Cornelius Van Til and Presuppositional Apologetics at P&R

by John J. Hughes

As a young Christian and philosophy major at Vanderbilt University in the 1960s, I longed to lay my hands on biblically faithful, academically solid apologetics books, but all I knew at the time were C. S. Lewis’s books, for which I was and am grateful. During my senior year, at a weekly Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, two recent graduates of Westminster Theological Seminary passed out free copies of Francis Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason, in which they had stamped the name, address, and phone number of their new church. I devoured Schaeffer’s little book, and then called these men. If there was one book like this, maybe they knew of others!

The men told me about Cornelius Van Til and said that if I were to write to him and include $5 for postage, he would send me some of his books. I followed their advice, and Dr. Van Til sent me a whole library in four or five of the largest padded mailing envelopes I had ever seen! I dove in headfirst, and by the time I surfaced, I was dead set on going to WTS, which I did.

I soon learned that most of Dr. Van Til’s books had been published by Presbyterian and Reformed, now P&R Publishing, which subsequently became the publisher for John M. Frame’s large corpus, as well as for other apologists, such as Vern S. Poythress, William Edgar, K. Scott Oliphint, Richard L. Pratt Jr., Richard B. Ramsay, Greg L. Bahnsen, and Ronald H. Nash, many of whom are WTS graduates and professors. 

P&R is widely recognized for pioneering the publishing of books on presuppositional apologetics, all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, can trace their lineage to Van Til’s groundbreaking insights. We have updated these five most significant and helpful Van Til books by restoring the full text of their original editions and by annotating the volumes:

  • Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed., edited by William Edgar.
  • Christian Theistic Evidences, 2nd ed., edited by K. Scott Oliphint.
  • Common Grace and the Gospel, 2nd ed., edited by K. Scott Oliphint.
  • The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., edited by K. Scott Oliphint.
  • An Introduction to Systematic Theology, edited by William Edgar.

Van Til’s most famous student is John M. Frame, who taught at WTS, WSC, and RTS (Orlando), until his retirement. John’s best-known apologetics books are: 

  • Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, edited by Joseph E. Torres.
  • No Other God: A Response to Open Theism.
  • A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, which won the 2017 ECPA Gold Medallion Award in the Bible Reference Works category.

Other noteworthy P&R publications on apologetics include:

  • Vern S. Poythress, Philosophy, Science, and the Sovereignty of God.
  • William Edgar, Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion.
  • K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology.
  • Richard L. Pratt Jr., Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for the Defense of the Truth.
  • Richard B. Ramsay, The Certainty of the Faith: Apologetics in an Uncertain World.
  • Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man.
  • Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis.

P&R’s apologetics books have fostered presuppositionalism, and this has had a deeply formative intellectual influence on Christians throughout the world. Presuppositionalism is a self-conscious recognition of God’s lordship in the area of human epistemology. It is, as John Frame has written, “a basic commitment of the heart to bring all reasoning under the lordship of Christ” (Systematic Theology, 1134).

Because he is Lord, God necessarily speaks with absolute authority. His words are trustworthy and true; they are not to be doubted. His written Word should be the basic presupposition for everyone who wishes to know him and his world. No other words should take precedence over his Word. To grant any other words greater authority than the Lord’s words is a form of unfaithfulness. His Word is the word we should use to judge all truth claims. Thus, a distinctively Christian epistemology is grounded in God’s lordship and his revelation of himself in Scripture. Reasoning autonomously is antithetical to a true Christian epistemology. 

When I was a student at WTS, I was privileged to study under Dr. Van Til and to help edit one of his books. Dr. Van Til had a great sense of humor, a deep compassion for people, and a razor-sharp mind. In 1971, P&R published Dr. Van Til’s Festschrift, Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. This was a big event at WTS, and we students eagerly started reading it. One of the most helpful chapters was written by Dr. Van Til himself and is called “My Credo.” This basic, non-philosophical introduction to his thought is one of the best summaries available, and I encourage anyone interested in Van Til and in presuppositional apologetics to read it.