J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics—Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith—A Critical Review (4 of 4)

From the beginning of his book till its end Fesko consistently fails to understand the distinction between natural revelation and natural theology in Presuppositionalism.

We are glad for the emphasis of Fesko and others that there is a generally agreed upon classical theism that resides in the scholastic tradition of the church.  We agree that 21st century Christians do not get to re-define the Christian God.  The Reformation itself, however, shows that the scholastic tradition could deviate into bypaths.  It also shows that one must account for positive doctrinal development in the church.

 

Evaluation

Commendation

There is certainly much that is challenging in Fesko’s work.  There is definitely much to be learned.  Furthermore, given the directions Reformed historiography has taken in recent years, it seems to me that a book like this had to be written.  Let me commend a number of things in it.

First, as I have just said, his summary of what a biblical and covenantal epistemology looks like was well done. Presuppositionalist that I am, I still find it a very helpful summary of the scriptural approach to how we know.

Second, I much appreciated his account of the purposes of apologetics. Here is what he says:

Apologetics, narrowly construed as a rational defense of Christianity, does not convert fallen sinners. … I argue that apologetics has a threefold purpose: (1) to refute intellectual objections to the Christian faith, (2) to clarify our understanding of the truth, and (3) to encourage and edify believers in their faith. (203-04)

I think Fesko here helpfully articulates the fact that apologetics (narrowly construed) has a negative and kind of secondary purpose.  It does not and ought not to pretend to create arguments for the existence of God which positively ground the believer’s faith.  Without pretending to understand all that was in Fesko’s mind when he wrote this, it does suggest to me a number of important features of the apologetic endeavor.  First, apologetics is properly defensive.  It is an apologia or defense of the faith.  It is not, then, properly (or narrowly) speaking a positive attempt to argue discursively for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity.  It assumes the faith and defends the faith so assumed against attack.  Second, this suggests to me, secondly, that the much disputed arguments for the existence of God appear quite differently depending (1) on whether they are construed as the positive ground or origin of the Christian’s faith in God or (2) whether they are construed as defenses of a faith already assumed.  I think that Bavinck and others have seen something of this distinction when they have argued that these arguments are confirmations of or testimonies to the existence of God rather than proofs.[1] As testimonies and properly constructed, the traditional “proofs” may have a certain defensive value toward unbelievers and confirming value for believers. Third, it seems to me that we may want to distinguish in our discussions of the existence of God between apologetics more broadly considered as epistemology (how we know that God exists) and more narrowly considered as apologetics (how we defend our faith in the existence of God to unbelievers).

Thirdly by way of commendation, it must be said that Fesko’s book exhibits many, fine scholarly qualities.  It manifests widely read scholarship. It shows that he attempts to fairly represent those with whom he differs.  Though complicating his argument, Fesko still nuances his views and especially his assessment of Van Til. (108, 137, 141, 144)

Fourth, I thought his account of faith seeking understanding was well said.  In particular, I appreciated his statement to the effect that “trusting authority lies at the root of all epistemology.” (195)

Critiques

First, from the beginning of his book till its end Fesko consistently fails to understand the distinction between natural revelation and natural theology in Presuppositionalism.  There is no more crucial distinction than this for Presuppositionalism in my opinion.  When Van Til rejects natural theology, he is not rejecting or giving up on the book of nature.  With regard to the book of nature or natural revelation, Van Til never tires of saying that believers and unbelievers have everything in common.  The reader should consult Van Til’s essay entitled, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word cited previously and his many other assertions to this effect.[2]  It simply is not true that Van Til denies the commonality between believers and unbelievers with regard to common notions and the like.  This is, however, what Fesko assumes everywhere. (4, 9, 12, 26, 48, 65, 68-69, 99, 100, 109, 110, 111, 114, 125, 126, 135-36, 146-147, 149, 194, 212, 219) Only if common notions are made to consist in a natural theology created by depraved men, would Van Til oppose such common notions.  This critique cannot be pursued without mentioning a second difficulty.

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Listen to a recorded discussion of the book here.