Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Write-Up: Theology's Epistemological Dilemma, by Kevin Diller

Kevin Diller.  Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014.  See here for Intervarsity’s page about this book.

Karl Barth was a renowned twentieth century Christian theologian.  Alvin Plantinga is a Christian philosopher.  According to scholar Kevin Diller, their thoughts about how one knows God are compatible.  This is a remarkable thesis because Barth has been stereotyped as a theologian who did not care for philosophy, which is Plantinga’s field.

Where Barth and Plantinga overlap, according to Diller, is that both of them stress that people who know God do so because God reveals Godself personally to them.  For Barth and Plantinga, people do not come to know God through their reasoning abilities—-reasoning that there must be a God because the universe needed a cause, or because nature looks fine-tuned for life and that demonstrates that it had to have a creator.  Rather, for Barth and Plantinga, knowing God is a response to God’s personal revelation: God must take the initiative, and humans cannot arrive at knowledge of God on their own.

Of course, this raises questions.  Do Barth and Plantinga focus on the individual receiving God’s revelation, or do they believe that Christian community is significant?  (They believe that Christian community is very significant, as the setting in which God’s revelation takes place.)  Does rationality play any role in God’s revelation?  What is the significance of the Bible in God making Godself known to people?  Does Barth believe that divine revelation contains propositions, or is it simply God’s personal revelation of Godself, in a relational sense?  Throughout the book, Diller corrects what he considers to be misunderstandings of Barth and Plantinga.  For example, Diller states that Barth had no problem with philosophy, for Barth believed that philosophy could help one articulate what is being revealed.  And, while Plantinga did not believe that arguments for the existence of God were sufficient in giving people knowledge about God’s existence and what God is like, he still maintained that such arguments could be useful in helping believers who struggle with doubt, and that God could use arguments for the existence of God in revealing Godself to people.

An interesting discussion in Diller’s book concerned the interaction between Barth and Emil Brunner, another theologian.  Part of their debate concerned whether human beings had faculties within themselves that enabled them to know God.  My understanding is that that Barth said no, stressing God’s personal role in revelation, whereas Brunner said yes, while stressing that God’s grace was still necessary.  Diller often seeks to demonstrate that Barth and Plantinga are similar, saying that, when they appear to be different, one can see that they actually are compatible by understanding their own concerns, what they were addressing, and what each of them was trying to say.  (Diller acknowledges some differences, though.)  Based on Diller’s discussion, however, I would say that, on the issue of faculties, Plantinga appears to overlap with Brunner rather than Barth, for Plantinga believed that humans had faculties that made them aware of God, and yet that the Holy Spirit needed to renew those faculties for them to know God more fully because those faculties were undermined by human sin.

The greatest asset to this book is its clarity.  This would be a helpful book for people who want to understand Barth’s view of revelation, or to explain Barth’s view to others.  Diller’s explanation of Plantinga is good, too, even though it has more technical terminology.  This book clarified to me the thoughts of Barth and Plantinga, reinforcing where my understanding was correct and highlighting to me where it may be off.  Reading Diller’s book made me hope that he writes more about Barth’s thought, especially as I read blog posts on the Internet about Barth and end up scratching my head.  (In one blog post that I read, there was discussion about what Barth meant when he said that all people are in Christ, and if that means that they are saved or rather are in Christ ontologically, whatever that entails.)

There was also a down-to-earth quality to Diller’s book.  The earlier part of the book about epistemology is rather abstruse, but it becomes down-to-earth when Diller talks about Barth.  Diller asked the question of how Barth could believe that God revealed himself, yet remained hidden.  Does not God’s revelation imply that God is no longer hidden?  Later, Diller questions those who say that Barth denied that divine revelation was propositional, asking how God’s personal revelation would lack propositions about who God is and what God is like.  These are practical, common-sense questions, and I was pleased with how Diller addressed them and placed them within the context of Barth’s thought.  Barth ended up looking quite coherent and sensible after Diller’s attempts to clarify Barth’s thought.

Personally, I have questions about divine revelation.  If God indeed causes human beings to know God, why are there such different ideas about God, or doubts even among believers?  Why does the Bible itself seem to have a variety of ideas about God?  Diller addresses human subjectivity—-how one’s knowledge of God can be distorted by certain factors.  Diller also interacts with the Bible and argues that Barth’s thought is compatible with seeing the Bible as inerrant, even if Barth himself did not believe that it was.  While I respect Diller for making the effort to address the messiness of humanity and the Bible, I was not satisfied with his conclusions about such issues.  Moreover, I also wonder how Diller, Barth, or Plantinga would address the factor of Christians who believe there is a God, but do not actually know that for a fact.

My thanks for Intervarsity Press for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book.

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