Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith. By J.V. Fesko. Baker Academic, 2019. $24.99.
Dr. R.C. Sproul was well known for holding to an apologetic method that was out of step with the majority of conservative American Reformed theologians of the twentieth century. While the majority followed Cornelius Van Til and his presuppositional method of apologetics, Dr. Sproul argued for a classical method. He pointed his readers back to theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Francis Turretin as better models for how to defend the faith. But for many years, Dr. Sproul was almost a lone voice in his criticisms of the newer model of apologetics.
It was with great interest, then, that in the summer of 2017, he read the manuscript for J.V. Fesko’s new book on apologetics. Upon finishing it, he was quite excited and wrote a note to Fesko expressing his delight in the book. His endorsement of Fesko’s book would be the last book endorsement he wrote before his death in December 2017. In his endorsement, Dr. Sproul wrote the following:
John Fesko has given us a clear, scholarly and comprehensive analysis and critique of post-Enlightenment Reformed Apologetics. His work goes a long way to restoring classical Reformed Theology and Apologetics.
Dr. Sproul was correct. Fesko’s book is a significant contribution to the ongoing Reformed discussion of apologetics.
J.V. Fesko was, for many years, the academic dean and professor of systematic theology and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California (WSC). He is now professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. He is also an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the author of more than twenty books as well as dozens of academic and popular articles.
For those who know the history of the OPC and of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (WTS) and its former branch campus in California (now an independent institution) and who have followed the decades-long apologetics debate among Reformed theologians, it may come as a surprise to find out that Dr. Sproul endorsed a book on apologetics written by an OPC minister and (until very recently) WSC professor. WTS, WSC, and the OPC are usually associated with a staunch support of Van Tillian presuppositionalism. What happened to cause a Westminster professor and OPC minister to break ranks with the majority in those institutions and write something critical of Van Til?
I believe that good historical theology is what happened. Van Til’s argument for presuppositional apologetics was supported by a historical narrative that involved, among other things, discussions of the theology of the medieval church (especially the work of Thomas Aquinas), John Calvin, and the Reformed scholastic theologians. Over the course of the last several decades, contemporary Reformed scholars have been at the forefront of a resurgence of detailed research into the theology of the Reformation. This research has included intensive study of the historical context of the Reformation (including the theology of Thomas and the later medieval theologians). It has also included detailed study of the post-Reformation theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Numerous articles and monographs have been published demonstrating the nature of scholastic theology, the theology of John Calvin, and the theology of the Reformed scholastic theologians. In addition, many of the works of the early Reformed theologians are being translated into English for the first time.
One of the results of this research is that the historical narrative assumed and taught by Van Til and his students has been found wanting. It has been revealed that at critical points, his narrative doesn’t line up with the primary source evidence. It is hardly surprising, then, that historical theologians such as Fesko, men who have devoted decades of their lives to studying the primary sources, are calling into question many of Van Til’s historical claims. One of my former colleagues used to say that one can be a good Roman Catholic and a bad historian, and one can be a good historian and a bad Roman Catholic, but one cannot be a good Roman Catholic and a good historian. It’s turning out that the same is true of Van Tillianism. Those who are good historians are finding it difficult to remain good Van Tillians since much of what he taught regarding the theology of the Middle Ages, John Calvin, and the Reformed scholastics is quite simply false.
The Van Tillian historical narrative could be maintained for a long time because no one was double-checking it against the actual writings of those mentioned in the narrative. This is no longer the case today, and if someone writes a book on a theologian (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) and that book is filled with falsehoods and misrepresentations, he will be called out. In short, competent historical theology has revealed that the emperor has no clothes.
Fesko’s book is largely a result of his own studies in Reformed orthodoxy. He has noticed the differences between the way in which the early Reformed theologians defended the Christian faith and the way that contemporary Van Tillianism has said it must be defended if one is to be truly Reformed. The primary point of difference that Fesko discusses has to do with the use of the “book of nature” in defending the faith. It has to do with natural theology.
In his introduction, Fesko explains how the early Reformed theologians regularly used both the book of Scripture and the book of nature. This positive understanding and careful use of the book of nature continued among Reformed theologians up until the nineteenth century, when various post-Enlightenment influences caused it to gradually be rejected (pp. 2–3). Fesko’s goal is to reclaim the original Reformed understanding of and use of the book of nature (p. 4).
In chapter 1, Fesko uses the work of the Westminster divine Anthony Burgess to help explain what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches concerning “the light of nature.” From Burgess, we discover that the phrase “denotes three things: (1) natural law, (2) human reason, and (3) God’s natural revelation in creation” (p. 13). In the remainder of the chapter, Fesko looks at Burgess’ teaching on the first two of these three: natural law and human reason, showing the careful and nuanced way that Reformed theology originally dealt with and explained these subjects.
Chapter 2 focuses more closely on the concept of “common notions.” Here Fesko looks closely at Burgess’ exegesis of Romans 2:14–15 in order to better understand the concept. As Burgess explains, “The Law of Nature consists in those common notions which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts” (p. 30). This includes a knowledge of the existence of God and a knowledge of the difference between good and evil (p. 30). Fesko then turns to a historical survey of the way that the idea of “common notions” was used in the early and medieval church and how it was received by Reformed theologians. His survey reveals that the idea was taught by the vast majority of Reformed theologians (pp. 34–48).
Chapter 3 examines John Calvin’s understanding of the book of nature and natural theology. In this chapter, Fesko reveals that the Calvin of the common Van Tillian narrative has little in common with the real Calvin. Fesko writes: “The overwhelming conclusion is clear: some contemporary theologians have created a Calvin of faith, one who was either hostile to or uninterested in scholastic method, natural law, and common notions, as well as the traditional arguments for God’s existence. The Calvin of history, on the other hand, reveals different data” (p. 67).
If the classical Reformed view of natural theology is to be retrieved, some objections must be addressed. In chapter 4, Fesko addresses objections to natural theology arising from the numerous Van Tillian misrepresentations of Thomas Aquinas’ theology and philosophy. In chapter 5, he explores the rise of philosophical idealism that influenced Van Til so strongly and how it is related to the worldview doctrine that helped displace a positive view of natural theology. In chapter 6, Fesko looks at the transcendental argument for the existence of God and its relation to worldview theory and philosophical idealism. In chapter 7, Fesko criticizes Herman Dooyeweerd’s accusation that classical Reformed views of natural theology involve dualism. Finally, chapter 8 looks at ways that the contemporary Reformed church can retrieve the classic Reformed approach to apologetics.
Fesko has done the Reformed church an enormous service with this book. Hopefully, Fesko’s work will be the first of many books and articles showing why the Reformed church should return to the theology of the first- and second-generation Reformed theologians and confessions.
One Van Tillian reviewer of Fesko’s manuscript claimed that Fesko is seeking to return us “to the vomit of Rome” (p. xv). This kind of rhetoric may have worked fifty years ago to scare off those who had no access to the primary sources of early Reformed theology, but it’s not likely to convince those who do now have access and who have studied and are studying the actual works of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theologians. Reformed Christians have the resources now that make it much easier to recognize the absurdity of the claim that retrieving the theology of the original Reformed theologians is a rejection of Reformed theology and a return to Rome.