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.”
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: