On Being a “Van Tilian”

On Being a “Van Tilian

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!


  1. This one’s a keeper! Thanks!

    Comment by B-W — July 16, 2008 @ 10:29 am

  2. And it is precisely this perspective which made a significant impact on me during my sojourn at Fuller. Thanks for being so orthodox!! :)

    Comment by alex chow — July 16, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  3. Vintage Mouw.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — July 16, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  4. Although I completely agree with Richard Mouw that Christians are not always orthodox, I should like to read his piece at a different level than the one he intended.

    The world of theology is complex. I have great respect for Fuller and for Richard Mouw, but I must confess that I have occasionally seen in Dr. Mouw a generosity of spirit towards THE POSITIONS of Mormons and others, which I as a person with post-liberal and neo-conservative bones in my body (as well as many neo-orthodox bones) have found odd. For me then, it was an “ah-hah” moment to hear Dr. Mouw say that Barth never took much root in him whereas for me (after a conservative theological upbringing followed by a major rebellion against the faith), Barth was one of those who helped usher me back into Christian faith. This confirms my intermittent thought that neo-orthodoxy occasionally is theologically “to the right” of American evangelicalism. I think this means I would like Dr. Mouw to join Karl Barth in saying “Nein” a bit more often!

    In Christ, Casey Jones

    Comment by Casey Jones — July 17, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  5. My experience at Fuller as a D. Min. student was that evangelicals, mainline and charismatic Christians could co-exist in a week or two week intensive class. I enjoyed the stimulation of the ideas shared from brothers and sisters of differing persuations. I’ve never understood the polarization of certain Christian groups. Why can’t we learn from and appreciate each other? I don’t swallow everything people say but try to think and pray it through with them.
    That’s why I put on my Facebook profile that my political views are
    Bipartisan–for responsibility and justice–”Pray for all leaders” I Timothy 2:1-2
    I am an evangelical. Yet, I believe one of the best ways to give away my faith is to listen, pray and allow the results to God.
    Being “overly charitable” and “entering into friendly dialouge” as Dr. Mouw writes doesn’t mean that I lose my faith. In fact, at times, it may grow!
    Praise God!

    Comment by Cletus Hull — July 17, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

  6. A delightful story, Dr. Mouw. Thank you.

    As Donald Bloesch observed some years ago, we are justified by faith alone, not by knowing that justification is by faith alone.


    Comment by Terry Tiessen — July 18, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  7. Regarding your Van Tilean orthodoxy Rich it’s significant to note Charles Hodge’s comments of Schleiermacher. Hodge veiwed Schleiermacher’s theology as close to pantheism but saw him nonetheless as devoted to Christ. He clearly expected to see Schleiermacher in heaven (as did Karl Barth).

    Good point.

    Comment by Paul Leggett — July 18, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  8. That quote from Van Till changes my perspective on so many of our present day debates. It isn’t about judging someone’s salvation as much as how their presentation of the gospel leads others to Christ. I have to chew on that for a while. Similar to Alex… this is why I loved my time at FTS and Dr. Mouw’s leadership even still.

    Comment by Andrew — July 19, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  9. Coming from a conservative background, where positions were always so clearly defined as black or white, I have learned this lesson the hard way. It’s brought me great freedom to be reminded that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. From that starting point, we are better able to speak about our theological differences.

    Comment by Sylvia Dooling — July 19, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  10. I really appreciated the wisdom and humility in this. Thanks!

    Comment by Erika Haub — July 19, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  11. Rich,
    I spent a year at Westminster before coming to Fuller to complete the MDiv and then PhD. I’ll never forget my first visit to Westminster’s campus. Van Til came into the lounge in Machen Hall, saw me and my wife, and striding toward us with hand extended said, “Van Til is the name!” That and other encounters with him that year demonstrated that he was a warm Christian man–despite the impression some took away from his writings. I tried to make that point whenever his name came up at Fuller! In James Daane’s class on Calvin, he’d repeatedly take on Van Til from a Barthian or Torrance perspective. Looking around the classroom, he’d say, “Where’s that guy that went to Westminster? Isn’t that what Van Til says?” Hilarious!

    Thanks for the remembrance. I look forward to the review in FT.


    Comment by Dan Reid — July 23, 2008 @ 9:16 am

  12. Dr. Mouw,
    I am in the process of doing a reread of James Daane’s The Freedom of God. I am wondering what your assessment is of his thesis and whether you think this is still an issue today in the Reformed movement.

    Thanks for you reply,

    Phil Lueck

    Comment by Phil Lueck — March 31, 2009 @ 7:06 am

  13. I was interested to note that, in this post on Van Til, you made reference to Berkouwer’s book on Barth.
    I wonder if this post on The Triumph of Grace … might be of interest to you.

    Comment by Charles Cameron — September 6, 2010 @ 4:38 pm