J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics — Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith — A Critical Review
- Of the Gospel, and of the Extent of the Grace Thereof
- Chapter 20 Expanded
- The Gospel and Its Extent
- Chapter XX | Paragraphs 1 and 2
- The Saving Design of God’s Common Grace
- J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics — Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith — A Critical Review
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Let us be frank. Fesko’s Reforming Apologeticsis challenging for Presuppositionalists. I have been a convinced Presuppositionalist in my understanding of the defense of the faith for something over 40 years. Of course, this commitment has not been without remaining questions. Who can read Cornelius Van Til and not have questions? Who can think about Presuppositional apologetics and not ponder some very deep and difficult issues?
Part of the reason for my problem is my own education. Though I have read a good deal of philosophy over the years, I never quite finished a philosophy minor in college. A knowledge of philosophy is, as Fesko’s book itself makes clear, really helpful in discussing biblical apologetics with its unavoidable focus on epistemology. Fesko admits that Thomas Aquinas was influenced by the Aristotelian philosophy in his day. He argues that a Kantian and Idealist philosophical background was important in the formulation of Van Til’s apologetic approach.
Still, I have been convinced that Van Til’s approach embodied a commitment to the distinctives of the Reformed faith lacking in other systems. More importantly, I have found its key insights in Scripture. I am a Presuppositionalist because of my understanding of Scripture and not because of my understanding of philosophy. I found in Van Til key advances in embodying scriptural truth in Christian apologetics.
All that being said, Presuppositionalism has fallen, it seems to me, on dark days. For perhaps 50 years Presuppositionalism has been, if not the reigning system of apologetics in Reformed circles, a very popular viewpoint. Of course, there was push back at times. 30 years or so ago I read Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics authored by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1984). I found its argument unconvincing and (some of) its theology problematic. I think it did little to stem the rising tide of Presuppositionalism.
It appears, however, in our day that a re-evaluation of Presuppositionalism has gained momentum. I suspect that one influence might be “reverence” for R. C. Sproul. Sproul is one of the major influences in “the Reformed resurgence.” His passing into glory may have given his well-known opposition to Presuppositionalism a new appeal for some.
Another cause of this re-evaluation may be that every theological system is subject to a kind of degeneration—especially when it enjoys the kind of popularity that Presuppositionalism has gained in Reformed circles. This can be illustrated from Van Til’s idea of paradox. Paradox is important in Van Til’s approach. Cf. John Frame’s Essay, Van Til: The Theologians. (It is available online at https://frame-poythress.org/van-til-the-theologian/). I certainly agree with him about the importance of this concept. There has been, it appears to me, misuse or at least sloppy use of the important concept of paradox prominent in Van Til’s approach. Presuppositionalists have occasionally said things that are not only paradoxical, but downright irrational. The adversaries of Van Til have also trumpeted some of his (and his followers) more novel-sounding theological statements.
An additional cause of re-evaluation is that Presuppositionalism has additionally been co-opted by viewpoints that must be suspect by those who follow the Reformed Confessions. One is Theonomy. Christian Reconstructionism has proudly proclaimed that one of its foundational tenets is Presuppositionalism.1 I am convinced that the Theonomy of Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North cannot be squared with the Reformed Confessional tradition. Statements critical of both Calvin and the Westminster Confession by them actually admit this. To a lesser extent even Greg Bahnsen, whose views of Van Til’s apologetics I respect, also contradicts at points the Reformed tradition. My views of these men and their theonomy are set out in an essay entitled: Theonomy [or Christian Reconstruction]: A Reformed Baptist Assessment. It is available online. Suffice to say, many if not most Presuppositionalists are traditionally confessional and have actually rejected Theonomy in the sense taught by its classic exponents.
Another cause of re-evalution is the embrace of viewpoints which possibly deviate from the tenets of Classical Theism by some Presuppositionalists. Leading Presuppositionalists like Scott Oliphint in books defending Presuppositional apologetics have adopted viewpoints that appear to raise questions about the simplicity and impassibility of God. Cf. K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).
For all of these reasons, not a few in our day are ready to re-evaluate Presuppositionalism’s claim to be the truly Reformed apologetic. This is, of course, neither fair nor logical. Neither Theonomy, nor revisionist views of classical theism, follow from Van Til or Presuppositionalism. Nevertheless, suspicion remains in some minds. Thus, if there is not a crisis, there are at least major questions regarding Presuppositionalism and its claims. As a confessional Reformed Baptist, these things make it more difficult to respond to Fesko’s challenge to Presuppositionalism.
But this somewhat personal preface to the appearance of Fesko’s book provides no clear idea of the nature of Fesko’s volume and its argument. To understand where Fesko is coming from involves an understanding of some important currents which have arisen in Reformed scholarship in recent years.
One of those currents has been the growing appreciation for the accomplishments of what is known as the high Reformed Scholasticism of the late 16thand 17thcenturies. This current is deeply reflected in the subtitle of Fesko’s work: Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith. The Classical Reformed Approachof which Fesko speaks is a reference to the high Reformed Scholasticism just mentioned.
To understand the story of the emergence of this renewed appreciation for Reformed Scholasticism, one must go back to and provide a brief introduction to a theory popular in previous generations of historians. The theory is known as Calvin versus the Calvinists.2 Fesko mentions this theory explicitly and takes issue with it in many places. (48, 50, 52, 53, 56, 67-69) This theory over the years was elaborated in many ways. Here is a chart which suggests its character and claims.
A key issue that informs Fesko’s critique of Van Til and Presuppositionalism has to do with this claim that Calvin differed from his theological descendants in rejecting the scholastic tradition informed by the philosophical methodology of Aristotle. Reformed historians under the influence of especially the work of Richard Muller have raised serious questions about this view of Calvin. Muller in his Unaccommodated Calvin3 and Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics4 has argued that this distinction is not only exaggerated but probably false.
This is important with regard to Van Til and Presuppositionalism because of two well-known claims of Van Til. The first is that Calvin significantly and even drastically differed from the Medieval Scholastics in his approach to apologetics and especially natural theology. The second is that later Reformed theologians drifted from Calvin into a view of apologetics that actually returned to the views of Medieval Scholasticism.
The view associated with Muller and other contemporary historical theologians is that to understand Calvin properly, he must be situated within the classical, Christian theological tradition and not contrasted with it. This means that, far from being contrasted, for instance, with Thomas Aquinas and the Medieval theological tradition, he must be interpreted as working within it. Similarly, this means that far from contrasting him with his Calvinist theological successors he must be interpreted in harmony with them. Thomas Aquinas, the Medieval theologians, Calvin, and the “Reformed Scholastics” of the succeeding generation are all seen as utilizing the same scholastic methodology. Muller argues in Unaccommodated Calvin that, though this scholastic method is not as apparent in Calvin, it informs many of his writings.
Flowing from this thesis is another and even more important consequence. There is much more commonality in Calvin’s actual theological system and affirmations with the Reformed and especially the Medieval “Scholastics” than has generally been recognized.
This is a startling claim and not just for Presuppositionalists. Central to Van Til’s claims regarding Presuppositionalism is a contrast especially with Medieval Scholasticism’s approach to apologetics. The notion that Calvin had much more in common with Thomas Aquinas than has been generally recognized is both challenging and serious to Presuppositionalism.
What shall we make of this new paradigm of contemporary Reformed historians? How should we respond to it and the challenge it poses for Presuppositionalism’s claims? Though I am in general carried by Muller’s thesis, I also believe that it is easily subject to overstatement and abuse.
I am carried by it in so far as it is clear that many of the contrasts between Calvin and the later Calvinists have been based on significant misunderstandings of or imbalanced, one-sided treatments of Calvin. Into this category, for instance, must be placed Brian Armstrong’s not too subtle attempt to present Calvin as the father of Amyraldianism.5 Into the same category must be placed R. T. Kendall’s horrendous attempt to appropriate Calvin to universal atonement and his intellectualist view of faith.6 I am not familiar with any attempts to appropriate Calvin for passibilist or semi-passibilist views of God, but it is clear to me that Calvin held to classical views of the doctrine of God as propounded by both Medieval and Protestant Scholastic theologians. This is an important point for those arguing for a more “scholastic” Calvin.
At the same time, a warning must be stated. The current scholarly trend towards a scholastic Calvin must not be pressed to the point where certain differences between Calvin and some of his Reformed successors are denied. It is clear that there are differences between Calvin and the Reformed on a number of the subjects noted in the chart above. It seems to me that Calvin did define saving faith in terms which made assurance of salvation essential to saving faith. It seems clear to me that his views of the Christian Sabbath are neither as consistent nor complete as though of his Puritan successors. The degree of difference between Calvin and the Calvinists on these issues has been overstated. Seriously wrong practical conclusions have been drawn from these differences. Nevertheless, differences clearly do exist. On both of these issues I prefer the views of the confessional tradition found in the Westminster and 1689 Baptist Confession to those of Calvin. While at many points the confessional tradition closely reflects (and sometimes almost verbatim) the views of Calvin, there are distinctions between Calvin and the Calvinists that cannot be denied.
There are also places where I agree with Calvin against his Reformed successors. It is well-known that a revolutionary, political tradition developed among Calvin’s Presbyterian successors. It is really clear that Calvin is not the author of this tradition and in fact would have rejected this development. I have documented the reasons for this assertion in my essay on Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique.7 Suffice to say here, Calvin makes his anti-revolutionary view clear in the Institutes (4:20), in his commentaries on the key passages, and in his letters to the French Reformed movement.
In the prevailing enthusiasm for Muller’s thesis, these distinctions must not be forgotten. Muller himself in Unaccommodated Calvin refuses to claim Calvin for a full-blown doctrine of limited atonement.8 William Cunningham (1805-1861) cannot be accused of being influenced by 20th century historiography. Yet he cautions against wrongly flattening the difference between Calvin and his successors. He has this to say about Calvin and the Calvinists:
And it has often been alleged that Beza, in his very able discussions of this subject, carried his views upon some points farther than Calvin himself did, so that he has been described as being Calvino Calvinior. We are not prepared to deny altogether the truth of this allegation; but we are persuaded that there is less ground for it than is sometimes supposed, and that the points of alleged difference between them in matters of doctrine, respect chiefly topics on which Calvin was not led to give any very formal or explicit deliverance, because they were not at the time subjects of discussion, or indeed ever present to his thoughts.9
Though some may think that John Murray was too influenced by the historiography of his day, he provides this analysis of the issue.
It would be unhistorical and theologically unscientific to overlook or discount the developments in the formulation of Reformed doctrine that a century of thought and particularly of controversy produced. Study even of Calvin’s later works, including his definitive edition of the Institutes(1559), readily discloses that his polemics and formulations were not oriented to the exigencies of debates that were subsequent to the time of his writing. It is appropriate and necessary, therefore, that in dealing with Calvin, Dort, and Westminster we should be alert to the differing situations existing in the respective dates and to the ways in which thought and language were affected by diverse contexts. This is particularly necessary in the case of Calvin. Too frequently he is enlisted in support of positions that diverge from those of his successors in the Reformed tradition. It is true that Calvin’s method differs considerably from that of the classic Reformed systematizers of the seventeenth century. But this difference of method does not of itself afford any warrant for a construction of Calvin that places him in sharp contrast with the more analytically developed formulations of Reformed theology in the century that followed.10
A definitive evaluation of Fesko’s claims based on Muller’s historiography must await the following review of his volume. These cautionary thoughts are intended simply to set the stage for that evaluation.
Reforming Apologetics consists of an introduction and eight chapters. The introduction provides a survey of the book with the intention of summarizing its argument.
The first three chapters have for their purpose the rehabilitation of natural theology. Fesko argues in Chapter 1 which is entitled, “The Light of Nature,” that natural theology has played a vital role in high Reformed theology or Reformed Scholasticism. Utilizing Burgess’s lectures on the light of nature (24), he rebuts scholarly views of a previous generation that Reformed theology was opposed to natural theology and argues that the Reformed were one with the “common catholic heritage” found in Aquinas and Augustine which affirmed natural theology (25-26).
In Chapter 2 Fesko discusses the idea of common notions. Once more from Anthony Burgess’s lectures on the law he shows that “common notions” were a part of the theology of the Puritans. He proceeds to argue that “common notions” were taught by the Greek philosophers and were “the proximate source” of the concept in high Reformed theology. (32) Once more Fesko concludes that Reformed theology held a form of natural theology. (48)
In Chapter 3 Fesko specifically addresses “Calvin.” That is the title of the chapter. Calvin’s views must be discussed because Calvin is frequently seen as the opponent of natural theology. Fesko associates Van Til with Barth’s famous rejection of natural theology. (51-52) This leads Fesko to reiterate some of Richard Muller’s work showing that Calvin utilized a scholastic methodology, though not so overtly as some later Reformed theologians. He is careful to distinguish between the use of this methodology and “specific doctrinal outcomes.” (54) Nevertheless, Fesko argues that the traditional arguments for the existence of God are implicit in Calvin’s writing. (63-65) Thus, he once more concludes that Calvin held and taught a form of natural theology in continuity with the catholic tradition. (68-69)
In Chapters 4-7 Fesko turns to several specific issues raised by his claim that natural theology is part and parcel of the Reformed tradition beginning with Calvin himself.
Chapter 4 is simply entitled, “Thomas Aquinas.” Fesko’s treatment of Van Til and Aquinas is strangely both blunt and nuanced. Early in the chapter with reference to Van Til’s critique of Aquinas—a critique that is basic to his apologetic project— Fesko asserts: “Is Van Til’s critique accurate? The short answer is no.” (72) Specifically, with reference to Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God, Fesko argues that Van Til has wrongly characterized Thomas as rationalistic. (75-80) Obviously, this is an important point to which we must return in the evaluation of Fesko’s arguments. But at this point Fesko attempts to explain why Van Til has misread Thomas. Fesko’s interesting explanation for this is threefold. “There are three chief reasons: (1) reading Thomas in the light of postmedieval developments, particularly a post-enlightenment reading; (2) trying to divide Aquinas the philosopher from Aquinas the theologian; and (3) failing, ultimately, to examine clearly the primary sources.” (81) These are serious criticisms of Van Til. Fesko, however, attempts to soften the blow for his Van Tillian readers. He avers: “Just because Van Til misread Aquinas does not means that we must embrace everything that Thomas said. Conversely, it does not mean that everything that Van Til said on these matters is categorically wrong. Rather, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” (93) In another place he remarks: “Although he erroneously evaluated Aquinas’s views, this does not invalidate all of Van Til’s insights about the problematic nature of autonomous reason.” (95) In spite of these concessions, Presuppositionalists are treated with this hair-raising assessment in the very last sentences of this chapter: “Aquinas and other theologians of the Middle Ages and patristic period belong equally to Protestants. They have insights to offer, and we have much to learn from them regarding theology and, perhaps especially, apologetics.” (96)
In Chapter 5 which is simply entitled, “Worldview,” Fesko provides us one of the more unique subjects and viewpoints in his book. Startlingly, he argues that the emphasis of James Orr, Abraham Kuyper, and Cornelius Van Til on the idea that one’s worldview controls how one thinks about everything is mistaken. It is, he affirms, a mistaken viewpoint owing to the adoption of Idealist perspectives. This contradicts, according to Fesko, the idea of “common notions” for which he has been at such pains to defend in his earlier chapters. Here we see an attempt (typical of Westminster West) to resist the claims of some Presuppositionalists, especially those of a Theonomic bent, to make the Scriptures speak to everything in the world. With Van Drunen and others Fesko is interested in reserving a place for natural law and showing that the Scriptures are intended to have a limited range of authority to matters of religion and Christian duty. One of the more controversial claims of Fesko in this chapter is that Moses is dependent in his exposition of the civil law of Israel either on the Code of Hammurabi or on material that predates that code. (121-122) I find myself deeply ambivalent about Fesko’s view in this interesting chapter. Once more it needs discussion in the evaluative section of this review.
Chapter 6 treats “Transcendental Arguments.” Once more Fesko seeks to bring Van Til and Apologetics back to the touchstone of natural theology as taught by the Reformed Scholastics. He begins by citing Turretin who affirms a natural theology partly innate and derived from common notions and partly acquired by being drawn from the book of nature by discursive reasoning. (135-136) This is one of the more difficult chapters in Fesko’s book because of the fairly constant necessity of qualifying his critique of Van Til. He cannot say that the transcendental argument is wrong. He acknowledges it to be a useful tool. (137) He cannot quite say that Van Til rejected the use of evidence. He must limit this claim to “some Van Tillians” and suggest that it follows from certain statements of Van Til. (137) Perhaps the most important and consistent claim of this chapter is that the transcendental argument is not the Copernican Revolution in apologetics which both Van Til and Van Tillians have claimed. (136)
The pivotal paragraph in this chapter deserves quoting and reads as follows:
This chapter deals with three issues, namely whether (1) Van Til engages in synthetic thinking; (2) some overemphasize the coherence theory of truth at the expense of the correspondence theory; and (3) the TAG is wedded to outdated philosophical trends. Van Til accused Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) of employing synthetic thinking, combining pagan and Christian thought in order to defend the faith. But although Van Til rejected Aquinas’s methodology, in truth his own TAG is similar. Both Aquinas and Van Til employed the dominant philosophies of their day in order to build an intellectual bridge to unbelievers; Aquinas and Van Til spoke with Aristotelian and Kantian accents, respectively. (137-138)
This is a challenging chapter for Presuppositionalists. It exposes tensions on issues like the use of evidence and the claims made for the TAG between Van Tillians (140-141); between Knudsen and Van Til; (144) and between Van Til’s two main interpreters Frame and Bahnsen. (136-137) The exposure of such divergences is serious for Presuppositionalism. It certainly raises interesting and important issues that require resolution. At the same time the penetrating power of this chapter’s critique is limited by the fact that on these issues Presuppositionalism is a moving target. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it presents several different targets!
Chapter 7, “Dualisms,” is of less interest to this reviewer. The reason is, as Fesko himself says, “This chapter … primarily interacts with the claims of Herman Dooyeweerd.” (8) The link here with Van Til and mainstream Presuppositionalism is tenuous. Still Fesko seeks to make the connection through the association of Van Til with Dutch Neo-Calvinism (161-164). At any rate, this chapter is of less significance to me because Dooyeweerd and his philosophy is only distantly related to Van Til, difficult to the point of incomprehensibility, and criticized by Cornelius Van Til himself.
Fesko reaches the conclusion of his volume in Chapter 8, “The Book of Nature and Apologetics.” Reading this chapter was an unusual experience. I began the chapter saying “yes, yes, and yes.” (195-206) I closed my reading of it by saying “no, no, and no.” (206-219) How and why did my response change so drastically? I think the reason is that in the first part of the chapter Fesko simply expounds the nature and the contours of a biblical and covenantal epistemology, but in the second he critiques Presuppositionalism.
The exposition of what Fesko calls “starting point, the necessary commitments for a biblical apologetic methodology” and “the nature of epistemology … within the framework of classic covenant theology: the covenants of redemption, works, and grace” and “the two goals of a covenant epistemology, namely, love and eschatology” is one of the best parts of the book. (194) I worried a little about how closely Fesko related the covenant to creation. I believe there is an important and confessional distinction between creation and the covenant. Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7, paragraph 1. The covenant was technically an addition to creation, but I can live with Fesko’s statement of this because teleologically creation was for the covenant and intended as the theatre of special revelation (as Calvin avers).
Fesko began to lose and frustrate me when he began to critique Van Til and Presuppositionalism on the basis of this epistemology. Once more I felt that there was a drastic misunderstanding of Presuppositionalism in play here. Fesko clearly has Presuppositionalism and Van Til in mind when he says, “Apologetically, this means that believers can present the gospel in conjunction with rational arguments and evidence and know that believers can intellectually receive and comprehend the message.” (212) Whoever thought otherwise? Certainly not Van Til who teaches that unbelievers “get it” very well!
The most depraved of men cannot wholly escape the voice of God. Their greatest wickedness is meaningless except upon the assumption that they have sinned against the authority of God. Thoughts and deeds of utmost perversity are themselves revelational, that is, in their very abnormality. The natural man accuses or else excuses himself only because his own utterly depraved consciousness continues to point back to the original natural state of affairs. The prodigal son can never forget the father’s voice. It is the albatross forever about his neck.11
But on this point this review must now turn to an evaluation of Fesko’s important book.
There is certainly much that is challenging in Fesko’s work. There is certainly much to be learned. Furthermore, given the directions Reformed historiography has taken in recent years, it seems to me that a book like this hadto be written. Let me commend a number of things in it.
First, as I have just said, his summary of what a biblical and covenantal epistemology looks like was well done. Presuppositionalist that I am, I still find it a very helpful summary of the scriptural approach to how we know.
Second, I much appreciated his account of the purposes of apologetics. Here is what he says:
Apologetics, narrowly construed as a rational defense of Christianity, does not convert fallen sinners. … I argue that apologetics has a threefold purpose: (1) to refute intellectual objections to the Christian faith, (2) to clarify our understanding of the truth, and (3) to encourage and edify believers in their faith. (203-04)
I think Fesko here helpfully articulates the fact that apologetics (narrowly construed) has a negative and kind of secondary purpose. It does not and ought not to pretend to create arguments for the existence of God which positively ground the believer’s faith. Without pretending to understand all that was in Fesko’s mind when he wrote this, it does suggest to me a number of important features of the apologetic endeavor. First, apologetics is properly defensive. It is an apologia or defense of the faith. It is not, then, properly (or narrowly) speaking a positive attempt to argue discursively for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity. It assumes the faith and defends the faith so assumed against attack. Second, this suggests to me, secondly, that the much disputed arguments for the existence of God appear quite differently depending (1) on whether they are construed as the positive ground or origin of the Christian’s faith in God or (2) whether they are construed as defenses of a faith already assumed. I think that Bavinck and others have seen something of this distinction when they have argued that these arguments are confirmations o for testimonies to the existence of God rather than proofs.12 As testimonies and properly constructed, the traditional “proofs” may have a certain defensive value toward unbelievers and confirming value for believers. Third, it seems to me that we may want to distinguish in our discussions of the existence of God between apologetics more broadly considered as epistemology (how we know that God exists) and more narrowly considered as apologetics (how we defend our faith in the existence of God to unbelievers).
Thirdly by way of commendation, it must be said that Fesko’s book exhibits many, fine scholarly qualities. It manifests widely read scholarship. It shows that he attempts to fairly represent those with whom he differs. Though complicating his argument, Fesko still nuances his views and especially his assessment of Van Til. (108, 137, 141, 144)
Fourth, I thought his account of faith seeking understanding was well said. In particular, I appreciated his statement to the effect that “trusting authority lies at the root of all epistemology.” (195)
First, from the beginning of his book till its end Fesko consistently fails to understand the distinction between natural revelation and natural theology in Presuppositionalism. There is no more crucial distinction than this for Presuppositionalism in my opinion. When Van Til rejects natural theology, he is not rejecting or giving up on the book of nature. With regard to the book of nature or natural revelation, Van Til never tires of saying that believers and unbelievers have everything in common. The student should re-read Van Til’s essay entitled, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word cited previously and his many other assertions to this effect.13 It simply is not true that Van Til denies the commonality between unbelievers and unbelievers with regard to common notions and the like. This is, however, what Fesko assumes everywhere. (4, 9, 12, 26, 48, 65, 68-69, 99, 100, 109, 110, 111, 114, 125, 126, 135-36, 146-147, 149, 194, 212, 219) Only if common notions are made to consist in a natural theology created by depraved men, would Van Til oppose such common notions. This critique cannot be pursued without mentioning a second difficulty.
Secondly, then, Fesko fails to weigh properly the apologetic effects of Thomas’ sub-biblical view of sin. (34, 72, 75, 78, 80, 84, 85, 94, 104) This is important because it is exactly this factor which distinguishes Van Til’s assessment of natural revelation from his assessment of natural theology. Natural revelation is the divine given of human existence which at a basic level of awareness all men cannot escape. Natural theology is the human interpretation of natural revelation. Because Van Til holds with Reformed theology that men are totally depraved and that this depravity affects their mind and reason radically, he cannot allow that a natural theology can be any kind of preamble to faith. By definition such a natural theology is an interpretive endeavor pursued by men who are totally depraved. Thus, it cannot be successful. Rather, depraved human reason must and will inevitably corrupt the meaning of natural revelation in any natural theology it creates. Such a natural theology cannot serve in any sense as a preamble to faith.
Let me mention here that my own reading has convinced me that the categories and terminologies with which Reformed Scholasticism discussed natural theology were inadequate. They were inadequate precisely because they did not clearly distinguish between natural revelation and natural theology. Sometimes natural theology is used by Reformed scholastics to mean natural revelation. Van Til’s apologetics pressed a distinction between these two things that is, in my view, massively important.
This brings up a third criticism. Unless Fesko is willing to say that Thomas Aquinas has a fully biblical and Reformed view of sin, and he does not seem to say to this, he cannot expect Reformed Christians to find in Aquinas a model for apologetic endeavor. Yet, clearly, Fesko offers Aquinas as a model for Christian apologetics. (96) The whole hinge of the distinction between a true natural revelation and a proper natural theology resides in one’s doctrine of sin. If Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of sin was inadequate, then his view of natural theology cannot be correct.
Fourth, Fesko probably depreciates Calvin’s critique of scholasticism. (52, 53, 68, 69) It seems to me that a statistical study of Calvin’s Institutes will show that Calvin frequently cites Augustine with enthusiasm, but rarely cites Aquinas positively or at all.14 Furthermore, his references to scholastic theology are mostly critical. One does not have to disagree with Muller’s thesis of a scholastic method in Calvin to argue that Calvin consistently rejected their doctrinal conclusions. (53) It remains to be seen, in my view, what Calvin’s view of Aquinas’s theology might have been. I am not convinced that Calvin’s statements about the existence of God which are characterized as rhetorical by Muller (64) are the same in character as Thomas’s five proofs for the existence of God.
Fifth, Fesko engages repeatedly in the common, evidentialist misunderstanding of key texts of Scripture and Calvin which assert the knowledge of God. He sees in these statement warrants for arguments for God rather than statements of the fact that men know God without discursive arguments. (62, 63, 64, 77, 89, 90) The fact is that Romans 1:18-23 does not teach that men may come to know God or that men may argue for the existence of God from natural reason. This passage and similar ones teach rather that men actually do know God from natural revelationwithout the complicated and lengthy arguments of Anselm or Aquinas. We have heard evidentialist and post-Enlightenment classically oriented apologists make this mistake too often to overlook it when Fesko makes precisely the same mistake.
Sixth, Fesko’s argument for Christians not claiming comprehensive knowledge of everything on the basis of the Bible is imbalanced. Of course, the Reformed confessional tradition makes clear that the sufficiency of Scripture is not its omni-sufficiency for every science. Cf. the Westminster and 1689 at 1:6. What Fesko fails to see, however, in his polemic against Idealism and Worldview theory is that what the Bible does teach sufficiently is basic and foundational for every other area of study. Fesko does not clearly state that, while Christians do not claim that the Bible is sufficient for all knowledge, they do believe that it is basic or foundational to all knowledge and that nothing is properly understood unless understood theistically. While unbelievers have a functional or working knowledge of some things, they have a proper theological knowledge of nothing. (67, 98, 99, 104, 127, 129, 209, 215, 216, 217) Sometimes Fesko seems to notice this. He makes clear, for instance, that Scripture truth claims do create givens for the science of human origins and universal origins. (216) It does this, however, because scriptural knowledge, while not sufficient for non-religious and non-theological sciences, is foundational for them. How can what we believe about God notbe basic for all human knowledge? Yet, Fesko can say that the covenantal exile in which they live does not mean that “everything they do is wrong.” (210) We know what he means, but surely what he says is not all the truth. In another sense and in the most important sense, everything they do is wrong. Their covenant exile does affect everything they do. Surely if any generation of Americans should see this, we should. Our culture is falling apart. In the midst of the cultural disaster all around us—with its devastating effects on everything and even on something so basic as gender identity—shall our message be to unbelievers that not everything you do is wrong. They are wrong basically and foundationally about God, and this does affect everything. But with his concern to counter the triumphalism of some Christians and their excessive claims, Fesko denies the antithesis between Christianity and other worldviews and the devastating effects of this antithesis culturally and educationally. (120, 123, 130, 133, 194, 210, 211, 215)
We are glad for the emphasis of Fesko and others that there is a generally agreed upon classical theism that resides in the scholastic tradition of the church. We agree that 21stcentury Christians do not get to re-define the Christian God. The Reformation itself, however, shows that the scholastic tradition could deviate into bypaths. It also shows that one must account for positive doctrinal development in the church. For myself, and I suspect others, I am not ready to return to the natural theology of Aquinas. I find in Calvin, in the Reformed tradition, and Van Til’s Presuppositionalism a progress of doctrine which improves upon the natural theology of Thomism.
1 Peter J. Leithart, “An Interview with Dr. R. J. Rushdoony,” The Counsel of Chalcedon(Sept. 1985): 14-17; Gary North, Honest Reporting as Heresy: My Response to Christianity Today(Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), 7.
2 Two important statements of this historical paradigm are these: Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth Century France(Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.); John Calvin: A Collection of Essays, ed. by G. E. Duffield, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1968). In this collection see especially Basil Hall’s “Calvin against the Calvinists,” 25f.
3 Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin(Oxford: New York, 2000).
4 Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids:
5 Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy.
6 R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649(New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.)
7 This essay was my thesis for my ThM written for Grand Rapids Baptist Theological Seminary. It is currently unpublished.
8 Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin, 6.
9 William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, pp. 349, 350.
10 Crisis in the Reformed Churches, ed. by Peter Y. Dejong, “Calvin, Dort, and Westminster – A Comparative Study,” John Murray, pp. 150, 151.
11 The Infallible Word(Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978) Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” 274-75.
12 John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 740; Herman Bavinck, ed. John Bolt, trans. Jon Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics First(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 2:90, 91.
13 The Infallible Word: a Symposium, (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), “Nature and Scripture,” 263-301. Cf. the tract by Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and Witness-bearing(Lewis J. Grotenhuis, Belvedere Road, Phillipsburg, NJ), 8f. Cf. his The Defense of Christianity and My Credo(Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, n.d.), 11: “Natural revelation is perfectly clear. Men ought through it to see al other things as dependent on God. But only one who looks at nature through the mirror of Scripture doesunderstand natural revelation for what it is. Furthermore, no one can see Scripture for what it is unless he is given the ability to do so by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.” Cf. also page 24 of the same tract where Van Til approvingly cites Calvin and says: “Calvin makes a sharp distinction between the revelation of God to man and man’s response to that revelation. This implies the rejection of a natural theology such as Aquinas taught.” He goes on to distinguish the responses to God’s revelation by (1) man in his original condition, (2) mankind, whose “understanding is subjected to blindness and the heart to depravity” (3) those that are “taught of Christ” through Scripture and whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit.” In Van Til’s syllabus entitled, “An Introduction to Systematic Theology,” reprinted in 1966 pages 75-109 emphasize the importance of general or natural revelation. Cf. also Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 177-194. In these pages Bahnsen documents Van Til’s commitment to “the inescapable knowledge of God in nature” and the distinction between natural revelation and natural theology.
14 I did a count of Book 1 of the Institutes(McNeil-Battles edition) [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. By John T McNeill; trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadlephia: The Westminster Press, MCMLX) to confirm for myself the evidence. Here are the results of my own count. Calvin never mentions by name Thomas Aquinas. There is one possible and positive reference to his writings that I found (210). Calvin mentions Plato one time positively (46). He mentions Aristotle by name 4 times once neutrally (82) and three times negatively (56, 194, 194). Calvin, on the other hand, mentions Augustine by name and always positively 25 times (5, 76, 77, 77, 78, 92, 105, 106, 106, 110, 113, 126, 126, 127, 143, 144, 144, 144, 158, 207, 207, 208, 213, 234, 237) and there is an additional possible reference to Augustine but not by name (217). Augustine is massively the most cited church father in Book 1. I think this continues throughout Books 2-4. I would say that these statistics present an obstacle for the idea of a Thomistic Calvin.