J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics—Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith—A Critical Review (1 of 4)

by | Jun 4, 2019 | Apologetics, Book Reviews, Uncategorized


Let us be frank.  Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics is challenging for Presuppositionalists.  I have been a convinced Presuppositionalist in my understanding of the defense of the faith for something over 40 years.  Of course, this commitment has not been without remaining questions.  Who can read Cornelius Van Til and not have questions?  Who can think about Presuppositional apologetics and not ponder some very deep and difficult issues? 

Part of the reason for my problem is my own education.  Though I have read a good deal of philosophy over the years, I never quite finished a philosophy minor in college.  A knowledge of philosophy is, as Fesko’s book itself makes clear, really helpful in discussing biblical apologetics with its unavoidable focus on epistemology.  Fesko admits that Thomas Aquinas was influenced by the Aristotelian philosophy in his day.  He argues that a Kantian and Idealist philosophical background was important in the formulation of Van Til’s apologetic approach.

Still, I have been convinced that Van Til’s approach embodied a commitment to the distinctives of the Reformed faith lacking in other systems.  More importantly, I have found its key insights in Scripture.  I am a Presuppositionalist because of my understanding of Scripture and not because of my understanding of philosophy. I found in Van Til key advances in embodying scriptural truth in Christian apologetics.

All that being said, Presuppositionalism has fallen, it seems to me, on dark days.  For perhaps 50 years Presuppositionalism has been, if not the reigning system of apologetics in Reformed circles, a very popular viewpoint.  Of course, there was push back at times.  30 years or so ago I read Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics authored by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1984).  I found its argument unconvincing and (some of) its theology problematic.  I think it did little to stem the rising tide of Presuppositionalism.

It appears, however, in our day that a re-evaluation of Presuppositionalism has gained momentum. I suspect that one influence might be “reverence” for R. C. Sproul.  Sproul is one of the major influences in “the Reformed resurgence.” His passing into glory may have given his well-known opposition to Presuppositionalism a new appeal for some. 

Another cause of this re-evaluation may be that every theological system is subject to a kind of degeneration—especially when it enjoys the kind of popularity that Presuppositionalism has gained in Reformed circles. This can be illustrated from Van Til’s idea of paradox. Paradox is important in Van Til’s approach.  Cf. John Frame’s Essay, Van Til: The Theologian.  I certainly agree with him about the importance of this concept. There has been, it appears to me, misuse or at least sloppy use of the important concept of paradox prominent in Van Til’s approach. Presuppositionalists have occasionally said things that are not only paradoxical, but downright irrational.  The adversaries of Van Til have also trumpeted some of his (and his followers) more novel-sounding theological statements.

An additional cause of re-evaluation is thatPresuppositionalism has additionally been co-opted by viewpoints that must be suspect by those who follow the Reformed Confessions.  One is Theonomy. Christian Reconstructionism has proudly proclaimed that one of its foundational tenets is Presuppositionalism.[1]  I am convinced that the Theonomy of Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North cannot be squared with the Reformed Confessional tradition.  Statements critical of both Calvin and the Westminster Confession by them actually admit this.  To a lesser extent even Greg Bahnsen, whose views of Van Til’s apologetics I respect, also contradicts at points the Reformed tradition.  My views of these men and their theonomy are set out in an essay entitled:  Theonomy [or Christian Reconstruction] : A Reformed Baptist Assessment. It is available online. Suffice to say, many if not most Presuppositionalists are traditionally confessional and have actually rejected Theonomy in the sense taught by its classic exponents.

Another cause of re-evaluation is the embrace of viewpoints which possibly deviate from the tenets of Classical Theism by some Presuppositionalists. Leading Presuppositionalists like Scott Oliphint in books defending Presuppositional apologetics have adopted viewpoints that appear to raise questions about the simplicity and impassibility of God. Cf. K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

For all of these reasons, not a few in our day are ready to re-evaluate Presuppositionalism’s claim to be the truly Reformed apologetic.  This is, of course, neither fair nor logical.  Neither Theonomy, nor revisionist views of classical theism, follow from Van Til or Presuppositionalism.  Nevertheless, suspicion remains in some minds.  Thus, if there is not a crisis, there are at least major questions regarding Presuppositionalism and its claims.  As a confessional Reformed Baptist, these things make it more difficult to respond to Fesko’s challenge to Presuppositionalism.

[1]Peter J. Leithart, “An Interview with Dr. R. J. Rush­doony,” The Counsel of Chalcedon (Sept. 1985): 14-17; Gary North, Honest Reporting as Heresy:  My Response to Christ­ianity Today (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), 7.   

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