Defense of the Faith

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th Ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008).

Objective of the Book

Van Til wrote this book to give a positive case for his method of apolegetics and to defend that position against objections. His goal is to give, in outline form, a consistently biblical and Chrisitian method of defending the faith. In setting forth his positive case in the first section of the book, he frequently contrasts his view, the Reformed faith, with the Romanist and Evangelical point of view. In the second section of the book, he responds to various theological and philosophical objections.

Section 1: Positive Case


Van Til accepts as his starting point the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, The Canons of Dort, and Westminster Confession. This is in contrast to the Romanist (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), Arminian (many mainline evangelicals like Dwight Moody or Billy Graham), and Dialectical (e.g. Karl Barth) systems. As a result, the Bible is understood to be the infallible rule of faith and practice and the ultimate standard for if his system stands or falls. The reformed confessions are secondarily considered as criteria.

A valid critique of Van Til here is that he presupposes scripture but rarely will you find a reference or exegesis of any scripture in Van Til's writings. Scripture is supposed to be foundational according to his methodology and epistemology, but his interpretation of scripture is either assumed to be true, not shown from the text, or else it is assumed that the views from reformed theologians or confessions are faithfully and accurately representing scripture. This practically makes his secondary authorities primary over scripture.

Overview of Objections

Van Til gives an overview of objections to his thought with consessions following that. Most are critiques of his ideas about common grace, antithesis, and idealism. He points out that many of the objections are contradictory, but I think this points to a certain ambiguity in his work rather than proving the objections are inadequate.

William Masselink: He raises a common objection of Van Til's doctrine of common grace. He disputes the idea of the "absolute ethical antithesis between God and the natural man." His concern is that Van Til's idea doesn't properly account for the positive knowledge and actions of unbelievers.

However, he does agree with Van Til that there is a distinction between believing and non-believing thought. For example, the transcendence or immenance of God is conceived of differently in a deistic or pantheistic system than in Christianity.

Cecil De Boer: Van Til objects to starting with so called "neutral facts" and insists that we start with "God-interpreted facts." De Boer claims that Van Til's view overall amounts to an idealist view that leads to pantheism if worked out logically. He also objects that if believers and non-believers do not hold certain shared facts between them which they can argue from, but are instead starting with interpretations of facts from two different points of view, then they are no longer sharing a common ground and cannot even refer to the same things by the language they use.

In Van Til's thought a "neutral" or "brute" fact is not possible because every fact has an interpretation by virtue of its purpose in the plan of God. For this reason, non-believers can have knowledge about things, but it will not be proper until it acknowledges God. De Boer concedes that Van Til in certain places makes it clear that non-believers can have knowledge, but he says this goes against the general trend of Van Til's writings. Van Til certainly makes many extreme statements which appear to deny that non-believers can have any knowledge at all and that is recognized by many. It also hightlights some of the ambiguity that characterizes much of Van Til's work.

Jesse De Boer: He objects that Van Til is treating God as one fact amongst many, as another part of a greater system of truth, and thus is not Christian at this point. He also gives one of several more criticisms that Van Til is borrowing too much from speculative idealism in relation to his theory of knowledge. Despite Van Til's explicit rejection of idealist and hegelian philosophy, he still uses terms from these systems. This is another cause of ambiguity in his writings.

He does agree with much of the basics of Van Til's thought though, but there are specific aspects of his theory of knowledge which he takes issue with. This makes sense because Van Til's main project is not to create any new theology, but to apply theology consistently to philosophy. This means that his doctrine of common grace, natural theology, and antithesis will need to be examined to see if they are accurate and consistent.

James Daane: He critiques Van Til's theology of common grace on the basis that it borrows too much from Hegelian rationalism. Hegel's philosophy is characterized by contradiction, bringing two opposites together, and creating a synthesis. This again stems from an objection of Van Til's doctrine of antithesis, that there are two types of people in this world, regenerate and non-regenerate, who are fundementally antitheical to each other.

Klaas Schilder: He gives another critique of Van Til's doctrine of common grace, that it denies the general work of the Holy Spirit externally and internally. This view would logically lead to the denial of total depravity since people would have knowledge of God apart from the Holy Spirit and a denial human responsibility because people would know nothing of God or right and wrong.

Van Halsema: He also objects that Van Til seems to be saying that non-Christians can know nothing and that Christians and non-Christians do not share the same logic, math, or any other knowledge. Another objection he raises is that because of Van Til's view of facts as interpretations of facts, he is phenomenalistic and existential in his thought.

He concedes that Van Til's intentions and doctrines are not so much in question, but he maintains that Van Til is contradictory.

Christian Theology

In this chapter, Van Til explains the basics of the reformed faith he holds. He explains the doctrine of God, Man, Christ, Salvation, the Church, and Last Things. These views can be found in the reformed confessions above or explained by theologians such as Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, and Louis Berkhof. I will examine some of the points he brings up.

Section 2: Objections Considered



Keith A. Mathison, Christianity and Van Tillianism.

Robert Koh, Cornelius Van Til's Defense of the Faith: A Historical and Theological Analysis.