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Reasoned Faith

edited by Eleanor Stump

echo point books & media, $34.95

A decade ago, the well-respected Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga urged Christian thinkers to philosophize not only for skeptics but for their own faith communities. Christian philosophers, he argued, should do Christian philosophy about distinctively Christian topics. Such an exhortation would have been quite strange several decades earlier when theistic philosophers had to battle fundamental anti-theistic charges concerning the presumed meaningless of religious language or the incoherence of the idea of God.

Similar charges are still heard, but thanks to Christian philosophers such as Plantinga, the general philosophical atmosphere in the past several decades has become less hostile to Christian theism. This volume is largely a testimony to that fact — although not all the contributors are Christians. As editor Eleanore Stump puts it, current philosophers “have gotten their courage up and ventured into such areas as providence, creation, conservation, and God’s responsibility for sin, areas where analytic precision is more difficult to attain but where the scope of the investigation is less constrained.”

Reasoned Faith is a collection of fourteen essays offered in honor of Christian philosopher Norman Kretzmann that addresses Judeo-Christian themes in the tradition of analytic philosophy. The collection is divided into four sections, all addressing the rational assessment of religious faith: “The Role of Reason in Faith,” “Reason and Revelation,” “Reason and the Nature of the God Faith,” and “Reason and Faith on the Relation Between God and Creatures.” A large book of rigorous philosophizing is impossible to review exhaustively at other than book length, so instead of summarizing every essay I will focus on particular ones.

Robert Adams’ “Truth and Subjectivity” offers an example of careful scholarship that attempts to rescue Kierkegaard from the charges of religious subjectivism and irrationalism. Through careful textual analysis, primarily of Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he argues that although Kierkegaard emphasized the imperative to appropriate Christian faith for oneself subjectively, he did not deny the necessity of adhering to objective Christian doctrine. Adams claims that for Kierkegaard, subjectivity, or what he called “infinite passion,” was a necessary but not sufficient condition for being “in the truth.” One must be (subjectively) true to the (objective) truth. Adams also argues fruitfully that such passion can be an asset in discerning objective truth. Adams’ rendering of Kierkegaard is plausible and more readable than much of the turgid prose of the melancholy Dane himself.

In “Christian Faith,” Scott MacDonald addresses the debate concerning what conditions are required for true faith. Rather than explore which propositions one must hold to be a Christian, MacDonald concerns himself with the nature of faith itself. He makes a strong and sophisticated case that Christian faith is a matter of belief in certain theological propositions—however strongly or weakly one believes—such that this belief impels actions in accordance with those beliefs. Against some critics, he argues that the strength of faith need not be maximal in order to be genuine or to inspire Christian conduct. This insight has pastoral application to those who, though they believe, suffer from doubt. MacDonald also cogently argues against Kierkegaard and John Hick that true faith need not involve cognitive uncertainty.

A flaw in MacDonald’s otherwise exemplary argument is found in the section “Faith and Merit,” where he fails to address the Reformers’ argument that faith can never merit salvation because salvation is by grace alone: we can never merit the merit of Christ. MacDonald argues against Aquinas’ claim that cognitive assent is meritorious, maintaining instead that it is the commitment to act on Christian faith that is meritorious. But if this were true, one would be contributing something to one’s salvation, thus negating the “by grace alone” concept so central to the Reformation. MacDonald no doubt has a response to this charge, but unfortunately he does not offer one here.

The two chapters in the “Reason and Revelation” section take up issues found in the book of Genesis. Peter van Inwagen’s essay, “Genesis and Evolution,” rejects both “Genesiac literalism” (conservative creationism) and “Saganism” (philosophical naturalism). Against the Saganists, he probingly questions the plausibility of the naturalists’ claim that all life evolved by chance through random mutation alone.

Against the literalists, he claims that although he believes the Bible to be “the revealed word of God,” a literal or scientifically accurate account of creation would have been too “abstract” to communicate to diverse peoples effectively, especially the less educated. God, therefore, used certain cosmological untruths for the purpose of communicating deeper theological truths to the widest possible audience.

This argument is ingeniously framed and honors the fundamental theological themes of Genesis, but still seems subject to the retort that the Bible cannot truly be “the revealed word of God” if it contains any factual errors; God is not the author of error, even if it is couched as benevolent deception. For one who confesses Genesis as God’s word, it seems more appropriate to assume that an omniscient and omnipotent being possesses the communicative resources to reveal cosmology truly—though simply and memorably and poetically. Thus we can let the text speak for itself without endorsing a wooden literalism or claiming that the text asserts falsehoods. Such a task is not simple, but neither is it impossible. An example of such a project is Carl Henry’s treatment of Genesis and creation in his God, Revelation, and Authority.

“On God’s Creation” by Harry Frankfurt philosophically reflects on the first several chapters of Genesis, apart from any concern with scientific cosmology. Among Frankfurt’s unorthodox claims is that “the spirit of God” is an unactualized and indeterminate form of deity that only becomes determinate through the act of creation itself. He says that “God was created by creating,” which makes God look more like a Sartrean deity than anything justified by the Genesis text, the rest of Scripture, or by philosophical argument. How could an indeterminate sub-deity become a determinate Deity through an act of creative will when that sub-deity would have lacked the metaphysical wherewithal to accomplish such an act, given its initially indeterminate state? By definition, the indeterminate cannot determine anything — let alone the creation of the universe. The rest of Frankfurt’s exegesis is for the most part similarly strained. Part of the problem may lie in his abstracting the texts from their semantic and canonical setting for the sake of philosophical speculation.

An essay of particular importance to claims in liberal theology is George Mavrodes’ “The Gods Above the Gods: Can the High Gods Survive?” which criticizes both Paul Tillich’s and John Hick’s doctrine of God. Both writers claim that the God concept held by traditional believers is limiting and inadequate. They instead opt for a kind of “super-transcendentalism” that removes God from the canons of normal description. For Tillich, “God beyond God” is the “Ground of all Being,” which cannot even properly be said to “exist.” This “high God” is beyond even the categories of existence and nonexistence—if we can make any sense of this. Could such a theological question mark be worthy of worship, devotion, and trust? Mavrodes rightly argues that such a deity is hardly a suitable object for religious devotion, since nothing intelligible can be predicated of it.

The “high God” of John Hick resembles Tillich’s in its super-transcendental status but is employed in the more contemporary and interesting project of defending normative religious pluralism, the theological claim that no one religion understands or exhibits religious truth better than another. Mavrodes quotes Hick as saying that “the great post-axial faiths constitute different ways of experiencing, conceiving, and living in relation to the ultimate divine Reality which transcends all our varied versions of it.” This view assumes that no one religious tradition’s view of ultimate reality—whether impersonal nirvana or personal Yahweh—is identical with “the Real.” All are only approximations of “the real.”

Mavrodes contends that this approach will not likely convince, for example, devout Buddhists or Christians, who understand their traditions to refer to “the real” without remainder. Such a view of God, rather than being religiously useless (as with Tillich), is rather easily collapsed into any of the existing faith traditions, which will simply claim that their view of “the real” is true and that contradictory views are false.

The problem of evil, a perennial challenge to theism, comes up in different forms in four of the essays, two of which are especially worthy of mention.

Marilyn McCord Adams addresses one aspect of the problem of evil, namely, the claim that an omnipotent and loving God creates some beings who will be consigned to hell. Adams’ argument solves (or, rather, dissolves) the problem by eliminating hell and adopting universalism — despite the strong textual evidence for hell in the New Testament. Although she claims that God has no obligations to His creatures, she still thinks the existence of hell would make God “cruel.”

Eleonore Stump’s essay, “Aquinas on the Suffering of Job,” reflects on Thomas’ contention that God uses suffering for the good of the godly—a manifestly unpopular notion in modern Western culture. Stump persuasively argues that Thomas’ views of suffering and human happiness contribute to our overall understanding of the problem of evil because they challenge our modern views of the very nature of goodness and evil.

Reasoned Faith exemplifies the philosophical rediscovery of Christian theism as a subject worthy of sustained analytical reflection. Those of orthodox theological proclivities might wish that some of the philosophical theology were more closely connected to and compatible with biblical theology, but given the rise of conservative Christian philosophers, these objections will likely find their way into print before long.

Douglas Groothius is Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Denver Seminary.