Monday, September 26, 2016

Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy

I'm going to make some scattered comments on P. Gould & R. Davis, eds., Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy (Zondervan, 2016). 

1. The contributors are Graham Oppy, Scott Oliphint, Timothy McGrew, and Paul Moser. 

I've already done some posts on related topics, which I will link to at the end of this post.

It's unclear to me what the editors' selection criteria were. If you want a spokesman for atheism, Oppy is a good pick. He's probably the top atheist philosopher of his generation.

If you want spokesman for evidentialism, you can't do better than Timothy McGrew. 

However, Paul Moser is overrated. If the point was to have someone who represents a more existential or illative perspective, that emphasizes direct religious experience rather than formal arguments and empirical evidence, then C. Stephen Evans or Kai-man Kwan would be much better picks for that niche. 

Which niche was Oliphint chosen for? To represent Calvinism, presuppositionalism, or both? If Reformed presuppositionalism in particular, then either Vern Poythress or James Anderson would be far more competent exponents. If Calvinism in general, then Greg Welty, William Davis, or Jeremy Pierce would be far more competent exponents. (That's assuming Davis is not a presuppositionalist. I don't know his position on that one way or the other.)

There are many other Christian philosophers who might have interesting things to say about the relationship between Christianity and philosophy, viz. Robert Adams, Michael Almeida, Oliver Crisp, George Mavrodes, Alexander Pruss, Del Ratzsch, Nicholas Rescher, Eleonore Stump, Antony Thiselton, Kevin Vanhoozer, Peter van Inwagen, Merold Westphal, Edward Wierenga, Stephen Wykstra, Keith Yandell.

Perhaps, though, the editors felt that would be too idiosyncratic. Maybe they wanted to represent particular schools of thought. If so, why wasn't Thomism included? Mind you, I think Thomism is overrated, so I don't lament its omission, but I'm puzzled by the selection criteria.

Likewise, Augustinianism has a distinctive position on religious epistemology. 

2. I don't have much more to say about Oppy than I've already said. He's super-smart. However, he's dumb about the ultimate stakes in the debate over atheism and Christianity. Moreover, he has a kind of armchair intelligence that's more at home with abstractions. He's impatient with the nitty-gritty of sifting historical evidence.

3. I bought the book for McGrew's contribution, and I wasn't disappointed. It's nice to have one place where he pulls together the various strands of his case for Christianity. Of course, due to space constraints, there's a loss of detail. To see how he fleshes out the argument, you have to consult his other publications. But it's good to see the overall argument. 

Due to the publication date, he wasn't able to mention that Lydia McGrew has a book on undesigned coincidences in the pipeline. That will be a significant supplement. 

There's little to criticize, and much to admire, in McGrew's presentation. He has a section on justification and warrant, in which he promotes internalism–in opposition to Plantinga's externalism. That might be the most controversial section.

That's followed by a section on natural theology. I agree with him that Rom 1 refers to external evidence, and not an inborn faculty.

In the same section he outlines some theistic proofs. In particular, the kalam cosmological argument, the moral argument, and the argument from consciousness. There are, of course, many additional arguments one could adduce. 

In the next section he addresses the problem of evil. He sketches a greater good defense:

First, some evils must be allowed as a consequence of allowing certain goods…Second, some evils are necessary for good consequences to come…God is able to prevent any evil that he has not already determined must be permitted for the sake of a greater good. But it would be inconsistent to demand that God both permit and prevent the same evil (138). 

At one point he seems to borrow a page from skeptical theism:

We should admit that we do not know God's reasons for permitting many particular evils. But the reasons for particular evils are precisely what we would not expect to know, if there were a God (139).

On the same page, he mentions the fall, and redemptive suffering. Within that framework, evil is not unexpected, but expected. 

However, an atheist might counter that his appeal is circular, inasmuch as the fall and redemptive suffering are, of themselves, evils that require justification, rather than a justification for the existence of evil. 

Perhaps, though, that objection is undercut by McGrew's later observation that

In a purely material universe of the sort that philosophical naturalism offers us, there is no room for objective right and wrong. There is nothing tragic about the suffering of the innocent, nothing noble about Mother Teresa or Lillian Doerksen or Raoul Wallenberg (140).

I basically agree. There is, however, another sense in which the outlook of atheism is unmitigated tragedy. That's reflected in antinatalism. Better never to be born in the first place.

On the same page, McGrew says

It is not necessary for a sincere and rational believer to deny that evil–whether particular evils or the distressing fact of the wide scope of some sorts of evil–counts as evidence against the existence of God. 

He's making the point that it's rational to affirm a position "despite the existence of some counterevidence". I agree. 

However, it's unclear why evil would count as even prima facie evidence against God's existence. On the previous page, McGrew contrasts Judeo-Christian theism with a "generic benevolent theism". But in what respect is the existence of evil even prima facie inconsistent with Judeo-Christian theism? The Bible is a chronicle of evil. And not just Bible history, but futuristic prophecies. So that doesn't seem to be internally at odds with Judeo-Christian theism. 

Rather, the argument from evil usually posits an inconsistent triad of abstract divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, benevolence). Yet that's the kind of "generic benevolent theism" which McGrew rejected as misleading frame of reference. 

In the next section he summarizes several different lines of evidence for the historicity of the Gospels. In addition, he offers some trenchant criticisms of Bart Erhman's list of alleged contradictions in the Gospels. It would be nice to see McGrew address this at length.

In the next section he corrects a classic uncomprehending objection to miracles. In addition, he proposes some criteria for sifting miraculous claims. 

The sequence of sections isn't random. Rather, they are ordered to present a multistage argument or cumulative case for Christianity. 

In addition to the exposition of his own position, McGrew has a useful rejoinder to criticisms, as well as useful responses to essays by other contributors. 

4. In criticizing Oliphint's position, McGrew says:

The principia essence of most disciplines, from astronomy to theology, are not indemonstrable, immediately evident, and so forth–they are almost invariably the conclusions of chains of reasoning, some of them rather recondite (107).

I think that misinterprets Oliphint's position. Although he doesn't use this terminology, I think Oliphint implicitly distinguishes between discipline-specific first principles and discipline-universal first principles. Between principles that are distinctive to particular disciplines (e.g. astronomy, biology) and theological principles that underly every other discipline. Assuming that's correct, Oliphint wouldn't insist that the first principles of astronomy are indemonstrable, indubitable, immediately evident, in the sense of first principles distinctive to astronomy–in contrast to the theological first principles that undergird it. McGrew might still take issue with that, but it relocates the objection. 

5. McGrew and Oliphint got into a wrangle about whether there are "neutral" criteria. That's an old bone of contention between evidentialism and Van Tilian presuppositionalism. I think that's a bad way to frame the issue. "Neutral" isn't clear or useful. I'd recast the issue in these terms:

i) Christians should use good criteria. Criteria which help us to distinguish between true and false claims.

ii) These are criteria which reasonable people can agree on.

Now, someone might object that my definitions begs the question. Who decides what makes a criterion good? Who decides what makes a person reasonable? Don't Christians and atheists differ with each other on these very issues?

But that's unavoidable. There are no criteria that everyone or even most folks will agree on. The best a Christian can do is to state and defend his criteria. Explain why these are good criteria. The acceptance or rejection of criteria is person-variable. Constructive dialogue is only possible if both sides share enough in common. It isn't possible to secure uniformity. As Oliphint rightly says:

As with Ehrman, so also with interpretations of data and history, it is bias at the beginning that will go a long way toward determining the conclusions (160).

That, however, needs to be counterbalanced by McGrew's observation that:

It is both injurious and counterproductive to assume, without very strong reasons, that someone who is apparently seeking the truth is in fact implacably opposed to finding it…Some people, by God's grace, approach the question of the truth of Christianity with a genuine desire to know whether it is true, a willingness to believe it if it is, and an expectation that the evidence, properly sifted and weighed, will tell them where the truth lies (174).

6. Then we have Oliphint's presentation. To some extent I'm sympathetic to what Oliphint is attempting to do, but he doesn't know how to frame the issues properly, much less argue for his claims.

i) He devotes an inordinate amount of time to expounding the principium essendi and the principium cognoscendi. The basic point I take him to be making is that God is the fundamental source of whatever exists, while revelation is the fundamental source and standard of knowledge. 

That could be a promising framework. Problem is, Oliphint spends a lot of time asserting rather than arguing his case. He could summarize his position in a few sentences, then present supporting arguments or argumentative strategies in defense of his claim. Instead, the reader is treated to lengthy, repetitive assertions. Oliphint never gets around to giving the reader reasons to agree with him. It's just a lot of padding. 

On a minor point, the constant use of the Latin terms is pretentious and distracting. Why not use English synonyms?  

ii) Oliphint says the principia must be known

as both immediate and indemonstrable..a principium is not proven by way of syllogism but is such that it proves the ground upon which any other fact or demonstration depends. It is, in that sense, a transcendental notion…theology's principia undergird and underlie any and all other principia…the principia of theology come–as if were–from the outside, in. They come from a transcendent source and are not generated within the discipline itself…First principles, therefore, cannot be something that someone demonstrates as a result of one's reasoning or argument…So the principia that form the foundation for everything else are themselves transcendental in nature. That is, they provide for the possibility of anything else (74-74).

Several problems with this claim:

a) Everything that's not God ultimately comes from the outside–from the Creator's hand. So that's not unique to the first principles. 

b) It blurs the distinction between something that's ontologically transcendent and something that's epistemologically transcendental. Oliphint is sliding back and forth between the transcendent existence of God–transcendent in relation to creation–and a transcendental argument. But those are not equivalent notions. The former is a metaphysical category and metaphysical distinction while the latter is a type of argument. 

c) He fails to distinguish between what's directly demonstrable and what's indirectly demonstrable. If reason can't show that first principles are true, then what evidence is there that the purported first principles are, in fact, true? What basis is there to credit Oliphant's claim?

d) In the nature of the case, a transcendental argument does attempt to make a logical case for x as a necessary condition for the possibility of y. Otherwise, it would not be an argument

e) Perhaps, though, he takes the first principles to be self-evident or "indubitable" (93n19). Maybe he means "immediate" in that sense. But to assert that the theological principia are self-evident or indubitable is, in itself, a claim. And that's certainly not a claim which people generally regard as indubitably or self-evidently the case. Indeed, there are Christian philosophers like Timothy McGrew and Christian theologians like Benjamin Warfield who just don't see it that way. To some degree, Oliphint seems to be treating Christian theology as a Cartesian axiomatic system. 

7. Oliphint says

We know God properly by his revelation, and he know his revelation by knowing him properly (77).

That has a catchy, quotable symmetry, but what does it even mean? The second clause appears to retract the first clause. The second clause suggests we know God apart from revelation. Do we have direct knowledge of God, independent of revelation? If so, where does that leave the first clause? If not, what's the logical relationship between the two clauses?

8. Oliphint says

It is this notion of God as a revealing God that constitutes what is meant by covenant (77).

Surely that's a grossly simplistic definition. At best, it might be a necessary condition or constituent of a divine covenant. But there's much more to the definition of a covenant that the bare notion of God as a revealing God.

9. Oliphint says:

To be the image of God, therefore, human beings must be in a relationship to the God who made them. That relationship can be denominated as "covenant" (77). 

What makes that relationship a distinctively covenantal relationship? Does Oliphint mean that to be a creature is to be in covenant with God by virtue of one's creatureliness? Are stars in covenant with God? Are crabs in covenant with God?

10. In addition, Oliphint attempts to get a lot of mileage from the concept of the imago Dei. Problem is, he doesn't exegete his concept from Scripture. Rather, he seems to use the "image" as a cipher for his theological assumptions. 

11. Oliphint says

We recognize that the one God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is absolutely independent in and of himself; he is "I Am Who I Am" (Exod 3:14) [81].

Although I agree with Oliphint on God's aseity and impassibility, you can't prooftext that from Exod 3:14. I know Aquinas thought so, but it's not even clear how the Hebrew should be rendered. The phrase is enigmatic.  

12. Oliphint says:

The assertion of the principal authority of Scripture does not give license to a bare and naked affirmation with no arguments to testify to its authority (120).

That's a promising admission from an apologetic standpoint. It is, however, profoundly unclear how that admission is coherent with Oliphint's other claim that as a theological principium or first principle, Scripture is "indemonstrable," can't "be proven by way of syllogism," "cannot be something that someone demonstrates as a result of one's reasoning or argument". 

13. Oliphint says:

The notion that mind came from non-mind, not matter how often repeated, is inconceivable; there are no data to show how such a thing could happen (51). 
How could it be, we could ask, that someone could seriously assert that the natural is able to account for itself? (121). 
But what are the criteria by which this "sound" historical investigation takes place or by which we might measure such "experience"? (160).

Those are good observations. Those are good starting-points for further discussion. Unfortunately, Oliphint's position precludes him from developing these programmatic observations since his first principles are taken to be "indubitable" and "indemonstrable" from the get-go. So his observations are stillborn. 

14. Oliphint says:

Ehrman's problems with Scripture stem not from the text of Scripture–the data of Scripture–but from his initial rejection of it as the Word of God (160).

Having read Ehman's Jesus Interrupted, as well as having listened to some of his dates, Oliphint's characterization seems to be an a prior claim that's not derived from Ehrman's public statements. From what I've read and seen, Ehrman operates with a Harold Lindsell model of inerrancy in which, for Scripture to be inerrant or factual accurate, biblical accounts must be like videotape and audiotape. Given that unreasonable standard of comparison, his problems stem from the disconnect between the text or data of Scripture and his false expectations regarding what inerrant or factually accurate reportage requires. 

I'm afraid that picking Oliphint was a wasted opportunity. 

Supplementary posts:


  1. "I'm afraid that picking Oliphint was a wasted opportunity. "

    For issues like this i'm not much a fan of this type of multiple-perspective books.

    What books/articles from a reformed perspective do you recommend for dealing with this type of issues (christianity and philosophy)?

    Paul Helm would be a good and interesting contributor in books like this one, IMHO.

    1. I agree with you about Paul Helm. I didn't mention him because he's in his upper 70s. He's written extensively on the subject. So I was focussed on people who are less published on the issue. Helm's Faith and Understanding (Eerdmans, 1997) as well as his Faith with Reason (Clarendon Press, 2003) are two excellent treatments. John Frame's contribution to Five Views on Apologetics is pretty good. Basil Mitchell's Faith and Criticism (Oxford, 1994) makes some useful points.

  2. Have you read McGrew's book on internalism? If so, what are your thoughts? It looks interesting, but it's a bit pricey. Maybe a Christmas gift or something.

    1. I believe I read parts of it. Don't recall my impressions. Sorry!

      Presumably, you can get a copy via interlibrary loan, then photocopy it.

    2. I read (part of it) mainly to confirm how the McGrews define internal justification, rather than to evaluate their position, so I didn't give it sustained attention.

  3. I'm currently working my way through Oliphint's Covenantal Apologetics. Given your critique is there an alternative you would recommend?

    1. James Anderson and Vern Poythress.