Van Til and Rushdoony on Education

Van Til’s ideas had clearly taken root in Rushdoony’s theological mind.  From the first appearance of the term “presupposition” in his correspondence, to a clear rejection of the anti-intellectualism and the dispensational bent of contemporary fundamentalists, Rushdoony saw the critical power of Van Til’s ideas.  He also saw reason for hope:  change a Christian’s epistemological presuppositions and you could change the church.  Although he did not yet know it, here were the seeds of the answer to his question, “Where is the Church?” The answer lay in educational reform and reform of the social institutions that threatened Christian education.

     By 1947 Rushdoony began encouraging his friends to read [Van Til’s] The New Modernism, and by the early 1950s Rushdoony dropped the last vestiges of his liberal education to embrace a systematic Reformed perspective based on Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics.  During this period Rushdoony recognized in Van Til’s ideas the hope for a wide-ranging American cultural renewal rooted in epistemological self-awareness. By developing this focus on epistemology, Rushdoony launched his first attacks on secular humanism and, most importantly, secular education…[1]

     After encountering Van Til, Rushdoony’s pessimism soon gave way to the development of critical social theory that was uniquely Christian.  This new epistemological perspective allowed Rushdoony to see the prospect for a positive Christian social agenda…. [He] began to turn his attention inward away from missionary work and toward the church itself.  While he never abandoned evangelism, his primary audience eventually became Reformed Christians. He worked tirelessly to popularize Van Til, and sought to empower Christian educators and thinkers.[2]

Mark Rushdoony says his father was extremely well-read and learned many things from many people but that, without a doubt, Cornelius Van Til would have to be at the top of the list of men who influenced his thinking.  “When he visited our home in California, they spoke for a long time,” says the younger Rushdoony.  “I am sure that among the topics was education.”

In his foreword to one of Rushdoony’s books, Steve Schlissel echoes Mark Rushdoony.  “Of course, [his] work did not suddenly appear.  It too is related [emphasis Schlissel’s] to the works of others. Principally, of course, Rushdoony credits Dr. Cornelius Van Til as his most profound influence.”[3] After being exposed to Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics and staunchness in grounding all arguments on biblical truth, Rushdoony became an untiring and unrelenting evangelist for Reformed, Reconstructionist thought.


Cornelius Van Til was born in the Netherlands in 1895, thirty-six years after John Dewey and twenty-one years before R. J. Rushdoony. The reader should not be surprised that Van Til and Rushdoony had very similar views of Dewey’s teachings. The following excerpts from “The Dilemma of Education” exemplify Van Til’s own caustic opinion:

Dewey’s teachers must first assert that man knows nothing of a transcendent realm. But they must also assert, in effect, that they know all about it. They must assert that nobody knows anything about it. This means that they who claim to know about it must be mistaken. And then they themselves, nonetheless, presume to know all about it. They must be omniscient in order to know that no one can rightfully claim to know anything about God.[4]

[H]ow then can Dewey rightfully exclude the tales of paradise given in the Bible, asks the idealist? When pupils from Christian homes believe the biblical tales to be true, by what standard is Dewey to lead them toward the ideal society in which no one believes such tales?[5]

If anyone will not follow the educational dictator, John Dewey, or anyone dare to hold that evolution-theory is not the gospel truth to be poured down the children’s throats, let him be anathema.[6]

Van Til marks a potential bridge in this country’s landscape from the barren dust of a nation that divorced itself from God (or rather was divorced by Him), and a land whose people repent and cry out to Him for mercy. This side of the picture can be magnified and indeed made to fit a new frame, one encompassing a return to the vision of the covenantal fathers of this nation. Into such a place immigrated Van Til’s and Rushdoony’s families. These two offspring of the Dutch Reformed and the Armenian priestly line respectively might be the instruments used to erase the perversity of this place and replace it with the original fathers’ hope.

Van Til was no mere Christian philosopher and theologian. According to John Frame, Van Til was “perhaps the most important Christian thinker since John Calvin,” and this “coming not from an uncritical disciple.”[7]  Gary North, in his critique of Van Til’s amillennialism and the consequent view of common grace, writes:

Why attack Van Til?  Because he is the best. If some theological nonentity had written Common Grace and the Gospel, it would not matter if anyone replied to him. But it matters with Van Til.  He is the man who has reconstructed Christian philosophy in our time, by far the most important Christian philosopher of all time. His dissecting and puzzling have cut apart all the alternative systems.  He has knocked all the Humpty Dumpties off their respective walls…[8]

Rushdoony and Van Til developed and nurtured not just a sympathetic philosophical and professional kinship but what appears to be a real friendship. Apparent in the following excerpts from unpublished personal correspondence between the two are Rushdoony’s admiration and deference as well as Van Til’s humility and reluctance to be placed on a pedestal. Their mutual respect and caring are also noteworthy.

Van Til’s editorial comments refer to Rushdoony’s first book, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til. Published in 1958, this work made the philosopher Van Til more readable to the lay theologian.

October 23, 1947

Dear Dr. Van Til,

I would like primarily…to pay my respects to your truly great work. I have since read also your splendid essay on “Nature and Scripture” in The Infallible Word and look forward to reading your Common Grace as soon as my missionary’s budget permits its purchase. And I hope also to be able to give away copies this Christmas of The New Modernism to competent thinkers who will appreciate it.

 Christmas Day 1955

 Dear Rushdoony:

…If at all possible I want to write a “popular” book on Barth. Oh for the pen of a ready writer such as you enjoy…

 October 25, 1957

 Dear Rushdoony:

            The article on Dictation and Inspiration, it seems to me, you might very well have written without any reference to me at all. Perhaps it would not have met with any opposition then. The article on The Psychology of Religion seems to me to be very good, but again I wonder whether you could leave my name out at many places. At any rate, when you refer to me perhaps you could tone down your generous adjectives. There is not much else that I could say about the article…

            I am delighted to hear about the outcome of the meeting of the Presbytery…

 December 27, 1957

Dear Rushdoony:

            Your manuscript came to hand yesterday and I have already finished reading it. Needless to say I am very much delighted with it…

            You are best when you do not refer to V.T….

            I think I would omit most of the laudatory adjectives. I mean this seriously. You give me more than enough credit by writing the book at all, and it may offend some unnecessarily…

            Some pages earlier you speak about the Reformed Faith having come to maturity with V.T. I wonder if somewhere, perhaps in the introduction, you state that my approach is part of a movement which began with Kuyper and Bavink, carried forth by many other Reformed thinkers. Certainly 90 percent of my views come, even forgetting Calvin for the moment, from modern Reformed thinkers. It is really only in apologetics, if anywhere, that I have helped matters forward. The most that could be claimed, I think, would be to say that Reformed apologetics has come to greater maturity. If you can give me that much credit that is surely more than enough and anything beyond that would, I think, detract from your purpose of getting a hearing for this view. Certainly you state the position yourself better than I do…

            This short chapter is splendid. You have let yourself go in your own words.

 February 4, 1958

Dear Dr. Van Til,

            …I have made the changes you suggested, eliminating the references to Berkouwer etc., and dropping the praise you thought was unnecessary. As I recall it, the change I did not make was in Knowledge, about the misinterpretation of the quotation. I have checked with one or two readers, and they find it sufficiently clear, and misinterpretation made impossible except on wilful grounds….

 December 3, 1958

Dear Rush:

            Last Saturday morning the manuscript arrived. I cannot tell you how deeply I appreciate the many hours of time you spent on it…

            Marsden spoke of the very fine visit that he had with you. Kindly accept my deep thanks for your work and your unstinting labors in my behalf.[9]

Beyond the personal affinity between the two intellectuals and Van Til’s influence on Rushdoony in the area of apologetics, they shared a distinct conviction in supporting and advocating for a Christian dominion in the field of education, holding in particular similar views on the nature of teaching and learning, the nature of what should be taught, and the nature of the child to be taught.


Though today Rushdoony and his philosophical followers are labeled Reconstructionists, most of those thinkers agree with Van Til that, in order to build on a solid biblical foundation, the Christian must first tear down the non-Christian’s contentions. With Paul, Christians should seek to “cast down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

As in any field, only the Christian can offer a blueprint and lay out a plan that will please God, in this context in the field of education. This task and authority require wisdom and power in presenting the several antitheses between the biblical approach and either the humanist or the pagan antichristian thesis.  Rushdoony wrote about this in December 1997:

In Armenia, there was no neutral ground…, and I came to realize that there is no neutral ground anywhere. But, to my dismay, the country was drifting into a belief in neutral ground, with all racial groups in that drift. As a student at the university, then in seminary and in the ministry, I came to realize that this belief in neutrality was becoming a kind of new religion, especially among scientists and among churchmen who advocated a rationalistic apologetics. It is difficult for me to express the deep revulsion I felt towards this, then and now. It gave me an intense appreciation of Cornelius Van Til when I encountered his thinking. My horror for neutralism has only deepened with time.[10]

This call for a lack of neutrality is common among most informed and especially social conservative Christians in the 21st Century, but it was not a popular slogan before Van Til. He urged Christian thinkers to adopt this posture uncompromisingly and comprehensively. “The whole Christian church is based upon the antithesis idea,” he said. “But, if anything, it is still more pointedly true of Christian instruction in particular than of Christianity in general that it is based upon the idea of the antithesis.”[11]

At every point, the non-Christian philosophy is at odds with Christianity. The main issue is “the question of a personal God.”[12] If God is a person, a personal being, and He has created a personal universe, then a child is confronted with a person to whom he must answer. That is why the unbeliever strives to present an impersonal God and an impersonal universe. To such an environment and authority, an unredeemed human being can personally or communally strive to adjust. The problem is that a dead person, that is, one in a fallen condition because of sin, cannot possibly come even close to the holy person of God. In criticizing Dewey’s ideal democratic education, Rushdoony wrote:

If the universe is ultimately and essentially impersonal, then man and his society are at their highest development when most impersonal. But if the universe has its creation at the hands of a highly and totally self-conscious God, then man and society are at their best when most personal [emphasis Rushdoony’s]. Modern education is in large measure a schooling for impersonality and the submergence of the person into the impersonal group.[13]

Believing the child to be perfectible through education, men like Harold Rugg built on Dewey’s premise that the social child is the more holy.  Rushdoony identifies and debunks their views:

[B]ut if society is the maker of man and his family, then man and the family must move in terms of true society and become agencies thereof. Man is bound by the laws of his nature and of his creation, and if man is a social product, then the law of his being is the law of the pack, and the greater the pack the truer its law [emphasis Rushdoony’s]. Everything done by the group, by democratic society, is hence a shaping of man, its creature.[14]

Rushdoony’s emphatic observations on the personality of God and man help us understand the need for a concrete view:

To consider again the underlying impersonalism of the classical-modern position, its inevitable corollary is this, that the higher the development of intelligence and culture, the greater its impersonalism, the more necessary its abstractness [emphasis Rushdoony’s].[15]

According to Van Til, once man has accepted the idea that God is not a personal being, then at best he might be able to become a collaborator working beside man. Left to his own devices, man becomes alternately excited and scared, for he believes powerfully in his own sovereignty but at the same time is “conscious of the fact that the present generation is in a hopeless condition… Educational theorists are out of breath. They dash after one thing and then another as dogs after a ball…”[16]

Examples abound of educators on both sides: some seeing through rose-colored glasses and some seeing only doom and gloom, with many crossing over depending on the issues at stake or on their own current condition. The classic case of the humanist’s optimism and false hope is the father of public education himself, Horace Mann. Rushdoony says this about Mann’s objective, “[E]ducation would result in such moral improvement that vice and crime would be eradicated.”[17] Mann actually believed that given a solid schooling by the civil government, America’s prisons could be emptied within a generation.

On the other hand, man can become discouraged and fearful, even denying what is real. Rushdoony writes, “Man apart from God is guilty of what Van Til calls the Cainitic wish, the desire that there be no God, but whenever and wherever man tries to eliminate God he ends up by eliminating all reality.”[18] This lost man lives in a void, incapable of filling it because he cannot give life to himself. He begins to wonder if mankind can survive all the evils in the world, with the implication being that he will not.[19]

Samuel Blumenfeld brings to an appropriate conclusion the discussion of man’s refusal to see God as personal, thereby clinging to a philosophy of confusion and ultimately of mental if not clinical illness: “[M]odern man has become schizophrenic. He wants to assert his autonomy while rejecting the divine order that gives meaning to life. To the humanist, the aim of living is something he calls the ‘good life.’ For the nihilist, it is violence and death.”[20]


Does a body of material to be learned exist, then? Is there certain knowledge that God wants man to have of Him and His creation? Van Til and Rushdoony would both reply with a resounding yes. Even what is taught by non-theists can be used, with this caveat:

[W]e can afford to take over from our enemies only that which will fit into our own program of constructing a covenant personality. No educational content that cannot be set into a definitely Christian-theistic pattern and be conducive to the development of covenant personality has any right to appear in our schools.[21]

After all, why open Christian schools if all teaching can be done by non-Christians in a non-Christian environment, using non-Christians presuppositions and methods? Denying the personal God, the unbeliever attempts to work with “just the facts” and wants to know everything exhaustively; but his problem is that God creates the facts whether or not man recognizes that creation. As Van Til points out, man cannot possibly see the facts of life as they really are because he does not recognize their proper relationship to God. Therefore, only the Christian view is conducive to any real learning.[22]

Van Til did not develop a comprehensive Christian curriculum, but he did lay out philosophical specifics. For one, he called for a centrality in our principled philosophy, addressing first the natural then the spiritual.[23] Since all curriculum consists of material in space and time, he suggested that because temporal facts “lie closer to the center of the glory of God, we should connect the spatial facts with the temporal facts and use the latter as media of transmission of the glory of the spatial facts to God.”[24]  In other words, the teaching of history should take precedence over math and science, or at least be used as a blueprint by which to build man’s spatial knowledge. “Arithmetic and all other subjects that emphasize the space aspect of the space-time world lie in the nature of the case at the periphery of the whole area of the creation of God,” he said.[25]

Inspired and emboldened by his firm grasp of the Van Tilian presuppositionalism that refuses to accept any facts as neutral, Rushdoony built on Van Til’s proposition and wrote two critiques of humanistic educational thought. The incisive Intellectual Schizophrenia was published in 1961, followed by his masterpiece, The Messianic Character of American Education, in 1963. Not until 1981 did Rushdoony address educational content in full, submitting The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum to Valley Christian University in Clovis, California.[26] This book reflects Van Til’s philosophical direction and mentoring throughout, with Rushdoony citing or otherwise mentioning Van Til fifteen times.

Central to any Christian curriculum must be a complete adherence to the Scriptures.  Rushdoony explains that Van Til  did not claim the Bible to “give us the multiplicity of facts which make up mathematics, paleontology, physics, biology, or any other subject, but it does give us ‘the truth about all facts.’”[27] [Emphasis Rushdoony’s]  The only reason we can think sound mathematical thoughts is, as both Rushdoony and Van Til argued, that the Bible provides us with the revelation of the “ontological Trinity….”[28] Likewise, the Bible gives us clear understanding of the spiritual nature of the sciences.  Rushdoony quotes Van Til:

Every statement about the physical universe implies, in the last analysis, some view about the “spiritual” realm. Scientists frequently say that in their statements they will limit themselves to the phenomenal world. But every assertion they make about the “phenomenal” world involves an attitude toward the “noumenal” world. Even the mere assumption that anything can intelligently be asserted about the phenomenal world by itself presupposes its independence of God, and as such is in effect a denial of him.[29]

The logical and actual end of this humanistic spiritualism in the scientific arena is the modernistic reliance on, indeed faith in, the scientific method. If man can just have all the facts and be able to arrive at some empirical conclusion, he can know the truth, or so goes the thinking. Of course, Rushdoony would point out that invariably man ends up never having all the facts, and never sure that tomorrow’s set of facts might not change his conclusions of today. Van Til would say this is the result of Adam’s act as the original scientist:

There were two mutually opposing hypotheses with respect to the possible consequences of eating the fruit of that tree. There was the theory of the one party who called himself God and who, therefore, in dogmatic fashion, asserted that “death” would be the only possible consequence of eating of the forbidden fruit. Then there was the theory of the second party. This party was not dogmatic at all. He only claimed that scientific experimentation requires an open mind. Especially was this true, in the case of the first scientific experiment ever to be made. There were no records of what had happened in the past. And to speak of this tree, in distinction from all other trees, as a “forbidden” tree is to assume that one part alone owned all the world.[30]

Thus, the antithesis exists in science, math, and history; but it exists in any and every subject matter imaginable. If it deals with space-time “facts,” (and everything does for “empty space and time are meaningless concepts,” says Van Til, then the antithesis touches it.[31]


And since opposition exists in every phase of education, the same antithetical tension can be found when the recipient of what is taught is considered. It is impossible, in fact, to discuss any phase without referring to aspects of the others, for the personal Triune God made His creation integrated yet with much variety. Philosophy, curriculum, and humanity cannot be viewed as independent, unrelated topics; and neither can mankind. As is the condition of humanistic, fallen mankind, so is the condition of the child.

In his never-ending attempts to achieve salvation through his own creation, man desires to nurture and feed the child within what Van Til calls the void, or vacuum. He says, “On their view finite personality is…placed in the midst of an absolutely impersonal atmosphere. Our claim is that finite personality cannot develop unless it is placed face to face with absolute personality.”[32]

When Christians allow for the impersonalism of educational presuppositions—or presuppositions in any field for that matter—they allow the antitheses to be blurred and eventually non-existent, reducing “the universe to a neutral universe in which nothing would happen.”[33] Again, there can be no neutrality if the Christian is to be faithful to his creator. Either a non-Christian will teach a child, or a Christian will. And for true teaching and learning to take place, they must both be connected to God; only thus can they be covenantally connected to each other. And only thus can the fallen child have the ability to respond personally to a personal God.

Rushdoony points out, however, how modern “experts” in child development have perverted the idea of God’s revelation on the nature of the child.

Once the literature of youth abounded in an emphasis on what the young man needed to know, what his spiritual armor was, what made him a complete man…farmer, cobbler or apprentice, all on the premise of his responsibility to the culture and his personal incapacity if he failed to meet the requirements of manhood and faith.[34]

As church leaders and teachers have withdrawn from the responsibility to push the antitheses in all areas of life, the family, church, and by extension society, have suffered accordingly. Today the child is seen as born if not ethically neutral, then divine and already holy. Rushdoony continues, “Parents are deluged with information about the treatment of this newborn messiah, the hope of the future, and his needs. They are told what parents must know about the needs of their children, and the incalculable harm that can be wrought by ignorant if well-meaning parents.”[35]

As any mature Christian would agree, what is needed is a biblical understanding of authority and what God requires in terms of man’s submission to His. It is “nothing but the placing of the absolute personality of God before the finite personality of man. It follows, then, that if nothing can be taught unless…in relation to God, nothing can be taught unless it is taught with authority.”[36]

Here an important distinction must be made between the sphere of authority of the church and that of the family. In both Testaments God makes clear that He has granted to parents the primary responsibility and therefore authority to teach their children. Though parents don’t own the children, neither does the church, and certainly not the civil authorities. As Robert Thoburn has said, the government has no children.[37]

God has charged parents with the authority to represent Him to their children, that representation including the bringing up of their children. Rushdoony emphasized this point clearly: “To disobey any true authority is to disobey God, but especially so with parents. Contempt of the home is a contempt of God, and rebellion against parents is associated with rebellion against God. Psychologically the two are linked.”[38]

So while the church preaches the Kingdom of God, exercises church discipline, and sanctions the communion of the saints with one another and their God, the family rears church members who will do the work of the church and extend the Kingdom. The child, like the adult, must be redeemed and sanctified in order to be equipped to do that work; but learn to work he must, for there is no other way for the believer. Van Til summarizes it well:

No one can stand back, refusing to become involved. He is involved from the day of his birth and even from before his birth. Jesus said: “He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathered not with me scattereth abroad.” If you say that you are “not involved” you are in fact involved in Satan’s side…You cannot expect to train intelligent well-informed soldiers of the cross of Christ unless the Christ is held up before them as the Lord of culture as well as the Lord of religion…[39]

So the child born in the image of God but bearing the curse of Adam belongs not to the family, the church, or the state, but to God. To teach him using any anti-theistic presuppositions, in any anti-Christian context, using unredeemed materials, is to disobey God. As Rushdoony said, “Education is…primarily theological, God-centered, not vocation-centered nor knowledge-centered… [T]he focus will be on our necessary service to God.”[40]


Christian parents and preachers want to please and serve God in the training of their children, but many are unable because they have an erroneous understanding of the nature of God, curriculum, and mankind. There is little difference between their “baptized” humanism or paganism, as missionary Bojidar Marinov would put it, and that of the non-Christians who do not even recognize God as their creator, let alone as Lord.

Christians can bring about a Reformation in America if they can undergo what R. J. Rushdoony experienced almost seventy years ago; that is, the realization that Christians are called and predestined to take dominion and succeed in all areas of life.

And education is the most foundational and formative area. Recognizing the Creator’s sovereign right over His creation, His delegated authorities on earth, His rules for all of life, and His promises for here and now as well as for eternity—these are the big issues of life.  Individuals, families, churches, and nations are commanded to submit to this person that we call God.

     [1] M. McVicar.  “First Owyhee and Then the World”:  The Early Ministry of R. J. Rushdoony.”  Faith for All of Life.  Nov/Dec, 2008, pp. 20-21.

     [2] Ibid, p. 21.

     [3] R.J. Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity, p. vi.

     [4] C. Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, p. 53.

     [5] Ibid, p. 58.

     [6] Ibid, p. 124.

     [7] John Frame,, retrieved February 24, 2013.

     [8] Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace:  The Biblical Basis of Progress, p. 14.

       [9] Pdf copies of personal letters provided by Mark Rushdoony, Chalcedon Foundation, Vallecito, California.

       [10]  Downloaded February 8, 2014.

       [11] C. Van Til and L. Berkhof, Foundations of Christian Education:  Addresses to Christian Teachers, p. 5.

       [12] Ibid, 6.

       [13] R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, 239.

       [14] Ibid, p. 230.

       [15] Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia, p. 34.

       [16] Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education, pp. 12, 13.

       [17] Rushdoony, Messianic Character, p. 26.

       [18] Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia, p. 31.

       [19] Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia, Lecture delivered on December 9, 1994.

       [20] Blumenfeld’s Foreword to Rushdoony’s Intellectual Schizophrenia, iii.

       [21] Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education, 14.

       [22] Ibid, 17.

       [23] Ibid, 20.

       [24] Ibid, 19.

       [25] Ibid.

       [26] Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, page unnumbered.

       [27] Ibid, 44.

       [28] Cited Ibid, 58.

       [29] Van Til. An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p.113, cited in Ibid, p. 65.

       [30] Van Til. Essays in Christian Education, p. 25.  Cited in Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, p. 77.

       [31] Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education, pp. 15, 5.

       [32] Ibid, p. 22.

       [33] Ibid, p. 23.

       [34] Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia, p. 75.

       [35] Ibid.

       [36] Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education, p. 24.

       [37] R. Thoburn. The Children Trap: Biblical Principles for Education.

       [38] Rushdoony, Intellectual schizophrenia, p. 44.

       [39] Van Til. Essays on Christian Education, p. 26. Cited in Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, p. 166.

       [40] Ibid, p. 142.

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