Reforming Apologetics (Common Notions)

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Summary of Chapter 2

Chapter 2 explores in more detail the idea of common notions discussed in the preceding chapter. Dr. Fesko’s overall goal is to show that Anthony Burgess’s views on common notions, which are also implicit in the Westminster Standards, are in line with a prior tradition extending through the early modern Reformed period back to Aquinas (at least).

The chapter begins by reviewing Burgess’s position on common notions. In short, Burgess associates common notions with divinely established “laws of nature” which God has revealed both externally (in the created order) and internally (the law “written on the heart”; Rom. 2:14-15). Fesko summarizes:

Burgess describes common notions thus: “The Law of Nature” consists in those common notions which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts,” some of which include the existence of God as well as a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Burgess positively invokes Thomas Aquinas’s (1225-74) treatment of natural law and common notions to substantiate his point. In agreement with Aquinas, Burgess believes common notions do not require proof because they are self-evident. (p. 30)

Burgess denies that “the fall completely obliterated common notions from the human heart.” He also rejects various opinions on the “precise boundaries of the law of nature” in favor of the view that the law of nature aligns with “the moral law delivered by Moses at Sinai” (p. 31; this section is repeated almost verbatim from p. 16).

The next section (“Comparative Analysis”) surveys how the concept of common notions appears in various sources, from the ancient Greeks through to early modern theologians and confessions, and aims to show that “Burgess’s views were of ancient and modern origins and were held by the overwhelming majority within the early modern Reformed tradition.” (p. 31)

Ancient Origins

Although God is the ultimate source of common notions, “the proximate source of the concept is the ancient philosophers–Socrates, Plato (ca. 428-348 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC) among others.” Euclid is also noted here. The point is that these ancient thinkers spoke of common notions understood as self-evident first principles that are known by all and require no demonstration.

Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas holds that there are various self-evident rational and moral laws. He argues that there is a natural law that is “common to all nations.” Aquinas distinguishes between “speculative reason” and “practical reason”; roughly, between (i) self-evident necessary principles and (ii) the application of those principles to contingent matters. Common notions include the former but not the latter (about which people may err and disagree).

Importantly, Aquinas distinguishes between principles and conclusions, and this distinction (so Fesko will argue) serves as an important mark of continuity with later Reformed thinkers:

He acknowledges that the principles of natural law are the same in all people, but given the noetic effects of sin, people draw erroneous conclusions from these common principles. Early Reformed theologians embraced these same categories and distinctions but arguably placed greater emphasis on the noetic effects of sin. They did not, however, in any way reject Aquinas’s categories or the validity of common notions. (p. 34)

Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin

Both affirmed the concept of natural law, appealing to Romans 1 & 2 in support. Calvin refers to common notions (without using that exact term) in his commentary on Romans 2:14-15. Fesko notes: “His comments not only anticipate Burgess’s later exegesis of the same texts but are also similar to those of Aquinas.” (p. 35)

Girolamo Zanchi

Zanchi (1516-90), a student of Vermigli, was an early developer of a Reformed doctrine of natural law. Although Zanchi disagrees with Aquinas on some minor points, “Aquinas’s fingerprints appear throughout Zanchi’s treatise” (p. 35).

Francis Junius

Junius (1545-1602) was another important early Reformed exponent of natural law and common notions. Apparently following Aquinas,

Junius divides common notions into two categories, namely, principles and conclusions. Burgess and Junius echo what were the standard elements of common notions. The principles are those things known in themselves and are immutable and indemonstrable, such as God’s existence. Conclusions, on the other hand, are those things that are deductions from the principles, such as that God must be worshiped. (p. 36)

Junius’s understanding of common notions thus “bears strong Thomist accents.” He even goes to far as to incorporate insights from Aquinas’s discussion of Adam’s pre-fall state into his doctrine of the covenant of works. Nevertheless, a caution is in order:

The fact that Reformed theologians adopted large portions of Thomas’s formulation of common notions does not mean that they all did so to the same degree. Some adopted more than others. In other words, Reformed theologians varied in the extent to which they employed the concept of common notions as a part of their formulations of the covenant of works. (p. 37)

The Leiden Synopsis

The Synopsis was “a theological work written by three professors who served as delegates to the Synod of Dordt (1618-19)” and it addresses (among other things) the topics of natural law and common notions. Like Burgess, the Synopsis “locates common notions under the category of the law of nature and bases this on Romans 2:14-15.” (p. 37)

The Synod of Dordt goes further and codifies these views in its famous Canons:

The Canons refer to the “light of nature” and “notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral,” which are common notions. (p. 38)

Westminster Standards

Although the Standards (i.e., Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism) do not employ the terms common notions or natural law, they nevertheless affirm the underlying concepts.

The Confession uses the term law of nature in parallel with the similar term light of nature (21.1). Theologians of the period used this phrase light of nature as a synonym or approximation for common notions. (p. 39)

Furthermore, the term light of nature appears nine times throughout the Standards and its usage parallels that of previous writers. Fesko reviews these instances and concludes:

There is nothing in the Standards to indicate that Burgess’s views were in any way out of accord with the mainstream opinion regarding the use of common notions within early modern Reformed theology. In fact, the parallels between Burgess and the Standards reveal that the Standards largely codify in summary form what appears more expansively in Burgess’s lectures. (p. 40)

The works of other divines, such as George Gillespie and Anthony Tuckney, show that the Westminster theologians had no problem with the idea of common notions and viewed it as “part of a shared catholic doctrinal heritage.” (p. 42)

Francis Turretin

Turretin serves as a further witness to the continuity of the Reformed tradition on this issue. He too affirms common notions and distinguishes between principles and conclusions (only the former are “immutable and self-evident”). Sin corrupts man’s reasoning from principles to conclusions, but this doesn’t nullify the value or clarity of the first principles themselves. Like Burgess, Turretin argues that the natural law is coextensive with the moral law revealed in the Decalogue.


At the very least, according to Fesko, we should conclude from this historical survey that “common notions were a noncontroversial feature of early Reformed theology.” (p. 46) Although there were some dissenting voices, those were undoubtedly exceptions to the rule. The concept of common notions was confessionally codified in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Standards.

Things began to go awry in the Enlightenment period, however, as thinkers such as René Descartes and John Locke cast doubts on the doctrine of common notions. This marked a “waning acceptance of the idea,” although there were notable exceptions among later Reformed theologians such as Charles Hodge and Herman Bavinck. Karl Barth, on the other hand, “sought to expunge all natural theology from theology and to rest solely and exclusively on Christ.” (p. 47)

In contrast to this later antipathy toward common notions, Fesko makes four observations about the early modern Reformed theologians (I quote in full from pp. 47-48):

1. By drawing the concept of common notions chiefly from Romans 1:19 and 2:14-15, they were following the teaching of Scripture and specifically the apostle Paul’s claims regarding the works of the law divinely inscribed on the heart.

2. Although positively citing pagan authorities as examples of those who rightly explained the law of nature inscribed on their hearts, they distinguished between principles and conclusions. The principles of common notions are present in all, but given the noetic effects of sin, unbelievers can and do draw false conclusions.

3. They cited Aquinas and other Roman Catholic theologians positively because even though they had significant disagreement over matters of soteriology, worship, and polity, they nevertheless believed that Aquinas rightly explained common notions.

4. They believed that common notions were not a neutral territory but rather part of the image of God, which was within the context of the covenant of works. Common notions, a subset of natural law, formed one of the key pillars of the covenant of works as well as one part of the greater general revelatory testimony of the book of nature.

These four points present important historical and exegetical data for the recovery of the concept of common notions for defending the faith.

This is important for Fesko because common notions provide the crucial point of contact in apologetics between the believer and the unbeliever; in particular, a natural knowledge of moral norms and the existence of God. Thus, the believer “can appeal to both the books of nature and Scripture and know that they will speak with one voice.” (p. 48)


1. I’ve summarized this chapter at some length because its central thesis is presumably foundational to the overall argument of the book and I want to take care to represent Dr. Fesko’s arguments accurately.

2. As I’ve noted, my primary interest in Reforming Apologetics lies in its critique of Van Tilian presuppositionalism. The historical material, while undoubtedly significant, is of secondary interest. My overall take on this chapter is as follows: I believe Dr. Fesko makes a strong historical case for his thesis that the concepts of natural law and common notions are well established in early modern Reformed thinkers and confessions, and there is significant continuity with categories and distinctions found in pre-Reformation thinkers (notably Aquinas). I really don’t think this can be seriously denied. But I also think this fairly modest conclusion shouldn’t be very controversial or problematic for Van Tilians.

The reason I say that is because Van Tilians quite happily affirm the reality of natural law and common notions. As I see it, the interesting question isn’t whether Reformed theologians should affirm natural law and common notions, but how they should do so; that is, how they should understand the nature and basis of those phenomena in light of their Reformed convictions, and what role they should play in apologetics with unbelievers.

I would go further, in fact, and argue that Van Tilian apologetics presupposes (!) that there are some common notions between believers and unbelievers. If there is any point of contact with the unbeliever — any common ground, any foothold for an argument — there must be some common notions involved. After all, the transcendental argument is an argument; it presupposes that there are laws of logic, principles of reason, according to which the conclusion of the argument properly follows from its premises. Unless those laws of logic are recognized at some level by all parties, the argument won’t get out of the hanger.

But again, when it comes to common notions, the devil is in the details. As I documented in the previous post, Van Til doesn’t reject common notions, although he does qualify the concept. He thinks it important to avoid epistemologies that leave any room for autonomous reason, or fail to acknowledge the dynamic between total depravity and common grace, or fail to recognize the proper relationship between natural and special revelation. He wants to draw a distinction between notions common to all men (in virtue of the imago Dei and common grace) and notions common to unbelievers (the product of intellectual suppression and rebellion).

Are these innovations on Van Til’s part? I think to a degree they are, although Van Til saw them simply as a move towards a more consistent Calvinism. But even if they are innovations, it doesn’t follow that they’re inconsistent with the general tenor of the Reformed tradition as documented by Fesko or with the major Reformed confessions. Van Til’s program is one of refinement, not revolution.

3. I note that Van Til isn’t mentioned or cited in this chapter, and that’s quite understandable, given the purpose of the chapter. At the same time, Barth is mentioned in the conclusion as the prime example of a twentieth-century theologian who rejects common notions (and therefore any kind of natural theology). Thus it seems that Barth is the real target here, not Van Til.

4. It’s worth emphasizing that the thesis of this chapter is a historical one. Even if Thinker D is in line with Thinkers A, B, and C, that in itself tells us nothing about whether Thinker D is right. That has to be determined on other grounds. Likewise, if D is not in line with A, B, and C, it doesn’t follow that he’s mistaken.

5. In the third of his four concluding observations, Dr. Fesko notes that while the early Reformed theologians disagreed with Aquinas on some major points of doctrine, “they nevertheless believed that Aquinas rightly explained common notions.” (p. 48) With respect, I think this claim goes beyond what was actually established in the historical survey. Yes, there are undoubtedly significant points of continuity between Aquinas and the early Reformed on the topic, in terms of general claims and categories, but does it follow that they all thought Aquinas rightly explained common notions? I guess a lot hangs on what it means to “rightly explain” something!

Consider this parallel. One could argue, I assume, that there’s significant continuity between Aquinas and the Reformers on the New Testament canon. But would it follow that the latter thought Aquinas rightly explained the canon? It’s one thing to affirm X in general terms; it’s another to give a theologically satisfactory account of X.

6. A long section from the Canons of Dordt is quoted twice in the chapter (pp. 27, 38):

There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which they retain some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him–so far, in fact, that man  does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways they completely distort this light, whatever its precise character, and suppress it in unrighteousness. In doing so all people render themselves without excuse before God. (III/IV, Article 4)

“In various ways they completely distort this light…” That’s a pretty strong assertion. Indeed, it’s just the sort of statement which, were it found at the end of Van Til’s pen, would incite howls of protest from many quarters! But here’s the thing: there’s absolutely nothing in the article above that a Van Tilian wouldn’t readily affirm.

7. “The believer can appeal to both the books of nature and Scripture and know that they will speak with one voice.” Amen! Would any Van Tilian disagree?

8. “In agreement with Aquinas, Burgess believes common notions do not require proof because they are self-evident.” (p. 30) As I noted before, this is odd given that Aquinas denied that the existence of God is self-evident. If common notions are simply basic principles of logic and morals, that’s fine; but we’ve been told that for Burgess at least, common notions include knowledge of God’s existence.

Next post: Reforming Apologetics (Calvin)

6 thoughts on “Reforming Apologetics (Common Notions)”

  1. Ron DiGiacomo

    “7. ‘The believer can appeal to both the books of nature and Scripture and know that they will speak with one voice.’ Amen! Would any Van Tilian disagree?”

    They speak with one voice, God’s. Yet they say different things being complementary forms of revelation. For instance, nature informs that a due proportion of time should be set apart for worship, but it’s from Scripture alone we know that one day in seven is binding upon all men and at all times. So, we might say that the two forms of revelation speak more in harmony than in unison. Accordingly, I’m not sure there is basis for agreement (or even disagreement). After all,

    “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…. 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.”

    Until that ambiguity is better clarified (along with a bit of application regarding *how* we make use of revelation), I must withhold my amen.

    1. Thanks, Ron. Yes, one voice, but different ‘speeches’. Of course, Fesko agrees with that too.

      I was just being charitable and interpreting Fesko’s statement in the broadest sense: we can appeal to both natural revelation and special revelation in apologetics. Understood in that broad sense, there’s no disagreement. What I’m finding surprising is the insinuation that Van Tilians want to argue only from special revelation.

      1. Ron DiGiacomo

        Yes and that’s what I inferred. Thanks for confirming. My comment was likely superfluous. :)

        As for VT’s arguing only from special revelation, that is a curious assessment of things. I’m also curious to learn whether Thomists would agree with Frame that it’s not conclusive whether Thomas assumed the intelligibility of causation autonomously. In other words, is the affirmation of *only* the mere function of causality sufficient to rationally infer one might affirm the intelligibility of causality (in light of massive writings that don’t indicate such)? (I think Collett refined Bahnsen’s critique of Frame on this point, moving beyond Frame’s equivocation and introducing Strawson’s transcendental formulation, which nicely comports with Van Til).

        For what it’s worth, I don’t think you were even remotely misleading on the matter of self-evidence. The context of common notions only secured the “to us” implication, without any inferable reference to an “in itself” notion.

  2. It seems a bit misleading to say flatly that Aquinas “denied that the existence of God is self-evident.” He distinguishes between things which are self-evident in themselves and things which are self-evident to us (ST I q. II, a1; I-II q. XCIV, a2). God’s existence is self-evident in itself, but not to us. But through the common notions we have knowledge of principles that should lead us to the proper conclusion (to knowledge of God). For theoretical reason (“that which, before aught else, falls under apprehension, is being” ) and practical reason (“good is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason” (ST I-II q. XCIV, a2)).

    This is why Copleston says “St. Thomas admitted an implicit knowledge of God, but by this he meant that the mind has the power of attaining to the knowledge of God’s existence through reflection on the things of sense and by arguing from effect to cause, whereas St. Bonaventure meant something more by implicit knowledge, that is, virtual knowledge of God, a dim awareness which can be rendered explicit without recourse to the sensible world.” (vol 2, p. 253-254) And “In an interpretative sense [man] may be said to be always willing God” (vol 2, p. 381).

    Maybe this still doesn’t justify talk of Burgess’s idea of common notions being the same as Aquinas’s, because Burgess thinks of knowledge of God more in the Bonabenture sense than in the very loose sense that Copleston has in mind…. I haven’t read Burgess or the book in question.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. I didn’t say it flatly — on the contrary, I was quite upbeat when I said it! ;)

      But yes, you’re correct. I’m aware that Aquinas makes that distinction, but I don’t think it’s misleading not to mention something that isn’t materially relevant in the context. If we’re talking about the existence of God as a common notion, obviously the question of self-evidence carries an implicit “to us” qualification. Aquinas doesn’t think the existence of God is self-evident in the way that, say, the validity of modus ponens is self-evident.

      Thanks for raising the point though, because it’s useful to address it. Also, the Copleston quote is helpful.

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