Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019) is a call for the reformed Church to return to the concept of natural law. Fesko’s concern, above all, is that we have some common ground on which to dialogue with non-believers. His book is academic and clearly very well-researched and yet fairly accessible.

My own interest in this series is in developing a reformed apporach to education. Though this is not Fesko’s topic, his book is very much about what we know and how we know it (epistemology) which means that there is a lot here which applies on some level to education.

The Argument behind Reforming Apologetics

In Reforming Apologetics, Fesko defines and presents natural law, shows the position of earlier reformers, and discusses common objections or misunderstandings. I am only going to skim the surface of all this. For a more thorough treatment including the applications for apologetics, you should pick up Fesko’s book for yourself.

It is commonly accepted in reformed circles that God reveals Himself to us through two sources, also called the two books of revelation. The Scriptures are God’s special revelation and reveal His particular will as relates it to salvation. Natural law comes under the heading of God’s general revelation. The question Fesko addresses is what can be known through natural law apart from special revelation and if, indeed, those who are bereft of God’s special revelation can truly know anything at all.

It is Fesko’s thesis that there was a profound shift in how we view natural law that occured in the 19th century. Under the influence of non-Christian philsophies, Christian thinkers came to believe that there must be one central dogma undergirding all thought. The result was a consolidation of Christian thought but also a denigration of God’s second book. Cornelius Van Til more than any other single theologian seems to exemplify this new approach for Fesko and it is against Van Tilianism that he sets himself.

I will admit at this point that in my study of reformed approaches to education, I was initially quite influneced by Van Til. The uniformity and centralization of doctrine which he advocates and which Fesko here argues against is quite attractive. Perhaps the biggest point I took from Van Til was that, because there is one correct, reformed world view , one lens through which we view reality, that we need to have a distinctly reformed approach to education. In all honesty, if this is not true — if we do not need a refomed approach to education, then this series which I have been working on for something like a year and half is useless. [1]

Natural Law and Westminster

When the Westminster divines addressed the question of what natural man can know of God, they spoke of “the light of nature” under which heading they included three catergories: “(1) natural law, (2) human reason, and (3) God’s natural revelation in creation” (p. 13). “Natural law” here is used to refer to those common notions concerning good and evil which are written in men’s hearts (p. 19) and which we may call his conscience. It is by natural law that even non-believing, unsaved rulers may make just laws.

Fesko, with his focus on apologetics, is concerned with the common notions of natural law and spends some time discussing whether these notions still exist in a post-Fall world and what the effect of the Fall has been.

For our purposes, the second and third categories, human reason and God’s revelation in creation, are of greater interest. My contention has been that in education we place before the child, even the unregenerate child [2], God’s general revelation. In doing so, our hope and expectation is that he will recognize and respond to the good and true and beautiful things which are to be found there. Whether he is able to do respond in this way is of profound importance. If he is not able to do so, he is essentially uneducable.

In answering this question, we must consider (2) above: human reason. It is our reason through which we discern and accept the things of God. This faculty, like all our faculties, is fallen and corrupted. Note that it is not God’s revelation which is corrupted in any way but our ability to recognize and respond to it.

Natural Law in Calvin

Fesko’s main point in discussing Calvin’s take on natural law is to show that he has been misrepresented by the Van Tilians. Along the way, he brings out a couple of interesting points for our discussion.

“Although God is invisible, humans can know him in his works of creation . . . The world is ‘a mirror or representation'” (p. 57). Thus creation reflects its Creator who may be known by it. The human heart is also a kind of microcosm reflecting the Creator. After the Fall, this natural knowledge is not itself corrupted but human beings suppress it (p. 65).

With regard to the natural revelation available to man in Creation, Calvin believed that there were two kinds of intelligence, that of heavenly things and that of earthly things. “Earthly things address the present life, which includes policy, economics, mechanical arts, and liberal studies. Heavenly things pertain to true righteousness and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom . . .  In fact, Calvin believed that when Christians read ‘profane authors,’ they could still marvel at the admirable gifts provided by their Creator in spite of their fallen condition” (p. 66). Van Til specifically rejected this distinction, arguing that the unregenerate are just as blind in earthly as in spiritual matters.

Van Til on World View

“Worldview” has certainly become a buzz word in Christian circles. Did you ever wonder why this term has become so pervasive? Fesko gives us an answer. It lies in something called Historic Worldview Theology (HWT). HWT’s origins can be traced to Immanuel Kant; Andrew Kuyper expresses it in a less radical form, but it is Cornelius Van Til again who is its major proponent.

Simply put, HWT divides the world into two clear groups: God’s people and not God’s people. Everyone has a worldview through which they interpret reality, and there is only one correct, bibilical worldview. This view is comprehansive in that it covers all areas of knowledge. Those who are not God’s people are not capable of viewing the world correctly and so they are incapabale of correct judgments in any area. Because Scripture provides the one right worldview, it comes to be elevated above God’s book, general revelation. Antithesis is the word of the day. Just as you must be God’s or not God’s, so everything, every area of knowledge, must be viewed either from the right perspective or the wrong one. There is no point of contact between the two (pp. 98ff).

“By claiming that only by the testimony of the Holy Spirit and regenration can people rightly access general human knowledge,  . . . Van Til blurred the distinction between general and special revelation and the general and special operations of the Holy Spirit” (p. 114).

For Van Til and the proponents of HWT, a practical consequence is that we must not take ideas from pagan (or otherwise unbiblical) traditions. Ideas come with philosophical baggage and so their human origins are critical (p. 107).  As there is one comprehensive way in which to view reality, so there is one correct, Christian way to view every subject from art to math to history.

Fesko, against Van Til, argues that all humanity shares a common base of knowledge. Because “all ideas ontologically originate from God,” it does not matter through which culture they first come to us (p. 122). “Believers and nonbelievers have commonly shared knowledge, which makes communication and dialogue possible” (p. 123) though, he acknowledges, nonbelievers often “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (p. 120).

There are two kinds of people: Those who believe in dualism and those who don’t

For Van Til unity is the word of the day — there is one God, one truth, one correct world view. [3] Van Til and those who follow him reject the idea that Jerusalem has anything to do with Athens. Any point of contact is seen as a compromise. Because God is One, all else must be one. Anything that goes against this view is termed dualism and thereby dismissed.

In countering this argument, Fesko spends some time talking about different kinds of dualism. There is some value in this, but my inclination is that behind it all there is a very basic human tendency to rank or prefer things. We cannot for long hold two things on an equal footing. We are finite creatures and we cannot serve two masters. If we have body and soul as two distinct parts, we will indulge the one and deprive the other. Whatever we say in theory, in practice we are always emphasizing one thing over another. God gives us two sources of revelation. Those who look too much to the one (think the Transcendentalist emphasis on nature) denigrate the other. So Van Til may go too far in emphasizing special revelation at the expense of general revelation. His error is one of over-emphasis and Fesko’s book provides a necessary correction, pulling the church back in the other direction.

Some things are good and some are bad, but just as God has given us both soul and body and called them good (Genesis 1:31), so He has given us special and general revelation. They each have their own role and purpose, but they are designed to work together, not to be in opposition to one anothetr.  This is largely Fesko’s point: that a bifurcation does not need to become a dualism. That is, something can have two parts without those parts being opposed to one another. His criticism of Van Til would be that Van Til assumes any distinction is a dualism and therefore rejects it and argues instead for a unified view. The problem with this for apologetics is that it leaves to common ground; the believer has nothing in common with the unbeliever and so there can be no dialogue between them.

Another thread which plays into the equation is an idea which Fesko traces back to Kant: that there needs to be one central dogma, one over-arching theological principle. “The problem,” Fesko says, “is that the system of doctrine contained within the Scriptures cannot be distilled to one principle from which the whole is deduced or argued” (p. 182). I agree with Fesko here; it seems quite clear that our theology is not a simple one which may be boiled down to one principle. This is why we have big thick books entitled “Systematic Theology.” One does not have to look far to see the errors which creep in when we try to emphaisze one principle to the exclusion of others. Take the person who says “I just follow Jesus” or “All I know is God is love.” These theologies are too simplistic; they treat God as a one-dimensional figure who can be contained in a few words and they do not account for the whole of His self-revelation to us. Often the principle expounded is a good one, but it cannot stand in isolation and they very quickly become very bad theology.

I am by no means an expert in this area, but my inclination is to come down somewhere between Van Til and Fesko. In truth, I don’t see quite as much distinction between them as Fesko seems to be arguing for. Whether natural law exists post-Fall is a live question and a good one. Fesko argues that we humans do still have imprinted in us some innate knowledge of the law of God. I tend to agree with him here, while acknowledging (as he does also) that we do a mighty good job of suppressing this knowledge. [4]

The Roman Catholic position is that human reason is not corrupted by the Fall. As reformed people who believe in total depravity, we cannot accept that position. The question remains — to what extent are fallen, unregenerate people able to discern God’s general revelation (which includes both natural law and His revelation in His Creation)? Van Til certainly takes a more extreme position, but, as we will see below when we discuss Fesko on epistemology, they are not so far apart as they may seem.

What Can Be Known

All things are under the dominion of God. This is what we mean when we say — as I have frequently — that there is no sacred and secular but that “all truth is God’s truth.”  God, as Fesko says, is the author of both common grace and special grace (p. 181). Whatever the two things we are considering — body and soul, special and general revelation, common and special grace — in each case they are both created by God and both are used by Him for the same ultimate end. The problem is when we make a dualism of them by saying that, simply because there are two things, one must be better and the other worse. I am not expert on Van Til and Fesko may be right about his influences and the origins of his ideas, but when I read him sayng that there is no sacred versus secular, I take him to mean that all areas of knowledge point to God and serve the same ends, and this I would agree with. Fesko himself says as much when tells us that “if everything owes its existence to God, then correlatively, God must provide the principum cognoscendi (foundation of knowing, or cognitive foundation) for all knowledge. The only reason we know anything is because God has chosen to reveal it” (p. 206). Everything we can know ultimately traces its origins back to God. The earth is the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1). It is His footstool (Isa. 66:1). It is a cosmic temple (p. 196). As such, it bears the character of its Creator.

The main issue for Fesko seems to boil down to: Do we emphasize the unity to such an extent that we end up excluding non-believers from any conversation? Is there any common ground on which all people can speak? As his concern is apologetics, this is a key question. If we have no common ground, then there is really nothing we can say to non-believers and the Great Commission is essentially null and void.

The question is not so very different when it comes to education. Many of the Christian educators we have looked at gear their approach to the children of believers only. This avoids the problems Van Til’s approach generates — we don’t need to worry about common ground or figure out what a non-believer can know because we exclude them from the outset. The problem is that it is unrealistic. There are non-believers out there and we should want to reach them and there is a pretty good chance that we are going to get that opportunity in our schools and churches and even in our homes (perhaps with foster children or the children of friends and family who may not be believers). Even if it were not so, any philosophy of education which was only applicable to Christian children would be inadequate as a statement of what education is and how it works.

So the question we have to wrestle with is one of epistemology: What can we — both believers and non-believers– know and how do we know it?

The Problem of Epistemology

The final chapter of Reforming Apologetics tackles epistemology. Knowing, Fesko tells us, is ultimately about trust in authority (p. 195). Often we know because we are told (whether by books or people), but even when we rely for knowledge on ourselves — our own senses and experiences and deductions — there is a level of authority and trust which comes into play. We must have confidence that what we see and small and hear and think is real.

Biblical knowing also entails a response and the response it demands is one of submission and obedience. It is wisdom, not merely head knowldge. To forget is to disobey (p. 199). Knowledge like this is not inert but changes the knower (p. 201).

Fesko makes a helpful distinction when he contrasts epistemology in the pre- and post-Fall worlds. For Adam and Eve in the garden, the Creation spoke clearly about its Creator and their ability to ingest that knowledge was unhampered. In the post-Fall world, the message of Creation is unchanged, but our epistemological abilities are fallen (p. 202). Citing Turretin, he tells us that: “Given the absence of the noetic effects of sin in a prefall world, natural and special revelation worked in tandem . . .  reason functioned perfectly, which means that natural and special revelation were equally accessible” (p. 203). But now our reason is corrupted and we “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).

So we return again to the question of what an unregenerate person can know.  The primary argument that Fesko is making is that the knowledge of God is still out there, available and uncorrupted, in both human hearts and in creation. And “humans still use reason, albeait, corrupted by sin, to access and interpret the world around them” (p. 207). In their corrpution, people do not recognize God’s authority and they do not submit but there is still some level on which they can know.

Here Fesko again places himself in oppostion to Van Til who argues that human knowledge is impossible without the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit (p. 207) [5]. Fesko says that, though fallen man is unable to grasp spiritual things (p. 208), “human faculties still function sufficiently well for a number of purposes” (p. 210). Quoting Calvin, he points to the musical inventions of the sons of Cain. Thus Christians may appreciate the knowledge and creativity of unbelieveers. They are not “utterly devoid of truth” but they use God’s gifts for “their own selfish pleasure” (p. 211).  Unregenerate reason can rightly deduce that 2+2=4 but will fail to “rightly evaluate the ultimate significance of . . . the truth of a mathematical formulation” (p. 213). To Fesko, the danger in an approach like Van Til’s, is that it “casts an unintended but nevertheless real shadow of contempt on God’s natural gifts, which he has abundantly given to the world, even to the apostate line of Cain” (p. 217).

On the last couple of pages of his book, Fesko gives us two statements which, while not necessarily in conflict, do exhibit a kind of tension. On one hand he says that “nowhere in the New Testament do we find language touting the superiority of Christian knowledge, claiming that Christians understand math or science better than unbelievers” (p. 218). On the other hand, “Christians know the right motivational foundation and teleological goal of all knowledge” (p. 219). The tension here is one I tried to address in some earlier posts (see here and here). On the one hand, there is very real knowledge that comes to us through non-believers. A common analogy is that of plundering the Egyptians, the idea being that those outside God’s people have a few good treasures that we can take from them and make our own. I find this image is a bit dismissive. It does not acknowldge the depth of knowledge that we may find. But, conversely, we must also say that because Christianity provides the only true view of the world, that it can and should produce better scholarship. That Christians are no longer known for scholarship is a great tragedy.

The limits of human knowledge (apart from faith) are going to be different for different fields of study. This is something which Frank Gaebelein addressed. Some areas are most objective than others. Our knowledge of those most concerned with God and man — theology certainly, and anthropology and psychology — tend to be the most corrupted, pure math the least so. But as no aspect of our nature is untouched by the corruption of the Fall, so no area of knowledge is untouched. Even for those in the process of being sanctified, our knowledge in this life will never be what it could have been in the pre-Fall world.


Reforming Apologetics is certainly well worth a read. It is not the eaisest book (though also not the hardest) but your time will be well-invested if you choose to tackle it. Fesko begins with the Westminster divines’ list of the three elements that comprise what they call natural light — the natural law implanted in men’s hearts, general revelation, and human reason. Becase it relates to apologetics which is not my area of study, I have not delved much into the arguments for continuing natural law. Whether there is any remnant of God’s law in the hearts of even unbelievers would be a major dividing line between Fesko and his opponents (Van Til among them). Fesko makes a good historical case that this is what the church has believed. His over-riding concern is to show that there is still a common ground, a point of conatct between believers and nonbelievere so that we can engage in apologetics in a meaningful way.

My own concern is education. Though it is not a topic Fesko addresses directly, there are many points of overlap. Foremost among these is the epistemological one: what can fallen humanity know and how do they know it? I found his discussion quite helpful. I am not sure I would go as far as Fesko, but his critique of Van Til has been quite helpful in that it highlights some underlying ideas. Fesko’s work was also quite useful in helping me to ask the right questions, particularly in distinguishing between what can be known (general revelation which is uncorrupted) and how we know it (through our now fallen reason) and in contrasting humanity’s ability to know in the pre-Fall and post-Fall worlds. I am going to offer a list of conclusions that I think we can now reach with regard to knowledge and epistemology but as these go a bit beyond Fesko’s book, I will save them for a separate post.

Until then,


[1] I will add, in my defense, that I am also quite enamored of what Herman Bavinck has to say relating to edution. Bavinck Fesko places on the other side of the natural law debate.

[2] My concern is, and has always been, to frame a philosophy of education which is applicable to any child, whether he has professed faith and/or is a covenant child or whether he shows no signs (yet) of being among the elect.

[3] In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church holds to a nature-grace dualism. The upside of this view is that is allows them to engage non-believers because there is a common ground (p. 162).

[4] Fesko goes farther than I am confortable with when he says that “if all knowledge of God were destroyed, humanity would cease to exist because there would be nothing left of God’s image” (p. 205). There are a few leaps in logic here. It is a pet peeve of mine that every writer seems to identify the image of God in man with whatever his subject matter is. For Fesko, it is the natural knowledge which is planted in even fallen men’s hearts. In 4000 years (going back to the time of Moses) we still have no definitive statement on what the image of God in man is. Fesko’s equating it with the law of God as it is written in men’s hearts is not the worst identification I have heard but neither is it clear that it is the correct way to define the image of God. He goes even a step further when he says that man would cease to exist of this image were to disappear from him. I find this illogical; animals don’t bear the image of God yet they still exist.

[5] I have not read as much Van Til as Fesko probably has, but, as I quoted him in this earlier post, I found that Van Til does acknowledge the cultural and intellectual contributions of non-believers:

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, p.91)


7 responses to this post.

  1. […] I have spent a lot of time reading books on the very broad topic of reformed theology in education. As I promised you last time, I hope to soon provide some conclusions. Before I do so, I have one more book to touch upon; it […]


  2. […] on the subject of worldview, I’d like to point to a book I reviewed recently, J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the […]


  3. […] to rehash everything that has been said before but I would refer you tothis post on common grace andthis one on Fesko’s recent book Reforming […]


  4. […] another level of error here, one that Fesko points to in his book Reforming Apologetics (my review here). In recent decades the reformed church has largely abandoned the idea of natural law and something […]


  5. […] have been lead by Fesko to have some skepticism about Van Til’s approach but it is hard to find anyone more […]


  6. […] God has graciously chosen to reveal some measure of His truth, goodness, and beauty to humankind.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology) […]


  7. […] For more on that, see this post on Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics in which he is quite critical of Van Til and […]


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