Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

Buswell – Van Til Exchange (1937)

In J. Oliver Buswell on 29/06/2011 at 19:19
This is interesting. In 1937, Cornelius Van Til sent a pre-publication copy of his work on Christian Apologetics to J. Oliver Buswell with a request for his review. The book was later published in 1939 by the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church. At 113 pages in length, the published version was slightly shorter than the version supplied to Buswell.
Dr. Buswell read the book and wrote an initial reply. Van Til then responded to that letter, and finally, Buswell replied with the substance of his critique of Van Til’s work. What is still unclear all these years later is how it was that the three letters were then gathered together, transcribed and reproduced. It is at least that the correspondence was distributed to a wider audience, since the same compilation, on 8.5″ x 14″ paper, is found in several different collections here at the PCA Historical Center.
The first two letters are reproduced below, followed by the first portion of the third. To do justice to the real substance of Buswell’s critique, as it appears attached to the third and final letter, really demands inclusion of the referenced portions of Van Til’s book. That will take some work, but perhaps by the end of the summer. Or if someone wants a summer project . . .
[There was a later Buswell-Van Til exchange in 1948, and I will plan to post that in the near future.]


January thirty

Professor Cornelius Van Til
Westminster Theological Seminary
1528 Pine Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
My dear Professor Van Til

I have read all but twenty pages of your Apologetics. I could not quite finish the book before reaching home last night, but shall probably read the last twenty pages tomorrow. I think I understood your position in reading the first part of the work, but your reaction toward various historical schools of thought clarifies the whole question in my mind. I shall write up my notes which I made as I went along and send them to you sometime next week if possible, but in the meantime may I ask for just a word to clarify certain general matters?

(1) By what logic can you include the ad hominem destructive argument with an unbeliever without including the direct constructive argument? If your oft-repeated statement is true in regard to the futility of the type of apologetics represented by Dr. Wilson, then knowledge and reason fall to pieces instantly when we begin to talk with an unbeliever. We cannot argue destructively any more than we can constructively. It takes the theistic assumption to prove to an unsaved man that his system is inconsistent or to prove anything for that matter.

(2) In excluding the underlying assumptions of Orr, Hodge, and Wilson, do you also exclude the underlying assumptions of Machen’s two books “The Origin of Paul’s Religion” and “The Virgin Birth”? Would you not have to say that it would be futile to present the arguments of those two books to an unbeliever? I know that Dr. Machen in the last years of his life was deeply affected by and frequently referred to what he learned from men younger than himself on the Westminster faculty. But would you not have to consider it illogical to present those two books, independent of Dr. Machen’s more recent opinions, to an unbelieving student in the University of Chicago?

(3) The third question is one which I have mentioned before, namely, do not your many admissions of the light of intelligence by common grace in lost humanity give plenty of ground for the apologetic method which you exclude?

(4) Several of your terms I wish might be more specifically defined. Your use of the word “interpretation” is not familiar to me and is not one which I have found in any other writer. I think I know what you mean, but I feel that the usage would be misleading to a student. You seem to include explanation, definition, decree, providence, and creation, at times all in this one word interpretation.

Sometimes the fundamental idea of interpretation, viz. explanation, seems to be absent from your use of the word.

Other terms which I wish might be more specifically defined are time, temporal, eternity, and eternal.

Your entire system, viewed constructively, is so excellent, your emphasis upon the doctrine of the trinity and the doctrine of creation is so wholesome, and the barrier by which you exclude the methods of Orr, Hodge, and Wilson, seems to me so flimsy and so non-essential to your own philosophy, that I am led to pursue the argument if you care to do so.

I do not mean to set myself up as a critic but only as an interested friend. I have learned much from reading your works. My criticism really centers about only one negative emphasis in your teaching. I shall write up my notes on details as soon as possible.

Yours in Christian fellowship


(Signed) J, Oliver Buswell, Jr.



February 1, 1937

The Reverend Professor J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., D.D.
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois

Dear Dr. Buswell

Your letter of January 30th arrived today. I was planning to write to you today to thank you for the books you were kind enough to send. Thank you very heartily for that courtesy.

In regard to the points you make in your letter I shall be as brief as possible inasmuch as you plan to write more fully soon. Doubtless the same questions will then come up again.

(1) On point one I should agree that a destructive argument presupposes a constructive one. But if I succeed in showing that all non-Christian schemes are based upon the same fatally woak presuppositions I have shown that Christian-theism alone is left. That, I take it, is the best and also the only defense.

(2) As to the point whether I can recommend Dr* Machen’s works I may say that I can do so and have done so heartily. I can also recommend DH Wilson’s works heartily and constantly do so. The point I contended for last Monday evening, you will recall, is not that factual apologetics is useless but that it alone and by itself is insufficient if we are considering the question of a logically consistent and comprehensive apologetics. If I deny very vigorously that you can run 100 miles I have not therewith denied that you can run at all. Because I have said that factual apologetics is, say half of the work, I have not said that that half is not important. If some one could prove that the human species has actually derived from animal species Christian-theism would be disproved. It is therefore important to show that the facts do not warrant any such idea. But even when that has been done the whole work has not been done. A discussion of the philosophy of fact will have to accompany a discussion of the facts themselves. If Dr. Machen has shown that the resurrection of Christ is an historical occurrence he has done an inestimable piece of service. But if then the pragmatist philosopher comes along and says that that is an interesting item in this strange world but that it has no universal significance, the factual discussion is in itself for that man quite fruitless unless it is supplemented by or preceded by a discussion of the philosophy of fact.

(3) As to the matter of common grace I realize that grave problems are involved. For the present I shall limit myself to suggesting that I have followed Paul rather closely in this matter.

Last Monday evening you spoke of Paul’s statements in Romans, the first chapter. On these passages, to a large oxtent at least, Calvin based his doctrine of the “semen religionis” and the “seasus deitatis.” Paul says that “knowing God” they glorified Him not. But this same Paul says of these same people that they are without God in the world. Eph. 2:12. At present I cannot but feel that if you press an inconsistency against me on that point you will have to press it against Paul as well.

(4) As to the terms you speak of, it is quite possible and likely that I have not been as clear as I should be. The notes are not in any finished form; I hope to revise them again next year. In general, however, I may say that by interpretation in an ultimate sense I mean that God’s plan is back of all things. Now God’s plan is His idea of a thing even before it exists, or His interpretation of a thing before the thing exists.

Then comes the question of man’s interpretation of a thing. Now in the last analysis man’s interpretation of a thing is true to the extent that this interpretation corresponds to God’s interpretation of a thing. It is by emphasizing this distinction between God’s original interpretation and man’s derivative interpretation that I would seek to avoid and oppose Spisozism etc.

Now this may not help matters a great deal, but it is about all that I can do for the present. I greatly appreciate your interest and continued criticism. It will be my desire to improve my work because of it.

Sincerely yours

(Signed) C. Van Til



19 3 7

Professor Cornelius Van Til

Westminster Theological Seminary
1528 Pine Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My dear Professor Van Til

I must apologize for imposing upon you this lengthy set of notes and remarks. I should not blame you one bit if you simply consigned them to the waste basket.

I have dictated on the dictaphone and corrected all the notes up to page twenty.

I have to leave this afternoon for a Bible conference in Elkhart and shall not have a minute’s time next week. I am therefore sending the notes on to you without having read my secretary’s write-up of the material from page twenty on.

Very cordially yours

(Signed) J. Oliver Buswell, Jr.

It is very presumptuous on my part to write you in such detail in regard to your valuable work on Apologetics I have learned much from reading it and have profited thereby, I feel that your insistence upon the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the trinity and your strong emphasis upon the absolute self-existence and independence of God, constitute a very necessary and valuable emphasis in our modern world.

The following consists chiefly of a listing and brief discussion of points that troubled me as I read.

[The first of Buswell’s comments is provided here, but as you will see, his manner of referring to Van Til’s book leaves us in the dark, unless we include the referenced text. Again, hopefully late this summer or if someone wants to take up the project.]

Page 2, lines 2 and 6 from the bottom of the page. You seem to use the phrases “full information” and “full interpretation” as synonymous. As I said in my former letter, I have been troubled all the way through your work by your usage of the word “interpretation.” In this context on page 2 of course you do not mean that one would gain either a full interpretation or full information about a snake from the Bible, but I understand that you mean that one would never find out that a snake has a relationship to God as a creature, without looking into the Bible, In this of course I agree. No one has ever reasoned from any fact directly up to God, James Orr makes this very emphatic in “The Christian View of God and the World.” Logically and metaphysically of course there is a direct path of inference from any fact in the universe to God and to the correct view of that fact as a created fact, but historically no one has ever followed that path, independent of revelation.

  1. Wow, thank you for posting this! I need to sit down and read this part in light of my previous reading of Van Til’s Christian Apologetics.

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