Associate Pastor, Agros Church
The book, Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith by Dr. J.V. Fesko of Westminster West is a heavily anticipated work by the Reformed community. Fesko earned endorsements by Richard Muller of Calvin Theological Seminary and James Dolezal of Cairn University, which is an indication of the level of scholarship and accuracy found in this work. The Doctor undertakes the task of defending Natural Theology and its use in apologetics, as well as offering a critique of Cornelius Van Til and the use of the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) as the only true, Biblical apologetic. He travels through time, inspecting everybody from Aristotle, Aquinas, Dooyeweerd, Kant, Kuyper, and of course, Van Til. Fesko offers many valuable critiques of the current state of modern apologetics and defends the use of common notions and natural theology, which I will review briefly here.
Summary of Contents
At the outset of Reforming Apologetics, Fesko provides the reader with context and purpose of the work - that he noticed a shift in the understanding of common notions and the order of nature which occupy the works of 16th and 17th century Divines, to the postmodern epistemological framework of Van Til and Dooyeweerd. He states his objective: “I focus on and respectfully challenge some of Van Til’s and Dooyedweerd’s claims” (xii). He ends the preface with this important, foundational thought,
“I am convinced that Christians need to present their arguments from the authority of Scripture, identify false and erroneous thought embedded in unbelief, and approach unbelievers in terms of their God-define status as covenant breakers. We must not engage unbelievers in terms of naked reason or the so-called neutral ground of bare logic” (xiii).
Though I am sure there will be many Reformed Christians who subscribe to Van Til and Bahnsen’s apologetic who find this work challenging, it is important to understand the critique found within this work through the lens of the quoted material above.
In the introduction, Fesko outlines the scope of the work at hand in simple and scholarly fashion. He establishes a pattern of beginning each chapter by providing multiple quotes from relevant sources. In this section, he makes use of the Belgic Confession, article II and Herman Bavinck. He also states his main objective, “The goal of this essay is to retrieve the book of nature primarily for use in defending the faith, or apologetics” (4).
At the outset of this work, Fesko outlines the historical understanding of natural theology, noting the importance of the Westminster Divines employing the language of “light of nature” and providing the reader with this foundational insight on his perspective from Richard Muller:
“Natural theology is drawn from the order of nature, and supernatural theology, which transcends human reason, is drawn from the order of grace. Both forms of knowledge are revealed and are not merely a matter of human discovery” (2).
He then introduces the influence of enlightenment philosophy by way of putting a spotlight on Phillip Schaff (1819-1893) and Karl Barth (1886-1968), and how this philosophy began the offensive against natural theology. After presenting the seed of the problem he is addressing, he notes that many modern apologists and theologians have had a tendency to downplay the historical doctrines of John Calvin on natural theology, which he dedicates an entire chapter to in the substance of the book. Finally, he closes his introduction with highlighting his major contention between historical and modern theology - common notions and historic worldview theory. He also provides a brief outline of the material in this final section of the introduction.
Chapter I:The Light of Nature
Fesko begins the chapter by quoting two Westminster Divines, Anthony Burgess and John Arrowsmith, which he employs throughout the chapter to support the thesis that the confessional language, “light of nature” is directly influenced by common notions. He demonstrates that there is a modern tendency to downplay this connection, and to primarily highlight the importance of special revelation. Fesko employs Anthony Burgess, who gave presentations on natural law to the Westminster Assembly during the time it was drafted, “The Law of Nature consists in those common notionis which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts” (P. 15). He notes that Burgess appealed to Aristotle and Augustine in his presentations. While I certainly agree that Westminster Divines place a high importance on natural theology in the boundaries of the confession, there must have been a reason they did not employ the language of “common notions,” and instead opted for “light of nature.”
In any case, his point is that twentieth century theologians tend to view natural law as an “unwanted post-Reformation cancerous wart” (P. 25) and have a tendency to misunderstand its proper application and place in theology and apologetics, often dismissing it as a holdover from Roman Catholic dogma. His presentation does a fantastic job of demonstrating the important connection that Reformation theology shares with the scholastic thinking of the Middle Ages. Muller highlights the importance of this development in Post Reformation Dogmatics, specifically that there is unity throughout the ages of the Christian church. Rome does not get to claim 100% ownership over the medieval scholastic divines. I have not experienced Reformed believers demonstrating this level of vitriol towards natural theology, but I’m sure that it is happening, or Dr. Fesko would not have said it. Finally, he ends the chapter with this take away, “Natural law is a vital part of the image of God, even though it has been ravaged by the noetic effects of sin” (P. 26). Fesko’s point is simple, natural theology is not a relic that must be placed in a museum because of postmodern thought, it is an important component of Scripture and has roots all throughout the history of the Reformed faith.
Chapter II: Common Notions
Fesko begins this chapter by quoting Romans 2:14-15 and the Canons of Dort, III/IV art. 4. He continues his exposition on the Westminster Divine, Anthony Burgess, and builds the case that the Westminster Assembly would have shared Burgess’ thoughts on his exegesis of Romans 2:14-15. He introduces Euclid, who most clearly laid the mathematical framework for common notions and builds out Aquinas’ understanding of natural law, which he dedicates an entire chapter to later in the work. Fesko introduces Aquinas’ distinction between principles and conclusions, and how they are affected by sin. He then interacts with Philip Melanchton, John Calvin, Girolamo Zanchi, Francis Junius, the Leiden Synopsis, the Westminster standards, and Francis Turretin to demonstrate that they were unified in thought regarding the matter, to some degree or another. He utilizes Turretin to say, “When people cauterize their consciences (1 Tim. 4:2) or give themselves over to all sorts of uncleanness (Eph. 4:19, they certainly suppress the second act or exercise of common notions, that is, conclusions. They do not, however, extinguish or destroy the first principle” (P. 44).
The major thrust of this chapter is to say that “common notions were a noncontroversial feature of early modern Reformed theology” (P. 46). His point is simple, don’t pit Calvin, or any other Reformed Divine against themselves. I will add that C.S. Lewis’ idea of Chronological Snobbery certainly plagues the modern church, and it seems that that is the idea that Fesko is getting at here. It is important to read a theologian in their own context.
Chapter III: Calvin
Fesko begins this chapter by quoting John Calvin and Cornelius Van Til, this time to demonstrate the possibility that Van Til may have misunderstood Calvin in regards to natural theology. He then identifies that “some theologians” say that Calvin was radically opposed to scholasticism (P. 53). The major theme of this chapter is to confront those who claim that “Calvin did not employ natural law in his theology” (P. 57) and to demonstrate that this is not the case. There is not much more to say than that Fesko engages in a scholarly demonstration to refute these modern claims. I personally have never heard anybody say this, but it does not surprise me. This chapter is generally uneventful if you have ever interacted with Calvin, and Fesko does not say anything earth shattering, though I imagine if you are in the camp of those he is responding to, it would be educational.
An important point that is made in this chapter is that though Calvin reaches back to the scholastic heritage of the Reformed faith, he does make important distinctions from Aquinas, namely that Calvin stressed “the role of the conscience more than the intellect, and does not characterize the law of God as the lex aeterna (eternal law) like Aquinas” (P. 68). Fesko completes the chapter by driving home the same point he identified from the start, that defining natural law in terms of common notions is continuous between the medieval scholastics and Reformation thought.
Chapter IV: Thomas Aquinas
Chapter four is a brisk read in comparison to the rest of this book, and Fesko begins with his normal pattern of beginning with quotations, this time from Aquinas and John Frame. He uses these quotations to demonstrate that Van Til and Aquinas share a great deal of agreement in their apologetic approach. He expands on this later in the book in greater detail, but I agree with his general assessment, that like Aquinas borrowed Aristetilian philosophy and used it with the foundation of Scripture to craft an apologetic, Van Til employed a similar tactic but with the idealism of Kant and Barth. This is an interesting point, and certainly a valuable contribution. The majority of this chapter is spent demonstrating that Van Til misunderstood Aquinas, and that understanding him properly “provides yet another useful theological tool for one’s apologetic toolbox” (P. 73).
As a side note, Fesko’s critique of Van Til regarding his interaction with Aquinas using secondary sources is one that should not be missed. I’m not sure I agree that Van Til misunderstood Aquinas, but I’ll trust the Doctor on this one for now. Van Til was also accused of not understanding Barth, though he obsessively interacted with Barth for nearly 30 years. In any case, his critique of Van Til should be heeded by every single modern Christian today - stop being a secondary source consumer. If you want to know what somebody thought, Ad Fontes! This thought will surface later in the review.
In this chapter, Fesko demonstrates that Aquinas “never advanced the proofs as a rational foundation for his system of theology” (P. 75). This chapter is a critical moment in the book. To the audience he is writing to, he certainly demonstrates that the claim that Aquinas was just a rationalist is patently false. It seems, based on Fesko’s analysis, that Aquinas would agree with Turretin, that “reason is an instrument.” In passing, he comments on what I imagine is a point of contention for the Van Tillian, “Aquinas believes that arguing from the effect back to the cause is the preferred method” (P. 78). Here Fesko begins to lay the framework that the TAG is not the only Biblical apologetic, which seems to be a predominant thought in the modern presuppositionalist camp. He demonstrates an important point near the end of the chapter, that the scholastic thought of Aquinas must be understood through the lens of Augustine’s “Faith seeking understanding,” and it is reductionistic and inaccurate to say that Aquinas was a slave of Aristotle. I’ll emphasize this again, Reformed protestants do not have to surrender Thomas to Rome or rationalism. Fesko ends the chapter with this important take away, “Aquinas and other theologians of the Middle Ages and patristic period belong equally to Protestants” (P. 97). I agree with Fesko here, and I’ll add that when we reject the Doctors throughout church history in their entirety, we surrender them over to Rome to be used as an instrument against the church.
Chapter V: Worldview
Keeping with the format of the book, Fesko quotes John Frame to demonstrate an apparent weakness in Van Til’s system, that the unbeliever affirms no truth at all and is not affected by common grace (P. 97). In this chapter, Fesko offers a critique against the concept of worldview. He outlines the history of it as originating in German philosophy with Kant, and comments on Abraham Kuyper’s use of it in his lectures on Calvinism. He seems to put the concept of worldview and common notions at odds with one another, and that having a worldview founded entirely on Scripture is incompatible with common notions.
“As important as Scripture is, to argue that it alone is the foundation for all knowledge diminishes God’s good and necessary book of nature” (P. 99).
I believe that Fesko has introduced a false dichotomy to the reader here. He goes on to say that worldview is a Kantian idea, and thus should be rejected by Reformed Christians. To this one might ask, are common notions not an idea borrowed from Euclid?
There are three sections in this chapter which caught me by surprise. The first is that Fesko makes the assertion that Moses plagiarized, or borrowed from Hammurabi and uses this as proof for common notions. “Both Hammurabi and Moses codify the law of God written on the heart, and as such, Moses may freely borrow from Hammurabi because he ultimately taps into God’s natural law...If the church always stands in antithesis to the world, then why would Moses echo or incorporate the Code of Hammurabi into the Covenant Code?” (PP. 123,129). I can’t in good conscience join Fesko in this analysis, but it’s worth noting.
The second is that Fesko asserts that those who hold to Historical Worldview Theory (HWT) claim that Scripture is the only way any knowledge can be attained. He uses disciplines like mathematics and art to demonstrate that this is not the case. I am not aware of any Van Tillians who would say that mathematics must be learned from Scripture, but that may just be my limited experience.
The third is that Fesko asserts that Van Tillians must reject natural law in exchange for historical worldview theory. Again, it seems that Fesko has introduced a false dichotomy, though there certainly are modern apologists who reject their scholastic heritage in exchange for a quick and easy apologetic.
Overall, this chapter seems to take on a different tone from the rest of the book. Up to this point, a fair and scholarly analysis of the topic at hand is presented, but in this chapter, it takes a different direction in certain places. I would argue that chapter 5 is a major motivation for writing this work. Throughout the rest of the book, Fesko continues his scholarly dialogue, and the reader should be able to easily discern which claims are sound and which are not.
Chapter VI: Transcendental Arguments
In this chapter, James Orr, John Frame, and Geerhardus Vos are quoted to establish the theme that the TAG is not the only means of defending the faith. He carefully and accurately defines what a transcendental argument is and highlights the similarities between Kant and Van Til. He notes that “Van Til employed idealist terminology so he could build a bridge between Christianity and idealist philosophers” (P. 145). Fesko makes an important point in this chapter, that if you are going to critique Aquinas for borrowing from Aristotle, you must also critique Van Til for borrowing from Kant.
An important line of thought that Fesko introduces is that the TAG may not always be relevant, especially in a society that rejects metanarratives (P. 155). The point is, a full Scriptural account should be allowable in apologetics, including the use of the book of nature and appeals to reason and evidence.
Chapter VII: Dualisms
In chapter 7, Fesko offers his thorough critique of Herman Dooyeweerd in terms of dualism. This section is extremely instructive and scholarly, but he again pits HWT against natural theology. I am unsure why they both cannot live in harmony, and it does not appear that Fesko has demonstrated that they must be at odds with each other. The thrust of this chapter is to discredit the neo-calvinist claims about dualisms (P.192), and Fesko handles the topic at hand with the expected scholarly rigour found throughout the book.
Chapter VIII: The Book of Nature and Apologetics
In the final chapter of Reforming Apologetics, Fesko quotes Augustine and Bavinck to highlight that apologetics must be undergirded by “Faith seeking understanding.” He ties the whole picture together be reemphasizing the importance of using the book of nature in apologetics. This by far is the most applicable chapter in the entire work, and circles back on the idea that God reveals Himself in nature and Scripture, so the Christian ought to use both. He recognizes the limitations of natural theology, and highlights the truth that “a rational defense of Christianity does not convert fallen sinners” (P. 203). He also makes a vital distinction between evangelism and apologetics. I think that more Christians need to be reminded that the point of evangelism isn’t to go out looking for a fight. Surprisingly, Fesko seems to adopt something similar to HWT at the conclusion of his book, which has me wondering if the two positions in collision are really that different.
“The only reason we know anything is because God has chosen to reveal it...Through the spectacles of Scripture, Christians can appreciate the liberal arts and sciences, even if generated by unbelievers. The believer has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and through the corrective lenses of Scripture rightly sees and ultimately comprehends the revelatory telos of the book of nature...The world objectively exists, whether human beings rightly or wrongly perceive it; the world is God’s natural revelation. Human beings can, to a certain degree, rightly understand the world around them in matters concerning general knowledge, but ideally, general knowledge should work in tandem with supernatural revelation to lead people to submit to God’s authority and love him” (PP. 206, 211, 214, 215).
Reforming Apologetics by J.V. Fesko is a thought-provoking read, I could hardly put it down once I picked it up. The book is a treat from start to finish, despite certain areas of conflict I had with some of the material. Overall, the insight gleaned from this book should encourage Christians to read more from their theological roots. Fesko highlights an important reality that Muller also comments on, that the Middle Age scholastics are not Rome’s for the taking. They also belong to Reformed, Protestant heritage. In a time where the average Christian has a twitter-length attention span, it is necessary that primary sources are investigated and that people do not get every ounce of their theology from a secondary source.
I did take issue with some of Fesko’s representations of Van Tillians and HWT, but many of his points were necessary and refreshing throughout. More could probably be said regarding chapter 5, but I will leave that to those who have a dog in the fight. I would recommend this book to those that are familiar with Middle Age scholasticism, Reformed scholasticism, and Van Til. This book may be difficult to access for those that are not nuanced in the content at a basic level.
You can purchase Dr. Fesko's book here
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