Why Machen Hired Van Til

For a variety of historical reasons American Presbyterians throughout the nineteenth century were fully committed to the Enlightenment and scientific methods as the surest means for arriving at truth. Though still believing in the authority of Scripture, the best—or at least the most widely accepted—way of demonstrating the truth of the Bible was by appealing to reason and Scripture’s harmony with nature and the self-evident truths of human experience.

Even though the Presbyterian theologians who taught at Princeton Seminary, such as Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield, believed in and defended the sinfulness of man, including human reason, their fundamental acceptance of the Enlightenment also produced apologetics that in many cases deemed the mind to be a reliable and authoritative guide to truth, including the truths of the Bible.

Old Princeton’s apologetic also implied a certain attitude toward the American nation. The United States was heavily indebted to the Enlightenment. Having rejected the crown or established church as a way to maintain social stability, the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason provided America with a rival form of cultural authority, one that was available to all right-thinking people and did not depend upon family blood and place/land. The scientific method and right procedures of argumentation gave to Americans public criteria for determining the true, the good and the beautiful. Thus, the church and the nation shared a similar outlook. Unlike the situation in Europe where the Enlightenment was explicitly anti-clerical (e.g. the French Revolution), in the United States most Protestants imbibed the ideals of the Enlightenment and supported the War for Independence which rested upon those ideals.

This was the tradition out of which Machen worked as an American Presbyterian and a member of Princeton Seminary’s faculty. Yet, his argument against Protestant liberalism questioned the close identification of the church with American culture, a tradition that extended back to the American revolution. Machen recognized that the church was fundamentally different from society, and that its faith and practice stood above (and at times against) the norms of America. The mainline churches, he argued, had compromised their witness because they had substituted the ideals of liberty, democracy and equality for the good news of the gospel.

Machen’s recognition of the antagonism between church and culture made him sympathetic to confessional ethnic communions like the Dutch Calvinist tradition from which Van Til came. He admired, for instance, the confessional witness of the Christian Reformed Church, its practice of catechetical sermons, its system of Christian schools, its college and seminary. He also esteemed the CRC’s separateness from the wider culture, its ghetto mentality as it were, rooted in the conviction that the church must avoid all associations that might compromise its witness. In an editorial for the Presbyterian Guardian written shortly before founding of the OPC, Machen praised the CRC’s practice of church discipline which “preserved its separateness from the world.” This was precisely the opposite of what Machen saw in Protestant mainline denominations where in order to gain the acceptance of the world churches had adjusted their preaching and ministry. As Machen wrote in Christianity and Liberalism, “religion is thought to be necessary for a healthy community; and therefore for the sake of the community [people] are willing to have a church.” But, he added, Christianity could not be treated this way. “The moment it is so treated it ceases to be Christian… Christianity refuses to be regarded as a mere means to a higher end….”

Van Til was not only reared in the CRC but he came out of a tradition with a fundamentally different attitude toward the Enlightenment. Because in Europe the great philosophical developments of the eighteenth century were so hostile to the church, Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, took a dimmer—if not hostile—view toward the Enlightenment. A good indication of this difference is the name of Abraham Kuyper’s political organization in the Netherlands, the AntiRevolutionary Party. Van Til’s apologetics extended this insight from the intellectual and political realms to that of theology and the defense of the faith. Thus, he made the antithesis, that is, the fundamental difference and antagonism between believers and non-believers, central to the task and method of apologetics. The authority for believers was God’s Word, not reason. Appeals to the reasonableness of Christian truth were doomed to fail because without the effectual calling of God’s spirit human rationality was in rebellion against God and would not be persuaded of the gospel’s truth.

Excerpt from: https://opc.org/OS/MachenVanTil.html


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