremost with the existence of God and His self-disclosed revelation.

  • By extension, TAG does not recognize the mind of man as the final arbiter of truth, as is the case in autonomous thought.

  • TAG does not argue over isolated principles or operations, but over entire worldviews.

  • TAG does not set out (falsely) as being neutral for the sake of open-mindedness.

  • TAG calls for nothing less than a turning away from autonomy and a converting to Christianity.

  • Perhaps most importantly, Van Til’s TAG argues concretely [3] over the objective truths of Christianity. It does not argue abstractly by beginning with a general principle, law, or operation of the universe by which we can make conclusions over isolated experiences.

  • Therefore, Van Til’s TAG is an in-your-face argument. If you do not submit to the Christian worldview, you will intellectually die.


These truths are fundamental if one is to properly understand and appreciate the insightful work Van Til achieved in his apologetic and to distinguish his argument from the futile transcendental ventures made today by autonomous men.

Footnotes


  1. Princeton Theological Review 25 (1927) & 27 (1929).

  2. This syllabus was retitled A Survey in Christian Epistemology, which is the title we today are familiar with.

  3. Concretely: The argument is not a speculative one, nor does it proceed from a generic philosophical problem or law. Concrete simply means we begin with the actuality of the Christian worldview on all accounts (metaphysical and epistemic). This is why Van Til says that, "...we must begin with the actuality of the Book over against the rationalism and irrationalism of unbelieving thought." - Defense of the Faith.

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