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.)


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.”

Arguments for the Existence of God

Fesko contends that Calvin “made use of some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God and stands in continuity with the catholic tradition.” (p. 60) For example, his commentaries on Psalms 19 and 104 indicate “substantive agreement with two of the Thomistic proofs, the cosmological and teleological arguments.” (p. 63) Calvin appeals to the principle that we can trace back an effect to its cause, and thus reason from the creation to the Creator, and he grants that even some pagan philosophers such as Plato have done so.

Nevertheless, we must recognize two qualifications on Calvin’s use of these arguments:

First, Calvin deals with the natural testimony and arguments for God’s existence before he introduces the necessity of Scripture. … Contrary to the claims of some, Calvin does not begin with the Christ of Scripture but, in a fashion similar to Aquinas, he first starts with the knowledge of God available through the book of nature. (p. 64)

Second, Calvin acknowledges that the noetic effects of sin significantly hamper fallen humanity’s ability to use this natural knowledge in a profitable way for their salvation. (p. 64)

Thus, although nature’s testimony to God is absolutely clear, it is suppressed and misused by unbelievers because their fallen natures. Nevertheless, there remains “shared knowledge” between the believer and the unbeliever. Calvin here appeals to a distinction, drawn from Augustine, between “earthly intelligence” (understanding of politics, economics, science, etc.) and “heavenly intelligence” (understanding of true righteousness and the mysteries of the gospel).

Not every Calvinist, however, has been happy with this parsing of the matter. Van Til, for example, complains:

Even Calvin, though by his doctrine of ‘common grace’ he was in a much better position to do justice to the knowledge of the non-Christian science without succumbing to it than others were, did not bring out with sufficient clearness at all times that the natural man is as blind as a mole with respect to natural things as well as with respect to spiritual things.

Nevertheless, Van Til still maintains that “Calvin by no means countenances the notion that the natural man does know even the physical world truly.” (Both quotes from Van Til come from his Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 82.)

Fesko objects:

Van Til’s analysis … contradicts Calvin’s clear statements on the matter. Calvin unmistakably states that unbelievers are blind with regard to heavenly knowledge but not blind to earthly knowledge.

Additionally, pace Van Til, using the distinction of the two intelligences, Calvin believed that Christians could profit from the “work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences” because they were ultimately the gifts of God despite their proximate source. (pp. 66-67)


The picture of a Calvin who was “either hostile to or uninterested in scholastic method, natural law, and common notions, as well as the traditional arguments for God’s existence” is the mythological creation of contemporary theologians. Despite the theological differences between Calvin and Aquinas, there are “enough continuities … to substantiate the claim that Calvin stood in continuity with Aquinas regarding the place and function of the scholastic method, the place and function of natural law, and the arguments for the existence of God.” (p. 68)

The final verdict:

Calvin, therefore, stands in continuity with the medieval past and Reformed Orthodoxy on the use of the scholastic method, natural law and common notions, and arguments for the existence of God. (p. 69)


There’s a great deal that could be said about the material in this chapter (and much of it would be affirmatory) but some of it would take us deep into the weeds of exegeting Aquinas and Calvin. I’m not sure how valuable that would be. Since brevity is the soul of blog, I’ll try to focus on what I take to be the most important points.

1. There’s no question in my mind that Calvin affirms a natural knowledge of God, as well as natural law (understood as a natural knowledge of the moral law through the conscience) and something along the lines of common notions. Dr. Fesko makes all that very clear from his citations of Calvin. No disagreement here. More questionable, however, is whether Calvin construed these along recognizably Thomistic lines. I don’t think the evidence supports that stronger conclusion. Likewise, I don’t see anything in any of the quotes from Calvin that a Van Tilian would object to. But perhaps I’m just the wrong kind of Van Tilian!

2. Dr. Fesko argues that Van Til is wrong to claim that Calvin marked a break with scholasticism. But in my judgment his argument trades on an equivocation. Fesko basically argues:

(1) Van Til claims Calvin broke with scholasticism.

(2) Calvin’s Institutes actually exhibits scholasticism.

(3) Therefore, Van Til is mistaken.

The argument is cogent only if scholasticism is used in the same sense in (1) and (2). However, Van Til does not mean by that term what Fesko means when argues for (2). Put simply, Fesko is using the term in a ‘thin’ sense: as he defines it, scholasticism is nothing more than methodology and terminology, with no specific theological or philosophical content. Van Til, on the other hand, is using the term in a ‘thick’ sense, referring to a theological tradition that has been heavily influenced by certain philosophical assumptions (particularly those associated with Aristotelian metaphysics) which Van Til takes to be inconsistent with a Reformed view of God and revelation.

Note exactly what Van Til says in the quote on p. 52: “a complete break with scholastic theology.” That phrase alone indicates Van Til has something in mind that includes theological content. The problem here isn’t formal methodology or terminology. So even if Dr. Fesko is correct that Calvin employed “scholastic methodology and terminology,” that doesn’t actually connect with Van Til’s concerns. It’s missing the point. It’s defending a weaker claim as though it were a stronger one.

3. But does Calvin actually employ the scholastic method in the Institutes? I’m not too concerned to argue the point, but it’s far from clear to me that Calvin was self-consciously doing so. That he occasionally uses scholastic terminology and arranges his arguments in scholastic patterns (statement, objections, responses) strikes me as fairly weak evidence. One only has to read Calvin’s Institutes alongside Aquinas’s Summa Theologica to appreciate the striking differences between the styles and methodologies of the two works. Still, as I’ve explained above, nothing of great consequence for Van Tilians hangs on the point.

4. The evidence Dr. Fesko marshals to support his claim that Calvin showed “substantive agreement with two of the Thomistic proofs” is slender, to say the least. The quoted commentary on Psalm 19 only shows that Calvin thought the orderliness of creation directs us toward the attributes of God. But that could just as well be understood as a kind of immediate perception or reflexive inference, as opposed to a piece of formal natural theology. Certainly it’s a far cry from Aquinas’s Fifth Way.

Similarly, Calvin’s remark that one can investigate “the divine perfections” by reasoning from effect to cause, and thus from the creation to the Creator, while certainly supporting the idea of natural theology in the broad sense, doesn’t really come close to Aquinas’s formal cosmological arguments with all their metaphysical apparatus. (I might add that Van Tilians need not object to natural theology in that broad sense either.) Arguing that these comments from Calvin amount to substantive agreement with Thomas’s proofs strikes me as quite a stretch, I have to say.

Consider this basic fact for a moment. The very second topic treated in Aquinas’s Summa is the existence of God; specifically, whether God’s existence is self-evident, whether God’s existence can be proven, and how God’s existence can be proven. Thomas explicitly articulates five proofs. He considers these matters important and foundational enough to discuss at the very outset of his magnum opus. In contrast, and rather conspicuously, Calvin doesn’t offer a single explicit argument for God’s existence in his entire Institutes. Shouldn’t this observation be given some weight in assessing whether “Calvin stood in continuity with Aquinas regarding … the arguments for the existence of God”?

One final comment on this point. The section on arguments for the existence of God tends to conflate natural knowledge of God with natural theology — not merely that, but natural theology construed along Thomistic lines. These concepts need to be carefully distinguished. That Calvin affirmed the former is no evidence that he endorsed the latter. There are other ways of understanding our natural knowledge of God than those found in medieval scholasticism (and in Aquinas more specifically).

5. Dr. Fesko argues that Van Til was mistaken to question Calvin’s distinction between earthly and heavenly knowledge, mistaken to deny that unbelievers can have a true knowledge of the natural world, and mistaken to suggest that Calvin wasn’t always consistent on this point. Fesko quotes from p. 82 of Introduction to Systematic Theology to document this reading of Van Til. As Fesko portrays it, Van Til denied that unbelievers can know anything about the natural world or that Christians can learn anything from non-Christians on earthly matters.

But this is far too simplistic. Consider that on the very next page (IST, p. 83) Van Til quotes from the same section of the Institutes in which Calvin deploys the earthly/heavenly distinction (II, 2, 13) and adds his own commentary:

Then [Calvin] adds: “Still however, man’s efforts are not always so utterly fruitless as not to lead to some result, especially when his attention is directed to inferior objects. Nay, even with regard to superior objects, though he is more careless in investigating them, he makes some little progress. Here, however, his ability is more limited, and he is never made more sensible of his weakness than when he attempts to soar above the sphere of the present life.”

From this quotation we can see that what Calvin is really driving at is to point out that though all of the natural man’s interpretations are from an ultimate point of view equally unsatisfactory, there is a sense in which he knows something about everything, about God as well as about the world, and that in this sense he knows more about the world than about God. This distinction is not only true, but important to make. Many non-Christians have been great scientists. Often non-Christians have a better knowledge of the things of this world than Christians have.

Van Til continues further down the page:

The only distinction that will really help us is the one that Calvin developed, namely, that from an ultimate point of view the natural man knows nothing truly, but that from a relative point of view he knows something about all things. He knows all things after a fashion, and his fashion is best when he deals with earthly things such as electricity, etc.

Now, Van Til may be right or wrong about all this, but clearly his position is far more nuanced than Dr. Fesko indicates. Van Til acknowledges that unbelievers can know many things about the natural world and earthly things, often even more so than believers. He even grants that unbelievers have some knowledge of heavenly things — they know something about God! But he wants to draw a distinction between the unbeliever’s knowledge “from an ultimate point of view” and his knowledge “from a relative point of view”. Exactly what Van Til has in mind here is tricky, to be sure, but I understand it to be something like an in-principle versus in-practice distinction, allied with an apart-from-common-grace versus with-common-grace distinction.

In short, Van Til’s views on the knowledge of the unbeliever are complex and employs some distinctions that only make sense in the broader context of Van Til’s theological epistemology. That’s why John Frame devoted an entire chapter to the issue in his book Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (P&R, 1995, ch. 15). (Frame’s treatment is a must-read for anyone who wants to grapple with Van Til’s sometimes perplexing statements about the ‘antithesis’ between believing and unbelieving thought.)

All this to say, I find that Dr. Fesko’s criticisms of Van Til miss the mark due to a reductionistic, one-dimensional characterization of Van Til’s position.

6. To sum up: I don’t think any of the criticisms of Van Til in this chapter really hit the target, and I don’t think Dr. Fesko has shown us anything in Calvin that is at odds with any of Van Til’s claims about natural theology or (more importantly to my mind) that calls into question a Van Tilian presuppositional approach to apologetics.

7. Finally — and I hate to sound like a broken record — it needs to be underscored that the thesis of this chapter, like those of the preceding two, is a historical one. Whether Calvin was in continuity with Aquinas on such-and-such a point, and whether Van Til was in continuity with (the real) Calvin, are undoubtedly interesting and important questions to address. But they have only a tangential bearing on the normative question of how Christians (especially those with Reformed convictions) should do apologetics.

Next post: Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)

4 thoughts on “Reforming Apologetics (Calvin)”

  1. Pingback: Fisking Fesko redux - Reformologist

  2. I’m loving this series of posts. When I was on Facebook I would see Reformed Scholastic fan boys critique Van Til and make numerous face plants. Good to see you responding from a knowledgeable position.

  3. Pingback: Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links: Third Week of July 2019 | The Domain for Truth

  4. Pingback: Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas) | Analogical Thoughts

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