Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

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.


The Reformation versus the Post-Reformation?

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.


Martin Luther: Law and Gospel

The other day I returned from the Philippines.  I was there to teach Reformation church history on the islands of Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro) and Luzon (Malolos).  One of the subjects that we covered was the topic of law and gospel in Luther’s theology.  Below are the lecture notes for this.  Enjoy!


6.4.3  Law and Gospel

I want to begin here with two quotes.  Please listen carefully:

The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.  The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the Mediator and the free remission of sins, through faith.[1]

That’s the first quote.  Here is the second:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds:  the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.”  For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings…We must pay great attention to these things.  For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.[2]

Now who do you think said those things?  They were both written by Reformed theologians, not Lutherans.  The first quote is from Zacharias Ursinus, from his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.  The second quote is from Theodore Beza, from his confession of faith.  One was a German Reformer, the other Swiss.  Both maintained a distinction between law and gospel.

This is important to recognize because many have said that the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran.  They say that it has its origins with Martin Luther and only Lutherans hold to it.  Historically, this is only half true.

The law/gospel distinction is found with Reformed theologians before, during, and after the time of John Calvin.  It’s also found in the writings of Calvin himself.  So it is not correct to say that this is only a Lutheran doctrine – historically it has been maintained in Reformed theology too and therefore it is found in the Three Forms of Unity too.  In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that we know our sin and misery from the law of God.  In Lord’s Day 6, we know about our mediator from the holy gospel.  In the Canons of Dort chapter 3-4, article 5, we confess that the law is inadequate to save – “it leaves the transgressor under the curse.”  That is why the gospel is necessary according to article 6 of chapter 3-4.  There is a clear distinction between law and gospel in our Confessions.

However, it is true that we can trace the origins of this distinction to Luther.  One can find evidence of it among some of the church fathers (for example, Augustine at times), but it was Luther who recovered it in the time of the Reformation.  From Luther, it was transmitted not only to Lutheran theologians, but also to Reformed theologians.

Before outlining the distinction as Luther presented it, it’s important to consider the background.  Thomas Aquinas was one of the pre-eminent theologians of the late medieval period.  Aquinas held that justification takes place through progressive moral transformation, with the help of infused grace.  Thomas maintained that the Old Testament dispensation involved an old law.  The New Testament dispensation presented God’s people with a new law.  In both dispensations, believers are expected to obey God and thus earn his pleasure.  The difference is that under the new law, believers receive more grace, they receive more help to obey.  To be sure, Thomas said that the main thing about the new law was that it commanded faith.  However, this faith included human good works in its definition.[3]  So what you have with Thomas (and much of medieval theology with him), is justification by good works.

That brings me to the key point to keep in mind with this distinction.  For Luther, as well as for the Lutheran and Reformed theologians, it is a distinction that functions within the context of justification.  It grew out of the recognition that Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians had misunderstood the biblical doctrine of justification.  They had misconstrued how a sinner gets into a right relationship with God.  Thomas and many medieval theologians made it into a matter of works – new law.

Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of justification.  In its place, he came to understand that Scripture speaks in terms of law and gospel.  We find it with Luther as early as 1518 in his explanation of the 95 Theses.  This is what he wrote regarding thesis 62:

The gospel is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace.  It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.

The law is a word of destruction, a word of wrath, a word of sadness, a word of grief, a voice of the judge and the defendant, a word of restlessness, a word of curse….Through the law we have nothing except an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the law points out but does not take away.  And we ourselves cannot take it away.[4]

This distinction became more defined in Luther’s theology as he continued to study.  In 1532, he preached through Galatians.  In one of his sermons, he defined the law as “God’s Word and command in which he commands us what we are to do and not to do and demands our obedience.”  The gospel does not demand obedience for justification, but “bids us simply receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.”[5]

Luther’s law/gospel distinction must not be misunderstood as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament.  Luther maintained that the law was found in both the Old and New Testament.  Similarly, the gospel is also found in both the Old and New Testament.  So this is not a matter of placing one Testament against the other.  Law and gospel are found throughout the entire Bible.

There is a lot more that could be said about this, but let me just draw out one more point that is often misunderstood.  Some forget that this distinction functions within the context of justification.  They say that Luther (and then the Lutherans as well) are antinomians or close to being antinomians.  Because of the law/gospel distinction, the law has no place in the life of a Christian.  They say that, for Luther, the law is only about giving awareness of sin and misery, so that one will be driven to Christ for salvation.  After salvation, the law no longer has a function in the life of a believer.  In dogmatic terms, they say that Luther only advocated the first use of the law.[6]  Because of the law/gospel distinction, they say, he did not advocate the third use of the law, the law as a guide for thankful Christian living.  A recent Reformed biographer says, “Luther simply avoids discussing the Christian’s life of obedience as obedience to the law.”[7]  This is simply not true.  While it is very commonly believed amongst Reformed people, the evidence in Luther’s writings does not support it.  Yes, it is true that Luther’s emphasis is on the first use of the law.  But he also teaches the third use.  You can see it in his Large Catechism.  As he discusses the 10 Commandments, he not only discusses the accusing function, but also points out how these commandments are to actively function in the life of the Christian who loves God and wants to please him.[8]  Moreover, The Formula of Concord, written after Luther’s death (published in 1580) but a good summary of Luther’s theology, says this:

…We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that people who truly believe and are converted to God, justified Christians, are liberated and made free from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10).  Yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, “Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2; see also Psalm 119:1).  The Law is a mirror in which God’s will and what pleases him are exactly portrayed.  This mirror should be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently encouraged for them without ceasing.[9]

From this you can see, that Lutherans, following Martin Luther, do indeed teach and confess the third use of the law.

KEY POINTS:  Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of medieval soteriology.  Luther taught a law/gospel distinction within the context of justification.  The law demands payment and obedience.  Through Christ the gospel gives what the law demands.  Both law and gospel are found in both Old Testament and New Testament.  Luther emphasized the first use of the law, but also maintained the third use.  This law/gospel distinction became foundational in all Protestant theology, both Lutheran and Reformed.

[1] Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 2.

[2] Theodore Beza, Confession de foi du chretien – as quoted by R. S. Clark, “Letter and Spirit” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, 342.

[3] Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 336-337.

[4] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 338.  On page 173 in the Portuguese edition of Luther’s selected works.

[5] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 339.

[6] Three uses of the law in Reformed theology:  1) The accusing use – the law exposes our sin and misery and therefore our need for Christ.  2)  The political use – the law is a guide for civil society.  3) The law as a guide for thankful Christian living in response to the gospel of grace.

[7] Nichols, Martin Luther, 81.

[8] See especially Concordia, 395-397.

[9] Concordia, 558.  See also the Epitome, Concordia, 486-487.