Common Notion Confusion: Part 1 of a Review of J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics

A group of crows is called a murder, a group of owls a parliament, and a group of geese a gaggle.  But what do you call a group of strawmen?  Reforming Apologetics by J.V. Fesko.  I commend the author for a large number of citations to the works of Cornelius Van Til, his main opponent in his defense of Thomistic apologetics; nevertheless, the author’s interactions with Van Til’s writings indicate that he searched for quotes in Van Til’s writings that seemed to support his case against Van Til, but he did not closely read the immediate context of the quotes, much less have a substantial grasp Van Til’s apologetic method as a whole.  One of Fesko’s main claims is that Van Til rejected “common notions” between Christians and non-Christians and other ideas related to God’s natural revelation, when in fact Van Til did not reject those ideas.  Fesko fails to grasp that Van Til only criticized a particular kind of appeal to common notions made by Aquinas.  The strawman argument that Van Til rejected common notions becomes the author’s basis for a factory production of other strawman arguments against Van Til, such as claiming that Van Til claimed that all knowledge comes from the Bible, claimed that all knowledge could be deduced from a single principle, denied a nature/grace distinction, and that Van Til’s argument for God’s existence does not address the correspondence of our ideas to the order of the natural world.  In this supposed refutation of Van Til in defense of Aquinas, Fesko never states Van Til’s actual argument against Aquinas.  Fesko also never states Van Til’s transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG), not even in a rough outline form, so the book also fails as a general refutation of Van Til’s apologetic program.

Fesko says in some places, without qualification, that Van Til rejects common notions:  “Where things become problematic, however, is when Van Til rejects common notions. . . .  With his rejection of common notions, Van Til departs from the catholic and Reformed faith” (110).  At other times, on the very next page in fact, Fesko acknowledges that Van Til allowed for some sort of common notions between Christians and non-Christians, but Fesko can’t figure out what Van Til’s criticism of Aquinas could be if he allows for common notions in some way, saying, “it is difficult to tell the difference between the historic catholic and Reformed appeal to common notions and Van Til’s common ground” (111).  I don’t think it is that difficult to see that Van Til did not reject common notions, only a certain type of appeal to common notions – a type of appeal where anti-Christian ideas are endorsed by Christians because they are superficially similar to Christian ideas.  Fesko more briefly examines a few other Christian apologists who criticize Aquinas, but the main point of his book is to refute Van Til, and I will limit this review to his comments about Van Til.


Van Til Strongly Affirms Common Notions and Natural Revelation

Van Til equates “common notions” with natural revelation, and he strongly affirms them both:  “’Common notions’ may be thought of as nothing more than revelation that comes to man through man. . . .  As made in the image of God no man can escape becoming the interpretive medium of God’s general revelation both in his intellectual (Romans 1:20) and in his moral consciousness (Romans 2:14, 15).”[1]  Van Til often argues for “the necessity, the authority, the sufficiency and the perspicuity of natural revelation.”[2]  Van Til affirms that “Calvin, following Paul, insists on the clarity of natural (or general) revelation.”[3]  He says that “God has continued to reveal himself in nature even after the entrance of sin. Men ought, therefore, to know him. Men ought to reason analogically from nature to nature’s God.”[4]  And he says, “God’s general revelation within man persists in cropping up in spite of all that the sinner can do to keep it under. It is in spite of himself that man must recognize something of the revelation of God within him.”[5]  Van Til finds at least six basic doctrines that can be deduced from nature after the Fall which conform to the structure of Biblical revelation:  1) The existence of God as a Creator, 2) the providence of God, 3) common grace, 4) man’s fall from original perfection, 5) special grace somewhere in the world, and 6) a final judgment.[6]  Fesko fails to mention any of these affirmations of natural revelation by Van Til.


Fesko Confuses the Suppression of Natural Revelation with Denials of Natural Revelation

In order to accurately characterize human depravity and its reaction to natural revelation from God, at times Van Til makes a distinction between natural theology and natural revelation:  “natural theology is confused with natural revelation.”[7]  The difference is that “natural theology” is defined here by Van Til to describe sinful man’s interpretive reaction to natural revelation, which will be denials of God’s revelation or distortions of it.[8]  The suppression of God’s revelation through nature will characterize an unregenerate person’s natural theology (Rom. 1:18).  Although natural theology will contain glimmers of the truth about the true God, the truth will be distorted to support idolatry, “because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).  Van Til uses “natural theology” in the sense of the theology of the “natural man,” the man unregenerated by God’s Spirit, in his letter to Francs Schaeffer:

I think you will agree, then, no form of natural theology has ever spoken properly of the God who is there.  None of the great Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, and none the great modern philosophers, like Descartes, Kant, Hegel or Kierkegaard and others, have ever spoken of the God who is there.  The systems of thought of these men represent a repression of the revelation of the God who is there.

In other places, such as the following passage, Van Til distinguishes between good natural theology, as taught by the authors of the Reformed Confessions, and bad natural theology, which misinterprets reality in anti-Christian categories, with the Greek view of diversity and unity being his example here:

There is the position of the Confession. This position consists of a natural theology that serves as the proper foundation for the full theology of grace that is found in the Reformed Confessions alone. . . .  For all its vaunted defense of reason, the natural theology of Aristotle and his modern followers destroys reason. The autonomous man cannot forever flee back and forth between the arid mountains of timeless logic and the shoreless ocean of pure potentiality.[9]

When Van Til says negative things about common notions, he is condemning a misuse of that concept that allows anti-Christian philosophy to be confused with Christian ideas:  “The Reformed apologetic, therefore, does not take for granted, as does the Romanist and the Evangelical, that because men have ‘common notions’ about God by virtue of their creation in God’s image, that sinners and saints also have common notions when they are epistemologically self-conscious.”[10]    (It would have been relevant to Fesko’s thesis to examine this statement from Van Til in which he affirms a belief in common notions, would it have not?)  To be “epistemologically self-conscious” is to be aware, in a well-thought-out way, of your philosophy of knowledge.  In particular for Van Til, it means to be aware of your first principles of knowledge, the ultimate source of knowledge in your worldview.  Van Til argues that Christians and non-Christians share the same knowledge concerning many things, but not the same philosophy of knowledge in terms of what the ultimate source of knowledge is (God, for the Christian; and something impersonal for the non-Christian).  As he explains in Common Grace and the Gospel (again, a relevant quote that Fesko never acknowledges):

We conclude then that when both parties, the believer and the non-believer, are epistemologically self-conscious and as such engaged in the interpretative enterprise, they cannot be said to have any fact in common. On the other hand, it must be asserted that they have every fact in common. Both deal with the same God and with the same universe created by God. Both are made in the image of God. In short, they have the metaphysical situation in common. Metaphysically, both parties have all things in common, while epistemologically they have nothing in common.[11]

As an added benefit to this discussion, Van Til updated his original book from which this quote comes, Common Grace, and commented in the material added to the subsequent edition on an objection that a reviewer raised to it:

My statement that epistemologically Christians and non-Christians “have nothing in common” is meant to hold only to the extent that men are self-consciously engaged in the interpretation enterprise.  Why did Dr. Masselink, in presenting my views, omit this obviously all-important qualification?  It is this qualification which, later in my argument, allows for commonness “up to a point” between believer and non-believer.[12]

Van Til’s position allows for both antithesis and common ground between Christians and non-Christians.  There is antithesis in terms of ultimate philosophical commitments, and this antithesis is most manifest when non-Christians are self-consciously trying to be consistent with their anti-Christian ultimate commitments.  But when non-Christians are not self-consciously trying to be consistent with their anti-Christian presuppositions, there will tend to be a great deal of common ground between them and Christians.  Because non-Christians are made in God’s image and live in God’s world, they cannot be completely consistent with their anti-Christian presuppositions; thus there will be “commonness ‘up to a point’ between believer and non-believer.”

Also, I should note that there are two reasons that Christians and non-Christians “cannot be said to have any fact in common” when they are consistent with their respective presuppositions:  1) Their respective presuppositions are logically incompatible, and 2) the non-Christian presuppositions do not allow for the possibility of rationality; as Van Til says in the quote above, the non-Christian view “destroys reason.”  If the first reason were the only one, then the believer and unbeliever would live in two different universes.[13]  But since the two sides can communicate to some extent, they live in the same universe; but the non-Christian thinks that he lives in a different universe than he does.  That universe without the absolute God of Scripture cannot be the real one where Christians and non-Christians can communicate because rationality would not be possible in that universe.  Thus, in terms of the second reason, Christians and non-Christians have no fact in common because there would be no intelligible facts if the non-Christian view were true.  All true facts are God-created facts, and logically, there could be no others.  If human autonomy were true, Van Til says, “There would be no possibility of finding a single fact in a universe of Chance.  Individual men would have no common notions with other men, they would not even be able to distinguish themselves from other men.  Observation of facts would be impossible because the idea of a fact is, on this basis, unintelligible.”[14]  The non-Christian view of knowledge in a world without the biblical God reduces to absurdity:  “. . . they became futile in their thinking. . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:21, 22).  I’ll explain more about Van Til’s argument for that later.

Another instance where Van Til provides the clarification for this issue in his writings is from John Frame’s account of Van Til’s comments on his student papers:

When I was a student, I wrote a paper quoting and criticizing what seemed to me to be rather extreme expressions of antithesis in his writings.  Alongside my quotations, Van Til wrote several times in the margin “according to their principle,” “in their systems,” etc.  Note: “And it is of these systems of their own interpretation that we speak when we say that men are as wrong in their interpretation of trees as in their interpretation of God.”[15]

After having received this clarification from the author himself, the only criticism that Frame should have made against Van Til on this issue is to say that Van Til meant for these qualifications to be understood but he did not make the qualification as clear as he could have.

In the following passage, Fesko claims that Van Til is inconsistent, both denying and affirming common notions between believers and unbelievers:

For example, taken at face value, the following statement allows for no point of contact between believer and unbeliever:  “That all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, and further, that the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian.”  But as Frame notes, Van Til admits that [un]believers[16] know something of God and the truth, “after a fashion” (110).

At face value, the reader should at least see that metaphysical and psychological common ground between believer and unbeliever that Van Til acknowledges should allow for some point of contact between them.  The problem with Fesko’s understanding of Van Til is that Fesko seems to interpret “epistemologically” as “epistemically,” that is, Fesko thinks that Van Til is denying that non-Christians have knowledge in any sense.  Van Til is using “epistemologically” to refer to a theory of knowledge, not knowledge itself.  This point is evident in the sentence that Fesko fails to reproduce that is immediately after Van Til saying that “the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian”:  “And this is qualified by saying that this is so only in principle.”[17]  The Christian, believing that God created all things, is compelled to affirm that God is the ultimate source of all knowledge; but the natural man, being in rebellion against God, must affirm some other ultimate source of knowledge.  The natural man still has knowledge because God has given it to him through being made in God’s image and living in God’s world.  But his ultimate principle of knowledge, his ultimate explanation of knowledge, is opposed to the Christian’s ultimate principle of knowledge:  God.

In Romans 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul provides some of the most important teaching in the Bible concerning natural revelation.  There are two sides to his teaching here:  A) God’s revelation of His existence is clearly given to all people through creation, and B) all people rebel against this revelation by suppressing this knowledge and worshipping created things rather than the Creator, leading to other degenerate ethical behavior.  This gives us a mixed situation where people have a knowledge of God that they cannot escape, yet they will not acknowledge and worship the true God.  The knowledge of God that they have results in obedience to God’s law in some limited sense and degree (Rom. 2:14), but they are not going to openly acknowledge the true God as the source of the ethical laws that they follow.

Thomists, including Protestant Thomists like Fesko, emphasize the natural revelation received by all people, while failing to grasp the implications of the second part of the teaching of Paul in Romans 1-3, that non-Christians suppress this knowledge and refuse to acknowledge the true God.   Given the unbeliever’s suppression of the knowledge of God, we should not expect a pagan, such as Aristotle, to develop and promote a rigorous proof of the existence of God.  For someone like Fesko, who is a Calvinist seminary professor and holds to the doctrine of total depravity, to fail to grasp this is rather surprising.  The Reformed doctrine of total depravity makes “Reformed Thomism” an oxymoron.  Granted, Fesko acknowledges that with regard to natural revelation, “unbelievers have this knowledge, know it aright, but suppress or ignore it [which] renders them inexcusable” (65).  But Fesko doesn’t apply this thought to understand what Van Til is talking about. Fesko says this in a chapter focused on making the case that John Calvin affirmed natural revelation, thinking that he is making a case against Van Til because he thinks that Van Til denies natural revelation.  He doesn’t consider that suppression of the knowledge of God through nature comes into play in Van Til’s apologetic because he doesn’t think that Van Til affirms the condition precedent of pagans receiving knowledge of God through nature.   When Fesko then criticizes Van Til’s negative statements about how the unregenerate handle knowledge, Fesko mistakenly claims that these are statements denying natural revelation, while they are actually statements in which Van Til is saying that the unregenerate suppress natural revelation.  Van Til strongly affirms that the unregenerate receive inescapable knowledge of God through creation, but he also strongly affirms the suppression of that knowledge in varying degrees because they are enemies of God (e.g., Rom. 5:10, 8:7; Col. 1:21; Phil. 3:18; Jam. 4:4).  In particular, Fesko fails to see that Van Til’s criticism of Aquinas is that Aquinas is blind to Aristotle’s suppression of the knowledge of God in certain teachings that Aquinas wrongly claims are supportive of the Christian view of God.   I’ll specifically address Van Til’s criticism of Aquinas in the next post.  Stay tuned.


[1]  Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972), p. 53.

[2]  Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture” in The Infallible Word, Ed. By N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Co., 2002), p. 269.  Also see Apologetics, Ch. 2; and The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1967), Ch. 1.

[3]  Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 4, emphasis in original.

[4]  Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), p. 102.

[5]  Ibid., p. 194.

[6]  Ibid., p. 80.  Also see Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), pp. 69-70; Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, N.J.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 21; and Psychology of Religion (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 106, 107.

[7]  Van Til, Common Grace and The Gospel, p. 143.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” pp. 300-01.

[10]  Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 3rd edition (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1967), p. 210.

[11]  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p.5.

[12]  Ibid., p. 151.

[13]  John Warwick Montgomery argued that this is what Van Til’s approach amounts to in his essay “Once Upon an Apriori . . .,” in Jerusalem and Athens (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980).

[14]  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 168-69.

[15]  Frame, Cornelius Van Til:  An Analysis of His Thought, p. 198.

[16]  Fesko must have meant to type “unbelievers” rather than “believers.”

[17]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 3rd edition, 169 (emphasis in original).

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