John Frame says that Reformed theologian and philosopher Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) “is perhaps the most important Christian thinker since Calvin.”
Frame offers several qualifiers to his provocative claim:
To say that Van Til is the most important Christian thinker of our time is not to say that he is the most comprehensive thinker, or the clearest, or the most persuasive.
Certainly it is not to say (as some of his more fanatical followers assume) that he is beyond criticism.
Nor is it to say that he has had a greater impact on present-day Christian thought than anybody else; indeed, his isolation continues, and his influence remains relatively small.
So what does he mean?
It is, rather, to say that he has made the Christian community aware of its only appropriate epistemology, thus laying a necessary foundation that ought to be the basis for all subsequent Christian reflection.
To explain, Frame compares Van Til with the most important philosopher of the modern period, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Frame points out that Kant argued for the autonomy of the human mind—that the human mind is its own ultimate authority and the author of its own moral standards.
Kant saw, of course, that none of this could be proved in the usual sense of proof. He adopted what he called the “transcendental method,” which seeks to determine the necessary preconditions or presuppositions of rationality. He reached his conclusions concerning human autonomy not by proving them by the usual philosophical methods, but by showing our need to presuppose them. Kant’s philosophy, therefore, does not merely assert or assume human autonomy, as did many previous philosophers; it explicitly presupposes human autonomy. It adopts human autonomy as the root idea to which every other idea must conform. That is what makes Kant unique and vastly important: he taught secular man where his epistemology must begin, his inescapable starting point for all possible reflection.
In other words, Kant
showed “modern man,” secular, would-be autonomous man, what he would have to presuppose about knowledge and the world in order to be consistent with his presumed autonomy. In other words, Kant made the modern sectarian “epistemologically self-conscious.” If modern man is not to bow to God, he must bow before himself; to that extent at least, he must be a Kantian.
How does this relate to Van Til?
If Kant taught the world of secular unbelief the essentials of its own (until then, subconscious) theory of knowledge (“epistemology”), Van Til did the same thing for the Christian.
As Kant said that we must avoid any trace of the attitude of bowing before an external authority, so Van Til taught that the only way to find truth at all is to bow before God’s authoritative Scripture.
As Kant presented his view transcendentally, as the inescapable ultimate presupposition of human thought, so Van Til made and defended transcendentally the same claim for the revelation of God: that God’s Word is the only presupposition that does not destroy the intelligibility of human thought.
Hence Frame’s application:
Because of Van Til, we can at last define the essential philosophical differences between the Christian and the non-Christian worldviews.
If Kant’s achievement makes him the most important secular philosopher of modern times, should we not say that Van Til’s achievement makes him the most important Christian thinker of modern times?
—John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), pp. 44-47.
I’m tempted to provide a short bibliography of resources by and about Van Til, for those who might be interested in learning more. In addition to Frame’s careful work cited above, let me recommend just one resource: Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. Few books in my library are as marked up and indexed as much as this one. Bahnsen’s work presents Van Til’s work in its clearest and most logical form.
For those who want to see what this form of apologetics looks like in action, you may want to check out the 1985 debate between Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein. You can read a transcript of the two-hour debate here, listen to the MP3, or listen to all of it through YouTube after the jump: