Review of White’s Van Til–Defender of the Faith

by John M. Frame

 [This review appeared in Westminster Theological Journal 42:1 (Fall, 1979), 198-203. Used by Permission.]


William White, Jr.: Van Til—Defender of the Faith. Nashville and New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979. 233. paper, $4.95.


This pleasant, cheerful book will bring great joy to all of us who have known and loved Cornelius Van Til. It presents our Van Til, the humble, kindly servant of Jesus. Many of his reminiscences are gathered here—the klompen, the catechism training, the Indiana farm, Jellema, Vos and Machen, the tugging of his heart between academics and the pastorate, between the Machen reformation and the Christian Reformed heartland, between Philadelphia and Spring Lake. And there’s the Clark case, travels abroad and so on. The personal portrait is authentic and inspiring. Here is Van Til, too humble and reticent to intrude readily into the theological wars of the ‘20s and ‘30s, the family man, the evangelist, the hospital visitor, the homespun story teller. Here is a good selection of Van Til’s humor.

All of these things are well-known to us, his students, colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, Van Til’s warm and winsome godliness is not as well-known to the general public as it ought to be. His writings are often difficult, academic, and (necessarily—for he is an apologist) highly polemical. When readers of his books come to know the man, they often react as White describes at one point in the book:

We can’t believe it. From his books we had the idea he was a Samson, smiting hip and thigh those who disagreed with him. Instead we found him as meek as Mary’s little lamb, as well as gracious, humble and kind. (166)

This “authorized biography” is the first book testifying to these aspects of Van Til’s character; on the whole, it does that job very well. White deserves the profound gratefulness of the Christian community.

William White began to study under Van Til in the mid-1950’s and has been planning this biography since that time. He has also studied and taught Semitics and has published many articles in that field. Most recently he has defended, in articles and a book with David Estrada, José O’Callaghan’s identification of certain Qumran materials as first century New Testament fragments. The back cover of the Van Til book tells us that White is now a “consulting editor in biomedical sciences and communica-

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tions.” Quite a range of interests! One is always a bit surprised at each turn in White’s career. I confess to some surprise at the tone of this book, too. White is no mean polemicist himself, and upon opening the book I expected some of his own “smiting hip and thigh.” But the book is so gentle! In more cynical moods I tend to attribute the gentling of the manuscript to Henry Coray, acknowledged as “editor” of the volume (7). But I have no direct evidence of that, and all in all I would prefer to believe that White himself has mellowed. Perhaps only an authorized biography of White will settle the question.

Amidst all this gentleness and good will, who but a grinch could find fault with the book? Well, the culmination of peace and good will is reserved for the final day, not, alas, for the Westminster Seminary jubilee. Until the parousia there will be a role for critical reviews, for grinches, even for Samsons (after a fashion, and always in a spirit of love).

On the whole, the style of the book is well-adapted to its purpose. The short chapters and large print, together with the generally non-technical language make this a book that anybody can read for pleasure. Occasionally, however, the writing gets overblown: White searches for vivid metaphors only to, achieve awkwardness. Princeton University, he says, “held a mechanical, evolutionary view of the universe; the seminary believed this gigantic bubble to be the work of God’s craftsmanship” (41). I do not recall anything about gigantic bubbles in Hodge or Warfield. And White writes about “the highly stylized strains of liberalism and conservatism coming together at Princeton.” Stylized?

At times, the narrative even lapses into incoherence. We may forgive White for failing to give an adequate explanation of Machen’s “Don’t be tightwads” (52). So far as I know, nobody else has given one either. (Yes, it meant “Come and get it,” a call to refreshments; but how did it get to mean that?) But the story about Van Andel (33f.) does not make much sense as it stands. The superfluity of pronouns leaves unclear who it was that lacked mastery of Dutch grammar. And the important point about the influence of Kuyper and Bavinck on Van Til is rather obscure. White quotes Van Til: “How basic and broad was their view! The idea of Scripture, they said, must never be separated from its message” (36). What does the idea/message relation have to do with basicness and broadness, or with Van Til’s apologetics? The book does not say.

Later, in discussing the Clark controversy, White quotes some snatches from Van Til that would, I think, be quite incomprehensible ( !) to any but Van Til’s students. The law of contradiction “has turned out to be an eternally static turnpike in the sky” (127). White gives no explanation of

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the metaphor. Rather, he goes on to quote an interchange between Van Til and David Kucharsky in which Van Til says some edifying things but hardly answers Kucharsky’s questions (which White himself describes as 11 searching”). The reader is given no clue at all as to why “the demand for non-contradiction when carried to its logical conclusion reduces God’s truth to man’s truth” (ibid.).

After four pages on Clark, the narrative turns to James Oliver Buswell, Jr. Buswell, it says, appealed to “bare facts” to prove Christianity ; then it goes on, “But of course one must posit the freedom of choice or how could anyone judge the facts?” (129). Westminster Seminary graduates can probably fill in the blanks here, the missing premises (or can they? I’m not so sure) ; but as it stands the relationship between free choice and judging the facts is quite unclear. Instead of explaining, however, White goes on to tell us that Louis Berkhof was “unable to tell the difference between Buswell’s Calvinism and Buswell’s Arminianism” (ibid.)(An awkward sentence at best.: I suspect that the second “Buswell’s” in this quote is a mistake). Then we hear Van Til’s view—that man is a “free moral agent” but does not have “the power of free choice” (ibid.)I suspect that even theologically trained readers will not find this distinction obvious; yet there is no explanation. The whole discussion is just plain sloppy; it gives the impression that the author is slinging around terms and phrases, language which may (or may not) mean something to initiates, without making any serious attempt to communicate to the general public. I am trying to be charitable here, for in my own mind it is an open question whether the problem is one of communication or of the author’s own understanding.

I belabor these unclarities somewhat because I think these are examples of a weakness found in other works of reformed apologetics and even to some extent in Van Til’s own writings. Van Til himself has made such enormous contributions that in his books these weaknesses seem small. But in the writings of less insightful disciples, this tendency to leave difficult points unargued, undefined and unexplained can nullify what positive contributions are made. This is especially the case in books which purport to explain Van Til to the non-specialist. An explanation which does not explain is not worth much. It is time for us disciples of Van Til to tighten up; to make greater demands of ourselves. We cannot justify our own unclarities by noting that Van Til himself has sometimes been unclear. He has proven himself and has therefore earned the right to be honored despite such failings. Most of the rest of us have not. And in any case it’s time to clear some of these things up.

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We move from unclarities to inaccuracies. “Ankennungsfungspunkt” (165) should be anknüpfungspunkt, I think, though the word may be even funnier in the longer form. Nietzsche’s philosophy is probably not best described as “insane speculations” (60), though Nietzsche did go insane at the end of his life. Or is this just another overblown metaphor? White’s account of Kant (94) is just about the opposite of what Kant actually taught: the noumenal is not, as White says, “the realm of perfect or true knowledge of the thing-in-itself,” for such knowledge does not exist for Kant. The noumenal is beyond human knowledge and thus in an important sense is the realm of the irrational. White suggests (by failing to qualify what he says) that R. B. Kuiper first came to Westminster to teach homiletics (87), while in fact his first assignment was systematic theology. The difficulty is corrected later (101). “International Council of the Churches of Christ in the World” (Van Til’s lecture, Appendix 2, 233) should probably be “World Council of Churches.” As it stands, the language suggests that Carl McIntire is synthesizing Aristotle, Christ and Kant, a task rather outside his field of interest and competence, I would guess. The controversy in the Netherlands at the turn of the century would better be described as a controversy over “presumptive regeneration” than over “baptismal regeneration” (19).

More seriously, because it might be taken more seriously: White says that the complaint against the ordination of Gordon H. Clark “carried” (128). Actually, the presbytery did acknowledge some procedural errors, but the doctrinal questions were never resolved and Clark remained a minister in good standing. He later left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church over a different (though perhaps related) issue, and voluntarily.

Most seriously of all, perhaps, White’s account even of Van Til’s thought is not entirely dependable. Some of his formulations suggest (13, 14, 74, 126) that human reason, for Van Til, is incompetent in religious matters. In fact, Van Til defends rational apologetics against, e.g., the fideism of Kuyper (White himself acknowledges this to some extent on 95), insisting only that reason proceed on distinctly Christian presuppositions and methods. Van Til maintains that a “theistic proof” which uses such presuppositions and methods is entirely legitimate, There is, to be sure, some unclarity in Van Til on this matter, and the misunderstanding of him in this area is fairly common; but I do think White should have known better. The back cover of the book says that Van Til “turned the field of apologetics upside down by de-emphasizing man’s rational faculty.” Such “de-emphasis” will come as news to the first-year apologetics students at Westminster who, thanks to Van Til, go through the intellectual

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equivalent of Parris Island. Some Dooyeweerdian analysts, in fact, think Van Til is a sort of “logicist” who gives precisely too high a status to reasoning. Well, I think the Dooyeweerdians are wrong, and so is the author of the back cover. (I realize that author probably was not White, but whoever it was made a reasonable inference from White’s statements). Further, White says that according to Gordon Clark “the rule of logic was alike for both the regenerate and the unregenerate” (126) in a context which suggests that Van Til would disagree. Van Til, however, says “I do not maintain that Christians operate according to new laws of thought any more than that they have new eyes or noses” (The Defense of the Faith, first ed., (Phila., 1955), 296). So either White is wrong, or the phrase “rule of logic” must be further defined.

Even apart from unclarities and inaccuracies, the book is somewhat inadequate as a history. It says very little about the main developments in Van Til’s thought and life after 1945. One wishes that White had spent less time describing Van Til’s travels abroad and more time on the main directions of his career. The New Modernism, Van Til’s first major publication, receives only a brief mention (96) ; yet even today it is that book with which Van Til’s name is most commonly associated in liberal circles. An account of that book’s reception would have been fascinating and important. Van Til’s next book Common Grace is never mentioned so far as I can tell (there is no index) ; but that book is extremely important to an account of Van Til’s thought and in determining the reception of his thought, particularly in Christian Reformed circles. The Calvin Forum debates of the 1950s are also ignored (and with them Daane’s Theology of Grace, the only book-length critique of Van T11, and Van Til’s reply, The Theology of James Daane)But those debates were highly dramatic and of immense importance to Van Til personally as they affected greatly his reception in his home church. There is nothing in the book about Van Til’s relationships with students later to be famous: Carnell, McIntire, Jewett, Schaeffer, Gerstner, etc., though there are doubtless many fascinating stories in that area. And the biography says nothing about Van Til’s relations with his younger colleagues at Westminster, with the Chalcedon movement, with “dispensational Calvinists,” with others under his influence. One is left without any sense at all of the future of Van Til’s apologetics.

Perhaps I am asking for too much. The book does not pretend to be a critical history. It is essentially a memoir, mostly Van Til’s own reminiscences, augmented somewhat by those of his family and close friends. There is no evidence that White interviewed any of Van Til’s critics or did any independent research on the various controversies and events. He

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did not, apparently, go through a lot of correspondence as, e.g., Ned Stonehouse did in preparation for his biography of Machen. Perhaps then we should simply read the book as a personal portrait and leave it at that. But after one reads a book like this, one becomes more impressed with our need for a serious critical history of Van Til and his time. A serious historian would not have allowed so many unclarities and other problems to creep into his discussion. And he would have raised more hard questions. White’s Van Til does almost nothing wrong (White does say he was “wrong to think of quitting school,” 30), almost never even makes an unwise judgment. All his major problems are someone else’s fault. There is a spirit of adulation here which detracts from the credibility of the book, even seen as a mere memoir. Whatever happened to biblical realism-the stories of Abraham, David, Paul? But that uncritical atmosphere is hard to escape in the memoir genre. Even Stonehouse’s book on Machen, a far more scholarly and careful book than White’s, breathes too much a spirit of filial piety. So far as I know, no one within the Westminster movement has actually taken a hard, tough-minded, historical look at that movement, at least in print. Why? Are we afraid of what we might find?

But I digress somewhat. All things considered, the book presents an inspiring and generally authentic portrait of a great Christian thinker and man of God. For this we are greatly in White’s debt. The book fails, however, as a serious analysis of Van Til’s life and thought and it has many detailed failings. A revolutionary thinker like Van Til deserves a better tribute than this, I think—one which demands more of writer and reader, one which forces us radically to examine our most basic assumptions, even about Van Til. He has never asked less of himself, thank God.

John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary

Philadelphia, PA

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