J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics—Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith—A Critical Review (2 of 4)

by | Jun 5, 2019 | Apologetics, Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Part 1


But this somewhat personal preface to the appearance of Fesko’s book provides no clear idea of the nature of Fesko’s volume and its argument.  To understand where Fesko is coming from involves an understanding of some important currents which have arisen in Reformed scholarship in recent years.

One of those currents has been the growing appreciation for the accomplishments of what is known as the high Reformed Scholasticism of the late 16th and 17th centuries.  This current is deeply reflected in the subtitle of Fesko’s work: Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith.  The Classical Reformed Approach of which Fesko speaks is a reference to the high Reformed Scholasticism just mentioned.

To understand the story of the emergence of this renewed appreciation for Reformed Scholasticism, one must go back to and provide a brief introduction to a theory popular in previous generations of historians. The theory is known as Calvin versus the Calvinists.[1]  Fesko mentions this theory explicitly and takes issue with it in many places. (48, 50, 52, 53, 56, 67-69) This theory over the years was elaborated in many ways.  Here is a chart which suggests its character and claims.

A key issue that informs Fesko’s critique of Van Til and Presuppositionalism has to do with this claim that Calvin differed from his theological descendants in rejecting the scholastic tradition informed by the philosophical methodology of Aristotle.  Reformed historians under the influence of especially the work of Richard Muller have raised serious questions about this view of Calvin.  Muller in his Unaccommodated Calvin[2] and Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics[3]has argued that this distinction is not only exaggerated but probably false.

This is important with regard to Van Til and Presuppositionalism because of two well-known claims of Van Til.  The first is that Calvin significantly and even drastically differed from the Medieval Scholastics in his approach to apologetics and especially natural theology.  The second is that later Reformed theologians drifted from Calvin into a view of apologetics that actually returned to the views of Medieval Scholasticism.

The view associated with Muller and other contemporary historical theologians is that to understand Calvin properly, he must be situated within the classical, Christian theological tradition and not contrasted with it.  This means that, far from being contrasted, for instance, with Thomas Aquinas and the Medieval theological tradition, he must be interpreted as working within it.  Similarly, this means that far from contrasting him with his Calvinist theological successors he must be interpreted in harmony with them.  Thomas Aquinas, the Medieval theologians, Calvin, and the “Reformed Scholastics” of the succeeding generation are all seen as utilizing the same scholastic methodology.  Muller argues in Unaccommodated Calvin that, though this scholastic method is not as apparent in Calvin, it informs many of his writings. 

Flowing from this thesis is another and even more important consequence.  There is much more commonality in Calvin’s actual theological system and affirmations with the Reformed and especially the Medieval “Scholastics” than has generally been recognized.

This is a startling claim and not just for Presuppositionalists. Central to Van Til’s claims regarding Presuppositionalism is a contrast especially with Medieval Scholasticism’s approach to apologetics.  The notion that Calvin had much more in common with Thomas Aquinas than has been generally recognized is both challenging and serious to Presuppositionalism.

What shall we make of this new paradigm of contemporary Reformed historians?  How should we respond to it and the challenge it poses for Presuppositionalism’s claims?  Though I am in general carried by Muller’s thesis, I also believe that it is easily subject to overstatement and abuse. 

I am carried by it in so far as it is clear that many of the contrasts between Calvin and the later Calvinists have been based on significant misunderstandings of or imbalanced, one-sided treatments of Calvin.  Into this category, for instance, must be placed Brian Armstrong’s not too subtle attempt to present Calvin as the father of Amyraldianism.[4]  Into the same category must be placed R. T. Kendall’s horrendous attempt to appropriate Calvin to universal atonement and his intellectualist view of faith.[5]  I am not familiar with any attempts to appropriate Calvin for passibilist or semi-passibilist views of God, but it is clear to me that Calvin held to classical views of the doctrine of God as propounded by both Medieval and Protestant Scholastic theologians.  This is an important point for those arguing for a more “scholastic” Calvin.

At the same time, a warning must be stated.  The current scholarly trend towards a scholastic Calvin must not be pressed to the point where certain differences between Calvin and some of his Reformed successors are denied.  It is clear that there are differences between Calvin and the Reformed on a number of the subjects noted in the chart above.  It seems to me that Calvin did define saving faith in terms which made assurance of salvation essential to saving faith.  It seems clear to me that his views of the Christian Sabbath are neither as consistent nor complete as those of his Puritan successors.  The degree of difference between Calvin and the Calvinists on these issues has been overstated. Seriously wrong practical conclusions have been drawn from these differences. Nevertheless, differences clearly do exist. On both of these issues I prefer the views of the confessional tradition found in the Westminster and 1689 Baptist Confession to those of Calvin. While at many points the confessional tradition closely reflects (and sometimes almost verbatim) the views of Calvin, there are distinctions between Calvin and the Calvinists that cannot be denied.

There are also places where I agree with Calvin against his Reformed successors.  It is well-known that a revolutionary, political tradition developed among Calvin’s Presbyterian successors.  It is really clear that Calvin is not the author of this tradition and in fact would have rejected this development.  I have documented the reasons for this assertion in my essay on Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique.[6]  Suffice to say here, Calvin makes his anti-revolutionary view clear in the Institutes (4:20), in his commentaries on the key passages, and in his letters to the French Reformed movement.

In the prevailing enthusiasm for Muller’s thesis, these distinctions must not be forgotten.  Muller himself in Unaccommodated Calvin refuses to claim Calvin for a full-blown doctrine of limited atonement.[7]  William Cunningham (1805-1861) cannot be accused of being influenced by 20th century historiography.  Yet he cautions against wrongly flattening the difference between Calvin and his successors.  He has this to say about Calvin and the Calvinists:

And it has often been alleged that Beza, in his very able discussions of this subject, carried his views upon some points farther than Calvin himself did, so that he has been described as being Calvino Calvinior.  We are not prepared to deny altogether the truth of this allegation; but we are persuaded that there is less ground for it than is sometimes supposed, and that the points of alleged difference between them in matters of doctrine, respect chiefly topics on which Calvin was not led to give any very formal or explicit deliverance, because they were not at the time subjects of discussion, or indeed ever present to his thoughts.[8]

Though some may think that John Murray was too influenced by the historiography of his day, he provides this analysis of the issue.

It would be unhistorical and theologically unscientific to overlook or discount the developments in the formulation of Reformed doctrine that a century of thought and particularly of controversy produced.  Study even of Calvin’s later works, including his definitive edition of the Institutes (1559), readily discloses that his polemics and formulations were not oriented to the exigencies of debates that were subsequent to the time of his writing.  It is appropriate and necessary, therefore, that in dealing with Calvin, Dort, and Westminster we should be alert to the differing situations existing in the respective dates and to the ways in which thought and language were affected by diverse contexts.  This is particularly necessary in the case of Calvin.  Too frequently he is enlisted in support of positions that diverge from those of his successors in the Reformed tradition.  It is true that Calvin’s method differs considerably from that of the classic Reformed systematizers of the seventeenth century.  But this difference of method does not of itself afford any warrant for a construction of Calvin that places him in sharp contrast with the more analytically developed formulations of Reformed theology in the century that followed.[9]

A definitive evaluation of Fesko’s claims based on Muller’s historiography must await the following review of his volume.  These cautionary thoughts are intended simply to set the stage for that evaluation.

[1]Two important statements of this historical paradigm are these: Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth Century France (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.); John Calvin: A Collection of Essays, ed. by G. E. Duffield, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1968).  In this collection see especially Basil Hall’s “Calvin against the Calvinists,” 25f.

[2]Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin (Oxford: New York, 2000).

[3]Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 2003).

[4]Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy.

[5]R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.)

[6]This essay was my thesis for my ThM written for Grand Rapids Baptist Theological Seminary. It is currently unpublished.

[7]Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin, 6.

[8]William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, pp. 349, 350.

[9]Crisis in the Reformed Churches, ed. by Peter Y. Dejong, “Calvin, Dort, and Westminster – A Comparative Study,” John Murray, pp. 150, 151.

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