Obituary: Dr. Cornelius Van Til

April 18, 1987

Dr. Cornelius Van Til, for 43 years professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and emeritus professor there since his retirement in 1972, died at the age of 91 on April 17, 1987. After an illness of several months, death came peacefully at his long-time residence near the campus. A memorial service will be held at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Glenside, PA (where he worshipped for the last 40 years) on Wednesday, April 29, 8:00 pm.

Van Til was born on May 3, 1895, in Grootegast, The Netherlands. He was the sixth son of Ite and Klazina Van Til, who emigrated to the United States when "Kees," as he was known to friends, was 10. He grew up helping on the family farm in Highland, Indiana. He went on to receive an advanced education when he saw the need to meet unbelief on its own ground and in the most thorough terms. Years later he said, "Study was not easy for me. Having grown up on the farm I was used to weeding onions and carrots and cabbages. It was hard to adjust to classroom work; I had labored physically and my body was aching for that." He was married to Rena Klooster in 1925 and they had one son, Earl, who died in 1983. Van Til is survived by a grand-daughter, Sharon Reed of Valencia, PA.

He was graduated from Calvin College (A.B., 1922), Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.B., 1924; Th.M., 1925) and Princeton University (Ph.D. 1927). He served as the pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Spring Lake, MI, 1927-28 and was instructor of apologetics at Princeton Theological Seminary, 1928-29. He was professor of apologetics at Westminster, 1929-72. He held an honorary professorship at the University of Debrecen, Hungary, in 1938; the Th.D. (honoris causa) from the University of Potchefstroom, South Africa; and the D.D. from Reformed Episcopal Seminary, Philadelphia.

He was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from 1936 until his death. Van Til was also instrumental in the founding of Philadelphia-Montgomery Christian Academy, serving as the president of the board. Begun in September 1942, the school now has over 700 students, K-12, on campuses in three Philadelphia communities: Roxborough, Dresher and Erdenheim.

Van Til's published writings include The New Modernism (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1946), The Defense of the Faith (P&R, 1955) and Christianity and Barthianism (P&R, 1962), plus several syallabi and numerous reviews and articles. He was joint editor of Philosophia Reformata, a quarterly devoted to Calvinistic philosophy. A festschrift, Jerusalem and Athens, edited by E. R. Geehan with contributions by Hendrik G. Stoker, Herman Dooyeweerd, J. I. Packer, Paul K. Jewett, Arthur Holmes and others, was published on his 75th birthday (P&R, 1971).

He is perhaps best known for the development of a fresh approach to the task of defending the Christian faith. Although trained in traditional methods he drew on the insights of fellow Calvinistic philosophers Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd to formulate a more consistently Christian methodology. His apologetic focused on the role of presuppositions, the point of contact between believers and unbelievers, and the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian worldviews.

In an interview with Christianity Today (December 30, 1977) he said, "There are two ways of defending the faith. One of these begins from man as self-sufficient and works up to God, while the other begins from the triune God of the Scriptures and relates all things to him. . . . The traditional ideas of trying to find some neutral, common ground on which the believer and unbeliever can stand are based on the notion that man is autonomous . . . [yet] Paul says, all men, knowing God, hold down this knowledge in unrighteousness. . . . [This knowledge] is the only basis man has on which he can stand, to know himself, to find the facts of his world and learn how to relate them to one another. Without the Creator-God-Redeemer of Scripture the universe would resemble an infinite number of beads with no holes in any of them, yet which must all be strung by an infinitely long string."

One of Van Til's students, T. Grady Spires, now professor of philosophy at Gordon College, Wenham MA, says of him, "Every student of Van Til can instantly recall the characteristic Van Tillian blackboard graffiti: the foremost symbols being two circles, a big one for the creator, the other for creation with no ontological bridge between. The entire history of philosophy or Christian thought, including most heresy, would be strewn in names and phrases across the board. . . . The consumption of chalk and the whir of ideas were symptomatic of an excitement generated not from brilliant eruditions, though some of his skyrocketing digressions could be called that, but from the strong and systematic emphasis on the antithesis between a biblical world and life view and the several intellectual scientific versions of the carnal mind. Students began to see how far-reaching were the differences between believer and non-believer."

Source: The Works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895-1987 (electronic ed.).
Copyright © Eric H. Sigward 1997
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