Tag Archives: Cornelius Van Til

A Herald of Freedom in Christ

Man of the First Hour: A Son’s Story: Jules Taco Van Popta, George van Popta.  Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021.  Paperback, 226 pages. 

At a certain point in this biography, the author describes going to the Netherlands with his mother Helen.  His father, Rev. J.T. Van Popta, had died two years earlier.  While visiting his old church in Mussel, they heard congregation members still speak reverentially of “onze dominee” (our minister).  My grandparents on both sides had Rev. J.T. Van Popta as their pastor in Edmonton.  Long after he was gone, they continued to speak highly of him.  My Opa Bredenhof described him as a “good, peaceful man.”  When he became my paternal grandparents’ pastor again some years later when he accepted the call to Cloverdale, they were extremely thankful.  Rev. J.T. Van Popta became a legendary figure, even for us grandchildren who’d never met him.

So, when I heard about this biography written by his son George, I was all over it like white on bread.  The book certainly doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a well-told story of one of the pioneer Canadian Reformed pastors – in fact, the very first Canadian Reformed pastor.  We hear of his family background in the Netherlands, the trials of immigrating to Canada, and the enormous challenges in being a “man of the first hour.”  There’s joy and laughter, but the tears aren’t left out either.  In particular, the author relates his father’s struggle with depression and burnout, as well as the toll his sudden passing took on Helen and her children.

Let me share a few details I found particularly interesting.  Though he wasn’t yet a pastor, Jules Van Popta experienced the Liberation of 1944.  This was an ecclesiastical event which tore apart the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  It happened because of autocratic (and unlawful) synod decisions.  During and afterwards, Van Popta showed a keen understanding of the main issue resulting in the Liberation:

A theological opinion had developed that the children of believers are to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they have been born again. The issue was not whether or not someone could hold that opinion; rather, it was that the opinion was made binding upon all. The ministers were required to teach this upon the threat of deposition from office. That, said my father and many others, was not allowed. The synod erred in binding a theological opinion on the pulpits of all the churches. (p.130) 

Ultimately this was about the freedom which Christ has won for us – a synod had illegitimately seized that freedom.

Living in the freedom won for us by Christ was a theme throughout the life of Jules Van Popta.  It comes out also in how he approached the issue of labour unions.  This became controversial in the early years of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  To find out Van Popta’s view, you’ll have to buy the book – I won’t spoil it.  Appendix 3 contains a lengthy article he wrote on the subject.  Looking back at Van Popta’s legacy, the author points out that his father’s “position on union membership left a stamp on the Canadian Reformed Churches” (p.131).

For those interested in apologetics, it’s noteworthy that Jules Van Popta corresponded with Cornelius Van Til, and even met with him on one occasion.  Van Popta loved to study philosophy – and so it’s no wonder he would take an interest in Van Til.  There seem to be echoes of Van Til in what Jules Van Popta writes in Appendix 7, “Either Faith or Science?”, especially when he says that in the Bible “Divine authority demands that every thought must surrender in obedience to Christ” (p.187). 

If you’re like me and appreciate church history biographies, Man of the First Hour is a must-read.  If you’re interested in the Dutch immigration experience in the post-Second World War period, you’ll enjoy it too.  But more than enjoyment, you’ll be edified by both the life and the writings (in the appendices) of Jules Taco Van Popta.  He lived for Christ and his witness calls us to do the same.    

Man of the First Hour can be ordered from the Publisher at this link.                 


An Admiring Look at the Greatest Popularizer of Reformed Theology

R.C. Sproul: A Life, Stephen J. Nichols.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Back in the early 90s, there was a fuss in the pages of our denominational magazine over what one of the pastors was doing with his catechism students.  This pastor was having his youth listen to tapes of an “outside” Reformed theologian.  That theologian was R.C. Sproul.  As I recall, that was my first introduction to his name.  A short time later I was browsing the theology stacks in the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta.  For a public university, the U of A actually had a remarkable collection of Reformed theology works.  I spotted a book by R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God.  I borrowed the book and wolfed it down in short order.  I was impressed, not with Sproul, but with God’s holiness.  Especially the explanation of Isaiah 6 left me in awe of the Holy One.

Part of the legacy of R.C. Sproul was his profound gift to make Reformed theology accessible to everyone.  When he died in 2017, many spoke of the way God used him to convey biblical truths clearly and effectively.  This biography, the first, highlights the life and work of the man I’d call the greatest popularizer of Reformed theology. He had a knack for making complex things simple. Here’s a great sample of the man in action:

The author, Stephen J. Nichols, was a friend and admirer of Sproul.  Nichols’ affection is impossible to disguise.  As is often the case with this sort of less-than-arms-length biography, we get a good understanding of the main lines of Sproul’s life and influence, but we don’t really see the man “warts and all.”  This biography is edifying and informative, but the author’s relationship to his subject (and the Sproul family) brings in a measure of restraint to what he can and does tell.  I’m sure someone in the future will write a scholarly, critical biography telling us a fuller picture of the Sproul story.

Sproul was involved with several important stories during his lifetime.  One was the struggle for biblical inerrancy beginning in the 1970s.  Sproul was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  He wrote the first draft of the articles of affirmation and denial for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Nichols devotes a whole chapter to this topic. 

There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to Sproul’s defence of the biblical doctrine of justification.  A document was released in 1994 entitled, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).  Some of the original signers of this statement were close friends of Sproul, especially Charles Colson and J.I. Packer.  ECT compromised on the doctrine of justification, how we’re declared righteous by God.  Sproul and others pointed out how ECT’s compromise formulations left out the crucial element of imputation – i.e. that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by God.  Sadly, the controversy over ECT ended Sproul’s friendships with Colson and Packer.  The story, as told by Nichols, inspires readers to discern which hills are truly worth dying on.  If justification isn’t worth it, what is?

It’s hard not to love R.C. Sproul.  I loved him before reading this biography and I love him more after.  That doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with everything he’s stood for.  Apologetics is one area where I have to respectfully disagree with him.  Nichols stresses Sproul’s contributions to the revival of what we call classical apologetics.  This approach stresses the use of rational arguments to argue towards God, and from there towards the God of the Bible, and from there towards the truth of Christianity.  Contrasted with classical apologetics is Reformed, presuppositional apologetics.  This approach argues for the truth of the Christian worldview taken as a whole by pointing out that unless Christianity is true, no reasoning is even possible.  This was the approach championed by Cornelius Van Til.

On the topic of apologetics, this biography leaves me with some questions.  According to Nichols, Sproul went to seminary “committed to presuppositional apologetics” (p.59), but had his mind changed by John Gerstner.  One of his most influential college professors had been a student of Van Til and, apparently, impacted the young Sproul.  Here’s the important thing to realize:  presuppositional apologetics is inextricably bonded to Reformed theology.  You can be an Arminian and hold to classical apologetics, but it should be impossible to be an Arminian and hold to Reformed apologetics.  That’s why I’m confused when Nichols writes the following:  “R.C. went to PTS [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] a presuppositionalist and a non-Calvinist” (p.63). If he really was a presuppositionalist, he can’t have had a very good understanding of it if he still wasn’t Reformed.  It gets more interesting, because later in the book, we discover that Sproul spent time visiting with Cornelius Van Til at his home in Philadelphia.  Yet, when you read his (co-authored) book Classical Apologetics and its critique of Van Til, it seems Sproul didn’t really understand him.

That leads me to one last point of critique on the apologetics theme.  In 1977, there was a debate between R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen on apologetical method – classical versus presuppositional apologetics.  You can find this debate online here.  Bahnsen was a formidable debater and, even though it was brotherly and cordial, by the end Sproul was conceding Bahnsen’s key points.  Sadly, Stephen Nichols doesn’t mention this debate at all.  I’m left wondering:  what did Sproul think about that debate in the following years?  If Sproul conceded those points during the debate in 1977, how does one explain the publication of Classical Apologetics in 1984, in which Sproul reasserts the claims he had to earlier walk back?  I’m perplexed.   

Sproul did have a change of mind on several matters through his lifetime.  One of those mentioned by Nichols is the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1-2.  Sproul came around to the conclusion that “day” there is essentially what we understand as a day today.  However, it would’ve been interesting if Nichols had shared how Sproul changed his thinking and how that was received by others.

I couldn’t put this biography down.  It’s engaging and well-written.  If you’ve ever read anything by Sproul or heard any of his talks, this volume will give you a greater appreciation for him and what God did through him.  And if you’ve never been blessed by Sproul’s lifetime of promoting Reformed theology, this will be a great introduction.                 


A Sometimes Forgotten Figure in Our Church History

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.  Hardcover, 450 pages.

In my corner of the Reformed world, figures in church history are often categorized as heroes or villains.  If you’re either one, you stand a chance of being remembered.  For example, Abraham Kuyper is considered a villain because of the way his views were imposed on the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, especially in the 1940s.  Klaas Schilder is a hero because of the way he resisted the imposition of Kuyper’s views.  But if you can’t be neatly categorized, even if you’ve made important contributions, more than likely your name and however God may have used you will be forgotten. 

I’m afraid that’s been the case with Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).  I had a look through my childhood church history textbook, Young People’s History of the Church by W. Meijer (published in Launceston!).  Figures like Schilder and Kuyper dominate.  But Bavinck isn’t mentioned at all, not even once.  P.K. Keizer’s Church History, a textbook for high schools and colleges, doesn’t fare much better.  Bavinck is mentioned once, just in passing.  I first discovered Herman Bavinck in university by reading Cornelius Van Til, the pioneer of Reformed apologetics.  Van Til claimed he wasn’t being all that innovative, just building on what others had done before, and especially Bavinck.

Who was Herman Bavinck?  Without spoiling the book, he was a highly-respected Dutch theologian.  After a short pastorate, he first taught at the seminary of the churches established out of the Secession of 1834.  Bavinck was instrumental in discussions leading up to the Union of 1892, when the churches of the Secession merged with the churches of the Doleantie of 1886.  In 1902 he accepted a position to teach theology at the Free University of Amsterdam.  He was also actively involved in politics, being elected as a senator to the Dutch parliament in 1911.  He wrote dozens of articles and books, the most notable being his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (which has been translated into English).         

I’m hopeful that this new biography by James Eglinton will spark renewed interest in this influential figure from our Reformed church history.  While it’s scholarly and careful, it’s also exceptionally readable.  A few years ago, James Bratt published a biography of Abraham Kuyper (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democratreviewed here).  This too was a scholarly biography, but it suffered from assuming too much about the reader’s prior knowledge of Kuyper’s context.  Eglinton, on the other hand, explains everything well for the reader new to Bavinck.  Eglinton has helpful features, including a map, chronology, and a list of key figures, churches, educational institutions and newspapers.         

This isn’t the first Bavinck biography to appear in English.  In 2010 we saw Ron Gleason’s Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman and Theologian (my review is here).  Eglinton’s biography is different in that it claims to be a critical approach to Bavinck – “critical” in the sense of being analytical.  Eglinton presents Bavinck as a theologically orthodox believer trying to come to terms with the modern world, a world which began to change radically after 1848. The author doesn’t shy away from some of the weaknesses, inconsistences, or doubts of his subject.  Eglinton also corrects some of the inaccuracies of previous biographers, not only Gleason, but also Dutch biographers such as R.H. Bremmer.  Eglinton does this by going back to the original sources, especially Bavinck’s journals and letters.

As a result of this original research, some new details of Bavinck’s life have emerged.  For example, Eglinton reveals the tragic obsession the young Bavinck had with Amelia den Dekker.  His journals tell the story of his apparently unrequited love for Amelia and how she broke his heart.  These sorts of details fill in more of the human side of Herman Bavinck.

It also becomes clear how Bavinck isn’t easily boxed.  He was a “son of the Secession,” but chose to study at the University of Leiden, a hotbed of theological liberalism.  Bavinck was always confessionally Reformed, yet one of his closest friends was an atheist.  He was a friend and colleague of Abraham Kuyper, yet was publicly and privately critical of Kuyper.  Bavinck edited and republished a classic Reformed theological textbook known as the Leiden Synopsis, but when he wrote his own dogmatics he wasn’t just regurgitating past formulations.      

Readers may also be surprised to discover that Bavinck was ahead of his time on some issues.  For example, Herman Bavinck argued that there was no Scriptural basis on which women should be prevented from voting, whether in society or in the church.  He wasn’t the first to make such arguments, but his voice did carry some heft in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Eglinton adds some context to these views with his fascinating description of Bavinck’s wife Johanna, a woman who certainly had an independent spirit and a sharp mind of her own.       

Scholars of Dutch Reformed church history are lauding this work and rightfully so.  But I’d also highly recommend it to all pastors and church leaders, as well as teachers of church history in Christian schools.  Not only is it informative, but it’s an enjoyable read.  Best of all, it’ll leave you with a more nuanced view of how Christ has been working through complex people to gather, defend and preserve his church.


Jay Adams, Pioneer of Nouthetic Counselling, Dies at 91

Jay Adams died on November 14, 2020.  He was 91 years old.  If his name is familiar, it’s probably because of his association with counselling.  Adams was the pioneer of nouthetic Christian counselling, a theory of counselling based on what the Bible teaches about sin, human nature, and the dynamics of meaningful change.  However, Jay Adams deserves to be remembered for more than just his contributions to Christian counselling.  Let’s briefly survey his life and work.

Training and Ministry

Adams studied theology at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia – he actually began studying there at the age of 15.  He later received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and Masters in Sacred Theology from Temple University.  Completing his academic training, Adams was awarded a Ph.D. in speech from the University of Missouri.

From 1963-1983, he taught pastoral theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Prior to that, he pastored a number of Presbyterian churches, including an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation.  Over the last decades of his life, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held his ministerial credentials.  He was the founder of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) as well as the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies.   

Basic Orientation

I began reading Jay Adams as a university student.  One thing that immediately impressed me was his real commitment to Scripture and the Reformed faith.  He always took the Bible seriously.  Whatever topic he was writing on, from Christian living to counselling to preaching, sola Scriptura was his touchstone.  You might not agree with his exegesis or conclusions (I certainly haven’t always), but you have to agree that this is at least the right approach. 

Adams was following in the footsteps of Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til argued that Reformed principles, drawn from Scripture, must be consistently applied in apologetics.  Jay Adams took that approach and applied it to pastoral theology.  The starting point and governing standard must always be the Word of God. Prior to Adams, this hadn’t been fully recognized in Christian counselling.

Critics

Not everyone was enthusiastic about Adams’ approach, especially as it applied to counselling.  For example, in 1977, an article appeared in Clarion by Dutch theologian Cornelis Trimp.  The article (originally a lecture delivered at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary) expressed some appreciation for Adams, but was overall quite critical.  Trimp’s critique would be influential in the Canadian Reformed Churches for years to come. 

In 1999, I had the opportunity to meet Jay Adams briefly at a conference in Buffalo where he was speaking.  I specifically asked him about Trimp’s critique and what he thought of it.  He said that he thought it was unfair that Trimp based his critique on just one early book, Competent to Counsel.  After Competent to Counsel and before Trimp’s critique was published, Adams wrote several more books where he explained himself further and answered many of the criticisms Trimp offered.                     

Other critics raised questions about Adams’ concept of habituation.  In Adams’ thinking, habitual actions are automatic, second nature, and unconscious.  They can be good or bad, which is to say that they have a moral character.  In 2003, George W. Schwab wrote an important article for the Journal of Biblical Counseling in which he persuasively argued that Adams was more influenced by O. Hobart Mowrer and William Glasser than by Scripture in formulating his views on habituation.

His Abiding Contribution

Keep in mind that Adams wrote well over 100 books.  When you write that much, you can expect that there will be disagreements and critiques – and there were many of them.  Some of the critiques had more to do with Adams’ tone or style, sometimes perceived as too strident or too forceful.  Some of the critiques were unfair or prejudicial, while others were on point and advanced the discussion.  Many of Adams’ successors at CCEF, men like the late David Powlison, used Adams’ basic biblical approach and helped move Christian counselling forward.  They all owe a debt of gratitude to Adams for getting the discussion going.     

My life and ministry have certainly been enriched by Jay Adams.  Perhaps he has something to offer you too.  Let me make some suggestions to finish off:Competent to Counsel was one of Adams’ earliest books, published in 1970.  It is an important book, but it leaves many questions hanging.  If you’re interested in understanding the basics of his nouthetic counselling methodology, a better place to start would be A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption.   A good follow-up would be How to Help People Change: The Four-Step Biblical Process.  A couple of other books that are more directed to the regular “person in the pew”:  What To Do On Thursday: A Layman’s Guide to the Practical Use of the Scriptures and The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image.  Preachers and aspiring preachers need to read his Preaching with Purpose and Truth Applied:  Application in Preaching.


New/Old Reformed Apologetics Resources

As a 21 year old young man I was singularly blessed. My introduction to apologetics (the defense of the faith) was directly to Reformed apologetics. In God’s providence, no one told me to read Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig or even Lee Strobel. No, when I came to apologetics, I was brought directly to Cornelius Van Til. My first book on apologetics was Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith (Third Edition). I devoured it over the course of a couple weeks during my first summer off from university. It set my mind ablaze. I started telling everyone who’d listen about Reformed, presuppositional apologetics. You couldn’t shut me up about it.

How I was introduced to Van Til is a peculiar story. It involves a number of Canadian Reformed folks in northern Alberta who were enamoured with a movement known as Christian Reconstructionism. One of the planks of Christian Reconstruction is theonomy. One of the things theonomy teaches is that there is a continuing divine obligation for civil government today “to obey and enforce the relevant laws of the Old Testament, including the penal sanctions specified by the just Judge of all the earth” (Bahnsen, By This Standard, 4). As a young man, I was introduced to this notion and attempted to engage it critically.

However, another plank of Christian Reconstruction is the Reformed, presuppositional apologetics pioneered by Cornelius Van Til. I was reading theonomists and they often mentioned Van Til’s apologetic method. So, one day in mid-1994, I was visiting Reg Barrow at Still Waters Revival Books. SWRB at that time was not only the chief purveyor of Christian Reconstructionism in Canada, but also one of the best sources for Reformed books in general, certainly in Edmonton. At SWRB I spotted Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith. I recalled his name from the theonomists I’d been reading, but was also fresh out of my first year of university and licking my wounds from battles with secularists in academia. I needed this book.

After finishing The Defense of the Faith, I started reading anything else by Van Til I could get my hands on. I noticed that Van Til had students, some better than others. To my mind, there was no better student of Van Til’s apologetics than Greg Bahnsen, especially after I listened to his epic debate with Gordon Stein. I subscribed to Bahnsen’s “Penpoint” newsletters, sent via snail mail back in the day. One thing led to another and, after my B.A., I was even enrolled in the M.A. in Apologetics program at the Southern California Center for Christian Studies for a brief time. However, I didn’t get to study with Bahnsen himself — he died from complications during heart surgery in December 1995.

That was 25 years ago. Over this past quarter-century, Bahnsen’s work on apologetics has been available. Several books were published posthumously, including his magnificent Van Til’s Apologetic. Many of his articles on apologetics (and other subjects) have been freely available all along. But this past week, finally, after 25 years, all of Bahnsen’s recordings are being made freely available (previously only available for sale). This includes all his individual lectures and lecture series on apologetics.

At the moment, you can already download MP3s for free from Covenant Media Foundation here. Apparently, arrangements have been made with two other organizations to also host material from Greg Bahnsen, though the material isn’t yet available. One of those is the Bahnsen Project. The other is Apologia Studios (associated with Jeff Durbin/James White). My understanding is that these two organizations will remaster the audio recordings so they’re of a higher quality.

The other day I heard someone describe our day as a “golden age” for Reformed apologetics. Certainly the wealth of available resources is unparalleled. If you want to learn apologetics from a Reformed perspective, it’s all out there. You are without excuse if you ignore it.

A final disclaimer: Greg Bahnsen was a theonomist — in fact, he popularized the term with his Theonomy in Christian Ethics. By recommending him as a teacher of apologetics, I’m not endorsing every jot and tittle of his political ethics. Still, there’s just no denying the obvious: he was and remains one of the best teachers of Reformed apologetics. Van Til himself is heavy going for many people, but Bahnsen had a way to bring it home. Do yourself a favour and listen to one of his lecture series on apologetics. You won’t regret it!