The historical origins of the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til

Timothy Irwin McConnel, Marquette University


Cornelius Van Til taught apologetics for one year at Princeton Theological Seminary, and then for the rest of his career at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He advocated a new approach in apologetics which has come to be known as "presuppositional apologetics." Presuppositionalism has been controversial within evangelical and Reformed circles, and has been viewed as a radical departure from the Old Princeton evidentialist approach, by both its supporters and detractors. The dissertation argues that Van Til's presuppositional apologetics is a twentieth century Reformed response to the post-Kantian philosophical focus on epistemology. The first part describes Van Til's system through an exposition of his major works, and then examines the responses of both his supporters and critics. The second part examines the four major influences that can be discerned within his writings. He frequently referred to Calvin, especially Book I of the Institutes and a treatise on predestination. His doctoral studies were in early twentieth century British idealism. His position was not to accept their answers to philosophical problems, but rather to show that orthodox Christianity provided the answers to the questions they were asking. In many ways, his studies in idealism set the agenda for his apologetics. Van Til's approach is usually contrasted to the Old Princeton apologetics, but an examination of the apologetics taught by Van Til's professor at Princeton, William Brenton Greene, Jr., shows a more complex relationship. Disagreements between Van Til and Old Princeton can largely be traced to the latter's adoption of the Scottish Common Sense Realism, with its non-Calvinist anthropology. Finally, perhaps the most significant influence on Van Til's apologetics was his Dutch Reformed heritage, especially as mediated by Abraham Kuyper. Presuppositionalism is largely an attempt to work out in apologetics the tension between Kuyper's notions of common grace and the antithesis. In so doing, Van Til provides a model for Christian engagement with culture. "Common grace" allowed him to appreciate the insights of non-Christian philosophers, while the "antithesis" prevented him from adopting their positions. Rather, he appropriated the wealth of the Calvinist tradition to show that it answered the aspirations of the idealists.

Recommended Citation

McConnel, Timothy Irwin, "The historical origins of the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til" (1999). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9929165.