On Nature and Nature’s God

by onsi-a-kamel January 7, 2020

The twentieth century was unkind to classical Reformed theology. While theological conservatives often blame liberals for undermining traditional Protestant doctrines, the staunchest conservatives and the neo-Orthodox also revised several key doctrines. One such was the doctrine of natural revelation. In his otherwise thunderous “Nein!” to Emil Brunner’s defense of natural theology, Karl Barth granted that Brunner was right about the tradition: the Reformers and their successors believed that God revealed something of himself equally to all men via nature. But, Barth continued, to avoid veering into Roman Catholic territory, we must not merely “repeat the statements of Luther and Calvin” but make their claims “more pointed.”[1] Solus Christus—Christ alone—is not merely a soteriological principle, but an epistemological one. Apart from Christ, we can know nothing.[2] 

Likewise, the anti-Barth and anti-liberal theologian Cornelius Van Til ironically followed Barth in departing from classical Protestantism on this point: “We must begin our meditation upon any fact in the world in light of the Son of God.”[3] Thus, both Van Til and Barth departed from the classical tradition, and both were enormously influential in their respective circles (although Barth’s circle was admittedly much larger than Van Til’s).

In this context, J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics, a defense and retrieval of the classical tradition of Protestant natural theology for apologetic purposes, is both warranted and welcome. Fesko wishes to appropriate the older Protestant approach to the “book of nature,” which treats it as a real source of knowledge alongside the “book of Scripture.” In making his case, Fesko focuses his first two chapters on explaining the phrases “light of nature” and “common notions.” Fesko demonstrates that Protestant theologians and confessions have historically defended “common notions and their connection to the order of nature.”[4] Common notions are self-evident truths “written on the heart” of all men, which attest to the existence of God, grant a basic understanding of good and evil, and, according to some theologians, include such self-evident principles as the law of non-contradiction.[5] 

As Fesko points out, this basic position is ubiquitous among the Fathers, including St. Augustine and Boethius; the Medievals, including St. Thomas Aquinas; and early modern Protestants, including John Calvin, Philipp Melanchthon, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Francis Turretin, among others. They all generally held that believers and unbelievers alike have the natural law engraved upon their hearts and that apart from grace, humanity rebels against this knowledge.[6] Put another way, the principles of common notions are self-evident and immutable, while the conclusions reached by fallen reason on the basis of such principles are often twisted by sin.[7] Helpfully, Fesko does not merely cite the Reformed tradition as the final word; he also briefly sketches out an exegetical case that the catholic and classical Protestant doctrine is correct.

Following his account of the Catholic tradition, Fesko devotes chapters to John Calvin (where his welcome reliance upon the stellar work of Richard A. Muller shines through) and Thomas Aquinas. After treading the path laid out by the greats of Christian history, Fesko leads us from the origins of historic worldview theory in the philosophy of the German idealists to its adoption by Cornelius Van Til. Fesko’s extended engagements with Van Til, and his decision to put Van Til into conversation with St. Thomas, constitutes one of the most important contributions of the book. What emerges from Fesko’s work is a nuanced, charitable, but ultimately critical portrait of Van Til’s natural theology.

For Van Til, all concepts exist within “worldviews.”[8] Worldviews are complete, internally coherent, and exhaustive systems of thought derived from “presuppositions.” There is, on this understanding, a Christian worldview, a Postmodern worldview, an Islamic worldview, and so forth. Crucially, for Van Til it is not possible to import concepts or ideas from another worldview into one’s own because such concepts inevitably carry with them elements of the rest of the worldview.[9] Because of this, worldviews are exclusive and in competition; a Christian cannot adopt any element of another worldview without adopting some of its anti-Christian dimensions. There are not, therefore, independent truths to which the Christian and non-Christian share access. Apologetics becomes possible not on the basis of a shared world—a shared, if limited, access to the same reality—but only by assuming (“presupposing”) a Christian worldview and demonstrating its superiority. Interestingly, however, Fesko also demonstrates that what Van Til takes with one hand he gives with the other: while fiercely critical of the classical defense of “common notions,” Van Til reintroduces the substance of this position using the novel phrase “common ground.”

Fesko concludes his book with a chapter demonstrating how the positions for which he advocates can assist Reformed Christians in the task of defending the faith and sharing the gospel. Importantly, Fesko does not advocate—nor, crucially, did the great catholic thinkers by whom he was inspired—using “autonomous reason” to prove the truths of Christianity; rather, in thoroughly Augustinian fashion, he argues that we should proceed by beginning with faith and then seeking understanding.

My criticisms of Fesko’s cogent and accessible book should be understood as quibbles rather than major concerns. First, while Fesko mentions Karl Barth a couple of times throughout the book, he does not engage in any depth with Barth or his disciples. This is understandable, given that Fesko appears to be aiming this book at a decidedly conservative audience, for whom Van Til looms larger. Nevertheless, this limits the book’s reach, since Barth’s attacks on natural theology have had a far greater impact on the broader world of Christian theology than Van Til’s. Second, at times, German idealism seems to function as something of a boogeyman for Fesko; although he does, on occasion, state that the issue is not German idealism itself, but Van Til’s pretensions to being purely “biblical,” in contrast to his predecessors, while borrowing heavily from philosophy.

In summation, Fesko has given us a timely exposition and defense of the classical Protestant approach to natural law. Although differing from its Medieval predecessor in certain important respects, he agrees with the Catholic tradition in rejecting the notions that faith is opposed to reason, that nature is (in itself) opposed to grace, that the so-called “Christian worldview” is opposed to other philosophies at every single point, and which upholds that all truth is God’s, no matter where it is found. While defending this position, Fesko also ably interprets Van Til, charitably pointing out the good in his thought, fairly critiquing the bad, and, along the way, demonstrating some of Van Til’s surprising continuities with St. Thomas’ method. Reforming Apologetics is an excellent primer on the Protestant tradition of natural theology, a worthy treatment of van Til’s thought, and a contribution to Reformed discourse, which will, I trust, bear good fruit in the Church. In a time when many are suspicious of creation's capacity to be, in Calvin’s words, the “theater of God’s glory," it is a welcome book indeed which calls our minds to the truth that God has made all things good. As the Psalmist writes, "Let the heaven and earth praise him, the seas, and every thing that moveth therein” (Psalm 69:34, KJV).

Hear from Dr. Fesko at this year's Worship Conference.  Learn more and register here.

[1] Emil Brunner, Natural Theology: Comprising Nature and Grace by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the Reply No! By Dr. Karl Barth, F First Edition Used edition (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2002), 101.

[2] Barth’s position, as George Hunsinger has shown in his essay “The Yes Hidden in Barth’s No to Brunner,” is a bit more complicated than my simplified description lets on. For Barth, although we can know nothing of God apart from Christ, God’s self-revelation in Christ had a “diversity of aspects within itself.”  Thus, once our interpretation of nature has been chastened by God’s self-revelation in Christ, it again becomes a gift of Christ testifying to God. See George Hunsinger, Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed: Essays on Barth and Other Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2015).

[3] Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor & Modern Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 196, as cited in Fesko, Reforming Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).

[4] Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 4.

[5] Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 30-33.

[6] Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 15-21.

[7] Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 43.

[8] Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 107.

[9] Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 107.

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