In many ways the subtitle to any biography of Cornelius Van Til should be titled, "A Tragic Life".
Muether's thesis is quite simple and well-developed: Van Til, despite his apologetical greatness and influence, cannot be rightly understand apart from Van Til's role as a high-churchman. HIS LIFE Muether does a good job in describing the early Van Til (hereafter CVT).
Muethers Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (CVTRAC) since I fear that you, the reader, could have devoured 3 quarters of this biography of Cornelius Van Til (CVT) in the time it took you to read my review. The meta-theme (of this book) Muether wants to stress is that the vast majority of CVTs life: his decisions, his controversies, his apologetic, his philosophy, etc., cannot be interpreted apart from an understanding of Van Til the churchman. Slightly less important, but almost equally vital for proper interpretation, is to put CVT in the line of Calvin, Bavinck, Warfield, Kuyper, and Vos. Van Til sought to stand in the historic line of Reformation theology, rather than seeking to be an innovator of new-fangled ideas. Muether briefly traces the history of the Reformation, specifically as found in the Dutch expression, up until Van Tils birth. CVTs birth, childhood, move to America, schooling, later schooling, professional life and work, myriad debates and controversies, relationships with friends and foes, theological, philosophical, and apologetical developments, involvement in the church, influence on students (those who both agreed and disagreed with their beloved teacher), death of friends and family, retirement, post-retirement, and death are all discussed in vivid, smooth prose. From whether CVT was a child of the Afscheiding or the Doleantie, from sitting under Harry Jellema at Calvin to his Princeton days, from his position as pastor to his recruitment to Westminster Theological seminary, from his membership in the CRC to his transfer to the OPC, from his debates with Gordon Clark to his debates with the Dutch in Michigan, from his critique of New-Princeton to his critique of Barth and the New-modernism, from his millennial position to any affiliation or linking to theonomy, all of this, plus hundreds of other events and factoids in between, are discussed in engaging fashion. There is no thorough development of Van Tils apologetic in CVTRAC (though some key distinctions and qualifications are presented). However, through admiration of CVT as a Reformed apologist (and what that means), proper apologetic character can be developed. Thankfully, Muether downplays those who try to distance CVT from Shepherd by pointing to the problems of old age. What really comes through was the character of Van Til. Muether makes much of the motto associated with CVT: suaviter in modo, fortiter in re, gentle in persuasion, powerful in substance. In his last visit to her hospital room, he recorded what he said to his wife, Rena Van Til (who was his childhood sweetheart as well); Muether portrays the event in a captivating way: Do you see Jesus your Savior all glorified now? (CVTRAC, p.212) Respected Westminster Seminary professor Paul Woolly told Van Til the day after Renas death, You have been, and are, probably the most remarkable husband I have seen. Some may be embarrassed by Van Tils own words that demonstrate a great many of his critics were sloppy and hasty in their critique of his rather traditional Reformed position on matters. Some may let it collect dust as anything positive of Van Til is unworthy of being read. Some may want to pick up and study Van Til for the first time, or all-over again. Muethers Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman to you.
"As Orthodox Presbyterians......,Van Til's criticism of Schaeffer fuelled frustration with some readers over his Reformed militancy. Further on page 201, the author also states, "To the casual observer it appeared that there was no pleasing Van Til, who seemed to find fault with everyone." That last quote is where I take most issue with VT. As this was my first dive into these issues and the man Van Til, I will certainly have to do more reading on VT and his apologetics. The book is basically a biography of the churchman Van Til. VT was certainly devoted at his core to Reformed/Orthodoxy Christianity...literally to the point of nasty confrontations with Clark/Gerstner and understandably Barth/Dooyeweerd/Berkouwer. Despite what appears to be vicious fighting throughout the book, I'm left with the sense that these men all still had great respect for one another in the end (with some exceptions of course).
As a dispensationalist, I had to grudgingly accept Muether's thesis: Van Til believed his apologetic method could only thrive in a consistently Reformed context. But as a presuppositional dispensationalist, I respectfully disagree with Dr. Van Til.
Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) is seemingly something like marmite: either loved or hated. Francis Schaeffer was influenced by his approach though Van Til didn't fully approve of Schaeffer's adaptations; he thought that it wasn't consistent. For Van Til Calvinism was the most logical and consistent worldview. Muether posits that we can't understand Van Til's theological commitments without understanding his ecclesiology: "His apologetic was self-consciously ecclesiastical as much as theological" (p 15). Consequently, the biography focuses more on Van Til's ecclesiastical life than on other aspects of his long academic career. But this means that what it doesn't do in any depth is explain Van Til's more novel ideas. In the useful bibliographic essay that concludes the book Muether suggests books and papers that could provide more information on the novelties of Van Til. It explains Van Til the man. It gave me a much better understanding of the motivations of Van Til and helped me to appreciate the man more.
A Biography on Cornelius Van Til I wrote a paper on Cornelius Van Til 19s apologetic method back when I was in seminary, and since then I 19ve been intrigued by his writings and his life. Not much else I can say; just that at the end of my life I want to be known as a man who deeply loved, protected, and provided for Magen. Van Til seemed too militant on many of these issues. There were times when I was reading about his life, and I seriously thought, 1CMan take a chill pill. But I think Van Til began to realize some of this at the end of his life. Muether writes, 1CWith former antagonists Van Til spent his last years pursuing reconciliation 1D (213). Personally, I just don 19t want to have to get to the end of my life before I start making amends. I could be reading this whole thing wrong, but I wonder if Van Til had it to do over again, if he would have spent more time attacking the real enemies of Christianity and giving more grace to those whom simply disagreed with him over smaller issues.