Reforming Apologetics (The Book of Nature and Apologetics)

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Summary of Chapter 8

In the final chapter of his book, J. V. Fesko seeks to “present a basic sketch of how the books of nature and Scripture can work in concert in apologetics” and “demonstrate how Christians can stand on the authority of Scripture to present the claims of Christianity while at the same time using and appealing to the book of nature” (pp. 193-94). He proposes to do this in five stages:

  • The first section addresses epistemological starting points, placing epistemology “within the framework of classic covenant theology” and arguing that a “covenant epistemology” has a twofold goal: (1) loving God and (2) the eschatological transformation of the knower. The question of the epistemological consequences of the fall is also discussed.
  • The second concerns the goals of apologetics. What role should intellectual arguments play in one’s apologetic system?
  • The third discusses “the various points of contact that believers and unbelievers share” (p. 194). The redemptive-historical distinction between Christ as Logos and Christ as Mediator will prove important here.
  • The fourth explains “the importance and necessity of employing evidence in the defense of Christianity” (p. 194).
  • The fifth section focuses on “the importance of humility in defending Christianity” over against the exaggerated claims of “some within the Reformed community in the twentieth century” (p. 194).

Starting Points

Dr. Fesko begins his discussion of the proper starting points of apologetics by affirming the standpoint of “faith seeking understanding” rather than “reason seeking faith” (p. 195). With Augustine, we must recognize that “trusting authority lies at the root of all epistemology,” and therefore that faith is “the internal cognitive foundation (principium internum cognoscendi) of revelation and all theology” (p. 195).

Covenantal Context

In terms of biblical theology, then, our epistemology must be framed within a covenantal context:

The dynamic between epistemology and authority appears in the covenant theology of the Bible. (p. 195)

God created humanity within a covenantal context, which means that covenant characterizes created reality, humanity’s ontology, and epistemology. (p. 196)

To reinforce the point, Fesko appeals to the observation (drawn from Herman Bavinck, G. K. Beale, and others) that Scripture applies temple imagery both to the creation as a whole and to those creatures made specially in the image of God:

If the creation is a macrocosmic temple for the Triune God, then humanity is a microcosmic temple. (p. 197)

The Goals of a Covenantal Epistemology

Fesko contends that in the prefall situation, natural revelation and special revelation had “a twofold telos” (p. 197). In the first place, this divine revelation was given so that man might have knowledge of God; not merely propositional information, but personal knowledge manifested within a covenantal love relationship. As Fesko observes, in a number of places the Bible presents “a nexus between epistemology, revelation, law, and love” (p. 199). Thus, knowing the Lord is frequently treated as interchangeable with obeying the Lord and loving the Lord.

Epistemology, therefore, is not only about the acquisition of knowledge but has love as one of its goals. Love and epistemology are not separate but are distinctly united. In other words, the covenant defines the relationship between God and humanity: God creates humanity in love and gives humans the cosmos as a gift, and they in turn love their covenant Lord in submitting to his authority. (pp. 199-200)

Epistemology, therefore, is not only about the acquisition of raw data but is ultimately about a communion with the living God and submitting to his transformative word. (p. 200)

The second goal of revelation is eschatology. The telos of mankind was always to manifest in the fullest way the imago Dei. If Adam and Eve had kept the covenant,

they would have entered an indefectible glorified state in which they would have been further enrobed in the glory of God and reflected the divine image with greater clarity and fullness. This means that epistemology is not only about the acquisition of data but also about a fundamental transformation. Epistemology, or the submission to authority, leads to greater conformity to the image of the covenant Lord. (p. 201)

Postfall Epistemology

Dr. Fesko now turns to consider how the fall has affected our epistemological situation, and here the covenantal context is key:

Given the absence of sin in a prefall world, humanity’s existence was unified, but in a postfall world, all of humanity exists in one of two states, as either a covenant breaker or a covenant keeper. Only the covenant fidelity of the last Adam can redeem fallen human beings from the devastating effects of sin. Only the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit restores proper epistemological function to fallen sinners; Christ through the Spirit restores the God-human relationship by fulfilling the covenant broken by Adam and Eve (1 Cor. 2:6-16). (p. 202)

Thus, Christ restores the true knowledge of God and enable his redeemed people to submit to the authority of divine revelation. However, this raises the question of how “redeemed covenant keepers interact, live, and communicate with covenant breakers,” and sets up the problem to be addressed in the remainder of the chapter:

This is where we must delineate the rest of the points in the sketch for how the book of nature functions for the defense of the faith: the goals of apologetics, points of contact with unbelievers, evidence used in the apologetic process, and the humility that must mark Christians as they engage in apologetics with unbelievers. (p. 203)

Goals of Apologetics

The first point of order is to consider what apologetics is supposed to accomplish. In keeping with Paul’s argument in Romans 1, Fesko remarks:

Humanity’s will and intellect are corrupt; hence humans are unable to submit to divine revelation and are unable to love. The problem lies not with natural revelation but with fallen humanity’s inability to use it properly. (p. 203)

Since no human efforts can remove the noetic effects of sin, apologetics “narrowly construed as a rational defense of Christianity, does not convert fallen sinners.” (p. 203) What then is the use of apologetics? What role should the book of nature play in our engagement with unbelievers? Fesko answers:

In line with Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and Calvin after him, I argue that apologetics has a threefold purpose: (1) to refute intellectual objections to the Christian faith, (2) to clarify our understanding of the truth, and (3) to encourage and edify believers in their faith. (p. 204)

In addition, following Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, Fesko avers that apologetics is “necessary to refute unbelievers of all sorts, even heretics within the church” (p. 204).

What this means in practice is that we can (and should) refute intellectual objections raised against the Christian faith, present historical evidences to counter the claim that Jesus never existed, respond to charges of biblical contradictions and errors, and clarify scriptural truth-claims. In so doing, by God’s grace, we will strengthen the “resolve and convictions” of fellow believers.

In sum, Christian apologetics is “important and necessary,” not only for evangelism but also for other purposes such as edifying believers and staving off persecution (following the example of some of the earliest Christian apologists).

Points of Contact

Dr. Fesko now turns to consider the all-important question of the “point of contact” in apologetics. On what basis can believers and unbelievers communicate and reason with one another? Fesko reiterates some of his earlier observations: (1) all humans are made in the image of God and have his law written on their hearts; (2) fallen humans still possess a natural knowledge of God; and (3) all human beings possess God-given common notions. Despite the noetic effects of sin, which “twist humanity’s faculties so that they refuse to submit to the authority of divine revelation,” the image of God has not been “completely obliterated” and the fall does not “nullify God’s rule over creation” (p. 205).

Fesko expresses agreement with Kuyper’s “famous statement about Christ’s sovereignty over the creation” (p. 205). But there’s a catch. According to Fesko, Christ does not rule over the covenant breaker and the covenant keeper in the same way.

Christ does not rule over believers and unbelievers in the same way, yet he rules over both in such a way as to preserve his sovereignty, enable communication between the two groups, and propel the redemptive-historical shift between this present age and the age to come. In other terms, we must distinguish between the Son’s protological rule over the creation and his eschatological reign as Mediator over the church. We must distinguish between the natural and the spiritual. We must account, therefore, for the epochal shifts between preredemptive history, inaugurated eschatology, and consummated eschatology. (p. 205)

Epistemology in Redemptive History

Reformed theologians have connected these “epochal shifts” in redemptive history with two key distinctions. The first is between God himself as the principium essendi (the foundation of being) and God’s revelation as the principium cognoscendi (the foundation of knowing). Human knowledge is utterly dependent upon divine revelation. However, we must further distinguish between the principium cognoscendi externum and the principium cognoscendi internum. The first is the external revelation “which we find either in nature of Scripture” (p. 206). The second (which is necessary in a postfall context) is the gift of faith bestowed by the Holy Spirit — at least when it comes to a saving knowledge of God. Fesko apparently holds that matters are different regarding other forms of knowledge:

For nontheological knowledge — meaning the natural knowledge of God — general revelation is the external cognitive foundation, and reason is the internal cognitive foundation, but just because we switch from supernatural to natural knowledge does not mean that God has been sidelined. (p. 206)

Christ as Creator and Redeemer

The second relevant distinction is “between the Son’s ontological procession and his mediatorial mission, or his identity as Logos and his role as Christos” (pp. 206-7). As Logos, God the Son “gives light to everyone” (cf. John 1:9) and thus all human beings “have the ability to know God and the world around them” through natural revelation (p. 207). Consequently, unbelievers are able to know God (at least in limited fashion) through general revelation, apart from any internal work of the Holy Spirit, yet their “sin-infected knowledge is inadequate for salvation” (p. 207).

Here Dr. Fesko takes issue with a position he attributes to Van Til, namely, “that testimony of the Holy Spirit is therefore necessary even for general human knowledge” (p. 207). Likewise, he questions Scott Oliphint’s claim that Scripture is “the ground and foundation for our epistemology.” Such assertions are deemed to be “a departure from both the catholic and Reformed traditions” (p. 208). Furthermore:

Such claims fit an Enlightenment worldview-driven epistemology, a system that begins with a central dogma from which one deduces an entire system of thought, but they claims run counter to Scripture. They collapse creation and the eschaton, or Christ’s identity as Logos and his role as Mediator. (p. 208)

Fesko is quick to affirm that the unregenerate are spiritually blind and thus cannot accept and receive supernatural revelation. Nevertheless, “this blindness should never sideline the use of the book of nature in the process of defending the gospel. … Proofs, evidences, and the book of nature do not convert unbelievers, but they are an integral part of God’s revelation and thus necessary, important, and useful” (p. 209).

The following excerpts from the remainder of this section capture the point Fesko is concerned to press:

In spite of the noetic effects of sin, human faculties still function sufficiently well for a number of purposes. (p. 210)

[H]uman nature is fallen but not obliterated. As such, believers and unbelievers can dwell together, communicate, and comprehend one another’s claims. (p. 210)

The knowledge of covenantally exiled humanity, therefore, is not totally devoid of truth. (p. 211)

Exilic humanity can and will misuse God-given knowledge and will reach erroneous conclusions: Lamech’s self-serving abuse of justice amply proves the point. But Cain, Jubal, Jabal, and Tubal-Cain also show that covenantal exile does not obliterate the natural knowledge of God. Fallen sinners do not cease to bear the image of God. (p. 211)

Implications for Apologetics

What are the implications of the foregoing epistemology for apologetics? In sum, it means that “believers can present the gospel in conjunction with rational arguments and evidence and know that unbelievers can intellectually receive and comprehend the message” (p. 212). More specifically:

From the foundation of the authority of Scripture, believers can and should use the book of nature: we can appeal to common notions, the created order, and historical evidence. (p. 212)

Even though, due to their spiritual rebellion, unbelievers won’t accept our claims and arguments apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, they still have the intellectual capacity to understand those claims and arguments.

[I]f the message were utterly incomprehensible apart from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, then it would be unjust for God to hold unbelievers accountable for rejecting the message. How can God hold one accountable for a message never received? (p. 212)

Dr. Fesko expresses concern that some Van Tilian presuppositionalists (William Dennison is cited as an example) have blurred the distinction between comprehension and evaluation:

Under Van Til’s influence,  some of his disciples have confused epistemology with axiology, or how we know with the evaluation of that knowledge. (p. 213)

Again, Fesko suggests that this reflects a deviation from Reformed orthodoxy:

As with the use of common notions, Reformed theologians distinguished between knowledge and judgment, or principles and conclusions. Even in a fallen world, believers and unbelievers share a common epistemology due to their creation in the image of God. Recall, however, Calvin’s distinction between two types of knowledge, the earthly and the heavenly. Just because unbelievers are blind as moles regarding the things of heaven does not mean they are equally blind regarding the things of earth. (pp. 213-14)


One implication Dr. Fesko draws from the preceding section is that “believers and unbeliever share multiple points of contact by which the believer can convey and defend the gospel message” (p. 214). Having been regenerated by the Spirit and reading the world through “the corrective lenses of Scripture,” Christians can properly see “the revelatory telos of the book of nature” (p. 214). Consequently, they can make use of a range of evidences in the service of Christian apologetics:

From this scriptural foundation, Christians can and should appeal to evidence to corroborate the Christian message. We can appeal to the world, such as in Aquinas’s teleological argument for the existence of God, and explain that the Creator designed and created the world for a distinct purpose. Or we can and should appeal to historical evidence, for example, to corroborate scriptural claims regarding the resurrection of Christ. We can and should appeal to the natural world around us to demonstrate to the unbeliever that Christ’s gospel is about this very real world that God has created. (p. 214)

None of this, Fesko insists, is “in any way a capitulation to a so-called autonomous neutral zone,” because it is nothing less than an appeal to divine revelation, both general and special:

In defense of the faith, Christians have two books in their apologetic arsenal, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. (p. 214)

Fesko proceeds to give three brief rationales for the use of evidence in apologetics: (1) it is ultimately an appeal to God’s revelation; (2) God has given us the capacity for sense experience in order to know things about the world, although such experience “must never be divorced from God’s authoritative interpretation of those experiences”; and (3) we must reject the idealist view that the empirical world is a projection of the human mind (pp. 214-15).


Having defended a confident appeal to “the book of nature” in apologetics, Dr. Fesko seeks to balance it with an exhortation toward humility in our claims about our knowledge of the world and in our engagement with unbelievers. In particular, we should renounce “the misguided claim that the Bible provides a comprehensive view of life and the world that encompasses all knowledge,” since that can “easily turn into Christian imperialism” (p. 215).

Once again, Fesko sets his sights on certain “contemporary Reformed Christians [who] have unwittingly imbibed Enlightenment ideas, such as the concept of a central dogma” (p. 216). More specifically:

Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Van Til, and others have taken the idea of the central dogma and infused it with Christian content: the sovereignty of God, creation-fall-redemption, the self-attesting Christ of Scripture, or Scripture. They then claim that from this one starting point Christians can develop a comprehensive view of life and the world. Such thought patterns align well with the notion of a central dogma but fall significantly short when we hold the claims up to the scrutiny of Scripture, especially what we find in the Wisdom literature. (p. 216)

Although the Bible tells us many important facts about the world, “the Bible does not provide comprehensive knowledge” (p. 216). The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that much wisdom can be gained from studying God’s revelation, yet we must also recognize our limitations; we cannot acquire anything close to “the contemporary claims regarding a comprehensive view of life and the world” (p. 216). We must eschew any attitude of arrogance or triumphalism, including in the sphere of epistemology. Our stance towards unbelievers should be one of humility and willingness to serve, while also acknowledging the significant contributions of unbelievers to the treasury of human knowledge.

To claim, as Van Til does, that no true learning occurs outside of Christian education, casts an unintended but nevertheless real shadow of contempt on God’s natural gifts, which he has abundantly given to the world, even to the apostate line of Cain. Christian have much to learn from the unbelieving world about many things: science, mathematics, engineering, literature, art, music, and even ethics. (p. 217)

This does not mean that we uncritically embrace the claims of non-Christian scholars, the products of non-Christian artists, and so forth. Rather, we judge all things in the light of Scripture:

In our use of the book of nature, we must never set aside the book of Scripture. Scripture must always regulate our understanding of the book of nature, lest we abandon the truth and imbibe the world’s erroneous and sinful interpretations of the book of nature. But we must not forget that all truth is God’s truth, regardless of its human point of origin. (p. 217)

One implication of this, Fesko suggests, is that we should be reluctant to apply the adjective biblical to items of “natural knowledge,” such as claims about “science, art, mathematics, engineering, brain surgery, or the like” (p. 218). We should reserve that adjective only for matters that the Bible truly addresses. One reason for doing so is that we can unwittingly place intellectual obstacles in the path of unbelievers, giving them spurious grounds to reject the gospel, when our purportedly ‘biblical’ claims about the natural world turn out, on further examination, to be mistaken.


The main point of the chapter (if not the entire book) is succinctly stated: “Christians need not shun the book of nature.” All truth is God’s truth, and Christ is sovereign over the entire realm of nature. Thus, Christians can confidently appeal to natural revelation in the defense of the faith. On the one hand, we must never think of ourselves as “intellectually or culturally superior” to our unbelieving peers simply because we have come to know, by God’s grace, that this is Christ’s world. Likewise, we acknowledge that our knowledge is limited and our understanding of God’s world is still clouded by sin. Even so, “we can fruitfully interact with unbelievers” on the basis of the shared imago Dei.

The book concludes with this reassuring summation:

We can defend the gospel, knowing that apologetics can clear away intellectual obstacles to the gospel, clarify our own understanding of the truth, protect the church from false teaching, and encourage our own hearts as we further immerse ourselves in the truth. (p. 219)


1. Let’s begin with the good news: I’m delighted to report that I agree with a great deal of what Dr. Fesko says in this closing chapter. I gladly concur that a Christian epistemology should be framed in terms of classic covenant theology, that our status as knowers depends crucially on whether we are covenant-keepers or covenant-breakers, and that the telos of knowledge includes loving God in submission to his authority and being transformed to manifest the imago Dei in the fullest sense. I largely agree with what Fesko says about the goals of apologetics and the role of intellectual arguments (although I think there are additional aspects to apologetics that he overlooks). Regarding the points of contact with unbelievers, Fesko is quite right to emphasize that the imago Dei has not been eradicated by the fall, that the problem lies not with natural revelation itself but with the unbeliever’s sinful suppression of that revelation, that apologetics as such has no power to convert fallen sinners, that Christians can appeal to both the book of nature and the book of Scripture in defense of the gospel, and that it is necessary and important to make use of a range of evidences in apologetics.

Furthermore, Dr. Fesko rightly emphasizes the importance of humility in our defense of the Christian faith. We shouldn’t claim to know more about God and his creation than he has actually revealed to us, we shouldn’t suggest that the Bible gives us “exhaustive knowledge of the world,” and we certainly shouldn’t imply that regeneration makes us “smarter” than the unbelievers with whom we intellectually engage.  As for the closing sentence of the book: I can only issue a full-throated “Amen”!

It’s gratifying and encouraging to find such a wide swath of agreement. At the same time, though, it is rather perplexing. By its own profession, the book’s critique is targeted at Van Tilians and Dooyeweerdians (which, I’ve already noted, should not be lumped together given the significant differences between them). I consider myself a Van Tilian presuppositionalist, yet I can affirm nearly all the major points Fesko makes in this chapter. How do we make sense of this? While there are some substantive points of disagreement, which I’ll mention below, I can only conclude that Fesko has some serious misconceptions about what Van Til believed about the topics covered in this chapter: the noetic effects of sin, the points of contact with unbelievers, the use of evidence, appeals to “the book of nature,” the role of Scripture in our epistemology, and the like. All this to say, I wonder who are the intended targets of Fesko’s critique. Perhaps there are some mutant Van Tilian fish that will get caught by Fesko’s net, but most will slip through unscathed!

2. Especially perplexing is the insinuation that Van Til and his followers repudiate the use of “the book of nature” in apologetics. This is a serious misrepresentation of presuppositionalism. I’ve noted previously in this series that Van Til had a very robust doctrine of natural revelation, as can be seen, for example, in his 1946 essay “Nature and Scripture.” In that article Van Til speaks enthusiastically of “the natural theology of the [Westminster] Confession,” according to which natural revelation and special revelation are mutually dependent, over against the various forms of natural theology that have been developed on the basis of autonomous philosophies without reference to Scripture. In his book An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til devotes three chapters to expounding what can be known about nature, man, and God on the basis of general revelation. This is hardly the mark of someone with little regard for “the book of nature.”

So the debate isn’t about whether we should make use of natural revelation, but rather how we do so. Van Til, following Calvin, only insists that the two books of divine revelation be read in conjunction, as they were always intended by their Author to be read. When it comes to apologetics, the Christian faith must be defended “as a unit”; that is, as an integrated, coherent, self-interpreting “system of truth” that coordinates general and special revelation. For this reason, Van Til criticized forms of natural theology that attempted to interpret natural revelation in isolation from biblical revelation, on the basis of a ‘neutral’ epistemology (whether rationalist, empiricist, or some hybrid of the two).

3. It appears to me that, given many of the assertions he makes in this chapter, Dr. Fesko ought to follow Van Til on this very point. In the opening paragraph, he promises “a basic sketch of how the books of nature and Scripture can work in concert in apologetics” (p. 193, emphasis added). He approvingly quotes Bavinck’s statement that “revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture form, in alliance with each other, an harmonious unity” (p. 209, emphasis added). He affirms Calvin’s claim that the book of nature must be properly read through the “spectacles” (p. 211) or “corrective lenses” (p. 214) of Scripture. (Admittedly, Fesko is speaking in context of believers interpreting nature, but would this not also apply a fortiori to unbelievers?) He asserts that our sensory experiences “must never be divorced from God’s authoritative interpretation of those experiences” (p. 214) and that “ideally, general knowledge should work in tandem with supernatural revelation” (p. 215 — and note that this is with reference to humans in general, not believers in particular).

To all this, Van Tilians will exclaim “Yes and Amen!” But how then does Fesko reconcile this outlook with his apparent endorsement of a classical Thomistic natural theology that drives a wedge between the two divine books?

4. A similar point can be pressed with respect to Dr. Fesko’s affirmation of a covenantal epistemology. When he states that “covenant characterizes created reality, humanity’s ontology, and epistemology” (p. 196), that a postfall epistemology must take into account that “all of humanity exists in one of two states, as either a covenant breaker or a covenant keeper” (p. 202), and that the telos of epistemology involves faithful submission to God’s authoritative revelation (including his spoken word), Fesko sounds remarkably like a Van Tilian. Perhaps he is not so far from the kingdom after all!

What’s lacking here, however, is any cogent explanation of how this covenantal epistemology would warrant a “classical” (Thomistic) over against a “presuppositional” (Van Tilian) approach to apologetics. Certainly it would license the use of reason, arguments, evidence, appeals to natural revelation, and so forth. But as I’ve noted, that’s entirely consonant with a presuppositional methodology. In fact, I will go further: Fesko’s professedly Christian epistemology — indeed, his distinctively Reformed epistemology — would seem to steer us toward a more Van Tilian understanding of the apologetical situation.

5. In light of all the above, it’s perplexing to encounter the statement that “even in a fallen world, believers and unbelievers share a common epistemology due to their creation in the image of God” (p. 213, emphasis added). It’s hard to know what to make of this. One only has to flick through an introductory textbook on epistemology to see that unbelievers don’t even agree among themselves on epistemological matters, let alone share an epistemology with believers. If by ‘epistemology’ we mean a theory or general view of human knowledge — how we know things, what we can know, what counts as knowledge, etc. — it’s quite clear that believers and unbelievers do not share a common epistemology. To take the most obvious point: believers recognize Scripture as divine revelation, while unbelievers don’t. That alone profoundly shapes one’s epistemology.

But perhaps Dr. Fesko’s point is that as a matter of actual fact the objective epistemic norms that govern human thoughts and beliefs are the same for both believers and unbelievers. If so, I agree. But the same could be said of objective moral norms as well. God’s commandments apply equally to believers and unbelievers, even though the latter do not recognize them as such. Should we therefore say that believers and unbelievers “share a common ethic”? If you’ve ever had discussions with non-Christians about abortion, same-sex marriage, or religious freedom, it will have become quickly apparent that we do not share a common ethic. Our ultimate authorities (or rather professed authorities) are fundamentally at odds. And what goes for ethics, goes for epistemology too. Van Til saw that point with unparalleled clarity; it’s barely an exaggeration to say that it’s the axle on which his apologetic method turns.

6. Immediately following his statement about a “common epistemology,” Dr. Fesko remarks:

Recall, however, Calvin’s distinction between two types of knowledge, the earthly and the heavenly. Just because unbelievers are blind as moles regarding the things of heaven does not mean they are equally blind regarding the things of earth. (pp. 213-14)

Calvin’s distinction is sound and sensible (and one that Van Til endorsed). But what does this imply for Thomistic natural theology? Are we to suppose that knowledge of God falls into the category of “things of earth” rather than “things of heaven”? Is that what Calvin had in mind?

In a footnote, Dr. Fesko cites the Institutes, 2.2.18. However, what Calvin says there doesn’t support Fesko’s position at all. Quite the contrary, in fact:

We must now analyze what human reason can discern with regard to God’s Kingdom and to spiritual insight. This spiritual insight consists chiefly in three things: (1) knowing God; (2) knowing his fatherly favor in our behalf, in which our salvation consists; (3) knowing how to frame our life according to the rule of his law. In the first two points — and especially the in the second — the greatest geniuses are blinder than moles! Certainly I do not deny that one can read competent and apt statements about God here and there in the philosophers, but these always show a certain giddy imagination. As was stated above, the Lord indeed gave them a slight taste of his divinity that they might not hide their impiety under a cloak of ignorance. And sometimes he impelled them to make certain utterances by the confession of which they would themselves be corrected. But they saw things in such a way that their seeing did not direct them to the truth, much less enable them to attain it! They are like a traveler passing through a field at night who in a momentary lightning flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of the night before he can take even a step — let alone be directed on his way by its help. Besides, although they may chance to sprinkle their books with droplets of truth, how many monstrous lies defile them! In short, they never even sensed that assurance of God’s benevolence toward us (without which man’s understanding can only be filled with boundless confusion). Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at, this truth: to understand who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be toward us.

Now, we might well debate how to reconcile this with the positive statements Calvin makes elsewhere about the natural knowledge of God, but one thing should be clear: this particular passage from the Institutes offers no support whatsoever for a Thomistic view of natural theology (assuming that’s what Fesko means by the ‘classical’ view) over against a Van Tilian view of natural theology.

7. The chapter repeats the charge that Van Til succumbed to “an Enlightenment worldview-driven epistemology, a system that begins with a central dogma from which one deduces an entire system of thought” (p. 208; cf. p. 216). I addressed that criticism previously in my comments on chapter 5 and chapter 7, so I need say no more about it here.

8. The chapter also claims that Van Til (along with Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and others) held that Scripture gives us “a comprehensive view of life and the world that encompasses all knowledge” (p. 215) and provides us with “comprehensive knowledge” about the world (p. 216). I know of nowhere in Van Til’s writings that he makes such overblown claims. (Gordon Clark apparently held to the ‘scripturalist’ position that all knowledge is derivable from biblical revelation, but that’s obviously not Van Til’s position.)

My guess is that Dr. Fesko has misunderstood Van Til’s claims about the ‘comprehensiveness’ of a biblical worldview. Van Til never made the absurd suggestion that Scripture tells us everything about the world, or even everything important about the world. Rather, he insisted that Scripture has something important to tell us about everything, and thus all of our studies — whether in philosophy, biology, sociology, psychology, or any other subject — ought to be informed by and interpreted in light of biblical revelation. As Van Til put it:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. … This view of Scripture, therefore, involves the idea that there is nothing in this universe on which human beings can have full and true information unless they take the Bible into account. We do not mean, of course, that one must go to the Bible instead of the laboratory if one wishes to study the anatomy of the snake. But if one goes only into the laboratory and not also to the Bible one will not have a full or even true interpretation of the snake. (Christian Apologetics, p. 2)

As I see it, this is no more than the consistent outworking of a Reformed position on (i) the noetic effects of sin and (ii) general and special revelation.

9. A similar confusion afflicts Dr. Fesko’s assertion that, according to Van Til and his disciples, regeneration and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit are “necessary even for general human knowledge” (pp. 207-8). In the first place, recall that Van Til says repeatedly that in practice unbelievers can know many truths about God, themselves, and the world; that fact alone ought to serve as decisive evidence that he does not hold the position attributed to him here. But let’s examine the fuller context of the sentences quoted from Van Til’s A Survey of Christian Epistemology (p. 184):

From these assumptions of antitheistic thought it follows that if God is to have any significance for the objects of knowledge at all he must be reduced to one individual object of knowledge among many others. Christian theism on the contrary says that God is the one supreme object of knowledge. He is the most ultimate fact and the most ultimate universal. It is from him that all facts and all universals that we ordinarily deal with derive their meaning.

On the question of the subject of knowledge, we found the same sort of situation. In the first place, Christian theism maintains that the subject of knowledge owes its existence to God. Accordingly, all its interpretative powers are from God and must therefore be reinterpretative powers. In the second place, when the subject of knowledge is to come into contact with the object of knowledge, the connection is possible only because God has laid it there. In other words, the subject-object relation has its validity via God. Theologically expressed, we say that the validity of human knowledge in general rests upon the testimonium Spiritus Sancti. In addition to this, Christian theism maintains that since sin has come into the world, no subject of knowledge can really come into contact with any object of knowledge, in the sense of interpreting it properly, unless the Scripture give the required light and unless the regeneration by the Spirit give a new power of sight.

In opposition to this, the antitheist holds it to be self-evident that the subject of knowledge exists in its own right and can interpret truly without any reference to God. The “natural man” claims to be able to interpret nature and history properly without the need of any reference to God, to Scripture, or to regeneration.

Note the sentences and phrases highlighted in bold. Van Til is not suggesting that only the regenerate can know things about the world. Rather, he’s expressing two characteristic claims found throughout his writings: (1) that human knowledge in general is possible only because God has created and meaningfully connected the subjects and objects of knowledge, and (2) that one needs Scripture and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit in order to properly interpret the objects of knowledge created and ordered by God. The first is merely a restatement of the central contention of Van Til’s transcendental argument for biblical theism, while the second is no more than a consistent application of Calvin’s epistemology (the noetic effects of sin, the need for the “spectacles” of Scripture, etc.).

Recall Van Til’s statement about “the anatomy of the snake,” quoted above. Certainly the atheistic scientist can learn many facts about snakes in his laboratory. But unless he recognizes that snakes are creatures, fashioned by God as part of a comprehensive plan to glorify himself through his works of creation and redemption, that scientist has a fundamentally flawed view of the objects of his study. He doesn’t “interpret nature and history properly.” That shouldn’t be an objectionable conclusion for a Reformed theologian to reach.

Similar considerations apply to the criticism directed at Scott Oliphint. Indeed, Oliphint’s position has been quite badly mangled. According to Fesko, Oliphint maintains that Scripture is “the ground and foundation for our epistemology” (p. 207). But that doesn’t accurately capture Oliphint’s point. Here’s the relevant passage from Oliphint’s article:

[N]ot only is it the case that “the Bible is the final source and norm for Christian theology,” but the Bible is the beginning point for all discussions of theology, of knowledge of God obtained by natural reason, and for all things “reflected in the religions of the world.” These latter elements can only be a part of “the theologian’s thesaurus of truth” to the extent that we begin with Scripture alone as our principium and measure all else by its truth. We are back, therefore, to the principle of sola scriptura as the ground and foundation for our epistemology. Thus, it is a revelational epistemology, including as it must the Logos principle, and not a realistic epistemology, that alone is able to account for any universality of knowledge, and, more importantly, that alone is able to bring the gospel to bear on the church and on the world. (“Bavinck’s Realism, the Logos Principle, and Sola Scriptura,” WTJ 72 (2010), p. 390, emphasis original)

Oliphint isn’t claiming or implying that only regenerate believers can know or understanding things about the world. He’s making the characteristically Van Tilian points that (i) only a Christian revelational epistemology can account for the possibility of knowledge in general, and (ii) one essential tenet of that (distinctively Reformed) epistemology is that Scripture alone is our final authority and standard with regard to all truth-claims (“the principle of sola scriptura“).

Of course, one might well wish to dispute the claims that Van Til and Oliphint are making here. But it won’t do any good to dispute claims that they aren’t making.

10. A very minor observation. In his statement about the “threefold purpose” of apologetics, Dr. Fesko claims to be following Calvin and cites in a footnote the Institutes, 1.8.8. I suspect this reference has a typo, because as far as I can tell that section says nothing at all about the goals of apologetics. If so, I’m interested to know what the correct reference would be.

11. In this final chapter it becomes evident that Dr. Fesko’s opposition to Van Tilian presuppositionalism is driven in large part by an underlying commitment to a particular brand of Two Kingdoms theology, according to which Christ exercises his lordship over the “common kingdom” (as opposed to the “spiritual kingdom”) through natural revelation alone. On this view, Scripture is intended only for the redeemed, and its authority is restricted to the “spiritual kingdom” (not merely ecclesiastical matters, but what we might call “the Christian life”). Two Kingdoms theology looms large in the background particularly in the sections “Points of Contact” (see the quotations above) and “Humility” (where Fesko criticizes the notion that there’s a distinctively ‘biblical’ approach to science, art, etc.).

I’ve made criticisms of this version of Two Kingdoms theology in the past, but I’m not going to revisit them here, so I’ll just make two brief observations. First, it’s worth noting how the “Two Kingdoms vs Neo-Calvinism” debate is closely correlated with the “classical vs presuppositional” apologetics debate. Second, I confess I find it hard to reconcile what Dr. Fesko says regarding the necessity of Scripture as “spectacles” and “corrective lenses” (not to mention the “covenantal epistemology”) with the epistemological and apologetical implications he derives from his Two Kingdoms perspective.

12. One final reflection on this chapter and the book as a whole. Although Reforming Apologetics is pitched (per the subtitle) as a defense of the “classical Reformed approach to defending the faith,” conspicuous by its absence is any guidance about what this approach actually looks like in practice. Readers will learn very little about how to make a concrete case for the truth of Christianity, how to answer major objections to the faith, or how to refute non-Christian belief-systems. The closing chapter promises “a basic sketch of how the books of nature and Scripture can work in concert in apologetics,” but in the end doesn’t deliver anything beyond very general principles (“use the book of nature,” “appeal to historical evidence,” “be humble and willing to learn from unbelievers”) that Van Tilian presuppositionalists can enthusiastically endorse.

So I’m left wondering what Dr. Fesko’s actual case for Christian theism would look like out on the field. Would it lean heavily on Aquinas’s Five Ways? Would it follow the characteristic two-stage approach of other classical apologists, such as R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, and William Lane Craig, that opens with traditional theistic arguments and follows with an evidential case for the resurrection of Jesus based on ordinary (read: secular, neutral) methods of historical research? Would it be more like the cumulative-case approach of John Feinberg and Douglas Groothuis? Would it draw any insights from the so-called “Reformed epistemology” of Alvin Plantinga?

As best I can tell, the most readers receive are some indirect indications here and there: a discussion of Calvin’s use of “some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God” (pp. 60-67), a summary of Thomas’s five proofs (pp. 78-80), a brief section on the use of evidences with a couple of footnoted references (p. 214), and the various sources listed in the (admittedly substantial) bibliography. Nowhere do we find a specific methodology or argumentative strategy stated, let alone defended.

Now, perhaps the author would say that’s beyond the scope of the book, which was intended only to make the case for “retriev[ing] the book of nature primarily for use in defending the faith” (p. 4) over against the criticisms of natural theology leveled by Barth, Dooyeweerd, Van Til, and other miscreants (although I’ve explained at some length why I think the book’s arguments don’t adequately connect with Van Til’s views on these matters). Still, if one writes a book that openly targets a Reformed presuppositional approach, it would be helpful to know more precisely what is being offered as the alternative, even if that’s only by way of endorsement of other books that might be taken as exemplary models.

Moreover, Dr. Fesko declares in the acknowledgements that he wrote the book “chiefly because I want my children to be fully equipped for the defense of he faith” and “to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you” (p. xvi). Bravo! I want the same for my own children. But then it comes as something of a disappointment to discover that Reforming Apologetics does little in the way of actually equipping its readers to make an intellectually robust case for Christianity in the face of modern skepticism. For that, it seems, we must look elsewhere, regardless of our methodological convictions.

With that, I conclude my lengthy (and lamentably prolonged) review of Reforming Apologetics. I’ve tried to be both honest and even-handed about what I consider its strengths and its weaknesses, and I hope my criticisms have been expressed respectfully and charitably. Where I’ve fallen short (as I’m sure I have) I beg the forgiveness of my esteemed colleague and any remaining readers of this series! In any event, I trust that the conversation among brethren regarding a consistently Reformed approach to apologetics has been moved forward in some useful ways.


Next post: Reforming Apologetics (Wrap-Up)

6 thoughts on “Reforming Apologetics (The Book of Nature and Apologetics)”

  1. Pingback: Late June 2021 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

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  3. James,

    I have mixed feelings about this thorough review. I’m exceedingly grateful you ably took up the task but even more pained by the reckless treatment of the subject you sought to untangle and address with irenic precision. The net result for me personally was discouragement.

    Most believers aren’t equipped to navigate this subject; yet many of those same brothers and sisters seem to feel the need to choose a side. (Some even succeed in having their musings published.) My hope is you’ve given at least some presuppositionalism naysayers occasion to pause, if not put down their pens and think a bit harder.

    May God give increase to all your kingdom work.


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