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A review of
Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response
InterVarsity Press Academic, 2015
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Reviewed by Joe Krall
“What are you doing, Joe?”
“I’m reading a book for my internship!”
“Oh, cool. What’s the book?”
[reads the title]
“Wow…Okay, have fun with that.”
I’ve had at least six versions of this conversation since starting Kevin Diller’s Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma this summer. So let me quickly assure you that this book, a volume of analytic theology, is one of the best things I’ve read all year.
A professor of philosophy at Taylor University, Diller attempts in this book to critically and clearly about God’s revelation and how we know God. This is no abstruse research project, but a task with practical implications for Christian doctrine and practice. If you’re looking for an academic review of analytic precision, this review may cause you to shake your head in disappointment. But I learned much reading Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma, and I wish to pass that on, however imperfectly, to the readers of The Englewood Review of Books.
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge: how we do know what we know? The “epistemological dilemma” of the title is that theological knowledge is, by definition, the knowledge of God – yet any human way of communicating theological claims is subject to human weakness (in both delivery and interpretation). We are left with a form of skepticism – how can we claim to know anything about God?
Of course, as any bright young philosophy major will cheerfully tell you, extreme skepticism does not stop there: how can we claim to know anything about anything? Diller allows that skepticism gets at key epistemological issues, but argues that we need not stay skeptical: the fact “that an independent, noncircular argument cannot be marshaled to prove that knowledge is possible is not a liability” (31). Diller begins with human knowledge of an independent reality as a self-evident possibility, and goes on to present a constructive proposal about specifically theological knowledge. This proposal is based on the work of a pair of Christian thinkers: Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga.
Barth, arguably the preeminent theologian of the 20th century, famously founds all theological knowing on God’s own self-revelation. If we know God, or anything about God, it is only because God has revealed that truth to us. Moreover, while Barth (as Diller helpfully points out) believes that “Speech, including God’s speech, is the form in which reason communicates with reason” and that Scripture has supremacy as the form of revelation, Barth does not believe that “knowledge of God” can be simply read off from Scripture. “Knowing God is personal, cognitive, participative knowing,” not merely knowledge of propositions (54). The “danger,” against which Barth vigorously protests, is that we would suppose, by our own power, “the knowledge of God can be read directly from the data of given experience, whether subjectively or empirically” (89). But doesn’t this make gaining knowledge God impossible with just our own power? Barth would say yes! How intellectually credible is such a claim?
Here, Diller engages the thought of Plantinga, one of the most prominent analytic philosophers of the past forty years. Diller notes that “The vast majority of philosophers…are in agreement that knowledge requires something more than belief and a belief’s happening to be true” (113). Plantinga proposes that a third ingredient is necessary: warrant. Warrant, in Plantinga’s somewhat opaque definition, “is a normative, possibly complex quantity that comes in degrees” (113). Of course, if we need warrant for knowledge, how do we get it? Plantinga’s response reframes our question: we find often find ourselves with beliefs that were not formed deliberately, but still seem “right, acceptable, natural . . . somehow inevitable”; for this reason, Plantinga “rejects the notion that our beliefs are determined by deliberative choice” alone (116). This leaves us in a position of “epistemic dependence with regard to warrant” – there must be a “design plan” external to our beliefs and grounding them, and our possession of warrant is “dependent on both an environment and cognitive faculties oriented toward and functioning in accordance with this plan” (117).
Two controversial claims: the only source of our knowledge of God is God, and the warrant for our beliefs is ultimately dependent on our circumstances outside our control! These claims will already be raising flags amongst readers of all backgrounds, so let me briefly say how Diller makes the claims dovetail. Let’s grant Plantinga’s epistemic backdrop: our knowledge is dependent on something outside ourselves. Plantinga then offers a Christian scenario for receiving knowledge of God: God guides our belief-forming processes. God’s self-revelation is the external grounding that provides us warrant. In sum, God alone gives us knowledge of God. This is what Barth claims as well! Note that neither Barth nor Plantinga offers a positive argument for their positions. Barth proclaims boldly what Plantinga presents as a possibility: knowing the truth of God and the truth of Christian belief does not need any other foundation than God revealing truth to our own minds. It is pre-eminently “a knowledge of God ‘wholly without weapons’” (165).
Barth and Plantinga both have been extensively criticized, and if this summary made you want to lodge a protest against either – or myself, for having painted with such a broad brush – I strongly commend to you a close reading of this book. Diller engages major objections against both thinkers, and, against those who think Barth and Plantinga are incompatible, makes a strong claim for the harmony of their thought.
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