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).

Does Doug Wilson make the case for Christian Ed.?

Wilson, Douglas. Why Christian Kids Need a Christian Education. Athanasius Press.

Disclaimer: Christian education stands or falls on its own merits. Although I think Wilson failed miserably, I think there are good resources for Christian education. Circe institute and the like.

If your goal is simply to write a basic worldview book, say so. Most of this book is generic worldview stuff, and even though it is by Doug Wilson, it isn’t technically wrong (well, it is but for different reasons). Because of Christian worldview or something, Christian kids need a Christian education. On one level, that’s fine. In terms of making a case for a distinctively Christian education, Wilson is less than persuasive.

I understand that this is a pamphlet and was meant to be read in under an hour. I also realize that Wilson has written larger treatises for a Christian education. Nonetheless, we must still examine whether he makes his case. In a way he does make the case for a Christian education, but he makes himself look silly in the process.

My initial review was openly hostile and I attacked Wilson for failing to prove his case for a classical education. To be fair, that wasn’t his thesis, so I have modified some things.

Of his general definition of education I have no problem with. Education is a passing down from one generation to another. The rest of the first half of the book is worldview talk. Take it or leave it for what it is. I do think he sometimes confuses “neutral” (which is bad) with “common” (which is good).

Around page 39 he starts to torpedo his own project. Wilson is committed to “biblical absolutism,” which sounds great. After mocking old earth Christians, he then walks into a trap he set for himself. The larger context is God’s two books, Bible and Nature. The Bible should interpret nature. That sounds great. Wilson then raises the question (which he fails to answer), “What about geocentrism, since the bible clearly speaks of a stationary earth?” He says the clear should interpret the unclear. That’s great, but it tells me nothing on who gets to determine what is clear and what isn’t.

In fact, the more I reread page 41 I couldn’t see any reason to suppose that Wilson isn’t a geocentrist. It’s rare that you get to watch an author shoot himself in the foot.

The next chapter on covenant nurture could read as a defense of homeschooling, which is odd since Wilson isn’t really a fan of homeschooling. Around page 56 he hints at a defense of classical education: you have to have a classical education because other models are sectarian. That’s rich, coming from Moscow. Classical education, by contrast, offers a robust Trinitarian education. I’m not sure why he thinks classical alone gives that. When we homeschooled my daughter I can assure you it was Trinitarian.

He says Christian education is too important to be relegated to the edge of town (56). I’m not sure what that has to do with the price of tea in China. He ends with a great quote from Eric Hoffer that is so rich in irony that I will just leave it as it is: “First you have a movement, then a business, then a racket.” Indeed.

How Not to Be Secular (Smith)

Smith gives us a roadmap of Charles Taylor’s analysis of modernity. On most accounts, Smith’s treatment excels and the reader is well-equipped to analyze both Taylor’s work and (post)modernity in general. The book suffers from an unfocused conclusion and Smith’s overreliance on postmodern pop culture.

In some ways the most valuable aspect is Smith’s glossary of key terms in Taylor (noted below).

Smith’s version of Taylor (S-T) avoids crude genealogical accounts of how the West declined. But there were ideological moments that made it possible. And that leads to Taylor’s thesis: it is not that belief in God is simply wrong for secularists; rather, it is unthinkable. The structures that made belief in God likely on a societal level, so Taylor, are not there anymore.

With this shift came a different understand of person and cosmos. The pre-modern self is ‘porous,’ open to outside influences (grace, blessing, curses, demons). Thus, the modern self is “buffered,” insulated from outside forces (Smith 30). But that gives way to another phenomenon: the nova effect: new modes of being that try to forge a way through cross-pressures (14ff).

Smith has an interesting but undeveloped account of epistemology and the immanent frame (IF). The IF is a concept that, like a frame, boxes in and boxes out, focuses in and out. It captures how we inhabit our age (92). It is our orientation to the world. It is more of a “vibe” than a set of deductions.

Smith is concerned that foundationalist accounts of knowledge (justified, true belief) play into a closed-world, naturalist system. “If knowledge is knowing something outside my mind, the transcendent would be about as far away as one could get” (98).


One horn of my criticism is aesthetic. I think postmodern literature and art is an offense against decency, so I really can’t “relate” to Smith’s usage of them. But that doesn’t negate Smith’s thesis. The other horn of my criticism is that Smith tends to give too much of the farm away. His initial claim is good: secularism not only makes belief in God difficult, it entails an entirely new structure of beliefs that do not have room for God. But I am not sure, pace Smith, why I should be impressed with this new structure. Smith asks “How do we recognize and affirm the difficulty of belief” [in a secular age, p. 6]? The first part of the question is fine–we all recognize that belief in God can be difficult for our age. But why affirm it? What does that even mean or look like? To be fair, Smith acknowledges this point occasionally (20 n32).

Nonetheless, the book has a number of poignant (and occasionally brilliant) insights that should provide good reflection for apologetics and evangelism

The Dominion Covenant (North)

North, Gary.

This is his commentary on Genesis. It’s not a textual commentary.  It’s more of worldview analysis.

Cosmic Personalism: our universe is created and governed by a speaking God.

Purpose, Order, and Sovereignty

Gen. 1:14-18 is more offensive than Gen. 1:1 simply because it can’t be allegorized and it ruins any attempt to harmonize creation with evolution.

The Dominion Covenant

Man is God’s image bearer and so has limited sovereignty over creation (North 29).

Economic Value: Objective and Subjective

“The doctrine of imputation lies at the heart of creation” (37). It is objectively good because it conforms to God’s decree.  It is subjectively good because God, the speaking subject, announced it as good.

Marginalist revolution in economics:  acting men impute value to scarce economic resources. See diamond-water paradox.  We never buy “water in general” or “diamonds in general.” Men do not trade indeterminate aggregates (North 40).

The value of the marginal unit determines the exchange value.  However, marginal utility cannot be applied among two or more individuals.

Subordination and Fulfillment

Man and nature–thesis:  dominion requires a division of labor (85).  Adam receives a helpmeet.

God-designed Harmony of interests

Thesis: the heart of man’s being is not his sexuality, but his calling before God (90). The marriage-sexual covenant is subordinate to the dominion covenant. If Eve is a help-meet, then we already see a division of labor.

Contra Marx, on class warfare.  The history of all societies is not class warfare, but ethical warfare against a sovereign God (98).

Costs, Choices, and Tests

Value is subjective because man is a personal  being. God, also, is a personal being. He imputes value to His creation.  Man imputes value to creation within a hierarchy of values (101). Is it worth giving up x to get y?  Choice requires preference, and preference requires standards, and standards require an authority structure.

Scarcity: Curse and Blessing

Common Grace, Common Curse

Linear growth overcomes cyclical stagnation.  Because the ground is cursed, men must allocate resources and divide their labor.

The Burden of Time

The meaning of life forces us to consider the meaning of time (118-119). Time is the god of paganism and chance is its throne.  Time is “dead necessity.” For biblical man time is opportunity (120).

Godly Deception

Everyone gives Rahab trouble for her lie (even though James says she was justified for that very act).  But as North points out, her lie is irrelevant, analytically speaking. She committed high treason and no one bats an eye at that (184-185).

Jael lies, too.  In fact, she violated her husband’s international treaty with Sisera.  She lied to him and drove a spike through his head. Rather than anguishing over the “Nazis at the door question,” the Holy Spirit, speaking through Deborah, says “Most blessed of women is Jael” (Judg. 5.24).

Towards a review

Do not approach this book as an exegetical commentary.  It’s nothing of the kind. North begins with the presupposition that all ancient (and modern gnostic) cosmologies die upon the rock of the speaking, self-contained God.  From there he shows that such disciplines as economics can’t consistently exist in a random universe which worships the chaos gods.


*Any serious claim to godhead must maintain the unity of the Godhead. Since man is god, he must be made to unite.  We see this with covenant-breaking man and the United Nations. Man, collective man with the scientific elite at the top, must be unified.

* Pagan cosmology, both ancient and modern, is committed to the chain of being. God is part of this chain.

*Evolution requires several leaps in being.  One, to get the process of life started. And another leap to develop consciousness distinct from the atoms bumping into each other.

*Cyclical views of time are connected with ancient chaos rituals.  In doing so, the participants engage in a drama of the creation of the world from the unformed (and hence chaotic) hyle.  It is a demonic power from below.

Notes on Heiser’s Supernatural

This is a cliffs-notes version of his longer Unseen Realm.

Key argument: “In at least some cases, God decrees what he wants done but gives his supernatural agents freedom to decide what it means” (23).

Image of God

Genesis says God says “Create in our image” and it says God created in his image.”  Since God is speaking to the Divine council and not the Trinity, this means that the Council and God (and presumably we) have something in common (29). We are to image God’s rule on earth.

Divine Rebellions

The Old Testament never says there was an angelic rebellion (37).  Revelation 12:7-12 is talking about the birth of Christ.  There was another corporate transgression, but it was the beings in Genesis 6. Peter and Jude say that these angels are placed in eternal darkness under chains. If we take 1 Enoch seriously (and Peter and Jude) did, then from these beings came the Nephilim, and when the Nephilim died, their spirits became demons.

The physical descendants of the Nephilim are called the Anakim and the Rephaim (Numb. 13:32-33; Deut. 2:10-11; some of these Rephaim show up in the underworld realm of the dead (Isai. 14:9-11).

Cosmic Geography

Deuteronomy 32 Worldview:  Geography in the Bible is cosmic (52).

  • Daniel 9-10: foreign nations are ruled by divine princes.
  • 1 Sam. 26:19: David fears being in a land of foreign gods.
  • 2 Kgs 5: Namaan takes Israelite dirt back
  • Paul uses a range of terms for divine, hostile beings–thrones, principalities, powers

Nota Bene:

  1. Angels don’t have wings.  Cherubim do, but they are never called angels (Heiser 19).
  2. Any disembodied spirit is an elohim (Gen. 1:1; Deut. 32:17; 1 Samuel 28:13; Heiser 20).
  3. God has a supernatural task force (1 Kgs 22:19-23; Ps. 82:1).