Reforming Apologetics (Worldview)

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Summary of Chapter 5

The main aim of chapter 5 of Reforming Apologetics is to criticize “historic worldview theory” (HWT) and the significant role it has played (according to the author) in the development of Van Tilian apologetics. The adoption of HWT is an obstacle to using “the book of nature” in apologetics, and for that very reason it needs to be challenged.

As Dr. Fesko defines it, HWT is

a very distinct idea that begins with nineteenth-century German idealism and includes the following characteristics: (1) the rejection of a common doctrine of humanity, (2) a single principle from which one deduces a worldview, (3) an exhaustive systematic explanation of reality, and (4) the incommensurability of competing worldviews. These aspects of HWT create an inhospitable environment for the historic Reformed appeal to the book of nature. The increased use of HWT is inversely proportional to the decreased use of the book of nature. (p. 98)

Fesko identifies several specific problems with HWT. First, it is “contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity”; in other words, it rejects the biblical teaching that all people share common notions in virtue of bearing the image of God. Second, HWT claims that “a worldview must present an exhaustive explanation of the world,” but the Bible doesn’t do that. According to the Reformed faith, Scripture “does not address all things” but “gives only principles for life in general” (p. 98). In the hands of Van Tilian apologists, HWT implies that the Bible “exhaustively explains all reality” and “must be the only foundation for all knowledge” (p. 99).

Dr. Fesko proposes to make his case by (1) reviewing the historical origins of HWT, (2) explaining how Van Til’s employment of HWT led to his rejection of common notions, (3) surveying the impact of Van Til’s use of HWT on the Reformed community, (4) making “a brief scriptural case for common notions,” and (5) refuting the claim that the Bible “offers an exhaustive view of the world” (p. 99).

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A Conversation with Christopher Watkin

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What do you call an interview where the interviewer and interviewee switch places halfway through? A ‘switcherview’ perhaps?

Whatever you call it, I recently did one with Christopher Watkin in which we talked for nearly two hours about P&R’s Great Thinkers series.  Chris has already contributed volumes on Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. He’s presently working on a third volume, this time on Gilles Deleuze. My own contribution to the series, a critical engagement with the thought of David Hume, will be published in early December (but I’ll take no offense if you feel led to pre-order it).

Chris and I had about as much fun as two Reformed philosophy geeks could have discussing Derrida, Foucault, and Hume. We talked about why these thinkers are important today, what challenges they present to Christians, and how Christians can interact critically but responsibly with their work.

Chris is a fellow Brit who is currently posted at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, where he teaches and researches in the field of French Studies. Not only has he written books on several great thinkers, he’s a gifted thinker himself with a wide range of philosophical and theological interests. Check out his personal website and his other website Thinking Through the Bible to find out more about his work. You can also follow him on Twitter if you’re that way inclined.

Here’s the full conversation:

You can also find some smaller snippets on Chris’s YouTube channel.

Secular Indulgences

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The Telegraph reports:

Sir Elton John by his own admission counted Princess Diana as “one of my dearest friends” and famously and movingly sang at her funeral.

On Monday, the rock star leapt to the defence of her youngest son, in an attempt to shield the Duke of Sussex and his wife from “relentless and untrue assassinations” amid allegations of hypocrisy over private jet flights taken by the couple.

Harry and Meghan

In putting a metaphorical arm around the Duke and Duchess, Sir Elton disclosed that he had paid for Prince Harry and his wife to fly on a private jet to his home in the south of France. He said Prince Harry, his wife and their son Archie needed the “safety and tranquillity” offered by his palatial villa on the French Riviera.

Sir Elton insisted he and his husband David Furnish had made “an appropriate contribution” to a company that specialises in offsetting carbon emissions. The flights, said Sir Elton, were as a consequence carbon neutral.

So we’re all square then! One might even sum things up in a little rhyme:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The A-list celebs can spread their wings.

50% Off Ligonier Video Teaching Series

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For this week only, you can save 50% on more than fifty video teaching series and study guides from Ligonier Ministries, including Exploring Islam by yours truly, The New Testament Canon by my colleague Dr. Michael Kruger, and Contentment by Melissa Kruger.

Ligonier’s video teaching series are excellent resources, especially for adult/teen Sunday school classes and small group studies, and the accompanying materials are very professionally produced. This is a fantastic offer, so don’t miss out!

Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)

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Summary of Chapter 4

The burden of the fourth chapter of Reforming Apologetics is to argue that Van Til’s critique of Thomas Aquinas is inaccurate and unfair to the medieval theologian. While there are some problematic elements in Aquinas’s theology, Dr. Fesko concedes, it would be a mistake to dismiss Aquinas’s system in toto as a compromise with pagan thought, as Van Til asks us to do. Thus, we should not consider inherently problematic the appeals to Aquinas made by the later Reformed scholastic theologians.

Fesko summarizes the content of the chapter thus:

Here I will argue that Van Til and many of his students have misread Aquinas on the relationship between faith and reason as well as his use of Aristotelian philosophy. The chapter therefore first sets forth Van Til’s claims about Aquinas. Then it explores what Aquinas actually said. Third, it offers analysis as to why Van Til misreads Aquinas. Van Til’s most serious error, I believe, is that he reads Aquinas largely through secondary sources rather than carefully engaging Aquinas’s works. Such a methodology naturally skews his interpretation. Hence, this chapter focuses exclusively on Aquinas, not the subsequent Thomist tradition. … The chapter then concludes with some observations about Aquinas and Reformed theology and apologetics. (p. 72)

Van Til on Aquinas

Dr. Fesko summarizes “five main charges” that Van Til levels against “Thomas and the Roman Catholic position” in his book Christian Apologetics:

1. Aquinas follows Aristotle by speaking of being and then introducing the distinction between the divine and created beings. Aquinas does not begin with the doctrine of the ontological Trinity.

2. Roman Catholics try to prove the existence of God by employing the method of Aristotle to show that God’s existence is in accord with the principles of logic.

3. By appealing to the common ground of reason, Roman Catholics arise at the existence of a god through theistic proofs, and this god accords with the presuppositions of natural reason but not the God of the Bible.

4. Natural humankind are said to possess natural revelation and to correctly interpret it; there is no need for supernatural revelation to correct natural humankind’s (fallen) interpretation of natural revelation.

5. There are two Aquinases: Thomas the theologian and Thomas the philosopher. Thomas the philosopher appeals to and employs autonomous reason, and Thomas the theologian appeals to Scripture, but Thomas “the theologian need not at all ask St. Thomas the autonomous philosopher to reverse his decisions on the fundamental question about the existence of God.”

In summary, Van Til maintains that Aquinas has let the infection of Greek autonomous reason into the fortress of faith, and reason has taken over. Reason is the foundation on which Aquinas tries to build his system of doctrine and thus his apologetic methodology. (pp. 73-74)

In a footnote, Dr. Fesko references six other works “where Van Til makes similar claims.” He also cites Greg Bahnsen’s criticisms of the apologetics of E. J. Carnell and Francis Schaeffer as an example of the subsequent influence of Van Til’s critique of Aquinas.

What Aquinas Really Said

In this section, Dr. Fesko seeks to show that Van Til and his followers have misunderstood the roles that reason and the Five Ways play in Aquinas’s theology. The critics claim that “Aquinas constructs a rational foundation upon which he then builds his theological system. The system rests on autonomous reason rather than special revelation, or Scripture.” (p. 74)

As Fesko sees it, the issue boils down to this:

The chief question here is, Did the proofs ever serve as the primary ground for Thomas’s system, a rational stepladder that begins with reason and then rises to revelation? Quite simply, the answer is no. (p. 74)

Fesko argues that Aquinas “never advanced the proofs as a rational foundation for his system of theology.” On the contrary, the proofs function “only on the presupposition of faith and the authority of Scripture.” The proofs aren’t necessary for faith; rather, they seek only to show that faith isn’t contrary to reason but in accord with it. Some of the claims of the Christian faith, such as the existence of God, can be demonstrated by natural reason. However, those truths necessary for salvation can only be known by divine revelation.

For Aquinas, then, reason is merely “an assistant or handmaid (ancilla) to faith. Reason answers objections and clarifies revealed truths.” (p. 77)

Fesko proceeds to summarize Aquinas’s five famous proofs of the existence of God, noting that he prefaces these demonstrations with an appeal to Scripture (Romans 1:20 and Exodus 3:14) as support for his approach. Aquinas’s preferred method is to argue from effect to cause (i.e., from creation to Creator).

Fesko asks us to observe two things about the proofs. First, “they are probable demonstrations rather than incontrovertible proofs.” Second, Aquinas “does not intend them to serve as a rational foundation for faith”; the proofs are only meant to show that “the claims of Christianity are rational and even demonstrable, which means that Christians and non-Christians can enter into a genuine dialogue about God’s existence.” (p. 80)

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Rebutting Objections to the Pro-Life Position

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An article I contributed to the August 2019 issue of Tabletalk magazine.

Reforming Apologetics (Calvin)

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Summary of Chapter 3

Chapter 3 seeks to debunk a certain myth about John Calvin, namely, that his theology marked a break with medieval scholasticism, a break that was undone to some extent by later Reformed theologians who sought to reintroduce elements of Thomism. Dr. Fesko introduces his aims thus:

After briefly examining some of the claims regarding Calvin’s views, this chapter presents evidence from Calvin’s own work on these three subjects [scholasticism, natural law, and common notions] to demonstrate continuities with the medieval past, in particular with the formulations of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). My intent is to prove that contemporary Reformed theologians cannot claim that Calvin based his theology on Christ as the uncontested starting point for all knowledge of God. … The aim of this chapter, therefore, is to demonstrate that Calvin stands in general continuity with his medieval past and the theologians of early modern Reformed Orthodoxy. (p. 50)

Dr. Fesko then proceeds to identify four 20th-century theologians who have propounded some version of the Calvin-versus-Scholasticism myth: August Lang, Karl Barth, Cornelius Van Til, and Herman Dooyeweerd. (Regarding the claims attributed to Van Til here, see my commentary below.)

Scholasticism

The notion that Calvin was radically opposed to scholasticism is based on “two faulty assumptions regarding scholasticism: (1) it entails specific theological beliefs, and (2) it is ultimately speculative, rationalistic, and unbiblical.” (p. 53) In fact, Fesko contends, scholasticism is merely a method of doing theology that “does not require any specific philosophical or theological commitments, but simply sets the parameters for the orderly discussion of a doctrinal topic.” (p. 53)

Fesko goes on to show that “many chapters [in Calvin’s Institutes] follow the form of scholastic disputation” that one finds in Aquinas’s Summa. Not only does Calvin employ the scholastic form of argumentation, he also makes use of “common scholastic terminological distinctions” (p. 56). Fesko concludes:

In short, while there are certainly differences between Calvin’s Institutes and Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, they both employ scholastic methodology and terminology. Therefore one cannot easily pit Calvin against scholasticism, given that he employed identical methodology and terminology in his own theology. (p. 56)

Natural Law and Common Notions

In this section, Fesko quotes from various works of Calvin to show that he appealed to the concepts of natural law, universal reason, common notions (e.g., in his exegesis of Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus). This is further evidence of continuity with “medieval theologians such as Aquinas.”

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Wen Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go

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A while back I wrote about the collision between feminism and transgenderism on the field of so-called abortion rights. Well, here’s an interesting update. Initial reports suggest that Leana Wen, who was removed this week from her position as president of Planned Parenthood after less than a year in the post, may be one of the high-profile casualties in this clash of progressive ideologies.

According to a BuzzFeed News article (HT: Steve Hays):

Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, the first physician to head the women’s health care group in 50 years, said she was removed from her position by the organization’s board “at a secret meeting,” capping months of internal concerns over her management style and a perceived shift away from the group’s political work.

Wen attributed her departure to “philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood,” she said in a tweet on Tuesday.

You're Fired!

Various reasons for Wen’s abrupt exit are noted, including the following:

Two sources told BuzzFeed News that Wen also refused to use “trans-inclusive” language, for example saying “people” instead of “women” and telling staff that she believed talking about transgender issues would “isolate people in the Midwest.” For a period of a few months, Wen sometimes went through Planned Parenthood’s press releases and documents, deleting the word “sexual” from the phrase “sexual and reproductive health,” the source said.

I suppose that’s the downside of hiring a physician, trained in human anatomy and physiology, to be the spokeswoman (sorry, spokesperson — or should it now be ‘wokesperson’?) for an organization that wants to ride the LGBTQ wave. The cognitive dissonance can be too much to handle. Even so, Wen must have known what she was getting into. Couldn’t she tell which way the wind was blowing?

Determined to Come Most Freely

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A preprint version of the article I co-authored with Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” published a while ago in the Journal for Reformed Theology and summarized here, is now available here. Enjoy!

The Incoherence of LGBT

Reading time: 4 minutes

The argument I’m going to make here isn’t a new one, but it’s important enough to be restated and recirculated.

I’m not all that old, but I’m still old enough to remember when the acronym was just LGB. From a Christian perspective, the LGB movement was misguided, but at least it was conceptually coherent. Even if you disagreed with LGB advocates, at least you understood what you were disagreeing with. I don’t know when the T became a permanent addition (this Google Ngram suggests the mid-90s), but whenever it was, that was the point the acronym became an unstable compound.

Here’s why. L, G, and B were originally understood in terms of the natural (and normative) sexual categories of male and female. L refers to women who are sexually attracted to women. G refers to men who are sexually attracted to men. B refers to people who are sexually attracted to both men and women. (Remember that ‘bi’ means two; ‘bisexual’ presupposes a binary sexual categorization.) Those definitions are intelligible even to those who hold to traditional sexual norms.

But T subverts all that by demanding that we detach those sexual categories from physical (anatomical) realities. According to transgender ideology, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are to be understood in terms of gender identity (which is non-physical) rather than biological sex (which is physical). Yet the moment we do that, the L, G, and B become meaningless.

The Gender Unicorn

By way of illustration, consider the widely-discussed Gender Unicorn developed by an organization known as Trans Student Educational Resources. (The following critique can be just as well applied to the Genderbread Person; I leave that as an exercise for the reader.) The Gender Unicorn is a visual aid that is supposed to help us understand and navigate the complex and pitfall-laden terrain of modern sexuality and gender identity. According to the Unicorn, we need to distinguish five dimensions: (1) gender identity, (2) gender expression, (3) sex assigned at birth, (4) physical attraction, and (5) emotional attraction. Now consider the first and fourth of these. One’s gender identity can be ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (alongside other options) but these have nothing to do with one’s anatomy (note how the rainbow icon appears in a thought bubble; it’s a matter of internal self-perception). At the same time, one’s physical attraction, the Unicorn tells us, can be toward ‘men’ or ‘women’ (again, alongside other options). Yet one can only have a physical attraction toward that which is physical. So the meanings of ‘men’ and ‘women’ on the axis of physical attraction must be defined with reference to anatomy.

Hence the incoherence: T (which is concerned with gender identity) requires us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in non-physical terms, but L, G, and B (which are concerned at least partly with physical attraction) require us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in physical terms.

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