Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature)

Previous posts:

Summary of Chapter 1

Chapter 1 explores the term light of nature, primarily as it appears in the Westminster Confession (five times: 1.1, 1.6, 10.4, 20.4, 21.1). In seeking to understand what the Westminster divines meant by the term, Dr. Fesko proposes to focus attention on the lectures of Anthony Burgess, one of the divines, due to the “structural similarities” between Burgess’s work and the Confession itself. As he explains:

Hence, an examination of Burgess’s lectures on the law provides a primary-source explanation of what the Westminster divines intend by the term light of nature. Through the use of Burgess’s lectures, this chapter demonstrates that the light of nature denotes three things: (1) natural law, (2) human reason, and (3) God’s natural revelation in creation. In short, the light of nature denotes the book or order of nature written and designed by God — an important tool in defending the Christian faith, a tool forgotten by many in contemporary Reformed theology but regularly used by early modern Reformed theologians. In contrast to some recent analyses of the first chapter of the Confession, Burgess gives a full-throated defense of the light of nature as natural law and human reason. (p. 13)

The chapter consists of two main sections: one on natural law, the other on human reason.

Natural Law

Burgess argues that the law of nature “consists in those common notions which are ingrafted into all men’s hearts.” Fesko observes that the common notions include “belief in the existence of God and a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil.” (p. 15) He further notes that Burgess appeals to Aquinas’s treatment of natural law to confirm his argument that these “common notions do not require proof because they are self-evident.” (p. 15)

In considering “the precise boundaries of the law of nature,” Burgess assesses various options and concludes that the law of nature coincides with “the moral law delivered by Moses at Sinai.” (p. 16) Fesko contends that this position was fairly typical among early Reformed theologians. According to this mainstream view, the light of nature includes “common knowledge among believer and unbeliever that binds them to the same moral standards but leaves the unbeliever far short of true faith and saving knowledge.” (p. 18)

In his defense of natural law, Burgess appealed not only to Scripture (e.g., the moral wisdom of Moses’s pagan father-in-law) but also to several pagan philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca) who manifested a partial knowledge of moral norms and even of the existence of God.

Human Reason

Reforming ApologeticsIn addition to his exposition of natural law, Burgess “devotes a considerable amount of space to explaining how the light of nature included human reason.” (p. 20) While acknowledging that human reason has been corrupted by sin, Burgess argues that it shouldn’t be rejected, for it serves several important functions: (1) to render people “inexcusable before the divine bar” as Paul argues in Romans 1:20 and the Westminster Confession (1.1) reaffirms; (2) in the regenerate believer, as a Spirit-sanctified tool for understanding Scripture; and (3) as an instrument of salvation insofar as reason is necessary for a person, by God’s grace, to understand and believe the truths of the gospel. Burgess goes to great lengths to ensure the third point is understood so as to exclude any hint of a natural human contribution to salvation (i.e., to uphold a monergistic view of conversion).

Fesko further notes that Burgess’s views on the light of nature aren’t idiosyncratic but can be found in another of the Westminster divines, John Arrowsmith, who “delineates six ways by which people can know there is a God through the ‘natural light’ available to them” (p. 23). Fesko summarizes:

Arrowsmith’s and Burgess’s understandings of the light of nature admit the same categories and have the same boundaries, and both encompass human reason, conscience (common notions), and the ability to discern the existence of God from the creation. (p. 24)

In a concluding section, Fesko considers the question of why Burgess (and presumably his fellow divines) had “a greater conception of the light of nature than his twentieth-century counterparts do?” He offers three answers:

  1. Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke rejected the idea of common notions, and in the 20th century this rejection “made its way to liberal and conservative theologians alike, including Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987).” (p. 24) These theologians attempted to pit a fictional Calvin (who supposedly had a low view of natural law) against later Calvinists.
  2. 20th-century Reformed theologians also failed to acknowledge natural revelation “as an ontological aspect of anthropology,” i.e., to recognize that common notions are embedded in the imago Dei.
  3. 20th-century Reformed theologians and philosophers began to associate the idea of common notions, and the use of reason in theology, with Roman Catholicism — and therefore saw it as theologically suspect. (Fesko cites three examples: August Lang, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Van Til.) Whereas Burgess and other early Reformed scholars accepted a “common catholic heritage that stretched back through Aquinas to Augustine and the apostle Paul,” these later Reformed writers “removed foundation stones that eventually caused the wall of natural law and reason to collapse.” (p. 25)

Fesko’s basic thesis in this chapter is clear: the concept of “the light of nature,” which incorporates both natural law and human reason, was well established in the early Reformed tradition, including the Westminster Confession, and it has been a serious mistake for later Reformed theologians to oppose it. The Reformed church should return to its heritage, not least so that it can “reacquire an important tool for our apologetics toolbox.” (p. 26)


1. Reforming Apologetics is clearly pitched as a challenge to Van Tilian presuppositionalism (see, e.g., the publisher’s summary, the preface, and the back-cover blurbs). Nevertheless, I don’t see anything substantive in this chapter that would be inconsistent with a Van Tilian approach to apologetics. If by “the light of nature” we mean (1) a natural knowledge of God through general revelation, (2) a natural knowledge of basic moral principles, and (3) the continued operation and utility of human reason despite the consequences of the fall, then I don’t find anything in Van Til that would preclude, let alone reject, such a notion. Van Til clearly affirms all three elements in his works. (This can be quite easily documented.) So I wonder what exactly Dr. Fesko believes he is countering here.

2. Fesko cites Van Til as an example of a 20th-century Reformed theologian who rejects the idea of common notions (p. 24). The footnote directs us to Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., pp. 160-78, esp. 168-69. I wonder how many readers will take the time to follow up on this citation to confirm that Van Til really is doing what Fesko claims. What’s remarkable is that on the very pages Fesko cites, Van Til explicitly affirms the idea of common notions. I quote at length from p. 168:

A word must now be said about the idea of “common notions” referred to in the quotation given above. [The quotation in question is from Van Til’s earlier book, Common Grace.] The present writer made a distinction between notions that are psychologically and metaphysically, that is revelationally, common to all men, and common notions that are ethically and epistemologically common. The reason for this distinction lies in the difference between a view that is based on the concept of the creation of man in the image of God, and who thus has within him the ineradicable knowledge of God, and a view that is based upon man as participant with God in one general being. All men have common notions about God; all men naturally have knowledge of God. In this sense there is, as Calvin points out on the basis of Paul’s letter to the Romans, a natural knowledge of God and with it of truth and morality.

It is this actual possession of the knowledge of God that is the indispensable presupposition of man’s ethical opposition to God. There could be no absolute ethical antithesis to God on the part of Satan and fallen man unless they are self-consciously setting their own common notions, derived from the folly of sin, against the common notions that are concreated with them.

Note three things. First, Van Til clearly affirms that everyone has a natural knowledge of God, and he is quite comfortable using the term “common notions” to refer to this knowledge. Second, he also affirms a natural knowledge of certain moral truths (in other words, natural law in the broad sense).

Third, Van Til doesn’t reject outright the idea of common notions, but rather introduces a distinction between two kinds of common notions: those that are “common to all men” (in virtue of the imago Dei) and those that are common to unbelievers (“their own common notions”) as a manifestation of their epistemological and ethical rebellion against their Creator. One element of the latter, Van Til explains, is “the idea that God and man are aspects of the same reality” — an idea he attributes especially to the pagan Greek philosophers, although he finds it lurking behind all non-Christian thought.

Van Til further elaborates this distinction and its implications on p. 169:

It is this fact, that the natural man, using his principles and working on his assumptions, must be hostile in principle at every point to the Christian philosophy of life, that was stressed in the writer’s little book, Common Grace. That all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, and further, that the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian. And this latter assertion was qualified by saying that this is so only in principle. For it is not till after the consummation of history that men are left wholly to themselves.

Again, we see that Van Til affirms a psychological commonality among humans: a realm of shared knowledge, beliefs, and ideas. This is part and parcel of general revelation and a Christian anthropology. At the same time, however, Van Til wants to insist upon an epistemological (and ethical) antithesis between Christian thought and non-Christian thought — an antithesis that excludes any common foundations. Yet even then, he adds, this antithesis is “only in principle” during this stage of redemptive history due to the operation of common grace.

All of this appears in the context of a discussion of the contrast between a Roman Catholic (specifically, Thomistic) approach and a Reformed approach to epistemology and apologetics. Van Til is at pains to distinguish a understanding of common notions (and of natural theology) cast in terms of Rome’s nature/grace scheme, which fails to do justice to the doctrine of total depravity and seeks to accommodate some measure of human autonomy, from one cast in terms of the Reformed common-grace/special-grace scheme. (Carefully read the entire section, pp. 160-178, and you’ll get the picture.)

Now, we can debate whether Van Til’s distinction is valid, but that’s really not the point here. The point is that it’s quite misleading to say that Van Til “rejected the idea of common notions” and to cite in support a passage from The Defense of the Faith where, as I’ve shown, he does no such thing.

Connected with all this is Van Til’s concern about the distorting influence of Aristotelian philosophy on Roman Catholic theology and some streams of Reformed thought, but I’ll leave that aside for now. Perhaps we’ll return to it when we reach the chapter on Aquinas.

In any case, I hope that later in the book there will be a more precise representation of Van Til’s views on common notions, natural theology, and so forth — one that recognizes the distinctions that Van Til himself draws and his specific concerns about synthesizing Christian and non-Christian philosophies.

3. I noted previously my concern whenever I see Barth and Van Til listed together as if they were bedfellows in their criticisms of natural theology, Reformed scholasticism, etc. It crops up again in this chapter (p. 24).

4. Fesko also implies that Van Til’s (alleged) rejection of the idea of common notions was influenced (partly? primarily?) by early Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke (p. 24). This will come as quite a surprise to anyone familiar with Van Til’s penetrating critiques of modernist epistemologies! Of course, it’s entirely possible for a theologian to be influenced by philosophical ideas or traditions without realizing or acknowledging it. But that bears a burden of proof, and I don’t see any supporting argument here. Perhaps that will appear later in the book. We’ll see.

5. A relatively minor point: in the discussion of Burgess’s views, we’re told that common notions include “belief in the existence of God” and that Burgess follows Aquinas in arguing that “common notions do not require proof because they are self-evident.” (p. 15) However, Aquinas explicitly argues against the view that the existence of God is self-evident (see ST I, 2, 1) and then (famously) proceeds to offer five proofs of God’s existence!

5 Responses to Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature)

  1. James,

    I’m grateful for your service. I very much look forward to your running review.

    Just a few sundry thoughts…

    Reformed theologians don’t oppose nor have they ever denied “the light of nature.” Accordingly, I find no heritage to return to in that regard. As for natural law being a useful “tool for our apologetics toolbox,” there is a heritage to which we must never return. I think it may be said, classical apologetics has been an embarrassment to the church. If Bertrand Russell didn’t show us that, Gordon Clark and Greg Bahnsen surely did. Aside from the fact that traditional proofs affirm the unbeliever in his unjustified claims on causality, design and being, as traditionally formulated they’re simply fallacious. The conclusion exceeds the scope of the premises.

    I think there’s a wildly held misconception that Van Til opposed theistic proofs. He did not. Nor was he a fideist. (Though Clark was a dogmatist.) Van Til did not reject proofs. Rather, he insisted on formulating them in a way that challenged the unbeliever at the presuppositional level. There are no freebies in philosophy. If the skeptic wants to assume causality, then he needs to square necessity with naturalism etc. That’s fair game. The last thing we want to do is affirm an unbeliever in his supposed justification for employing the laws of logic or inductive inference if neither discipline comports with his pre-commitment to chance acting upon matter over time.

    It’s a Roman Catholic notion that all fallen man needs to do is add some new beliefs to what is already known. (Post Vatican ii, they take a similar synchronistic approach to missions.) But after the unbeliever is affirmed in his autonomy, we can only “prove” that Christianity is at best probable. Just one hypothesis among many. By granting the legitimacy of autonomous thought, no longer is Christ the way back to the Father’s world. (That needs to be internalized.) And given the short shrift that’s given to the authority of Scripture, Christ being the only redemptive way back to the Father is severely compromised as well. Knowledge, wisdom and salvation is to be found in Christ alone.

    Van Til’s thought is basic, but it’s not simple. Opponents (whoever they might be) will need to pray and think hard. Maybe harder than ever before.

  2. I looked to make a comment here but it would appear comments are closed.

    You wrote: ‘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?”’

    I agree that p, “natural reason presupposes God.” However, I’m not prepared to say that “p” entails “some form of natural theology,”

    Van Til, of course, would have defended the knowledge of “p” with premises from special revelation. In particular, with verses pertaining to God as the guarantor of the mind-world correspondence. Accordingly, his argument would not be one based upon a natural theology per se. To construct such a transcendental argument apart from knowing and defending the premises from Scripture would be to argue for the conceptual necessity of God’s existence. And although God is conceptually necessary, conceptual necessity doesn’t equate to ontological necessity. Accordingly, I don’t see how the conceptual necessity of natural theology can save oneself philosophically. I think Van Til would have agreed.


  3. Ron, you say, “Van Til, of course, would have defended the knowledge of “p” with premises from special revelation.” Van Til could cite scripture to support “p”, but he could also defend “p” using premises pertaining to the world, such as ones about sense perception and universals. How would that not be natural theology?

    You say, “And although God is conceptually necessary, conceptual necessity doesn’t equate to ontological necessity.” Why can’t a sound argument conclude with G0d’s ontological necessity?

  4. “He could also defend “p” using premises pertaining to the world, such as ones about sense perception and universals.”

    Hi Mike,

    That Van Til *could* have (theoretically) tried to defend “p’ using premises pertaining to the world does not suggest to me that he ever did try, at least in such a way that would aim to justify premises (in any ultimate sense) outside of an appeal to special revelation

    “How would that not be natural theology?”

    That question would not apply to me because my claim is Van Til did *not* appeal to nature to justify such ultimate truth claims.

    My position is that Van Til did not consider the reliability of the senses, let alone universals and particulars, philosophical freebies. Accordingly, the question for Van Til wasn’t whether man, unaided by special revelation, could posit a system of theology based upon what God has revealed in nature. The question was whether such a system of thought could be philosophically defensible apart from special revelation.

    “You say, ‘And although God is conceptually necessary, conceptual necessity doesn’t equate to ontological necessity.’ Why can’t a sound argument conclude with God’s ontological necessity?”

    A sound argument entails a valid form and true premises. So, yes, apart from special revelation one might formulate such an argument. (Given enough time, a monkey at a typewriter could [would!] too.) Indeed, in theory one might speculate that man’s mind and the external mind-independent world corresponds because of a common creator. One might even posit a doctrine of creation and providence, a conceptual scheme in which a priori categories of thought correspond to the physical world and its law-like behavior. To take it to the superlative, it’s theoretically possible that one might even imagine a God who is both plurality and unity (in perfect equal ultimacy), and that an essential property of creation entails universals and particulars. And although it’s rather doubtful that such a conceptual scheme would be posited apart from Christian influence, the materiel point would seem to be the same, that positing true synthesis of the a priori and the a posteriori is not the same thing as offering a *justification* for such a philosophical construct, which leads me full circle to my previous comment above. Conceptual necessity does not imply ontological necessity. Accordingly, how does one argue for more than the conceptual necessity of “p” apart from an appeal to the authority of Scripture and its doctrine of creation and providence (and for Van Til, Scripture’s revelation of the ontological Trinity)?

  5. Pingback: Reforming Apologetics (Calvin) | Analogical Thoughts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.