The Defense of the Faith

The Christ the Center panelists engage Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, in a wide-ranging discussion about Cornelius Van Til and the recent publication of th fourth edition of his The Defense of the Faith . Dr. Oliphint, who is arguably the most authoritative expert on Van Til, shares about the historical context which gave rise to this book, including disputes with individuals connected with Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, and what is now Kuyper College, in the 1950s concerning common grace and philosophical idealism. Much of the material in the original edition of the book that evinced this debate was removed in subsequent editions and has now been restored and amply expanded with a helpful introduction and explanatory notes. Of special interest is the discussion of Van Til’s connection with Reformed Scholasticism and Herman Bavinck through his doctrine of analogy. When all is said and done, it comes down to this: Van Til was simply applying orthodox Reformed theology to apologetics.


  • K. Scott Oliphint
  • Jeff Waddington
  • Jim Cassidy
  • James Dolezal
  • Camden Bucey


Bahnsen, Greg L. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis . P & R Publishing, 1998.

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: Prolegomena . Baker Academic, 2003.

—. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation . Vol. 2. Reformed Dogmatics. Baker Academic, 2004.

—. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ . Baker Academic, 2006.

—. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation . Baker Academic, 2008.

Bristley, Eric D. A Guide to the Writings of Cornelius Van Til, 1895–1987 . Chicago: Olive Tree Communications, 1995.

Johnson, Gary L. W., and Ronald N. Gleason. Reforming or Conforming? : Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church . Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008.

Kim, Seyoon. Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke . Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008.

Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology And Worship . P & R Publishing, 2005.

Muether, John. Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman . Phillipsburg N.J.: P&R Pub., 2007.

Muller, Richard A. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 . 2nd ed. Baker Academic, 2003.

Rehnman, Sebastian. Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen . Texts and studies in Reformation and post-Reformation thought. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Sproul, R. C., John H. Gerstner, and Arthur. Lindsley. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics . Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1984.

Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology 3 vol. set . P & R Publishing, 1997.

Van Til, Cornelius. A Survey of Christian Epistemology . 2nd ed. Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1980.

—. Christian Apologetics . 2nd ed. P & R Publishing, 2003.

—. Christian-Theistic Evidences . Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1961.

—. Common Grace and the Gospel . Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1973.

—. Defense of the Faith . P & R Publishing, 1967.

—. “God and the Absolute,” 1927.

—. Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God . 2nd ed. P & R Publishing, 2007.

—. The Defense of the Faith . 4th ed. Phillipsburg N.J.: P & R Pub., 2008.

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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.

Timothy M

12 years ago


I had a quick question for you guys. I am not well-read in Van Til but have heard from some people that Van Til saw theonomists like Greg Bahnsen as perverting his work.

I see you have the specific book listed in your bibliography by Bahnsen. I was curious if this would still be helpful in reading and understanding Van Til and if you know anything else about this controversy regarding Bahnsen’s understanding of Van Til.

Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks!

Camden Bucey

12 years ago

I think Bahnsen’s book is very helpful. I haven’t noticed any theonomy in it. The book contains topically organized excerpts from Van Til’s corpus with commentary and further explanation by Bahnsen. I don’t know if Bahnsen ever articulated a relationship between theonomy and Van Tillian apologetics, but I haven’t read much of his material on theonomy.

Nicholas T. Batzig

12 years ago


There are some postmillenial, theonomic strands in Bahsen’s Van Til, but by and large it is a good work. I would just watch out for the statements he makes in it about the church being responsible for the world’s darkness. I remember reading in there something to the intent that we are to blame if the world is still in darkness. In one sense this is true. We need to be telling people about Christ. But this can be taken in a postmill, theonomic way. God has promised to Christianize the world, therefore, if the world is not Christianized it is because we have failed to spread the Gospel and implement the civil law given to Israel into our government. I have a feeling Bahnsen had the second idea in mind. Otherwise it is a good book.

As far as VanTil is concerned, there is a lot of confusion about his view of theonomy. You will hear some people say, “Van Til hand picked Bahnsen to be his replacement.” They will also usually point to a sentence in Christian Theistic Ethics where Van Til says, “You’re either Theonomist or you are Autonomous.” Of course Van Til did not mean it in the way that proponents of the Theonomy movement take it, because there was no such thing as a theonomic movement. He simply meant–you either follow God’s law or you are a law unto yourself. Now, this poses the problem, I think,of explaining how it was that Van Til himself was not a theonomist. If there is no natural law (in the sense in which Roman Catholics and broad evangelicals use the term) then there is only God’s law. If there is only God’s law then what Law should we implement into societies? The answer seems pretty obvious, until you consider two factors in Van Til.

The first was his redemptive historical bent. Van Til was a huge BT guy since he was biblical, Dutch and worked closely with Vos. Theonomists are not inclined to Biblical Theology because it explains the continuity and DISCONTINUITY of the administration of the covenant of grace. They simply want continuity.

The other factor in Van Til that needs to be stressed is his emphasis on the Imago Dei and common grace. I can;t speak for him personally, but I have a hunch that Van Til would explain the ethics of politics in light of the biblical doctrine of common grace. Governments are to punish evil and reward good. How can this happen in a non-Christian state? Well, how has it happened throughout the history of the world. How is it that ungodly governments have punished evil for the last two thousand years? It is because the lawe is written on the hearts of all men, and by God’s common grace they acknowledge some of the things that they should be punishing. Should they be governed by God’s moral law? Sure, but I do not believe, and I do not think that Van Til believed that it was the role of the church to be telling the government to implement the moral law. It is a view of the purpose and work of the church in the world that holds the answer to the question of theonomy. In Muether’s new bio of Van Til he mentions that Van Til did not really produce any writings that incorporated his work into the sphere of art. I think this is true in regard to politics. I had a theonomic friend in seminary who once told me he thought Van Til was a closet theonomist. I don’t know if that is supposed to be a compliment or not, but it shows that at least one theonomist acknowledged that Van Til was not a “theonomist” in the sense of the movement.

Dr. Van Til and my dad were good friends. My dad told me that Dr. Van Til did not understand why the theonomists were doing what they were doing with his work. I guess that is a pretty straightforward answer to your question.

Hope this helps.

Timothy M

12 years ago

Thanks Camden and Nicholas for your answers. They are much appreciated.

It would seem that if Van Til was greatly influenced by Vos that the entire theonomic understanding of the civil law would collapse.

Thanks again!

Zechariah Jackson

11 years ago


“Theonomists are not inclined to Biblical Theology because it explains the continuity and DISCONTINUITY of the administration of the covenant of grace. They simply want continuity.”

This is a gross misrepresentation of both Bahnsen and theonomists, in general. If you had read a single work by Bahnsen on the subject you could not honestly make this statement. Theonomist are very ready to articulate the discontinuity of the Covenants, they simply do not think that it is warrented to abandon God’s requirement’s for civil governments. You should not spend your time misrepresenting others.


Nicholas T. Batzig

11 years ago


Thank you for the response. I do have the express surprise with your response a bit however. I went to the seminary with the most theonomist left in the world and they all had no place for a robust Biblical Theology. Don’t you think it’s interesting that all the Amillenialists are biblical-theologically driven? And, I would have to stress that they do not accurately emphasize the DISCONTINUITY in Covenant Theology. The very fact that they think that the civil law, given to Israel for that particular period in redemptive history, is still binding and should be implemented in the governments of the world proves my point. Even the Westminster Assembly men understood this when they said that the “sundry judicial laws given to Israel as a “body politic” were abolished…with the state of that people.” I could have said that theonomy was not Confessional, but I chose to say it was not biblical-theological enough.

And, by the way, I have read more theonomic works than I wished. Thanks.

A listener

11 years ago

Greetings, folks. Thanks, as always, for the podcast.

Am just listening to this episode from months ago, and I got to the part where Dr Oliphint makes the assertion about folks (like RC) following “Thomas” causing a “glitch” in their apologetics. As someone who’d not heard that before, and is only early in his seminary career, I had to dig around to learn that he meant Aquinas, and later was saying “Thomist”. I leave this for others who may have the same question and could come here looking for the help.

I also tried to find anything (on the web) addressing the specific concern of Aquinas vs Van Til. I found a couple of things: hi-level, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presuppositional_apologetics, and in-depth, http://epistole.wordpress.com/2008/08/13/an-apparent-apologetic-method-in-aquinas-a-critique-of-certain-van-tilianisms/. I don’t think the latter supports Oliphint’s stand, and further as I don’t understand the issues, I can’t rate the value or perspective of either resource, so others devoted to the issue may want to point to other/better resources which explain the issue being discussed. Hope that’s helpful.

Christ the Center Interview Index

11 years ago

[…] “Preaching in an Electronic Age” David Hall “The Calvin Quincentenary” Scott Oliphant The Defense of the Faith Ron Gleason Herman Bavinck John Fesko The Reformed Doctrine of […]


11 years ago

Nicholas – I tend to agree with Zac, your comments suggest you have little familiarity with published theonomic views. You say you’ve read more than you’ve wished, but that’s not saying much. What works have you read that suggest what you’ve outlined above?

Feeding on Christ » Blog Archive » Christ the Center Interview List

11 years ago

[…] Scott Oliphant The Defense of the Faith […]


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