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

by | Jun 7, 2019 | Apologetics, Book Reviews

Part 1: Preface

Part 2 Introduction

Part 3: Overview



There is certainly much that is challenging in Fesko’s work.  There is definitely much to be learned.  Furthermore, given the directions Reformed historiography has taken in recent years, it seems to me that a book like this had to be written.  Let me commend a number of things in it.

First, as I have just said, his summary of what a biblical and covenantal epistemology looks like was well done. Presuppositionalist that I am, I still find it a very helpful summary of the scriptural approach to how we know.

Second, I much appreciated his account of the purposes of apologetics. Here is what he says: 

Apologetics, narrowly construed as a rational defense of Christianity, does not convert fallen sinners. … I argue that apologetics has a threefold purpose: (1) to refute intellectual objections to the Christian faith, (2) to clarify our understanding of the truth, and (3) to encourage and edify believers in their faith. (203-04)

I think Fesko here helpfully articulates the fact that apologetics (narrowly construed) has a negative and kind of secondary purpose.  It does not and ought not to pretend to create arguments for the existence of God which positively ground the believer’s faith.  Without pretending to understand all that was in Fesko’s mind when he wrote this, it does suggest to me a number of important features of the apologetic endeavor.  First, apologetics is properly defensive.  It is an apologia or defense of the faith.  It is not, then, properly (or narrowly) speaking a positive attempt to argue discursively for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity.  It assumes the faith and defends the faith so assumed against attack.  Second, this suggests to me, secondly, that the much disputed arguments for the existence of God appear quite differently depending (1) on whether they are construed as the positive ground or origin of the Christian’s faith in God or (2) whether they are construed as defenses of a faith already assumed.  I think that Bavinck and others have seen something of this distinction when they have argued that these arguments are confirmations of or testimonies to the existence of God rather than proofs.[1] As testimonies and properly constructed, the traditional “proofs” may have a certain defensive value toward unbelievers and confirming value for believers. Third, it seems to me that we may want to distinguish in our discussions of the existence of God between apologetics more broadly considered as epistemology (how we know that God exists) and more narrowly considered as apologetics (how we defend our faith in the existence of God to unbelievers).

Thirdly by way of commendation, it must be said that Fesko’s book exhibits many, fine scholarly qualities.  It manifests widely read scholarship. It shows that he attempts to fairly represent those with whom he differs.  Though complicating his argument, Fesko still nuances his views and especially his assessment of Van Til. (108, 137, 141, 144)

Fourth, I thought his account of faith seeking understanding was well said.  In particular, I appreciated his statement to the effect that “trusting authority lies at the root of all epistemology.” (195)


First, from the beginning of his book till its end Fesko consistently fails to understand the distinction between natural revelation and natural theology in Presuppositionalism.  There is no more crucial distinction than this for Presuppositionalism in my opinion.  When Van Til rejects natural theology, he is not rejecting or giving up on the book of nature.  With regard to the book of nature or natural revelation, Van Til never tires of saying that believers and unbelievers have everything in common.  The reader should consult Van Til’s essay entitled, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word cited previously and his many other assertions to this effect.[2]  It simply is not true that Van Til denies the commonality between believers and unbelievers with regard to common notions and the like.  This is, however, what Fesko assumes everywhere. (4, 9, 12, 26, 48, 65, 68-69, 99, 100, 109, 110, 111, 114, 125, 126, 135-36, 146-147, 149, 194, 212, 219) Only if common notions are made to consist in a natural theology created by depraved men, would Van Til oppose such common notions.  This critique cannot be pursued without mentioning a second difficulty.

Secondly, then, Fesko fails to weigh properly the apologetic effects of Thomas’ sub-biblical view of sin. (34, 72, 75, 78, 80, 84, 85, 94, 104) This is important because it is exactly this factor which distinguishes Van Til’s assessment of natural revelation from his assessment of natural theology.  Natural revelation is the divine given of human existence which at a basic level of awareness all men cannot escape.  Natural theology is the human interpretation of natural revelation.  Because Van Til holds with Reformed theology that men are totally depraved and that this depravity affects their mind and reason radically, he cannot allow that a natural theology can be any kind of preamble to faith.  By definition such a natural theology is an interpretive endeavor pursued by men who are totally depraved.  Thus, it cannot be successful. Rather, depraved human reason must and will inevitably corrupt the meaning of natural revelation in any natural theology it creates.  Such a natural theology cannot serve in any sense as a preamble to faith. 

Let me mention here that my own reading has convinced me that the categories and terminologies with which Reformed Scholasticism discussed natural theology were inadequate.  They were inadequate precisely because they did not clearly distinguish between natural revelation and natural theology.  Sometimes natural theology is used by Reformed scholastics to mean natural revelation.  Van Til’s apologetics pressed a distinction between these two things that is, in my view, massively important.

This brings up a third criticism.  Unless Fesko is willing to say that Thomas Aquinas has a fully biblical and Reformed view of sin, and he does not seem to say this, he cannot expect Reformed Christians to find in Aquinas a model for apologetic endeavor.  Yet, clearly, Fesko offers Aquinas as a model for Christian apologetics. (96) The whole hinge of the distinction between a true natural revelation and a proper natural theology resides in one’s doctrine of sin.  If Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of sin was inadequate, then his view of natural theology cannot be correct.

Fourth, Fesko probably depreciates Calvin’s critique of scholasticism. (52, 53, 68, 69) It seems to me that a statistical study of Calvin’s Institutes will show that Calvin frequently cites Augustine with enthusiasm, but rarely cites Aquinas positively or at all.[3]  Furthermore, his references to scholastic theology are mostly critical.  One does not have to disagree with Muller’s thesis of a scholastic method in Calvin to argue that Calvin consistently rejected their doctrinal conclusions. (53) It remains to be seen, in my view, what Calvin’s view of Aquinas’s theology might have been.  I am not convinced that Calvin’s statements about the existence of God which are characterized as rhetorical by Muller (64) are the same in character as Thomas’s five proofs for the existence of God.

Fifth, Fesko engages repeatedly in the common, evidentialist misunderstanding of key texts of Scripture and Calvin which assert the knowledge of God.  He sees in these statements warrants for arguments for God rather than statements of the fact that men know God without discursive arguments.  (62, 63, 64, 77, 89, 90) The fact is that Romans 1:18-23 does not teach that men may come to know God or that men may argue for the existence of God from natural reason.  This passage and similar ones teach rather that men actually do know God from natural revelation without the complicated and lengthy arguments of Anselm or Aquinas.  We have heard evidentialist and post-Enlightenment classically oriented apologists make this mistake too often to overlook it when Fesko makes precisely the same mistake.

Sixth, Fesko’s argument for Christians not claiming comprehensive knowledge of everything on the basis of the Bible is imbalanced.  Of course, the Reformed confessional tradition makes clear that the sufficiency of Scripture is not its omni-sufficiency for every science.  Cf. the Westminster and 1689 at 1:6. What Fesko fails to see, however, in his polemic against Idealism and Worldview theory is that what the Bible does teach sufficiently is basic and foundational for every other area of study.  Fesko does not clearly state that, while Christians do not claim that the Bible is sufficient for all knowledge, they do believe that it is basic or foundational to all knowledge and that nothing is properly understood unless understood theistically.  While unbelievers have a functional or working knowledge of some things, they have a proper theological knowledge of nothing. (67, 98, 99, 104, 127, 129, 209, 215, 216, 217) Sometimes Fesko seems to notice this.  He makes clear, for instance, that Scripture truth claims do create givens for the science of human origins and universal origins. (216) It does this, however, because scriptural knowledge, while not sufficient for non-religious and non-theological sciences, is foundational for them.  How can what we believe about God not be basic for all human knowledge?  Yet, Fesko can say that the covenantal exile in which they live does not mean that “everything they do is wrong.” (210) We know what he means, but surely what he says is not all the truth.  In another sense and in the most important sense, everything they do is wrong.  Their covenant exile does affect everything they do.  Surely if any generation of Americans should see this, we should.  Our culture is falling apart.  In the midst of the cultural disaster all around us—with its devastating effects on everything and even on something so basic as gender identity—shall our message be to unbelievers that not everything you do is wrong.  They are wrong basically and foundationally about God, and this does affect everything.  But with his concern to counter the triumphalism of some Christians and their excessive claims, Fesko denies the antithesis between Christianity and other worldviews and the devastating effects of this antithesis culturally and educationally. (120, 123, 130, 133, 194, 210, 211, 215)


We are glad for the emphasis of Fesko and others that there is a generally agreed upon classical theism that resides in the scholastic tradition of the church.  We agree that 21st century Christians do not get to re-define the Christian God.  The Reformation itself, however, shows that the scholastic tradition could deviate into bypaths.  It also shows that one must account for positive doctrinal development in the church.  For myself, and I suspect others, I am not ready to return to the natural theology of Aquinas.  I find in Calvin, in the Reformed tradition, and Van Til’s Presuppositionalism a progress of doctrine which improves upon the natural theology of Thomism.

[1]John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P&R Publishing, 2002), 740; Herman Bavinck, ed. John Bolt, trans. Jon Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics First(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 2:90, 91.

[2]The Infallible Word: a Symposium, (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), “Nature and Scripture,” 263-301.  Cf. the tract by Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and Witness-bearing (Lewis J. Grotenhuis, Belvedere Road, Phillipsburg, NJ), 8f. Cf. his The Defense of Christianity and My Credo (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, n.d.), 11: “Natural revelation is perfectly clear. Men ought through it to see al other things as dependent on God. But only one who looks at nature through the mirror of Scripture does understand natural revelation for what it is. Furthermore, no one can see Scripture for what it is unless he is given the ability to do so by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.”  Cf. also page 24 of the same tract where Van Til approvingly cites Calvin and says: “Calvin makes a sharp distinction between the revelation of God to man and man’s response to that revelation.  This implies the rejection of a natural theology such as Aquinas taught.” He goes on to distinguish the responses to God’s revelation by (1) man in his original condition, (2) mankind, whose “understanding is subjected to blindness and the heart to depravity” (3) those that are “taught of Christ” through Scripture and whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit.” In Van Til’s syllabus entitled, “An Introduction to Systematic Theology,” reprinted in 1966 pages 75-109 emphasize the importance of general or natural revelation. Cf. also Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 177-194.  In these pages Bahnsen documents Van Til’s commitment to “the inescapable knowledge of God in nature” and the distinction between natural revelation and natural theology.

[3]I did a count of Book 1 of the Institutes (McNeil-Battles edition) [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. By John T McNeill; trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadlephia: The Westminster Press, MCMLX) to confirm for myself the evidence.  Here are the results of my own count.  Calvin never mentions by name Thomas Aquinas.  There is one possible and positive reference to his writings that I found (210).  Calvin mentions Plato one time positively (46).  He mentions Aristotle by name 4 times once neutrally (82) and three times negatively (56, 194, 194).  Calvin, on the other hand, mentions Augustine by name and always positively 25 times (5, 76, 77, 77, 78, 92, 105, 106, 106, 110, 113, 126, 126, 127, 143, 144, 144, 144, 158, 207, 207, 208, 213, 234, 237) and there is an additional possible reference to Augustine but not by name (217). Augustine is massively the most cited church father in Book 1.  I think this continues throughout Books 2-4. I would say that these statistics present an obstacle for the idea of a Thomistic Calvin.

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