Book Review: Four Views On Christianity And Philosophy
The early Latin theologian Tertullian famously questioned, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This question touches upon the very relationship between philosophy and Christianity, which Tertullian happened to view in a negative light. However, not all have come to the same conclusion as Tertullian, or would even define philosophy as Tertullian would have defined it. Indeed, other theologians and philosophers have viewed the relationship between philosophy and Christianity positively. Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy surveys a few of the major positions on the relationship between philosophy and Christianity, put forward by some of their best contemporary proponents.
The Conflict Model
Graham Oppy defends the Conflict Model, in which philosophy is in some sense ‘above’ Christianity. Essential to Oppy’s view is his definition of terms. Christianity is a religion involving the communal display of belief in a non-natural agent, hard-to-fake public expressions of costly material commitments, the mastering of existential anxieties, and ritualized/rhythmic/sensory coordinations. Moreover, Christianity is also a worldview or theory which aims at a comprehensive and normative description of reality. Philosophy, on the other hand, is a domain of inquiry, addressing questions of which there are yet no agreed upon answers or methods of arriving upon answers. Because worldviews are often at odds with each other, there must be a way of weighing one against another. This is where philosophy comes in. It provides the tools needed to compare, distinguish, and decide between worldviews. Genuine discourse between proponents of competing worldviews can be had precisely because of philosophy. Therefore, philosophy is neutral, and is in conflict with Christianity in the sense that its aim and purpose is on the plane of inquiry rather than theory or worldview.
The Covenantal Model
K. Scott Oliphint advocates a Covenantal Model. In his view, Christianity (represented in the theology of the early ecumenical creeds and reformational confessions) trumps philosophy (the discipline that takes as its subject matter, and aims at, the truth of the nature of reality, knowledge, and right and wrong). For Oliphint, the primary concern is of foundations. That is, existence and knowledge must have their starting points, and Oliphint believes that these must come from ‘without.’ Neither can be self-generated, or else man is left in the dark with contingency and relativism. It is Christian theology which shows our necessary starting point: one in whose nature existence and knowledge are intrinsic (God). This starting point is subsequently necessary for all other disciplines, including philosophy. An additional implication that Oliphint highlights is that the starting point is itself certain and immediate, but also indemonstrable. God must reveal himself, so that we may know him. This revealing is constituted under covenant (a relationship between God and man). Unfortunately, man broke this relationship by sinning, and his reason became darkened, and it is only God who can enlighten man’s reason in faith. Darkened reason will never arrive at the truth of God, and enlightened reason is always subject to faith, although it remains useful for the theological and philosophical tasks. Reason, like philosophy, has its foundations in God.
The Convergence Model
Timothy McGrew proposes the Convergence Model. He sees philosophy as confirming Christianity, and Christianity completing philosophy. Although philosophy is a discipline without a set of substantive beliefs, it may operate in a complementary capacity to Christianity. McGrew believes that it indeed does if one begins with philosophical foundationalism. This position holds that there are self-evident and properly basic beliefs, which one is justified in holding, that can provide the foundation for other beliefs. In essence, we may begin from ‘ourselves.’ Knowledge need not be externally dependant. Furthermore, McGrew sees foundationalism as providing the necessary backdrop for the long tradition of natural theology, in which arguments for the existence of God are made, independent of a particular or special revelation. Two such arguments that McGrew employs in his chapter are the kalam cosmological argument and the moral argument. He then moves to articulating a defense against the logical problem of evil. From natural theology, he next examines evidences for Christianity itself, and provides an argument for the historicity of the Gospels. If there are good reasons to believe that the Gospels are true, this brings up the question of the validity of miracles, which McGrew addresses last. We see then that philosophy operates in a confirmatory role as McGrew examines arguments for and against God’s existence and evidences for Christianity.
The Conformation Model
Paul K. Moser details a Conformation Model. He envisions philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom, and sees true wisdom as being found only in Christ. Philosophy must therefore be conformed to the lordship of God in Christ. For Moser, the wisdom found in Christ is mostly antithetical with the wisdom of a general philosophy, like that of Plato or Aristotle. Although, Moser does also believe that all true wisdom is of God, wherever it may be found, so that there remains some philosophical truths that are salvageable in a philosophy conformed to Christ. To support his view, Moser appeals to scripture, specifically 1 Corinthians in which Christ is described as the power and wisdom of God. It is this wisdom that is found only in the message of the gospel—the love of God in Christ crucified and resurrected—which is at odds with worldly wisdom. Subsequently, Moser rejects the ‘speculative’ arguments of natural theology, because they ignore God’s unique self-manifestation in Christ. He believes that we can only know God by experiencing him, and are provided personal assurance and evidence of who he is and of our redemption by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Just as grace is solely of God, so must knowledge of God also be.
As may be noted, the views presented are widely divergent, but there is an interplay between philosophy and Christianity in each. There remains a role and purpose for both. Each view also carries immense and foundational implications for the task of Christian apologetics. It is up to the apologists to wrestle with the arguments presented, and sort out for himself or herself how philosophy and Christianity relate. One’s apologetic can only be strengthened in doing so. For this reason, I recommend Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy to anyone wishing to form a more robust and coherent apologetic.