Reforming Apologetics (Wrap-Up)

For completeness, here are all the entries in my series reviewing J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics:

If you’re pressed for time (and aren’t we all?) you can get the gist of things by reading the entries on “Introduction,” “The Light of Nature,” and “The Book of Nature and Apologetics.” If you’re especially interested in Dr. Fesko’s critiques of the Van Tilian emphasis on ‘worldview’ and Van Til’s advocacy of transcendental argumentation, along with my responses to those critiques, read the entries on chapter 5 and chapter 6.

Reforming ApologeticsMy overall assessment of the book can be summarized as follows: I think Dr. Fesko does a great job of defending the use of natural revelation (“the book of nature”) in apologetics and in showing how the mainstream Reformed tradition has consistently and enthusiastically affirmed such use (albeit with important qualifications related to the noetic effects of sin and the necessary interpretive role of special revelation). However, the major shortcomings of the book are its repeated misinterpretation and mischaracterization of Van Til’s position (and that of other presuppositionalists, such as John Frame and Scott Oliphint) and its failure to establish its thesis that Van Til’s views are significantly at odds with Calvin’s views or with confessional Reformed theology. In fact, given what Dr. Fesko affirms in chapter 8 about a “covenantal epistemology,” and his agreement with Calvin (and Van Til!) on the need to read “the book of nature” through the “corrective lenses of Scripture,” I believe he ought to be more hesitant about aligning himself with the Thomistic (“classical”) approach to natural theology and more sympathetic toward Van Til’s efforts to “reform apologetics” by bringing it more into line with a consistently Reformed epistemology and doctrine of revelation. In any event, it’s good that Reformed brethren are continuing to have these conversations. Let’s be thankful for the significant areas of common ground we affirm, while pursuing better understanding of one another and (by God’s grace) greater convergence over time.


Reforming Apologetics (Dualisms)

Previous posts:

Summary of Chapter 7

The purpose of chapter 7 of Reforming Apologetics is to defend natural theology (in the Reformed Thomist tradition) from the charge that it succumbs to “dualistic thinking.” The central target is the Dutch neo-Calvinist thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, although Cornelius Van Til plays a supporting role as another critic who complains about a dualism that afflicts Roman Catholic theology and infects some streams of Reformed theology.

In fact, Dr. Fesko introduces the chapter’s theme by citing Van Til’s accusation that “the Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism compromises both the theological and the apologetic integrity of the scriptural teaching about epistemology” (p. 161). According to Van Til, this “nature-grace dualism is unscriptural, since it leaves a beachhead of autonomous reason, which makes fallen human beings the arbiters of truth” (p. 162). Indeed, Van Til thinks there is a deeper problem:

Van Til contends that Roman Catholic theology falls short of scriptural teaching because it rests on an Aristotelian starting point, a dualistic understanding of man. Hence, Christians must purge dualistic thought from their theology and begin from a pure scriptural starting point. (p. 162)

Similar criticisms come from Cornelius’s nephew, Henry Van Til, in his book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, and from other “neo-Calvinist theologians and philosophers” such as James K. A. Smith, Albert Wolters, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Brian Walsh, and Richard Middleton. Dr. Fesko traces these criticisms to the influence of Abraham Kuyper, who argued that “since no area of life lies beyond the rule of Christ, all dualistic thought must be excised” (p. 163).

What does this have to do with Reformed apologetics? Fesko explains:

The dualism critique, therefore, plays an important role in debates over apologetic methodology and is one more hurdle to clear in order to recover the book of nature. (p. 163)

Fesko acknowledges that there are different versions of the “dualism critique,” but his aim in this chapter is to argue that the critique “rests on an inaccurate evaluation of the historical evidence.” Indeed, attempts to expose unbiblical dualisms in the natural theology tradition are guilty of a “fourfold failure”:

[T]hey separate what theologians merely distinguish, have little or no historical evidence to support them, ultimately rest on questionable philosophical claims rather than biblical exegesis, and employ the debunked hellenization thesis of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). (p. 164)

The chapter makes its case, first, by surveying three different types of dualism, and second, by analyzing and rebutting the charges of dualism leveled at Aquinas and some Reformed theologians.

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.

  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 (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)

Vos and Van Til: How Wide the Divide?

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!)

Geerhardus VosA 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:

  1. Vos (and the historic Reformed tradition) affirmed both natural theology and the traditional scholastic distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ articles of faith.
  2. Van Til rejected both of the above.
  3. 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:

  1. Vos approved of Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  2. Van Til criticized Bavinck’s “moderate realism”.
  3. Therefore, Van Til’s epistemology isn’t in line with Vos’s.

Some comments:

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:

Philosophy and The Edge of Tomorrow

The Edge of TomorrowI just saw the latest Cruise blockbuster The Edge of Tomorrow. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s my kind of movie: sci-fi alien-blasting action with a smart plot that delivers satisfyingly on an intriguing premise. (Plus, I just enjoy Tom Cruise movies. Is that so wrong?)

If you liked Minority Report, Inception, and Looper, there’s a good chance you’ll get a kick out of this movie. But what I want to write about here are some of the interesting philosophical issues raised by the movie. It seems to me that the storyline makes at least five substantive (and often disputed) philosophical assumptions.

SPOILER ALERT: Some plot details are revealed in what follows. If you plan to see the movie but haven’t yet, don’t read any further! (But do come back later.)