by Rev Bob Brenton
Minister of the Reformed Church of Wellington
following was an address presented to the
Wellington Christian Apologetics Society (Inc.),
on the 2nd December 1994
Cornelius Van Til (b. 1895) began his teaching career in
1928 as Professor of Apologetics at Princeton
Theological Seminary. In 1929 he was one of four
Princeton professors to break away and found a new
seminary, Westminster, as a conservative alternative to
the more liberal Princeton. Van Til taught apologetics
at Westminster from 1929 until his retirement in 1972, a
44 year career, all in all.
Cornelius Van Til
address to you is meant to be a presentation of Van
Til's programme, not an apologia of the man.
During my own theological training for the ministry I
had two apologetics professors: one of them taught from
a Van Tilian perspective, the other, an outspoken man
named R.C. Sproul, didn't. I've witnessed the cross-fire
between the two sides, and the fire wasn't always
friendly. I'm not here to re-kindle the old flame or
spark controversy, simply to present to you an
apologetics programme that is to be reckoned with in our
day, especially by evangelical Christians of a
Perhaps you find the title of my address provocative. It
is. On the one hand it suggests that there is such a
thing as "the apologetic tradition" within Christendom.
On the other hand it suggests that one man - Van Til -
stands apart from the tradition in order to launch an
attack against it.
comment on these two hands. First, that there is an
apologetic tradition within Christendom (by Christendom
I mean the rule of Christ as manifested in his Church -
the embassy of His Kingdom - and in the historical
progression of Christian doctrine and practice). In a
way this is a remarkable claim for one to make.
Nowadays, for better or for worse, we live in a
divided Christendom with the church as a
denominated institution. From a church-historical
point of view we can speak generically of the Christian
tradition, believing as we do that a living corpus of
truth (sometimes called orthodoxy) has been preserved
from the beginning to our time and that there is a
discernibly Christian way of life. Yet, along the way
men and movements have arisen to challenge and sometimes
change the tradition. And change it they have!
gathering here this evening I dare say is a rainbow
coalition of Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Wesleyans,
Calvinists, Charismatics, Baptists, and Brethren. (Sorry
if missed your particular stripe!). Now under
Christendom's broad umbrella a diversity of
traditions find shelter. Ecumenism is the
strained effort to find some semblance of unity
in the diversity of these traditions. It is in view of
this diversity, this plethora of traditions, that the
suggestion that Christianity has an apologetic tradition
seems incredible. Is it possible that the field of
apologetics has survived the stress and the fracturing
of Christendom on doctrinal and institutional lines.
Strange as it may seem, yes it is possible, and
not just possible, actual!
all the changes, all the battles have been fought over
the field of theology, or doctrine. That's
Christianity's hard-core, its solid ground. Apologetics
forms a kind of soft shell round that hard-core. The
field of apologetics escapes battle-action because its
ground is too soft. Methodology is softer by far than
theology. Traditionally, apologetics has been a
Til recognised it as such when he came to the
realisation that his particular Christian tradition, the
Reformed or Calvinist tradition, needed an apologetics
programme that was more consistent with its own
theological premises. The two - theology and the method
of defending and vindicating it - ought to be
integrated. Van Til's programme is first and
foremost offered to the greater Reformed Community as a
positive contribution. The issue is the integrity
between doctrine and the practice of defending that
order to positively establish and construct such
a programme, Van Til thought he had to negatively
attack and tear down all inferior methods. These
inferior methods - each one inferior by varying
degrees - are all lumped together in Van Til's thinking
as "the Apologetic tradition" (however, he does
distinguish between Roman Catholic and Arminian
approaches). In place of the tradition, Van Til sets his
own programme, apparently unwilling to build on top of
the existing structure, or even to share the same field
Understandably, such wholesale replacement is most
unsettling to those who have a vested interest in the
field of apologetics. To tear down the old farm house
and replow the field is nothing less than an assault.
Van Til knows this, but he is ready and willing to be
judged by the merits (or demerits) of his programme.
last introductory comment is called for. While Van Til
admits to some originality in respect to the structure
or shape of his programme, he freely confesses this debt
to John Calvin and the classic Reformed theologians,
Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck and Abraham
Kuyper, for the free use of building supplies, not that
all of their materials were acceptable to him. Or to use
another analogy, what Van Til baked up wasn't made from
scratch. To me, Van Til's admission is an honest one.
His programme is new without being novel.
He uses the ingredients of his own Calvinist
tradition for his programme.
consider Van Til's programme along the following lines:
basis in the biblical revelation of Christian theism.
point of contact in man's sense of divinity.
method of argument by presupposition.
goal in the conversion of the sinner's heart.
The Basis of Apologetics:
of all Van Til bases his apologetics in the biblical
revelation of Christian theism. What does this mean?
This means that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ - has revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and
New Testaments, a body of truth - or if you will - a
system of truth, which comes to us not piecemeal,
but as a UNIT.
Til apologetics is the defence and vindication of God's
system of truth against any and every form of
non-Christian philosophy which rivals the truth of
Christian theism. Employing the figure of a fortress to
represent Christianity (Christian theism), Van Til sees
the apologist as the main defender of the fort
(Christianity). As he defends, the other occupants of
the fort can work and build under Christ their Head and
also enjoy the building.
the truth and Christian theism is God's truth, it will
ultimately prevail. After all, the kingdom of Heaven,
which has been sown in this world's field, is
taking root and growing. The leaven of the kingdom is
being worked into the lump of dough even now. This
world is God's world, and this world's
kingdoms belong to His Christ, the King of kings.
Nevertheless, there is a warfare going on in which
Christ is laying claim to the territory He has won by
the triumph of His Cross and Resurrection. Christ is
building His Church (His kingdom's embassy) and through
His Church He is extending the bounds of His kingdom.
However, the world under its prince, Satan, resists and
even attacks the Church.
Van Til imagines this entire complex of Christian truth
as a unit, a kind of fortress that must be
guarded and defended and vindicated. He says: If we can
successfully defend the fortress of Christian theism we
have the whole world to ourselves. There is then
no standing room left for the enemy. We wage
offensive as well a defensive warfare. The two
cannot be separated. But we do not leave the fort in
order to wage offensive warfare (Apol. p. 4).
is a telling statement about Van Til's programme.
The church and its apologists stay with the fort;
they do not venture out to meet the enemy on some kind
of neutral ground. Here Van Til's basis is shown
to be different than most others. Consider the truth of
his entire programme: In Defence of the Faith.
Compare this with Alistair McGrath's book (which is
arguably the best book on the market on apologetic
method): Bridge-Building: Effective Christian
Apologetics. It makes you wonder whether Van Til and
McGrath are involved in the same enterprise.
McGrath says that the chief goal of apologetics is to
build bridges to faith for unbelievers to cross over
(conversion). Van Til says that the chief goal of
apologetics is to defend the faith from the attacks of
unbelievers and to vindicate it in their presence: in
this way some will be converted. In my view - and I hope
in yours, too - there is room for McGrath and Van Til.
Both programmes are good and necessary. We want to reach
out to unbelievers and take them by the hand and lead
them across the gap to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Don't we? But aren't we also prepared to defend the
truth we hold so dear whenever it is under attack? Isn't
this also a way we show our allegiance to the King?
Van Til sees the merit of the other side. He says:
"There is an historical and there is a philosophical
aspect to the defence of Christian theism. Evidences
deal largely with the historical while apologetics deals
largely with the philosophical aspect. Each has its own
work to do but they should constantly be in touch with
Til has been accused of ignoring evidences, of giving
them no place in his apologetic programme. In fact they
do have a place - not as proofs for the existence of God
- God does not need to be proven - but as attestations
that God is true to His Word. Evidences are for bridge
builders like McGrath, not fortress defenders like Van
back to the basis for his programme. Simply put, Van Til
lays an epistemological foundation - a knowledge base -
for doing apologetics. The base is God - the Christian
God - the fountain of all true knowledge - Creation,
Redemption, Consummation, and all that is revealed by
Him. God is the only and original uncreated being, who
exists as a triunity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
together the three divine persons constitute the
exhaustingly personal God (Apologetics, p. 8).
existence of this God, not of some divine being
in general - is the presupposition of a possible
predication. In other words, unless we take this
God (as revealed in the Bible) as the ground of
all reality, then we have nothing solid on which to base
any (thing or fact). This God is the ultimate
subject for all predication: "In His light we see
light." Any other sort of God is no God at all; to prove
that any other God exists is to prove that no God
exists. As Van Til puts it: "God
is the ultimate category of interpretation. Any claim
about reality as knowledge must correspond or match
what God knows! (Analogical knowledge!)".
man know this God - this Bible revealed divine
triune being? Yes, he does. First of all, man knows God
by virtue of His creation in God's likeness. Man was
created in God's image. When God created man, He made
him like Himself in certain respects. Man was like God
in that he had true knowledge, true righteousness, and
true holiness. Man lived in union and communion with his
God. But man is not God. He was created as an
analogue of God. By this Van Til means that man
derived his life and the faculties of thinking,
willing and doing from God. Man was not made to act
autonomously (a Law unto himself) but was created:
a living being dependent on His Creator. As the
analogue of God, man was required to think God
thoughts (after God), to will God: will and to do
the works of God.
Fall (recorded in Genesis 3) was the consequence of man
interpreting reality without reference to God. It
was the result of an epistemological rebellion
(ethical too). Adam put forth his own thought as
the ultimate paradigm of knowing.
spite of man's epistemological rebellion, which resulted
in spiritual death, he could not cut himself off from
God ontologically (with respect to his being). Man ****
God: creature, and continued to have a true knowledge of
man - every person - knows God and knows God
truly. This does not mean He knows everything God knows
(exhaustively). But what He knows, He knows truly.
However, the sons and daughters of Adam do all in their
power to bury the truth, but they are in contact
with it nonetheless! The fallen man is in need of the
new birth - a regeneration of the mind and will
at the heart of his being so that he will obey God and
believe what he knows is true. The unregenerate is
spiritually dead in trespasses and sins. He needs a
new heart, a new life principle to enliven
him to God: thought, will and work. Apart from the
regeneration (new birth) one cannot respond to
and accept the truth of Christianity. Unless you are
born again you cannot see the kingdom.
new birth, when it occurs, brings the consciousness to
life, converting the unbeliever to Christ and Christian
truth, so that he believes in the Lord and
receives His Word as true. The believer trusts the Lord
Jesus Christ because he has been Spirit-moved to receive
Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In accepting
Jesus Christ, the believer accepts in principle the
whole revealed truth about Him, for example, that He is
the only Saviour and Lord! The Lord of course uses His
servants as instruments or vessels of His grace. We
proclaim His Gospel, we bear witness, we give the answer
to those who ask us about the hope we have. Don't we?
leads us now to the question of the point of contact the
apologist has with the unbeliever. This is where things
really begin to get interesting.
Point of Contact the Apologist has with the Unbeliever:
man's sense of divinity
Apologetic tradition, as Van Til observed, has always
operated on the assumption that the mind of fallen man
was still fit to judge for himself what is reasonable
and true. Simply present the right set of evidences, or
marshal a logical appeal, and then leave it to him to
judge for himself whether it is the truth. He can do
this because he is a rational being with the ability
to weigh the evidence or evaluate the strength of your
argument. Christian rationality is merely an island in
the ocean of universal rationality. So long as the
apologist is rational he will have a point of
contact with the unbeliever. He may find that point on
any particular thing.
McGrath, the bridge-builder, modifies this view, taking
into account the effects of the Fall on human knowledge.
McGrath admits to a Christian life and word philosophy
of reality (as does Van Til), but holds that the
non-Christian life and word philosophy of reality
overlaps at certain points with the Christian one. The
challenge for the creative apologist (of which
McGrath is one), is to find the ground where the overlap
occurs and build a bridge there for the non-Christian to
cross over to the Christian side. This common ground
could vary from person to person.
McGrath then looks at Van Til's programme and sees
nowhere a point of contact between Christian rationality
and secular or non-Christian rationality. No point of
contact at all! How does McGrath figure this? He figures
that because Van Til begins with the uncompromising
acceptance of the Biblical revelation of Christian
theism as a unit, and that Van Til simply
confronts the non-Christian with the whole truth, saying
to him, "this is what God requires you to believe" that
this is a disastrous and unwarranted way to do
Granted, Van Til is no creative bridge builder. But is
his approach really unwarranted and does it yield
consider the point of contact from Van Til's point of
view. To begin, Van Til does not believe that the
unbeliever, by use of reason, is a fit judge of truth.
The fact that the unbeliever, when presented with God's
truth - the best "in-your-face" reality there is - so
often denies it as truth, is proof that he by his
reasoning, fails to make the right judgement. Reason
does not naturally operate rightly wherever it is found.
Sinners always try to suppress the truth or distrust it
exchanging it for a lie. They will use this reason to do
that, rather than believe it.
this mean then that there are two rationalities: a
Christian one and a non-Christian one? Not at all. God's
logic or rationality is true not only in
the kingdom of Heaven, but on earth - even in that realm
which resists and denies it. If the only truth is
God's truth, reasons Van Til, why not always impress it
on the consciousness of the unbeliever? After all, is
this not what he must reckon with ultimately. "Yes,"
answers Van Til. And he will reckon with it every
time you put that truth in his face. He will
because he is God's creature made in God's image, man
has a built-in sense of deity (sensus divinitas)
from which he cannot escape.
the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate, Van Til
likens the unbeliever to the prodigal who originally
lived in the father's house. When he left his father's
house he could not immediately efface from his memory
the look and voice of his father. Though the prodigal
did not want to remember his past, he could not forget
it. It required a constant act of suppression to do so,
but ironically the very act of suppressing truth keeps
the truth alive in the consciousness. He is even mindful
that he has despised the riches of his father's
goodness, not realising that this goodness was given to
lead him to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
act of despising his father and goodness as shown by his
time and distance away from his father's house was
tantamount to a "kicking against
the pricks" (to use the pauline expression). By
denying his father, the sinner sins against better
knowledge. He knows who he is (his father's son), where
he has come from (his father's house), and that he ought
to turn around and go back home. He knows better!
because he does, the apologist has a point of contact
with him. Just tell him the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth. The unbeliever may deny it to
your face, but he is nevertheless being made to face up
to the better knowledge his "heart of hearts"
knows to be true. He cannot really get away from his
father. Even if he makes his bed in Sheol, God is there!
The Method of Apologetics:
argue from presupposition
tell the truth! But how? Does Van Til have a method
of telling the truth to the unbeliever? He does. The
method is argument (or reasoning) by presupposition.
It's back to the basis approach. Van Til describes his
method as an indirect approach - even as circular. He
issue between believers and non-believers cannot be
settled by a direct appeal to "facts" or "laws" whose
nature is already agreed upon by both parties to the
debate (why? because the Christian and non-Christian
won't agree on the nature of the facts)."
question is rather as to what is the final
reference-point required to make the facts and laws
intelligible. Are the facts and laws what the
non-Christian assumes they are. Or, are they what the
Christian-theistic revelation presupposes they are?"
settle the issue the Christian apologist must place
himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming
the correctness of his method merely for argument's
sake, in order to show him on such a position that the
facts are not facts and the laws are not laws. That
is, his framework of interpretation will not support
the reality he is committed to.
must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon
the Christian position for argument's sake in order
that he may be shown that only on such a
basis do facts and laws appear intelligible."
other words, the beliefs of the unbeliever must be shown
to have their true basis in biblical revelation.
method Van Til believes to be in line with the Biblical
proverb: "Do not answer a fool
according to his folly, or you will be like him
yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly and he
will be wise in his own eyes." (Prov. 26:4,5) By
making the unbeliever (the fool) give account of his
belief based on his own presuppositions, the apologist
can show him the folly of his ways. Conversely, he can
stick uncompromisingly with the truth he knows is from
God and make an unashamed apologia (as Paul was
wont to do) based on this presupposition of biblical
this method work? Or as McGrath would say: "Is it
effective?" If by "effective" one means that the
non-Christian is converted to faith in Christ, Van Til
would say "yes". The method is effective whenever it
pleases God by His Spirit to take the scales from the
unbeliever's eyes and the mask from his face. It is upon
the power of the Holy Spirit that the apologist relies
when he tells men that they are lost in sin and in need
of a saviour. He does not tone down his message to make
it more agreeable to the unregenerate mind. Instead he
keeps telling the truth knowing that the unbeliever
remains God's creature, always accessible to the truth;
accessible to the penetration of the truth by the Spirit
of God. This leads to the goal of apologetics: the
conversion of the sinner's heart.
the conversion of the sinner's heart
Conversion means change: a change of will of heart, or
direction with reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. On
this Van Til says:
first requirement for effective witnessing is that the
position to which witness is given be intelligible.
The second requirement is that he to whom the witness
is given must be shown why he should forsake
his own position and accept what is offered to him.
Why should the unbeliever change his position if he is
not shown that he is wrong? And in particular, why
should he change if the one who asks him to change is
actually encouraging him in thinking he is
right? Why not go to the heart with God's truth.
Uncompromisingly. Why compromise Christianity in order
to win men to acceptance of it?
the challenge Van Til lays at the feet of the apologetic
tradition. Therein lies the assault and the offence ...
something indeed to reckon with! The question you will
and I will have to answer is this:
offence with Van Til?
it with the Gospel?!
©2002 Wellington Christian Apologetics Society
(Inc.) All Rights Reserved.
Previously published in
Apologia (The Journal of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society)
Vol.5, No.2, p.25-30 1996