Reforming Apologetics (Common Notions)

Reading time: 9 minutes

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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)

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When Is a Baby a Baby?

Reading time: 3 minutes

The post-Christian West is woefully confused and conflicted about the status of unborn human beings. Consider a striking illustration provided by two recent articles from the BBC News website (surely no friend of the pro-life cause).

The first article is entitled “What’s going on in the fight over US abortion rights?” and seeks to explain to non-Americans “what’s behind the push … for anti-abortion bills across the US.” (Note the terminology used in the article: “abortion rights,” “anti-abortion bills,” “reproductive health,” etc.) If you read through the article, you’ll find that the human being within the womb is consistently referred to as a ‘foetus’ (the British spelling of ‘fetus’). Nowhere in the article is the word ‘baby’ used.

BBC News Abortion Article

But the word ‘baby’ does appear elsewhere on the webpage — just once, in a link to another article in the ‘Features’ sidebar. This second article uses a paraphrased quote as its title: “They called my baby biowaste – it broke my heart in pieces.” It tells the heart-wrenching story of a woman who suffered nine miscarriages over a five-year period and how she and her husband created nine “spirit houses” in a landscaped garden to commemorate their lost children.

Read the whole thing, but here are some notable quotes from the article (bold added for emphasis):

“I lost Victoria at 21 weeks in 2013,” remembers Debbie.

Five of the babies were lost in the first trimester of pregnancy and four in the second.

What do you do with the remains of a child lost during pregnancy? How do you honour their memory?

[Debbie] visits her nine houses regularly. “I go on their birthdaystheir due dates – and the days that they passed. I go there for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Valentine’s Day. My husband and I need to connect with the children we would have otherwise celebrated with,” says Debbie.

Babies. Children. Victoria.

One word conspicuous by its absence, however, is ‘foetus’.

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Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature)

Reading time: 8 minutes

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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.

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Dr. Gaffin Weighs In

Reading time: 1 minute

In response to my post about the proper spelling of Van Tilian, Dr. Richard Gaffin, Professor Emeritus of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, sent me the following note:

I’ve read your “Van Tilian or Van Tillian? The Debate Settled” with considerable interest and appreciation/satisfaction. It addresses what has been one of my pet peeves over the years.

May I add to your reasons one, it seems to me, even more decisive? There are two Dutch surnames, Van Till as well as Van Til (e.g. Howard Van Till, an emeritus professor at Calvin College). So, Van Tillian is correct only for Van Till, as it can only be Van Tilian for Van Til!

I think we can stick a fork in this debate, because it’s done.

Van Tilian or Van Tillian? The Debate Settled

Reading time: 1 minute

Cornelius Van TilScholars have long debated the proper pronunciation of the name ‘Augustine’. Should it be aw-GUS-tin, as argued here, or AW-gus-teen, as argued here? (For the record: the former is correct.)

Equally important, if not more so, is the debate over whether one who follows the apologetic method of Cornelius Van Til is properly labeled Van Tilian or Van Tillian. Here I offer three arguments for the former. Taken together these arguments surely provide a decisive answer to this longstanding dispute.

1. Argument from Statistics

Standard Google searches for the relevant phrases turn up the following counts:

  • VanTilian — about 1,600 results
  • Van Tilian — about 11,600 results
  • Combined — about 13,200 results
  • VanTillian — about 4,760 results
  • Van Tillian — about 7,970 results
  • Combined — about 12,730 results

The winner, by a nose: Van Tilian.

2. Argument from Analogy

Consider:

  • Brazil → Brazilian
  • Civil → Civilian
  • Virgil → Virgilian

Therefore:

  • Van Til → Van Tilian

3. Argument from Parsimony

“Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” (William of Ockham)

A second L is obviously unnecessary, therefore: Van Tilian.

Q.E.D.

Trueman on the Ahmari-French Dust-Up

Reading time: 2 minutes

Carl Trueman has a good take on the latest intramural debate among American conservatives. I’d quibble with a few minor points, but the conclusion is spot-on:

So while I agree with Ahmari that French’s strategy of politeness is unlikely to prove politically successful, I still believe it is worth considering. If the Middle Ages are not the analog to the church in the twenty-first century, the second century might be. At that time, the church was a misunderstood minor sect in a vast empire.  It was not subject to widespread, coordinated persecution but it was often suspected of subverting the public good. So the Greek Apologists of that time taught Christian doctrine and ethics, and they made it clear to the pagan authorities that they intended to be good citizens and should therefore be allowed to function as members of Roman society. They spoke respectfully of emperors and made sure that any offense caused was demanded by the gospel, and not by some other ambition or agenda.

This captures the New Testament emphasis on blessing when cursed, turning the other cheek, and speaking well of those who speak evil. Of course, Paul was capable of polemical sharpness (typically directed against enemies within the church, not the secular authorities) and he was quite happy to use the civil rights that he possessed as a Roman citizen. But at no point does he say that it is legitimate for Christians to be as brutal and ferocious in opposing pagan enemies as those enemies are in opposing the church.

French’s strategy of decency and politeness may well be doomed, as Ahmari indicates. But Christians do not do things because they think they will succeed. They do them because the New Testament tells them that this action or this way of speaking is the right way to reflect the character of God to the world.

Just so.

Of course, none of this implies that doing the right thing won’t succeed, but at the same time we need to calibrate our understanding of ‘success’ to the goals and priorities emphasized in the New Testament by Christ and the apostles.

Perhaps one (admittedly reductionistic) way to view the present debate is in terms of the difference between a consequentialist conservatism (Ahmari) and a deontologist conservativism (French). The former prioritizes securing results (in this case, something like a society where Judeo-Christian moral values are respected, protected, and reflected in the law) even if that means adopting new rules (or breaking the old ones), whereas the latter places the priority on following rules (in this case, principles of proper conduct in the public sphere) even if that doesn’t secure the desired results, at least in the near term. On French’s view, one could “win the culture” but lose one’s soul in the process. Results at the expense of rules is a de facto defeat for the Christian conservative.

BTW, Trueman’s take on Brexit is also a must-read for Americans who are trying to make sense of current political events across the Atlantic.

Reforming Apologetics (Introduction)

Reading time: 6 minutes

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

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

Reforming ApologeticsSome preliminary comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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Still Not Living in a Computer Simulation

Reading time: 4 minutes

A couple of commentators on a previous post pointed me to an Arc Digital article by Thomas Metcalf which contends that the Simulation Argument (SA) ought to be taken more seriously. (Metcalf’s article wasn’t written in response to mine, although it appeared a week or so afterward: post hoc sed non propter hoc.)

I don’t think there’s anything in the article that poses any problems for the arguments I gave in my post. Rather than respond to every point, I’ll just quote a few sections and make some comments.

Brain in a Vat

Metcalf observes that the SA has two key premises:

The Empirical Premise: Most of the “people” who think they’re real, flesh-and-blood humans are actually conscious computer programs.

The Indifference Premise: If most people are simulated, then you are probably simulated.

As I explained in my earlier post, I think the first premise is false, and necessarily so. It’s not metaphysically possible for a computer program to be conscious, assuming that the computer in question is a purely physical mechanism. (I think Metcalf actually commits a category error in his statement of the Empirical Premise. A computer program is abstract in nature; it’s a set of instructions that can be run by one or more physical computers. So a computer program wouldn’t be conscious; it would be the computer running the program, if it were possible for a computer to be conscious.)

The second premise looks problematic too. Metcalf elaborates:

The idea behind the Indifference Premise is simple: If most people have some feature, then absent other evidence, you should guess that you probably have that feature.

Most people have the following feature: not being me. Should I therefore guess that I’m probably not me too? Perhaps the “absent other evidence” clause is supposed to foreclose such trivial counterexamples. But what kind of evidence is in view here? Observational evidence? Surely that’s not the kind of evidence that would confirm my self-identity. Self-identity is known a priori. Couldn’t I also know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation? Well, if I can know a priori that no purely material object can be conscious, then I can know a priori that I’m not a computer simulation. All this to say, both premises of Metcalf’s SA seem to hang on the controversial notion that a computer can be conscious.

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The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God

Reading time: 1 minute

For those interested, the lecture I gave last October on the theological foundations of modern science has been published in the May 2019 issue of Reformed Faith & Practice. Go here to read it.

Two Countries Separated By a Common Signal

Reading time: 1 minute

After 10 years of living and driving in the US, it’s finally dawned on me that, despite outward appearances, the British “indicator” and the American “turn signal” don’t mean the same thing at all.

Indicator / Turn SignalFor Brits, the flashing light basically means: “I’m terribly sorry to be a bother, but I just want to let you know that I’m about to make a turn any second now. Stand by…”

For Americans, on the other hand, the flashing light means something along these lines: “Hey! Check out this turn I’m already halfway through making! Woo-hoo! DON’T TREAD ON ME!”

At least, I think that’s how it works. I’m still trying to crack the code.

If I’m right though, I’m very thankful that my American friends occasionally make use of their “turn signals” to draw attention to partially completed vehicular maneuvers that I might otherwise have missed.