Understanding Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til was not always correct, but he is nevertheless a generally faithful expositor of the Christian faith.  I want to show here some of the important points of Van Til’s thought.  Much of what he says is complicated, but I hope to shed some light on it.  Van Til summarizes his work in this way (quoting Romans 1:25): “Basic to all the differences between the Christian and the non-Christian views of life is the fact that Christians worship and serve the Creator, while non-Christians worship and serve the creature” (The Defense of the Faith, hereafter DF, 54).

A few points will help us make sense of Van Til:

1. The Doctrine of God

Of utmost importance for Van Til is the reality of God.  If apologetics is the defense of the faith, we must know what kind of faith we are defending.  To know what kind of faith we are to defend, we must first know what kind of God we believe in.

To defend the Christian faith, we must defend the Christian faith.  This may seem obvious.  But some theologians suggest we should defend a general theism before we get to the particulars of Christianity, e.g., the resurrection and historicity of Jesus, the Trinity, and so on.  But for Van Til, we should defend the Christian faith as a unit.  Our theological commitments must inform our approach to apologetics.  What we believe about God controls how we speak with unbelievers.

Furthermore, what we believe about God must come from Scripture directly or be of good-and-necessary consequence taken from Scripture.  The starting point is Scripture alone.  (There are some deeper points that could be made about this, but this will do for now.)

Thus, when we speak of God we mean:

a. God is independent and self-existingGod IS.  God does not depend upon anything outside himself for existence.  God does not depend upon the world, or man, or any other such “thing” for Him to accomplish his purposes at all.  This is the necessary consequence of his independence.  Since God exists absolutely, He cannot be dependent upon anything outside himself.

Genesis 1:1 says that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  God existed “before” He created anything; it is impossible that God be dependent upon anything outside of his own being.  God tells Moses his name: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).  God is and therefore does not depend upon anything besides himself.

b. God is personal.  God is self-conscious and morally active; He is not an abstract force (sorry, Star Wars fans).  When God acts He does so as a Person (i.e., He does things with intentionality).  Since God is both absolute and personal, God has absolute personality.  In all of his thoughts and actions, God is dependent upon nothing outside his own being.

In Genesis 1:1 the act of creation is an intentional act by a personal God.  Creation is the “temporal embodiment of a pre-interpreted pattern of things which would publish, each in its own key, the magnificence of [God’s] attributes” (DF, 229-230).  Translation: creation is the physical form of the eternal plan of God by which God brings glory to himself.  Abstract forces do not intentionally do anything; only the personal God of Christianity acts with purpose.

c. God is triune.  In the one Being that is God, there exists three co-equal and co-eternal Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There seems to be a “forgetfulness,” shall we say, regarding the Trinity today, but for Van Til it was the cornerstone of all true theology: “This conception of God is the foundation of everything else that we hold dear” (DF, 34).

In Ephesians 1:3-14 we find the work of the one God in salvation: The Father elects a specific people to be saved (vv. 3-6), the Son redeems that people by his blood (vv. 7-12), and the Spirit applies the redeeming work of Christ to that people (vv. 13-14).  We say with Jonah: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9), acknowledging also the distinct role of each Person of the triune God in the work of salvation.

To summarize: We start with Scripture alone as final authority.  In Scripture we see God is the ultimate foundation of all reality since He is absolute and tri-personal.  From this, we can move to the doctrine of man.

2.  The Doctrine of Man

It is important that our doctrine of man is informed by Scripture.  When we speak of the doctrine of man, we mean:

a. Man is created and contingent.  Since God is absolute personality, man is not an absolute personality.  We are persons, but we are not absolute.  We are dependent upon something outside ourselves for our existence.  We are immediately dependent upon our parents, but we are ultimately dependent upon God.  We are created beings, and it is not necessary that we exist.  We exist only because God arranged for it to be so.

In Genesis 1:26-27 God created human beings.  In Acts 17:28 we see that “in [God] we live and move and have our being.”  Clearly, man is created, dependent upon God for his existence.

Note also Acts 17:24-25: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”  God’s independence and personality is the ground for the fact that man is dependent upon God.  God made everything in the world, He is not served by human hands, and He does not need anything.  He gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Thus, man cannot ever exist apart from God.  There will never be a time when man exists “autonomously,” or as a law to himself.  He is always and everywhere totally dependent upon God to give him “life and breath and everything.”  Man never acts or thinks apart from God.  Man does not have “free will,” at least in the popular sense of that term.  It is not possible that man have that kind of freedom precisely because of 1) who God is and 2) who man is.  (For further discussion, see The Sovereignty of Man? and The Sovereignty of God)

b. Man is created in the image of God.  Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that God created man in God’s own image.  Christians everywhere affirm this.  But what does it actually mean?

Van Til makes a helpful distinction: Man “is therefore like God in everything in which a creature can be like God” (DF, 34.)  Man is a person, is a moral actor, has knowledge, and so on.  The imago dei gives to humans an innate dignity, value, and worth.  And being created in the image of God means that every human has genuine knowledge of God.

But also, man is, in every case, different from God.  Man is a contingent person.  He depends upon God for his existence and therefore is not absolute.  Man does not create moral norms but is subject to the law of God.  Man does not have infinite or exhaustive knowledge, since he is a finite creature.  None of this is bad; it is simply that man is not God.

c. Man is fallen in Adam.  As man was created in the image of God, so man fell into sin.  Allow me to quote Van Til extensively: “As a creature of God man had to live in accordance with the law of God…

“When man fell it was therefore his attempt to do without God in every respect.  Man sought his ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty somewhere beyond God, either directly with himself or in the universe about him….Because man sought for this unattainable ideal, he brought upon himself no end of woe” (DF, 36-37, emphasis added).

In Romans 5:12-19 Paul contrasts Adam and Christ.  The sin of Adam brought death, judgment, and condemnation “for all men” (v. 18), making all men “sinners” (v. 19).  In 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul says, “In Adam all die.”  Adam stood before God as the representative of humanity, and when he fell, we all fell in him.  This is Paul’s point in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15:22.

For Van Til, when a human seeks to think or act “autonomously” (i.e., with “free will” apart from God), he is committing an assault against the nature of God and the true nature of man by doing precisely what Adam did in the garden when he threw the universe into ruin by rebelling against his Creator.  Therefore, to think or act as if humans have “free will” is to war against God.

There is much more to be said (I haven’t made five points yet!).  More implications of Van Til’s thought for our own thinking can be found here.


Thanks for reading.  Have any additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.

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