The Essential Van Til — No Critic of Old Princeton Epistemology?

I am always edified when I read Van Til. I am also always challenged to conform my thinking to the Holy Scriptures and the Reformed faith. But I am not often surprised. That is a testament to the consistency of Van Til’s thought.

But I was recently surprised by Van Til while reading Common Grace and the Gospel.  There he writes:

As for “Old Princeton Theology” in the booklet on Common Grace, I have scarcely referred to it. Elsewhere I have expressed disagreement with its apologetics. In this I was following Kuyper. But never have I expressed a basic difference with its theology or its basic epistemology. (p. 177)

In context Van Til is defending himself against a number of charges leveled against him by William Masselink. Masselink asserts that Van Til disagrees with Old Princeton (among others such as Kuyper, Hepp, etc.) on the matter of epistemology. And here Van Til retorts that while he does disagree with Old Princeton on apologetics, he does not disagree “with its theology or its basic epistemology.”

This surprised me, in part, because I have always thought of Van Til’s criticism of Old Princeton as a criticism—first and foremost—of its epistemology. Of special interest here is what Van Til says about Warfield’s notion of “right reason” (for example in Defense of the Faith, 350). Is Van Til’s criticism against Warfield’s notion of how the unbeliever knows, or against his approach to the unbeliever apologetically? Or is it both?

I won’t try to answer that question here. But, it seems to me, it is awfully difficult to separate out Warfield’s idea of “right reason” (which seems to be an epistemological issue) from his apologetic method. Is Van Til being completely consistent with himself here?

Again, I raise the question not to answer it here. It seems the answer would be complex enough to warrant a longer study. Or, at the very least, it seems to warrant further discussion.

Now it’s your turn. Thoughts?

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3 years ago


I came across this statement years ago when in seminary, about 2005. I wrote a directed study paper on this very question. If you are interested, I could send it to you. Let me know what you think.

Jim Cassidy

3 years ago

I would appreciate that Michael, thanks!


3 years ago

Great, what address should I send it too?


3 years ago

Hi Rev Jim,

I am truly thankful for Reformed Forum’s commitment to confessional Reformed theology and for endorsing Van Til’s approach to apologetics, which I believe is most consistent with the system of theology that it professes to hold. I had recently read Paul Helseth’s book on “Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal” that seeks to demonstrate that the Presbyterian members of the faculty in the 19th and early 20th century, such as Hodge and Warfield, did not in fact compromise in their commitments to the Reformed faith via the acceptance of Scottish Common Sense Realism uncritically. If memory serves me right (apologies I do not have the book within reach at the moment), Helseth pointed out that the use of right reason was not entirely an epistemological issue, but rather it contains an ethical/moral aspect as well. In relation to this, Helseth drew the distinction between speculative and spiritual knowledge, which he believed were employed by the Princetonians. As such, his thesis seeks to be “unorthodox” in that it goes against much of historiography concerning the Princetonians’ commitment to neutral reasoning, which would also suggest that Van Til was a tad overreaching in his evaluation of their epistemological commitments. How would you respond to Helseth’s proposal with regards to the Princetonian use of right reason? Your response will be much appreciated. Thanks.

In Christ,

Jim Cassidy

3 years ago

Joel, great question. I am working on that question, as we speak.



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