Kevin DeYoung On Franciscus Junius, Van Til, And Natural Theology

This is a bold thesis, as Shannon recognizes. The entire tradition of scholasticism affirmed the existence and importance of natural theology. And yet, according to Shannon, “Junius’s view of natural (as in unregenerate) theology marks a conspicuous point of departure from pre-Reformation scholasticism” (281). More than that, if Shannon’s argument is correct, Junius sounds a different note than virtually every orthodox Reformed theologian to follow in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the tradition of Old Princeton theology that developed in the nineteenth century. Considering the debate in Reformed circles about the legitimacy (or not) of natural theology, to have Junius on the side of nein would be significant—not only for one’s view of the post-Reformation period but for the pedigree of more recent Reformed theology. “This thesis,” Shannon writes, “so far as it is true, enhances the historical credentials of Van Til’s characteristically neo-Calvinist view of natural theology and natural reason.” In other words, if Junius believed that genuine theology is impossible “apart from monergistic establishment of relational restoration” (281), that “the theology of the unregenerate is prolific idolatry” (287), and that “even falsa theologia is charitable nomenclature” for post-fall natural theology (298), then Van Til’s thought has found a significant historical precursor.

My argument, however, is that Shannon’s innovative thesis does not fit the facts. If “the unregenerate must, it would seem, either know God or know nothing at all,” Shannon commends Van Til for betting on the latter (294). But is this the choice early Reformed theologians would have made? For whatever useful elements there may be in Van Til’s apologetic method, his approach to natural theology was a departure from the larger tradition. Mainstream Reformed thought has consistently affirmed that post-fall natural theology can be true theology. The theology of the unregenerate—though marred by imperfections and never saving—cannot be reduced to “prolific idolatry.” Natural theology is, in the end, not anti-theology. Read More»

Kevin DeYoung | “Franciscus Junius, Old Princeton, and the Question of Natural Theology” | September 5, 2022



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  1. “ Mainstream Reformed thought has consistently affirmed that post-fall natural theology can be true theology. The theology of the unregenerate—though marred by imperfections and never saving—cannot be reduced to “prolific idolatry.”

    This may, in fact, be very, very true…. But it’s a strange standard to shoot for. To say unregenerate, never saving theology is marred by imperfections seems to minimize the eternal tragedy of God affirming I never knew you. That is a terrifying separation. Can it be overstated? Probably…. but truly? This does sound like odd language from a group that affirms TULIP. I think there is even more nuance to be had in this discussion to ensure a potentially tragic truth is not understated for a lesser doctrine. I just think have to be careful. Especially if it is God who restrains us and our darkened understanding.

    • AJ,

      Nature and the natural knowledge God is a thing. You need to account for that. Instead of just blasting the entire Reformed tradition pre-1929, why not try to understand it on its own terms? Why does post-1929 Reformed theology have to be the norm? Why do you think the older Reformed theologians wrote and spoke as they did? What drove them to it? Have you read them? Have you investigated them for yourself? You should do it before you form a judgment.

  2. “Then Agrippa said to Paul: You almost persuade me to become a Christian!”

    Agrippa showed that glimpse of promise and that is a very good thing. But at the end of the day, his story is a tragic one. The emphasis on the momentary or partial breakthrough does seem odd. I don’t think scripture ultimately frames things in such a manner unless the end result ultimately ends well. I mean, it is always well because God decrees it, but is not ultimately so for the unregenerate.

  3. I understand you adhere to Van Til’s apologetics, though you concede the need to bring Van Til’s system into greater conformity with historic Reformed orthodox theology. Since I consider myself classical Reformed, I resonate with this outlook.

    However, I sense a prima facie tension between a commitment to the defining aspects of Van Til’s apologetics and to the affirmation that natural theology done by unregenerate persons and without recourse to Scripture (henceforth: “unregenerate natural theology”) can be true theology. (By ‘unregenerate natural theology,’ I mean unbelievers’ avowed interpretations of natural revelation, not the true knowledge they suppress.)

    To clarify this tension, here is an inconsistent triad of claims:

    [CLAIM 1] An indirect argument for God’s existence is the only viable apologetical argument for God’s existence.

    [CLAIM 2] An indirect argument for God’s existence is the only viable apologetical argument for God’s existence only if all components of unregenerate natural theology must be materially false, even if formally true.

    [CLAIM 3] Not all components of unregenerate natural theology need be materially false—some can be materially true.

    I specify “apologetical argument” to differentiate use of theistic proofs within Christian dogmatics (e.g., as a way of clarifying the divine attributes) from their use against atheists; here, I’m focusing on the latter. Materially false but formally true knowledge consists, roughly, in beliefs which (a) are true considered in themselves (e.g., that an eternal god exits) but (b) false considered in relation to other (relevant) beliefs that person holds (e.g., that this god is identical with the universe).

    If I’m understanding him correctly, Kevin DeYoung argues that the Reformed scholastics’ and Old Princetonians’ convictions entail CLAIM 3.

    Here’s where I see the tension. (1) CLAIM 1 seems a constitutive principle of Van Til’s apologetics. Without this principle, Van Til’s method would not substantively differ from classical apologetics. I assume you are committed to CLAIM 1—that theistic proof in apologetical argument must be indirect (??). But (2) CLAIMS 2 and 3 together entail that CLAIM 1 is false. Thus, while an indirect argument, like Van Til’s transcendental argument, might be useful, it isn’t the only viable argument.

    I am curious which claim you would deny, or further qualify, to resolve the inconsistency.

    Might it suffice, for instance, to uphold the consensus Reformed view, without undermining the foundations necessary for Van Til’s methodology, to say that unregenerate natural theology can yield *formally* (though not materially) true conclusions—e.g., the statement “God is eternal” considered strictly in itself? Or do you deny Van Til’s thesis that only an indirect apologetical argument for God’s existence is viable?

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