Category Archives: Reformed Worldview
The concept of “common notions” plays a large role in Fesko’s critique. Chapter 2 features a treatment of the concept from the perspective of historical theology. As far as a definition goes, he provides that of Anthony Burgess: “ ‘The Law of Nature consists in those common notions which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts,’ some of which include the existence of God as well as a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil” (30).
He comes back to this concept in chapter 5. Here he critiques Van Til’s approach to common notions. According to Fesko, Van Til “rejected the historic Reformed concept of common notions because he believed it was an example of synthetic thinking” (110). A little further Fesko states things even more strongly: “With his rejection of common notions, Van Til departs from the catholic and Reformed faith” (110). However, this critique fails to persuade. On the next page, Fesko describes Van Til’s alternative terminology of “common ground” and admits it is difficult to tell the difference from “common notions.” If that be the case, how can Van Til be described as departing from the Reformed faith because he adopted a different term? Moreover, Fesko fails to mention other places where Van Til uses (and attempts to refine) the terminology of “common notions.” For example, in his 1947 book Common Grace, Van Til distinguished between common notions in terms of psychology (which he granted) and in terms of epistemology (which he rejected). It is not reasonable to conclude that Van Til departed from the Reformed faith because he eventually chose alternative terminology, terminology which he thought to be more accurate. In Fesko’s mind, it appears that Reformed theologians are bound to the terminology of historic Reformed orthodoxy and can never seek to improve upon it without being accused of forsaking the Reformed faith.
Chapter 5 is a critique of the concept of “worldview.” This is a concept which is integral to Van Tillian apologetics. Fesko endeavours to show that the concept is dubious since it has origins in philosophical idealism. Specifically, his beef is with “historic worldview theory” (HWT). He claims that “HWT is contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity” (98). Because we are all created in the image of God, all people have “common notions.” HWT denies this, according to Fesko. Moreover, he takes issues with the idea that a worldview “must present an exhaustive explanation of the world. The Bible does not present an exhaustive view of reality”(98).
The chapter begins with a pass granted to theologians like N.T. Wright and Dennis Johnson, who only hold to a loose idea of a worldview. Fesko has no difficulty with those who, like Wright, say that a worldview is “the way in which people view reality” (98). He says that these “uses of the term and concept are benign” (98). His real problem is with worldview thinking more tightly defined in terms of the rejection of common notions and the claim that worldviews are exhaustive or comprehensive descriptions of reality.
I already noted above that Fesko’s critique of Van Til on common notions does not hit its mark. At this point, I would add that Fesko fails to reckon with an important distinction in presuppositionalism. We distinguish between what a worldview says in principle and what individual people think, do, and say in practice. For example, a materialist worldview in principal stands antithetically opposed to Christianity by affirming that physical matter is all that exists. However, because of common notions (or whatever other term may be used), in practice, individuals who claim to be materialists often betray their own position. For example, they cannot account for non-material laws of logic. Because of this dissonance between principle and practice, there are inconsistencies with both believers and unbelievers.
With regard to the insinuation that HWT leads presuppositionalism to claim an exhaustive, detailed view of reality, there is no evidence to support this. Fesko makes numerous statements like this: “The Bible is not a comprehensive survey of world history” (128). But did Van Til or any other presuppositionalist ever claim that it is? The biblical worldview is not an “exhaustive” view of reality in the sense that Scripture tells us the details for every field of knowledge. If that is what HWT claims, then I reject it with Fesko. But the biblical worldview does supply a basic framework in which to explore and develop every field of knowledge. There are basic principles supplied in Scripture by which Christians can set out to work in history, science, mathematics, and so on.
The idea of worldview is inescapable. It is self-evident that everyone has a philosophy of life, even if it is not well-stated or well-thought out. While reading Fesko’s book, I could not help but notice that even in the world the concept of “worldview” is part of the common (!) vocabulary. As Christians, we recognize that the Bible presents an objectively true picture of the way things are. There is a framework in the Bible for how we are to look at the world in which we live, including how we regard ourselves. In the past, that has simply been described as “Christianity” or “the Christian faith.” In more recent times, some have taken to describing it as “the Christian story.”
Whether we use “the faith,” “worldview,” or “story,” at the centre of it must be Christ. This is emphasized in Colossians 1-2, a section of Scripture not discussed by Fesko in this chapter. In Colosssians 1:17, we read that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In Colossians 2:3, Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” It does not say “some of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” but all. Fesko critiques Van Til and other presuppositionalists for putting Christ at the centre of the Christian worldview, but regardless of his historical critique of HWT, Scripture speaks against Fesko and in favour of Van Til. If Scripture says that Christ is at the centre, then Christ has to be at the centre, even if that means it appears we are following idealism’s notion of “deducing a system of doctrine from a single concept” (108).
Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado. Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.
Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United Reformed, Canadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.
Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:
[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)
But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:
The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.
I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity. It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.
This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905. It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents. This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.
Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure. While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church. At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated. Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others. However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.
This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900. In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist. In 1896, Kuyper went a step further. Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36. A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine. These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter. The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!). It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.
In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36. More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36. He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent. On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life. But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist. Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency. Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.
Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling. One is mentioned early in the book. He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5). He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences. The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics. The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers. Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.
The other point is a procedural one. Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology. Then he remarks: “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69). This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory. I have been unable to find an answer to that question. It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first. If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment? I find it perplexing.
Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues. This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too. Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119). He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness. Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30). However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church. By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36. The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.” Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.
Let me make a few comments about the translation. There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of. Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days. The translator literally renders them “Sundays.” Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.” Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie. Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.
Who should read this book? I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics. When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention. Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36? This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too. Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it. Note well: we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with. This is something completely different. In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36. That is a possibility. But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.
For quite a while it was customary for historians, theologians, and preachers to bewail the post-Reformation as a sort of regrettable appendix to the glory-days of Calvin and Luther. I certainly encountered this way of thinking in my theological training. I was taught that the Reformation was a glorious return to the Word of God, but immediately after the Reformation “scholasticism” negated many of its great gains. Moreover, it was alleged that many of the problems in Reformed theology in the last 200 years can be traced back to this scoundrel, “scholasticism.” It ruined almost everything. “Scholastic” thus became a loaded, pejorative term. If you heard a Reformed minister or theologian describing someone as “scholastic,” you knew that they were one of the bad guys in theology.
All this came to mind again as I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004). I have much appreciation for the book’s overall argument. Pearcey believes we need to recover the idea of a Christian worldview and I fully agree. However, I do take issue with some of her historical analysis.
In chapter 2 she describes how medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas formulated a view of creation that involved a nature-grace dualism. It is a two-storied view of reality. The Reformation, however, overcame it. Writes Pearcey, “The Reformers sought a return to a unified field of knowledge, where divine revelation is the light illuminating all areas of study” (page 81). Thus, away with dividing life into secular vs. sacred. All of life is one before the face of God. We are called into this world to live all of life according to Scripture.
A major historical problem appears when Pearcey posits this Reformation perspective against that of the post-Reformation. This paragraph illustrates the issue:
Despite all this, the Reformers’ emphatic rejection of the nature/grace dualism was not enough to overcome an age-old pattern of thought. The problem was that they failed to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights. Thus they did not give their followers any tools to defend those insights against philosophical attack — or to create an alternative to the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism. As a result, the successors of Luther and Calvin went right back to teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities, using Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems — and thus dualistic thinking continued to affect all the Christian traditions. (page 82)
Where to begin in discussing this? First I wonder: why would it have been necessary for the “Reformers” (this is a broad term) to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights? From my reading of Calvin, to take but one Reformer, he was quite able to adapt the existing theological/philosophical vocabulary of his day in order to express himself. For example, in his discussion on providence in the Institutes (1.16.9) he writes about absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and consequent necessity (necessitas consequentiae). Why would there be a need to create a new vocabulary? The existing vocabulary was already quite rich. Why would a new vocabulary have to be crafted to repel philosophical attacks or to create an alternative to dualistic philosophy? I fail to see how all this follows. My non sequitur alarm bells are ringing.
But more significantly, note Pearcey’s own vocabulary: “the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism” and “teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities.” She assumes that scholasticism is something with a definite content, including Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as its basis. Scholasticism was taught in universities, she says. But nowhere does she precisely outline the content of this “scholasticism.” She does not indicate whether she’s speaking of theology, philosophy, or any another field of study. Moreover, nowhere does she indicate whether or if this post-Reformation scholasticism differed from pre-Reformation scholasticism in any way. But she is quite sure that it was a bad development because it ensured that dualistic thinking would be harboured in Protestantism for some time to come. The broad generalizations here raise these and more questions.
Here’s the nub of the problem: scholasticism was a method of teaching. As a teaching method, it was especially marked by the use of careful definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques. It was a method used across the spectrum to convey different systems with widely differing theological content. There were Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, as well as Lutherans and Reformed. The scholastic teaching method was used both in the classroom and in writing. However, there are examples of theologians often identified as scholastic writing books that are not at all scholastic. Some of the best post-Reformation works on Christian piety and experience come from men who spent much of their time in the academy using the scholastic method. A friend (an expert in this area) pointed me to Antoine de Chandieu. This Huguenot theologian used the scholastic method in various works, but he also wrote a collection of meditations on Psalm 32. I might point out too, that though it sometimes happened, it was considered bad form to take the scholastic method into the pulpit. It was meant for the university context, not the church. Readers wanting to look into this more should have a look at this book.
Pearcey also argues that post-Reformation scholasticism used “Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems.” This raises questions too. Are we talking about theology? What do you mean by “basis”? What do you mean by “system”? What time period are we discussing exactly? Let’s say we’re talking theology, so systems of theology. Let’s say by “basis,” Pearcey means the foundations, what it’s based on. To be even more specific, let’s say we’re talking about the period of early orthodoxy (1565-1640). Let’s then take one of the preeminent handbooks of Reformed theology from this period, the 1625 Leiden Synopsis. What was the basis of the Leiden Synopsis? “We shall commence our disputations with Scripture, since it, being divinely inspired, is the principle for the most sacred Theology, its source of proof, and its means of instruction.” Scripture is the principle, the basis (or to use the technical term, principium cognoscendi). Nothing about Aristotle. From my reading of post-Reformation Reformed theology, this is typical not exceptional.
Contrary to what Pearcey and others have argued, the post-Reformation did not negate the gains of the Reformation — it built on them. Or to put it in other terms, there is more continuity between the Reformation and post-Reformation than has sometimes been recognized. So where does that leave Pearcey’s attempt to explain the continuing prevalence of dualistic philosophy? I reckon she has to find another explanation. Perhaps the cause has more to do with something as simple as the innate human proclivity to double-mindedness.
If you’re just tuning in, Australia is in the midst of an enormous national discussion on marriage. Today ballots are being sent to all eligible Australian voters asking whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples. Voters are to tick the “Yes” or “No” box and then mail it back to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will announce a result on November 15. The debate about this matter has been robust but also, sadly, at times uncivil.
Christians need to realize something important about this debate. The real issue is not marriage. The abandonment of the traditional view of marriage is just a symptom of a far deeper problem in Australian society (and Western society as a whole). What we are witnessing is a clash of worldviews. There is a worldview informed by the Bible, and then there are a host of unbelieving worldviews lined up against that worldview. It’s not just about one issue — dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there is disagreement about many more things. In fact, there’s disagreement on almost every fundamental thing.
So what is a worldview? It’s simply the way one views the world. It’s a complete package of beliefs about all kinds of important things. For example, a worldview includes how you perceive history: does it have a beginning and an end? Is there someone in control of it? A worldview includes how you think about ethics or morality: are there absolute moral standards? How does one define them? A worldview includes how you think about God: is there a personal God, a Creator distinct from his creation yet involved with it? It involves how you regard humanity: are we distinct from animals or to be included with them as simply more evolved animals? It involves all those things, and far more.
The foundation for a Christian worldview is in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” The Christian’s worldview starts with wisely acknowledging God and what he says in his Word as public, objective truth. All unbelieving worldviews start with the human being as an autonomous agent — you’re a law unto yourself. It’s the Satanic lie told to Eve in the Garden of Eden: you don’t need God. You make up your own mind as to what is true and good. These completely different foundations mean that these worldviews typically go in completely different, usually antithetical, directions.
The Christian believes that there is a personal Triune God and he is not silent. He has revealed himself in the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Unbelieving worldviews are at best skeptical about such a God and the possibility of trustworthy revelation from him. Christians believe that morality is directly connected to the character of this Triune God. What is right and wrong is defined by his very nature as revealed in the Bible. Unbelieving worldviews can be dogmatic about right and wrong too, but ultimately morality is defined either by the whim of the individual or of society — there is no firm foundation for absolute right and wrong. Christians believe that human beings are creatures. We were created by God in his image, and therefore all human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Unbelieving worldviews simply regard human beings as another species in the animal kingdom. Yes, more highly evolved, but not essentially as of more worth than any of the other animals. Ironically, despite that view, unbelievers can be quite insistent on human rights, but that kind of talk is just writing cheques that their worldview can’t cash. Christians also believe that human beings today are fallen creatures, rebels against the Creator who notices rebellion and will punish it. People need the redemption, healing, and forgiveness available in Jesus Christ. Unbelieving worldviews maintain that we are all essentially good and getting better. There’s definitely no need for divine intervention or rescue, because there is no ultimate justice.
When it comes to marriage, Christians come at this from within this total worldview package. Marriage is included in our total way of looking at the world, a worldview based on God’s revelation in the Bible. We believe in creation — that God created the first man and the first woman and brought them together in marriage. He instituted marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. We believe that some things are right and other things are wrong — and it’s not determined by how we feel or what society thinks. There is an absolute standard for morality that’s been given to humanity in the Bible. You see, it’s not just a different view of who should be allowed to get married. We inhabit totally different ways of looking at the world. If there’s to be a way forward, we have to find a way to identify and discuss those different worldviews.
But how? Let me make a couple of brief suggestions.
One is that believers be up front about why they stand where they do. We need to make it clear that we think as we do because we’re Christians and because we have a worldview based on what the Bible teaches. If unbelievers dig deeper, they’ll find that we have all kinds of disagreeable beliefs about God, humanity, history, biology, ethics — and they’re all part of who we are as Christians. For us to deny any one part of that package is to deny the whole. It’s the whole package which gives us a coherent and consistent worldview.
Another suggestion is that we ought to learn the art of asking the types of questions that expose unbelieving worldviews as bankrupt. For example, when we hear someone talk about “marriage equality” as a human right, then let’s talk about human rights. Let’s ask where human rights come from, whether they’re absolute, who defines them, why it should be regarded as evil if someone violates them, etc. We need to ask the questions in such a way that the unbeliever, with his or her answers, is brought to the inevitable conclusion. For help in learning how to do this effectively, I highly recommend Tactics, by Gregory Koukl (see my review here).
Our ultimate goal is not to win a debate about same-sex “marriage.” Ultimately, our goal is to persuade people to the Christian faith, to be God’s instruments to lead them to Christ. We want the unbelievers in our lives to see that their worldview is a vain fantasy that can’t account for the way the world really is. We want them to flee their destructive fantasies and get into the real world where there is a real God who really reveals himself in the Bible, and who really sent his Son to redeem us from our foolishness.
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5