Book Review

A Theological Life

Nick Batzig
John R. Meuther
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

John Muether has written a noteworthy biography of the life and ministry of Cornelius Van Til, setting the theological contributions of Van Til in the historical context in which they were developed and defended. It is on this account that Muether's Cornelius Van Til: Re-formed Apologist and Churchman stands out as a unique contribution to the world of Christian biographies. The overarching purpose of this work is to show that Van Til was preeminently committed to the work of Christ in the church. In short, the book aims at demonstrating that "Van Til's theological commitment cannot be understood apart from his ecclesiology" (15).

Cornelius Van Til was a child of the Afscheiding. The Afscheiding was a term used to denote the group that seceded from the state church of the Nether-lands in the nineteenth century. It was not until the days of Abraham Kuyper that the children of the secession would be compelled to "break out of the social and cultural isolation that characterized the Afscheiding" (24). Here the force of the Doleantie-the Kuyperian demand for a Calvinistic worldview to influence every sphere of society-would be pressed upon Dutch Reformed churches. The Afscheiding and the Doleantie were finally wed in Herman Bavinck's Gereformeerde Dogmatiek-a work of no small importance in Van Til's teaching on antithesis and common grace.

The Christian home was a place of intellectual and devotional nurture for young Cornelius. The sixth son of Ike and Klazina Van Til, Kees (pronounced Case), as he would later come to be known, expressed interest in pursuing the Christian ministry at the youthful age of nineteen. As a loyal member of the Christian Reformed Church, Van Til enrolled at Calvin College in 1920. It was at Calvin that "Van Til's greatest collegiate accomplishment was editing the Calvin College Chimes, a student publication that began in 1907" (42). As editor of the Chimes, Van Til developed his method of defending the faith with "fit modesty and unreserved conviction" (43). It would be in the same spirit that he carried with him into the rigorous battles that would mark the majority of his ministry.

The church was always near to the heart of the man who had, by the time he finished college, already become quite an academician. After graduating from Princeton Seminary with a Th.B., an M.A., a Th.M. and a Ph.D.-and that, remarkably within only five years-Van Til proceeded to accept a call to the Christian Reformed Church in Spring Lake, Michigan. Though he was ready and able to stay in the pastorate, it was not long before Princeton Seminary called him to replace William Brenton Greene as professor of apologetics in 1928. The decision to leave the pastorate for the seminary was not a rejection of the ministry in Van Til's mind. "Every minister he once wrote, had a 'V.D.M. degree' (that is a 'Verbum Dei Minister,' or a 'Minister of the Word of God'): 'When therefore I became a teacher of apologetics it was natural for me to think not only of my Th.M. and my Ph.D. but above all of my V. D. M. The former degrees were but means whereby I might be true to the latter degree'" (59). It was this attitude that Van Til carried with him throughout his ministry at Princeton and into his long career at Westminster Theological Seminary.

One pleasantly unexpected aspect of Muether's biography is the way in which he includes several accounts of the human frailties of Cornelius Van Til. Far too often, biographers have painted portraits of Christian men and women in such heroic light that the reader is left wondering if they really were men and women with a nature like ours. Muether includes the account of the time when Van Til-mourning the seemingly untimely death of Westminster founder J. Gresham Machen and wondering what would happen to the seminary on account of the loss of their leader-went to see his aged father in order to speak with him about the situation. Ike Van Til reminded his son of the passage in Hebrews: "He that cometh to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him." "Van Til recalled….'That was all he said. I was rebuked and chastened. Did I still finally trust in Machen's greatness as a scholar and a man or did I trust in the Christ to whom Machen constantly pointed us?'" (85).

One cannot help but sense the fervor with which Van Til fought for the prominence of a consistent Reformed theology in the American church. From the beginning of his college days, he was forced to defend the faith in the midst of theological controversy. Whether it was in the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin Theological Seminary, Princeton Seminary, or on the field of the American Presbyterian church, Cornelius Van Til was a man who "contended earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints." With the church and seminary always on the brink of losing its Reformed distinctions, Van Til understood his calling to refute everything that was not rooted in Scripture and in the Reformed confessions of the church.

Muether has done an outstanding job of describing the historical context of Van Til's battle over the doctrine of common grace, his stand against Karl Barth, his place in the Gordon Clark controversy, and his interaction with J. Oliver Buswell, Herman Dooyeweerd, Carl Henry, and Francis Shaeffer. In fact, while this volume may not have been intended to be a primer to the writings of Van Til, it certainly serves that purpose on account of its threefold emphasis: historical setting; bibliographical references; and clear, theological analysis.

Muether has produced a well-researched, well-written, and interesting biography of Cornelius Van Til. He has focused on the various aspects of the life of Van Til in such a way that the reader will come to view Van Til as a remarkable Christian husband, father, teacher, and churchman. Muether impresses the reader with a desire for stronger convictions and a greater love of the Reformed faith as he traces the life of one of the greatest warriors of the Reformed church. In a day when theological relativism reigns and compromise is ever knocking on our doors, this portrait of Van Til sets before the reader one of the cloud of witnesses who ran the race set before him and looked steadfastly unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

Photo of Nick Batzig
Nick Batzig
Nick Batzig served as founding pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Savannah, Georgia. He is the editor of Reformation21 and The Christward Collective. He blogs at Feeding on Christ and writes regularly for Ligonier Ministries. You can find him on Twitter (@nick_batzig) and Facebook.
Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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