On The Legitimacy of Natural Theology

One of the features of Themelios, the online theological journal, is that it always offers a feast of book reviews. With almost sixty books surveyed, the latest issue is no different. One book that readers with a stake in either natural theology or Reformed epistemology may find interesting is Michael Sudduth’s The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology. James Anderson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, reviews:

“Sudduth presents a meticulously researched and compellingly argued case for the historical pedigree and philosophical legitimacy of Reformed natural theology. His articulation and defense of the dogmatic model is especially valuable for dispelling prevalent misconceptions about the role of natural theology. I daresay that most readers will find their own views challenged at some point. Those looking for a triumphant defense of classical apologetics in the Princeton mold may find themselves disappointed by the modesty of Sudduth’s conclusions. They may feel that those forms of natural theology that emerge unscathed from the Reformed objections (the cogent ones, at least) are thin gruel, offering little of value for positive apologetics with unbelievers. Even so, they shouldn’t underestimate the value of his defense of theistic arguments, for the criticisms he refutes are found as often in the mouths of atheists as believers. On the other side of the field, presuppositionalists may deem the book’s conclusions too generous, but they will be forced nonetheless to reevaluate some of the foundations on which their own fort has been built. Whatever the case, no reader will fail to appreciate the clarity and force of the book’s argumentation, the precision of its analysis, and the invaluable contribution it makes to contemporary discussions of natural theology—not only among the Reformed, but across the spectrum of Christian thought.”

Read the whole thing here.

For additional discussion of the book, both Paul Manata and Paul Helm have also written reviews. The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology is available from Amazon.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Dave Bish has pointed out three great sessions from the 2010 Newfrontiers Leadership conference that are worth listening to. The sessions are set up to address and assess three books that have become incredibly popular in the Christian world: Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis and Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. Led by Andrew Wilson, Adrian Birks, and Mick Taylor, the panel considers each individual book’s strengths, weaknesses, and ways in which each they provoke and stimulate Christian thought. It’s a really helpful discussion, both in the content of their comments and the spirit in which they are given.

Download the mp3s:

Session 1 – Reinventing Apologetics: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

Led by Andrew Wilson, the panel examines Keller’s discussion of hell, whether an understanding of God’s passive wrath might undermine penal substitution, the importance of understanding the context of doubt, how we can draw the line between the literary genres of  the creation account and the fall narrative, death and evolution, and much more.

Keep reading >>

How the Trinity Changes Everything

Fred Sanders’ new book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything doesn’t launch till the end of the month, but is already generating considerable buzz. More than a mere crowd-pleaser, Deep Things clearly demonstrates that Sanders understands not only what perplexed Christians want (and who doesn’t long to understand the Trinity in simple terms?) – he knows what they need. For an evangelical generation enamoured by The Shack and Joel Osteen, Sanders argues that both our neglect of the trinity and our aversion to theological detail is rescued by first realizing that the trinity is not a complex idea, but an immediate reality. We don’t need to be talked into the theory, he suggests, but shown that, as Christians, we are already deeply involved and shaped by the triune life.

Continue reading “How the Trinity Changes Everything”

Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture

Don Carson’s literary output is rightly lauded. This year he is publishing at least seven titles across a wide variety of topics, from the redemptive storyline of the Bible (The God Who is There) to the health and future of evangelicalism (Evangelicalism: What Is It and Is It Worth Keeping?), and even the redefinition of tolerance in civic discourse (The Intolerance of Tolerance). However, for those who are interested in better understanding the Bible, his upcoming collection of essays on the doctrine of Scripture will be most keenly anticipated. Complied by Andy Naselli and released in two parts, the Collected Writings on Scripture reproduces articles and book reviews from Carson’s thirty years of teaching and ministry. Navigating readers through recent hermeneutical and theological debates, Carson explores issues such as truthfulness and authority, interpretation, redaction criticism, and unity and diversity in the New Testament.  The doctrine of Scripture remains one of the most contested flashpoints in theological discourse and having the best of Carson’s ever-illuminating thought on this topic together in two volumes is an exciting prospect.

The Collected Writings on Scripture is available from Crossway and Amazon.

Here are some endorsements for the book:

“D. A. Carson is one of the most prolific and profound biblical scholars of our generation. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to predict that his Collected Writings on Scripture will become a classic as an evangelical defense of Holy Scripture’s authority. Carson courteously but persuasively reveals the weaknesses of arguments designed by critics to discredit or render obsolete the historic teaching of the Western Christian churches, namely, biblical inerrancy. This book is a masterful, must read for those persons who want to understand better the nature of Scripture’s authority. The volume may very well take its place as a benchmark study, side by side with Inspiration (1881), the influential essay penned by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield.”
John D. Woodbridge, Research Professor, Church History and History of Christian Thought, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

“With tedious regularity, the doctrine of Scripture comes under attack again and again, and while many of the arguments used are familiar and hackneyed, each generation adds its own twists and turns to the cries of criticism. Thankfully, the church has always had eloquent defenders of the truthfulness of the Scriptures and of the God who inspired them. In our time, Don Carson is one such figure; and in this volume, the reader will find many of his most significant essays on Scripture. Scholarly, reverent, carefully argued, and generously footnoted, these pieces all make important contributions to current debates; and taken as a whole, they admirably expose the problems of the revisionism offered by certain voices within the church while pointing readers to a better way.”
Carl R. Trueman, Academic Dean and Vice President, Westminster Theological Seminary

“The breadth of these essays is matched by their depth. When reading Carson’s survey of the scholarly landscape, you know it’s coming from a leading member of the guild; when reading his discerning counsel about how to navigate both spurious and legitimate challenges concerning the nature, authority, and interpretation of Scripture, you know it’s coming from a pastoral heart. This is pure gold.”
Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California

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.

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