What has Basel to do with South Bend? a book review

When Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian, famously denounced natural philosophy it appeared to some that he was anti-rational and no place for philosophy within his theological framework. Indeed he did reject a ‘theology from below’ which worked out a basis for belief in the Triune God through reason or from some generalized theistic position. But this does not preclude that possibility of Christian philosophy. Philosopher Kevin Diller (PhD, St. Andrews) brings the work of Karl Barth into conversation with Alvin Plantinga and argues that together they present a unified response to Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma.

Diller aims at showing both the combined response of Barth and Plantinga to epistemic problems and their areas of incompatibility. The two great thinkers stand about a generation apart, and Plantinga did not interact much with Barth’s theology. They occupied two different guilds in the academy, Plantinga’s work is useful in some apologetics while Barth doubted the value of apologetics (102). In Barth, theology is personal while Plantinga jumps much quicker to propositional truth (100). Despite the differences, their respective projects both rest on the fact of Revelation as Divine gift.

Diller’s book divides into two parts. In part one, Diller begins by identifying ‘theology’s epistemological dilemma. Modernity posits a high view of truth but is highly skeptical about human ability to apprehend truth. Postmodern approaches to epistemology are personal and pragmatic, valuing what is known by the individual but denying but is skeptical about an overarching Truth. Diller posits that neither option is available to the Christian theologian. Against post-modernity, Christians hold to a high view of truth; against modernity they assert that Truth can be known (albeit not through our cognitive means alone).

From here, Diller turns his attention to Barth’s theology.  In chapter two he illustrates that for Barth, theological knowledge is rooted in God’s own self revelation, that knowing God is a personal, cognitive, participative knowledge (54), that it is self attested, Divine initiated grace (60), resulting in transformation and reconciliation with God (64). Chapter three explores the way that (and the degree that) Barth engages with philosphy.  Contra Harnack and Pannenberg, Barth is not anti-rational and anti-philosophical but he does reject Enlightenment epistological assumptions, namely the: (1) the obligation assumption which argues that theological knowledge needs to account for the grounds of its metaphysical claims; (2) the general-starting point assumption which claims that such an account must stem from general epistemology; and the access-foundationalist assumption which anchors theological claims in trustworthy, readily accessible grounds (75).  Over and against these, Barth argues that theological knowledge is not contingent on our fulfilling the obligation to give an account of said knowledge (76-7),  that theological knowledge comes from above (through revelation) rather than being reasoned to from below (81), and therefore God is the ground for theological knowledge rather than nature (87-8). None of this negates the positive contribution of Philosophy. What Barth rejects is enlightenment style foundationalism and ‘philosophy’s presumed competency’ to speak of God and matters of faith (90,92).

Diller than turns his attention toward Plantinga and shows how his idea of Warrant similarly calls the question on Enlightenment foundationalism and Scientific evidentialism. Yet, Plantinga is more positive on the role of reason though even positing a form of natural theology–a sensus divinitatis (147).  Nevertheless, Diller sees ten areas of convergence between the two thinkers:

  1. – The knowlege of God comes as a real gift.
  2. – Tuth is ‘theo-foundational’–grounded in God’s self revelation.
  3. – The revelation of God is transformational.
  4. – Knowledge of God is corporately known through participation in the body of Christ (church).
  5. – All knowledge of God is contingent in some way on the grace of God.
  6. – Knowledge of God is both personal and cognitive (relational and propositional).
  7.  – Our knowledge of God is mediated to us through the Bible and church, but knowledge of God is not reducible to this medium.
  8. – Communion with God is the only secure grounding for the knowledge of God.
  9. – Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’ and so is not concerned primarily with prolegomena but seeks to think in light of the givedness of God’s self revelation
  10. – Theological knowledge is coherent and warranted (169-72)

In Part Two, Diller  explores further the tensions between Barth and Plantinga and the way that their unified response speak to the realm of natural theology and reason (chapter seven),  the nature of revelation and human knowing (chapter eight) and the ontology and authority of scripture (chapter nine).  Diller makes the case that Plantinga’s version of natural theology is compatible with Barth’s theology of revelation because it is rooted in God’s revelation and does not function independently (219). Diller further demonstrates that their unified approach provides a beneficial place for apologetics (though a much more of a humble place than some of apologists’ presume).

Diller’s proposal of a unified Barth-Plantinga approach to epistemology is intriguing. I am a better reader of Barth than Plantinga and I think Diller does a good job of presenting Barth’s views (especially as found in Church Dogmatics 1.1, which I am currently reading). He avoids many of the caricatures of Barth (i.e. he correctly points out that Barth is neither an apophatic theologian or against critical thinking). My knowledge of Plantinga’s thought is mostly mediated to me through secondary literature, but I found Diller’s description compelling. This does point a way forward for analytical theology and Christian philosophy and warrants careful study. I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christian theologians and philosophers. This is ‘faith seeking understanding’ at its finest. Five stars: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic for the purposes of this review. I was not asked to write a positive review.

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