Cornelius Van Til and the Identity of the OPC
Machen and Van Til
On December 4, 1936, about six months after the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Oliver Buswell wrote to J. Gresham Machen for the last time. Machen would die before he could finish a response. It is obvious from a draft fragment which survives that Machen had trouble formulating his reply.
One thing giving Machen difficulty was Buswell’s attack on the “Westminster apologetic,” at the center of which stood Professor Cornelius Van Til. Buswell charged that the seminary was moving in a novel direction, away from the apologetics of scholars such as Machen himself. Instead, it was promoting a philosophical apologetic which weakened the students’ practical usefulness. According to Buswell, the new apologetic was “substanceless theorizing.”
Machen remained loyal to the natural theology of his Princeton training, yet was publicly committed to Van Til. His ambivalence is explained in two ways. First, he found in Van Til a man as loyal to Westminster Seminary and the movement it represented as himself. Being Dutch and coming from the Christian Reformed Church, Van Til entered the “Presbyterian controversy” without American Presbyterian attachments. Here was someone Machen could count on.
Second, Machen had been unsettled theologically by the events surrounding the organization of Westminster. He soon found himself the student to the faculty he had assembled. O. T. Allis said that Machen, in those early days of the seminary, was learning about dispensationalism for the first time. John Murray instructed him on such doctrines as the active obedience of Christ. Here was a man in transition, moving from a generic American Presbyterianism to a more doctrinally specific, confessional Calvinism.
The most difficult area in Machen’s “reeducation” was apologetics. He did not feel competent expressing himself in Van Til’s terms. Still, he remained publicly committed to the man. The story goes that once when Van Til offered to resign, Machen quipped, “We’re not even accepting the janitor’s resignation.”
The Battle with Fundamentalism
Machen’s refusal to distance himself from Van Til cost him the support of fundamentalists, such as Buswell. The fundamentalists in the OPC were typically American before they were Calvinist or Presbyterian. Moreover, they were highly suspicious of foreign influences. H. McAllister Griffiths, for example, complained about Van Til’s “Holland Dutch extraction.”
The battle between the fundamentalists and the confessionally Reformed “aliens” came to a head in the Second and Third General Assemblies. At the second, Machen and Van Til together prevailed over the fundamentalist plea that the Arminian revisions to the Westminster Confession, adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the USA in 1903, be retained in the standards of the new church. In the third, the “aliens” won battles when the majority abandoned the fundamentalist-controlled Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions and refused to endorse the fundamentalist plank for total abstinence from alcoholic beverages.
The real victory was for a more consistently Reformed identity for the OPC. It was apparent that the new church would not be defined by American fundamentalism.
Apologetics and the Old Church
These events created further problems because the OPC claimed to be the spiritual successor of the PCUSA. If the fundamentalists, who once were comfortable in the old church, did not feel at home in the new, how was the new church the continuation of the old?
Beyond the question of fundamentalism, however, the tie to the old church was being challenged in a more basic way by Van Til. His apologetic for the Christian faith signaled a radical break with established Presbyterian thinking.
First, according to Van Til, the task of apologetics is not to establish the validity of first principles (such as the existence of God) by building a natural theology using neutral reason, as had been the position of the old church. For Van Til, apologetics is the defense of the faith, not the defense of the possibility of believing. He presupposed the truth of the Bible, and assumed the antithesis between the regenerate and unregenerate mind. Since nothing has meaning apart from the biblical narrative of God’s redemptive work in history, centering on the self-attesting Christ, Van Til’s apologetic is essentially redemptive-historical. ” ‘Logic’ and ‘fact’ have meaning,” he said, “only in terms of the [Christian] story.”
Second, Van Til sought to defend the Reformed faith as expressed in the church’s creeds, not generic Christianity or theism. The Reformed church and its faith, according to Van Til, stand over against all others. Rather than trying to find common ground with non-Reformed views, he stressed the Reformed faith’s exclusive position.
Third, Van Til exposed the philosophical undercurrents of contemporary theological discussion. He showed that they were at variance with biblical revelation. In the twentieth century, those currents became a raging flood of Enlightenment idealism, dedicated to the autonomy of the human intellect.
The end result for American Presbyterianism was a gentlemen’s religion which operated differently in the church and in the world. In the church, this religion was generally Trinitarian and Calvinistic. But in public affairs, it was deistic at best—promoting goodness without reference to Christ and redemption. This civil religion had hope for the better life, not eternal life.
The crisis came when this civil religion intruded on the message of the pulpit. What would Presbyterians do? Would they hold onto their establishment Presbyterianism and let the gospel go? Or would they hold onto the gospel even though it cost them their place in the establishment?
The OPC was forced to realize she was no mere continuation of the old Presbyterian church. Her ties to the establishment had been severed. The fact that she has no cultural bridge, no connection to the establishment, defines her as much as her theology.
Van Til’s “alien” identity, together with his distinctive apologetic and Reformed commitment, spoke effectively to the new church. His message about the antithetical nature of the faith was ready-made for the church’s stand. Because of Van Til, the OPC better realized that the old church was critically flawed. It would not do to long for a return to the old American Presbyterian model.
The Struggle for an Identity
However, a great struggle over the identity of the OPC remained. This struggle, in which Van Til figured prominently, played itself out in two episodes.
The first episode involved a vision for cultural elitism. It came to expression in the Committee of Nine, erected by the Eighth General Assembly (1941) to recommend ways in which the OPC might “have an increasing area of influence and make a greater impact on life today.” The force behind this committee was Edwin H. Rian, an elitist who, despite his excellent book The Presbyterian Conflict, dreamed of the OPC becoming a large denomination with the cultural clout of the PCUSA.
Van Til, as part of the minority in the committee, opposed the majority’s program because he knew it would compromise the church’s proclamation of the Reformed faith. The minority won the debate and the committee was dissolved. Later, Van Til and others withstood Rian’s attempt to turn the effort at starting a Christian university into an expression of cultural elitism. Rian was removed from the project in the fall of 1946, only to return the following year to the PCUSA and to the cultural identity of the church he had never really left.
The second episode concerned the neo-evangelical movement. Long before David Wells and Os Guinness raised their voices about evangelical shallowness, Van Til and the OPC raised theirs.
For the Reformers, the word evangelical described the church. For neo-evangelicals, it describes the individual, committed as much to the autonomy of the individual conscience and voluntarism as any doctrine. It is not without reason that Van Til saw modern evangelicalism as inherently Arminian.
It would be unfair to say that those who, in the 1940s, represented the evangelical cause in the OPC lacked Reformed convictions. However, they were influenced by the rapidly developing evangelical movement at many points. What they perceived as OPC isolation provided an opportunity for certain features of evangelical thinking to dominate their minds.
In the famous Van Til-Clark debate, those in the OPC influenced by the evangelical movement lined up behind Clark. They especially complained about men from “other lands” without American evangelical roots. They took their stand at the Fourteenth General Assembly (1947) over the composition of the Committee on Foreign Missions. Their slate of candidates failed by one vote, and, before the next assembly, most of them left the OPC.
As sad as these departures were, the OPC, in no small measure because of Van Til, was confirmed in her identity as a rigorously Reformed denomination, resistant to the efforts of fundamentalists, establishmentarians, and neo-evangelicals to make her an extension of American cultural religion.
We should be careful to note, however, that Van Til did not triumph in the OPC in every respect. His commitment to Abraham Kuyper’s program for the reformation of culture did not win the day. The OPC’s antithetical posture has proved itself no more comfortable with Dutch neo-Calvinism than with American religious movements.
But where does this leave the OPC? If she stands beyond her American environment and even in some ways beyond Van Til, what position does she occupy?
Could it be that the OPC, helped greatly by Van Til’s biblical apologetic, calls to mind that Christ’s church is a pilgrim people without nationalist or ethnic portfolio? Could it be that the OPC, encouraged by Van Til’s antithetical posture, reminds Christ’s church that she is stamped with an otherworldliness, so that she does not seek to regain the world from which she has been delivered, but seeks instead to be a servant in that world until Christ returns? Could it be that the OPC provides a much-needed testimony that Christ’s church must always confess, “Here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14 KJV)?
This article was written by Charles G. Dennison [historian of the OPC] and first appeared in New Horizons, June 1996.