Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Influence of Idealism on the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Influence of Idealism on the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til

Article excerpt

Cornelius Van Til completed his doctoral work at Princeton University in 1927 with a dissertation entitled "God and the Absolute," in which he argued that the God of Christian theism could not be identified with the Absolute of philosophical idealism.1 A couple of years earlier he had completed his Th.M. at Princeton Theological Seminary, with a thesis entitled "Reformed Epistemology."2 In spite of the close proximity and historical relationship of these two institutions, they were clearly distinct, with the seminary then being a much more conservative institution. The philosophy department of Princeton University at that time was under the direction of the British idealist Archibald Alien Bowman. Van Til's own interest in philosophy, and in particular idealism, had begun during his undergraduate days at Calvin College. There the philosophy department had consisted of only one instructor, W. Harry Jellema, who was himself only a couple of years older than Van Til, and was at the very beginning of his teaching career.3 Jellema began teaching at Calvin in 1920, while working on his dissertation on Josiah Royce at the University of Michigan, which he completed in 1922. One of the textbooks which he used for the undergraduate courses in philosophy at Calvin was F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality, to which Van Til would continue to refer in his later writings on idealist philosophy.

With this background and interest it would be expected that philosophy would play a major role for Van Til in the development of his apologetics. That it does, but in this case it was not an uncritical appropriation. Rather, it will be shown that a major part of his apologetical endeavor can be seen as directed against philosophical idealism. On the other hand, his interest in philosophy and background in idealism helped him frame some of the basic questions his apologetical approach attempted to answer.

The thesis of this article is that idealism provided Van Til a framework for problems to be dealt with, and thus provides a reference for understanding his apologetical approach. However, this usage of idealism also provides a potential limitation on the continuing applicability of certain aspects of Van Til's apologetics.


The major criticism raised against Van Til during the 1940s and 1950s was that he was corrupting the Christian message with idealist philosophy. J. Oliver Buswell gave the earliest extended critique of this concern in his article "The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism." In this lengthy review of Van Til's book Common Grace, Buswell went so far as to charge Van Til with being "deeply mired in Hegelian idealistic pantheism,"4 and even stated, "Van Til's doctrine of creation is a mere non-temporal mental act of God which does not give substantive ontological status to the thing created, other than the thought of God."5 He seemed to have based his objections on such specifics as Van Til's analysis of the One and Many problem of philosophy in relation to Christian faith,6 the use of various idealist philosophical terms such as "concrete universal," "limiting concept," "brute fact," and "apparent contradiction," and the suggestion of a Christian use of an "as if" concept. Buswell insisted on reading all of these terms and concepts in the context of their non-Christian origin and meaning, regardless of Van Til's usage or context. He concluded that Van Til's presuppositional philosophy was "strongly characterized by anti-Biblical Hegelian dialectic terminology and concepts."7 He consequently charged Van Til with a major problem of compromise with, and corruption by, idealist philosophy.

A series of articles in the Calvin Forum during the mid-1950s continued a similar critique of Van Til's apologetics. This campaign was started with a lead editorial by Cecil DeBoer in the August-September 1953 issue. His complaints against Van Til's apologetics revolved around two basic issues: he accused Van Til of poor scholarship both in his summary of other's positions and in his use of philosophical terms, and also accused him of adopting anti-Christian idealist concepts. …

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