Van Til’s Apologetics

“According to what standard?” is the common refrain of those who follow the apologetic of Cornelius Van Til—Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1929 until 1972. The most common apologetic strands fall along two lines: classical—those who are willing to engage in debate about evidences of God—and presuppositional—those who address the underlying worldview to address their disbelief in God.

By and large, most apologists utilize the classical method to defend the Christian faith. However, as Van Til skillfully argues in his work Apologetics, the presuppositional method addresses the effects of the fall as it relates to the mind. Namely, one cannot believe in God through rationalizing arguments because the fall has affected the mind (what is commonly called the noetic effects of the fall, from the Greek voos for mind). By directing all focus to the weak foundation and supports of their godless worldview, the Holy Spirit can work in the life of the unbeliever and regenerate them to have faith in Jesus and what he has done for their salvation.

The Breakdown

  1. Chapter 1: The System of Christian Truth—Before addressing the apologetic method, Van Til begins with a basic outline and summary of the Christian faith. Although it seems out of place or redundant for those who have studied systematic theology, Van Til is establishing an important basis for evangelism. For a Christian to effectively proclaim the gospel and to defend the faith, s/he must know what they believe and why. He also establishes important boundary markers between the Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Arminian theological beliefs and will highlight their implications throughout the following chapters.
  2. Chapter 2: The Christian Philosophy of Life—Common topics covered in apologetic conversations often tend toward philosophy and science. One can either adopt these topics into theology, reject them entirely, or reframe the relationship. Van Til chooses the latter and relates philosophy and science to theology through covenant. God, who put himself in relation to his creation (though he is still distinct from it), is the author of all truth. People use these topics to know in life—how the world works and what we are to believe. However, God has given his Word to reveal to his creation all things pertaining to life and godliness.

    To see the face of God everywhere and to do all things, whether we eat or drink or do anything else, to the glory of God, that is the heart of the covenant idea. And that idea is, in the nature of the case, all inclusive. There are two and only two classes of men. There are those who worship and serve the creature and there are those who worship and serve the Creator. There are covenant breakers and there are covenant keepers. (26)
  3. Chapter 3: The Point of Contact—Certainly, Christians and non-Christians can come to know and believe the same fact. However, a common refrain of Van Til is that there are no “brute facts”—facts that exist in isolation and without context. Therefore, although Christians and non-Christians may affirm the same fact, they arrive at that fact from a different foundation and methodology—their worldviews are fundamentally different, and this will have bearing on how they arrive at the knowledge of something.

    [The sinner] is alive but alive as a covenant-breaker. But his own interpretative activity with respect to all things proceeds on the assumption that such is not the case. … The truly biblical view, on the other hand, applies atomic power and flame-throwers to the very presupposition of the natural man’s ideas with respect to himself. (57-58)
  4. Chapter 4: The Problem of Method—All of creation points humanity to God as their Creator and Savior. However, whereas classical apologists will use this as a starting basis, Van Til’s school of thought argues that because natural man suppresses this knowledge, it is futile. He does not disregard using creation in apologetics, but that it should not be the source and foundation of apologetic activity.

    If the natural man is given permission to draw the floor-plan for a house and is allowed to build the first story of the house in accordance with his own blueprint, the Christian cannot escape being controlled in a large measure by the same blueprint when he wants to take over the building of the second story of the house. (70)

  5. Chapter 5: Authority and Reason—Ultimate authority means everything in apologetics. There are so many sources and foundations one can use and they can be used in so many different ways. Without having a solid grasp of authority and reason, then all efforts to defend the faith are meaningless. For Van Til, the presentation of reality—that God created all things, that we are fallen, that he is the Redeemer—must be presented clearly and boldly. If the non-Christian refuses to accept this true reality for what it really is, then all other facts and knowledge are meaningless.

The Good

Although Van Til’s apologetic methodology can be dense and hard to follow at times, he does provide a simple method of defending the Christian faith and presenting the gospel to non-Christians. Essentially, rather than storing up arguments and responses derived from science and philosophy, one simply needs to understand redemption—both in its power to save and how the fall has affected all things, including the mind.

The Improved

Van Til’s apologetic method is almost solely cognitive in nature—it addresses the fall of the mind. This factor is important to consider, but our apologetic method must also consider the heart of the unbeliever (as well as our own) and our service to others. Now, this focus is due to his context in the last century—one that was broadly based in modernism (scientific certainty), but slowly transitioning to postmodernism (relatively). If his method is really that effective (and it is!), then how much more so could it be if it considered other forms of engagement that addressed other aspects of human experience.

Living as Exiles

For Christians, we can go out with boldness and assurance that the message we proclaim and the faith we defend provides an accurate and wholistic account of life. We do not need to fear humanity and worry about which objections they will raise, for the gospel will speak for itself. This does not mean that we should be unaware of what is being discussed and debated, but it does mean that our ultimate hope does not lie in these debates, but in the power of the gospel.

Van Til, Cornelius, and William Edgar. Christian Apologetics. 2nd ed. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003.

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