Van Til – not a fundamentalist

One of the books I read this spring is Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman by John R. Muether. My son gave me this book about a year or more ago and I decided it was high time I read it. This is the first biography of Van Til that I have read. A friend who also read it said that it was a good book to fill in some background that other books missed. He recommended reading some of the other books in addition to this one.

While I will put this post in the ‘book reviews’ category, this article isn’t really a book review. I do recommend this book and think it will be worth your while to read if you are interested in Van Til at all.

One of the things that I learned from this book is that Van Til was definitely a separatist. But he wasn’t your fundamentalist type of separatist. He had his own branch of separatism, making himself distinct from both evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

Van Til first made this distinction clear in a 1957 address to new students at Westminster Theological Seminary at the beginning of the school year, warning them “of voices they would encounter who would challenge their confidence in the Word of God.”1 In May 1961, he gave an address called “New Evangelicalism” to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Ministerial Institute. “The result of this presentation was a seventy-five-page syllabus in which he observed that the fundamentalist-modernist battle had evolved into a neo-orthodox and neo-evangelical dialogue.”2 This work was never published, but Carl Henry wrote Van Til about it. Muether says he felt ‘stung’ by the criticisms.

This sets up the quote that I want to highlight:

The goal behind Van Til’s dissent was to highlight the distinctiveness of the Reformed faith that yielded not only a Reformed system of doctrine but also a Reformed doctrine of Scripture and a Reformed defense of the faith. These were of a whole cloth; they were not exchangeable features, and thus Van Til would accept no substitutes. Hence Van Til would not concede that separatism belonged to the fundamentalists. There was a Reformed separatism that was grounded in Kuyper’s doctrine of the antithesis, and it was modeled courageously by Machen.3

Van Til viewed Fundamentalists as not separated enough. J. Gresham Machen, Van Til’s mentor, likely saw things in the same way. Machen, we have been told, was not comfortable with the Fundamentalists of his day (he died in 1937). Some have suggested he thought the Fundamentalists were uncultured hicks.4 The book on Van Til doesn’t make Machen’s views entirely clear, but it seems that he saw the Fundamentalists as co-belligerents against the modernists, but also as being found wanting in terms of their theology and ecclesiology as well. Certainly this was Van Til’s view.

Notice also the emphasis on Reformed doctrine and Reformed apologetics. One thing this book makes clear is that Van Til was a champion of Reformed thinking. He likely would find many who claim to be his followers in apologetics to be thoroughly wanting, not being Reformed in their entire outlook.

It seems to me that the current trends of our day are heading in a similar direction with the revival of Reformed dogma seemingly everywhere. The most publicized movement in conservative Christianity today is the ‘neo-Calvinist’ movement. Van Til would probably not be entirely comfortable with it because it isn’t thoroughly Reformed. But he would likely appreciate the spirit tending toward Reformed thinking that lies behind the neo-Calvinism.

This neo-Calvinism is transcending evangelical and fundamentalist divides. I would say that it is behind the complete willingness of some to give the benefit of the doubt to the serious errors of neo-Calvinisms ‘stars’ because the new movement is centered on the Reformed theology (although not completely embracing every aspect of Reformed thought). The old paradigms that defined the divide between evangelicals and fundamentalists aren’t working any more, at least for some, because the Reformed doctrine is the new paradigm, the new center. The old paradigms centered on opposition to or support for cooperative evangelism which itself was essentially a repudiation of the older paradigm of antagonism to modernism that defined conservative Christianity in opposition to liberalism.

Why don’t the old paradigms work anymore? I would suggest that it is because the ‘Conservative Evangelicals’ have largely repudiated the most egregious forms of cooperative evangelism. They haven’t repudiated all of the new evangelical philosophy, but one of the biggest of the divides between fundamentalism and the new evangelicalism was the issue of cooperative evangelism. This, coupled with a misplaced center on Reformed theology, is causing some to minimize the differences and promote a new movement centered on the new-Calvinism.

The book on Van Til makes it clear why he didn’t consider himself a fundamentalist (though he likely agreed with some of the issues Fundamentalism raised). His ‘center of separation’ was Reformed theology, not Christian Fundamentalism. I think we are seeing a similar thing repeated in the current movements of our day.

don_sig2

Notes:

  1. Muether, p. 182. []
  2. Muether, p. 183. []
  3. Muether, pp. 186-187, emphasis mine. []
  4. This may have been true of some. Certainly it is true of some today! But they are our hicks! []

Comments

  1. Brian Ernsberger says:

    Interesting article, Don. You have whet my appetite for further study. The thrust certainly starts to make many things make sense when looking back over the past 100 years or so of Fundamentalism.

  2. Don:

    Fine article. In it you included, “This neo-Calvinism is transcending evangelical and fundamentalist divides. I would say that it is behind the complete willingness of some to give the benefit of the doubt to the serious errors of neo-Calvinism’s ‘stars’ because the new movement is centered on the Reformed theology (although not completely embracing every aspect of Reformed thought).

    I’ve been saying this for nearly two years and some who are willing to be transparent will and have acknowledged what you have written.

    There is a rallying point and it is Reformed theology and this “pure gospel” rallying point is Calvinism’s Lordship Salvation interpretation of the Gospel.

    Calvinists in evangelical and Fundamentalist camps are rallying around their like-mindedness on Reformed theology. It is the magnetic attraction and glue that draws and binds them together.

    You mention, “…that it is behind the complete willingness of some to give the benefit of the doubt to the serious errors of neo-Calvinism’s ‘stars’…” No doubt about it.

    Even Mohler’s signing the Manhattan Declaration was given a pass by men who allege to be committed to biblical separatism and IMO it was tolerated because they are in agreement with him on Reformed theology.

    Again, well done on this insightful article.

    LM

    • Lou, thank you for the comment.

      I disagree, however, that Lordship Salvation is the rallying point. The issue is much broader than that. The claims of Lordship Salvation are an overstatement of the truth made in zeal to combat easy believism. But Lordship teaching isn’t the centerpiece of the new paradigm, it is merely an offshoot of it.

      And, BTW, Van Til would refuse most of the neo-Calvinist viewpoint himself, as I understand him. He would find that they weren’t sufficiently reformed for him. He was definitely a separatist in his thinking, but it was separation to a thoroughly Reformed theology and polity. What we have today is a sort of “Reformed-lite” that is becoming the rallying point for a new movement.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Keith says:

    Not sure why you deleted my last comment. So, you may delete this one too. Even though it will be in agreement with you. When you say, “What we have today is a sort of “Reformed-lite” that is becoming the rallying point for a new movement.” You are correctly understanding VanTil and much of the new movement.

    Certain parts of the new movement are really reformed (go presbyterians), but much of the new movement is made up of baptists who believe in the 5 points developed in response to the Remonstrants.

    Keith

    • Keith, do you think the current movement can hold together (i.e. 5 point Baptists plus Presbyterians) or do you think that at some point the obvious differences will put enough pressure on the coalition to bring about its demise?

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Who invented the terminology “lordship salvation?” It’s sad that something called “lordship salvation” would have to be something “bad.” Could there be such a thing as “no-lordship salvation,” where the Jesus you believe in you also deny as Lord?

    I agree with Don. Not all the Calvinists actually believe in “lordship salvation,” for one. I can’t help but think that the Calvinism is mainly a reaction to popular evangelicals. I don’t see it as exegetical.

    I thought Van Till’s belief in separation was interesting.

  5. Keith says:

    Well, the answer depends a lot on how you define/answer other questions . . .

    One could legitimately argue that the “coalition” you are referring to is not new — it is just the continuation of the historic evangelical coalition that goes back to Wesley and Whitefield. By this definition, sure the coalition will hang together. It won’t include guys as hard line as VanTil (for example some of the guys out of the URC and Westminster West won’t play nice), but there are plenty of us who are willing to cooperate with baptists in certain ways even though they are wrong on secondary things. One of my best friends and ministry partners is a baptist pastor — he thinks I’m wrong about some things, I think he’s wrong about some things, but we agree on more central things.

    Of course if you define “coalition” as the current group of personalities and their followers and the current line up of conferences, etc. Well nothing like that lasts forever. And, that’s not a problem.

    Keith

    • If it was the Wesley/Whitefield coalition, why the animosity towards non-Calvinists?

      From your comments, I would guess you wouldn’t be a complete fan of Van Til, is that correct?

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Keith says:

    Don,

    What I’m most not a fan of is the fundamentalist obsession with establishing teams (shall we say “coalitions”) and expecting everyone to pick a side and stick with it. The habit of trying to make everything neat, tidy, and easy.

    For example the utter surprise exhibited here that someone who is not on the “fundamentalist” team practiced “separation”. There really is no reason for such surprise. Unless, of course, everyone must be on the New Evangelical Team (and perpetually focused on things that group focused on 50 years ago) or the Fundamentalist Team (likewise).

    And, by the way, even the Neos weren’t against every kind of separation. They were just against the fundamentalists’ abuse of separation. But I digress . . .

    You asked about VanTil. He’s fine and dandy. He was a remarkably original and brilliant philosopher and theologian. I have benefitted greatly from his work (actually from the work of his students). Further, I think that he and Machen were right in pointing out that the fundamentalists were trying to build some good things on some weak foundations. Their reformed foundations were better.

    However, even though I’m no expert on him, it does seem that he had a tendency to be too dogmatic on certain things. Ironically even though he was no fan of the fundamentalists, in certain areas he acted like one. The politics and polemics of the Clark/VanTil controversy in the OPC were very reminiscent of fundamentalist infighting. And, some of VanTils disciples have been even worse than VanTil himself.

    However, I think that a lot of this is due to temperament. It certainly does not appear to be an essential part of Kuyperian thought.

    Well, enough rambling. Not sure I’ve answered the question, but I better stop now.

    Keith

  7. Keith says:

    As to Wesley/Whitefield, I should have said the Evangelical renewal kicked off by Wesley and Whitefield. Wesley/Whitefield wasn’t really a coalition for long. Wesley’s arminianism and Whitefield’s calvinism caused them to work separately for most of their ministries. Nevertheless, the renewal that these “methodists” (both arminian and calvinist) launched greatly influenced/led to American evangelicalism. And, what you are seeing in the reformed resurgence is just the most recent wave in that ocean.

    I’m not sure that the best and most significant leaders of the current coalitions have animosity toward arminians. They just aren’t arminians.

    Keith

  8. Hi Don

    I have read the biography twice and I don’t get the correlation between Van Til and the Neo-Calvinists. Van Til was wedded to a consistent Reformed position and would have regarded the un-Reformed excesses of Piper and Driscoll with horror. He certainly did not give Karl Barth a pass just because he claimed to believe in predestination.

    It is not true, as many claim, that Van Til was as narrow to those who did not share his Reformed Confessional distinctives. For instance, he is often accused of being hostile to premillennialism yet he worked happily alongside the premillennialist Erdman at Princeton and it was Van Til who proposed the Premillenialist J. Oliver Buswell as first moderator of the OPC.

    BTW – I think Van Til was not Reformed enough as he was not consistently presuppositional in respect of the preservation of Scripture. But thats another deabte…

    • Paul, I am not suggesting a direct connection between Van Til and the Neo-Calvinists, but rather an analogy. There is a similarity in that the important thing to contend for is Reformed thought, rather than Christianity.

      As to Van Til’s narrowness, you can listen to recordings of him on Sermon Audio. It doesn’t take long to find out that he views his position as quite distinct from Fundamentalism.

      ~~~

      Keith, I don’t think you understand Fundamentalism. It isn’t about picking teams at all. But we are interested in discerning where people stand because we have a duty to lead and protect the flocks God has given us.

      I agree that the Wesleys and Whitefield mostly worked independently, but John Wesley preached Whitefield’s funeral. They maintained a close relationship in spite of their sometimes sharp divisions.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  9. Keith says:

    Don and PS, as I mentioned before (but Don deleted it): The real “neo calvinists” were Kuyper and his followers. You guys really need a different name for the current fellows (even though Driscoll tried to apply the name to himself).

    “There is a similarity in that the important thing to contend for is Reformed thought, rather than Christianity.”

    Don, you don’t really get it. VanTil thought that you should contend for what he understood to be consistent biblical Christianity — he understood that to be Christianity as incorporated in reformed theology. In other words, contending for reformed theology was to him what contending for the fundamentals is to you. I’m not commenting on which of you is right or wrong, I’m just trying to point out how to look at the question differently. Fundamentalist categories can’t be applied to VanTil, he didn’t think in those categories at all. They were foreign and meaningless to him.

    “I don’t think you understand Fundamentalism.”

    Well of course you don’t. But I do. I guess the jury’s out.

    “We are interested in discerning where people stand because we have a duty to lead and protect the flocks God has given us.”

    Yes, and you do that by multiplying taxonomies. You do that by trying to make fool proof categories. You want to be certain of who is ok and who is not ok and then make sure to avoid even getting near those who are clearly not ok. Of course we have to decide who to work with and who not to work with. It’s just not as linear and objective as you want it to be.

    “They maintained a close relationship in spite of their sometimes sharp divisions.”

    I don’t think that they always maintained a close relationship. I think there were years a part and then some reconciliation. But, I am not certain about that and it doesn’t really matter. My point was that they didn’t minister together because of their differences but they didn’t have animosity toward the other. I think that is still possible.

    I’m a presbyterian but I have no problem working with a Nazarene. Can some of your anti-Lordship buddies return the favor?

    Keith

    • Keith,

      The real “neo calvinists” were Kuyper and his followers.

      Whatever. The term is in current usage and I think Kuyper is dead.

      VanTil thought that you should contend for what he understood to be consistent biblical Christianity — he understood that to be Christianity as incorporated in reformed theology.

      True. And the modern neo-Calvinists are fine with all kinds of worldliness as long as it is reformed. I agree with PS that Van Til would have no time for the likes of them. I am just comparing the mindset. I see some similarity. (PS: Van Til was wrong!)

      Of course we have to decide who to work with and who not to work with. It’s just not as linear and objective as you want it to be.

      I don’t think it is linear and objective. It is often agonizing. But there are some fellows who are beyond the pale, and I think fundamentalists at least should be able to see that. By ‘fundamentalists’ here, I mean those who wish to identify themselves as fundamentalists.

      I’m a presbyterian but I have no problem working with a Nazarene. Can some of your anti-Lordship buddies return the favor?

      It would be nice if they could. I don’t have any anti-Lordship buddies, BTW. I think the Lordship salvation advocates have overstated the case and confused justification with sanctification, but I don’t see them as the spawn of Satan. Some of the anti-Lordship talk is over the top also, and tries to define the distinctions too narrowly.

      There are, however, some fellows who are harming the church and confusing Christians by their promotion of Lordship ideas. I am thinking here of Ray Comfort, Paul Washer, and the like. But that is an issue for another day.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  10. Keith says:

    “the modern neo-Calvinists are fine with all kinds of worldliness as long as it is reformed. I agree with PS that Van Til would have no time for the likes of them.”

    Well that depends on what you label worldliness. VanTil would have been just fine with drinking and smoking — it was pretty common among the Dutch reformed. Are those things “worldly” to you?

    He wouldn’t have much time for all the fundamentalists claiming to be VanTillians, or for the dispensationalists claiming to be reformed — that much is true. But I don’t know about the whole “worldliness” concern.

    “PS: Van Til was wrong!”

    He’d say the same about you.

    “I don’t have any anti-Lordship buddies”

    Sorry for not being clear. I was joking. You have been clear that you are not on an “anti-Lordship” crusade.

    I don’t even know who Ray Comfort or Paul Washer are.

    I do know that none of the presbyterian or reformed folks I know would ever use the term “Lordship Salvation”, and they are not a part of or aware of the “debate”. That’s an obsession of those downstream of fundamentalism and dispensationalism (which, yes includes John Macarthur).

    Keith

  11. Kent:

    I’ve been in the hospital for much of the past two weeks, just home.

    You wrote, “Who invented the terminology ‘lordship salvation?’ It’s sad that something called ‘lordship salvation’ would have to be something ‘bad.’ Could there be such a thing as ‘no-lordship salvation,’ where the Jesus you believe in you also deny as Lord?”

    The theology known today as “Lordship Salvation” was previously known by other titles such as Mastery, Com¬mitment, or Discipleship Salvation. The label “Lordship Salvation” while first detested by JMac has been embraced by him to identify his peculiar interpretation of the Gospel, which is bad. Today, he uses “LS” without complaint or excuse.

    LS advocates decry any Gospel message that does not conform to JMac’s LS as a “no-lordship” gospel.

    You also wrote, “I agree with Don. Not all the Calvinists actually believe in ‘lordship salvation,’ for one.” Agreed; I speak to quite a number of Calvinists who reject LS

    LM

  12. Don:

    You wrote, “I disagree…that Lordship Salvation is the rallying point. The issue is much broader than that. The claims of Lordship Salvation are an overstatement of the truth made in zeal to combat easy believism.”

    Fair enough-

    1) I believe LS is a KEY rallying point, but not the only one. Think of the two major conferences- T4G and The Gospel Coalition. It is the LS interpretation that is held by virtually every member (top-to-bottom) in these fellowships and it is the LS gospel they are defending from within that sphere of fellowship. And we have Reformed IFB men who are moving toward and joining the T4G men around that so-called “pure [LS] gospel.”

    2) These alleged “overstatements” have never been edited, explained, or eliminated by the men who make them. In fact, over the years, these statements have been reiterated and reinforced. These “overstatements” run like a thread through virtually all LS materials, which means to me they are not overstatements at all.

    Lou

    • Hi Lou

      While the T4G men may all hold to a Lordship view (I have no idea if that is true or not), it isn’t the central reason for their fellowship as can easily be seen by listening to the messages they preach. They are together for Calvinism, not for Lordship.

      I don’t want this thread to turn into a Lordship discussion, so let’s leave the topic alone from here on out.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3