J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics—Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith—A Critical Review (3 of 4)

by | Jun 6, 2019 | Apologetics, Book Reviews

part 1 , part 2


Reforming Apologetics consists of an introduction and eight chapters.  The introduction provides a survey of the book with the intention of summarizing its argument.

The first three chapters have for their purpose the rehabilitation of natural theology.  Fesko argues in Chapter 1 which is entitled, “The Light of Nature,” that natural theology has played a vital role in high Reformed theology or Reformed Scholasticism.  Utilizing Burgess’s lectures on the light of nature (24), he rebuts scholarly views of a previous generation that Reformed theology was opposed to natural theology and argues that the Reformed were one with the “common catholic heritage” found in Aquinas and Augustine which affirmed natural theology (25-26).

In Chapter 2 Fesko discusses the idea of common notions.  Once more from Anthony Burgess’s lectures on the law he shows that “common notions” were a part of the theology of the Puritans. He proceeds to argue that “common notions” were taught by the Greek philosophers and were “the proximate source” of the concept in high Reformed theology. (32)  Once more Fesko concludes that Reformed theology held a form of natural theology. (48)

In Chapter 3 Fesko specifically addresses “Calvin.”  That is the title of the chapter.  Calvin’s views must be discussed because Calvin is frequently seen as the opponent of natural theology. Fesko associates Van Til with Barth’s famous rejection of natural theology. (51-52) This leads Fesko to reiterate some of Richard Muller’s work showing that Calvin utilized a scholastic methodology, though not so overtly as some later Reformed theologians.  He is careful to distinguish between the use of this methodology and “specific doctrinal outcomes.” (54) Nevertheless, Fesko argues that the traditional arguments for the existence of God are implicit in Calvin’s writing. (63-65) Thus, he once more concludes that Calvin held and taught a form of natural theology in continuity with the catholic tradition. (68-69)

In Chapters 4-7 Fesko turns to several specific issues raised by his claim that natural theology is part and parcel of the Reformed tradition beginning with Calvin himself.

Chapter 4 is simply entitled, “Thomas Aquinas.”  Fesko’s treatment of Van Til and Aquinas is strangely both blunt and nuanced.  Early in the chapter with reference to Van Til’s critique of Aquinas—a critique that is basic to his apologetic project— Fesko asserts: “Is Van Til’s critique accurate? The short answer is no.” (72) Specifically, with reference to Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God, Fesko argues that Van Til has wrongly characterized Thomas as rationalistic.  (75-80) Obviously, this is an important point to which we must return in the evaluation of Fesko’s arguments.  But at this point Fesko attempts to explain why Van Til has misread Thomas.  Fesko’s interesting explanation for this is threefold.  “There are three chief reasons: (1) reading Thomas in the light of postmedieval developments, particularly a post-enlightenment reading; (2) trying to divide Aquinas the philosopher from Aquinas the theologian; and (3) failing, ultimately, to examine clearly the primary sources.” (81)  These are serious criticisms of Van Til.  Fesko, however, attempts to soften the blow for his Van Tillian readers.  He avers: “Just because Van Til misread Aquinas does not mean that we must embrace everything that Thomas said. Conversely, it does not mean that everything that Van Til said on these matters is categorically wrong. Rather, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” (93)  In another place he remarks:  “Although he erroneously evaluated Aquinas’s views, this does not invalidate all of Van Til’s insights about the problematic nature of autonomous reason.” (95) In spite of these concessions, Presuppositionalists are treated with this hair-raising assessment in the very last sentences of this chapter: “Aquinas and other theologians of the Middle Ages and patristic period belong equally to Protestants.  They have insights to offer, and we have much to learn from them regarding theology and, perhaps especially, apologetics.” (96)

In Chapter 5 which is simply entitled, “Worldview,” Fesko provides us one of the more unique subjects and viewpoints in his book.  Startlingly, he argues that the emphasis of James Orr, Abraham Kuyper, and Cornelius Van Til on the idea that one’s worldview controls how one thinks about everything is mistaken.  It is, he affirms, a mistaken viewpoint owing to the adoption of Idealist perspectives.  This contradicts, according to Fesko, the idea of “common notions” for which he has been at such pains to defend in his earlier chapters.  Here we see an attempt (typical of Westminster West) to resist the claims of some Presuppositionalists, especially those of a Theonomic bent, to make the Scriptures speak to everything in the world.  With Van Drunen and others Fesko is interested in reserving a place for natural law and showing that the Scriptures are intended to have a limited range of authority to matters of religion and Christian duty.  One of the more controversial claims of Fesko in this chapter is that Moses is dependent in his exposition of the civil law of Israel either on the Code of Hammurabi or on material that predates that code. (121-122) I find myself deeply ambivalent about Fesko’s view in this interesting chapter.  Once more it needs discussion in the evaluative section of this review.

Chapter 6 treats “Transcendental Arguments.”  Once more Fesko seeks to bring Van Til and Apologetics back to the touchstone of natural theology as taught by the Reformed Scholastics.  He begins by citing Turretin who affirms a natural theology partly innate and derived from common notions and partly acquired by being drawn from the book of nature by discursive reasoning. (135-136) This is one of the more difficult chapters in Fesko’s book because of the fairly constant necessity of qualifying his critique of Van Til.  He cannot say that the transcendental argument is wrong. He acknowledges it to be a useful tool. (137)  He cannot quite say that Van Til rejected the use of evidence. He must limit this claim to “some Van Tillians” and suggest that it follows from certain statements of Van Til. (137)  Perhaps the most important and consistent claim of this chapter is that the transcendental argument is not the Copernican Revolution in apologetics which both Van Til and Van Tillians have claimed. (136)

The pivotal paragraph in this chapter deserves quoting and reads as follows:

This chapter deals with three issues, namely whether (1) Van Til engages in synthetic thinking; (2) some overemphasize the coherence theory of truth at the expense of the correspondence theory; and (3) the TAG is wedded to outdated philosophical trends. Van Til accused Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) of employing synthetic thinking, combining pagan and Christian thought in order to defend the faith. But although Van Til rejected Aquinas’s methodology, in truth his own TAG is similar.  Both Aquinas and Van Til employed the dominant philosophies of their day in order to build an intellectual bridge to unbelievers; Aquinas and Van Til spoke with Aristotelian and Kantian accents, respectively. (137-138)

This is a challenging chapter for Presuppositionalists.  It exposes tensions on issues like the use of evidence and the claims made for the TAG between Van Tillians (140-141); between Knudsen and Van Til; (144) and between Van Til’s two main interpreters Frame and Bahnsen. (136-137)  The exposure of such divergences is serious for Presuppositionalism. It certainly raises interesting and important issues that require resolution. At the same time the penetrating power of this chapter’s critique is limited by the fact that on these issues Presuppositionalism is a moving target. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it presents several different targets!

Chapter 7, “Dualisms,” is of less interest to this reviewer.  The reason is, as Fesko himself says, “This chapter … primarily interacts with the claims of Herman Dooyeweerd.” (8) The link here with Van Til and mainstream Presuppositionalism is tenuous. Still Fesko seeks to make the connection through the association of Van Til with Dutch Neo-Calvinism (161-164).  At any rate, this chapter is of less significance to me because Dooyeweerd and his philosophy is only distantly related to Van Til, difficult to the point of incomprehensibility, and criticized by Cornelius Van Til himself.

Fesko reaches the conclusion of his volume in Chapter 8, “The Book of Nature and Apologetics.”  Reading this chapter was an unusual experience.  I began the chapter saying “yes, yes, and yes.” (195-206) I closed my reading of it by saying “no, no, and no.”  (206-219) How and why did my response change so drastically?  I think the reason is that in the first part of the chapter Fesko simply expounds the nature and the contours of a biblical and covenantal epistemology, but in the second he critiques Presuppositionalism. 

The exposition of what Fesko calls “starting point, the necessary commitments for a biblical apologetic methodology” and “the nature of epistemology … within the framework of classic covenant theology: the covenants of redemption, works, and grace” and “the two goals of a covenant epistemology, namely, love and eschatology” is one of the best parts of the book. (194) I worried a little about how closely Fesko related the covenant to creation.  I believe there is an important and confessional distinction between creation and the covenant. Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7, paragraph 1.  The covenant was technically an addition to creation, but I can live with Fesko’s statement of this because teleologically creation was for the covenant and intended as the theatre of special revelation (as Calvin avers).

Fesko began to lose and frustrate me when he began to critique Van Til and Presuppositionalism on the basis of this epistemology.  Once more I felt that there was a drastic misunderstanding of Presuppositionalism in play here.  Fesko clearly has Presuppositionalism and Van Til in mind when he says, “Apologetically, this means that believers can present the gospel in conjunction with rational arguments and evidence and know that believers can intellectually receive and comprehend the message.” (212)  Whoever thought otherwise?  Certainly not Van Til who teaches that unbelievers “get it” very well!

The most depraved of men cannot wholly escape the voice of God.  Their greatest wickedness is meaningless except upon the assumption that they have sinned against the authority of God.  Thoughts and deeds of utmost perversity are themselves revelational, that is, in their very abnormality.  The natural man accuses or else excuses himself only because his own utterly depraved consciousness continues to point back to the original natural state of affairs.  The prodigal son can never forget the father’s voice.  It is the albatross forever about his neck.[1]

But on this point this review must next turn to an evaluation of Fesko’s important book.

[1]The Infallible Word (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978) Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” 274-75.

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