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A German and a Dutchman

  • Ben House,
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The ethnic makeup of America has often been described as a melting pot. But we were not the first melting pot. Alexander the Great united many peoples by conquest and culture in an effort to unite mankind. The Roman Empire improved on his methods and sustained the effort over a larger piece of real estate and over a longer expanse of time. But the true melting pot was inaugurated at the Great Commission when Jesus Christ sent His disciples forth with the mission of discipling, baptizing, and teaching all nations in His name and Word.

Paul describes the melting pot effect of Christianity in terms of the unity created in the church because of the diversity of gifts present there. In 1 Corinthians 12:4–6, he writes, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all” (NKJV).

The melting pot of gifts can be seen all through church history. The examples of great Christians with widely varying personalities and strengths are numerous. Calvin and Luther form an interesting pair, as do George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. During this past year, God has called home two good and faithful servants who bore the same last name and served the same Lord, but with widely varying ministries. I refer here to Henry Morris and Leon Morris. Dr. Henry Morris was a scientist who focused on the issue of creation while Dr. Leon Morris was a theologian who focused on Biblical preaching and exegesis. Two different men, two different gifts, and two different ministries, all glorifying the same God.

Another team of God’s workmen that fascinates me illustrates both the melting pot nature of the church and of American history. Here I speak of an American of German heritage and a Dutch boy who immigrated to the nation. The first was Loraine Boettner (pronounced “Bet-ner”) and the second was Cornelius Van Til. They were contemporaries. Both were Presbyterians. Both were the products of the last great days of Princeton Theological Seminary. Both were mentored by J. Gresham Machen. Both were warriors in the same battles. Both wrote books published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. Yet their writings, their influence, and their gifts were drastically different.

Boettner’s dates were 1901 to 1990, and Van Til’s dates were 1895 to 1987. Both men came to their intellectual and spiritual maturity in the 1920s. It is easy to romanticize that era. Perhaps there were certain virtues still attached to the family farm (and both were farm boys), community and church ties, and ice cream being made on the front porch on a Sunday afternoon. But however calm and secure life was in middle America, inside the power structures of the Presbyterian church, war was being waged over the essential truth of Christianity. In short, the Protestant and Calvinistic theology that had built and sustained Presbyterianism was undercut by theological liberals who, in their hearts, denied the creeds and confessions of the church. In the middle of this battle was a large group of moderates whose love of truth was only exceeded by a love of unity (sarcasm intended). Historic Calvinism did not implode upon its own logic as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “The One Hoss Shay” had said. Instead, it was shown the door and exiled from the churches and institutions it had founded.

Christian theology in America entered a dark age. This great depression exceeded the later one that was merely economic. Richard Niebuhr rightly described the preaching of theological liberalism as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1] The grand old architectural structures, meaning the downtown churches, became the sepulchres of a dead theology.

But Reformed theology has never depended upon architecture, bureaucratic institutions, governing boards, the favored nods of state, or the ebb and flow of intellectual trends. Scripture has always been the Calvinist’s true cathedral, and God has always graciously raised up those who worshipped in Spirit and truth.

Loraine Boettner and Cornelius Van Til were teachers to a remnant, to a core group, to a faithful few, and in time, God has blessed their ministries.

Boettner began publishing his books in the 1930s. Van Til slowly began putting his lectures into print in the 1940s. It is doubtful that either man or their publisher ever saw any financial gain on their writings. Any chance of a profit was offset by the tendency both had to give away or sell at discounted prices their works.

Their benchmarks of success would not come until around the 1980s. That was 30 to 40 years after their books hit the shelves. Many best sellers came and went during those decades. Many authors enjoyed lots of fame and influence. Yet, I doubt that any two authors were ultimately more important than these two.

In short, Boettner taught his readers how to believe, and Van Til taught his students how to think. Boettner wrote in a plain simple style with numerous Scripture references, abundant quotations from theologians, and unadorned, unapologetic Calvinistic doctrine. He synthesized the Princeton tradition, adding little in the way of original exegesis or insight, and taught a Calvinistic soteriology and a postmillennial eschatology.

His major book was The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. The book began with a defense of Scripture and the sovereignty of God. From there he tackled the Five Points of Calvinism, point by point, verse by verse, precept upon precept, leaving no Calvinistic stone unturned. The next section of the book answered the common objections to Calvinism. Then for good measure, he devoted one of the last sections to the history of Calvinism.

Anyone who became familiar with Calvinism through this book also became much more familiar with the Bible. Boettner both printed and referenced numerous texts to buttress each point he made. The reader also became familiar with the “who’s who” of Reformed theology. Of course, Calvin himself was quoted, as was the Westminster Confession of Faith. But other theologians, such as Benjamin B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, R. L. Dabney, Abraham Kuyper, J. Gresham Machen, and Louis Berkhof were among the key thinkers that Boettner referenced.

For many of us, books like Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine came into our lives after we had been saved. Few of us were self-consciously Arminians. Many of us first reacted to Boettner’s gentle persuasion with much hostility. In time, the trickle of Bible verses became a tidal wave, and the arguments we hastily erected against Calvinism came down. The dawning in our hearts of a knowledge of the sovereignty of God was a grand experience.

Likewise, Boettner’s treatment of history opened the door for more study. Boettner’s coverage of Calvinistic influences in history is poorly documented at points, occasionally totally incorrect, and sometimes a bit inflated. He was blazing a trail, not smoothing a road. Others have built upon and improved his labors.

Boettner wrote well and communicated his position effectively. In contrast, Cornelius Van Til is not remembered for either writing or communication skills. Basically, Van Til’s thought is a cluster of ideas centering around the concept of presupposing the truth of the triune God as revealed in Scripture. This basic idea, referred to as presuppositional apologetics, became the center of Van Til’s defense of Christianity against all its opponents. All thought, all truth, all predication (to use a Van Til term) presupposes the true God or stands in rebellion to Him. Hence Christianity applies to all areas of life. Hence no area of life and thought is neutral. Hence unbelievers know but suppress the truth of God in everything. Hence every fact is a God-created, God-centered, God-interpreted fact.

Van Til’s defense of the faith established an epistemological foundation that opened the door to lots of “therefores.” It has been the ongoing homework assignment of Van Til’s students and readers to flesh out those “therefores” and make the application of God-centered thinking to all areas of life.

Van Til wrote lots of books. The depth of his thought is substantial, but the breadth of it was limited. His books are repetitive, rambling, disorderly, and quite difficult at points. Apparently, his teaching style was much the same. But what raised him to great heights was his recurring assertions of the presuppositional nature of Christian thought. Adding images to the ideas were a series of powerful illustrations that Van Til repeatedly used to describe his concepts. So presuppositions were like the flamethrowers that reached inside the pillbox fortifications of modern thought. So modern man depending on his humanistic assertions was like a man of water drowning in the water trying to make a rope out of water to save himself. So the unbeliever was like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that was not there.

Reformations occur at the sovereign pleasure of God. He uses means, people, and places according to His own purpose. Within the realm of the means at God’s disposal, certain patterns recur. Reformation begins in the readings, writing, and prayers, or in other words, scholarly labors, of godly men. Historian E. Harris Harbison commented on this in regard to the scholars of the Protestant Reformation. He wrote, “The Protestant Reformation began in a scholar’s insight into the meaning of Scripture. It was to a large extent a learned movement, a thing of professors and students, a scholars’ revolution.” Luther, Calvin, and others in their learned company were not the first. Ezra 7:10 tells us, “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.” It was Ezra’s detailed Bible study that provided for the teachings that impacted the remnant of Israel described in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. To the degree that we are witnessing either a modern reformation or the precursors of modern reformation, credit goes to such men of God as Boettner and Van Til.

Very simply summarized, here is what Boettner accomplished:

First, Boettner caused readers to reexamine and carefully study the Scriptures. For me personally, I learned how to study the Bible from his book Studies in Theology. Reading Boettner never pulled the reader away from the Bible, but rather grounded him in it. Second, Boettner compared his writing to a bouquet of flowers collected from the garden. By this, he meant that he had simply gathered the insights of great theologians. He did what good teachers always do: teach great insights with clarity and continually point the students to sources for yet more insights. So personal libraries that began with a Boettner book soon grew to include books by the key names in Reformed theological history. Third, through this method, Boettner caused Christian men to love reading good books of theology. No doubt there really are dry, dusty theological tomes, but superceding those works are the great Calvinistic works that still surge with a love of God and truth and conviction of Scripture and Reformed teachings. Fourth, Boettner impressed upon his readers the importance of studying church history. Perhaps more than any other theological tradition, Calvinism honors the past. A Calvinist who does not love history, if such exists, is an oxymoron. And due to Boettner’s brief survey of Calvinism in history, many of his readers have fleshed out the details and built upon his summary.

Finally, Boettner awakened many to the splendor of the sovereignty of God in salvation. When I first saw the title The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, my thought was that predestination surely seemed like an idea that needed reforming and I hoped this lady named Loraine succeeded at changing it. The book not only corrected my understanding of who the author was, but it changed virtually every point of my previously misdirected theological compass.

While Boettner taught many of us how to rightly believe in the sovereign triune God, Van Til taught us how to think in terms of that belief. Harry Blamires began his book The Christian Mind by bemoaning the loss of Christian thought. For many of us, since we never had a Christian mind, we never realized what was lost. The Bible was believed in the heart, but academic subjects were thought out in the mind, or so we thought. Faith was to be applied internally; reason externally. And of course, most of the subjects, except maybe the evolution chapter of biology, were neutral. Then came Van Til. Central to Van Til’s contribution to thought was his insistence that no area of life, no fact, no belief, is neutral.

Not only did Van Til provide answers and approaches to modern views opposing Christianity, he also gave confidence. Van Til never looked to archaeology or science or psychology to rescue the Bible from its attackers. And Van Til pointedly summarized the culture war of his age and now of ours to the essential issue: “There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy.” So every area of life reduces to war between the sovereign God who has spoken in Scripture or autonomous man in rebellion against the self-same God. From Van Til’s sketchings, the canvases were left for others to apply the paint of God’s Word to education, family life, counseling, politics, and the culture.

While Boettner helped foster a love of the sovereignty of God in salvation, Van Til helped expand that love of God’s sovereignty to all areas of life. There is no telling how many men are standing in pulpits these days whose lives and ministries were changed by one or both of these men. There is no telling how many people are sitting in pews today who may or may not know these men, yet have been influenced by those who did know and read them.

In both cases, there are now writers and books that surpass the works of these men in readability and perhaps further insights. You can get better books on the sovereignty of God and Calvinistic theology than Boettner’s, and you can find more readable useful books on Christian apologetics and thought than Van Til. Yet those writers and books exist only because they stand on the shoulders of Boettner and Van Til.

[1] As quoted in Hoffecker and Smith, Building a Christian World View, 149.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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