The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til (born 1895 in Grootegast, The Netherlands; died 1987) was a Christian philosopher, Reformed theologian, and presuppositional apologist.



Van Til was a graduate of Calvin College, Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton University. He began teaching at Princeton, but shortly went with the conservative group who founded Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught for fourty-three years of his life as a professor of apologetics. He was also a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from the 1930s until his death in 1987, and in that denomination, he was embroiled in a bitter dispute with Gordon Clark over God's incomprehensibility known as the Clark-Van Til Controversy in which, according to John Frame, neither man was at his best and neither quite understood the other's position.


Van Til drew upon the works of Dutch Calvinist philosophers such as D. H. Th. Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd to bring together a fresh approach to apologetics, which opposed the traditional methodology of reasoning on purportedly neutral grounds with the non-Christian. He didn't particularly care for the label describing his approach as "presuppositional," which more accurately represents the apologetical method of Gordon Clark, but he (and his students) accepted it as a matter of convention because it is at least useful in grouping methods into those which deny neutrality and those which do not.

In Van Til: The Theologian, Frame, a sympathetic critic of Van Til, describes Van Til's contributions to Christian thought as comparable in magnitude to those of Immanuel Kant in non-Christian philosophy. He indicates that Van Til identified the disciplines of systematic theology and apologetics, seeing the former as a positive statement of the Christian faith and the latter as a defense of that statement -- "a difference in emphasis rather than of subject matter." Frame summarizes Van Til's legacy as one of new applications of traditional doctrines:

Unoriginal as his doctrinal formulations may be, his use of those formulations -- his application of them -- is often quite remarkable. The sovereignty of God becomes an epistemological, as well as a religious and metaphysical principle. The Trinity becomes the answer to the philosophical problem of the one and the many. Common grace becomes the key to a Christian philosophy of history. These new applications of familiar doctrines inevitably increase [Christians'] understanding of the doctrines themselves, for [they] come thereby to a new appreciation of what these doctrines demand of [them]. Sometimes these new understandings are of quite a radical sort -- radical enough to require new formulations, or at least supplementary formulations, of the doctrines themselves. Van Til...rarely provides such revised formulations, though he does at some significant points.... But there is much in Van Til that will require future orthodox Reformed dogmaticians to rethink much of the traditional language and thus to go beyond Van Til himself. Not that the traditional language is wrong (generally speaking); it is just that through reading Van Til we often become painfully aware of how much more needs to be said.

Similarly, Van Til's innovative application of the doctrines of total depravity and the ultimate authority of God led to his reforming of the discipline of apologetics. Specifically, he denied neutrality on the basis of the total depravity of man and the invasive effects of sin on man's reasoning ability (as per the usual Calvinistic understanding of the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans), and he insisted that the Bible, which he viewed as a divinely inspired book, be trusted preeminently because he believed the Christian's ultimate commitment must rest on the ultimate authority of God. As Frame says elsewhere, "the foundation of Van Til's system and its most persuasive principle" is a rejection of autonomy since "Christian thinking, like all of the Christian life, is subject to God's lordship" ("Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic," p. 282).

Many recent theologians have been influenced by Van Til's thought, including John Frame, Greg Bahnsen , and current Westminster Theological Seminary faculty members Vern Poythress, William Edgar, and K. Scott Oliphint.


Some of Van Til's writings (ranked in order of importance by K. Scott Oliphint) include:

  • A Survey of Christian Epistemology (In Defense of the Faith, vol. II; available online for free) ISBN 0875524958
  • Introduction to Systematic Theology (In Defense of the Faith, vol. V) ISBN 0875524885
  • Common Grace and the Gospel ISBN 0875524826
  • A Christian Theory of Knowledge ISBN 087552480X
  • The Defense of the Faith ISBN 0875524834
  • The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought ISBN 0875524974
  • Christian-Theistic Evidences (In Defense of the Faith, vol. VI), Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978
  • The Doctrine of Scripture (In Defense of the Faith, vol. I), Copyright denDulk Christian Foundation, 1967
  • The Sovereignty of Grace: An Appraisal of G.C. Berkouwer's View of Dordt, Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1975
  • The New Synthesis Theology of the Netherlands, Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1976
  • The Case for Calvinism ISBN 0875524761
  • Essays on Christian Education ISBN 0875524850
  • Psychology of Religion (In Defense of the Faith, vol. IV) ISBN 087552494X
  • The New Hermeneutic ISBN 1112862641
  • The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel (pamphlet) ISBN 0875524877
  • Why I Believe in God (pamphlet; available online for free), Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Theological Seminary, no date
  • Paul at Athens (pamphlet), Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978
  • Karl Barth and Evangelicalism (pamphlet), Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1964

Additionally, Eric Sigward has edited The Works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895-1987, CD-ROM (ISBN 0875524613), a comprehensive collection of Van Til's writings in digital form that also includes images and extensive audio recordings of Van Til.

Books about Van Til

  • Jerusalem & Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til a Festschrift edited by E.R. Geehan ISBN 0875524893
  • Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought by John Frame ISBN 0875522203
  • Van Tilís Apologetic: Readings and Analysis by Greg Bahnsen ISBN 0875520987

References and external links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 08:49:15
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04