Idealism in Van Til and Aquinas: Part 3 of a Review of J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics

J.V. Fesko argues in his book, Reforming Apologetics, that Cornelius Van Til rejects natural revelation, and that Van Til rejects the arguments of Aquinas for the existence of God because Aquinas used ideas from Aristotle, which is a use of natural revelation.  In the last two posts, I have argued that Van Til rejects neither natural revelation nor Aquinas because of his appeal to natural revelation.  Rather, Van Til rejects Christians relying on ideas from non-Christians that are logically inconsistent with Christianity.  More specifically, Van Til argues that Aquinas failed to recognize that the oneness of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is a different oneness from the Triune God of Christianity.  Oneness in terms of the Greek scale of being is different from the oneness in terms of the one, absolute God of Christianity.  Part of Fesko’s confusion about the views of Van Til is Fesko’s claim that Van Til adopted ideas of idealist philosophers that are not consistent with biblical teaching.  I will address this issue in this last installment of my review of Fesko’s book.

Fesko objects to Van Til’s appeal to “worldview” because Fesko sees it as adopting Kantian Idealism (100).  Relevant to evaluating whether using the word “worldview” means adopting Kantianism is the fact that the idea of “worldview” has been rejected by some Kantians, namely the neo-Kantians of the Marburg school, which had prominence during the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s.  They believed that keeping philosophy a rigorous and academic science meant to keep it focused on the epistemology of science rather than promoting values (see, for example, Max Weber’s 1919 address, “Science as a Vocation”).[1]  Other German Kantians at the time, such as the Southwestern neo-Kantians, defended a focus on Kantian ethics (see, for example, Richard Kroner’s 1914 book, Kant’s Weltanschauung).  While the Southwestern group was truer to Kant’s full set of writings in my opinion, the point is that equating “worldview” with Kantianism is not a given.  Does Fesko disagree with endorsing a philosophy that explains both scientific knowledge and ethics?  If not, then Fesko sides with the pro-worldview Kantians.  Whether Fesko opposes or embraces the idea of “worldview,” he can find Kantians that support him.

The more important question is whether Van Til is adopting any anti-Christian Kantian ideas by using the word “worldview.”  Fesko only quotes one instance where Van Til uses the word (106 n.53), and he doesn’t examine Van Til’s uses of the word in their contexts to determine what meaning he gives to it, as responsible scholarship demands.  Rather, he attributes Idealist views to Van Til based on a use of the word “worldview” that Van Til repudiates.

What Fesko thinks Van Til means by “the Christian worldview” is that all knowledge is derived from the Bible.  He says, “It is one thing to claim that the Bible explains God, humans, and the world and as such has implications for every facet of life.  It is another to claim that it is exhaustively comprehensive and is the source of all knowledge.  Nineteenth-century idealists regularly make the claim that worldviews are systematic explanations of reality” (127).  Van Til’s affirmation of “worldview” is in agreement with Fesko’s affirmation of the first statement.  (Although, I’ll explain below, there are weaknesses in Fesko’s affirmation of “worldview” even in this limited sense).  Maybe Fesko is confusing Van Til with Gordan Clark who did teach that all knowledge comes from the Bible (qualifying that with Platonic distinction between “knowledge” and “opinion,” so that “knowledge” is only that which is certain and only comes from the Bible, in contrast to beliefs derived from experience, which are uncertain and therefore “opinion.”)

Van Til very clearly does not believe that the Bible is the only source of knowledge.  Fesko’s claim is refuted by the evidence that I provided in the first post, that Van Til believes in natural revelation.  Furthermore, as Fesko correctly observes, Van Til did not reject appeals to empirical evidence (140-41).   Fesko complains that some followers of Van Til have rejected the use of empirical evidence, leading him to conclude that “some formulations of the TAG, therefore, are obstacles to recovery of the use of the book of nature in apologetics” (141).[2]  Ok, then if some are, then some formulations aren’t; and one of those formulations that isn’t is Van Til’s.[3]  Or the situation might be stated in this way:  TAG itself is not the issue but rather erroneous implications drawn from TAG – that it is the sole, sufficient argument needed in apologetics rather than necessary for a limited purpose in apologetics.  Van Til describes the apologetic task using the analogy of modern warfare, in which “different kinds of fighting are mutually dependent upon one another.” [4]  The vindication of Christianity requires shooting “the big guns under the protection of which the definite advances in the historical field must be made.”[5]  The big guns are the sweeping philosophical arguments (i.e. TAG), while historical evidence is compared to the small arms fire.   Some followers of Van Til may claim that the big guns are all that is necessary to win the apologetic war against the attacks of anti-Christian arguments, but Van Til disagrees.  It is true, however, that Van Til believes that TAG is the only sound argument for the existence of God.  To the extent that aspects of any other arguments have validity, they should be presented as the transcendental argument that God is necessary for the possibility of predication, whether that predication is about morality or objects of experience.[6]  But there is more to apologetics than proving the existence of God.  Van Til says that such things as proving that a claim to revelation belongs in the canon of Scripture and that Christ rose from the dead require the support of empirical evidence.[7]

Involved in Fesko’s claim that the Bible is the source of all knowledge is the claim that Van Til adopted the Idealist view that all knowledge is deduced from a master concept, and Van Til made the Bible that master concept (127-32).  Back in 1955 in his book The Defense of the Faith, Van Til answered this charge “that I think of the Bible as presenting us with a deductive system.”[8]  In denial of the charge, he writes, “Man cannot know anything, let alone deduce anything, about the nature of God except God reveals something of himself by voluntary revelation.”[9]  He shows that he has taken positions contrary to the charge against him in his writings prior to this time, such as:  “In The New Modernism I had defended the idea that though Christianity is surely not a deductive system, or an aspect of the coherence of Reality of which idealists speak, yet it is directly identifiable and intelligently defensible.”[10]  Van Til often contends against the idea of the Bible as a deductive system leading to exhaustive knowledge because that would mean that man could potentially become all-knowing, if he just had the time to make all the deductive connections:

The biblical “system of truth” is not a “deductive system.” The various teachings of Scripture are not related to one another in the way that syllogisms of a series are related. The “system of truth” of Scripture presupposes the existence of the internally, eternally, self-coherent, triune God who reveals Himself to man with unqualified authority.[11]

If God is really man’s creator then man’s thinking must be thought of as being analogical. Therefore his concepts cannot rightly be employed as the instruments of a deductive system.[12]

Moreover, when we say that man understands the revelation of God what is meant is not that he sees through this revelation exhaustively. Neither by logical reasoning nor by intuition can man do more than take to himself the revelation of God on the authority of God. . . .  Man’s system of truth, even when formulated in direct and self-conscious subordination to the revelation of the system of truth contained in Scripture, is therefore not a deductive system.[13]

. . . the Reformed system of doctrine is composed of elements that are exegetically taken from Scripture. The Reformed system is not a deduction from a master concept.[14]

Fesko could have easily searched for “deductive system” in the Logos digital versions of Van Til’s works and found these quotes, but his research was not thorough enough to carry out this simple task.

Fesko thinks that it is absurd to think that the Bible instructs us “whether to conduct brain surgery or administer medication to heal a patient” (131), and Van Til agrees.  Here is one of Van Til’s more well-known statements (among his admirers at least) about the relationship between the Bible and empirical investigation:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work, but it also tells us who God is and where the universe about us has come from. It tells us about theism as well as about Christianity. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the word of God that you can separate the so-called religious and moral instruction of the Bible from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.

This view of Scripture, therefore, involves the idea that there is nothing in this universe on which human beings can have full and true information unless they take the Bible into account. We do not mean, of course, that one must go to the Bible rather than to the laboratory if one wishes to study the anatomy of the snake. But if one goes only to the laboratory and not also to the Bible one will not have a full or even true interpretation of the snake.”[15]

Because he does not believe that the Bible is the basis for an exhaustive system of deductive knowledge, Van Til boldly affirms that there can be apparently contradictory statements in Scripture:  “. . . while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. . . .  All our ingenuity cannot exhaust the humanly inexhaustible rationality of God.”[16]  There may never be a resolution for these apparent contradictions for human minds, for all of human history or even for eternity for glorified saints.  These apparent contradictions are not real contradictions because God is the source of Scripture, and He is absolutely rational.  God must voluntarily reveal additional information to humans in order for the apparent contradictions to be resolved.

To refute this claim that Van Til thinks that the Bible is the source of all knowledge, we can also look at Van Til’s proof of the existence of God.  Fesko himself says that “Van Til’s argument is a subjective version of Aquinas’s second and fifth arguments for the existence of God” (142).  Aquinas’s second proof is for God as the ultimate efficient cause, and the fifth proof is for God as the final cause of all things.  I agree with Fesko on that point.  As for the claim that Van Til offers a “subjective version,” Fesko offers no argument, and in fact, Van Til argues that God must exist as the source of all knowledge in order for humans to have objective knowledge, that is, knowledge of external objects.  But my main point here is that, having affirmed that Van Til’s argument involves reasoning about efficient and final causality and so does Aquinas’s in two of his arguments, Fesko also says that Aquinas’s proofs are examples of arguments from natural revelation (Chapter 4).  If A=B and B=C, then A=C.  Van Til’s transcendental argument for the existence of God (“TAG”) is an argument from natural revelation.  I have made that same point before.[17]

Does this mean that Van Til’s argument is “Thomistic”?  John Frame has made this kind of claim.[18]  He says that Bahnsen’s argument in his debate with Gordan Stein was Thomistic because he appealed to causation to make his argument for God’s existence.  Similarly, Fesko says that, because “Calvin invokes the argument from design” (62) by noting that the beauty of the universe should lead us to think of God’s wisdom, and teaches “a cause-and-effect relationship between God and the creation” (63), Calvin has “substantive agreement with the two Thomistic proofs, the cosmological and teleological arguments” (63).  Why should Aquinas’s name be attached to all argument for God’s existence that appeal to causation or design when some of those arguments have major differences with Aquinas’s and when appeals to causation and design were made before Aquinas came along?  Van Til has major disagreements with Aquinas about how to construct an argument for God’s existence, therefore calling his argument Thomistic because of the similarity of appealing to causation and design is unhelpful and superficial.   If you have two sets of beliefs, let’s say Set A (for Aquinas) and Set V (for Van Til), and there are major issues where the two sets do not overlap, then Set V should not be classified as a subset of Set A, even if there are some areas of overlap.  Technically, a subset must have every element of another set, but I would be willing to call Van Til’s TAG “Thomistic” if the differences were minor, but they are not.  Calvin’s statements don’t contain much argument, just the moral appeal that men should turn their minds to the wisdom of God when they see the design and order of nature.  That is no basis for claiming that Calvin accepted Aquinas’s arguments in their full context, which incorporates Aristotelian philosophy.   Van Til argues that Calvin’s approach to knowledge undermines the Scholastic view of knowledge, so Calvin’s views are not a subset of Aquinas’s if this related issue is taken into account.  Fesko appeals to Calvin’s remarks about connecting the beauty and order of creation to the wisdom of the Creator in order to rebut Van Til’s claim that Calvin rejected the Scholastic view of knowledge.  He should have stuck to directly addressing Van Til’s argument regarding Calvin and Scholasticism.

The argument that Van Til makes for Calvin rejecting Scholasticism is that in the first paragraph of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he appeals to beginning with the positive revelation of Scripture as necessary to have true knowledge of man is as well as God. [19]  This contrasts with Aquinas’s empiricist approach that leads to saying, at the beginning of Summa Theologica, “We cannot know what God is, but only what He is not.”  While Calvin does not explicitly repudiate Aquinas’s method of remotion and other Aristotelean ideas about form and matter, he never appeals to knowing God by beginning with experience and then negating the positive aspects of the empirical world until we reach an empty universal that we call God.[20]  Van Til also appeals to Calvin’s statements that men fail to acknowledge God because they are willfully blind.[21]   In contrast, Aquinas says that through nature we know God in a “general and confused way”[22] because this knowledge is gained through effects that are not proportionate to the cause.[23]  In other words, the nature of the evidence obscures the knowledge of God rather than man’s rebellion against clear, inescapable evidence.  Fesko cites Calvin’s Institutes at 1.5.11 to argue that “In fact, with Aquinas, Calvin believed that only the philosophically learned could access this natural knowledge of God; this is something that the common rabble could not do” (64).  Actually, Calvin’s statement in this paragraph is in keeping with Van Til’s anti-Thomistic characterization of Calvin’s views.  Calvin says here, “Bright, however, as is the manifestation which God gives both of himself and his immortal kingdom in the mirror of his works, so great is our stupidity, so dull are we in regard to these bright manifestations, that we derive no benefit from them.”  The problem, again, is not the obscurity of the revelation but the depravity of man.  Calvin’s point in regard to philosophers in this passage is that they, as the most acute inquirers into the nature of reality, should see God’s glory manifest in nature better than most, but they don’t.  Despite the clarity of natural revelation, even the most distinguished philosophers “labour under such hallucinations” and are prone to “vanity and error.”

Fesko observes that Van Til realizes that Calvin was not completely consistent in rejecting Scholastic categories (66-67). On occasion, Calvin falls into making a sharp distinction between earthly and heavenly knowledge, and saying that with respect to the heavenly knowledge, the natural man is blinder than a mole.[24]  Van Til admits that Calvin “did not bring out with sufficient clearness at all times that the natural man is as blind as a mole with respect to natural things as well as with respect to spiritual things.“[25]  Van Til points out that, nevertheless, Calvin lessens the contrast by saying that the unbeliever’s knowledge of earthly things is vanity and that the unbeliever sometimes states true things regarding heavenly matters.[26]  Fesko responds by saying that “The problem of Van Til’s analysis is that it contradicts Calvin’s clear statements on the matter.  Calvin unmistakably states that the unbelievers are blind with regard to heavenly knowledge but not blind to earthly knowledge” (66-67).  But Calvin does not say that unbelievers are “not blind to earthly knowledge.”  He does say that their earthly knowledge is vanity and that, concerning the reasoning of unbelievers: “being partly weakened and partly corrupted, a shapeless ruin is all that remains.”[27]  Calvin’s position is that fallen reason is not “utterly fruitless,”[28] but it is corrupted.

Likewise, when Van Til says that “the natural man is as blind as a mole with respect to natural things,” he is not denying all knowledge to unbelievers but is saying that the unregenerate have a vision that is “blurred.”[29]  And he further says that the unregenerate have a less distorted view of earthly things than heavenly things:  “. . . that from an ultimate point of view, the natural man knows nothing truly, but that from a relative point of view he knows something about all things.  He knows all things after a fashion, and his fashion is best when he deals with earthly things such as electricity, etc.”[30]  The natural man knows nothing truly in the sense that they try to place their knowledge in the false context of a world without God, but, because they actually live in God’s world, they can’t be entirely consistent with their God-denying worldview.  “Men can read nature aright only when it is studied as the home of a man who is made in the image of God.”[31]  The problem with a sharp distinction between earthly and heavenly knowledge is that atheism has a distorting effect on how atheists understand earthly matters.  Since God’s existence is revealed through creation, and since man is in rebellion against God, then unbelievers are compelled to distort earthly things in order to deny heavenly things.  The more that atheists try to be consistent with their denial of God (the more that they are “epistemologically self-conscious”), the more that they are going to distort earthly knowledge.  Van Til also points out that atheist scientists do no limit their talk to earthly things; they draw all sorts of implications from their scientific studies about reality as a whole.  And the Bible does not limit itself to heavenly matters, but speaks of the origin and destiny of the earthly world.[32]

I still need to answer this question:  What does Van Til mean by “worldview”?  Here is the definition that he gives:  “Philosophy, as usually defined, deals with a theory of reality, with a theory of knowledge, and with a theory of ethics. That is to say philosophies usually undertake to present a life and world view.”[33]  Covering these three areas gives a comprehensive interpretation of reality:  “The Christian life and world view, it was argued, presents itself as an absolutely comprehensive interpretation of human experience.”[34]  Note that the Bible is comprehensive in terms of covering the three major branches of philosophy, not in the sense of providing comprehensive knowledge of the world.  Greg Bahnsen, by the way, uses the same definition of worldview as Van Til:  “The Christian worldview, as Van Til never tired of emphasizing, must be defended as a unity (comprising metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics in an unbreakable system) over against the sinful worldviews of the natural man.”[35]  Is it distinctly Kantian to have an integrated system of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics?  No.  Does having an integrated system of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics entail anti-Christian ideas?  No.  Does Fesko object to a philosophy that has an integrated view of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics?

Fesko may not object, yet Thomistic philosophy undermines this definition of worldview.  Van Til objects that Aquinas tries to integrate an anti-Christian view of all three areas of philosophy into Christianity, making Thomism inadequately integrated.  The Thomistic procedure can be described as attempting to use an anti-Christian epistemology to prove Christian metaphysics – namely, the Christian God.  (Things aren’t exactly this neat.  No philosopher has developed an epistemology without having some concept of metaphysics in view.  What we claim exists and how we claim to know what exists are inextricably related issues.)  As I have explained, Van Til argues that the Aristotelian epistemology can only lead to an anti-Christian view of metaphysics, not the God of the Bible.  If “worldview” seems like an alien concept to Thomists, it is because their philosophy is not integrated.  Their distinction between reason and faith, with the first derived from Aristotle and the second derived from the Bible, undermines viewing Christianity as a worldview, having an integrated view of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  Van Til says, “Both men [Warfield and Bavinck] view the place of Scripture as imbedded in their total outlook on life. They do not build the first story of their house by reason in order then to add a second story built by faith. Their outlook on life is a living whole. For convenience we speak of this total outlook on reality as a world and life view.”[36]  Van Til depicts Thomists as having a two-story house with the first story built from Aristotle’s philosophy, which is then used to reach the second story that is built from the Bible.[37]  But the first story is inconsistent with the second story, like a building that provides no way to reach the second floor from the first floor.  In fact, the first floor is a collapsing floor because it undermines the possibility of reason, knowledge, and ethics.

Given these ideas that undermine seeing Christianity as a worldview, it is not surprising the Fesko defends the Lutheran dichotomy between the secular and sacred:  “In classic Lutheran theology, for example, Martin Luther characterizes the two kingdoms (sacred and secular) as the kingdoms of the right and left hands.  But whose hands, precisely, are in view?  God’s hands are in view.  God sovereignly reigns over both realms but in different ways” (186-87).   Despite many harsh criticisms by Luther against Aristotle, Luther adopts the Aristotelian view that reason is the ultimate guide for the polis, even over-ruling God’s law.  He says that the prince should “use his own reason to judge when and where the law should be applied in its full rigour, and when it should be moderated. So that reason remains the ruler at all times, the supreme law and master of all the laws.”[38]  Luther appeals to the wisdom of Solomon to prove that reason rules even over the law of Moses:  “And because Solomon knew it, he despaired of all the laws, even though God had laid them down for him through Moses, and of all his princes and counsellors [sic], and turned to God himself, asking him for a wise heart to rule the people.”[39]   Luther says, “In short, I know nothing about what laws to recommend to a prince; I want only to instruct him how to dispose his heart with regard to whatever laws, counsels, verdicts and cases he has to deal with.”[40]  Luther’s approach claims that God rules over the State, all the while repudiating God’s law as a standard for the state.  Paul says that, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7), yet Luther and other Two Kingdom advocates would have these depraved pagans decide right and wrong without correction from God’s revealed law.  Luther’s followers were quite consistent with Luther’s theology to not protest against Hitler until his Nazi regime began interfering in the church.  At that point, godless totalitarianism had gained a death-grip on the nation and resistance was futile.   Kenneth Barnes remarks that even of those Christians who openly opposed Hitler, “most of the rebel Confessing Christians opposed totalitarianism only when total control extended to the church.”[41]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an inspiring Christian martyr, but his Lutheran theology led him and others to oppose the direction of the state only when it was far too late.  This consistency between Thomism in apologetics and Lutheranism in political ethics is that godless principles for earthly matters are accepted in God’s name.

Fesko defends his view from the Westminster Confession of Faith:  “God is the supreme King of all the world and has ordained civil magistrates to be under him (23:1), whereas the visible church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” (187 n.119).  Regardless of whether Fesko is right that the Confession is supporting the Lutheran view of civil government,[42] this is a false dichotomy in terms of the biblical text.   God’s prophets declared that the Messiah would reign over the kings of the world (Psalm 2, 72; Isa. 9, 42; Dan. 2, 7).  As described in Daniel 7:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.   (Daniel 7:13-14)

The New Testament affirms that this came to realization with the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  As Jesus declares in the Great Commission, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).  And Paul declares, “. . . he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:20-21; also, Phil. 2:8-11; 1 Peter 3:21-22).  Jesus is the “King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15), and He is “the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5).  The New Testament declares Psalm 2 began to be fulfilled at Christ’s resurrection:  “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”  (Acts 13:32-33).

Contrary to Fesko (113), advocates of Theonomy have not denied the existence of natural revelation.  Greg Bahnsen writes, “The Biblical perspective is that the law revealed to the Jews in spoken form has been revealed in unspoken form to the Gentiles, and the two moral codes are co-extensive.  Paul did not somehow restrict natural revelation to the Decalogue (see, for example, Rom.1:32). . . .”[43]  The problem is, once again, Fesko the Calvinist seminary professor has compromised the doctrine of total depravity.  God’s law is revealed to all men through creation, but men suppress the truth in unrighteousness, making redemptive revelation necessary that states God’s law more clearly.  Van Til points out[44] that even before the Fall, God thought it necessary to provide special revelation regarding Adam’s ethical obligations:  be fruitful and multiply, rule the creation, eat of any tree in the garden, except for one.  Since God rules over all of life, rebellion against God manifests itself in all areas of life, therefore redemptive revelation is necessary to redeem all areas of life, even areas like mathematics and science (pace Fesko, 113).  As Van Til puts it, “this redemptive revelation of God had to be as comprehensive as the sweep of sin.”[45]  In the classic 1951 book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr describes Calvinism as transformative of culture and Lutheranism as a paradoxical two-kingdom approach to culture that ends up being antinomian.  Fesko rejects Calvinism’s more consistent advocacy of God’s sovereignty and human depravity in favor of Luther’s comprises with pagan government.

Another of Fesko’s claims about Van Til related to Idealist philosophy is that Van Til advocates a coherence theory of truth rather than a correspondence theory of truth.  Fesko recognizes that the Christian view is committed to a type of coherence theory of truth because all facts originate from God, who has complete knowledge of all things.  “Given that God created all things, to understand reality through truth-claims means aligning one’s mind with God’s mind” (154).  Contrary to empiricists who seek correspondence between facts and the human mind apart from God, and contrary to rationalists who seek coherence in the mind of man, Van Til argues that the coherence of all truth in the mind of God is the basis for correspondence between the mind of man and the facts of the external world – God is the origin of both and has created them to fit together.[46]  Fesko’s criticism amounts to accusations that Van Til’s approach tends to discourage the use of empirical evidence and discourage appeals to design and causation to prove God’s existence, which is a false claim by some of Van Til’s critics and some misguided followers.  Fesko quotes Frame’s charge that Van Til believes that “anyone who uses an argument from design or causality is presupposing a nontheistic epistemology” (153).[47]  Van Til is very clear that design, causation, necessary being, and morality could all be used to prove God’s existence as long as they were part of a transcendental argument:  “. . . all the theistic arguments should really be taken together and reduced to the one argument of the possibility of human predication. . . . [Men] ought to reason analogically about their being (ontological argument), about the cause of their being (cosmological arguments), and about the purpose of their being (teleological argument).”[48]

Fesko says that “Van Til and Aquinas employed a similar apologetic methodology” (148) in that Aquinas borrowed some ideas from Aristotle that were consistent with Christianity in order to defend the Christian faith, and Van Til borrowed some ideas from Kant that were consistent with Christianity in order to defend the Christian faith.  Fesko complains, however, “But for some reason, Van Til took a weed whacker to Aquinas’s Aristotelian garden and nurtured his Kantian one” (149).  There is some truth to Van Til borrowing from Kant, but the situation is not parallel to Aquinas borrowing from Aristotle.  Fesko recognizes that Van Til “offered trenchant criticism” of Idealism (141).  He tries to make this similar to Aquinas’s use of Aristotle by saying that Aquinas was not “an unreconstructed Aristotelian” (153).  But the two approaches are not parallel.  Van Til denied that Kant’s philosophy supports belief in the true God; Aquinas thought that Aristotle’s philosophy proves the true God.  Van Til, in fact, regards Kant’s philosophy as one of the most anti-theistic philosophies in the history of philosophy.  It asserts human autonomy rather than God’s sovereignty.  Van Til’s denunciations of Kant have no parallel in Aquinas’s writings, which esteem Aristotle as “the Philosopher.”  Van Til borrows from Kant how to frame the problems of philosophy, as a problem of bringing the One and the Many together in order to account for the preconditions of intelligible experience.  But while the type of argument that Van Til uses is borrowed from Kant, the substance of Van Til’s argument is the exact opposite.  In contrast, Aquinas follows much of the substance of Aristotle’s philosophy.  Here are some examples of Van Til denouncing Kant’s philosophy:

Traditional Protestantism has at the center of its thought the notion of the self-sufficient triune God of Scripture as the ultimate point of reference for all human predication.  Nothing could be more diametrically opposed to the basic contention of all of Kant’s thinking.  According to Kant it is man as autonomous who, in effect, takes the place of the God of Luther and Calvin.[49]

In the ultimate sense he did this, as noted, by carrying forth the apostate idea of autonomy of man to far greater consistency than had been done before. For Kant God is not the creator of man. God is not the law-giver to man. God cannot reveal himself to man through nature or through man’s own constitution as the image-bearer of God. Man can know nothing of God.  . . .  To have any relation to God or to nature, man must project them both. And Kant does project both nature and God.[50]

In fact, Van Til sees Kant’s philosophy as a development from similar principles taught by Aristotle.  Kant developed those principles toward greater consistency with the idea of human autonomy.  The Greek form-matter scheme was a precursor to Kant’s freedom-nature scheme of reality:

But the freedom-nature scheme itself may be included in the form-matter scheme as a general expression of all apostate thought. The modern freedom-nature scheme sprang in its large outlines from Kant’s philosophy as the Greek form-matter scheme came to its climactic expression in Aristotle. But both in Aristotle and in Kant it is would-be autonomous man who is the ultimate source of predication. In both Aristotle and Kant too this would-be autonomous man employs a purely irrational scheme of individuation and a purely abstract impersonal principle of unity.[51]

In other words, the problem with both Aristotle’s philosophy and Kant’s is that they assume an original separation of the One and the Many.  Both the One and the Many are necessary for knowledge, and in both philosophies, abstract unity and abstract plurality must be brought together to form knowledge.  In both philosophies, the human mind is the only active mind that does that; although, Kant’s philosophy asserts human autonomy in that process of knowledge formation more consistently than Aristotle’s metaphysical realism.  Kant takes human autonomy to its climax by asserting that there is no intelligible being outside the human mind.  Given my argument in the previous post, that Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is an empty abstract concept, it is not far from Aristotle’s philosophy to Kant’s claim that the concept of God is merely a limiting concept, a projection of an ideal from the human mind rather than a being that exists outside the human mind.[52]  In contrast to Aristotle and Kant, in Van Til’s view, the One and the Many are eternally related in the mind of God, so human knowledge is a matter of being receptively reconstructive of God’s original knowledge.[53]

Fesko claims that Van Til’s Kantian leanings do not allow him to deal with the challenge of postmodernism.  This is the reverse of the matter.  The change from modernism to postmodernism is a recapitulation of an earlier period of intellectual history that gave rise to Kantianism.  In the 1700s, David Hume tried to account for knowledge on a purely empirical basis, but he discovered that he could not account for any order to nature, only sense impressions that change by the moment.  Kant was awakened from his “dogmatic slumbers” by Hume’s failure to account for scientific knowledge through empiricism and attempted to save science by proposing that the order that we find in nature is actually the product of categories of the autonomous human mind that are imposed on sense experience.  Then in the twentieth century, the logical positivists, or more broadly, the modernists, tried again to account for knowledge and science in terms of pure sense experience.  Like Hume, they failed, which begat postmodernism with its Kantian-type of claim that all facts are interpreted facts.  As W.V.O. Quine puts it, all beliefs, scientific or otherwise, are “underdetermined by experience.”[54]   Van Til agrees with the claim of postmodernism that all facts are interpreted facts.  He says that “description is patternization. It is an act of definition. It is a statement of the what as well as of the that. It is a statement of connotation as well as of denotation. Description itself is explanation.” [55]   Van Til avoids the relativism of postmodernism because, in accord with the Bible, he attributes to God an absolutely true interpretation of reality, so our finite human interpretations of reality must reflect God’s interpretation in order to be true.  If humans cannot get outside of language, and if human autonomy is true, then the world outside the human mind is unintelligible.  Every individual lives in his own world with his own self-created “truth.”  That is the terminus of postmodernism.  On the other hand, if humans cannot get outside of language, and an absolutely rational, linguistic God is the Creator of the universe, then the categories of the human mind can reflect the operation of the world outside the human mind.  The Thomist position is closer to the modernist position in its insistence that all knowledge begins with sensation (“Nothing is in the intellect that was not previously in sense.” De Veritate, Article III), and thus the Thomist is the one who has less common ground to relate to postmodernism than the Van Tillian.  That doesn’t make Van Til’s position right, but it refutes Fesko’s claim against Van Til’s position.

In conclusion, Fesko and the other Reformed Thomists who endorse his book need to start over from scratch.  They don’t understand Van Til’s criticisms of Aquinas.  If Van Til misunderstands Aquinas, they haven’t proven it.  Or better, they should realize that they didn’t understand Van Til; and he actually makes a lot of sense.   They should realize that Van Til’s apologetic methodology provides the best answers to the philosophical and evidential claims against Christianity and it best defends the Reformed doctrines of God’s sovereignty, man’s total depravity, and the supremacy of Scripture.


[1]  Peter E. Gordon, Continental Divide:  Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 58-59.

[2]  I have criticized some statements by Greg Bahnsen with respect to the use of empirical evidence in my essay, “The Scope and Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument,” pp. 54-56,

[3]  Fesko quotes a passage from Van Til that seems opposed to the use of empirical evidence (140), but Fesko seems to have failed to read from the beginning of the chapter up to this passage, because if he did, he would have realized that Van Til is summarizing G.C. Berkouwer’s views, which are close to  Van Til’s but not identical.  Fesko needs a better example than this to prove that Van Til was inconsistent on the legitimacy of empirical evidence in apologetics.

[4]  Van Til, Christian Apologetics, p. 1.

[5]  Ibid., p. 2.

[6]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pp. 88, 102-03; A Survey of Christian Epistemology, pp. 10-11.

[7]  See Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pp. 128-29, 146; Psychology of Religion, p. 123.  I discuss this in my essay, “The Scope and Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument,” pp. 43 ff,

[8]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955), p. 204.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Ibid., p. 211.

[11]  Van TIl, Common Grace and the Gospel, “Preface,” p. v.

[12]  Ibid., pp. 201-02.

[13]  Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, pp. 37-38.

[14]  Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture, pp. 122-23.

[15]  Van TIl, Christian Apologetics, p. 2.

[16]  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, pp. 9-10 (emphasis in original).

[17]  “The Scope and Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument,“ “III. TAG as Natural Revelation,” pp. 27ff.,

[18]  John Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015), p. 74.  I comment on this in my essay, “A (Very) Critical Review of Frame the Fuzzy Van Tillian’s Book Apologetics,’s_Apologetics.pdf, p. 10.

[19]  Van Til, Christianity in Conflict, pp. 264-68.

[20]  Ibid., p. 265.

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, 2.1.

[23]  Ibid., Part 1, 2.2.

[24]  Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.13.

[25]  Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 82.

[26]  Ibid.

[27]  Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.12.

[28]  Ibid., 2.2.13.

[29]  Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 82.

[30] Ibid., p. 83, emphasis in original.

[31]  Ibid., p. 82.

[32]  Ibid., p. 83.

[33]  Van Til, Christian Apologetics, p. 23.

[34]  Ibid., p. 38.

[35]  Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic:  Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P&R Publishing, 1998), p. 549 n. 64.

[36] Cornelius Van Til, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture  (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), p. 103.

[37]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955), pp. 126-27.  Cornelius Van Til, The Great Debate Today (Nutley, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971), pp. 219-20.

[38]  Martin Luther, On Secular Authority (n.p. 1523), in Luther And Calvin On Secular Authority (Harro Höpfl ed. & trans., Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 34-35.

[39] Ibid.

[40]  Ibid., p. 35.

[41]  Kenneth C. Barnes, Nazism, Liberalism, & Christianity (1991), p. 122.

[42]  For a defense of Theonomy as consistent with the WCF, see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Theonomic Ethics and the Westminster Confession,”; and his Covenantal Theonomy: A Response to T. David Gordon and Klinean Covenantalism (Nacogdoches, TX:  Covenant Media Press, 2005).

[43]  Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 327.  Also, No Other Standard:  Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 114, 121, 126, 127, 135, 155, 157, 175, 206, 222.

[44]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pp. 67-68; Christian Apologetics, p. 66.

[45]  Ibid., p. 133 (emphasis in original).

[46]  Ibid., p.65.

[47]  Quoting Frame’s article “Transcendental Arguments,”

[48]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pp. 102, 104.

[49]  Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 115.

[50]  Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism (Phillipsburg, NJ, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1962), p. 246.

[51]  Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism, p. 380.

[52]  Van Til, Christian Apologetics, pp. 87-88.

[53]  Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 64.

[54]  Willard Van Orman Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” (1951, revised 1961),

[55]  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 3.

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4 Responses to Idealism in Van Til and Aquinas: Part 3 of a Review of J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics

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