Born on May 3, 1895, in Grootegast, The Netherlands he was the sixth son of Ite and Klazina Van Til, who emigrated to the United States when "Kees," as he was known to friends, was 10. He grew up helping on the family farm in Highland, Indiana.
Van Til graduated from Calvin College in 1922, receiving a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1925 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1927. He began teaching at Princeton, but shortly went with the conservative group who founded Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught for forty-three years of his life as a professor of apologetics.
He was also a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from the 1930s until his death in 1987, and in that denomination, he was embroiled in a bitter dispute with Gordon Clark over God's incomprehensibility known as the Clark-Van Til Controversy in which, according to John Frame, neither man was at his best and neither quite understood the other's position.
Van Til's thought
Van Til is perhaps best known for the development of a fresh approach to the task of defending the Christian faith. Although trained in traditional methods he drew on the insights of fellow Calvinistic philosophers Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd to formulate what he viewed as a more consistently Christian methodology. His apologetic focused on the role of presuppositions, the point of contact between believers and unbelievers, and the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian worldviews.
He didn't particularly care for the label describing his approach as "presuppositional," which more accurately represents the apologetical method of Gordon Clark, but he (and his students) accepted it as a matter of convention because it is at least useful in grouping methods into those which deny neutrality and those which do not.
In Van Til: The Theologian, Frame, a sympathetic critic of Van Til, describes Van Til's contributions to Christian thought as comparable in magnitude to those of Immanuel Kant in non-Christian philosophy. He indicates that Van Til identified the disciplines of systematic theology and apologetics, seeing the former as a positive statement of the Christian faith and the latter as a defense of that statement -- "a difference in emphasis rather than of subject matter." Frame summarizes Van Til's legacy as one of new applications of traditional doctrines:
- Unoriginal as his doctrinal formulations may be, his use of those formulations -- his application of them -- is often quite remarkable. The sovereignty of God becomes an epistemological, as well as a religious and metaphysical principle. The Trinity becomes the answer to the philosophical problem of the one and the many. Common grace becomes the key to a Christian philosophy of history. These new applications of familiar doctrines inevitably increase [Christians'] understanding of the doctrines themselves, for [they] come thereby to a new appreciation of what these doctrines demand of [them]. Sometimes these new understandings are of quite a radical sort -- radical enough to require new formulations, or at least supplementary formulations, of the doctrines themselves. Van Til...rarely provides such revised formulations, though he does at some significant points.... But there is much in Van Til that will require future orthodox Reformed dogmaticians to rethink much of the traditional language and thus to go beyond Van Til himself. Not that the traditional language is wrong (generally speaking); it is just that through reading Van Til we often become painfully aware of how much more needs to be said.
Similarly, Van Til's innovative application of the doctrines of total depravity and the ultimate authority of God led to his reforming of the discipline of apologetics. Specifically, he denied neutrality on the basis of the total depravity of man and the invasive effects of sin on man's reasoning ability (as per the usual Calvinistic understanding of the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans), and he insisted that the Bible, which he viewed as a divinely inspired book, be trusted preeminently because he believed the Christian's ultimate commitment must rest on the ultimate authority of God. As Frame says elsewhere, "the foundation of Van Til's system and its most persuasive principle" is a rejection of autonomy since "Christian thinking, like all of the Christian life, is subject to God's lordship" (Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic, p. 282).
Many recent theologians have been influenced by Van Til's thought, including John Frame, Greg Bahnsen, R. J. Rushdoony, and current Westminster Theological Seminary faculty members Vern Poythress, William Edgar, and K. Scott Oliphint.
- William White, Jr., Van Til : defender of the faith : an authorized biography ISBN 0840756704
- E. R. Geehan (editor), Jerusalem & Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, a Festschrift, ISBN 0875524893
- John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought ISBN 0875522203
- Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis ISBN 0875520987
- Jim S. Halsey, For a Time Such as This: An Introduction to the Reformed Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, (1976) Philadelphia, Penn : Presbyterian and Reformed.
- Rousas John Rushdoony, By what standard? : an analysis of the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til, (1959) Philadelphia, Penn : Presbyterian and Reformed (Reprint by Chalcedon Dec 2003) ISBN 187999805X
- Van Til: The Theologian, by John Frame, presenting Van Til's contributions to theology apart from apologetics.
- "Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic" by John Frame from the Westminster Theological Journal, analyzing the book Classical Apologetics by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley (ISBN 0310449510), which itself includes "a friendly refutation of Cornelius Van Til's presuppositional apologetics."
- www.VanTil.info, a comprehensive catalogue of online resources explicitly related to the theology, philosophy, and apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.