Cornelius Van Til
By Christian McShaffrey
The Christian philosophy of Dr. Cornelius Van Til was a major influence in my acceptance of the Textus Receptus as the authentic text of the Greek New Testament. As I first surveyed the critical apparatus of the NA27, I would have become lost in a sea of manuscript evidence had it not been for the epistemological anchor I had found in Van Til’s writings.
According to his apologetic method, evidence is never examined or interpreted in a truly objective manner because man always approaches evidence with a certain set of assumptions that are based on his most deeply held beliefs and commitments. These are called presuppositions and the prefix “pre” indicates that they exist prior to cognition and therefore always affect a man’s thinking process. They also tend to enjoy Revisionary Immunity.
If that appears as too technical an explanation, consider this illustration: a man’s presuppositions are like a pair of eye-glasses through which he sees all things. The glasses of belief enable him to see reality as God has defined it through revelation. The glasses of unbelief blind him to reality and make all rationality ultimately impossible. There is, of course, a spectrum of lenses between the two extremes.
Having been taught this before I took my first course in Greek NT, I walked into class wearing the spectacles of faith; believing that God had promised to preserve his words (Psalm 12:6-7, 119:89-91; Matt. 5:17-18, etc.) and presupposing that he had actually done that through his singular care and providence [WCF I.8]. Since the modern text-critical model of reasoned eclecticism assumed corruption instead of preservation, it appeared to me as out-of-accord with reality (i.e., as defined by biblical revelation).
I was, of course, not the first man to discover this perceived inconsistency. As I researched the matter, I discovered the writings of Dr. E.F. Hills who was a student of Van Til and well-studied in the field of textual criticism. Having approached and examined the extant manuscript evidence from a vigorously Van Tillian perspective, Hills came to prefer the Textus Receptus over the modern critical text.
As I shared this discovery with others, I was told that Hills’ conclusion could not be regarded as decisive since Van Til himself saw no epistemological inconsistency in using the eclectic text. While this perplexed me, I always assumed they were correct. That is, until a friend directed my attention to a page from “Faith and Action” in which Dr. R.J. Rushdoony reports that Van Til did eventually apply his apologetic to the field of text criticism and actually changed his position later in life.
Having been asked about Hills’ application of the Van Tillian apologetic to the field of text criticism, Rushdoony first acknowledges the historical fact that Van Til initially disagreed with Hills’ conclusions. However, he then reports that Van Til personally told him years later that “he had come to realize that Hills was right” and even requested that Rushdoony relate this to Hills. [Volume I, page 569]
The account may be apocryphal, but it is intriguing. It may even prove what I always suspected: that the Received Text position is more consistent with Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic than the eclectic text position because its epistemological foundation begins with God and his inscripturated Word.