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!)
A 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:
- Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
- Van Til rejected both of the above.
- 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:
- Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
- Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
- Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.
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:
5. The reader is likely to come away from the article thinking that Van Til repudiated natural theology outright (e.g., “Van Til completely rejects natural theology”). This is misleading to say the least. See, for example, Van Til’s essay “Nature and Scripture” in which he articulates a very strong view of natural revelation (arguably stronger than the view of most Thomists!) and distinguishes between “the natural theology of the [Westminster] Confession” and “the natural theology that has its origin in Greek thought” (which Van Til associates with Aquinas, Butler, and even Kant). Now, one can certainly argue that Van Til is mistaken in drawing this distinction, or that he has misrepresented Aquinas, Butler, et al. (I myself have reservations about aspects of Van Til’s analysis.) But it’s not accurate to say that Van Til rejects natural theology as such. His concern is that natural theology be conducted in a way consistent with Reformed convictions about natural revelation, special revelation, and the Creator-creature distinction.
6. A similar point applies to the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles. Does Van Til reject this distinction altogether? Well, it depends on exactly how the distinction is understood and what implications are drawn from it. Fesko writes:
In brief, articuli puri / mixti derive their origins from the disciplines of theology and philosophy. Those articles derived from theology alone are “pure,” and those that originate from both philosophy and theology are mixed. The idea that stands behind these terms is that human beings acquire some knowledge of God through the use of reason and other knowledge exclusively from special revelation. In other words, this set of terms requires that a theologian define the precise relationship between philosophy and theology. In short, to admit mixed articles means that one employs some form of natural theology. If one rejects mixed articles, then he must rest all of his theological claims about God exclusively on Scripture. This naturally has implications for one’s epistemology, or the doctrine of how and what a person can know about God.
Would Van Til disagree? As I’ve already noted, Van Til had a robust doctrine of natural revelation. He insists in various places that every human being knows that God exists (the God of the Bible no less!) even those that lack the special revelation of Scripture. Does this natural knowledge of God count as “some knowledge of God through the use of reason”? Yes, although Van Til notes that unbelievers will proceed to use (or rather misuse) their natural reason so as to suppress the natural knowledge of God. Remarkably, in chapter 7 of his Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til argues that men can and should reason to God from nature. The issue isn’t whether one should do so, but rather how one should do so.
In any event, on my reading of Van Til, he would readily agree that there are some truths about God that can be known by natural revelation alone, and there are other truths that can be known only on the basis of special revelation. Nowhere does Van Til claim that all knowledge of God depends on special revelation. Quite the contrary! What he does maintain is that one can only rightly interpret natural revelation through the lens of special revelation; the two are designed to work together to give us a proper understanding of God. But isn’t that just Calvin’s view (Institutes, 1.6.1)?
Furthermore, as I’ve pointed out, Van Til does indeed advocate “some form of natural theology.” Should we therefore conclude that he too “admits mixed articles”? Perhaps so! In any event, I’m not persuaded that a clear demarcation has been drawn that includes Vos but excludes Van Til. Again, to repeat the crucial point: Van Til doesn’t reject natural theology as such. What he rejects is a particular approach to natural theology which he takes to be inconsistent with Reformed commitments. He may be misguided about that, but it’s crucial to recognize what he’s targeting and what his own position is.
Consider also the implications of Van Til’s “transcendental argument” for the existence of God (TAG), according to which “all predication presupposes the existence of God.” Van Til refers to this as a proof of God’s existence; indeed, he claims that if God did not exist, it would be impossible to prove anything! Thus, the very possibility of knowledge implies the existence of God (indeed, not just any God, but the “All-Conditioner” as Van Til puts it in “Why I Believe in God”). Why wouldn’t that count as an exercise in “some form of natural theology”? Doesn’t TAG imply that natural reason as such presupposes God’s existence?
For this and related reasons, Van Til insists that every fact — whether historical, scientific, psychological, or whatever — is “revelational of God.” That’s hard to square with the idea that knowledge of God can be found only in Scripture or on the basis of special revelation.
7. In sum, unless I’ve badly misunderstood Van Til, he doesn’t “rest all of his theological claims about God exclusively on Scripture” and he doesn’t “completely reject natural theology.” If those are the distinguishing marks of someone who “rejects mixed articles,” then they’re not marks that Van Til bears. I think it would be more accurate to say that Van Til (1) accepts the basic distinction between pure and mixed articles (at least implicitly, given what else he says), (2) likely disagrees with some other Reformed theologians about the specific content of each category, and (3) expresses concerns about how we articulate the relationship between reason and revelation (both natural and special) in accounting for our knowledge of the pure and mixed articles.