I’ve finished reading John Muether’s excellent biography of Cornelius Van Til, published recently by P&R Publishing. I will be reviewing it for Books & Culture. Reading it was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. Van Til, a longtime professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, was one of the better known theologians among evangelicals when I was a college student. I read extensively in Van Til’s writings as an undergraduate, and was greatly influenced by his articulation of Calvinist orthodoxy. I still see that influence at work in my thinking—although many “Van Tilians” these days would not admit me into their ranks.
Of course, I have wandered quite a bit from the details of his perspective. When I started reading Karl Barth as a seminarian, I came to disagree with Van Til’s harsh verdict that Barth’s “neo-orthodoxy” was really nothing but liberalism in a new disguise. But, at the same time, I never really absorbed much of Barth into my own thinking—which, I suppose, has something to do with Van Til’s continuing influence.
I had an extensive conversation with Van Til only once. During the summer after graduating from college, I visited him in his home. I had communicated by mail with him on several occasions, and he had always been gracious in his helpful responses. It was a thrill for me to be able now to sit and talk with him in his living room.
Not long before my visit with Van Til, I had read G. C. Berkouwer’s The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, an assessment of Barth from an orthodox Reformed perspective that was decidedly more positive than the interpretation that Van Til had offered in his The New Modernism. I had found Berkouwer quite convincing, and with youthful abandon I quizzed Van Til about his strong rejection of Barthian theology.
At one point I prefaced a line of questioning with these words: “As someone who believes that Barth is not a Christian….” Van Til quickly and decisively cut me off. “No, no!,” he exclaimed. “I have never said that Barth is not a Christian! What I have said is that an unsaved person could not come to understand the gospel properly from Barth’s theology. But that he himself is not a true Christian—this is something I have never said, and I never would say.”
Van Til’s remark left a lasting impression on me. He was firm in his verdict that Barth was far removed from historic Christian teaching, yet he was still unwilling to offer a similarly critical assessment of the state of Barth’s soul. Ever since, I have tried to exercise a similar caution. It is one thing to evaluate a person’s theology. It is another thing to decide whether that person has a genuine faith in Christ.
There are folks these days who worry about what they see as an overly charitable spirit in people like me. They think it is dangerous to enter into friendly dialogue with thinkers whose theological views are far removed from traditional Christian orthodoxy. They tend to think that if a person is unorthodox they cannot be in a saving relationship with Christ. I take a different view on those matters. Maybe I should start telling people that what they think is liberalism in me is actually my Van Tilian orthodoxy at work!