Cornelius Van Til

Reforming Apologetics (Wrap-Up)

For completeness, here are all the entries in my series reviewing J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics:

If you’re pressed for time (and aren’t we all?) you can get the gist of things by reading the entries on “Introduction,” “The Light of Nature,” and “The Book of Nature and Apologetics.” If you’re especially interested in Dr. Fesko’s critiques of the Van Tilian emphasis on ‘worldview’ and Van Til’s advocacy of transcendental argumentation, along with my responses to those critiques, read the entries on chapter 5 and chapter 6.

Reforming ApologeticsMy overall assessment of the book can be summarized as follows: I think Dr. Fesko does a great job of defending the use of natural revelation (“the book of nature”) in apologetics and in showing how the mainstream Reformed tradition has consistently and enthusiastically affirmed such use (albeit with important qualifications related to the noetic effects of sin and the necessary interpretive role of special revelation). However, the major shortcomings of the book are its repeated misinterpretation and mischaracterization of Van Til’s position (and that of other presuppositionalists, such as John Frame and Scott Oliphint) and its failure to establish its thesis that Van Til’s views are significantly at odds with Calvin’s views or with confessional Reformed theology. In fact, given what Dr. Fesko affirms in chapter 8 about a “covenantal epistemology,” and his agreement with Calvin (and Van Til!) on the need to read “the book of nature” through the “corrective lenses of Scripture,” I believe he ought to be more hesitant about aligning himself with the Thomistic (“classical”) approach to natural theology and more sympathetic toward Van Til’s efforts to “reform apologetics” by bringing it more into line with a consistently Reformed epistemology and doctrine of revelation. In any event, it’s good that Reformed brethren are continuing to have these conversations. Let’s be thankful for the significant areas of common ground we affirm, while pursuing better understanding of one another and (by God’s grace) greater convergence over time.

 

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).

Reforming Apologetics (Dualisms)

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Summary of Chapter 7

The purpose of chapter 7 of Reforming Apologetics is to defend natural theology (in the Reformed Thomist tradition) from the charge that it succumbs to “dualistic thinking.” The central target is the Dutch neo-Calvinist thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, although Cornelius Van Til plays a supporting role as another critic who complains about a dualism that afflicts Roman Catholic theology and infects some streams of Reformed theology.

In fact, Dr. Fesko introduces the chapter’s theme by citing Van Til’s accusation that “the Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism compromises both the theological and the apologetic integrity of the scriptural teaching about epistemology” (p. 161). According to Van Til, this “nature-grace dualism is unscriptural, since it leaves a beachhead of autonomous reason, which makes fallen human beings the arbiters of truth” (p. 162). Indeed, Van Til thinks there is a deeper problem:

Van Til contends that Roman Catholic theology falls short of scriptural teaching because it rests on an Aristotelian starting point, a dualistic understanding of man. Hence, Christians must purge dualistic thought from their theology and begin from a pure scriptural starting point. (p. 162)

Similar criticisms come from Cornelius’s nephew, Henry Van Til, in his book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, and from other “neo-Calvinist theologians and philosophers” such as James K. A. Smith, Albert Wolters, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Brian Walsh, and Richard Middleton. Dr. Fesko traces these criticisms to the influence of Abraham Kuyper, who argued that “since no area of life lies beyond the rule of Christ, all dualistic thought must be excised” (p. 163).

What does this have to do with Reformed apologetics? Fesko explains:

The dualism critique, therefore, plays an important role in debates over apologetic methodology and is one more hurdle to clear in order to recover the book of nature. (p. 163)

Fesko acknowledges that there are different versions of the “dualism critique,” but his aim in this chapter is to argue that the critique “rests on an inaccurate evaluation of the historical evidence.” Indeed, attempts to expose unbiblical dualisms in the natural theology tradition are guilty of a “fourfold failure”:

[T]hey separate what theologians merely distinguish, have little or no historical evidence to support them, ultimately rest on questionable philosophical claims rather than biblical exegesis, and employ the debunked hellenization thesis of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). (p. 164)

The chapter makes its case, first, by surveying three different types of dualism, and second, by analyzing and rebutting the charges of dualism leveled at Aquinas and some Reformed theologians.

Does Presuppositionalism Confuse Ontology and Epistemology?

Occasionally one hears classical apologists (especially those of a Thomist persuasion) claim that presuppositionalists are guilty of “confusing ontology and epistemology” or “confusing the order of being and the order of knowing.” R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Richard Howe, and Steven Cowan are among those who have leveled this charge.1 In this post, I want to explain why I think the objection itself is confused.

  1. R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Zondervan, 1984), 229-230; Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker Book House, 1991), 17-18; Richard G. Howe, “Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism” (2006); Steven B. Cowan, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder, eds., In Defense of the Bible (B&H Academic, 2013), 432.

Pick Your Worldview?

RTS Washington DCI’ve been having a lot of fun conversations recently. The latest was with my friends and colleagues at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington DC. In the most recent episode of their freshly-minted podcast, we had quite a wide-ranging discussion of topics such as analytic philosophy, the propriety of Reformed analytic theology, paradoxes in Christian theology, worldview apologetics, and my personal journey from electronic engineering to philosophical theology.

If you want to know why they titled this episode “Pick Your Worldview” rather than “Choose Your Own Worldview” — well, there’s a story behind it, but you’ll have to listen to find out!

While you’re at it, check out the other episodes in their podcast. Great stuff!

Reforming Apologetics (Transcendental Arguments)

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Summary of Chapter 6

In this chapter, Dr. Fesko turns his attention to Van Til’s advocacy of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter, TAG). Fesko’s main concern is not that TAG is a bad argument in itself, but rather that many Van Tilians treat it as the be-all and end-all of Reformed apologetics, to the exclusion of other apologetic arguments (i.e., more traditional theistic arguments and historical evidential arguments). He writes:

This chapter argues that the TAG is a useful tool within the apologist’s toolbox but is neither a silver-bullet argument nor the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics. … The degree to which apologists employ the TAG apart from the book of nature is inversely proportional to the degree to which they depart from the historic Reformed faith. (p. 137)

This chapter’s thesis, therefore, is that the TAG can be a useful argument but not at the expense of the book of nature. Christians can employ the connection between the innate and acquired natural knowledge of God in the defense of the faith. (p. 137)

Dr. Fesko’s approach in the chapter is to review TAG’s origins in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, to expose its “idealist elements,” and to raise some concerns about the use of TAG in Van Tilian apologetics.

Origin of Transcendental Arguments

The use of transcendental arguments can be traced to Kant’s attempt to refute idealism (specifically, skepticism about the existence of a mind-independent material world). The basic aim of a transcendental argument is to refute a skeptical position by showing that the skeptic has to presuppose the very thing he professes to doubt. Drawing from Robert Stern’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fesko writes:

Stated in simpler terms, transcendental arguments make a specific claim, namely, that X is necessary for Y to exist. If Y exists, then it logically follows that X must also be true. In other words, a transcendental argument argues by way of presupposition. (p. 139)

Fesko immediately connects TAG with the “historic worldview theory” (HWT) critiqued in the preceding chapter. James Orr advocated HWT and also employed a transcendental method (so Robert Knudsen argues), with the consequence that Orr repudiated proofs or evidential arguments for the existence of God. Gordon Clark followed Orr in these convictions. Van Til, despite acknowledging the legitimacy of evidence, “sounds very much like Orr” at points.

Fesko notes that Van Til’s disciples have debated among themselves the extent to which evidential arguments are appropriate in apologetics. Greg Bahnsen appeared to repudiate them altogether, while John Frame and Thom Notaro have defended their use and their compatibility with Van Til’s method. Even so, Fesko remarks, “there is a tendency to discount or diminish the use of evidence among some of those who employ the TAG” (p. 141).

A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument

The following excerpt is taken from David Hume by James N. Anderson (ISBN 978-1-62995-279-6) with permission from P&R Publishing Co, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, NJ 08865 (www.prpbooks.com).


The problem of induction may be viewed as a particular instance of a more general epistemological problem. Is there any rational order to the facts of the world, and, if so, how can we have epistemic access to that rational order? How can the multifarious facts of experience be rationally connected, so as to give us genuine knowledge of the world and its operations?

David HumeHume’s answer, in effect, is that such knowledge is impossible. Given his starting point, his answer is correct. Kant considered this a philosophical scandal, even though he agreed with Hume that all factual knowledge of the world must come through sense experience. Kant’s innovative response to Hume’s skepticism was his “Copernican revolution” in epistemology: although we cannot know the world as it is in itself, we can know the world as it appears to us, because our minds impose rational order on the data of experience. Kant called his theory “transcendental idealism,” but we might just as well call it anthropocentric antirealism, for, on Kant’s view, the world of experience—the world we take ourselves to inhabit—isn’t a mind-independent reality, but rather a construction of the active human mind.

Kant’s system, while ingenious in its own way, fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the problems raised by Hume. Not only is it internally inconsistent (Kant couldn’t avoid making some positive claims about the unknowable noumenal world), but, like all forms of antirealism, it is haunted by the specter of epistemological relativism. If the world is a construction of the human mind, which human mind is doing the constructing? How can I be sure that the rational order I impose upon my experience is the same for everyone? Kant was the champion of intellectual autonomy—human reason must serve as the supreme judge—yet the existence of seven billion minds on earth implies seven billion independent and competing authorities.

Reforming Apologetics (Worldview)

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Summary of Chapter 5

The main aim of chapter 5 of Reforming Apologetics is to criticize “historic worldview theory” (HWT) and the significant role it has played (according to the author) in the development of Van Tilian apologetics. The adoption of HWT is an obstacle to using “the book of nature” in apologetics, and for that very reason it needs to be challenged.

As Dr. Fesko defines it, HWT is

a very distinct idea that begins with nineteenth-century German idealism and includes the following characteristics: (1) the rejection of a common doctrine of humanity, (2) a single principle from which one deduces a worldview, (3) an exhaustive systematic explanation of reality, and (4) the incommensurability of competing worldviews. These aspects of HWT create an inhospitable environment for the historic Reformed appeal to the book of nature. The increased use of HWT is inversely proportional to the decreased use of the book of nature. (p. 98)

Fesko identifies several specific problems with HWT. First, it is “contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity”; in other words, it rejects the biblical teaching that all people share common notions in virtue of bearing the image of God. Second, HWT claims that “a worldview must present an exhaustive explanation of the world,” but the Bible doesn’t do that. According to the Reformed faith, Scripture “does not address all things” but “gives only principles for life in general” (p. 98). In the hands of Van Tilian apologists, HWT implies that the Bible “exhaustively explains all reality” and “must be the only foundation for all knowledge” (p. 99).

Dr. Fesko proposes to make his case by (1) reviewing the historical origins of HWT, (2) explaining how Van Til’s employment of HWT led to his rejection of common notions, (3) surveying the impact of Van Til’s use of HWT on the Reformed community, (4) making “a brief scriptural case for common notions,” and (5) refuting the claim that the Bible “offers an exhaustive view of the world” (p. 99).

Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)

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Summary of Chapter 4

The burden of the fourth chapter of Reforming Apologetics is to argue that Van Til’s critique of Thomas Aquinas is inaccurate and unfair to the medieval theologian. While there are some problematic elements in Aquinas’s theology, Dr. Fesko concedes, it would be a mistake to dismiss Aquinas’s system in toto as a compromise with pagan thought, as Van Til asks us to do. Thus, we should not consider inherently problematic the appeals to Aquinas made by the later Reformed scholastic theologians.

Fesko summarizes the content of the chapter thus:

Here I will argue that Van Til and many of his students have misread Aquinas on the relationship between faith and reason as well as his use of Aristotelian philosophy. The chapter therefore first sets forth Van Til’s claims about Aquinas. Then it explores what Aquinas actually said. Third, it offers analysis as to why Van Til misreads Aquinas. Van Til’s most serious error, I believe, is that he reads Aquinas largely through secondary sources rather than carefully engaging Aquinas’s works. Such a methodology naturally skews his interpretation. Hence, this chapter focuses exclusively on Aquinas, not the subsequent Thomist tradition. … The chapter then concludes with some observations about Aquinas and Reformed theology and apologetics. (p. 72)

Van Til on Aquinas

Dr. Fesko summarizes “five main charges” that Van Til levels against “Thomas and the Roman Catholic position” in his book Christian Apologetics:

1. Aquinas follows Aristotle by speaking of being and then introducing the distinction between the divine and created beings. Aquinas does not begin with the doctrine of the ontological Trinity.

2. Roman Catholics try to prove the existence of God by employing the method of Aristotle to show that God’s existence is in accord with the principles of logic.

3. By appealing to the common ground of reason, Roman Catholics arise at the existence of a god through theistic proofs, and this god accords with the presuppositions of natural reason but not the God of the Bible.

4. Natural humankind are said to possess natural revelation and to correctly interpret it; there is no need for supernatural revelation to correct natural humankind’s (fallen) interpretation of natural revelation.

5. There are two Aquinases: Thomas the theologian and Thomas the philosopher. Thomas the philosopher appeals to and employs autonomous reason, and Thomas the theologian appeals to Scripture, but Thomas “the theologian need not at all ask St. Thomas the autonomous philosopher to reverse his decisions on the fundamental question about the existence of God.”

In summary, Van Til maintains that Aquinas has let the infection of Greek autonomous reason into the fortress of faith, and reason has taken over. Reason is the foundation on which Aquinas tries to build his system of doctrine and thus his apologetic methodology. (pp. 73-74)

In a footnote, Dr. Fesko references six other works “where Van Til makes similar claims.” He also cites Greg Bahnsen’s criticisms of the apologetics of E. J. Carnell and Francis Schaeffer as an example of the subsequent influence of Van Til’s critique of Aquinas.

What Aquinas Really Said

In this section, Dr. Fesko seeks to show that Van Til and his followers have misunderstood the roles that reason and the Five Ways play in Aquinas’s theology. The critics claim that “Aquinas constructs a rational foundation upon which he then builds his theological system. The system rests on autonomous reason rather than special revelation, or Scripture.” (p. 74)

As Fesko sees it, the issue boils down to this:

The chief question here is, Did the proofs ever serve as the primary ground for Thomas’s system, a rational stepladder that begins with reason and then rises to revelation? Quite simply, the answer is no. (p. 74)

Fesko argues that Aquinas “never advanced the proofs as a rational foundation for his system of theology.” On the contrary, the proofs function “only on the presupposition of faith and the authority of Scripture.” The proofs aren’t necessary for faith; rather, they seek only to show that faith isn’t contrary to reason but in accord with it. Some of the claims of the Christian faith, such as the existence of God, can be demonstrated by natural reason. However, those truths necessary for salvation can only be known by divine revelation.

For Aquinas, then, reason is merely “an assistant or handmaid (ancilla) to faith. Reason answers objections and clarifies revealed truths.” (p. 77)

Fesko proceeds to summarize Aquinas’s five famous proofs of the existence of God, noting that he prefaces these demonstrations with an appeal to Scripture (Romans 1:20 and Exodus 3:14) as support for his approach. Aquinas’s preferred method is to argue from effect to cause (i.e., from creation to Creator).

Fesko asks us to observe two things about the proofs. First, “they are probable demonstrations rather than incontrovertible proofs.” Second, Aquinas “does not intend them to serve as a rational foundation for faith”; the proofs are only meant to show that “the claims of Christianity are rational and even demonstrable, which means that Christians and non-Christians can enter into a genuine dialogue about God’s existence.” (p. 80)