Misunderstanding Cornelius Van Til

It’s the end of the semester for me, and I’ve just finished my last exam. Fortunately my class on Advanced Apologetics didn’t have an exam, per se, but we did have to turn in a paper on apologetic methodology. Given that my seminary takes a presuppositional approach to apologetics, producing said paper was no easy feat.

I am far more familiar with the classical method of apologetics, as exemplified by Dr. Norman Geisler or R.C. Sproul, than I was with the approach and method of Dr. Cornelius Van Til. In studying for the paper for my apologetics class, I was struck by just how misunderstood Cornelius Van Til really is – at least in some circles.

Of course, there are different degrees of misunderstanding; at one extreme you have John W. Robbins of the Trinity Foundation, who seems to go out of his way to misrepresent Van Til and quote him out of context. Then you have R.C. Sproul, and others, who don’t seem to really grasp Cornelius Van Til’s thought. For evidence of this all you have to do is read Van Til’s Christian Apologetics and then compare what he says there with the presentation of Van Til’s thought in Classical Apologetics, edited by Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsay, or the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norman L. Geisler.

The stark reality, however, is that Dr. Van Til didn’t really help himself when it came to being misunderstood. He was a first-generation Dutch immigrant, and English wasn’t his native tongue. Van Til’s writing is often dense and difficult – just read his book Christianity and Barthianism if you don’t believe me!

What I have taken away from the study of Van Til, though, has been incredibly helpful. His methodology, which questions the preconditions for the necessity of intelligibility, is a powerful tool in the hands of the apologist. But mostly what I have taken away has less to do with apologetics than it does with piety.

I have seen how potent a love for Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith can be in the life of a believer. I’ve learned to enjoy the simplicity of Van Til’s faith – a simplicity that he found on the far side of complexity, which is no mean feat. And I’ve learned to labor with great sweat and vigor to write in such a fashion as to be understood.

Thank God for Cornelius Van Til.

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"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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