This is Part 1 of an x-part series about the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til in which x likely is < 8
In the late 1920s, following a reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Gresham Machen left the school. It’s a sad story, really, because due to the reorganization, Princeton would no longer remain the bastion of Reformed orthodoxy that it had been since the days of its founding. That said, accelerating the spiral was Machen’s departure, and his taking with him three colleagues: O.T. Allis, Robert Dick Wilson, and Cornelius Van Til. Two of these men would fade into relative obscurity even within the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian world, though their work would no doubt lay the foundation upon which the following generations of Reformed scholars would build. One of these men, however, would move the center of Reformed apologetics and philosophy for decades to come.
Cornelius Van Til’s move with Machen to Philadelphia signaled not only a geographic shift of the center of Reformed faith and practice from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, but also an ideological shift from Old Princeton’s apologetic method into what might be called the Westminster, Covenantal, or perhaps most (in)famously the Presuppositional school. Van Til was trained at Princeton by the giants of the Reformed faith. Indirectly, he was molded by the writings of Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield, among many others. Directly, he was taught by William Brenton Greene and no doubt imbibed the influence of Machen himself.
Now, we might ask, “What’s the difference between Old Princeton and Van Til? What hath Mercer Street to do with Glenside?” It’s important to note at the outset that under the umbrella of “Old Princeton” are men like Alexander, Hodge, Warfield, Greene, and even Machen himself. These gentlemen and their ideological kin defend the Christian faith under the rubric of what’s called Scottish Common Sense Realism. Scottish Common Sense Realism assumes first and foremost (and this is overly simplistic, but it’ll work for the time being) that our senses are generally reliable faculties with which to perceive the world around us. Of course, if our senses are generally reliable, then we have a pretty solid impetus to try and prove the supernatural claims of the Bible using evidences we might find in history, science, psychology, or the like.
So, as Cornelius Van Til makes the 45-minute drive down I-95 south to Glenside, Pennsylvania, it is this philosophical foundation with which he takes issue, for within the context of Reformed Christianity which emphasizes both the sovereign grace of God and the total depravity of man (extending even to his reason), Scottish Common Sense Realism seems to assume that natural man even in his fallen state can make correct judgments about God based on his observations of the world around him. In fact, even beyond its friction with Reformed theology, the foundational issue with Scottish Common Sense Realism is that it “cannot be, because it cannot supply, its own foundation,” as Scott Oliphint helpfully notes. In other words, Common Sense Realism fails to dictate what is actually a matter of common sense, for “there is no way to determine just what beliefs are common and what beliefs are not. One man’s basic belief could easily be another man’s irrationality.”
With all that in mind, Van Til finds one main issue with Scottish Common Sense Realism: it’s incoherent within a system of Reformed thought. Because Reformed folks believe the Fall of Genesis 3 extends to every part of man’s existence, even (perhaps especially) to his faculty of reason, it’s irrational for a Reformed thinker to expect man in his fallen state to come to same conclusion about so-called “common sense” observations (like historical or scientific evidences for the truth of the Christian faith) when the believer and the unbeliever take completely different starting points. Because the unbeliever suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1), they will never come finally to the right interpretation of these very evidences which are supposed to lead them to faith unless the Holy Spirit intervenes.
However, that’s not to say that Van Til thought evidences were all bad, all the time. As Oliphint observes, upon the beginning of his tenure at Westminster, Van Til knew “he would need to reorient the topic [of evidences] in order to make it more consistent with the Reformed theology that was the trademark of Old Princeton and would continue at Westminster.” For Van Til, the starting point for a robust and Reformed apologetic, then, is not a sort of nebulous notion of “common sense,” but rather the self-revelation of God in the Bible. Science, "common sense," and historiography are all enterprises in flux. Darwin, Tesla, and Nagel may pass away, but the Word of the Lord will stand forever. It’s on this assertion that Van Til builds his consistently Reformed apologetic. It’s probably fair to say that a chief question of a Van Tillian theology of evidences is this: Will we take every thought captive to Christ, or to our own notion of common sense?