Tag Archives: John Calvin

Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.

 


Five Ways You’re Probably Not A Calvinist

What’s a Calvinist?  That can be a tough question to answer.  It’s fair to say there are Reformed people who believe it simply means we’re followers of John Calvin.  If a Lutheran follows the teachings of Martin Luther, then a Calvinist must follow the teachings of John Calvin.  In a general sense, that’s true.  We do follow and share some of the important tenets held by John Calvin – not because he said so, but because the Bible teaches these things.  Most importantly of all, with Calvin we maintain the gospel of sovereign grace.

Nevertheless, there are things John Calvin taught or practiced that few, if any, self-identifying Calvinists would hold to today.  Let me outline five of them.

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Calvin believed that Mary remained a virgin after the conception and birth of Jesus.  For the proof of this, see his commentaries on Matt. 1:25 and Luke 1:34.  So what does Calvin do with the mention of Jesus’ “brothers” in Matt. 12:46, Mark 3:31, and Luke 8:19?  He follows the old interpretation that these are cousins of Jesus, not his half-brothers.  This approach was followed by other Reformers, including Guido de Brès, the author of the Belgic Confession.

Instruments in Worship

Some of our Presbyterian brethren are fond of pointing out that Calvin was no fan of instruments in public worship – and they’re right.  See, for example, his commentary on Psalm 33:2 or Psalm 71:22.  Calvin believed musical instruments were linked to the Old Testament ceremonies fulfilled in Christ.  However, what’s often missed is that Calvin wasn’t targeting musical accompaniment.  In his day, musical instruments were never used anywhere in public worship to accompany singing.  Instead, if they were used, they were used as stand-alone elements in the service.  See here for some elaboration on this by my colleague Dean Anderson. 

Birth Control

If you have Calvin’s Commentaries, you should check out Genesis 38:10.  If your edition is the same as mine (the old Baker reprint set), you’ll notice that this verse is missing, along with a few other lines.  The translator or editor decided not to include this, as if Calvin’s views on this are dangerous or troublesome.  Well, let’s put out there exactly what Calvin wrote about Onan’s spilling his seed on the ground:

Verse 10: The Jews quite immodestly gabble concerning this thing. It will suffice for me briefly to have touched upon this as much as modesty in speaking permits. The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall to the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born — the hoped for offspring.

This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth with his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth.”

I wonder how many self-proclaimed “Calvinists” would agree with that!  Now, I suspect that Calvin held to the view that women don’t contribute anything of substance to the reproductive process – they’re simply the “field” into which the “seed” is sown.  In this regard, Calvin may have had more in common with Anabaptist Menno Simons than his fellow Reformer Guido de Brès – see here for more on that.

The Use of God’s Name

A couple of years ago, I read through the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes.  One thing that discomforted me was Calvin’s occasional misuse of God’s Name.  In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!”  (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27).  In each context, it’s clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God.  The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French.  In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations.  I’ve encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès.  I find it troubling and can’t find a way to excuse it.  Perhaps, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror — a blind spot.

Servetus

Michael Servetus was a notorious Spanish heretic and opponent of Calvin.  He was a wanted man throughout Europe, both amongst Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Servetus arrived in Geneva in 1553.  He was recognized by John Calvin and reported to the city authorities.  He faced a trial before the city magistrates for heresy, was found guilty, and burnt at the stake.  As I argue here, Calvin’s involvement in the Servetus case is a quite bit more nuanced than is often realized.  Nevertheless, in 1554 Calvin wrote a lively defense of the way the Servetus case was handled in Geneva.  He believed Servetus received justice for his crimes.  Moreover, he argued that the Old Testament penalties for such things ought to be maintained in the present-day:  “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.  This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his church.”

Still a Calvinist?

I could give several more examples, but the point’s been made.  As we reflect on this, it’s important to remember two things.  First, the Bible is our infallible standard, not John Calvin.  He was a mere man and men can and do err.  Second, how we identify ourselves does matter.  Rather than identifying ourselves as Calvinists, it’s better to think of ourselves as Reformed Christians.  If we’re asked, the word ‘Reformed’ has a whole story behind it.  It’s the story of how the authority of the Bible was rediscovered, how the glory of the gospel was regained, and how the church again came to see the praise of God as her be-all and end-all.  ‘Reformed’ really means ‘Reformed according to the Scriptures.’  ‘Calvinist’ merely brings us to a man, but ‘Reformed’ brings us to God and his Word.   I think Calvin himself would prefer we use the latter.


You are a Disciple!

How we think of ourselves matters for how we live our lives.  For many of us, if asked our religion, we’d readily identify ourselves as Christians.  But we live in a world where that answer can sometimes mean nothing more than I was baptized in a church and I used to go to church at Christmas and Easter.  Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you have a true faith in Jesus Christ and walk in his ways.

Interestingly, the word “Christian” is only used three times in the New Testament.  However, there’s another term used to describe a believer in Jesus Christ.  This term is used nearly three hundred times in Scripture:  “disciple.”  A disciple of Jesus Christ is a student, but far more than just in the intellectual sense.  A disciple in the biblical sense not only imbibes information from his teacher, but aims to follow his life.  Our Lord said it in Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”  A disciple is like an apprentice.  Believers are disciples.

Yet it seems like Reformed people seldom if ever think of themselves as disciples.  They rarely refer to themselves as disciples.  Why is that?

Why Not “Disciples”?

The notion of Christians as disciples of Christ isn’t prominent in our Reformed confessions.  In its discussion of providence in article 13, the Belgic Confession refers to us as “pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which he teaches us in his Word, without transgressing these limits.”  The original 1561 French had “disciples de Christ.”  However, here discipleship is used mainly in the sense of taking data into our mind.  Something similar can be said for Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism where Christ is described as “our chief Prophet and Teacher.”  He is our Teacher in the sense that he has “fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”

It might seem as if Reformed theology is allergic to this biblical idea.  Yet if you go to the Reformers, they don’t have a problem with it.  For example, in his commentaries on the gospels, John Calvin acknowledges that Christians are disciples of Christ.  He works with the idea – if you take the New Testament seriously, it’s impossible not to.  So, it’s not as if there is an objection in principle in historic Reformed theology.  It’s simply the case that, more often than not, they used the word “believer” or “Christian” instead.

It could be that the term “disciple” has received more attention because of the modern mission movement.  I’m thinking here especially of the importance of the Great Commission of Matt. 28:18-20 and its key imperative to “make disciples of all nations.”  In Reformation times, the Great Commission was recognized by some (like Martin Bucer) as being an abiding call for the church to do mission.  However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that it rose to prominence.  In more recent times, it’s become common to hear missionaries speak of discipleship as a focal aspect of their work.  Missionaries taught many new Christians to think of themselves as disciples – not just at the beginning of their Christian walk, but throughout.

The Benefits of “Disciples”

Regardless of the history, the Bible describes true Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It’d be beneficial for us to think of ourselves as such and to identify ourselves as such.  I’ll explain why.

Thinking of yourself as a disciple is beneficial because it reminds you that there’s a goal in your sanctification:  to be Christ-like.  No, you can’t be him like in every respect, yet there are certainly ways you can and should (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11).  For example, you want to be humble and follow his model of servanthood (John 13:15).

It’s beneficial to identify ourselves to others as disciples of Christ because the word “Christian” is increasingly losing its true significance.  People often claim to be Christians while disregarding huge swathes of what Christ teaches in the Bible.  Identifying yourself as a “disciple of Christ” indicates that you aim to follow him and what he teaches – you want to be like him.  You aim to abide in his Word  (John 8:31).

Two Clarifications

Let me end with a couple of clarifications.

First, it’s important to distinguish between the practice of discipleship (while not necessarily using the term) and consciously self-identifying as a disciple of Christ.  Reformed churches, if they’re faithful, are actually good at discipleship.  For example, catechism instruction for the youth of the church is a fantastic discipleship program, even if it’s not spoken of in those terms.  My focus above is on how we identify ourselves and how we regard ourselves.  Do we ever consciously think in terms of being disciples of our Lord Jesus?

Second, the idea of being a disciple of Christ doesn’t exhaust the Bible’s teaching on who we are as redeemed people.  The Bible’s teaching on our identity is multi-faceted.  For example, another important aspect of our identity, often overlooked and underemphasized, is our union with Christ.  This certainly isn’t to say that we should abandon the word “Christian” either.  If we understand it properly for ourselves and clarify it for others, there’s no reason to abandon it.   What I’m simply suggesting is that we give more prominence to discipleship than we have in the past – just remember that if you’ve got true faith in Jesus Christ, you are his disciple!


The Sad Case of Francesco Spiera

There was a time when the name of Francesco Spiera (or Francis Spira) was well-known throughout the Reformed churches of Europe.  His story frightened, inspired, and motivated many.  It was a story repeated numerous times in all the languages of Europe.  His story caught the attention of John Calvin and many other Reformed theologians.  Spiera became an example and a warning.  Yet today his name is all but forgotten.  I’d never heard of him until I came across a reference to him in a book written in the seventeenth century.  I doubt you’ve heard of him.  But I think you should know, because his life and death are still instructive, as are the reactions that followed.

The Life and Death of Francesco Spiera 

Francesco Spiera (ca. 1504-1548) was an Italian.  We know nothing about his childhood or upbringing.  What is written about him focuses entirely on the last years of his life.  He appears out of the blue as a lawyer working in the region of Venice.  He was an intelligent man with a solid reputation and a faithful Roman Catholic.  He was married and had eleven children.

Spiera’s world was turned upside down in the early 1540s when Reformation writings appeared for sale in his area.  He apparently purchased some of these writings.  He compared these writings with the Bible and became convinced that Reformation theology was biblical.  Moreover, he didn’t keep his new faith to himself.  He taught it to his family and his friends and to whomever would listen.

In November of 1547, some of his neighbours denounced him to the Roman Inquisition.  The Inquisition existed to stamp out heresies and errors and whatever challenged the authority and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  Spiera was put on trial in Venice in May of 1548.  Among other things, his possession of an Italian Calvinistic classic, Beneficio di Cristo, was evidence that he had set out on a road away from Rome.  The trial lasted into June of 1548 and at the end he was commanded to retract his Protestant beliefs publicly and to buy an altar-piece for his local Roman Catholic Church building.  He appears to have followed these instructions.

Problems set in almost immediately afterwards.  Spiera had second thoughts about his abjuration.  He reportedly heard the voice of the Son of God accusing him for having denied the gospel and telling him that he was now a reprobate condemned to hell.  He fell ill and spent most of his time in bed suffering from physical pain and emotional despair.  Friends and family tried to reason with him.  Roman Catholic theologians and priests made an effort to convince him, and when that failed, they attempted to exorcise whatever demon was tormenting him.  Spiera continued to despair.  He died in that condition on December 27, 1548.  Some say that he died of despair, others that he took his own life.

The Danger of Apostasy

We live in a comfortable age at the moment.  Stories such as the one about Spiera seem entirely disconnected from our reality.  We would never face an Inquisition for being or becoming Reformed.  At least not at the moment.  However, we should not assume that things will always continue to be the way they are.  A day could come when you are dragged before a court and pressured to repudiate the gospel and your Saviour.  Spiera’s story reminds us that betraying our Saviour comes at a cost.

The story of Francesco Spiera was used by both Protestants and Roman Catholics to advance their agendas.  Roman Catholics used Spiera’s story to warn their people about the dangers of even departing from Rome in the first place.  Protestants used the story to warn people what could happen if they were to abjure their biblical faith.  Historians recognize that the historical accounts are coloured by these agendas.  Yet both Roman Catholics and Protestant reports of Spiera’s demise highlight the enormous suffering and despair that he endured because he did not stand strong one way or another.  I think we can say with certainty that this is a historical fact and it’s something instructive for us.

Protestant Reflections on Spiera

It’s also instructive to survey the different ways in which Protestants have treated the case of Francesco Spiera.  One of the earliest commentaries comes from John Calvin.  In 1549 Calvin wrote a preface to an account of Spiera’s despair.  Calvin used Spiera as an example in his struggle with the Nicodemites.  The Nicodemites, like Nicodemus, were secret believers.  They were people who held to Reformed theology, but continued to remain in the Roman Catholic Church.  Spiera was an example of what could happen to such people.  But Calvin went further than this and explicitly declared judgment on Spiera.  Calvin referred to him as an example of the reprobate who “never fail to proceed from one sin to another.”  His despair was God’s justice on him, a justice that came to full fervour after his death.  Calvin essentially asserted that Spiera had been consigned by God to eternal destruction and his betrayal of the faith gave evidence of his reprobation.

Subsequent Protestant theologians and authors took a similar line.  The English Reformer and martyr Hugh Latimer (ca. 1487-1555) asserted that Spiera had sinned against the Holy Spirit – committing the unpardonable sin.  In 1865, a book of poems was published by the Englishman James Hain Friswell.  The first one is about Francesco Spiera and its opening lines clearly indicate where the author believes Spiera ended up:

The words of Francis Spira, man of Law,

A man in sin begotten and conceived,

Reaping damnation, which he much deserved,

Dying with friends about him whose vain words

Would comfort him whose doom is fix’d past help!

Similarly, on a couple of occasions the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) referred to Spiera and compared him to Judas Iscariot.  While he did not come right out and declare that Spiera was reprobate, there is a hint of it.

Another Line

However, there is another line in Protestant reflections on Francesco Spiera.  It’s found both among Reformed writers and Lutherans during the seventeenth century.  The post-Reformation was far kinder and sympathetic to Spiera’s case than many before and after.

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) is one of the giants of the Reformed faith in the seventeenth century.  He taught theology at the University of Utrecht.  He is remembered for his deft blending of serious academic thought with warm-hearted commitment to Christ.  Some of his books were written exclusively for an academic audience.  Others were written for the common Reformed person.  One of those was a book entitled Spiritual Desertion (Geestelijke Verlatingen), first published in Dutch in 1646.  In this book (which has been translated into English), Voetius mentions the case of Spiera twice.  The first time is in a discussion about the circumstances that most frequently accompany a feeling of desertion by God.  He mentions persecutions, diseases as well as considerable physical weakness which leads to death.  And he writes that an example of this is what happened with Spiera.  He adds, “This history ought to be read and can be read, since it available in more than one language.”

He comes back to Spiera later.  Voetius notes that when it comes to judging what happened to Spiera, he is in agreement with the assessment of the English Puritan William Perkins, the German Reformer Wolfgang Musculus, and even Arminius.  Voetius writes:

For certainly one must not give credence to their cries or confessions of despair, because that voice is not a voice of credibility or truth but of weakness; it is not making a statement but expressing a doubt…Finally, even if it were the case that they were not restored inwardly before their death but departed during a severe attack of insensibility and temptation, nothing certain could be concluded about their final and total impenitence and unbelief.  This could be done only if it were first established that actual, particular, and always ensuring repentance and remorse (renewed after every sin) is absolutely and indispensably necessary to salvation. (Spiritual Desertion, 53)

According to Voetius then, it is inappropriate to claim that Spiera was reprobate because of the manner in which he died.

Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617-1666) was a disciple of Voetius.  Voetius actually never finished writing Spiritual Desertion, so he commissioned Hoornbeeck to complete it.  Hoornbeeck wrote a lot more about Spiera, but it was all along the same lines as that of Voetius.  A short quote will give you an idea of what he thought:

[Spiera] did want to return to God but thought that he could not do so.  We silently pass by the judgment that others have pronounced.  On the basis of his burning desire and his heartfelt longing for God and his grace (longing that he frequently displayed), we consider ourselves duty-bound to suspend our judgment – if not to speak in his favour. (Spiritual Desertion, 86)

Hoornbeeck considered Spiera to be a “frightening example” but yet he believed that Spiera’s despair and spiritual struggle could not be evidence of reprobation.  After all, the reprobate give no care to their standing before God.

The last author I can mention is Johannes Andreas Quenstedt (1617-1688), an orthodox Lutheran theologian from the seventeenth century.  He discusses Spiera’s case in an important academic work entitled Theologica Didactico-Polemica.  It comes up in a discussion regarding the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  This is what Quenstedt concluded:

Spiera must be held least of all to have sinned against the Holy Spirit, because: 1) he defected to the papacy, not from malice, but from weakness; not by his own will and initiative, but through the persuasion of friends.  2) He did not impugn or blaspheme the doctrine of the Gospel, but he was greatly pained that he had defected from the truth.  It was therefore assuredly despair, but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit… (Theologica Didactico-Polemica (1715), Vol. 1, 1064, translation mine)

Thus also Quenstedt regarded Spiera as a sad case, but not one in which observers can make a definite conclusion as to the Italian’s eternal destiny.

The Take-Aways

The post-Reformation period showed a remarkable degree of mature, biblical analysis of the Spiera case.  There was much more hesitancy to jump to conclusions regarding Spiera’s ultimate destination, whether that be heaven or hell.  Instead, the post-Reformation theologians that we’ve surveyed believed that Spiera suffered despair, even a sort of depression.  While he brought it on himself through his betrayal of the faith, the fact that he was in so much pain up till his death does not disqualify him from the kingdom of God.

As mentioned above, today we don’t face the immediate possibility of persecution.  Yet there are still countless people in our churches who suffer with despair and depression.  Sometimes, sadly, we even hear about those who take their own lives – as Spiera may have done.  Spiera’s story and the way the post-Reformation writers worked with it teach us to be careful when making judgments about someone’s spiritual state.  Struggle, doubts and difficulties are not indicative of reprobation, even when they culminate in suicide.

Sometimes the post-Reformation is wrongly described as a period of aridity in Reformed theology, as a low point in our heritage.  The story of Spiera indicates that there is much that we can still learn from men like Voetius, Hoornbeeck and even Quenstedt (Lutheran that he was).  These were men who valued faithfulness and precision in their theology, but it never came at the cost of passion for Christ and compassion for those who suffer.  One can only hope that we’ll see more post-Reformation material coming into English translation.


Book Review: Reforming Apologetics (2)

See here for part 1.

Some Points of Appreciation

There are some points at which I genuinely appreciate Reforming Apologetics.  For example, I agree wholeheartedly with Fesko’s approach to scholasticism.  In the line of Muller and others, he understands it as an academic method, rather than a school of thought.  Fesko is quite correct to see scholastic patterns in Calvin’s Institutes.  Since I agree with those assertions, I also have no problem agreeing that Van Til at times over-reached with his claims about Calvin versus scholasticism.  Of course, it has to be said that in this Van Til was really a child of his times.  While he understood scholasticism to be a method, Herman Bavinck (arguably Van Til’s greatest influence) also contrasted Calvin with Protestant scholasticism (e.g. Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1. 180).

Van Til’s assessment of Thomas Aquinas also comes under Fesko’s scrutiny.  Of course, some presuppositionalists have long recognized problems in Van Til’s description and analysis of Aquinas.  Some were noted by John Frame in his 1995 book, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought.  I can agree that Van Til was, at times, inaccurate in his descriptions of Aquinas, and therefore in his judgments too.  Let me say two more things in that regard:  First, Van Til’s proposal for Reformed apologetics does not stand or fall on his historical accuracy.  The standard for judging presuppositional apologetics ultimately has to be the Scriptures.  Second, we must acknowledge that, as Fesko writes, Van Til seems to get Aquinas mostly through secondary sources.  These are chiefly Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson.  Maritain and Gilson were Roman Catholic philosophers sympathetic to Aquinas.  A question Fesko does not really tackle is whether Van Til gets Aquinas wrong on some points because he gets Maritain and Gilson wrong, or because Maritain and Gilson got Aquinas wrong.  Fesko does think Gilson was wrong for seeing Aquinas as a philosopher (87), but that is as far as we get.

Not surprisingly, Fesko makes many points that are agreeable to presuppositionalists.  It is no surprise because Fesko is a Reformed theologian and presuppositionalists are Reformed too.  Naturally we are going to agree that we “need to approach unbelievers in terms of their God-defined status as covenant-breakers” (xiii).  We will be shoulder-to-shoulder in affirming that “the non-Christian’s problem is not primarily epistemological but ethical” (123).  Together we can affirm that “Only a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit can remove the detrimental noetic effects of sin and enable fallen people to love God and submit to his authoritative word in Scripture” (203).

Source Issues

There are a number of issues with the references used to substantiate some of Fesko’s claims.  As an example, on page 63 Fesko claims that Calvin quotes positively from Virgil’s Aeneid in Institutes 1.5.5.  This is to substantiate his claim that Calvin invoked the argument from design.  However, if one looks at Institutes 1.5.5, the reference is not a positive one.  Calvin is actually critiquing Virgil and other classical authors in this section.  He heaps contempt upon Virgil:  “As if the universe, which was founded as a spectacle of God’s glory, were its own creator!”  There are other examples, but I will not belabour this point.  Suffice it to say that careful readers will want to check the footnotes as to whether the references actually substantiate the points being made.

Apologetical and Theological Issues

One of the most important things readers value in a book is clarity.  Clarity begins with definitions.  There are times when Fesko provides good, clear definitions and then follows through with them.  But there are also times when things become muddled.  For example, on pages 115-120, Fesko is discussing Scott Oliphint and his views on Scripture and knowledge.  In this discussion, words like “source,” “foundation,” “ground,” “knowledge” and “epistemology” are used without definitions and without distinctions.  This leads to confusion as to what Oliphint’s position actually is.  Fesko quotes Oliphint asserting that Scripture alone is the “ground and foundation of our epistemology” (115), but then on the next page claims that Oliphint is trying to support the idea that Scripture is the only source of all knowledge.  How did he go from “ground and foundation” to “source”?  How did he go from “epistemology” to “all knowledge”?  These things are related, but not synonymous.

Still on the topic of definitions, Fesko adopts a partially idiosyncratic approach to the definition of faith.  He discusses it in two places (21, 212).  In both places, he rightly notes that Reformed orthodoxy has always defined faith as having three essential components:  notitia, assensus, fiduciaFiducia refers to personal confidence.  Where Fesko gets one to raise an eyebrow is with his definition of notitia as “facts” and assensus as “comprehension of the facts.”  Bizarrely, he refers to Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, but Muller does not support these definitions.  Instead, Muller says that notitia means “knowledge” and assensus means “assent” or “agreement.”  This quirk leads Fesko to write that unbelievers can receive the facts of Scripture (notitia), as well as having “a certain degree of comprehension of the facts” (assensus).  But what is the difference between “receiving” and “comprehending”?  As I understand it, unbelievers can in some fashion know biblical teaching (notitia), they may even affirm some of it as true (assensus), but yet without personal trust in Jesus Christ (fiducia) there is no saving, justifying faith.

See here for part 3.