The most important Christian thinker in the last 400 years? I would say: Cornelius Van Til. The implications of his work have barely begun to be realized. Van Til speaks of “apologetics” in the broadest sense as the Biblical, intellectual foundations of all of human activity.
What is the giant takeaway from his work? Intellectual “neutrality” is a myth. There is no neutral, “demilitarized zone” in the battle against the Kingdom of Satan. All ideas have roots in a religious worldview (God or Satan) because all men reason based on one ultimate premise – the ethical response of their own hearts to God – whether obedience or rebellion. This means that there is no ethical common ground or overlap or shared space intellectually between light and darkness.
The implications of this truth from Romans 1:16-32 touch every area of human life and they explain the intellectual geography of the conflict between light and darkness. Example: The Creationist and the evolutionist are both capable; they obey the same laws of logic; and they look at the same data but reach vastly different conclusions. Why? The Creationist and evolutionist reach different conclusions not because they reason differently but because they approach reasoning with different faith assumptions. “The fool says in his heart there is no God.” (Ps. 14:1). Based on that assumption the evolutionist interprets the data he sees accordingly.
The implications of this truth for Christian education and the Great Commission are immense. In the U.S. in the last 350 years, Christian schools have been getting mowed down like so many toy soldiers. Try to think of a Christian university or college that is more than 75 years old and that is faithful to the Scriptures.
Why have Christian schools not been faithful? The answer, I believe, is they each fell prey to the idea of “intellectual neutrality”. They ignored the ethical foundations of knowledge. And so, when attacked by humanist thought they have not been able to effectively defend the faith in intellectual terms. Instead, they have largely tried to answer the humanist on the humanist’s own terms which assume that there is no God. If you assume your enemy’s false premise, your enemy will win the intellectual debate is before it begins.
A 2nd major application of this same truth is that we cannot rely on fallen man to interpret “general revelation” as a basis for just laws in society. The revelation of God’s law in creation is clear and comprehensive, but fallen man will not see it. He covers it up (Ro. 1:18). That is why God gave His law a 2nd time, so that we may see it clearly in writing. The first giving of the law was in creation (Romans 1:18-32, 10:18). The second giving of the law is the Scriptures, a means of grace to His people to grow in holiness and disciple the nations. If fallen man will not see it clearly in creation (which he won’t) then the Church should hold fallen man accountable to God’s law in His clear, written word.
Van Til is not an easy read but is very rewarding. He teaches us to think like a Christian. In other words, he teaches us to think as if the Bible is completely and absolutely true. You might wonder, “Why would a Christian think any other way?”. Yet we do it all the time. We do it because unbelievers don’t believe God’s word and we think that to persuade them, we need to think like them. In this way, we begin to approach intellectual problems in lockstep with the unbeliever that “there is no God”. But when you assume your enemies basic premise, you have lost the battle already. If you are interested to learn more there are several good avenues:
A man who is know to articulate what Van Til taught in perhaps the most accessible form is Greg Bahnsen. See, “Van Til’s Apologetic”, by Greg Bahnsen. https://amzn.to/3fcvaie
Secondly, John Frame, the man who followed Van Til as the Apologetics Chair at Westminster Seminary, has written an overview of Van Til’s thought. Frame generally agrees with Van Til, but he is also critical in ways that are constructive. See “Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, by John Frame”. https://amzn.to/3jQEoo3
Of Van Til’s books, a first book I recommend is “Christian Apologetics” by Van Til. https://amzn.to/39XvkY1. This is a shorter treatment of his apologetic than his longer, more thorough “Defense of the Faith”.
Lastly, an excellent approach to Van Til’s thought is: “By What Standard?” by R.J. Rushdoony https://amzn.to/39TRQBp. Rushdoony writes from a theonomic perspective that is rooted in Van Til, but which Van Til himself did not share. Rushdoony built on Van Til’s insight that all morality and law were either based on God’s law or sinful man’s autonomous morality with no third “neutral” option.