Book Review: Reforming Apologetics (3)
See here for part 1 and here for part 2.
The concept of “common notions” plays a large role in Fesko’s critique. Chapter 2 features a treatment of the concept from the perspective of historical theology. As far as a definition goes, he provides that of Anthony Burgess: “ ‘The Law of Nature consists in those common notions which are ingrafted in all men’s hearts,’ some of which include the existence of God as well as a general knowledge of the difference between good and evil” (30).
He comes back to this concept in chapter 5. Here he critiques Van Til’s approach to common notions. According to Fesko, Van Til “rejected the historic Reformed concept of common notions because he believed it was an example of synthetic thinking” (110). A little further Fesko states things even more strongly: “With his rejection of common notions, Van Til departs from the catholic and Reformed faith” (110). However, this critique fails to persuade. On the next page, Fesko describes Van Til’s alternative terminology of “common ground” and admits it is difficult to tell the difference from “common notions.” If that be the case, how can Van Til be described as departing from the Reformed faith because he adopted a different term? Moreover, Fesko fails to mention other places where Van Til uses (and attempts to refine) the terminology of “common notions.” For example, in his 1947 book Common Grace, Van Til distinguished between common notions in terms of psychology (which he granted) and in terms of epistemology (which he rejected). It is not reasonable to conclude that Van Til departed from the Reformed faith because he eventually chose alternative terminology, terminology which he thought to be more accurate. In Fesko’s mind, it appears that Reformed theologians are bound to the terminology of historic Reformed orthodoxy and can never seek to improve upon it without being accused of forsaking the Reformed faith.
Chapter 5 is a critique of the concept of “worldview.” This is a concept which is integral to Van Tillian apologetics. Fesko endeavours to show that the concept is dubious since it has origins in philosophical idealism. Specifically, his beef is with “historic worldview theory” (HWT). He claims that “HWT is contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity” (98). Because we are all created in the image of God, all people have “common notions.” HWT denies this, according to Fesko. Moreover, he takes issues with the idea that a worldview “must present an exhaustive explanation of the world. The Bible does not present an exhaustive view of reality”(98).
The chapter begins with a pass granted to theologians like N.T. Wright and Dennis Johnson, who only hold to a loose idea of a worldview. Fesko has no difficulty with those who, like Wright, say that a worldview is “the way in which people view reality” (98). He says that these “uses of the term and concept are benign” (98). His real problem is with worldview thinking more tightly defined in terms of the rejection of common notions and the claim that worldviews are exhaustive or comprehensive descriptions of reality.
I already noted above that Fesko’s critique of Van Til on common notions does not hit its mark. At this point, I would add that Fesko fails to reckon with an important distinction in presuppositionalism. We distinguish between what a worldview says in principle and what individual people think, do, and say in practice. For example, a materialist worldview in principal stands antithetically opposed to Christianity by affirming that physical matter is all that exists. However, because of common notions (or whatever other term may be used), in practice, individuals who claim to be materialists often betray their own position. For example, they cannot account for non-material laws of logic. Because of this dissonance between principle and practice, there are inconsistencies with both believers and unbelievers.
With regard to the insinuation that HWT leads presuppositionalism to claim an exhaustive, detailed view of reality, there is no evidence to support this. Fesko makes numerous statements like this: “The Bible is not a comprehensive survey of world history” (128). But did Van Til or any other presuppositionalist ever claim that it is? The biblical worldview is not an “exhaustive” view of reality in the sense that Scripture tells us the details for every field of knowledge. If that is what HWT claims, then I reject it with Fesko. But the biblical worldview does supply a basic framework in which to explore and develop every field of knowledge. There are basic principles supplied in Scripture by which Christians can set out to work in history, science, mathematics, and so on.
The idea of worldview is inescapable. It is self-evident that everyone has a philosophy of life, even if it is not well-stated or well-thought out. While reading Fesko’s book, I could not help but notice that even in the world the concept of “worldview” is part of the common (!) vocabulary. As Christians, we recognize that the Bible presents an objectively true picture of the way things are. There is a framework in the Bible for how we are to look at the world in which we live, including how we regard ourselves. In the past, that has simply been described as “Christianity” or “the Christian faith.” In more recent times, some have taken to describing it as “the Christian story.”
Whether we use “the faith,” “worldview,” or “story,” at the centre of it must be Christ. This is emphasized in Colossians 1-2, a section of Scripture not discussed by Fesko in this chapter. In Colosssians 1:17, we read that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In Colossians 2:3, Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” It does not say “some of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” but all. Fesko critiques Van Til and other presuppositionalists for putting Christ at the centre of the Christian worldview, but regardless of his historical critique of HWT, Scripture speaks against Fesko and in favour of Van Til. If Scripture says that Christ is at the centre, then Christ has to be at the centre, even if that means it appears we are following idealism’s notion of “deducing a system of doctrine from a single concept” (108).