Covenantal Apologetics Part 1: Introduction & Biographical Sketch of Cornelius Van Til

In this 8-part blog series, I’d like to present the way of defending Christianity that I believe is the most faithful to Scripture, which is known as Covenantal Apologetics. The paragon teacher of this method is apologist Cornelius Van Til, and the method itself has endured many titles throughout the years, such as, “Reformed Apologetics,” “Van Tillian Apologetics,” “Presuppositionalism,” and more recently “Covenantal Apologetics.” It is this latter term that I will be using here, as I believe it captures what this method is all about.

For Van Til, “Apologetics is the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life.”[1] For those not familiar with the term “apologetics,” is comes from the Greek word apologia, which literally means “a reasoned statement or a verbal defense.”[2] Therefore, Christian apologetics is simply making a defense for Christianity. In fact, making a defense of our Christian faith is something all Christians are called to do. In 1 Peter 3:15 we’re told to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” Likewise, Jude implores us to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (v.3). Apologetics is something we all must do, and learn to do as faithfully as we can.

Some have a misguided idea that you need a philosophy or apologetics degree to defend Christianity, but this is not so. One need only be mighty in the Scriptures to make a defense, for when you know what the truth is, you will be able to detect what is false.

This is also why I have written this blog. First, in my experience, many churches have not equipped their congregants well in this area. Many Christians don’t know where to begin, or believe their study has to be in grasping complicated philosophical or scientific arguments. Secondly, when covenantal apologetics is mentioned, many people have misunderstandings as to what this method entails. Some have wrongly suppose this method is esoteric, against all forms of evidence or argumentation, or consists only in quoting Bible verses to unbelievers. In this series, I hope to clarify what covenantal apologetics is, and give clear instruction for those wanting to grow in their ability to defend “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

In this series, I will essentially be attempting to bring Van Til to the “bottom shelf” for the average Christian. Van Til can be complicated, and even with my attempt to explain him, some of the material has the potential to get complex. For those areas, slow, methodical, and careful reading will be required. And since I am bringing Van Til to the common reader, I will quote him whenever possible, while still trying to present him simply.

But before we jump into his apologetic method, I think it is helpful to first get a biographical sketch of him. John Muether has written an extremely helpful biography of him. In fact, after I read his book I wish I had read it before I had jumped into Van Til’s writings. There’s something about getting to know someone personally that aids in your getting to know him academically. What follows are some highlights from Muether’s biography.

Born in the village of Grootegast on May 3, 1895, Cornelius Van Til was the sixth child to Ite and Klazina Van Til, dairy farmers in the Netherlands.[3] Cornelius bore several nicknames growing up: one was “Kees” (pronounces “Case”),[4] and the other was “Big Klompa,” for the noise his wooden shoes made when he walked.[5] Van Til grew up being saturated in Scripture, as his family would read portions of the Bible before and after every meal.

After Van Til graduated from Calvin College he entered Princeton Seminary where he graduated in 1927 with a PhD in philosophy (writing his dissertation on “God and the Absolute”).[6] Upon graduation he became pastor of Christian Reformed Church in Spring Lake, Michigan.  His time there, however, was interrupted by a call to be professor of apologetics at Princeton Seminary in 1928.[7] Shortly thereafter he followed J. Gresham Machen and other conservatives to form Westminster Theological Seminary.

“The faith that Van Til sought to defend,” wrote Muether, “was the faith of Reformed churches that found expression in Reformed creeds.”[8] It is often said that the method Van Til proposed was an “ivory tower” approach that was less than practical.  “In truth,” Muether writes, “ Reformed apologetics drove him to the pulpits of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, to the General Assembly study committees, to hospital beds, and even to New York street corners.”[9]

Van Til was motivated for the love of the church, love for evangelism, and for the desire to think God’s thoughts after Him.[10] “Calvin’s theocentricity, Vos’s biblical insights, Kuyper’s antithesis, Machen’s confessional consciousness—all of these influences came to bear upon Van Til’s Reformed apologetics,” explains Muether.[11] Some time later, Van Til’s method was entitled presuppositionalism by Allan MacRae, an antagonist of Van Til who intended it as a term of derision.[12]

Despite all the controversies Van Til is most famous for (e.g., his interaction/involvement with Clark and Barth, to name a few), you would do well to see Van Til as a churchman above all.  His love for the church saturated all he did.  His desire and goal can be seen in an address he once gave to a youth group: “Young people, I am jealous over you. Many things attract us away from Christ… But give unto Christ your whole heart, for he requires it of you.”[13] And while Van Til died on April 17, 1987 (just a few days shy of a meeting he was to have with Albert Mohler),[14] his works are still a much needed blessing to Christ’s church, as Muether writes:

Van Til taught that the defense of the faith must be as Reformed as the exposition of the faith. Thus, to separate the man from his church is an abstract reduction of the richness of his heart and life.  This unity of thought and life continues to be Van Til’s gift to the whole church of Jesus Christ.[15]

Be sure to read the rest of the series:

Part Two: The Supremacy of Scripture

Part Three: Covenantal Realities 

Part Four: Worldviews & Point of Contact

Part Five: Method: Give the Whole Gospel, Two-Step Approach, Persuasion, and The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence

Part Six: The Use of Evidence in Apologetics

Part Seven: The Goal of Apologetics

Part Eight: Conclusion – 9 Characteristics of a Covenantal Apologist & Recommended Reading

[1]Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, ed. by William Edgar, 2nd Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 17.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 13.

[3]John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, in American Reformed Biographies (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 28.

[4]Ibid., 30.

[5]Ibid., 34.

[6]Ibid., 58.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid., 15.

[9]Ibid., 17.

[10]Ibid., 18.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid., 113.

[13]Ibid., 59.

[14]See: 6:05-7:15 in http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/02/on-the-other-side-of-complexity-christian-conviction-in-the-late-modern-age/

[15]Muether, Cornelius Van Til, 240.

© copyright J. Brandon Burks

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