I’ve been asked by several folk to share my thoughts on J. V. Fesko’s article, “The Scholastic Epistemology of Geerhardus Vos.” (Side note: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Fesko as a colleague following his recent appointment to the faculty at RTS Jackson! The following comments are offered respectfully and in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17. Semper reformanda!)
A great deal could be said in response to the various points Fesko raises in his essay, but I’ll restrict myself to some remarks on his core argument and a few other related matters. Fesko’s main target is the “Vosian Van Til thesis” which maintains that “Van Til and Vos had the same view of epistemology,” that there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Vos and Van Til,” and that “Van Til learned a unique epistemology from Vos.” Fesko readily concedes that Van Til was significantly influenced by Vos, but he wants to challenge the stronger claim that Van Til adopted a distinctive epistemology from Vos which served as a kind of course-correction for Reformed philosophy and apologetics.
Fesko’s central argument can be easily summarized:
- Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
- Van Til rejected both of the above.
- Therefore (contra the Vosian Van Til thesis) there’s significant discontinuity between Vos and Van Til. Vos stands in line with the historic Reformed tradition; Van Til does not.
There’s also a subsidiary argument, which I won’t assess here:
- Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
- Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
- Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.
1. It’s important to recognize the scope and nature of Fesko’s argument. It’s really an argument against the claims of certain Van Tilians. It isn’t a refutation of any distinctive element of Van Til’s thought. (I don’t mean to suggest it was intended to be, but some might fail to recognize what the argument, if sound, would actually prove.)
2. Along the same lines, we should acknowledge that the article is an exercise in historical theology: it concerns the intellectual relationship between two Reformed thinkers (and also their relationship to earlier Reformed theologians). Historical claims do not establish philosophical or theological theses. Fesko’s argument tells us little if anything about whether Vos’s position, Van Til’s position, or some other position is the right position to hold. The mere fact that Theologian A’s position aligns with Theologian B’s position, or stands in continuity with Tradition C, doesn’t as such give us any reason to agree with A, B, or C.
3. Some readers will take (and have taken) the article to provide support for Reformed scholasticism or Reformed Thomism. But again, I think that misses the scope of the argument. Nothing in the article constitutes a defense of scholasticism or Thomism as such. For example, there’s nothing here that vindicates the use of Aristotelian metaphysics or Aquinas’s nature-grace scheme.
4. The article refers to “Van Tillians” as though that’s a homogeneous group partly defined by a commitment to the Vosian Van Til thesis. But there have been considerable disagreements among self-described Van Tilians about how to interpret Van Til’s claims and implement his apologetic program. Van Tilians are no more a homogeneous group than Thomists. Fesko takes the claims of William Dennison and Lane Tipton to be representative of all Van Tilians. But on what grounds? Why think they speak for everyone who endorses a Van Tilian approach to apologetics (especially with respect to historical theses about lines of intellectual influence)?
Moving to matters of more substance:
[This is the fifth in an n-part series, where n>1 and very probably n=6.]
A long time ago, in a galaxy remarkably like this one, I began a series addressing the question, How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? It’s high time I started to wrap things up. So, to recap:
- In the first post, I argued that Augustinianism and Molinism can equally well accommodate comprehensive divine providence and God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, both of which the Bible clearly affirms. I observed that if Molinists wants to argue that their position is more biblical than the Augustinian position, they need to identify some proposition p that meets two conditions: (i) p is affirmed by Molinism but denied by Augustinianism, and (ii) p is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching.
- In the second, third, and fourth posts, I considered three candidates for p: first, the proposition that moral freedom is incompatible with determinism; second, the proposition that God desires all to be saved; and third, the proposition that God is not the author of sin. In none of these three cases, I argued, does the candidate p meet conditions (i) and (ii).
In this post, I turn the tables and argue there are three propositions, each of which meet the following two conditions: (i) the proposition is denied by Molinism but affirmed (or at least not denied) by Augustinianism, and (ii) the proposition is affirmed or clearly implied by some biblical teaching. That being the case, we should conclude that Augustinianism is better supported by the Bible than Molinism. Continue reading
You might know that P&R have been publishing new editions of Cornelius Van Til’s major works. You might also know that those new editions have introductions and explanatory notes by WTS professors William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint.
You might not know, however, that a couple of Edgar’s introductory essays are fully contained in the free samples of those books available on the Westminster Bookstore website:
Check them out!
One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.
So it’s important for presuppositionalists to present arguments in support of their claims, and to ensure their critics are aware of those arguments so that they can be critically evaluated. In that spirit, I thought it would be useful to gather in one place my own presuppositional arguments, as well as my attempts to explain or reconstruct the arguments of other presuppositionalists:
In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.
A short article written for The Gospel Coalition.
(The Far Side cartoon mentioned in the introduction can be viewed here.)
Having been recently promoted to associate professor, I was invited to give a short lecture at our Fall convocation service last week. The audio of the lecture (“The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide”) is now available on iTunes U.
On a closely related note, check out these good thoughts by my colleague Mike Kruger on the current state of public debate over moral issues.
The Gospel Coalition is running a series on methods in apologetics. The latest installment is “Questioning Presuppositionalism” by Dr. Paul Copan, who raises four criticisms of presuppositionalism, one of which is the old canard that presuppositionalists engage in fallacious circular reasoning. (I think all four are misguided in one way or another, but the other three will have to wait for now.) He writes:
First, it engages in question-begging — assuming what one wants to prove. It begins with the assumption that God exists, and then concludes that God exists. Such reasoning would get you an “F” in any logic class worthy of the name!
Dr. Copan is a gentleman and a scholar, so I’m sure he doesn’t realize quite how insulting this sounds to presuppositionalists! (For comparison, imagine someone claiming that evidentialists commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent because they use inductive inferences.) This criticism has been answered many times, so it’s disappointing to find it cropping up yet again (although perhaps presuppositionalists should take comfort from the fact that Dr. Copan doesn’t offer any new criticisms!). Even so, I’ll try to explain one more time why this complaint so badly misses the mark.
By this rejection of God, agnosticism has embraced complete relativism. Yet this relativism must furnish a basis for the rejection of the absolute. Accordingly, the standard of self-contradiction taken for granted by antitheistic thought presupposes the absolute for its operation. Antitheism presupposes theism. One must stand upon the solid ground of theism to be an effective antitheist.
(Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. xi)
“Antitheism presupposes theism” is one of Van Til’s best lines, because it captures in a nutshell the genius of presuppositional apologetics. It’s not merely that theism is true; it’s not merely that theism can be shown to be true; it’s that theism can be shown to be true by any attempt to prove it false. One can prove theism to be false only if, as a matter of fundamental metaphysical fact, theism is true — which is just to say that antitheism is self-defeating.
Philosophia Christi has kindly permitted me to post on my website a preprint of “The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic”, which I co-authored with Greg Welty. I wrote the first version of the paper, but Greg did all the heavy lifting; the argument is indebted to the ideas he developed in his DPhil dissertation on theistic conceptual realism.
Here’s the abstract:
In this paper we offer a new argument for the existence of God. We contend that the laws of logic are metaphysically dependent on the existence of God, understood as a necessarily existent, personal, spiritual being; thus anyone who grants that there are laws of logic should also accept that there is a God. We argue that if our most natural intuitions about them are correct, and if they’re to play the role in our intellectual activities that we take them to play, then the laws of logic are best construed as necessarily existent thoughts — more specifically, as divine thoughts about divine thoughts. We conclude by highlighting some implications for both theistic arguments and antitheistic arguments.
While we don’t discuss Van Til or presuppositional apologetics in the paper, those so inclined will recognize this as a more robust exposition of a common presuppositionalist argument and they’ll also appreciate (I hope) the concluding remarks.
A commenter asks why I don’t endorse the claim that the transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG) gives us epistemic certainty (which I take to mean that the argument delivers a conclusion that has maximal epistemic warrant and could not be rationally doubted). After all, if TAG proves Christian theism “by the impossibility of the contrary”, as many of its advocates have claimed, wouldn’t it follow that TAG’s conclusion is epistemically certain?