It has been asked recently whether Cornelius Van Til was a theonomist, and more importantly, is there a link between presuppositional apologetics and theonomy.
The first question is easy to answer: no, Van Til was not a theonomist, at least not in the sense of Rushdoony, Bahnsen, etc. He personally disavowed both theonomy and postmillennialism—if not openly and in public, certainly in private correspondence. His letters to this effect are referenced by John Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman. I would personally like to read the full context of those letters before being fully certain myself, but for now I’ll take them at face value.
Muether, however, also states that Greg Bahnsen “remained unconvinced and was unwilling to concede” Van Til’s amillennialism (despite what most consider Van Til’s well-known position, even if not publicly developed, and one also acknowledged by Gary North and other theonomists). Muether adds, “In Bahnsen’s own work on Van Til, . . . he claimed in a footnote that Van Til ‘certainly had the spirit of reconstruction.’” Muether’s citation, however, I don’t feel is as upright as it should be.
Muether’s edit gives the impression that Bahnsen felt Van Til “certainly had the spirit of reconstruction” in general. But Bahnsen’s footnote reveals a more nuanced point being made. Bahnsen was not saying that of Van Til in general, but about one quotation he had excerpted from Van Til’s book, Christianity in Conflict. The quotation reads,
There is not a square inch of space where, nor a minute of time when, the believer can withdraw from the responsibility of being a soldier of the cross. . . . Satan must be driven from the field and Christ must rule.
This quotation is thus qualified by its context.
That context makes Bahnsen’s remaining “unconvinced” and “unwilling to concede” much more understandable, too, and this gets to the more substantial question of whether Van Til’s system of thought—or “presuppositional apologetics”—itself entails Reconstructionist (or theonomic) thought. That very footnote of Bahnsen’s seeks, I believe, to broach this issue with strongly suggestive way nuggets for thought.
That footnote (and Muether might have done well to note this) is a massive footnote (spanning three pages, 20–22) on Van Til’s use of Abraham Kuyper’s famous phrase “Pro Rege”—“For the King.” Van Til used the phrase in his little pamphlet My Credo, which was perhaps Van Til’s simplest statement of his apologetic. The relevant part of the excerpt in question reads:
All of my life, my life in my family, my life in my church, my life in society, and my life in my vocation as a minister of the gospel and a teacher of Christian apologetics is unified under the banner Pro Rege! I am not a hero, but in Christ I am not afraid of what man may do to me. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the ongoing march of victory of the Christ to whom all power in heaven and on earth is given.
The phrase “All of my life” as applied to family, church, and society, and given utterly to the authority of Christ to whom all power in heaven and on earth is given, sounds just a bit like Christian Reconstruction. And it comes as a direct consequence of Van Til’s worldview and apologetic.
This consequence is not lost on Bahnsen, who quickly notes that Kuyper’s term “functions as a brief maxim for a thoroughly Christian world-and-life view, where all of our thinking and activity in every area of life is pursued in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ speaking in His word.” Bahnsen goes on to note that “Van Til did not consistently develop” this view, but rather it does “characterize the distinctive ‘Reconstructionist’ extension and application of Van Til’s thought.”
Bahnsen then takes the opportunity to alert his readers to the fact that Van Til more than once spoke this way when dealing with worldview, ethics, and other matters. The fact that Van Til expressed agreement with Vos on amillennialism when explicitly asked about theonomy or postmillennialism simply, to Bahnsen, raises a question of inconsistency. The fact that Van Til never published his views on eschatology indicates for Bahnsen, I surmise, that his published statements on ethics and the pervasive application of God’s Word in all of life, for all time, and in this earth, stands as the more definitive outworking of his view.
It was definitive enough for Bahnsen—not to remain totally unconvinced and unwilling to acknowledge Van Til’s profession of amillennialism (which Muether offers)—but rather specifically to deflect North’s assessment that Van Til was a “‘self-conscious amillennialist’ with a progressively pessimistic view of history.” In Bahnsen’s suspended judgment, Van Til was not self-conscious in the sense that his system of thought entailed such pessimistic amillennialism. The triumphant notes of virtual conquest quoted from several of Van Til’s works are proof that when he was logically consistent with his theology and ethics, he was essentially Reconstructionist.
Toward this end, Bahnsen cites Van Til in Defense of the Faith, Christianity in Conflict, Introduction to Systematic Theology, The Case for Calvinism, Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, and some of these multiple times. (As I said, this is a long footnote.)
While Bahnsen did not dwell on this too much, especially in this locus, the point he was at least hinting at is worth considering. Van Til argued “no neutrality.” This applies to all areas of life, and there is no reason to pick and choose some and not others. While Van Til did not apply it to government, law, and politics (not much anyway), he also gave no good reason why it should not. To the average onlooker, it seems only logical to extend it so.
Van Til also argued “theonomy or autonomy.” As there is no neutrality in any area of life, this distinction applies to every area of life. Of course, “theonomy” here can be taken in a different sense, and we must take that into account. Van Til’s non-theonomic supporters are quick to criticize Bahnsen for using that particular quotation on the face page of Theonomy in Christian Ethics. “That’s not what he was talking about!” they argue. Well, from one perspective they’re right. But Bahnsen would say that from the perspective of the logical extension of Van Til’s worldview, it is at least arguable, if not acceptable—even if Van Til himself did not extend it, or even disagreed with those who did.
Bahnsen’s point, I believe (or at least my version of it), is that Van Til’s thought so logically led to Reconstructionism that Van Til found himself speaking like a Reconstructionist on many occasions. Even if Van Til himself were a self-conscious amillennialist, his thought drove him into expressions of Reconstructionism and postmillennialism. Thus, he could disavow these beliefs when asked specifically, but in practice, he could not suppress the truth in amillennialism. Some call this intellectual schizophrenia. Yeah, I guess it is. But we are merely thankful that Van Til laid the groundwork he did so that the next generation of his thought could be developed by others.
So is there a link between the two? I think there is. One need only read between the lines a bit, take Van Til’s “Reconstructionist” outbursts at face value, and then extend Van Til’s thought where he did not.
I am going to add to Bahnsen’s footnoted contributions a longer excerpt demonstrating “Reconstructionist” language in Van Til in a moment. For now, let the reader know that this connection between Van Til’s apologetic and the logical outworking in Christian Reconstruction is not only my opinion (and probably Bahnsen’s opinion as well), but is attested by the above critic himself, John Muether, who acknowledged the connection in history. Muether writes:
If Van Til was no theonomist, his Reconstructionist followers at least deserved credit for carrying the torch for Van Til when others seemed less willing. By the time Van Til reached seventy, he feared that a generation in the church did not understand him, and few quarters in the church beyond the Reconstructionist camp unabashedly championed the Reformed faith as Van Til expressed it.
It is helpful to remember that Muether was one of the original anti-theonomists who contributed to Westminster’s royal-rumble attempt, Theonomy a Reformed Critique, in 1990. He certainly goes out of his way to remind us that Van Til disapproved of theonomy, some colleagues criticized, and he himself sees the connection as driving “Van Til’s antithesis into excessively this-worldly extremes.” That’s his opinion. He carefully avoids, therefore, inquiring whether the connection may be logical and not just historical. But even just the historical connection, coming from an avowed critic, is pure music to me—especially considering there were few others connecting.
As for the logical connection, it remains for us to decide for ourselves. Toward that end, here’s a helpful section from Van Til’s own work on ethics, Christian Theistic Ethics, excerpted, edited, and annotated by yours truly. Van Til speaks openly about the task of destroying the works of the evil one. He does so in those exact words, he does so by mentioning that this task must be done on this earth, in history, and he does so in faith that “our victory” in this task “is certain.” Let us examine:
Van Til writes,
The Task Of Destroying The Works Of The Evil One
We turn now to the third characteristic of biblical ethics spoken of above, namely, that it is only in biblical ethics that the destruction of evil within man and round about man, moral and physical, is set as a part of the ethical ideal of man. It goes without saying that if evil is what all non-theistic ethics says it is, namely, an unfortunate circumstance in which the universe somehow exists, it cannot be duty for man to seek to destroy it. It can at most be a wise thing for himself to seek to get as far as possible away from this evil.
On the other hand, if man was created perfect and placed in a perfect universe so that sin is an insult on the part of man against the living God, with the result that all evil, natural as well as moral, violates the holiness of God, it must be a part of the task of man, once he has been redeemed, to seek to destroy that evil in all its forms, and wherever found. The destruction of all evil everywhere is the negative but unavoidable task of every member of the kingdom of God. Wherever the believer sees evil, he sees insult to God, to his God who has graciously saved him from evil. This does not mean that there is no gradation in evil. It does not mean that man must everywhere use the same method in seeking to destroy the evil which he sees. There is undoubtedly gradation. The natural evil is the result of man’s moral deflection. Accordingly the believer will not seek in all sorts of foolish ways to destroy the natural evil without relating it to moral evil. On the contrary, the believer will seek to eradicate the root of evil first of all in the heart of man.
To me, “all evil everywhere” leaves no stone unturned. But this is task of destruction is not indiscriminate (which is to say, by implication, that it must be done according to wisdom and according law.) Van Til starts with the most basic Christian commitment: personal ethics. (This is exactly where Gary DeMar starts God and Government: self-government.)
And even so he will not fight indiscriminately. It is his task first of all to overcome evil in himself. We cannot speak of this in detail at this point. We speak of it here only as an aspect of man’s summum bonum.
There are many of us who wish he would have spoken of this in detail! But he moves on. Here we learn that the task is based up all of Scripture. He writes:
It is important to note that both the Old and the New Testaments do as a matter of fact regard the destruction of all evil as a part of the task of man. It is equally important to note that as a matter of fact Scripture throughout considers it man’s first task to overcome evil in himself.
That the Old Testament considers it a task of the people of God to destroy evil is so obvious that it is often made the basis of unfavorable criticism of its ethics.
One may mistake such a position for much that was written in Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Many critics of this work have neglected the larger perspective which Bahnsen pleas: theonomic ethics must be based upon the whole of Scripture, not just certain parts. Critics focus on elements of Mosaic law, and Bahnsen continually had to remind them that his view was fuller than that.
Nevertheless, the mere inclusion of Old Testament ethics disturbs many Christians. I think much of the nonsensical and overly emotional criticism theonomy received early (and which is still perpetuated by its less-educated, but for some reason not less-eager, critics) relates to what Van Til describes next:
It is said that it is an evidence of the rudeness and non-Christian spirit of Old Testament ethics that it requires of the people of God that they shall destroy their enemies. Christian apologists all too often practically admit this criticism by giving no better defense of it than that we must figure with the general characteristics of the times.
But, while giving proper understanding to the role of historical circumstance, Van Til will not stand for this crude position in general:
What shall we say with respect to this? . . . It does not mean that the absoluteness of the standard has been lowered when we read of God’s allowing certain things on account of the hardness of men’s hearts. Nor do we allow that the standard has really changed with the coming of the New Testament. It is only the mode or manner of bringing about the realization of the goal that has been changed. In the Old Testament times this goal had to be reached in an externalistic fashion, while in New Testament times this goal is reached in more spiritual or internalistic ways. The goal was the same in both instances.
Some critics of theonomy will be quick to leverage Van Til’s language of “more spiritual or internalistic ways” in order to dismiss theonomy, and to be sure, I think Van Til would have argued in that fashion himself. But this would all be to the neglect of all else he has written here regarding the eradication of evil from this earth being the task of redeemed mankind as an aspect of his highest good. (And I would be quick to note that “more internalistic” does not logically exclude externalistic measures, either.) And Van Til quickly returns to his apologetic in defense of the Old Testament standard. It speaks more of continuity with the New Testament than it does the opposite.
[T]he commands of complete extermination of the enemies of the people of God marks off the Old Testament ethics as being essentially one with New Testament ethics rather than the contrary. Instead of apologizing for this aspect of Old Testament ethics we should glory in it. It is the best proof of the genuinely theistic character of the Old Testament that one could desire. If God is what the Christian theist says he is, sin must be absolutely destroyed, and it is naturally to be expected that God would order his people to destroy evil. It is equally natural that this should be done in an externalistic way in the Old Testament times when the whole of the divine revelation to man was given in an externalistic way.
While he will, again, qualify his view of the mode of this task of destruction for New Testament times, the goal nevertheless remains for all times, he says:
It is at all times a part of the task of the people of God to destroy evil. Once we see this we do not, for instance, meanly apologize for the imprecatory psalms but glory in them. We rejoice that God is setting before man, even after he has become utterly unworthy of it through his sin, the ideal of a perfect earth in which only righteousness shall dwell, and in which there shall be nothing whatsoever of sin and evil.
He then goes on for a few pages to criticize C. S. Lewis’s view of the imprecatory psalms. I do not consider that here. But near the end of that section, he returns to the theme the destruction of evil in this world. It is here that his most obvious distinctions between Old and New Testament modes come to the fore. I concede these, of course, as Van Til’s stated views. But it is also here where his most passionate calls to eradicate that evil, and its clearest universality in scope, are expressed:
Further, what is true of Israel as a nation is true in the New Testament of individuals. And what is true of the Old Testament in an externalistic sense is true of the New Testament in an internalistic sense.
The individual believer has a comprehensive task. His is the task of exterminating evil from the whole universe. He must begin this program in himself. As a king reinstated it is his first battle to fight sin within his own heart. This will remain his first battle till his dying day.
Mark those words: “comprehensive task,” “whole universe.” This “begins” (i.e. “does not end”) with self-government. But, you say, this task beginning with self-government will last his whole lifetime. How will he have time to do anything else? Van Til does not stay there:
This does not mean, however, that he must not also seek to destroy evil in his fellow Christians and in his fellow men while he is engaged in destroying evil within himself. If he had to wait till he was perfect himself to seek to destroy evil within the hearts and lives of others, he would have to wait till after this life, when there will be no more evil to be destroyed.
But, you say, this is still only talking about personal sins within the church, among brothers. Van Til does not stay there, either:
We must go one step further. It is our duty not only to seek to destroy evil in ourselves and in our fellow Christians, but it is our further duty to seek to destroy evil in all our fellow men. It may be, humanly speaking, hopeless in some instances that we should succeed in bringing them to Christ. This does not absolve us, however, from seeking to restrain their sins to some extent for this life. We must be active first of all in the field of special grace, but we also have a task to perform with respect to the destruction of evil in the field of common grace.
Notice that Van Til’s view does not apply only to believers and church discipline, but to those who will never come to Christ as well, and those in what he views as the realm of “common grace” (for him, this includes the realm of civil government). Van Til argues that we are not absolved from seeking to restrain their evil, either, despite their being outside the church.
Now we have question. Now the Van Tillian method and analysis (“pushing the antithesis”) comes around to inquire of its namesake: “By what standard shall we do this?” There is no neutrality in standards in this life. How does one choose between “theonomy” and “autonomy” in the realm of externally restraining the external sins (crimes?) of other people, including unbelievers, in this life?
Van Til does not answer. It was left to Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and others to draw the conclusion. But Van Til was clear that this task exists, it is pervasive, and should be applied throughout “this world”:
Still further we must note that our task with respect to the destruction of evil is not done if we have sought to fight sin itself everywhere we see it. We have the further obligation to destroy the consequences of sin in this world as far as we can.
He then moves on to a practical application of his view, and it is not small. The abolition of war is our “plain task.”
A particular point is that of the Christian’s attitude toward the abolition of war. Some would hold that since the Bible tells us that there will be wars till the end of time, it would be flying in the face of providence if we should try to outlaw war. But there is a difference between a commandment of God and a statement of what will come to pass. God commands us to be perfect but tells us that none of us will ever be perfect in this life. So it is our plain task to do what we can, in legitimate ways, to lessen the number of wars and to make them less gruesome.
Van Til even dismisses the discordant note of pessimism—“flying in the face of providence”—that some may have expected from him, or indeed from any amillennialist. But that view could not overcome the note of defiant optimism with which Van Til ends the section. There is a task, it is part of man’s “highest good” (summum bonum), God’s sovereignty and Word give us courage to do it, and it involves the utter destruction of evil:
Such then is the third aspect of the summum bonum. We have an absolute ethical ideal to offer man. This absolute ideal is a gift of God. And this gives us assurance that our labors shall not be in vain. This gives us courage to start with the program of the eradication of evil from God’s universe. We cannot carry on from the place where God first placed men. A great deal of our time will have to be taken up with the destruction of evil.
And then comes indomitable optimism: we must see through the negative, the impasses, the enormity of the task and of the enemy. We must push ahead, knowing that even apparently hopeless efforts are laying vital foundations, making progress, and moving toward ultimate victory in the habitable universe:
We may not even seem to see much progress in ourselves or round about us, during our lifetime. We shall have to build with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. It may seem to us to be a hopeless task of sweeping the ocean dry. Yet we know that this is exactly what our ethical ideal would be if we were not Christians. We know that for non-Christians their ethical ideal can never be realized either for themselves or for society. They do not even know the true ethical ideal. And as to our own efforts, we know that though much of our time may have to be taken up with pumping out the water of sin, we are nevertheless laying the foundation of our bridge on solid rock, and we are making progress toward our goal. Our victory is certain. The devil and all his servants will be put out of the habitable universe of God. There will be a new heaven and a new earth on which righteousness will dwell.
“The habitable universe.” “The devil will be put out.” “Our victory is certain.”
There is little any postmillennialist could say that would make this more postmillennial. Couple this with “no neutrality” and “theonomy or autonomy” in the civil realm, and Christian Reconstruction is likely if not inevitable. Here Van Til certainly does have “the spirit of reconstruction.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to argue that “Van Til was one of us.” I am not even sure what ultimately would be gained by proving that. My point is that even if Van Til was not a professing postmil theonomist, Van Tillianism pretty much is, especially when extended to the realms of government which Van Til only ever so slightly broached here.
For those who have seen the power and truth of presuppositional apologetics in general, continue the same principles and inquiries into every area of life—like Van Til said but did not fully do—and you will not be far off. You may indeed find yourself testing the waters of theonomic thought very quickly. Keep saying with Kuyper and Van Til, Pro Rege!, and you will eventually have to let your theology say it, too.
 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), pp. 216–219.
 Muether, 218.
 Quoted in Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 22n65.
 Bahnsen, 20n65.
 Bahnsen, 21n65.
 Bahnsen, 21n65.
 Muether, 219.
 Muether, 219.
 Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, In Defense of Biblical Christianity III (np, 1974), 82.
 Van Til, 82.
 Van Til, 83.
 Van Til, 83.
 Van Til, 83.
 Van Til, 83.
 Van Til, 84.
 Van Til, 86–87.
 Van Til, 87.
 Van Til, 87.
 Van Til, 87.
 Van Til, 87.
 Van Til, 88.
 Van Til, 88.