Tag Archives: Cornelius Van Til

Meet Cornelius Van Til

One of my favourite authors is Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til was born in the Netherlands in 1896.  While still a child, he immigrated with his family to the United States.  He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and eventually went on to attend Calvin College and Seminary.  In 1922, it was on to Princeton where he earned master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in 1927.  He spent one year as the pastor of a CRC in Michigan before returning to Princeton as an instructor in apologetics.  Later he became one of the pioneering faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He taught apologetics there until 1973.  He died in 1987.

Van Til is important because he recognized the need for consistency in apologetics (the defense of the faith).  Up till his day, there was no internally consistent system of Reformed apologetics.  In other words, the apologetics that was taught and practiced up to that point was more consistent with Arminianism and Roman Catholicism than with Reformed theology.  Van Til took the best insights of previous Reformed theologians including John Calvin, B. B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper and (especially) Herman Bavinck, and brought them together into a consistent approach to defending and promoting the faith of the Scriptures.  This consistent approach begins with recognizing that the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) has to be applied to our method of apologetics.

If you want to read just one book by Van Til, it should be The Defense of the Faith.  However, two caveats are in order:  1) Van Til is not always easy reading.  He wrote for educated laymen and pastors/scholars; 2) If you are going to read The Defense of the Faith, I would suggest the third edition.  There is a more recent fourth edition with notes by K. Scott Oliphint, but that edition tends to focus more on the differences that Van Til had with a number of his critics in the 1950s.  If you’re looking for Van Til to put his beliefs about apologetics into practice, the only thing that’s available is his little booklet Why I Believe in God.  If you want to read about Van Til’s life, the best biography is the one by John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman.  Finally, the best anthology and commentary on Van Til’s work is the massive Van Til’s Apologetic by Greg Bahnsen.

One might quibble with some of Van Til’s statements or formulations, but on the whole he is a reliable and consistently Reformed theologian.  He had two formal faults, however.  One was what I mentioned a moment ago:  clear, effective communication was not his strong suit.  The other is the fact that he so rarely provided the biblical foundations for the case he was making.  It’s not that those biblical foundations weren’t there, but he just didn’t always make them obvious.  That would fall to later generations of his students and followers, especially K. Scott Oliphint and Greg Bahnsen.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that I learned to love the Reformed faith because of Cornelius Van Til.  As a university student I read The Defense of the Faith and I caught Van Til’s infectious love for being Reformed.  Moreover, I realized that Reformed theology, because it is biblical, has the resources within to be able to withstand any assault the world can mount.


Living Sola Scripturally

There are differences between the way houses are often built in Australia and the way they’re built in Canada.  I’m not a builder but even I can see some of these differences.  In many areas of Canada, a house will be built with a basement as the foundation.  However, at least where I live in Australia, most houses are built on top of a flat concrete slab.  But either way they have a solid foundation.  You wouldn’t dream of building without one.

The Protestant Reformation was about getting the church back on a solid foundation.  For the Protestant Reformers there was but one such foundation:  God’s Word.  From that we receive one of the key tenets of the Reformation:  sola Scriptura.   The Bible alone is our foundation.  As the Belgic Confession states in article 7, “Since it is forbidden to add to or take away anything from the Word of God (Deut. 12:32), it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.” 

It’s quite easy to maintain this principle merely in an abstract fashion.  However, sola Scriptura is meant to be lived.  The Bible is not only the foundation for theology in the academic sense, it’s also meant to be the foundation for the life of the church and the life of every Christian.  Let’s briefly explore two ways of living “sola Scripturally.”

Worship

A moment ago I mentioned the Belgic Confession and what it says about the sufficiency of Scripture.  Interestingly, earlier in article 7, the Confession connects the sufficiency of Scripture to public worship:  “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  It’s in the Belgic Confession because it was a contentious issue in the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic Church didn’t maintain the sufficiency of Scripture and that was reflected in how it approached public worship.  Many practices were introduced into the worship of God which had no warrant from God in his Word.

Contrary to that, the Reformers insisted that God’s Word alone can determine the elements of our public worship.  This eventually came to be known as the Regulative Principle of Worship.  As the Heidelberg Catechism expresses it in QA 96, “We are not…to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  Scripture alone is the foundation for Reformed worship.       

So one of the ways we live “sola Scripturally” is that we aim to worship God only in his ways.  For example, the church can never substitute anything for the preaching of God’s Word.  Scripture commands (2 Tim. 4:2) that we must have preaching – authoritative proclamation by a man ordained for that task.  And Scripture also commands that it be the preaching only of God’s Word.  It can’t be human opinions, nor can it be “preaching” based on what God is supposedly revealing in a TV show or movie.  Perhaps that seems obvious, but sadly, it’s not so obvious to many churches not upholding the Regulative Principle of Worship.    

Apologetics

Over the course of my 20-plus year ministry so far, there’s been a surge of interest in learning how to defend and promote the Christian faith.  Back in my seminary training, apologetics wasn’t even taught and there was a level of suspicion attached to it.  Today that’s changed and it’s all for the better.

However, the Reformed approach to apologetics (pioneered by Cornelius Van Til) is still very much the minority opinion, especially in your vanilla Christian bookstore.  Why this matters has to do with foundations.  Non-Reformed apologetics builds on something other than the Scriptures.  Sometimes it’s human rationality and our ability to evaluate arguments or evidence; at other times it might be our sense perception.  Regardless of the details, we’re looking at an approach that’s building on a foundation of sand.

What distinguishes Reformed apologetics is a commitment to sola Scriptura.  This commitment isn’t just lip service.  We actually go to what God says to find out how to defend and promote what God says.  The Bible holds the content of our apologetics, but it also determines our method.

1 Peter 3:15 is often referred to as the “Magna Carta” of apologetics.  Here the Holy Spirit tells us that we’re always to be prepared to offer a reasoned defence of our faith.  However, the first part of the verse is sometimes overlooked:  “…but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy.”  One of the best ways we can do that in apologetics is by building on the foundation Christ gives in his Word.  We need an apologetical method which is determined by Scripture alone.  Reformed apologetics supplies that method.

Conclusion

The word “Reformed” is often reckoned as short-hand for “Re-formed according to the Bible.”  While true enough, we could improve it by adding one little word: “alone.”  To be Reformed is to be constantly going back to the Bible alone.  The reason we do that is because it’s the only sure foundation for our lives as individuals and collectively as the people of God.  It’s been said that you have to stand somewhere in order to get anywhere.  If the place you’re standing is sinking sand, you’re going nowhere.  But if you’re on solid rock, you’ve got the traction you need.  Only the Word of God provides that.


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.