Tag Archives: J. V. Fesko

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).

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Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)

Reading time: 14 minutes

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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)

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Reforming Apologetics (Calvin)

Reading time: 9 minutes

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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.)

Scholasticism

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.”

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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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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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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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