No one should have to discover Cornelius Van Til and the presuppositional method of apologetics the way I did. In 2010, the first major paper I ever had to produce for seminary was for Dr. Anees Zaka’s class on Islam. Included in his syllabus was the statement that the paper “must be written from a presuppositional perspective, as advocated by Dr. Cornelius Van Til.” To which I (mentally) said, “Do what?” I had never even heard of Cornelius Van Til, much less the somewhat controversial method of apologetics he advocated.
Needless to say, this meant I was facing a steep learning curve.
After buying every single volume written by Van Til that was available in the seminary bookstore, devouring them all and probably only understanding maybe a third of what I had read, I thought, “I wish there were someone around that I could ask about what I’m reading.” I hadn’t had any apologetics classes yet, and the other students I talked with seemed just as bewildered as I was.
In the intervening six years, I’ve had some time to think about how students of apologetics in the Reformed world get introduced to Van Til and presuppositionalism. There are obvious pedagogical issues involved in the process of introducing Van Til to apologetics students that I cannot get into in a blog post. Therefore, I’m assuming that students are being introduced to Van Til directly, rather than via his three best known interpreters (Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and K. Scott Oliphint). However, there are a some problems that go together with an unmediated introduction to Van Til’s thought.
The first, and perhaps most significant, problem is that Van Til could not ever be accused of being a “popular” style author. His writing is dense at best, in addition to being filled with a significant amount of philosophical terminology that will be unfamiliar to all but the most well-grounded philosophy students. If you add to this the fact that Van Til simply doesn’t write well, and you’re facing a long uphill battle to grasp his ideas.
The second problem is that Van Til’s most accessible works are (mostly) difficult to find; the books that are readily available (Christianity and Barthianism is a good example) are some of the most difficult to read. This problem has been relieved (to an extent) by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing bringing some of the more difficult to find books back into print—and with some very helpful explanatory notes by Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, which also helps relieve problem one. But if by some happy providence someone does know to search the WTS Bookstore for Van Til’s full catalog, they’re going to be met with a bewildering mass of works and no guide as to where to begin.
Since I’ve had a few years to think about this, allow me to offer my admittedly fallible suggestions as to where to start with Van Til, and in what order. Once I’ve done that, I’ll offer a follow up post that defends both my choices and why I recommend reading them in the order I’ve presented.
So for those of you who want to read Van Til, here’s what I’d recommend:
- Why I Believe in God.
- Christian Apologetics (2nd edition).
- Christian–Theistic Evidences (2nd edition).
- A Survey of Christian Epistemology.
- The Defense of the Faith (4th edition).
- Common Grace and the Gospel (2nd edition).
- Why I Believe in God.
Now that you have my recommendations, I hope you’ll swing back by tomorrow and read through my reasons for choosing these works (rather than other ones) and why I recommend reading them in this order.