Tag Archives: theistic arguments

Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)

Previous posts:


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)

Continue reading

The Inescapability of God

A (very) abridged version of chapter 4 of Why Should I Believe Christianity? was recently published in the Christian Research Journal 40:5 (2017). It’s reproduced here with permission.

Plantinga Drains Russell’s Teapot

Alvin Plantinga on Russell’s teapot, from a 2014 interview by Gary Gutting:

G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?

A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.

Plantinga goes on to discuss whether there is such evidence, whether there are any good arguments for or against atheism, and whether theistic beliefs need to be justified by philosophical arguments. He concludes with a nice summary of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

In Defense of the Argument for God from Logic

I’ve posted quite a few times on the argument for God from logic. Philosophia Christi received a number of submissions in response to the original Anderson-Welty article and decided to post three of them on the EPS blog, along with our response. Go here to read all four articles.

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

The following is the unabridged version of a review published in the Christian Research Journal 36:3 (2013). Thanks to CRI for permission to post it here.


Christian philosophers have been developing and refining arguments for the existence of God since the earliest times, but it’s not often one comes across a convinced atheist making a powerful philosophical case for the existence of God. Yet that’s precisely what we find—quite contrary to the author’s intent—in Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

Continue reading

Vallicella on the Argument for God from Logic

Bill Vallicella recently posted some comments on the paper I co-authored with Greg Welty. He states that he’s very sympathetic to our project, but he finds a weak point in our argument that renders it “rationally acceptable, but not rationally compelling.” Here I respond to his concerns.

Continue reading

A Friendly Question about God and Logic

Here’s a thoughtful email query I received with the title “Friendly Question about God and Logic”:

Recently, I have been reading about God and abstract objects and came across your article in Phil-Christi with Greg Welty regarding God and logic. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it both persuasive and useful. In doing further reading on your website I came across a follow up article where you argue that atheism presupposes theism (and so does every other ism) and your argument gets close to an objection to the claim that logic depends on God that I have long wondered about. In the article, in reference to Atheism you argue the following:

(1) God does not exist. [assumption for reductio]
(2) It is true that God does not exist. [from (1)]
(3) There is at least one truth (namely, the truth that there is no God). [from (2)]
(4) If there are truths, they are divine thoughts.
(5) There is at least one divine thought. [from (3) and (4)]
(6) If there are divine thoughts, then God exists.
(7) Therefore, God exists. [from (5) and (6)]

Consider the following reconstruction:

(1*) God does not exist. [assumption for reductio]
(2*) It is true that God does not exist. [from (1*)]
(3*) There is at least one truth (namely, the truth that there is no God). [from (2*)]
(4*) Therefore, truth does not depend on God. [from (1*) and (3*)]

Let me make explicit why I think (1*-4*):

(5*) The laws of logic are divine thoughts.
(6*) According to the aseity-sovereignty doctrine if God did not exist then nothing would exist.
(7*) If God did not exist there would be no divine thoughts.
(8*) Therefore, there would be no laws of logic.

But if (5*-8*) hold, the proposition either God exists or He does not, would be a truthful description of that state of affairs and be an instance of the LEM. Likewise, the proposition God exists, would be false, not true. Not both true and false, thus an instance of the LNC.

Or another way of stating it would be:

If God did not exist then nothing would exist. But it seems that even if God did not exist there would be at least one thing that would exist, the state of affairs, nothing exists. Doesn’t that imply/entail that there is at least one truth about that state of affairs, the truth nothing exists? If that is the case don’t we have laws of logic?

I assume my objection is misguided in some way. If you have time to address this question and clarify my error I would appreciate it.

Continue reading

Truths, Propositions, and the Argument for God from Logic

A correspondent asked me if I could address an objection he had encountered to the argument for God from logic. Here’s the objection as he quoted it, with my comments interspersed:

The authors equivocate when they make the leap to claim that the laws of logic are thoughts. The propositions themselves are certainly thoughts, but how can the truths that the propositions bear be thoughts?

"I want the truth!"I’m pleased that the objector concedes that “propositions … are certainly thoughts” because that’s a crucial step in the argument! However, the latter part of the question reflects a confusion. In our paper, we adopted the conventional definition of propositions as primary truth-bearers. But this doesn’t mean that propositions bear truths (as though truths were something other than propositions). Rather, it means that propositions are things that can bear the property of truth; they’re things that can be true. Given this definition, truths just are propositions; specifically, they are true propositions.

Continue reading

Anderson on Anderson

Dr. Owen Anderson of Arizona State University has posted some thoughts on my TGC article, “Can We Prove the Existence of God?”

I’m gratified that he thought the article worth commenting on; I only wish he’d read it a little more carefully. I was planning to respond before I discovered that the Pilgrim Philosopher has saved me the trouble.

Update: Owen has posted a reply here and there has been some interaction in the combox.

Can We Prove the Existence of God?

The Gospel Coalition invited me to answer the titular question in two thousand words or less. Go here to read the result. Unfortunately, due to the word limit, a number of witty asides and clever illustrations from the first draft didn’t make the final cut. (You’ll just have to take my word for that.)