Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

Does Presuppositionalism Confuse Ontology and Epistemology?

Occasionally one hears classical apologists (especially those of a Thomist persuasion) claim that presuppositionalists are guilty of “confusing ontology and epistemology” or “confusing the order of being and the order of knowing.” R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Richard Howe, and Steven Cowan are among those who have leveled this charge.1 In this post, I want to explain why I think the objection itself is confused.

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  1. R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Zondervan, 1984), 229-230; Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker Book House, 1991), 17-18; Richard G. Howe, “Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism” (2006); Steven B. Cowan, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder, eds., In Defense of the Bible (B&H Academic, 2013), 432.

Reforming Apologetics (Transcendental Arguments)

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Summary of Chapter 6

In this chapter, Dr. Fesko turns his attention to Van Til’s advocacy of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter, TAG). Fesko’s main concern is not that TAG is a bad argument in itself, but rather that many Van Tilians treat it as the be-all and end-all of Reformed apologetics, to the exclusion of other apologetic arguments (i.e., more traditional theistic arguments and historical evidential arguments). He writes:

This chapter argues that the TAG is a useful tool within the apologist’s toolbox but is neither a silver-bullet argument nor the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics. … The degree to which apologists employ the TAG apart from the book of nature is inversely proportional to the degree to which they depart from the historic Reformed faith. (p. 137)

This chapter’s thesis, therefore, is that the TAG can be a useful argument but not at the expense of the book of nature. Christians can employ the connection between the innate and acquired natural knowledge of God in the defense of the faith. (p. 137)

Dr. Fesko’s approach in the chapter is to review TAG’s origins in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, to expose its “idealist elements,” and to raise some concerns about the use of TAG in Van Tilian apologetics.

Origin of Transcendental Arguments

The use of transcendental arguments can be traced to Kant’s attempt to refute idealism (specifically, skepticism about the existence of a mind-independent material world). The basic aim of a transcendental argument is to refute a skeptical position by showing that the skeptic has to presuppose the very thing he professes to doubt. Drawing from Robert Stern’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fesko writes:

Stated in simpler terms, transcendental arguments make a specific claim, namely, that X is necessary for Y to exist. If Y exists, then it logically follows that X must also be true. In other words, a transcendental argument argues by way of presupposition. (p. 139)

Fesko immediately connects TAG with the “historic worldview theory” (HWT) critiqued in the preceding chapter. James Orr advocated HWT and also employed a transcendental method (so Robert Knudsen argues), with the consequence that Orr repudiated proofs or evidential arguments for the existence of God. Gordon Clark followed Orr in these convictions. Van Til, despite acknowledging the legitimacy of evidence, “sounds very much like Orr” at points.

Fesko notes that Van Til’s disciples have debated among themselves the extent to which evidential arguments are appropriate in apologetics. Greg Bahnsen appeared to repudiate them altogether, while John Frame and Thom Notaro have defended their use and their compatibility with Van Til’s method. Even so, Fesko remarks, “there is a tendency to discount or diminish the use of evidence among some of those who employ the TAG” (p. 141).

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Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)

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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 (Common Notions)

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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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