Archive Peter Escalante Philosophy Responsa

Responsum: First Things, Philosophy, and Theology Proper

Dr Andrew Sandlin is a friend of our forum, and, although we disagree with him markedly on a number of important political and theological points, we do esteem his honesty, intelligence, and his positive contributions to Reformed discourse- most notably, his influential essay Toward a Catholic Calvinism, and his excellent little treatise Un-Inventing the Church. When we launched this forum, he was kind enough to pose some very thoughtful questions for us in response to the essay on theological method. Our replies are given after his questions in bold.

The bold affirmation of Biblical inerrancy is a Godsend in an era of tragically unreliable evangelicals like Pete Enns. But I suspect you’re interested in more than formal inerrancy. The fact that you (creditably) suggest that inerrancy implies its own hermeneutic might lead the reader to gloss over the diversity of hermeneutical methods that inerrantists espouse. Are you suggesting that most of them are wrong? I agree with you in “critiqu[ing] neo-allegoricism which seeks to find ‘meaning’ in the Bible apart from its historicity,” but what, in fact, is its historicity? The immediate historical context? The entire canon? The NT interpretation of the OT? And who are these erroneous expositors of “neo-allegoricism which seeks to find ‘meaning’ in the Bible apart from its historicity”?

I am by no means suggesting that most inerrantists are wrong, despite the variety of hermeneutical strategies they employ, so long as these are all normed by the historical-grammatical method. We subscribe the assertions of the Chicago Statement, which takes inerrancy in its classical sense, namely, that the Bible does not contain actual error where its author intends to make statements of fact, and does not contain moral error when the author intends to teach moral truths, and so on. Of course, deciding what is sheer historical account, what is ornament, what is literary figure, what is accommodated speech, and so on, are not easy problems to solve, and these, in addition to the lexical difficulties of the text, account for the diversity of exegetical conclusions. We find that Calvin is both astoundingly faithful to the Word but just as astoundingly sophisticated in his wrestling with its complexities and difficulties, and would suggest that his example is one which still stands heads above the level of a lot of discussion of these matters in our own time. But you are right to ask the question. Our response would be that the historical-grammatical method must be inseparably affirmed along with inerrancy. Medieval allegorists were also inerrantist, but their hermeneutic was very often madhouse.

The historicity of the Bible is more properly put as, the reality of the acts of God in real time which the Bible narrates, from Adam to Jesus. We mean simply that the Bible, in its inspired and inerrant narration of acts and covenants of God, is truly reporting realities of past time, and, typologically, His ongoing acts of ages after the apostolic. The Bible, as it were, is relentlessly energological, and our approach to that energological text must be relentlessly philological.

No need to name names. Irenicism and all that. But I will say that the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series was not a very good idea.

By “intellectual constipation and sectarian spirit (or sometimes, historical role-playing) of hyperconfessionalism” to whom or what schools do you refer? Westminster Seminary in California, for example? Is this language compatible with your professed commitment to “patient, charitable, intellectually responsible consideration of [competing theological] claims”?

We prefer to speak in general, referring to the widely acknowledged deformity of Reformed ethos in this country in particular.

It is compatible. Patient and charitable consideration of claims doesn’t preclude pointed description of bad attitudes or pointed refutation of bad arguments and bad ideas.

When in enlisting the philosophical tools derived from “the utility of the liberal arts” you “assert the harmony of what is true in philosophic knowledge with what is known from the Word,” to what specifically do you refer? Would “philosophic knowledge” include philosophy broadly conceived, as in what was once known as “natural philosophy,” or today simply as “science”? If so, and if a cornerstone of modern science is inherent tentativeness, how would it harmonize with your theology? Is the currently tentative (but doggedly dogmatic!) notion of the evolution of all species such philosophic knowledge? Or are you talking about philosophy more narrowing conceived, as in Thomist or Aristotelian or Kantian philosophy and such? How does your aversion to “irrationalistic ‘Hellenistic-Hebrew’ dichotomies” square with your commitment (point 7) to the Hebraica veritas, “given the early tainting of the Gentile churches by pagan practices and mentality”? Isn’t that “tainting” the very rationale for positing “‘Hellenistic-Hebrew’ dichotomies” by everyone from A. Harnack to C. Van Til? Or are you suggesting that the incontestably Hellenic aspects of patristic Christianity are unrelated to the “pagan practices and mentality” you criticize?

This is something we will consider in greater depth in forthcoming essays on the forum. But briefly, philosophic knowledge is knowledge of the creation through disciplined experience and insight; and especially, knowledge through causes. It suffices, as Luther and Calvin both incontestably taught, for a kind of civil righteousness. In itself, it has no answer to the objective existential predicament of man, and does not attain to a saving knowledge of God nor to knowledge of God’s plan of redemption. Philosophic knowledge is bettered by revelation not just accidentally or morally through its personal subject, but as such, insofar as certain things in revelation touch not only on redemption, but on the creation which is the object of redemption, and clarify our vision of them. Most notably, the absolute transcendence of God, and His immediate ex nihilo creation of the world, inform Christian wisdom precisely as information about creation. But reception of revelation does not grant the recipient extensive knowledge of the creation thereby. That is attainable only through the work of investigation and reflection. Philosophic knowledge does include natural philosophy. Natural philosophy however is a distinct thing from science in the modern sense, which is concerned not with philosophic certitude, but rather only with practical certitude, and regards its objects exclusively under the aspects of what the Christian readers of Aristotle (which included most of the old Reformed) call material and efficient cause, and represents those mathematically, for purposes of prediction and manipulation. Modern science is inherently uncertain, but it is supposed to be, since its aim is primarily practical, and the “vision” aspect of it, theory, subject to constant revision in the service of the practical aim.

I have answered this question in advance, I think, but will lay it out more extensively. What philosophy, let alone sophistic speculation, does not do, is provide extra data for the proper object of theology, which is God and His acts. It can clarify understanding of those things, it can aid in how we speak of them, and it can clarify them from the side of the creature who stands in relation to God and His acts. But it does not provide extra positive data. But ancient Mediterranean philosophy in itself wasn’t trying to. The first objection to Hebrew/Hellenic dichotomies is that they are almost always irresponsible generalizations or even just projections. They are rarely justified with any attempt at serious historical demonstration. The second is that what is true is true, and though revealed religion is the supreme truth, it doesn’t cancel other truths which arise when the mind knows God’s creation. And the Greeks especially excelled at that kind of knowledge. The only way around this fact is through arguments- usually no true Scotsman or special pleading- which are not to the credit of those who make them. The pagan taint which entered the churches was not at all through the classical liberal arts, and not even so much through classical metaphysics, much of which tended to Noahide monotheism. It was rather through popular superstition on the on the vulgar side, and specifically Gentile Christian anti-Semitism on the elite side.

For an instance of the first, icons and sacramentals are the notorious examples; and too, the bread of the holy supper of fellowship went from being understood as a performative covenantal symbol to being understood as literally Christ’s flesh, conjured into being under the appearance of bread and sacrificially offered by a priest. Nothing in Greek philosophy was responsible for this, and in fact, a better understanding, aided by Greek clarity, of Biblical rhetoric might have prevented it. It is true that later Christian scholastics deployed Aristotelian categories to explain the new transubstantiation idea (and in doing so, often voided it of its superstitious force, as Aquinas seems to have done), but Protestant critics correctly pointed out that this was not a result of Aristotelian physical concepts, but rather, a total misuse of them in the service of a total misreading of the Scripture.

For an instance of the second, although a Thucydidean or Herodotean sense of history could only have helped the early Christians in their reading of the Word, and very probably did so help them in the School of Antioch, gnostic tendencies (which were religious cults, not philosophy) coupled with the “vain boasting” Paul warned Gentile believers against, led to a unhistorical reading of the Word and an excessive independence of theology from the Word. This was not due to philosophy- the ancient Fathers usually took any opportunity to abuse Greek philosophy, even when they inevitably in debt to it, insofar as they thought and spoke clearly. It was rather due to an excessive, even quasi-Marcionite, sense of the difference of the Christian churches from the holy heritage of Israel. It is one of the great tragedies of Christian history that Aristotle would probably have had a much easier time reading the Word than some of the later “Church Fathers” did.

As Simone Petrement points out, Gnosticism didn’t derive from the thought of Gentiles such as Plato and Plotinus who regarded the manifest world as basically good and beautiful- it arose from within Judaism and Christianity, in those heretical forms of each which were making too much of consecration in the one case, and “hostility to the world” in the other.

Institutionalized monasticism and clerical celibacy, plus the idea of the bishops as rulers of a legal order, were the factors which created two-tier Christianity and made the religion of grace come very close to being a religion of law- was Aristotle responsible for this? Or Cicero? Or Zeno? Obviously not. Was Aristotle responsible for the mistaken late antique conception of Christians as a sui generis “third people” different from Jews and Gentiles, not by way of harmonious conjunction and overcoming of exclusion In Christ, but rather through double disjunction and  double erasure of both patrimonies? Of course not. These perversions were generated from within Christendom, by sinful distortion of distinctively Christian principles: Christian vices are distinctly Christian vices.

Harnack’s objection was to Christianity; Van Til’s objection was to reality. Both impugned the Hellenica veritas with no good reason.

The relation of ancient Mediterranean wisdom to Biblical doctrine was partially settled by the medievals and decisively settled by the Reformers. Those who would be more Reformed than the Reformers in this matter in the end fail to be really Reformed at all.


There is more to say about reason and common grace. Neither is abstract. Common grace is the work of God in and through the great covenant of Noah, which remains in force, even when perfected and assumed into public Christian covenant. And human rationality, although not reducible to its history, is profoundly temporal: traditional, conversational and discipular.

Just as the main catholic tradition in Europe, from which the Reformers did not in the least depart but rather renewed, baptized and enfolded within itself the truths of ancient extra-Israelite schools- Greek wisdom, Roman law- likewise we can expect in God’s Providence similar baptism, distillation, and appropriation of what is true and good in traditional Chinese, Indian, and African wisdom as Christ’s kingdom burgeons in those nations, fulfilling their ancient desire.

In endorsing “[c]lassical theism and classical apologetics,” are you repudiating the apologetics of Van Til and, to a lesser degree, Kuyper, Bavinck and Dooyeweerd? Do you know of any recent theologians (excepting possibly Barth) who “claim that even natural knowledge, as such, depends upon regeneration”?

Definitely yes, with the exception of Bavinck, who doesn’t belong in that list.

The transcendentalism of VT was a marked departure from the principles of the Reformers, and there is no real question of this. Kuyper’s peculiarity derives in part from the influence of Kantian philosophy, and partly from gnostic tendencies he got from his reading of von Baader. On the other hand, VT was right to point to the fact- which was always granted by the Reformed, however, and nothing new- that man is not brought to faith by rational deduction (even Vatican I proclaims this in an official definition). God finds man in his abjection, and promises to restore man’s former glory as a gift, that He might be glorified invincibly in His works. VT’s approach, by making an idealist a priori system of all knowledge and not distinguishing between modes, does make natural knowledge, in any meaningful sense, dependent upon regeneration and reception of special revelation. This is a reaction to a skepticism of knowledge, which then attempts to save the world by putting it all, practically speaking, within the realm of special revelation. Even though VT notionally distinguishes, he practically and relentlessly unites the two.

As Bruce Demarest notes:

But the most questionable of Van Til’s theses is the assertion that apart from the knowledge of the ontological Trinity man truly knows nothing at all.[1]

And that knowledge of the ontological Trinity is only really possible through regeneration, so there you have it. Demarest then proceeds to show that Brunner’s account is in fact much closer to that of Luther and Calvin:

The relationship between sin and human knowing is represented more accurately by Emil Brunner in his “law of the closeness of relation”. Brunner theorizes that in the arena of human endeavors the closer one moves toward the core of the religion life, the greater become the distorting effects of sin. Thus the believer and the unbeliever come to virtually identical conclusions in the disciplines of mathematics, physics, and astronomy. But in the areas of psychology, philosophy, and theology, serious differences emerge because of the operation of the sin principle in the heart. We agree with Brunner that, preserved in the image of God and illumined by the Logos, man is able to think rightly without consciously presupposing the ontological Trinity revealed in Holy Scripture.[2]

Demarest goes on to knock Neocalvinist epistemologizing to the mat:

First, against Kuyper, Calvin’s seed of divinity or seed of religion is not an empty potential. Calvin did not resort to persuasive definitions, but definitely stated that man possesses a knowledge of God’s existence and certain of his perfections by the power of the effable intuition. That which by common grace is engraved on the human heart is properly called knowledge of God. Second, general revelation, according to Calvin, is intended for all people and not merely for the saved. Calvin argued that God gave a revelation in nature, in man himself, and in providence so that all might worship Him and obtain the hope of eternal life. Third, Calvin postulated that all people possess a knowledge of God as Creator. Calvin plainly taught what Kuyper, Berkouwer, and Van Til deny, namely, that on the basis of general revelation in the external world, all people gain a knowledge of God as Creator, Preserver, and Judge of all. God’s self-disclosure in the heavens, in the providential flow of history, and in the constitution of man mediates to the creature a body of truth about Himself. And finally, against all three Reformed theologians, knowledge of God as Creator is realized independently of the experience of regeneration.[3]

Notice which name is missing there in the list of those who teach against Calvin? Herman Bavinck. And this because Bavinck doesn’t make that signal mistake. Bavinck, as is recognized by transcendentalists of both the more cosmopolitan persuasion (Dooyewerdians), and the more parochial one (Van Tilians), is a traditional Reformed thinker- hence the transcendentalists’ rueful admission that he was “tainted by scholasticism”. Bavinck, like the great and unjustly forgotten Auguste Lecerf, is in the orthodox line of Christian and Reformed tradition.

We wish to point the Reformed and other evangelicals to the older tradition one sees in Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin, which is neither foundationalist/evidentialist, nor irrationally fideistic. This older way was intuitively rediscovered by the great Francis Schaeffer, much to the consternation of VanTilian fanatics who charged him with inconsistency, when in fact, Schaeffer was simply taking what is true in Van Til’s thought and reordering it wisely toward reality.[4] Lewis also pragmatically lighted upon the old path, and, when one compares the effects of the apologetical work of Lewis and Schaeffer to that of the Van Til school, the argument is really over.

Let me end this part of my reply with a final citation of Demarest, regarding the question of just who are the consistent Calvinists. It is certainly not the Van Tilians, whose claims to be the “consistent Calvinists” are patently false:

In sum, those who postulate that by Logos illumination of general revelation man qua man gains a knowledge of God as Creator may well be the consistent Calvinists.[5]

And we decisively reaffirm the doctrine of classical theism, derived wholly from the Bible and articulated by reason, which was once the common doctrine of Christendom. We aim to counter false charges against it as “Hellenistic,” a term which is almost always undefined and when defined, usually amounts to an unargued list of straw men. The tendency to deviate from classical theism has entered even into otherwise orthodox Reformed circles; for instance, in Michael Horton’s recent volume of systematic theology, he camps out on the very weirdest of the Reformed theologoumena, namely the so-called pactum salutis, as grounds for critiquing the classical Christian doctrine of God, and seems then to suggest that the the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity are three distinct or even separate minds and wills, which would be nothing but tritheism, or as it is called now, “social Trinitarianism;” Barth, whom he mentions critically in this passage, is in fact absolutely correct on this point and in line with the tradition. Similarly, Paul Zahl, in his short and otherwise very good little work of systematic theology, uses theopaschite language with apparently no qualification at all. And even more ridiculous variants of this kind of thing appear in certain fringe quarters of self-styled Reformed theology.

Do you intend to follow in general Richard Muller’s historical theological method? Does your historical theology occupy a normative role in Biblical and systematic theology? If so, what is it?

Historical theology usually means the history of Christian formulations of doctrine. In this sense, it is very informative, but not as such normative, any more than the formulae themselves are- only the Bible is normative. But if by historical theology, one means, grasping the Bible as a narration of history unified under the aspect of covenant, then this is what is called “Biblical theology,” and it is simply the natural way to read the Bible and speak about it. But since we do read the Word in communion with others, and our reading is assisted by their minds, historical theology in the first sense is profoundly important since we must look not only to moderns but also to ancients for help in reading, and the history of theology helps us to read the ancients. The more minds the merrier; and too, reading men of other generations helps us to gain some distance from the limitations of our own.

We believe, with Warfield and Lecerf, that Calvinism is just Biblical religion expressed in its most reasonable and consistent form. It is simply catholic truth. But when those who call themselves Reformed no longer live up to that standard, and associate the grand old name with sectarianism and fallacy, historical theologians such as Dr Muller offer us invaluable aid in setting the record straight, and getting pastors and leaders back on the right track.

Is it possible that your terms “essentials and theologoumena,” “odium theologicum,” “Hebraica veritas” can themselves become “undefined theological buzzwords which are used all too often as substitutes for thought and argument, always muddy discussion, and smuggle irresponsible meanings into discourse under cover of unexamined prestige”? More uncomfortably, is it possible for “[c]areful attendance to the texts of old and recent masters,” many of whom are not greatly known and without whose intimate knowledge the (Reformed) church seems, at least, to have survived quite well, to become a “substitute fanatical gnosticism for Biblical Christianity”

Essentials and theologoumena are defined terms; the terms I instanced as objectionable are however mostly abstractions or undefined neologisms. What exactly the essentials are, and what the theologoumena, is not as easy answer; but the terms themselves mean is clear. Likewise with odium theologicum; it can be misused, but it is not unclear. Hebraica veritas designates a principle which I have already pretty precisely defined; if someone were to suffer head injury and forget the definition, while retaining a vague positive feeling toward the expression, I suppose it might be used as a buzzword substitute. Otherwise there is little risk, especially given our concern for careful definition and our criticism of vague language.

Regarding the last concern expressed in this question, No: it is not really possible. First, while the Reformed churches can certainly be said to have survived after losing intimate knowledge of the old doctors on the part of pastors and scholars, it can also be said that in many respects they have only just survived- the central tradition has gone fallow, and the margins have gone to wilderness. They most certainly cannot be said to have survived “quite well,” and anyone who honestly thought so might be suspected of having very diminished faculties of judgment or possibly even of eyesight. The Reformed are hardly preeminent in excellence any longer. Not coincidentally, back when pastors and scholars did have a reverent knowledge of old masters, the Reformed churches were much stronger, and their leaders much wiser. As for the question of substitution: the doctrine and method of the old Reformed writers is the very opposite of fanatic or gnostic, and their entire aim was hearty and rational fidelity to Biblical religion and God-glorifying knowledge of the creation. Thus, there is no real risk that a revival of interest in the old writers might lead to an esoteric substitute for Biblical Christianity- it could only strengthen it.

Is your commitment to investigating “ancillary inquiries of Second Temple and intertestamental studies, and host conversations about the meaning and significance of these new lines of research” designed simply to throw light on grammatical-historical interpretation, or will you allow the actual theological suppositions of the contemporaries of the Second Temple and intertestamental eras to shape your own interpretation of Scripture? In any case, how does this commitment comport with your devotion to the “inerrant Word read as a unity according to the historico-grammatical method, [a] method which is definitive, [and] contains within itself all appropriate modes of literary analysis”?

The newer fields of Second Temple and intertestamental studies are of enormous importance, and, just as the old Reformed doctors delved deeply into Oriental languages, rabbinic literature, apocrypha and other documents, all in order to get a better grasp of the historical and grammatical sense of the Word and its world, so too should evangelical scholars master the new fields of study. We certainly do not aim to supplement the Word with ideas or suppositions held by various schools of Second Temple people, only to increase our understanding of what the authors of the NT writings meant and their audiences understood. The historico-grammatical method actually compels us to linguistic and historic archaeology of this sort.

And this is an urgent apologetical and exegetical necessity of our time. With the new textual discoveries, the hitherto obscure background of much New Testament language and doctrine is being brought to light, and traditional formulations called into question. Our belief as orthodox Christians is that the core understanding of the New Testament doctrine as expressed in the central tradition of the Church, culminating in the Reformed tradition, is true and trustworthy. But it is a time of questioning, and pastors and teachers cannot simply assume old commonplaces as given and hope to be called good servants at the end of our day.

Consider, for instance, what Dr Beckwith says of the apparent midrashisms of the NT:

What is one to say about such statements? One could say, that since the New Testament makes the statements, they must be historically true, the historical information having been supplied, where necessary, by divine inspiration. This, in fact, has been the traditional Christian approach, and where no source for the statement was known, it created no problems. However, as we have seen, many of the statements, and perhaps all, did have sources, and the only straightforward historical source among them is Josephus. Jewish haggadah is, in fact, of the most varied kinds, and history is only one kind among many. Even narrative haggadah, often, does not intend to be historical, as is clearly demonstrated by Z. H. Chajes, who distinguishes three such non-historical types, ‘Aggadoth aimed at inspiring and stirring the curiousity of the People’, ‘The Parables of the Aggadah’ and ‘The Aggadic use of Hyperbole’, all of which types can centre on historical names drawn from the Old Testament. When Jewish expositors, such as Philo or the rabbis, embellished the narrative of the Old Testament, since they were expositors not historians, and since they were dealing with the remote past, it would be a reasonable presumption that it was one of such non-historical types of haggadah that they were using, and that they were not intending to make historical statements. Now, the New Testament writers were Jews, and when they deal with the Old Testament narratives, and embellish them, and draw a Christian message from them, they too are acting as expositors, not historians. So why should their intentions be any different?

But although the New Testament writers, as Jews, probably have a good understanding of the different kinds of narrative in use among their fellow-countrymen, as soon as Christianity moves into a mainly Gentile context, this understanding is lost. [6]

This poses a genuine problem for certain understandings of canonicity. We are unshakably confident that the central formulations of the Reformed on this matter are in no important way subverted, and that this problem has an answer agreeable to the traditional formulations. But we would be lazy and self-deceiving to pretend that this isn’t a problem to be worked through.

Likewise with the discovery of the Enochian and other apocalyptic and intertestamental literature: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others can appeal to the angel Christology and divinized man ideas of the texts as “contextualizing” the NT, in what is, in fact, a genuinely historical-grammatical claim- and are we going to give them no answer, hiding comfortably behind rote repetition of systematic commonplaces? Even those evangelical teachers who are, to their credit, dealing with these topics, often seem to us to fail to really address the hard questions. As useful as the work of Bauckham or Hurtado might be, their defense of classical Christian exegetical articulations relative to what some take to be implications of the new discoveries seem to us to often dodge the really hard questions through handwaving or special pleading. We want to be true to the maxim of the great Reformed linguist and Biblical scholar Robert Dick Wilson: “Do not shirk the hard questions.” Nor, we might add, the hard tasks.

We are also aim to encourage conversation on the political aspect of Hebraica veritas, namely the “political Hebraism” of the 17th and 18th century, which is turning out to be key in correctly understanding the early modern Protestant jurists, and offers many helpful possibilities for principled resolution of current questions of the relation of religion, commonwealth, and State.

[1] Bruce A. Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues, Zondervan, 1982: pp 154.

[2] Ibid., 155. Since Dr Demarest is most definitely not neo-orthodox, and knows the Reformers well, his testimony in favor of Brunner ‘s concord with our fathers here is an especially strong witness.

[3] ibid., pp 155-156.

[4] See Scott R. Burson and Jerry L. Walls , C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the the most Influential Apologists of Our Time, IVP, 1998, pp 145-157 especially, for an excellent consideration of the character of Schaeffer’s apologetic in relation to VanTilianism. They point out, correctly, that Schaeffer’s method is very close to Warfield’s.

[5] op. cit., 156. Just as we are the more consistent Calvinists as opposed to neonomians who faulted Calvin for teaching the law of nature and the jus gentium  (I am thinking of Rushdoony), and are likewise the more consistent Calvinists as opposed to Escondido’s neo-2K, we are also the more consistent Calvinists against Van Til and Neocalvinism in general.

[6] Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and its background in Early Judaism, Eerdmans, 1986: pp 403-405.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.