Book Review: Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology) by Kevin Diller

Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology) by Kevin Diller, 2014, IVP Academic. 352 pp. 978-0830839063

In Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology), author Kevin Diller tackles a topic that has always been intriguing to anyone that thinks deeply about their theological beliefs. Let’s define three terms that are critical to understand this book.

Epistemology:  Is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about knowledge and belief and related issues such as justification, truth, types of certainty.

 Justification: a belief is said to be justified when a person fulfills his or her duties in acquiring and maintaining a belief. A belief is said to be justified when it is based on a good reason/reasons or has the right grounds or foundation.

Warrant:  another word for justification. Basically, if you have warrant, you’re not being dishonest by claiming that things you believe are true.

 Knowledge: Knowledge is a belief that is true and warranted or properly accounted for.

What is the dilemma? Diller sates that  “the epistemic problem we are seeking to identify is not the challenge to develop an independent, non circular, rational argument against radical skepticism. The epistemic problem is not that knowledge might not be possible. The epistemic problem that plagues theology has to do with criteria, conditions, content, and nature of something that is a real possibility” (pg, 31-32).

Anyone that has ever had any discussions about their Christian beliefs with others generally hear common objections or questions such as:

“How do you know there is a God?”
“How do you know the Bible is one true revelation from God?”
“How do you know Jesus is really God’s Son?”

Notice the issue of knowledge is at the forefront of these discussion. Obviously, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know there are a slew of philosophical, scientific and historical challenges that make the epistemic problem a pressing issue. Do Christians have justification or warrant for what they believe? What kind of verification test is there to know they even have any justification for what they believe?

Diller analyzes two of the most prominent Christian thinkers over the last century, Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga. Do either one of these influential thinkers provide any good reasons for Christians to say they are justified in what they believe?

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was one of the most influential theologians  of the twentieth century. It is important to note that Barth was not an apologist. In fact, his critique of nineteenth-century apologetics has had a  lasting impact. For Barth, the God of the Bible is “wholly other” and, therefore, cannot be approached using human arguments. Hence, if humans are to come to knowledge of God, it must be on God’s initiative in Jesus, the self-revelation of God. Therefore, for Barth, the best and only apologetic is to present God’s revelation as a tool against unbelief. Obviously, Barth was not a fan of evidentialist apologetics.

Let’s go ahead and define some other terms that are relevant to this topic. Natural theology is the practice of philosophically revealing on the existence and nature of God independent of revealed theology (Scripture). Thus, revealed theology/history is based on authoritarianism. Thus, God has revealed himself in history through a written text.

Barth wasn’t a fan of  natural theology. He was concerned that if humans attempt to drawn inferences about God from nature, they may end up making a god in our own image. For Barth, any rational thought is a benefit for those who already believed in God, and such belief could only come about by God’s revelation of himself. Unfortunately, Barth didn’t place as much emphasis on the fact that God has revealed himself in two books, Scripture and Nature. He only emphasized the one book approach which was Scripture.

In the end,  while I obviously believe in the role of divine revelation, I don’t think Barth provided any solutions to the epistemological dilemma. I have talked to plenty of people from other religions (i.e., Mormons, Muslims, etc.) who think their text is the true revelation. They want me to read it and I will just “know” it is true. Almost every Muslim tells me “We are taught to believe this…”“We are told this or that…”. So authoritarianism rules the day. But they offer no justification for their beliefs. So the bottom line is that if religious people start with their sacred text  (The Bible, The Quran, The Book of Mormon), they are begging the question that there is a God who is able to give a revelation. Also, how do they know that it is their god and not another god that has given the correct revelation?

In the end, while some disagree, I find Barth to be closer to fideism than anything else. Fideism asserts that faith and religious belief are not supported by reason. One must simply believe. Faith, not reason, is what God requires (Heb. 11:6). Many skeptics can speak from experience that Christians and other people from religious backgrounds don’t feel compelled to offer rational justification for belief.

So now we move on to Plantinga. I have a lot of respect for Plantinga and his contributions to Christian philosophy. Plantinga takes issue with what is called classical foundationalism, which requires that a belief be either basic, in which case it is either self-evident, incorrigible or evident to the senses; or nonbasic, in which case it is ultimately connected to basic beliefs by deduction, induction or abduction. Plantinga is correct that classical foundationalism rules out many propositions that we take as basic, such as that a person had lunch today, which is something we know from memory, not from other propositions. Plantinga doesn’t abandon foundationalism altogether, but asks the question, “Why can’t belief in God be properly basic?”

Thus, if people believe without evidence in other minds, or that the past goes back more than five minutes and that we had lunch, then why can’t Christians believe in God on the same basis? Plantinga relies heavily on Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, that awareness which all humans have of God through interaction with nature and their conscience. Thus, humans  are born with a capacity that can trigger an awareness of God. However, what makes this awareness evident to people may vary from one person to another. For Plantinga, people’s encounter with the world can provide an immediate awareness of God. For example, if two people are hiking on a mountain encountering the world of nature, they may simply know God exists. So this is more of an intuition, not an inference, nor a reasoning process by which we draw a conclusion. Intuition is an immediate awareness of something that makes us say, “I just know.” So this intuition of the awareness of God is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit and the way we are made. This is what allows Plantinga to say that it is basic. But this basic belief is not a conclusion  from other beliefs.

I commend Plantinga for his efforts here. I completely agree that very few people could and would have to master every argument for God’s existence before becoming a Christian. However, when I reflect on how both Barth and Plantinga’s methods play out when attempting to outreach and apologetics on a major college campus, there are some real challenges.  In this case, I don’t think either one provides a solution to the epistemological dilemma.  Then again, is it possible to arrive to a full blown solution to theology’s epistemological dilemma?

Upon reflection, after doing campus apologetics several years on a major university,  I am more favorable towards the classical apologetic method or the historical apologetic method. In the classical method, natural theology is utilized. Classical apologetics has been practiced by Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. Modern classical apologists also include Winfried Corduan, John Gerstner, Stuart Hackett, Peter Kreeft, C. S. Lewis, J. P. Moreland, and R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, and William Lane Craig. We start with first principles and what we can know about reality. We then move into history and then discuss the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, in my discussion with people, I am more interested in establishing plausibility conditions. I think one first establish it is plausible there is a God who wants to communicate with humans in the context of human history. But how do we know there is a God who wants to do that? And which God is it? Allah? The God of the Bible, or another God?

This is where I would utilize a book like Edward Feser’s Five Proof’s For the Existence of God. Then once the person agrees God does exist, I would then utilize historical apologetics and discuss the resurrection of Jesus. The historical apologist argues that one can show that God exists by demonstrating from the historical evidence alone that an act of God occurred, as in the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, Jesus is the supreme apologetic. If someone doesn’t care about natural theology arguments and is open to discuss history, I am all for going straight to the discussing who Jesus is. In discussing God’s existence and who Jesus is with people from other religious backgrounds, it is nearly impossible to bypass historical apologetics.

In conclusion,  I commend Diller for wanting to write a book on such a relevant topic. He also does a fine job of answering criticisms of both Barth and Plantinga. I am also well aware that both Plantinga and Barth appeal to people who are already in the faith. In the end, we need to utilize the two books approach, that being Scripture and Nature; in what he has said and in what he has done. I don’t think Barth nor Plantinga solve theology’s epistemological dilemma.