When it comes to theological controversy, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In a recent interview on The Afterword podcast, Dr. K Scott Oliphint mentioned what might seem to be a long dead and largely irrelevant conflict between The Calvin Forum (a publication of Calvin University and Seminary) and Westminster’s very own founding faculty member, Cornelius Van Til. For the uninitiated, the conflict was over the apologetic method of Van Til, the way that he set out to defend the faith. His detractors claimed that his method was a novelty that had serious flaws. These criticisms were levied in the form of a full-fledged frontal assault that consisted in three issues of The Calvin Forum dedicated to presenting criticisms of what they called the “new Westminster apologetics.”
These issues of The Calvin Forum were published in the early 1950s, so the question remains: who cares? Why is this important 70 years later? Why are we talking about this? Well, unfortunately, the criticisms levied against Van Til in the 1950’s laid the foundation for much of the criticism that Van Til and his Reformed apologetic method receives to this day. According to the Presbyterian Guardian, the criticisms at the time revealed “considerable misunderstanding of Dr. Van Til’s position, and an often superficial treatment of his writings.” For those familiar with Van Til and his various detractors, this should sound painfully familiar.
When it comes to theological controversy, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Now, we could get into all the odds and ends of the criticisms and how modern critiques of Van Til reflect them, but there has been much ink spilled on these issues already by those with much higher qualifications than I have, so I’ll leave that work to the experts. However, two things about this issue are important for us today and within our purview. The first is the motivation for The Calvin Forum’s attack on Van Til, and the second is how such a motivation to attack a brother is reflected in the tribal temptations we face in our current milieu.
So, what motivated The Calvin Forum? Well, it’s impossible to really know what motivated the attack, but there are ways to glean insights that might point toward one reason or another. In his interview with The Afterword, Dr. Oliphint recounts some sleuthing he did in an attempt to uncover the rationale behind The Calvin Forum at the time. He called the last living author of one of these hit pieces to ask why he wrote it. The response was underwhelming, anti-climactic, and ultimately disappointing. He said, as recounted by Dr. Oliphint, “You know, I was a grad student, and they gave me an opportunity to publish something, so I just thought I’d write something against him and publish it.” That’s it. For that author, at least, it was an afterthought, something that might benefit his career and pad his resume. It was just another publication to add to his record.
Now, the motivations for individuals and the motivations for institutions can, and often do, differ. This might point towards an answer as to why that one person wrote one of the articles that appeared in The Calvin Forum against Van Til, but what motivated The Calvin Forum as an institution to take this no-holds, barred approach to the “new Westminster apologetics?” Unfortunately, divining the motivations of institutions is even harder than those of individuals. However, there are some historical hints as to why this attack came about if you are willing to look hard enough.
Before The Calvin Forum aired their attacks against Van Til in 1953, Calvin Theological Seminary’s board voted nearly unanimously to offer him a job teaching apologetics. In fact, they made him two offers, once in 1951 and again in 1952. In May of 1952, Leslie Sloat, the former librarian at Westminster, authored a celebratory article lauding Van Til on his decision to remain at Westminster, because who would want to lose a founding professor like Van Til? Five months later, John Vriend, a graduate student at the Free University of Amsterdam who would go on to co-translate Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, wrote an introduction to Van Til’s epistemology in The Calvin Forum. This article was a fairly balanced take on Van Til that criticized him in some places for being somewhat opaque in his writing, but it was an overall positive take on Van Til. Less than a year after that, the attack on Van Til began.
To summarize with a quick timeline.
- 1942: Van Til publishes his first article in The Calvin Forum.
- 1951: Calvin Seminary offers Van Til a teaching position.
- 1952: Calvin Seminary offers Van Til a teaching position again, and Leslie Sloat publishes a Congratulations to Van Til for staying at WTS.
- 1952: John Vriend publishes a pro-Van Til article in The Calvin Forum.
- 1953: The Calvin Forum attacks Van Til.
The question that this ought to raise is, why such a quick turn-around? Why did Calvin Seminary and its publication, The Calvin Forum, go from offering Van Til a job to publicly attacking him? Again, it’s hard to judge the motives of institutions, especially when the actions were taken 70 years ago. However, the editor of The Calvin Forum, Cecil DeBoer, gives a rationale for the attack. He claimed that Van Til and the “new apologetic” lacks “adequacy” and “technical correctness with which it has done its job.” Worse than that, he claimed that Van Til’s apologetic method “can lead only to pantheism . . . And after all, a bad argument for the truth frequently does more damage than a good argument against it.” These are serious claims and, if true, such a vigorous critique is warranted.
Like I said, I’m not going to wade into the technical philosophical waters of refuting these claims or the critiques that accompany them. However, what I think we can do is take a look at the other side. What was the perspective of the OPC and of WTS regarding all of this? The Presbyterian Guardian (the official publication of the OPC at that time), in a piece alerting its readers to the attack, hinted that the motivations of The Calvin Forum might not be as pure as Dr. DeBoer led on. In wrapping up their relaying of the news of the attacks, they provide this short paragraph. “Dr. Van Til has been professor in Westminster Seminary since 1929. On two occasions he has been invited by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church—in 1951 almost unanimously—to join the faculty of Calvin Seminary. Both times he declined.”
If you’re reading between the lines, the Presbyterian Guardian is subtly suggesting that this attack may have been, at least partially, retaliation against Van Til for spurning their offers to come teach for them. After all, if Van Til’s apologetic is so dangerous to the truth, so inadequate and technically incorrect, why would they have offered him a premier teaching position at their institution? That just doesn’t add up. To make matters worse, DeBoer claimed that Van Til “seems to have taken over uncritically the idealist theory of knowledge and truth.” The problem with this claim is that it was Van Til’s article in The Calvin Forum from 1946 entitled “Kant or Christ?” that perhaps most clearly sets his own method apart from Idealism of the Kantian variety. With this in mind, it seems quite doubtful that this attack was leveled against Van Til in good faith.
Now before we get out our pitchforks over a controversy in which every participant is now deceased, let’s take a step back and try to sympathize with the folks at Calvin. Long before the OPC existed, Van Til was a member and even a pastor in the CRC. He studied at Calvin College before going on to Princeton. When the OPC formed, he left the CRC to join the fledgling Presbyterian denomination. One might understand why the CRC community might desire to bring such an intellectual giant as Van Til back into the fold. And further, one might understand how they might feel betrayed that their countryman spurned their offer, leaving them in the dust. While this perspective might explain the attacks, it does nothing to excuse them.
The problem lies in the unchecked motivations behind the critiques.
I’d be willing to wager that this wasn’t the first time that the church took a political conflict and turned it into a theological controversy, and it most certainly was not the last time. “You offended or slighted me, so I will now try to destroy you” is, thankfully, not an acceptable strategy in the church. The alternative loophole used to garner the same result, though, is to fabricate a theological controversy, to railroad the person whom you perceive as having slighted you under the guise of “defending orthodoxy.” Many such cases abound.
This is not to say that theological confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. Anyone who has read more than a little Van Til will know that no one could accuse him of timidity. Van Til is perhaps best known for his willingness to throw down the gauntlet for better or worse. What I’m getting at is not whether we ought to level theological critiques or not; of course we should. The problem lies in the unchecked motivations behind the critiques. We ought to question whether or not the damage that can result from the controversy is worth the theology in question.
So let this be a cautionary tale for those who would place their feelings above the faithful defense and proclamation of the Word of God. Further, let us strive to have the attitude of Paul when we perceive ourselves to have been slighted or offended. “The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:17-18).