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.”
A while back I wrote about the collision between feminism and transgenderism on the field of so-called abortion rights. Well, here’s an interesting update. Initial reports suggest that Leana Wen, who was removed this week from her position as president of Planned Parenthood after less than a year in the post, may be one of the high-profile casualties in this clash of progressive ideologies.
According to a BuzzFeed News article (HT: Steve Hays):
Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, the first physician to head the women’s health care group in 50 years, said she was removed from her position by the organization’s board “at a secret meeting,” capping months of internal concerns over her management style and a perceived shift away from the group’s political work.
Wen attributed her departure to “philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood,” she said in a tweet on Tuesday.
Various reasons for Wen’s abrupt exit are noted, including the following:
Two sources told BuzzFeed News that Wen also refused to use “trans-inclusive” language, for example saying “people” instead of “women” and telling staff that she believed talking about transgender issues would “isolate people in the Midwest.” For a period of a few months, Wen sometimes went through Planned Parenthood’s press releases and documents, deleting the word “sexual” from the phrase “sexual and reproductive health,” the source said.
I suppose that’s the downside of hiring a physician, trained in human anatomy and physiology, to be the spokeswoman (sorry, spokesperson — or should it now be ‘wokesperson’?) for an organization that wants to ride the LGBTQ wave. The cognitive dissonance can be too much to handle. Even so, Wen must have known what she was getting into. Couldn’t she tell which way the wind was blowing?
A preprint version of the article I co-authored with Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” published a while ago in the Journal for Reformed Theology and summarized here, is now available here. Enjoy!
The argument I’m going to make here isn’t a new one, but it’s important enough to be restated and recirculated.
I’m not all that old, but I’m still old enough to remember when the acronym was just LGB. From a Christian perspective, the LGB movement was misguided, but at least it was conceptually coherent. Even if you disagreed with LGB advocates, at least you understood what you were disagreeing with. I don’t know when the T became a permanent addition (this Google Ngram suggests the mid-90s), but whenever it was, that was the point the acronym became an unstable compound.
Here’s why. L, G, and B were originally understood in terms of the natural (and normative) sexual categories of male and female. L refers to women who are sexually attracted to women. G refers to men who are sexually attracted to men. B refers to people who are sexually attracted to both men and women. (Remember that ‘bi’ means two; ‘bisexual’ presupposes a binary sexual categorization.) Those definitions are intelligible even to those who hold to traditional sexual norms.
But T subverts all that by demanding that we detach those sexual categories from physical (anatomical) realities. According to transgender ideology, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are to be understood in terms of gender identity (which is non-physical) rather than biological sex (which is physical). Yet the moment we do that, the L, G, and B become meaningless.
By way of illustration, consider the widely-discussed Gender Unicorn developed by an organization known as Trans Student Educational Resources. (The following critique can be just as well applied to the Genderbread Person; I leave that as an exercise for the reader.) The Gender Unicorn is a visual aid that is supposed to help us understand and navigate the complex and pitfall-laden terrain of modern sexuality and gender identity. According to the Unicorn, we need to distinguish five dimensions: (1) gender identity, (2) gender expression, (3) sex assigned at birth, (4) physical attraction, and (5) emotional attraction. Now consider the first and fourth of these. One’s gender identity can be ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (alongside other options) but these have nothing to do with one’s anatomy (note how the rainbow icon appears in a thought bubble; it’s a matter of internal self-perception). At the same time, one’s physical attraction, the Unicorn tells us, can be toward ‘men’ or ‘women’ (again, alongside other options). Yet one can only have a physical attraction toward that which is physical. So the meanings of ‘men’ and ‘women’ on the axis of physical attraction must be defined with reference to anatomy.
Hence the incoherence: T (which is concerned with gender identity) requires us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in non-physical terms, but L, G, and B (which are concerned at least partly with physical attraction) require us to define ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in physical terms.
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)
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.
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 birthdays – their 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’.
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.
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.
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.
Scholars 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
- Brazil → Brazilian
- Civil → Civilian
- Virgil → Virgilian
3. Argument from Parsimony
“Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” (William of Ockham)
A second L is obviously unnecessary, therefore: Van Tilian.
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.
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.