Book Review: Cornelius Van Til, Reformed Apologist and Churchman – by John R. Muether

cornelius-van-tilA Biography on Cornelius Van Til

I wrote a paper on Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic method back when I was in seminary, and since then I’ve been intrigued by his writings and his life. So it was only natural that I found myself purchasing a biography on Van Til when I saw it sitting so pretty and seductive on the shelf at our local Christian bookstore (shoutout to Logos!). I have problem with buying books, so you’ll have to excuse my use of the word “seductive.” Anyway, you should know that I’m not so much interested in reviewing this biography (deceiving blog title I know), but I would like to post two things that seemed to stick with me as I finished reading it…

Van Til the Husband

The day after Van Til’s wife of 52 years died – her name was Rena – one of Van Til’s colleagues wrote the following note to him:

“You have been, and are, probably the most remarkable husband I have ever seen. No one else could have given Rena the care, support, and admiration which you have given her over the years. Time has not dulled your patience and steadfastness. You have thought of her and her welfare over the years and under all possible conditions and have done everything you could to make life possible for her. If have been a most remarkable demonstration of Christian love and tenderness and is a patter that I am sure no one will equal for uncounted time (213).”

I want to be a husband like that. Not much else I can say; just that at the end of my life I want to be known as a man who deeply loved, protected, and provided for Magen.

Van Til & Reconciliation

I’m a Baptist, and we have plenty of demons in our own closet, but I was struck by how much of Van Til’s time seemed to be spent battling against other Presbyterians. There is a good and necessary type of theological fighting, and then there is an over-the-top kind where you just seem angry at the world. In my estimation, Van Til seemed to be involved in both kinds. The gospel of salvation by grace through faith must be defended at all costs. This is non-negotiable for those claiming to be Christians. Van Til stood for the reality of truth. That is, truth can be known and understood, and to oppose this truth is to be wrong. There are many things we don’t know and don’t understand in the Bible, but the things that are clear, are clear. To disagree with these clear truths and claim allegiance to the Bible is twisted.  Van Til referred to this as “antithesis.” There is thesis and there is antithesis. One is correct and one is incorrect. No fuzzy middle. End of story.

But there are also secondary and tertiary issues that should be discussed firmly and seriously, but with a sense of charity to the other party. There are many things that aren’t so clear in the Bible, and there are many things that aren’t of primary importance. Van Til seemed too militant on many of these issues. His tone might have sounded different if I had heard him in person, but I’m not so sure. There were times when I was reading about his life, and I seriously thought, “Man take a chill pill. This other guy loves Jesus, and so do you, don’t die on this hill.” But then, it’s easy to see the speck in his eye, and not the plank in my own. So I’m not accusing so much as I’m observing.

But I think Van Til began to realize some of this at the end of his life. Muether writes, “With former antagonists Van Til spent his last years pursuing reconciliation” (213). Personally, I just don’t want to have to get to the end of my life before I start making amends. I could be reading this whole thing wrong, but I wonder if Van Til had it to do over again, if he would have spent more time attacking the real enemies of Christianity and giving more grace to those whom simply disagreed with him over smaller issues. We battle against spiritual forces after all, not physical ones. Heresy is a spiritual enemy, but our apologetic method…not so much.

I want to keep growing in this area in my own life. I need Jesus to continually help me see what the major issues and minor issues are. The secondary stuff, let’s discuss it all day, but let’s keep our wits about us.

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