J. Oliver Buswell and Cornelius Van Til

David Owen Filson speaks about Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, theologian and former president of Wheaton College and Covenant College and Seminary. A fundamentalist involved with J. Gresham Machen in the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Buswell joined the Bible Presbyterian Church when it split with the fledgling OPC over premilennialism and teetotalism. He continued to be an interlocutor with members of the OPC and faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, eventually locking heads with Cornelius Van Til over apologetic and theological method. David has recently researched the correspondence between the two men in the archives of Covenant and Westminster (PA) seminaries.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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Vaughn Hathaway

6 years ago

I stumbled across this very interesting discussion via a posting on Facebook about J. Oliver Buswell.

While I am usually too impatient to listen to such long presentations, I did listen to the whole thing.

The discussion triggered a couple of thoughts. Let me first note that I was a Bible Presbyterian — I attended Faith Seminary (1965-68) and was ordained by the California Presbytery as pastor of the First BPC in Grand Junction, CO, in 1969. Early on Calvin, Hodge, Warfield, Shedd, Van Til, Buswell, Clark, and — a name that was entirely omitted from your discussion — Hamilton were the subjects of my reading focusing on theology and apologetics..

I do not have the dates before me; but as I recall, somewhere back there in the decade 1965-1975, there were attempts to bring Van Til, Clark, Buswell, and Hamilton together in face-to-face meetings in Philadelphia. These attempts were partially successful in that such a meeting was obtained with Van Til, McRae, Clark and Buswell.

I wonder at the absence of Hamilton from this discussion in view of the fact that Van Til and Hamilton, seemed to enjoy responding to one another in their published works. Were there no interchanges between Buswell and Hamilton? .

Somewhere after 1970 my interests turned more to ecclesiology.

I was also intrigued by the fact that the more current issues of the old-earth/young-earth debate were not mentioned.

While the Buswell-Van Til interplay took place before the rise of your-earth creationism, would they have been considered old-earthers. I was surprised to learn long after I have graduated from Faith Seminary, that my faculty members were old-earthers. Then, the date of creation was not a debated issue when I was in seminary. I cannot recall the matter ever being raised in class in any controversial manner. I do not think this debate issued until after the formation of Biblical Seminary. Would this aspect of Creation have affected the question of the historicity of Adam in the Buswell/Van Til exchanges?

Just a few rambling thoughts in response. Thanks.

don bryant

6 years ago

Fascinating discussion. I am a Westminster grad, ’79. I have always considered Westminster’s union with VanTil to be an impediment to its dialogue with wider Evangelicalism. While his concerns were appropriate to explore, the heavy presuppositionalism cut WTS from the larger swath of the conservative Protestant movement. I think it “ghettoized” WTS and gave it a fundamentalist feel to those on the outside – confrontational, arbitrary and withdrawn. VanTil had just stopped teaching when I studied there. He was often in the library reading. I did hear him preach a couple of times. So most of my experience of his apologetic method was secondary, except for his writings.


6 years ago

I am sorry you feel that way. I know that Van Til always taught his students to seek to be persuasive, friendly, and able to listen well. But I believe your feelings are about the actual theology of Van Til…. yes? I imagine anyone coming from a non-reformed position that holds philosophy to be on an equal playing field as revelation, is not going to be the biggest fan of Van Til.

As to your comment about Van Til being an “impediment” toward dialogue. Are you saying that Westminster has had no dialogue with scholars outside of its reformed circles or are you saying that dialogue has been too critical? Does dialogue mean agreement, or interaction, or both? Do you think it would have been better for VanTil to forsake Westminster Confession 1.4 and 1.5 for a more “dialogued” approach to Apologetics that allows philosophical predication to call the shots just as much as scripture? Should WTS stopped being so heavily reformed in the 70’s and gone more of a wider evangelical dialectic route … like Fuller. Do you think Van Til’s method was confrontational withdrawn and arbitrary because it was sinful and not biblical? I am not asking these questions in jest, i am just trying to understand where you are coming from better. I mean, I am sure there are other WTS grads that agree with you, but most of the time they are against Van Til’s method and they don’t really hold to the same theological convictions as the school to begin with. Hence they believe it wold have been better for Westminster to shuck not only Van Til, but a large majority of the Confessional Standards as well.

don bryant

6 years ago

RC Sproul is not a presuppositionalist but still fully Reformed. It’s possible!
I thought VanTil a kindly and warm man. However, his approach was unnecessarily confrontational. He gave a talk at my church on evangelism and was asked by a parishioner what he would say to a man who objected that he did not accept the Bible as a source of authority. VanTil’s response made my blood run cold – tell him, he replied, that he is going to hell. That’s a ‘no point contact’ method, for sure. It won’t allow for much follow-up.
VanTil practiced evangelism as a lifestyle. He preached on street corners, handed out tracts, called people to Christ. He was not simply an armchair theologian. I have high regard for him.

Tim H.

6 years ago

Excellent discussion. Thanks for doing this work, David.


6 years ago

1) Isn’t Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearing of Christ just basic Reformed theology? It’s there in Matthew Henry.

2) We keep hearing about how people have “misunderstood” Van Til. Why is it that we haven’t misunderstood Shepherd but any critic of Van Til has obviously misunderstood him. After three quarters of a century if Van Til’s theology can’t make itself understood maybe it’s time we just accept he’s unhelpful, at best.


6 years ago

Also not sure what’s funny about a Christian abstaining from smoking and drinking.


6 years ago


1) Reformed theology is divided on this, and many take it to be just “office” not a per-incarnate person.

2) argumentum ad populum.

Rob de Roos

6 years ago

It is really unfortunate that Christians misunderstand Van Til and place more weight on his Dutch-American cultural approbation than than the content of what he wrote. In a time when divine simplicity is commonly denied with Plantinga being considered one of the most well known Christian philosophers but who actually isn’t even Reformed in any normal confessional sense, it would seem to me that Van Til has more in common in terms of content [not writing style] with Lesslie Newbigin and Colin Gunton, and perhaps would should wonder at the real foundations of American evangelicalism. In a time when movements like the New Perspective to Open Theism are causing havoc in American evangelicalism, it would make more sense to me if one could make the discourse of Van Til’s content plain and accessible rather than marginalizing for issues of what seem to amount to cultural “look and feel”.


6 years ago

Wonderful to see a whole hour discussion devoted to this, to see it explained beyond the snippets in Van Til’s biography and Frame’s and Bahnsen’s work on Van Til. Has anyone thought about having a show exploring the historical setting of the Clark Van Til debate? Or was there one already?


6 years ago

Anybody that is interested in Buswell and the foundation of the BPC should check out Preaching on the Plains, the memoir of one of the ministers who first left the PCUSA with machen, and then left to found the BPC with Buswell et al. See particularly ch 28.

Clay Smith

3 years ago

I’ve been doing some research for a seminary paper, more on Van Til and Machen than Buswell, but I came across this hilarious, anonymously-written poem posted between Van Til’s reply to Buswell in The Bible Today. Just to throw some humor into the fray 😉

I know not how God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.
But I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that Day.

But —

Scotch is Scotch,
And Dutch is Dutch,
But Calvin was French, you see,
And died at the age of fifty-five,
Not older than “B” or “VanT.”

He wrote in the language of 1509—
He wrote not English nor Dutch,
He wrote in the words he understood
And has been translated much.
And the mind of the Scotch interprets Scotch,
And the mind of the Dutch sees Dutch;
But God’s great grace is working on
And souls respond to His touch.
And when in the glorious crowning day
The Scotch and the Dutch shall meet,
They both will say “It is all of grace;
We have reached the Mercy seat”
But Buswell still will drive his “Bus”
And Van Til his “Van” will drive,
But whether thru tunnel or over bridge,
By grace they will both arrive.



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