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Reforming Apologetics (Calvin)

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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.)


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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