Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?

I’ve been asked by several folk to share my thoughts on J. V. Fesko’s article, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos.” (Side note: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Fesko as a colleague following his recent appointment to the faculty at RTS Jackson! The following comments are offered respectfully and in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17. Semper reformanda!)

Geerhardus VosA great deal could be said in response to the various points Fesko raises in his essay, but I’ll restrict myself to some remarks on his core argument and a few other related matters. Fesko’s main target is the “Vosian Van Til thesis” which maintains that “Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology,” that there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Vos and Van Til,” and that “Van Til learned a unique epistemology from Vos.” Fesko readily concedes that Van Til was significantly influenced by Vos, but he wants to challenge the stronger claim that Van Til adopted a distinctive epistemology from Vos which served as a kind of course-correction for Reformed philosophy and apologetics.

Fesko’s central argument can be easily summarized:

  1. Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
  2. Van Til rejected both of the above.
  3. Therefore (contra the Vosian Van Til thesis) there’s significant discontinuity between Vos and Van Til. Vos stands in line with the historic Reformed tradition; Van Til does not.

There’s also a subsidiary argument, which I won’t assess here:

  1. Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  2. Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  3. Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.

Some comments:

1. It’s important to recognize the scope and nature of Fesko’s argument. It’s really an argument against the claims of certain Van Tilians. It isn’t a refutation of any distinctive element of Van Til’s thought. (I don’t mean to suggest it was intended to be, but some might fail to recognize what the argument, if sound, would actually prove.)

2. Along the same lines, we should acknowledge that the article is an exercise in historical theology: it concerns the intellectual relationship between two Reformed thinkers (and also their relationship to earlier Reformed theologians). Historical claims do not establish philosophical or theological theses. Fesko’s argument tells us little if anything about whether Vos’s position, Van Til’s position, or some other position is the right position to hold. The mere fact that Theologian A’s position aligns with Theologian B’s position, or stands in continuity with Tradition C, doesn’t as such give us any reason to agree with A, B, or C.

3. Some readers will take (and have taken) the article to provide support for Reformed scholasticism or Reformed Thomism. But again, I think that misses the scope of the argument. Nothing in the article constitutes a defense of scholasticism or Thomism as such. For example, there’s nothing here that vindicates the use of Aristotelian metaphysics or Aquinas’s nature-grace scheme.

4. The article refers to “Van Tillians” as though that’s a homogeneous group partly defined by a commitment to the Vosian Van Til thesis. But there have been considerable disagreements among self-described Van Tilians about how to interpret Van Til’s claims and implement his apologetic program. Van Tilians are no more a homogeneous group than Thomists. Fesko takes the claims of William Dennison and Lane Tipton to be representative of all Van Tilians. But on what grounds? Why think they speak for everyone who endorses a Van Tilian approach to apologetics (especially with respect to historical theses about lines of intellectual influence)?

Moving to matters of more substance:

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The Soft Bigotry of Leftist Exclusions

A splendid article by Nigel Biggar on Cambridge University’s shoddy treatment of Jordan Peterson. Drawing lessons from the Peterson incident and his own experience at the hands of intolerant progressive academics, Biggar argues that the Cambridge administration is guilty of rank hypocrisy.

Excerpt:

When one puts Cambridge University’s serial inaction in the case of Dr Gopal alongside its precipitate action in the case of Professor Peterson, what is revealed is this: the University does in fact discriminate on the unjustifiable grounds of race, gender, and above all morals and politics. If you’re non-white, female, and aggressively ‘woke’, then you’ll be accorded maximal benefit of doubt, given a pass on official norms of civility, let free to spit hatred and contempt on social media, and permitted (probably) to malform and intimidate students. However, if you’re white, male, culturally conservative, and given to expressing reasoned doubt about prevailing mores, you’ll be given no benefit of doubt at all. And, should you do so much as appear to transgress ill-conceived norms of inclusiveness, you’ll be summarily and rudely excluded.

The implications are grim. Students or academics who are thinking of applying to Cambridge for a place on a course, a teaching or research post, or just a visiting fellowship, should either scrub their records clean of anything that might appear transgressive of the reigning orthodoxy, or turn elsewhere. And if they do get to be included, then they should take care to suppress their doubts, bite their critical tongues, and go into Inner Exile.

Read the whole thing.

Sad to see that great British institution heading the way of Trescott University.

The Most Reluctant Convert

I recently had the opportunity to attend a performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert here in the Queen City. Having read some reviews, and knowing a little about the Fellowship for Performing Arts, I had high expectations beforehand. I was in for a surprise, though: it was even better than I expected.

C.S. Lewis OnstageMax McLean’s performance as Lewis was exceptional. The script (written by McLean, drawing mainly from Lewis’s autobiography, letters, and books) was also superb, seamlessly weaving some of Lewis’s best-known apologetic arguments into the (long) story of his conversion. Like its subject, it manages to be both intellectually serious and (at times) irreverently humorous. Fans of Lewis’s writings will be delighted to hear many famous passages spoken from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Indeed, McLean’s “Jack” is so convincing and the narrative so engaging that several times I caught myself forgetting that this was ‘only’ a performance and not an audience with the Oxford don himself. (I guess that’s one of the highest compliments an actor can receive.)

Anyway, all this to say, I highly recommend The Most Reluctant Convert. The tour continues through August, and if it’s coming to a city near you, please do yourself a favor and attend a performance. Take a friend too. Although the show unashamedly represents a Christian perspective, it isn’t preachy, cringey, or intellectually superficial. It presents exactly what it purports to: the fascinating intellectual and spiritual journey of one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the show (and one in short supply these days) was summed up nicely by the usher who saw us out of the auditorium:

“Makes you think, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it does.

Iron-Man Dualism

One common argument against substance (mind-body) dualism runs as follows. We know that consciousness is dependent on the brain, because when the brain is damaged it adversely affects consciousness and mental function. (You can prove this point to yourself experimentally by hitting yourself hard on the head with a brick.) Furthermore, it is argued, when brain function ceases altogether, consciousness disappears. (Don’t try to prove this latter point to yourself experimentally; just take it on trust.) Therefore, contra substance dualism, the mind — if it’s a real entity at all — must be ontologically dependent on the physical structures of the brain. We should be physicalists of some kind.

I come across this argument all the time in the writings of naturalists, but it strikes me as a blatant non sequitur. At most it shows that there’s a causal relationship between the mind and the body, which substance dualists insist upon anyway. (The so-called “interaction problem,” which is concerned with how there can be causation between physical and non-physical substances, is a different challenge to dualism, one I don’t propose to address here.) The fact that increasing damage to the brain leads to increasing mental impairment doesn’t at all imply that the mind cannot exist apart from the brain.

Here’s an analogy to elucidate why that’s so. Imagine a spaceship of the kind familiar from sci-fi movies. In this spaceship, the cockpit doubles up as an escape pod. In normal operation, the cockpit is attached to the main ship; whenever the ship moves, the cockpit moves with it, just as it should. If the ship is attacked with (say) photon torpedoes, the cockpit is buffeted about along with the rest of the spacecraft. When the ship is damaged, all of its systems can be affected; thus the operation of the cockpit can be impaired by damage to the ship in which it is housed.

If the ship becomes so badly damaged that it can’t move at all, the cockpit is stuck along with it, since it’s fixed to the ship. But if the spaceship is completely blown apart, the cockpit functions as an escape pod: it can detach from the doomed ship, and once detached, it can move freely again. (In line with a Christian eschatology, we could even extend the analogy such that if the parts of the ship are recovered and reassembled, the cockpit can be reattached — but that’s not necessary for the point I’m making here.)

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Blaming Sinners and Exculpating God

Some time ago I plugged Guillaume Bignon’s Excusing Sinners and Blaming God. Kevin Timpe wrote a critical review of the book in the journal Faith and Philosophy, and Bignon has now posted a response to the review on his website. His response is useful because it not only rebuts Timpe’s criticisms, but also takes the discussion further in some respects. Check it out.

The Deity of Christ and the First Table of the Law

One of the standard arguments for the deity of Christ runs as follows:

  1. The First Commandment demands that we worship no other gods besides the Lord God (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 6:13; Matt. 4:10).
  2. Jesus is (rightly) worshiped by his disciples (Matt. 14:33; 28:9; 28:17; Luke 24:52; Rev. 5:11-14).
  3. Therefore, the worship of Jesus must be the worship of the Lord God.

Since it’s very difficult to reject premise 2 while accepting the authority of the New Testament, some unitarians (those who deny the deity of Christ) concede the point but counter that worshiping Jesus doesn’t violate the First Commandment even though Jesus is a mere creature. They suggest that the commandment needs to be understood in the context of Ancient Near Eastern polytheism. What the commandment forbids is the worship of other gods in addition to the Lord God (specifically pagan gods such as Baal, Molech, etc.). The worship of Jesus doesn’t involve any such thing (so it is argued) because the one true God is being worshiped through Jesus, by God’s own designation. Jesus is God’s unique agent and mediator of salvation, and therefore the worship due to God for his works of salvation can be appropriately mediated by Jesus. In short, to worship Jesus is to worship God indirectly rather than directly. Jesus is the proper medium for the worship of God. But that doesn’t require us to say that Jesus is equal to God.

One difficulty with this response is that it neglects the close connection between the First and the Second Commandment. Both commandments are concerned with the proper worship of God, but in different respects. The First Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God only: no worship of false gods. The Second Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God truly: no false worship of the true God. The paradigmatic case of the latter sin is worshiping God through creaturely images (cf. Deut. 4:15-17).

The Ten CommandmentsThe golden calf incident (Exod. 32:1-20) serves as an object lesson in false worship. Not only do the Israelites worship false gods (note the plurals in vv. 1 and 4) they also worship the true God falsely (note v. 5, where Aaron pathetically tries to redeem the idolatrous worship by turning it into “a feast to the Lord”; apparently his strategy was to make the worship of the golden calf an indirect worship of the Lord). However we interpret the thinking of Aaron and the Israelites here, it’s clear enough that the first two commandments are being violated. (Compare the later idolatry of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:25-33 which obviously parallels the incident in Exodus 32; in both cases the idolatrous image-worship is rationalized as Yahweh-worship.)

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Faith and Philosophy Journal Now Open-Access

Splendid news: Faith and Philosophy, the journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, is now open-access. Kudos to the SCP Executive Committee for that decision and its execution. All articles and book reviews from all past issues (dating back to 1984) are freely available for PDF download.

Faith and Philosophy

The journal archive includes many classic articles by luminaries such as William Alston, Robert Adams, Marilyn McCord Adams, Alvin Plantinga, George Mavrodes, Eleanore Stump, Richard Swinburne, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Peter van Inwagen, and William Wainwright, to name but a handful. Happy reading!

An Observation About the Tuggy-Brown Debate

Last week Dr. Dale Tuggy debated Dr. Michael Brown on the question, “Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?” (Tuggy affirmed; Brown denied.) The entire debate, including Q&A, can be viewed here. A print version of Tuggy’s opening statement can be found here. Brown’s opening statement can be read here.

Tuggy-Brown Debate

I thought it was a very useful, high-quality debate between two smart, serious people who stuck to the arguments and treated each other with respect. Tuggy and Brown are quite different in their skill sets, theological methodologies, and speaking styles, which made for an interesting match-up.

I have only one observation to make here, which I haven’t seen noted elsewhere. Throughout the debate, from his opening to his closing statement, Tuggy pressed the claims that the NT doesn’t reflect a trinitarian theology (as he defines it) and that Brown hadn’t offered an intelligible “Trinity theory” (or any Trinity theory at all, for that matter). But note the question that framed the debate:

Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?

Tuggy’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible is the Father alone. Brown’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible isn’t the Father alone. To win the debate, Brown didn’t have to defend trinitarianism or any particular theory of the Trinity. He only had to show that the God of the Bible is identified with someone other than the Father, such as the Son or the Spirit. In fact, Brown targeted nearly all of his ammunition on showing that the Bible identifies the Son with Yahweh and attributes to the Son things that imply his equality with the Father as to deity (the Son is eternal, creator of all things, shares the glory of the Father, receives the same worship as the Father, etc.). You can review Brown’s opening statement to confirm that this was his main emphasis.

Strange as it may sound, given the specific proposition being debated, Brown could have adopted a modalist position and still won the argument! (Interestingly, Tuggy suggested a few times that Brown was in fact expressing a form of modalism, albeit unwittingly. Even if Tuggy were right about that, it would have been beside the point in the context of the debate.) Brown’s task wasn’t to defend the specific claim that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons, still less to defend some metaphysical model for that claim. Indeed, he expressed reservations about adopting creedal language (“persons”) rather than biblical language. I don’t share those reservations, but again, that’s beside the point here.

All Brown had to do was argue that the Bible teaches the full deity of Christ, i.e., that the Son is divine in the same sense that the Father is divine. In my judgment Brown did argue that persuasively, and Tuggy’s alternative interpretations of the key texts seemed stretched (e.g., Heb. 1:10-12 and Col. 1:15-17 are really speaking about the new creation; the logos in John’s prologue is something like God’s eternal wisdom rather than the preexistent Son who became flesh). For that reason, even while admitting my own biases, I’d say Brown won this round.

Determined to Believe?

Determined to Believe?John Lennox is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and an evangelical Christian with a longstanding concern to defend the Christian faith in the public sphere. In recent years he has risen to prominence as an articulate, well-informed, and winsome apologist, writing books on the relationship between Christianity and science, and engaging in public debates with prominent skeptics such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Ruse. His 2007 book God’s Undertaker, which I have often recommended to my students, deftly debunks the myth of conflict between religion and science. I wish I could be so enthusiastic about his recent foray into systematic and philosophical theology, which might well have been titled Calvinism’s Undertaker.

As Lennox explains, his latest book “is written mainly for Christians who are interested in or even troubled by questions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility” (15). Having been asked on many occasions to share his views on this thorny issue, Lennox decided to embark upon a book-length treatment of the topic. The primary target of his book is theistic determinism, which Lennox nowhere explicitly defines but apparently takes to be the view that God determines—more specifically, causally determines—every event in the creation, including the decisions and actions of his creatures. The book consists of 20 chapters and is divided into five parts. In this review I will summarize the content of each part, offering some critical comments along the way, before concluding with some concerns prompted by the book’s title.

Read the rest of the review here.

Christian Prisoners of Conscience

A call to pray for Pastor Wang Yi:

https://barnabasfund.org/us/Christian-Prisoners-of-Conscience/Wang-Yi

See also Pastor Wang’s “declaration of faithful disobedience”. Christians in the West will often quote Matthew 10:28; he is living it out as an example to all of us.