William P. Alston, 1921- 2009

The Christian philosophical community has lost one of its most influential luminaries. William P. Alston – past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the APA, and author of numerous philosophical works in epistemology, religion and language – died today in his home in Jamesville, NY, at the age of 87. Alston was a central figure both in analytic philosophy and Christian philosophy, contributing in no small measure to the latter’s current resurgence and vitality. He wrote prolifically throughout his fifty-year career; advancing the project of reformed epistemology and publishing on topics as wide-ranging as divine command  theory, realism about truth, ontological commitment, sense perception, linguistic acts, epistemic circularity, and the problem of evil. Alston’s thought has spawned an enormous body of commentary, both critical and appreciative: including symposia, articles, conference discussions, multiple citations throughout analytic literature, and two festschriften. He was a true intellectual force and his impact has been profound, both setting the standard for penetrating and rigorous evaluations and inspiring, by all accounts, through his leadership and civility.

Keith DeRose at Certain Doubts has links (via Daniel Howard-Snyder) to a fuller biography of Alston and a comprehensive bibliography of his writings. You can also peruse Michael Sudduth’s page of online articles by Alston.

UPDATES:

Matt Flannagan offers some brief thoughts on Alston’s legacy.

Jeremy Pierce reflects on his own personal memories of Alston as a philosopher and teacher.

New Books: Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology

The great advantage and attraction of philosophy is that no question is scandalous to it. Nothing lies beyond its critical gaze. With its tools of analysis and reason, philosophy is well placed to operate as a meta-discipline (or second-order discipline), able to clarify concepts, arguments, and other cognitive issues internal to a field. At a foundational level, it can examine the presuppositions and assumptions within a discipline, as well as providing a conceptual grid and common lexicon to relate different disciplines.

Philosophical theology is a branch of theology which seeks to take advantage of just this – applying philosophical methods and techniques to clarify theological doctrines. Distinct from the philosophy of religion (or natural theology) – which takes a preparatory, justificatory role to the enterprise of theology itself – philosophical theology is not neutral but assumes and works from certain theological tenets. Questions such as the concept of God, the nature of divine attributes, the nature of divine knowledge, God’s relation to time, God’s relation to humanity, and the origin and ground of our ideas of God, all make up the subject matter of philosophical theology.

It’s important to point out that modern philosophy, however, has not been always so friendly to the project of theology. In fact since the eighteenth century, its role has been much closer to mortician than handmaiden. David Hume’s assault on miracles and proofs of God’s existence, Immanuel Kant’s rejection of our cognitive ability to get beyond the limits imposed by the empirical world,  the Vienna Circle’s trumpeting of the verification principle and insistence that theological claims fail to express meaningful propositions, and many others have all seriously challenged not only philosophical interest in theology, but also the viability of doing theology at all.

But since the 1960s, the philosophical landscape has changed. Atheist and naturalist Quentin Smith, writing in the journal Philo, charts the trend:

By the second half of the twentieth century, universities and colleges had been become in the main secularized. The standard (if not exceptionless) position in each field, from physics to psychology, assumed or involved arguments for a naturalist world-view… This is not to say that none of the scholars in the various academic fields were realist theists in their “private lives”; but realist theists, for the most part, excluded their theism from their publications and teaching, in large part because theism (at least in its realist variety) was mainly considered to have such a low epistemic status that it did not meet the standards of an “academically respectable” position to hold. The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of [Alvin] Plantinga’s influential book on realist theism, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists in terms of the most valued standards of analytic philosophy: conceptual precision, rigor of argumentation, technical erudition, and an in-depth defense of an original world-view…

…[R]ealist versions of theism, most influenced by  Plantinga’s writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. Although many theists do not work in the area of the philosophy of religion, so many of them do work in this area that there are now over five philosophy journals devoted to theism or the philosophy of religion, such as Faith and Philosophy, Religious Studies, International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, Sophia, Philosophia Christi, etc. …

Quickly, naturalists found themselves a mere bare majority, with many of the leading thinkers in the various disciplines of philosophy, ranging from philosophy of science (e.g., Van Fraassen) to epistemology (e.g., Moser), being theists. The predicament of naturalist philosophers is not just due to the influx of talented theists, but is due to the lack of counter-activity of naturalist philosophers themselves. God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.

The Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology is a new textbook, coming out at the end of this month, that speaks to this resurgence of interest in Christian doctrine. Edited by Oliver Crisp (based at the University of Bristol, England), the Reader features articles by these leading philosophers apart of this new renewal of Christian philosophy. Addressing traditional theistic doctrines from the infallibility of Scripture to penal substitution, the textbook will definitely interest both theologian and philosopher alike. I am a little surprised at the exclusion of any discussion of divine providence and divine knowledge (perhaps understandable because these are often more standard fare in some philosophy of religion textbooks), but the lineup still looks strong. Both enterprises will not be hurt by cross-discipline interest and in fact theology especially has much to gain from philosophy, and particularly in the rigorous thought of the analytic tradition (unfortunately, many prominent theologians are inordinately captured by continental philosophy). With so few books around like this one, I’m excited about getting my hands on it.

Table of Contents

Introduction – Oliver D. Crisp

I. Inspiration and Authority of Scripture
Section Introduction
Alvin Plantinga, ‘Sheehan’s Shenanigans: How Theology Becomes Tomfoolery’
Stephen T. Davis, ‘The Bible is True’
Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘True Words’
Paul Helm, ‘Infallibility’

II. The Trinity
Section Introduction
Cornelius Plantinga Jnr., ‘Social Trinity and Tritheism’
Brian Leftow, ‘A Latin Trinity’
Peter van Inwagen, ‘Three Persons in One Being: On Attempts to Show that the Doctrine of the Trinity is Self-Contradictory’

III. The Incarnation
Section Introduction
Peter Forrest, ‘The Incarnation: A Philosophical Case for Kenosis’
Eleonore Stump, ‘Aquinas’ Metaphysics of the Incarnation’
Thomas P. Flint, ‘The possibilities of Incarnation: Some radical Molinist suggestions’
Thomas V. Morris, ‘Rationality and the Christian Revelation’

IV. Sin and Original Sin
Section Introduction
Robert Adams, ‘Original Sin: A Study in the Interaction of Philosophy and Theology’
Marilyn McCord Adams, ‘Sin as Uncleanness’
Keith D. Wyma, ‘Innocent Sinfulness, Guilty Sin: Original Sin and Divine Justice’

V. The Atonement
Section Introduction
Oliver D. Crisp, ‘Penal Non-substitution’
David Lewis, ‘Do We Believe in Penal Substitution?’
Philip L. Quinn, ‘Abelard on Atonement: “Nothing Unintelligible, Arbitrary, Illogical, or Immoral about it”’
Richard Swinburne, ‘The Christian Scheme of Salvation’

392 pages.

The Live-Action Trailer for Halo 3:ODST

halocover

IGN has released the rocking live-action trailer for the video game Halo 3: ODST. The commercial shows snapshots in the life of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, beginning with him as child witnessing a funeral and ending with him as scarred soldier mourning a fallen comrade. The brief war scenes against the Covenant are fast-paced and well done, with an Omaha-beach-landing-introduction to the battle and tense encounter with a Covenant Brute. The ODST may be an impassive, well trained instrument of war but he is no Master Chief and the clip makes it clear that the new game will emphasize a different kind of hero.

Given this trailer, it’s no surprise that many are again asking questions about the Halo film project and why exactly it failed. Video games  have never translated well to celluloid, but the Haloverse has more depth than you would expect (fleshed out in some of the novels). And the central war with the Covenant, too, is no worse an impetus for story-telling than that of many other sci-fi outings. However, Neill Blomkamp, who was once signed on to direct the Halo film (and then went on to helm the spectacular District 9) pointed out that one of project’s hurdles was the game’s main protagonist. Master Chief worked well in the video game but did not hold much weight, dramatically, because of his faceless nature.

Rumours about the project have continued to surface (a script by Stuart Beattie adapting The Fall of Reach is the last I heard) but at the moment the rights to the production are with Microsoft and it will be interesting to see if they take the positive reaction to this trailer as cause to revisit its status.

The game launches on the 22nd of this month.

New Books: An Apologetics Primary Source Reader

Erasmus famous statement summarizes the bibliophilia that many of us know well: “When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” And for those who are interested in becoming better acquainted with apologetics, this new work will be a prized investment.

Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader

It is said that the only thing worse than nostalgia is amnesia. Christian Apologetics Past and Present is a book that will go a long way in helping to address the amnesia of the church. In it, William Edgar and K. Scot Oliphint have corralled some of the primary source documents of the earliest apologists and given us a valuable link to the intellectual heritage that the we all share. The book will be released at the end of this month and is the first of two proposed volumes featuring original writings of important apologists throughout history.  Volume 1 presents documents from the time of the early church (100-400) to the Middle Ages (400-1500) and will feature thinkers such as Aristides, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas.

This primary source reader will not just be a collection of original texts. Along with timelines and maps, each section is introduced with a commentary on the biographical and historical context of each thinker. Each text is also followed by questions that can be used for group discussion or to stimulate personal reflection and study.

Edgar and Oliphint are both professors of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and authors of numerous books. I haven’t encountered much of Edgar’s work, but what I’ve read of Oliphint (Reason’s for Faith) has left me wanting more. While Christian Apologistics Past and Present isn’t exactly the book for me to do that, it still looks to be a useful reference guide. We cannot afford to neglect our roots, and our witness to Jesus Christ will doubtless benefit from knowing the arguments that have shaped the apologetic enterprise and buttressed “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”.

512 Pages. 39 US Dollars Hardcover (54 NZ Dollars)

cover

Notes on Forgiveness

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These are my notes for my student group’s Bible study. Forgiveness stands as such a central concept in Christianity and it was exciting to be able to address it with others in light of what the Bible has to say (at least I hope the others found it as exciting as me). Chris Braun’s book Unpacking Forgiveness was a real help and I recommend it for anyone is interested in digging deeper into this important topic.

What is forgiveness?

Some suggestions for defining forgiveness: (1) accepting someone who has “asked for forgiveness”; (2) forgetting that an offense has occurred, i.e., not keeping “a record of wrongs”; (3) restoring a relationship back to its pre-offense condition; (4) treating the person as if the offense never occurred in the first place; (5) desiring that only good, and not punishment or consequences, would befall the offender (Justin Taylor).

We should try to understand divine forgiveness first before we consider what ‘horizontal’ forgiveness looks like and what it means to forgive others. Because God is supremely good and valuable, He is therefore our standard and ultimate pattern.

Psalm 32: (Read the passage here)

Background things to ponder when reading a Psalm:

What can we say about the writer and his circumstances?

What does the writer tell us about who God is? What are his expectations of God? What characteristics of God does he base his petitions on?

Things to notice:

1) We shouldn’t be afraid to see joy and happiness as motivations for living out forgiveness.

David here links forgiveness with happiness: “Blessed (happy) is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”

Why do we need divine forgiveness? Because we are sinners and not only fail to put God at the center of lives but actively do wrong.

Yet forgiveness is not the ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is not to be pardoned, or even to be pardoned so we can get to heaven. Our chief goal is to know and enjoy God. Forgiveness is essential and necessary, but only a means to enjoying God.

2) Forgiveness is neither easy, nor a straight-forward concept.

Forgiveness begins with a decision but can be a difficult and lengthy process. Taking revenge is the default option. To refuse revenge is enormously costly (because instead of the offender paying the emotional debt, we have to pay it ourselves). We will want to see the person who has wronged us equally hurt. But to return evil with evil shapes us into likeness of the evil. When we make the other person pay, we are becoming like the evil done to us. We must beat this process with love. But how?

3)Forgiveness should only occur when proper conditions have been met.

Why was David in agony? Because of his silence (verse 3). He needed to acknowledge his sin (verse 5) to find forgiveness from God.

God does not just forgive everyone. He is gracious and willing to forgive everyone but His forgiveness is conditioned on our confession and repentance. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

It is the same for our horizontal relationships. We must always be in a position of forgiveness and ready to offer it, but for actual forgiveness to take place, change has to occur in the party that has wronged us.

4) We should distinguish between an attitude of forgiveness and the act of forgiving

To clarify this, it is helpful to separate forgiveness into “positional forgiveness” (the attitude or readiness to forgive) and “transactional forgiveness” (the act of forgiving)(Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries):

The Bible is clear about positional forgiveness:

a)We should not be revengeful:

“See that no one repays another with evil for evil.”1 Thessalonians 5:15

“Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Romans 12:19

b) We should not bitterly wish harm on the wrongdoer:

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Proverbs 24:17

c) We should seek the best for them and come to their aid, if possible:

“Bless those who curse you.” Luke 6:27-28

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.” Exodus 23:4

“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44,

d) We should always seek reconciliation with them

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Romans 12:18

But while we should always pursue reconciliation and maintain a ready position of forgiveness, we should not actually go further and grant forgiveness where there is an absence of repentance. In fact, it is wrong to forgive unless there has been a change in the part of wrongdoer (Luke 17:3 “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him”) Our forgiveness must never take place in a way that is inconsistent with justice. Just as God’s moral law is perfectly upheld in His forgiveness (The cross enables Him to be both just and the justifier, Paul writes in Romans 3:26) In seeking revenge, we give into selfishness, but in automatic forgiveness and mere resignation we risk selfishness too. Why? Because we do not care about God’s justice and whether the injurer will keep sinning.

4. Our willingness to forgive is a test of whether we will go to heaven (Matthew 6:14-15)

It is important to see that this is not a unique test. All the ethical commands of Jesus are virtues and characteristics that he demands in our lives, and on which our eternal destination hangs (see Matt 5:22, 29, 44; 7:21-23; 18:6). Forgiveness is not an exception, it is the rule. So why then does Jesus bring it up? Because it mocks God to come to Him for forgiveness if we esteem it so poorly in our own daily lives with others.

We need a forgiving spirit that doesn’t like conflict and yet doesn’t avoid it. We need an attitude that doesn’t return evil and yet doesn’t wrongly capitulate to resignation and ignore a responsibility to justice.

5. But how do we do this? How do we bear this enormous cost and cultivate an attitude of forgiveness?

Through the Gospel. Through seeing and adoring Jesus Christ and knowing that he himself paid the greatest sin-debt and didn’t make me.

I’ll never be able to pay the debts people have to me unless I see the infinite debt I have before God. After all he’s done for me, I’m glad to have the opportunity to demonstrate to Him what he means to me by paying this debt.

John Piper:

“Forgiveness is not a work by which we earn God’s forgiveness. It flows from a heart satisfied with the mercy of God and rejoicing in the cancellation of our own ten million dollar debt.”

Old nails picture by Lewis Walsh

Worlds Collide: the Hitchens v Wilson documentary teaser

collision

Who would have thought that gangster rap would make the perfect soundtrack to presuppositional apologetics? This teaser showcases the documentary, Collision, to be released on DVD next month. Directed by Darren Doane, the film follows the debate tour of New Atheist author Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilson. Both are sharp commentators. Both wield their humour with acerbic edge  (say what you will about Hitchen’s bluster and lack of philosophical roots, he is still a witty and often entertaining writer). So an exchange between them is likely to be a fascinating subject for a documentary.

Debates are already a spectacle in and of themselves, with enormous drama and emotional investment (some may even argue that that is all they are). But this kind of film has the ability to take us even further into the drama. With slick cuts and its unique visual style, the film brings a whole new dimension to the event and to the argument that was the focus for the tour (“Is religion good for the world?”). Our culture has a clear obsession with the visual over the abstract and it will be interesting to see whether the film can successfully communicate some of the ideas that inspired the exchange in the first place, or whether the medium will swallow the message and engulf those ideas in the foreground of personalities.

The DVD comes out on the 27th (you can preorder now on amazon). You can also pick up the book there that Wilson and Hitchens both co-authored on the same topic. Also worth reading is their email exchange at Christianity Today.

(HT: Desiring God)