Playful, Pius or Remembered Stuff

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Van Til and Me

Cornelius Van Til was at least one of the most important thinkers in the field of Christian apologetics of the twentieth century.  He was part of the original faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.  And I had the privilege, in God's providence, of sitting at his feet from 1959-1961.  In those days I was somewhat aware of the historic blessing that was mine, but only years since then have I fully realized just how blessed I am.  There were other great names among these men, but this post is about Dr. Van Til.

I was overwhelmingly intimidated by the prospect of attending Westminster in the first place.  I, the kid who was told in the ninth grade that he wasn't college material, was actually entering my first year of seminary work.  I had flunked my English entrance exam in college.  I was reminded by my pastor, and even professors at college, just how demanding the work would be at Westminster.

When we drove old route 66 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike into Philadelphia back in September of '59 I was certain I would flunk out of Seminary if I didn't experience a miracle.  What was I thinking?

The day before classes began I drove to the campus to look around, and behind Machen Hall many trees had been felled in preparation for the installation of a major highway, so I was to learn.  As I strolled around I spotted a tall, greying and distinguished gentleman, his long coat flapping in the breeze, just standing there contemplating the fallen grove.  When we were near enough to speak Dr. Van Til remarked, "Isn't it a shame that all these beautiful trees had to go?"  We exchanged names, although I think the faculty was already familiar with the names of all the entering class before now.  I was sufficiently in awe of my professor that we only exchanged small talk pleasantries.  But I was to discover that this brilliant mind belonged to a Dutch farm boy whom the Lord called and gifted to be here.  The comfortable presence of the farm boy was inviting.

Dr. Van Til had friends in California, and he often referred to Ripon in his homey illustrations.  When he would stop me in the hallway to make a comment about this California boy, wearing brick red trousers, it was always with playful appreciation.

During my middle year, actually the day after finals, I underwent an emergency appendectomy, and became a ward patient in the local hospital.  Two professors came to visit me in bed there, and one of them was Dr. Van Til.  Later I was to learn that it was customary for him to visit patients at any one of the nearby hospitals.  He would approach the bedside of a patient and say, "Hello, I'm a Christian clergyman, and if I may, I would like to read a little scripture for you."

I heard Dr. Van Til lecture on the foibles of secular philosophy, leaving my head spinning.  And I heard him preach the gospel simply and clearly.  Since his apologetic was legendary and academically challenging, I read his book, "Defence of the Faith" before I got to Westminster.  I thought I got it, but there was always something big that seemed distant.  I mostly got "2"s from him (corresponding to "B" in most grading systems).  I was quite content with that.

When we were invited to the Van Tils for dinner one time, the first thing I noticed was a set of Karl Barth's "Kirchliche Dogmatik" (Church Dogmatics) in the original German, with worn and dog-eared pages, prominently displayed on an end table.  His lovely wife was wonderfully hospitable, and this night he had invited a contingent of California boys and their wives.

During lectures Dr. Van Til was likely to pick up his podium, still building profound sentences, then pump the podium up and down above his head as though he were doing push ups.  While fielding questions, he might lie on the table and listen with rapt attention, encouraging the distracted questioner to "go on."  More than once we saw him toss small pieces of chalk over his shoulder randomly as others might handle what they wanted to call "brute facts".

Voluminous papers earned higher grades so regularly that urban myth claimed that he threw the papers down the stairs, assigning the higher grades to the ones that drifted farthest down.  Confirmation of this myth was claimed when he returned all the papers in such a short time.  Some of the boys tested him.  They might staple two pages together to see if Van Til pulled them apart in order to read them.  Of course when the paper came back the staple was still intact.  One boy wrote in a bracketed sentence, "Dr. Van Til, if you are reading this, I owe you a coke."  He would never mention the offer.  The surprise came when he quoted some of the papers during his lectures.  "As Albert said in his paper...."

A long standing yearning of Dr. Van Til's was realized when Bill Krispin set up an academy opportunity for Westminster faculty members to teach inner city pastors with whom Bill was working in south Philadelphia.

His zeal for evangelism was also seen in the photo of him with Jack Miller preaching the gospel in the heart of Wall Street in New York City.

Here was a brilliant man whose presuppositionalism still challenges those who try to explain it.  He simply refused to give up any biblical truth for the sake of making a point of contact with an unbeliever.  He knew the unbeliever already knows God is there, but he is denying the truth to sidetrack his responsibility to believe the gospel.  Epistemology is actually that simple.

For all the erudite argumentation Van Til generated, he was at heart a sweet farmer's boy who intensely loved Jesus.


  1. Van Til was an excellent apologist. You know, I still find the dual meaning of the word "Apology" funny. The defense of the faith and to say you're sorry, maybe that's just me.

  2. I took a course on Van Tillian apologetics while I was a student at Gordon-Conwell, taught by theology prof Jack Davis. It was a great course, but very challenging. It is hard to wrap one's mind around Van Til and his approach. But I learned a lot and have remembered helpful things.

  3. Van Til's were a part of my background. His brother, Henry, was married to my mom's cousin. They spent a few vacations in Montana. But John's parents had both Van Til's at the Sunday dinner table frequently. Later at a PCA church split, as both sides bantered back and forth and traded "theological" barbs, John's reaction was - well, well, I had C Van Til at the dinner table! For what it's worth -