Tag Archives: presuppositional apologetics

Book Review: Reformed Apologetics (4)

See here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3.

Presuppositional apologetics is well-known for its use of the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG).  Essentially, this argument states that God exists because of the impossibility of the contrary.  We cannot account for anything apart from God.  To hear the best example of this argument in action, listen to the famous 1985 debate between Dr. Greg Bahnsen and Dr. Gordon Stein.

In chapter 6, Fesko concedes that TAG can be a useful argument in the apologist’s toolbox, “but not at the expense of the book of nature” (137).  He does not regard it as a silver-bullet, nor does he see it as “the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics” (137).  Rather than being purely biblical, Fesko sees TAG as being more philosophical.  In particular, he sees it as attaching “apologetic methodology to certain idealist concepts” (156).

The chief problem with chapter 6 is that while Fesko acknowledges the presuppositionalist claim that TAG is biblical or even the most biblical way to argue, he never once interacts with the biblical exegesis proffered by presuppositionalists to support that claim.  Instead, he apparently thinks it sufficient to illustrate that TAG has an idealist background.  He reasons that since TAG has an idealist background, the presuppositionalist claim is suspect at best.  However, would it not be fair and reasonable to engage the biblical argumentation that presuppositionalists like Oliphint and Bahnsen present in favour of TAG?  Shouldn’t Scripture be the ultimate arbiter of whether something is scriptural?

Additionally, Fesko fails to engage the presuppositionalist claim that TAG is also the most versatile form of apologetic argumentation.  In fact, he simply posits the opposite.  As mentioned, he acknowledges TAG’s usefulness, but then limits it to arguing with philosophical idealists:  “If the apologist happens to be interacting with a person who is devoted to idealism, then the TAG is a useful tool, but an apologist who happens to be dialoguing with a postmodern who rejects the tenets of idealism would need to employ other tools” (155).  Similarly, he argues that TAG is not going to be useful for apologetical engagement with someone who does not have a coherent worldview “but only an eclectic postmodern assortment of beliefs” (156).  There are two points in response.

First, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Above I mentioned, the so-called Great Debate between Bahnsen and Stein in 1985.   Anyone who has listened to the debate will concede that Stein was handily trumped by Bahnsen.  Was Stein an idealist?  There are other debates where the outcome was not so clear, but from a Christian perspective we can still be assured the truth was proclaimed and unbelief was exposed for what it is.  I think of the debates between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens.  Wilson wielded TAG against Hitchens.  Was Hitchens an idealist?  Many more examples could be adduced, some with obvious leanings to a more postmodern philosophy of life.  Now, I suppose Fesko’s point hangs on the definition of “usefulness.”  Does “useful” entail convincing opponents?  Or is “useful” a matter of presenting a solid case for the Christian faith regardless of the outcome?  If we use the latter approach, then it is clear to me at least that TAG has been quite useful in apologetical engagements with non-idealists.

Second, Fesko asserts that TAG is only going to be useful for dialoguing with those who have a “coherent worldview.”  This is missing the whole point of TAG.  TAG argues that, outside of the Christian faith, there are no coherent worldviews.  There are no worldviews that can account for reality as it stands before us.  No worldview save the Christian one can account for morality, laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, love, and so on.  Every worldview besides the Christian one is inconsistent and incoherent.  True, there may be individuals whose worldview is a “postmodern assortment of beliefs” – however, these worldviews are to greater or lesser degrees just as inconsistent and incoherent as the most thorough-going idealist.

There is far more that could be said in critique of Fesko’s critique.  I could discuss his failure to acknowledge Van Til’s crucial distinction between natural theology and natural revelation.  I could discuss whether his understanding of the noetic effects of sin is sufficiently Reformed.  I would heartily dispute his repeated claims that presuppositionalists teach that unbelievers have no knowledge whatsoever.  I might bemoan the lack of meaningful engagement with biblical teachings about the myth of neutrality and the reality of self-deception.  I could contest his insinuation in chapter 8 that presuppositionalism is innately arrogant and immodest.  It could be worthwhile to investigate whether Fesko has done justice to Herman Dooyeweerd in chapter 7 – but I will leave that and the other points to others.

Let me finish my critique with something more about Fesko’s understanding of proofs, evidence, and the so-called book of nature.  In the last chapter, he writes that “Proofs, evidence, and the book of nature do not convert unbelievers, but they are an integral part of God’s revelation and thus necessary, important and useful” (209).  I can readily grant that the “book of nature” understood in the sense of article 2 of the Belgic Confession is part of God’s revelation.  “The creation, preservation, and government of the universe” do lead us to perceive God’s invisible qualities, viz. his eternal power and divine nature.  This is biblical – it comes from Romans 1:20.  However, is it biblical to argue that proofs and evidence are an “integral part of God’s revelation”?   Furthermore, which proofs?  Which evidence?  And how are they “God’s revelation”?

If we limit ourselves to the “book of nature,” the Belgic Confession and other historic Reformed symbols attach a limited value to it.  BC article 2 briefly mentions it, but then spends the next five articles on Scripture – the clearer and fuller revelation of God.  When it comes to apologetics, we need to reckon with what Scripture says about itself.  Apologetics is a form of spiritual warfare.  Ephesians 6 speaks about the armour of the Christian soldier.  In that armour there is only one offensive weapon.  It is not “the book of nature” or “evidences and proofs,” but the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).  Scripture says that Scripture is the weapon for our spiritual warfare.  Our Saviour illustrates the use of that weapon in his temptations.  When tempted by Satan, he did not resort to “the book of nature,” but to the Word of God.  When faced with the lies of unbelief, should not Christians do likewise?

Cornelius Van Til claimed that he was simply standing on the shoulders of others so that he could see further.  He acknowledged his indebtedness to Kuyper, Bavinck, and others who had gone before.  There is a need to be critical when it comes to Van Til’s claims and, indeed, all this teaching.  No man is beyond scrutiny.  The question is:  by what standard do we judge?   Fesko seems more interested in judging Van Til (and presuppositionalism) by historical theology than by the Scriptures.

Writing critiques is hazardous stuff.  Carrying on the Reformed tradition, Van Til was a polemical writer.  He felt compelled to critique theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Joseph Butler at length.  Others have critiqued Van Til’s critique and Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics is just the latest one.  Now I have critiqued Fesko’s critique of Van Til’s critique.  While it is necessary to do it, I sometimes wonder whether we advance the discussion when it is always framed in this negative way.  Fesko automatically puts presuppositionalists like me on the defensive, just as I suppose Van Til has put him on the defensive.  It may have served the church better to write a book with a focus on a positive proposal for Reformed apologetics in our day.  Some critical engagement with theological forebears might still be necessary, but it would put the focus on building up rather than tearing down.


Book Review: Reforming Apologetics (3)

See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

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, individual 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 center 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 center 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 center, 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).

See here for part 4 (the final installment).
 


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.

 


Book Review: Reforming Apologetics (1)

Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith, J.V. Fesko.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019.  Softcover, 250 pages.

This much-anticipated volume begins with a bit of autobiography.  J.V. Fesko relates how Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict impacted him shortly after graduating from college.  It spurred him on to study apologetics in seminary and beyond.  We all travel a route to our convictions and I am no different.  My study of apologetics began in a humanistic and anti-Christian university environment.  I needed help in dealing with the regular attacks on the Christian faith from the lectern, questions from fellow students, and sometimes my own doubts.  God’s providence led me to Cornelius Van Til’s book The Defense of the Faith.  I devoured it over a summer break.  And I savoured it.  It rocked my world – I would not say it turned my world upside down so much as turning it right side up.  I grew up in a Reformed church and here was a Reformed author trying to apply the Reformed theology I loved to apologetics.  For me, the most important point of all was that, not only in apologetics, but in everything, we must start with God’s inerrant Word.  That made a deep impression on me that I will never be able to escape, nor would I want to.

I have encountered other critiques of Van Til and presuppositional apologetics.  In my university days, I read the well-known volume of Sproul, Gerstner and Lindsey, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics.  In a time when I might yet have been easily persuaded, it did not.  Around the same time, I listened to Greg Bahnsen debate R.C. Sproul on apologetical method.  By the end of this cordial debate, Bahnsen had Sproul conceding some key points.  Obviously Sproul was not going to convince me on that occasion either.

However, this new critique by J.V. Fesko piqued my interest.  I have greatly appreciated work he has done in defence of the Reformed doctrine of justification.  He is a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the church of Bahnsen and Van Til.  He’s been a professor at Westminster Seminary in California.  His book has a hearty endorsement from Richard Muller – someone whom I respect highly and from whom I have learned much about historical theology.  Would an author with these credentials cast Van Til in a critical, but more accurate light?

This book is a critique.  Critiques are often met with accusations of misconstrual, misunderstanding, and worse.  But what to do when reviewing a book and the author actually does seem to misunderstand some or much of what his opponents are saying?  I read Fesko and I found myself saying, “Either I have always profoundly misunderstood presuppositionalism or he has.”  One of us is wrong about some of presuppositionalism’s basic tenets.

As the subtitle indicates, Fesko wants to take readers away from presuppositionalism and back to the “classic Reformed approach to defending the faith.”  For him, that means recovering the “book of nature” in apologetics.  In other words, he argues for greater attention in Reformed apologetics to natural theology or “the light of nature.”  He believes that Van Tillian presuppositionalism has unnecessarily shelved (or at best minimized) the usefulness of the book of nature.

Click here for part 2.


Book Review: How to Defend the Faith

How to Defend the Faith: A Presuppositional Approach, Riley Fraas.  Thaddeus Publications, 2018.  Softcover, 133 pages, $8.99 USD.

I first became interested in apologetics as a university student some 25 years ago.  Back then, we didn’t have a lot of books written about the theory or practice of Reformed apologetics.  I should qualify that:  we didn’t have a lot of books by others besides Cornelius VanTil (who was a prolific writer in the field).  Since then, we have seen a good number of volumes by other authors such as Greg Bahnsen, Scott Oliphint, and John Frame.  However, most of these books lean more towards the theoretical.  There’s still little in print showing how to put it into practice.

In this little guide, Riley Fraas does give a bare-bones summary of the ideas behind Reformed (or presuppositional) apologetics.  However, readers interested in going deeper will have to go elsewhere.  According to the author, “The intent is that this handbook will be a useful resource for the Christian layperson to have at his fingertips, to answer almost every kind of objection effectively:  a segue to the gospel” (131).  How to Defend the Faith demonstrates the principles of Reformed apologetics through a series of imagined dialogues based on the author’s real-life experiences.

Fraas spends most of his time on the objections of atheism.  He teaches readers how to reply to the atheist who says, “I believe that the important thing is to be a good person and empathize with fellow human beings.  As long as you do that, no god is needed” (46).  Or the atheist who says, “Show me evidence for any god” (62).  Most Christians will be tempted to immediately start laying out various evidences, allowing the atheist to be the judge of the evidence.  Fraas shows a better way — but to find out that better way, you’ll have to read the book for yourself!

One of the helpful features of this book is the attention given to various false religions.  Not much work has been done in showing how Reformed apologetics responds to the claims of Judaism or Islam, the so-called Abrahamic faiths.  Fraas fills in that gap.   He also addresses Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

When it comes to Islam, Fraas notes that one of Islam’s weak points is its theoretical affirmation that both the Old Testament and New Testament are valid, while at the same contradicting these writings.  The classic example is Islam’s insistence that God has no son.  Fraas argues that this internal inconsistency makes Islam rationally indefensible.  He is correct on that, but more should be said.  What he doesn’t say is that Muslims also claim that Jews and Christians have corrupted the writings of the Bible, and thus the current text of the OT and NT are unreliable.  This is what any Christian will face if he challenges a Muslim on this internal inconsistency in Islam.  In reply to that, Christians must challenge Muslims to prove their claim.  Where is the proof that Jews and Christians have corrupted these writings so that they’re unreliable?

This is a handy little book, especially for those who have already had some basic exposure to Reformed apologetics and are convinced of its elemental premises.  It gives the reader a good idea of how to biblically defend the faith and then also point our unbelieving conversation partners to the gospel.  It’s not just an enjoyable read from front to back; it’ll also be a great reference to keep coming back to when engaged in giving a reason for the hope that is in us.