Reforming Apologetics (Introduction)

Reading time: 6 minutes

J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics seems to be drawing a lot of attention. Since folk keep asking me about it, I’ve decided to blog through the book over the summer months. Here’s the publisher’s summary:

Challenging the dominant Van Tillian approach in Reformed apologetics, this book by a leading expert in contemporary Reformed theology sets forth the principles that undergird a classic Reformed approach. J. V. Fesko’s detailed exegetical, theological, and historical argument takes as its starting point the classical Reformed understanding of the “two books” of God’s revelation: nature and Scripture. Believers should always rest on the authority of Scripture but also can and should appeal to the book of nature in the apologetic task.

Reforming ApologeticsSome preliminary comments:

1. This won’t be a formal book review, which would normally be written after reading the entire book. It will be more like a running commentary: I’ll read a chapter at a time, summarize its contents, and offer various comments. Some of the points I raise or questions I pose may turn out to be addressed in later chapters; if so, all the better.

2. I should declare my biases at the outset. I come to the book as a card-carrying Van Tilian presuppositionalist. I believe Van Til was basically correct about Reformed theology demanding a distinctively Reformed approach to apologetics which honors the sovereignty of God and the self-attesting nature of Scripture, recognizes the proper relationship between general and special revelation, and takes into account the in-principle antithesis between believing and unbelieving thought. I’ve set out my views on apologetic methodology in various publications and in my RTS course lectures.

3. There are, however, differences of opinion among Van Tilians, just as there are differences among Reformed Thomists and other classical apologists. For example, I agree with John Frame that presuppositionalism doesn’t rule out the use of the classical theistic arguments (e.g., versions of the cosmological and teleological arguments) and evidential arguments (historical, scientific, etc.). I suppose that puts me at odds with some other Van Tilians. On the other hand, I agree with Greg Bahnsen (over against Frame) that there’s something distinctive about the transcendental argument which sets it apart from the classical theistic arguments, and that it ought to be the centerpiece of a presuppositional apologetic. I mention these things only to lay my cards on the table at the outset.

4. I also have to confess that I find intramural Reformed debates over apologetic methodology a bit tiresome. I’ve been involved in these discussions for over two decades now; after a while, you just keep hearing the same arguments back and forth. It’s also wearisome having to correct the same old misrepresentations of Van Til over and over again. So I will be interested to see if Dr. Fesko brings anything new to the table that will move the discussion forward. I hope so!

5. I previously commented on an article by Dr. Fesko which makes some criticisms of Van Til and some of his followers, so that serves as part of the backdrop to this series of interactions with his book (which I trust will reflect a collegial spirit!).


Summary of Introduction

Fesko opens by expressing the concern that motivated the book: “The divine library consists of two beautiful books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. … However, within the Reformed community the book of nature sits on the shelf largely unused and covered in a layer of dust.” (p. 1)

That wasn’t always so: “Reformed theologians [in the early modern period] acknowledged the reality and utility of natural revelation, namely, the knowledge of God in creation, as we as a limited and carefully defined natural theology. … In other words, Reformed theologians made regular use of the book of nature.” (p. 2)

Unfortunately, later Reformed thinkers, such as Philip Schaff, Karl Barth, and Cornelius Van Til introduced a change of course, criticizing the early Reformed theologians “for reintroducing scholasticism to the biblically pure theology of the Reformation.” (p. 3) In addition, some Calvinistic philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga, have also cast doubt on the importance of natural theology.

Fesko therefore aims to get Reformed theology back on its original course: “The goal of this essay is to retrieve the book of nature primarily for use in defending the faith, or apologetics.” (p. 4) In his view, confessional Reformed theology holds to a robust view of “the light of nature,” understood in terms of “common notions and their connections to the order of nature.” The book will thus explore “the connections between the innate and acquired knowledge of God.”

The remainder of the introduction provides previews of the subsequent chapters. Chapter 1 will examine the concept of the light of nature as found in the Westminster Confession. Chapter 2 will “delve more deeply into the subject of common notions” with special attention to the exegesis of Anthony Burgess (one of the Westminster divines). Chapter 3 will examine John Calvin’s views on the book of nature, with a view to distinguishing “the Calvin of myth” (as propounded by some Reformed writers) from “the Calvin of history.”

These first three chapters will thus “establish the historical legitimacy of the use of common notions and their connections to the order of nature within historical confessional Reformed theology.” (p. 6)

Chapter 4 will turn our attention to Aquinas, seeking to debunk some misrepresentations of Aquinas’s views by certain contemporary Reformed theologians (Van Til is the main culprit here). It will be shown that Aquinas and Van Til “have more in common than Van Til realized.” Chapter 5 will examine “historic worldview theory” (HWT), the appropriation of which by some Reformed theologians (James Orr, Abraham Kuyper, and Van Til) led to the downgrading (or even dismissal) of the book of nature in their approaches to apologetics. This chapter will also “explore the impact of HWT on contemporary Reformed theology, specifically how it has unnecessarily diminished the use of the book of nature.” Fesko’s argument here will be grounded in exegesis of Roman 2:14-15 and Acts 17: two instances where the apostle Paul appeals to the book of nature and common notions in the defense of the faith.

Chapter 6 will focus on “the transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG).” Fesko’s take in a nutshell: “TAG can be a useful argument in the apologist’s toolbox, but not at the cost of the depreciation or neglect of the book of nature.” (p. 7) Fesko apparently finds it a matter of some concern that “TAG has its origins in idealist philosophy and is wedded to HWT,” but he doesn’t conclude that TAG is “automatically unbiblical or should be cast aside.” (p. 7)

Chapter 7 addresses the objection that the early modern Reformed theologians adopted an unbibical nature-grace dualism which they uncritically inherited from Thomistic scholasticism (and ultimately from pagan thought). Chapter 8 will take a more constructive turn, “sketching out how one can employ the book of nature in defending the faith.” (p. 8) Fesko aims to show that “as important as the book of Scripture is, Christians should also use the book of nature.” (p. 8)

The final paragraph reiterates the concerns motivating the book:

Why should Christians tie one hand behind their backs and use only one of God’s two books? The books of nature and of Scripture are not enemies, nor does the book of nature belong on the list of banned books. Rather, we should read both books… (p. 9)

Comments

1. Since this is only the introduction to the book, I don’t have much to say at this point, and I certainly don’t want to jump the gun by offering criticisms that may turn out to be unwarranted. Based on what I’ve read so far, I expect to agree with much of what Fesko argues about the use of natural revelation in apologetics, but to disagree on some points of application and also on how Van Til’s position is represented. We’ll see.

2. Fesko leans heavily on the idea of “the book of nature.” But let’s note that this is a metaphorical phrase. Scripture is literally a book (or at least a canonical collection of books) whereas nature is not. So there’s some ambiguity here. What exactly does it mean to “read the book of nature” or to “appeal to the book of nature”? As I see it, the substantive issue here isn’t whether we appeal to natural revelation in our defense of the faith, but how we do so — in particular, how we relate natural and special revelation in apologetics.

3. Fesko makes frequent references to “natural theology” and “classic/historic Reformed theology.” It would be good to have these terms more precisely defined, since they apparently do a lot of work in Fesko’s overall argument. One’s definition of natural theology is especially important; for example, Van Til rejected natural theology in some senses but not in others. So what kind of natural theology does Fesko propose to defend? We’ll find out later, I trust.

4. It always concerns me somewhat when Barth and Van Til are listed side-by-side as Reformed opponents of natural theology, as though their concerns were similarly motivated. That’s far from the case. Van Til was even more opposed to Barth’s theology and its philosophical underpinnings, I would say, than he was to Reformed Thomism. He took a lot of heat for his criticisms of Neo-Orthodoxy, which ran much deeper than Barth’s unbiblical view of divine revelation.

5. The book’s bibliography includes 24 books and articles by Van Til. That’s impressive! Conspicuous by its absence, however, is Van Til’s important essay “Nature and Scripture,” originally published in The Infallible Word: A Symposium (1946). This strikes me as an oversight given its relevance to the subject of the book. Among other things, that essay makes clear that Van Til had a very robust doctrine of natural revelation. He quite obviously affirmed “the book of nature” (if we’re going to call it that) along with “the book of Scripture.” It also shows that Van Til didn’t reject natural theology as such, only particular conceptions of natural theology. More on this later, I expect.

6. Fesko’s concern that some Reformed theologians have put the book of nature “on the list of banned books” leaves me scratching my head a bit. Who exactly is being targeted here? That charge would be more fittingly leveled against Gordon Clark and his followers, who deny empirical knowledge altogether, than against Van Tilians. Perhaps the targets will come into clearer view as we proceed.

4 Responses to Reforming Apologetics (Introduction)

  1. Pingback: Mid-June 2019 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

  2. Pingback: Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature) | Analogical Thoughts

  3. Blake Reas

    Thanks for this series. It’s amazing to me how often people mangle Van Til so badly. I’m not sure if I’m a Van Tilian but I take what he says seriously.

  4. Pingback: Reforming Apologetics (Common Notions) | Analogical Thoughts