Reforming Apologetics (Fesko)

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

There is no way to write a review of this book that minimizes the potential for a literary bloodbath. I will start by stating the thesis in the most minimal of terms.  This allows me to divide the review in three parts: 1) how the Reformed orthodox viewed prolegomena and natural theology; 2) overlap between classic Reformed and Van Tillian methods; 3) disagreements with Van Til.

Side bar: I’ve read James Anderson’s series of reviews on this book.  Anderson agrees with much of Fesko’s presentation of natural law and common notions.  He does a good job outlining Fesko’s position.

The hero of this book is the Puritan Anthony Burgess. From Burgess, Fesko presents an eloquent and compelling account of the importance of the book of nature and “common notions.” The law of nature is the common notions which are on our hearts (Fesko 15). For Burgess, the boundary of the law of nature is “the moral law delivered by Moses at Sinai” (16).  

Aquinas: the principles of natural law are the same for all people.  The conclusions they draw are not (Aquinas, ST Ia-IIae, qu. 94, quoted in Fesko 34). As Fesko, commenting elsewhere on Turretin, notes, “Immediate principles admit, but the noetic effects of sin due to the fall corrupt mediate principles” (43).

Although the chapter on Calvin explains Calvin’s views, it serves an equally important function: it rebuts the “Christological monism” that tempted  historians and apologists for the last 200 years. That’s where people seek a unifying principle and deduce the rest of doctrine from it. This really only works with German idealism. In short, Calvin did not see Christ as the unifying principle of all theology and then deduced everything from him.

Following Richard Muller and others, Fesko notes that scholasticism was simply a method.  It involved lectio, meditatio, and quaestio/disputatio.  It was a classroom format.  You can find elements of it in Calvin.  Contrast the Beveridge translation of 1.16.9 with the Battles translation and you can see Calvin use scholastic terminology and methods.

I am not going to spend much time on Fesko’s analysis of Calvin.  The literature is overwhelming. I do not think Calvin is a Thomist, yet it is obvious that Calvin is not saying what Van Til thinks he is saying.

Regarding Thomas Aquinas, Fesko’s main complaint is that Van Til gave nearly zero evidence that he actually read Thomas. Perhaps he did.  That does not come out in his writings.   We will cut a few moves off at the pass. According to presuppositionalists, Thomas is wrong for trying to synthesize Aristotle with Christ. However, it is not clear why Thomas is wrong for using concepts from Aristotle, yet it is fine for Van Til to use even more dubious concepts from Kant.  

Regarding some of Thomas’s arguments, Fesko notes they are quia, not propter quid.  In other words, they reason from effect to the cause, not cause to the effect. This is important because we cannot know God in his essence; therefore, we cannot reason from God to the world (78ff).

My favorite chapter is the one on worldview.  There is a sense in which worldview talk is legitimate.  If by it one means a way of viewing the world, then there is no big problem.  That is not how it is used in the literature. Historic worldview theory (what Fesko labels HWT) seeks to deduce our understanding of reality from a single principle and provide an exhaustive (or near enough) explanation of reality (98).

Not surprisingly, Van Til embraces HWT. It provides “the true interpretation of human experience” (Van Til, CA, 38, quoted in Fesko 106).  This aspect of Van Til’s is fairly uncontroversial, so I will forgo the rest of the quotations. The problem is that if HWT is true, then there really cannot be any common notions between believer and unbeliever.

 James Anderson, though, has demonstrated that Van Til held to common notions, at least in theory.  Van Til rejected this later on (My Credo, JA, 21). There he moved to common ground, by which he meant the image of God.

Conclusion of the chapter: if one holds to HWT as defined above, then there is no legitimate place for natural revelation and common notions. Moreover, Scripture itself does not say that men will have unique knowledge regarding creation.  God specifically tells Job there are a number of things that he will not know (Job 40:4).

I am tempted to skip the section on transcendental arguments.  Fesko does not disagree with them in theory.  He says they can be useful when you find the rare unbeliever who has a coherent worldview.  

He includes a chapter on Dooyeweerd.  I predicted in 2005 that there would be a return to Dooyeweerd’s thought in the Reformed world.  It was a strange prediction, as Dooyeweerd is often incomprehensible.  It turned out to be true, though.

To some extent for Van Til, but largely for Dooyeweerd, historic Christian thought has been plagued by the nature-grace dualism.  This occurs when man absolutizes one of the modal spheres, usually the temporal one. Fesko counters this charge by noting a) Dooyeweerd mistakes duality for dualism, b) provides little analysis with the key sources, and c) uses a similar methodology to Adolf von Harnack.

Against this dualism, Dooyeweerd suggests the biblical ground motive of “creation, fall, and redemption.”  Here we run into a problem.  Dooyeweerd had elsewhere criticized Van Til for being too rationalist in getting his ideas from the Bible.  For Dooyeweerd, we cannot use the bible as an object of theology.  The problem, one among many, of which Dooyeweerd seems unaware, is that he got his biblical ground motive from the Bible!

Moreover, it is not true that Thomas Aquinas (and by extension the WCF) held to such a dualism regarding body and soul.  For Thomas, the soul in-forms the body. It is the form of the body.  It is not a ghost in the machine.  It is one organic unity.  Dooyeweerd mistook Thomas for Descartes.

And Dooyeweerd does not apply the same criticism to Calvin.  Calvin specifically praised Plato on the soul (ICR, 1.15.16)! Calvin is not this pure font of only biblical theology.  Even worse, Calvin said it was okay to start with the knowledge of man.  The ordo docendi is not the same as the ordo essendi.

When we say that Dooyeweerd used the same methodology that Harnack did, we are not saying that he was a liberal who held the same beliefs.  Rather, both believed that pure Christiant thought was corrupted by Greek philosophy.  

In his concluding chapter on epistemology, Fesko shows how Van Tillians and classical Reformed can work together. Fesko’s comments on covenant sound very Van Tillian. Man’s covenantal origin allows us to embrace the book of nature.

With Van Tillians, we agree that epistemology is about wisdom (Fesko 198). Man submits to God’s authority, remembers his law, and responds with praise.  We see a good example of this in Psalm 19.  

Forgetting God’s law is the opposite of knowing.  It is the same as disobedience. Van Til could have written this section.

There is one category confusion, though, that many Van Tillians make.They confuse axiology (the theory of value) with epistemology.  An unbeliever will almost always have the wrong axiology.  That does not mean he will have the wrong epistemology.  


This book should not be seen as an attack on Van Til. The chapters on historic Reformed methodology are beyond dispute.  The Reformed used the book of nature and believed in common notions.  Nor is this book uncritical of Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas was wrong on the donum superadditum.  Finally, the real criticisms of Van Til should be appreciated for what they are.  Van Til did not engage in serious historical analysis.  That does not mean the rest of his project is wrong.  Fesko even thinks the Transcendental Argument has its place (although I have my concerns).


Theses on Reformed Natural Law

  1. There is an objective moral order to which we have cognitive access.
  2. Natural law is a participation, however indirectly, in the Divine Mind. (See this chart).
  3. Law is a rule and measure of acts directed towards the common good (Thomas, ST I-II, q.90).
  4. Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life (Althusius).
  5. God willed that each need the service and aid of others in order that friendship would bind all together and no one would consider another to be valueless (Althusius).
  6. Ownership of a realm belongs to the estates and administration of it belongs to the king [or relevant executive figure] (Ibid).
  7. Human law is not identified with natural law. It is practical reason. Human law is directed towards particulars (Thomas, Ibid, q.91).
  8. Natural law is unchangeable in its first principles, but changeable in its proximate conclusions (Ibid, 94).
  9. Thomist natural law employed a grace perfects nature scheme. It is not clear if Reformed natural law needs such a scheme.
  10. Moral virtue of rendering to others their due (ST 2a 2ae. 57.1). It is a balance of equity.

More could be written, but that would make it unwieldy. Early natural law had the state punishing heretics. Is this part of the esse of natural law? Not necessarily. As noted in Thesis 8, punishing heretics is a proximate conclusion and not binding.

Kingdom Prologue (Meredith Kline)

Kline, Meredith.  Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview. Two Age Press.

This is the cornerstone of Kline’s work, and any criticism of Kline must answer this work.  Like all of Kline’s work, it is brilliant, engaging, and controversial. Kline anticipated numerous developments in biblical theology, especially as they relate to man as vice-regent and covenant theology.

We can summarize this book around Creation, Common Grace, and Covenant.

Structure of the Covenant

The covenant began by acknowledging the covenant lord by name, followed by a historical survey of his previous dealings with the vassal (22).  Genesis 1-2 doesn’t have a preamble as such, but the covenant Lord does identify himself.


Genesis 1:1

It “denotes an event at a ‘beginning’ time that preceded the episodes delineated in verses 2ff” (24). A heaven already existed prior to God’s dividing the waters, which means “heaven,” albeit a created heaven, is not identical to “the sky.” This act of creating the heavens in verse 2 included the sun and stars, which would receive their thematic treatment on Day 4.

The creation account doesn’t have any sense of “war” or struggle (26).  Indeed, it was “royal construction” (27).  He doesn’t use tools.  “The word of his will is his all-effective instrument” (29). Creation week reveals God’s building his cosmic house.  The Sabbath is his enthronement (35). Cf. Isa. 66:1; 1 Chr. 28:2. Hebrews 4 notes a parallel between Israel’s dominion-rest and Yahweh’s Sabbath rest.

It is important to note that while Kline is setting the stage for his controversial “framework theory,” that is not the main point of this argument.

Common Grace

Unlike many popular accounts of common grace, Kline actually works through it.  Too often, especially in neo-Kuyperian circles, common grace is used as a mantra to justify what one already likes about the current order. To be fair, Kuyper himself did anchor it in the Noahic Covenant, and Kline will do so as well.

To understand Kline’s view of common grace, we need to see the difference between the Kingdom City (Metapolis) and the City of Man.  Megapolis is not exactly the city of man. It is the earthly sphere.  Metapolis is the kingdom city.  As Kline notes, it has “undergone eschatological metamorphosis at the hands of the Omega-Spirit” (100).  It is the temple of God’s presence.

Kline’s account of common grace is far more robust than neo-Kuyperian accounts.  He notes that “common grace and common curse are correlative to each other (154). Without a common curse, it is not clear why one would need common grace.  I think this is the point Klaas Schilder was trying to make against Abraham Kuyper.  Schilder was never clear about it, though. The goal of common grace is to provide an interim for the gospel to work (155).  

All of this is good and few Reformed would disagree. Kline takes this fact and expounds a new concept: the common.  Everything that is not sacred space is the common. The common opens the door for “holy redemptive history” (156).

Therefore, the non-common, the holy, is “the kingdom-intrusion.” It is the anticipation of the final redemptive judgment (158). This means in our modern civil government “we always have the responsibility, whether dealing with…laws of community life, to distinguish which features of Israelite law were peculiarly theocratic (or typologically symbolic) and which are still normative in our present nontheocratic situation (159).

Not surprisingly, Kline pushes back against Kuyperians and “neo-Dooyeweerdians,” particularly the desire to identify creation in a “monistic fashion with the kingdom of God” (171).   Although there are not many Dooyeweerdians today, there is a tendency to desire theocracy of some sort. Far from being a liberal, Kline’s vision of the state is quite conservative, almost libertarian at times.  The state “is not redemptive.  Accordingly, the state as an institutional embodiment of common grace is not designed to provide ultimate and complete solutions for malfunctioning society” (178).

This means the state has to be “non-confessional” (179). If the state is about justice, not justification, then the point of the state is not religion.

Covenant of Works

The covenant of works safeguards the principle of “do this and live.” This is in sharp contrast with the covenant of grace. Kline’s argument is that muting the works principle in the Adamic covenant creates a continuum between works and grace.  Pressed hard enough, the gospel is not seen as purely gracious (108).

Most Reformed would agree with him on this point.  Kline’s more controversial move, albeit not without precedent in the Reformed tradition, is applying the words principle on a typological basis to the Mosaic economy of Israel.  He is not saying Israel earned eternal life by works.  Rather, the works principle of Leviticus 18:5 must obtain.  Kline’s argument at the surface level is simple: if the Mosaic economy was purely one of grace, then why did Israel get rejected from the land?

Analysis and Conclusion

I do not think anyone fully agrees with Kline.  I do think he is a far more important thinker than many of his critics believe.  Some might not like his republication of the covenant of works, but it does have precedent in the Reformed world.  Even if one were to finally reject Kline on that point, his analysis forced Reformed people to think more rigorously on the covenant of works, especially in light of the Federal Vision heresy.

His take on common grace might be more difficult.  As it stands, this is not the traditional Reformed view on the civil magistrate.  That needs to be stated.  On the other hand, most NAPARC ministers are not lobbying Congress to reinstate the Solemn League and Covenant.  Moreover, I don’t think Reformed theocrats have fully worked out what it means to institute case laws in today’s world.  It is not as simple as banning abortion (the outlawing of which is justifiable on natural law grounds).  It is not as simple as promoting the sanctity of marriage (also natural law).

The references to natural law, which, surprisingly, Kline himself does not seem to employ, illustrate why this debate has always been difficult in Reformed circles. It is tempting to identify “neutral” with “common.”  Man cannot be neutral before God.  Man can live in common areas, though.  That is undeniable.  

For my own part, if Kline’s position is wedded to a robust natural law ethic, I think it is sustainable.  It avoids some of the disasters of antinomianism while avoiding any kind of legalism. Although this is an important book, I do not think it is Kline’s best book.  Moreover, this review did not touch on all the rich typological insights.  Those insights, if studied carefully, will richly repay one’s study.

Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered

Kirk, Russell.  Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. ISI Books, 2009.

A modern-day Edmund Burke surveys his intellectual ancestor.  Burke was the essence of conservatism and a study of his life shows how far we have fallen.

Burke’s genius was that he never allowed abstract discussions of “rights” to eclipse common sense and the concrete good.  

Further, we can’t simply say Burke supported the American Revolution as such.  Burke did not support Revolutions.  He simply argued that the British policy of taxing the colonies would harm Britain more than it helped her.

It’s difficult to pin down Burke on natural rights.  On one hand, he rejected the idea that there were free-floating, abstract things called rights.  If there are such things, they are almost impossible to know (and impossible to distinguish from other free-floating rights).  He correctly perceived that rights are secure only within a moral nexus of community and transcendence. (both under attack today, which is why everything is a right, unless it is advocated by conservatives).

Burke’s conception of rights was put to the test in India.  Burke saw that the Indians were being exploited, yet how could he go about prosecuting the East India Company?  They countered that what they were doing to the Hindus was no worse than what had been happening by their own people for thousands of years. (It’s hard to believe in natural rights and dignity and have a caste system).  Further, unlike America, India didn’t have a Judeo-Christian common law tradition.  This meant that Burke had to fall back on something like universal rights, but this brought him uncomfortably close to Rousseau.

That may be too quick a move,however.  Burke’s argument ultimately hinged on his belief in God (thus separating him from Rousseau).  If England continued to exploit India, they could no longer claim they were just before God. (This argument wouldn’t work in today’s secular world.)

Natural rights can never be isolated from tradition, which includes both memory of the past and a plurality of social structures today.  Among other things, such a natural rights tradition will generate a natural aristocracy (thus separating Burke from radicals like Rousseau).

There are weaknesses and ambiguities in Burke’s thought, to be sure.  Nevertheless, he is the standard for which we judge conservatives today.  Burke warned against “change for change’s sake,” the perennial temptation for today’s liberal.  He would also warn against “importing foreign values” to the rest of the world, the perennial temptation for today’s neoconservative.

On another note, politics aside, Burke should be read simply for the sheer literary delight.  He lived in the Age of Johnson and Gibbon and had mastered the art of the near-perfect sentence.  Among students of rhetoric, we note that in Burke logos and ethos, style and substance, are united.

Cicero: Selected Works

Selected Works (Cicero, Marcus Tullius)

Cicero.  Selected Works. Ed. Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971. 

The selection of these works goes in order of ascending quality.  His “Against Verres” is an early snapshot of his rhetorical career.  His letters, while often whining in tone, are a remarkable glimpse into late Roman Republican life.  The real quality, however, are the two final works, “On Duties” and “On Old Age.”

“On Duties” is that work that college students should read in their ethics classes.  At my liberal arts college, ethics meant simply reading about “hard decisions” and then justifying which decision best fit with late modernity’s loose sexual mores.  Cicero, by contrast, actually helps you think through the problem.

Here is the problem: given that the Good exists, what do we do when what is good conflicts with what is advantageous?  Cicero’s answer is that any disagreement is only apparent, since nature and goodness cannot be at variance.

As a Stoic, his argument is that there “can be no advantage in what is not right” (III.II.8).  He then runs this template through several test cases. He defends property rights because violating these would cause the collapse of the human community, “the brotherhood of man.” This is the natural law, or nature’s rational principle.

Case study 1: Can a starving man take food from someone who was completely useless?  Robbery is unnatural, but if the case were such that your robbery rendered benefit to the community of men, then it isn’t wrong provided it is done for that reason.  Nature’s law coincides with the common interest, and the common interest ordains that the means of subsistence be transferred to the starving.

Case study 2: Can you steal from a tyrant?   Cicero’s answer is chillingly simple: there is nothing wrong in stealing from a man whom it is morally just to kill.

Another reason that the morally right cannot conflict with the advantageous is that doing wrong damages one’s soul.  Wrongdoing leads to personal degradation.

There are other case studies dealing with insider trading, etc. Cicero’s conclusion is balanced: “Holding [knowledge] back doesn’t always amount to concealment; but it does when you want people, for your own profit, to be kept in the dark about something which you know and would be useful for them to know” (180).

Why?  Nature is the source of law, and it is contrary to nature for one man to prey upon another’s ignorance.

Later he defines the four cardinal virtues as subdivisions of right.

On Old Age

This is a rather charming treatise on how to live out your older years. Cicero developed his memory by reciting everything he had learned each day.

His comments on the after-life, while wrong, are interesting in what educated Romans would have believed.  He argues that our souls came from heaven, and the earthy is alien to their divine nature (214). The soul functions at lightning speed


Even in translation, and even when I disagree with him, Cicero wrote with an easy calm.  I especially recommend his “On Duties” to every college student.

Review: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

This is one of the great books of all time.  It is basically a Q&A on various masters’ theses.  It is relentless in its pursuit of logical questions (and of apparently inane tangents).  The great thing about Thomas is that you can’t take anything for granted.  The small proof 400 pages ago will be the key to a subtle argument.

Thomas was a victim of his own success.  Few read him beyond the 5 Proofs, and I suspect those proofs weren’t all that interesting for him and his audience.

On God

Thomas: each thing has its own act of being; real apart from the distinct acts of existence.

God: existence as necessary being; his act of existence needs no cause of existence.  Pure act of being.

As Qui Est God has no genus, otherwise he would have an essence distinct from his act of being.  For God, to be is to be good.  His being and goodness are identical.

God knows himself perfectly and he knows himself immediately.

Does God know possibles?

  1. Concerning what might have been, he knows them by simple intelligence.

  2. God’s intelligence.  Will proceeds from intelligence.

The immediate object of divine intelligence is God.  He wills all other things by willing himself.  God’s willing of possibles doesn’t necessarily create them.

  1. a will is an action completely interior to the one willing.

  2. God doesn’t necessarily create existence by “willing,” but only through one of the divine actions whose terminus is an effect exterior to God

Treatise on Law

Thomas only devotes one question specifically about natural law in the middle of 19 questions.  More importantly, Thomas never abstracts natural law (which is usually exactly what his critics and defenders do).  Natural law is oriented back to the eternal law and the divine providence (ST 1-2. 90).

A short definition: “Law (lex) is something rational (aliquid rationes) directed to the common good by those who are responsible for that community” (Kerr 105).

  1. Eternal

  2. Natural

  3. Human

  4. Divine

(2)-(4) are how the eternal law is worked out in providence. You can’t separate natural law from discussions of God.


(1) For Thomas grace is two things: the work of God upon the soul and the effect of that action.

Two things are considered in the soul: the essence of the soul and the work of its powers.  The form of the soul is intellectual in orientation

The Subsistence of the Soul

Thomas: Nothing acts so far as it is in act, and nothing acts except that whereby it is in act. The soul is the form of the thing.  The soul’s powers are its mind and will.

(2) Form is the act in which a thing has its being and subsistence.

For Aquinas justification, in short, will consist of reorienting the intellect back to God’s proper order.  It is important to keep in mind that the soul is a spiritual substance that is intellectual in character (and this isn’t unique to Aquinas.  This is roughly the historic Christian position).

(3) Grace finds its seat in the essence of the soul, not in the powers.

What metaphor does Aquinas use to explain the nature of this grace infused into the soul?  Light.  Light, however, suggests an intellectual range.  This would place grace somewhere else than the essence of the soul–some place like the intellectual powers of mind and will.

In short, God moves all things (in justification) according to the proper mode of each.  It looks like this:

Infusion of justifying grace → a movement of free choice → forgiveness of sin

Part 2 of Second Part

Scope: This is Thomas’s course on virtue ethics.  Much is good, much bad.

The glory of the soul, which is the enjoyment of God, is the principle object, not the glory of the body (II.2.18.2).  True to an extent, but it’s not clear why Thomas needs the resurrection for this.

On Charity

There is a kind of friendship based on the communication between God and man (II.2.23.1).

Human acts are good as they are regulated by their due rule and measure (23.4).

Charity is infused in us (24.2). Every act of charity merits everlasting life (II.2.24.6). Mortal sin destroys charity entirely (24.10, 12). The spiritual life is an effect of charity.  Mortal sin destroys that.

Charity is capable of reflecting on itself.  The intellect reflects on the universal good, and since to will is a good, man can will himself to will.  Love, therefore, is a spontaneous movement of the lover to the thing loved (25.2).

While we are obligated to love our enemies, we are not obligated to show them all effects of love (25.9).

Key point: One’s obligation to love another is proportionate to the gravity of the sin one commits in acting against that love (2.26.6).

On Giving Alms

* Some are punished eternally for not giving alms (2.32.5).  By contrast, “almsdeeds deserve to be rewarded eternally through the merit of the recipient, who prays for the giver” (2.32.9).

* God gives us ownership of temporal goods but the use of them is directed to helping our neighbor).

Just War

Standard Augustinian stuff. Thomas gives several conditions: a) authority of the sovereign or leader waging it; b) just cause; c) right intentions.  Tyrannical governments are not just because they threaten the common weal (2.42.2).

The Glory of Monastic Life

It’s possible to go to heaven without being a monk, but it’s a lot harder.  Thomas speaks of being perfect.  He doesn’t mean sinless.  A thing’s perfection, rather, relates to charity, the consequences from charity, etc (2.186.3).

Various Nota Bene

* The church can compel secular power with regard to heresy and schism (2.39.4).

* Married sex increases concupiscence and is the contrary of the passage “cleansing ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit” (2.186.4).  He quotes Augustine to the effect that when married people caress one another they are “cast down from manly mind” (Solil. 1.10).  Sorry, Reformed Thomists, but this is where the Reformation is a clear improvement.  Indeed, Thomas goes on to say that “perpetual continence is required for religious perfection.”

* Contrary to claims by Dutch Calvinists, there is no cultural activity in heaven (2.181.4).

Thomas’s Linguistic Fallacies

This type of thinking was quite common until recently.  It’s still painful to read, though.  For example, wisdom (sapientia) connotes sweetness because it comes from the word “saporem” (2.45.2).

Further, Thomas commits the word = concept fallacy.  For Thomas “religion” means “religious orders.”  Therefore, when James talks about “religion pure and undefiled,” this gives the sanction for man entering into religious orders (2.188.2).

A virtue is an operative habit (I-II, q.55, a2).

The Order of Love

Wherever there is a principle, there is an order.  Charity is of a “last end.”  Therefore, it has reference to a “First Principle” (26.1).

Christology: On Person and Nature

Nature designates the essence of the species. A suppositum is the whole which includes the nature as “its formal part” (III.2.2).

Something’s “assumption” includes the principle and term of the act (3.3.1). The principle of the assumption is the divine nature itself.  The term is the Person in whom it is considered to be. The act of the assumption proceeds from the divine power, which is common to the three persons.  The term of the assumption, being the second person, isn’t common to the three.

Thomas argues that Christ didn’t assume a generic human nature, since human nature cannot be apart from sensible matter (3.4.4).

Now to Christology proper.  The person of the Son of God is the suppositum of human nature.  For the most part, suppositum functions similar to hypostasis, so why doesn’t Thomas call it hypostasis?  I think his using “suppositum” allows him to affirm “one person” of the Son, pace Nestorius, yet acknowledge a human dimension to the Son’s person.  A suppositum is the existing hypostasis.

Why is this important?  If we take phrases like “Christ is God” or “this Man is God,” then strictly speaking it isn’t true.  By “Christ” do we mean the eternal Son, the human nature, both, neither?  Therefore, by understanding the hypostasis as a suppositum of the Second Person, we can say the above propositions.

A hypostasis is that which has being.   A nature is that by which it has being.

Treatise on the Sacraments

A sacrament is ordained to signify our sanctification (III.60.3). The cause of our sanctification is Christ’s passion.  The form is grace and the virtues.  The End is eternal life.

Do the sacraments cause grace?  Thomas says they do by distinguishing a principal cause and an instrumental cause (III.62.1). The principal cause works by the power of the form.  The instrumental is the cause by which it is moved.

The soul’s powers flow from its essence, “so from grace there flow certain perfections into the powers of the soul, which are called virtues and gifts” (III.62.2). Grace, accordingly, is in the sacrament as an instrumental power.

Sacramental grace: the principal efficient cause is God himself. This grace is to take away defects consequent on past sins, which hinder divine worship.

The sacraments, especially Orders, imprint a character on the soul.  (Thomas then has some horrendous exegesis of Hebrews 1, where he reads medieval Latin understandings of “character” into the koine Greeek.) The important part is that Thomas equates character and sealing of the Holy Spirit (cf. Schaff on this point; I think volume on Nicene Christianity).

The inward effect of all sacraments is justification (III.64.1).


The Empyrean heaven is a corporeal place (Supp. III.69.1).  It will have the souls of the righteous.  Venial sin is cleansed in purgatory.  Some souls can come and visit.

Thomas gives the standard medieval arguments for praying for the dead, and in reverse the saints can pray for us.  Here is where it gets tricky.  In response to the question, “Why can’t we just go to God?” Thomas answers, “There is a divine order where ‘the last should be led to God by those that are midway between’” (quoting Ps. Dionysius, Supp. III.72.2).  If pressed strictly, Thomas must admit there is no logical reason for us ever to pray to God.  He doesn’t forbid it, but given the above ontology we shouldn’t.  Indeed, he goes on to say that the “perfection of the universe demands” we go through saints.

Here’s the next problem: by what standard do I know that a deceased is a saint and not in Purgatory?  Presumably he would say the Church has decreed it.  Okay, where did the church gain that access to knowledge?

In terms of the signs preceding the End Times, he follows Augustine.

Notes of Interest

When Mary gave birth, Jesus didn’t break through her birth canal and damage the virginal purity (Supp. III.83.3).

On Hell

The saints see perfectly the sufferings of the damned (Supp. III.94.3). Divine justice and their own deliverance will indeed by a direct cause of the saints Joy at seeing the sufferings of the damned.


This book will change you.  It won’t necessarily change your theology, but you will grow in intellectual virtue by reading through it.  Thomas forces you to always work with the implications and connections.

The Word of God and the Word of Man (Richard Hooker)


Richard Hooker’s aim in these two books can be seen as a pair of concentric circles.  In the outer circle he refutes the claim that we have to have a Scriptural proof for every action. On one level this claim is absurd and it is hard to imagine that his opponents took it seriously.  Perhaps, though, his opponents mean something like, “You must have a Scriptural justification for every ethical and doctrinal stance.”  Having refuted the first position, his inner circle is an attack upon the Regulative Principle of Worship.

The larger context, though, is Hooker’s defense and presentation of natural law.  While Scripture is sufficient unto salvation, Hooker warns us not to epistemologically push Scripture “beyond what the truth will bear” (Hooker 4).  To mix metaphors, you can’t force Scripture to be a Platonic database from which you can download a response to every issue in life.

Book II mainly deals with sectarian claims that you have to have a Scriptural command for each individual action, not simply in the church, but for all of life.  This is extreme and, quite frankly, absurd.  I won’t spend much time on Hooker’s rebuttals.  He draws an example from David’s life.  David had no divine command to build the temple.  True, Nathan told him he couldn’t’ do it, but he commended his intent.

Technical terminology:

Perfect: a perfect action is one that lacks nothing necessary to the end for which it was instituted (42).

Book III

The Church of Christ is his spiritual body, which cannot be perceived by the senses (III.1.1).  The visible church is one.  Wickedness in the church does not cancel the church.  This is what we tell to critics when they ask “Where was your church before Luther?”  It was in the same place the Israelites were in when they were worshiping idols.  The only change in our church was when it went from being idolatrous to more godly.

The visible church is more of a society than an assembly.  Assemblies only last for the duration to which men are called to it.

Hooker rebuts the RPW along the following lines: Either Scripture puts down a church polity in part or in whole. The latter is simply false, for there is no NT equivalent for the book of Leviticus. If they say “taken from Scripture” from its parts, then they are no different from Anglicans.

Furthermore, a “general command” necessarily excludes particular cases.  If we chose any particular, we would be violating the general command (78).

Hooker then examines the grammar of the argument: a thing ‘commanded’ in the word is not the same as ‘grounded’ in the word.  The former is positive, the latter negative.


Cicero: The Republic and The Laws

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Cicero. The Republic and the Laws ed. By Niall Rudd. New York: Oxford, 1997.

Thesis: Nature has given to mankind a desire to defend the well-being of the community (R1.1). 

The “republic” is the “property of the public,” and the “public” is defined as a legal gathering. It comes together because men want to defend and form communities (1.39).  Cicero turns to Aristotle’s discussion of the 3 types of government and their corresponding virtues and vices. Monarchy is the best type of government, but it has a precarious nature (1.54ff). 

Philus gives the standard rejection to natural law: there is no “justice” because men often prefer to enact injustice and different countries have different customs.  As Scipio begins his response, we have to navigate some difficulties in the text. Laelius is speaking that “law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature” (III.33). 

In Book IV Cicero gives a scathing rebuke of Greek “male love,” for lack of a more delicate phrase.

What is the purpose of life?  Religious worship, rearing a family, and participating in the community.  This is impossible without a well-ordered state (5.7).

Mind, Body, Soul

“You are not mortal, but only that body of yours.  You are not the person presented by your physical appearance” (6.26). A man’s true self is his mind.

>>Whatever is in constant motion is eternal. There must be something that moves others but itself is not moved. Cicero then makes the (albeit not very clear) inference that minds possess this property. His reasoning is that inanimate matter can’t move itself but must be moved.  Only a mind can do this. 

The Laws

The nature of justice must be deduced from the nature of man (L. 1.17). Law is the highest reason and enjoins what “ought” to be done.  If Cicero can make this argument work, then he just did an end-run around the “is-ought” problem.

Reason is a “middle term” between God and man (1.23). If you share in reason (i.e., participate in that reason which is connected to God), then you share in law.  If you share in law, you share in justice. This mutual sharing is a single universe of God and man.

Law is an “eternal force” and natural law is “coeval with God” (L 2.8-10).  So far that sounds like medieval and classical natural law theory. Cicero then goes pantheist: universal nature possesses intelligence (16).  His argument makes sense: law is embedded in nature because nature is able to reason. This overcomes the “is-ought” problem but at a very high cost.

Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss)


Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

This is a pivotal book by a world-class intellect.  Strauss discusses the genealogy of “rights” talk from the ancients to the present day.  He doesn’t really offer a program on how to move forward, but that’s not really his point, either.  Before we can work on human rights today, we need to know what the phrase means.

The difficulty in speaking of “natural right” is that we moderns are so far removed from the ancients.  They knew man had a telos. Nature is connected to the universe’s natural end (Strauss 7).

Strauss identifies the two main opponents of natural law: positivism (aka, university sociology departments) and historicism.  The former assumes the fact/value dichotomy, which doesn’t allow us to make value judgments on a particular society. The upshot is you can’t say a particular society is embodying the Good.  In fact, you can’t say good at all. That distinction breaks down, though. Even if a Weberian refuses to make a value distinction, he is working within his own framework of values and he filters the evidence through those values.

The Story of Natural Right

Prephilosophical man identified the pleasant with the good (83).  The right way is our custom. Philosophy begins when we doubt this ancestral code. Applied more broadly, this creates problems: if many communities’ ancestral codes are different, which one is right?  This forces us to search for the Good.

The ancient philosophers generally began to see that “nature” is the “actualization of a human possibility which …is trans-historical, trans-social, trans-moral, and trans-religious” (89).

Classic Natural Right

All knowledge presupposes a horizon (125). This pushes us to a view of the whole, which means we cannot rest with any single community code. To help them in their quest, the classics employed the term Politeia. It means constitution, but it means more than simply a legal code. “It is the factual distribution of power within the community” (136). It is a way of life determined by a form of government.

Here is where it gets interesting.  The Politeia should not act unjustly. This means it can’t engage in things like deception during war.  Therefore, we need a world-state to outlaw war! Seems rather extreme. In any case, the solution “to the problems of justice must transcend the limits of political life” (Strauss 151).

Variations of Natural Right

Aristotle: the relation of virtue to human nature is like that of act and potency (145; Ethics 1097b24).

Platonic: giving to everyone what is due to him according to nature (Republic 331c1-332c4).

Thomistic: principles of the moral law.  Points to man’s moral and intellectual ends.

Modern Natural Right

Hobbes: teleology is impossible. We do not begin with the nature of man, but in prima naturae (180).  Everyone is guided by the fear of death. The state, therefore, is not to safeguard virtue but simply protect our negative rights. 

Strauss then offers a penetrating critique of Hobbes.  Hobbes built his philosophy on the extreme cases, when the social fabric has broken down. We fear the violent death.  Yet Hobbes also said that the fear of violent death is sometimes overridden by heroism, virtue, charity, etc. Therefore, his principle isn’t universally valid.  In fact, it isn’t valid in the extreme case at all. Therefore, it is useless (196). Remember that scene in Batman where the Joker plants bombs on the ships to see who will blow it up first?  That scene is a complete refutation of Hobbes.

The Problems with Modern Rights

Burke pointed out that participation in political power “does not belong to the rights of man, because men have a right to good government, and there is no necessary connection between good government and government by the many.”  If anything, the rights of men point to a natural aristocracy (298).

That’s good.  Unfortunately, Burke held to the British sensualist view of art, which specifically denied a connection between intellectual beauty (e.g., mathematical proportions) and sensible beauty (312).  The result is an emancipation of sentiment from reason

Recovering Natural Right

Man’s true freedom requires “ends of a certain kind,” which must be “anchored in ultimate values” (44).

Book 1 of Richard Hooker’s Laws

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Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization

by Richard Hooker, W. Bradford Littlejohn  (Editor)Brian Marr (Editor)Brad Belschner (Editor)

Purpose for writing: Hooker sought to vindicate “the Laws of the Church which have guided us for so many years….which are now being called into question” (Hooker 2).  In doing so Hooker gives us a brief defense of “natural law,” noting that even “The very being of God is a sort of law to His working, for the perfection that God is, gives perfection to what he does” (5).

Following Aristotle, Hooker notes that God “works towards a certain end and by a certain law which constrains the effects of his power” (7). Hooker understands that “natural law” can be a slippery term.  Does it mean “rational principles” or “Newton’s physics” or something else? Therefore, he distinguishes the various laws that guide God’s creation. His main focus is on the “rational being [who] with a free will [is a] voluntary agent” (11-12).

His section on angelic law is somewhat unique in natural law treatments.  He notes, correctly I think, that when we consider them “corporately, their law makes them an army, some in rank and degree above others” (19).  Demons, moreover, “were dispersed, some in the air, some on the earth, some under the water, some among the minerals, dens, and caves under the earth” (20).

Concerning rational agents, Hooker notes that “Choice, however, means that whatever we do, we also could have left undone” and that the “two fountains of human action are knowledge and will, and when the will tends toward a particular end, we call it choice” (29).  Hooker is clearly in line with the intellectualist tradition in that the mind guides the rest of the faculties (38).

Concerning human and divine laws, he makes the distinction between primary and secondary laws.  A primary law deals with our original nature, the latter with our depraved nature The former includes embassies, good trade, etc.  The latter concerns war (61).

A “good” is that which can make our nature more perfect (64).

Concerning Scripture, Hooker responds to the papist objection “Well how do you know from Scripture which books are Scripture?”   He begins by noting that every field of study requires the prior knowledge of some things outside the field of study and takes for granted many things” (81).   When Scripture says “all things necessary for salvation,” it cannot “be construed to mean all things absolutely, but all things of a certain kind, such as all things we could not know by our natural reason.  Scripture does indeed contain all these things. However, it also presupposes that we first know and are persuaded of certain rational first principles, and building on that, Scripture teaches us the rest” (80-81).  And that is the purpose of natural law.