Book Review

"Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology" by K. Scott Oliphint

Michael Vendsel
Kenneth Scott Oliphint
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

Scott Oliphint's Reasons for Faith is an attempt to address several of the problems in contemporary philosophy of religion and demonstrate that "Reformed thought, centrally set forth in [Cornelius] Van Til's works… has already broached virtually every discussion now in play." His perspective is broader, though, than simply Van Til (in fact, Van Til is not explicitly mentioned very often). He argues that "the…consistency of a Reformed apologetic was applied and demonstrated in much, if not most, of the concerns and responses of the Reformed orthodox in the seventeenth century." His aim, then, is to show that there is philosophical value in the entire Reformed tradition. As such, he hopes that "Christians who are philosophers…will be convinced that their endeavors philosophical can be conducted only on the basis of the principia of Reformed orthodoxy."

The book divides into a discussion of metaphysics and epistemology followed by a discussion of free will and the problem of evil. The overarching concern of the first part of the book is "the delineation of the relationship of God to His creation." The philosophical treatment of this problem, he says, has historically been "altogether turbid, murky, opaque, not to mention simply fallacious." In support of this claim he surveys the history of this discussion from Plato up to the contemporary period. He notes that there is an impressive diversity of conclusions in this history and that each of them ends up with a God significantly unlike the biblical God. He suggests that the reason for this is an over-readiness to retool the doctrine of God to fit with the nature of creation.

At this point Oliphint attempts to lay out a Reformed framework for approaching this problem. That framework begins with the recognition of God's aseity or utter independence. To begin this way means denying that any part of God's being is imparted to him from anything outside of himself. This requires, of course, that everything else be in complete subordination to God, which itself means that there is a fundamentally different sort of existence for God than for other things. "Creatures think as creatures, know as creatures, exist as creatures, and so forth," but God "has nothing essentially creaturely about Him. He exists as a non-creature, thinks as a non-creature, knows as a non-creature, and so on." In Reformed orthodoxy, this was articulated by way of a distinction between God as archetype or Eimi and creation as ectype or eikon.

Given this distinction, it is questionable to give primary place to the creation when thinking about God; the only basis for knowledge of God is some sort of self-disclosure on his part. As Oliphint puts it, "Our understanding of God must come, first, from who he is as revealed, not first from what creation is like." To disclose himself, however, God has to condescend; he has to reveal himself in ways that are intelligible to his creatures but which do not belie what he is as uncreated. This means describing himself as infinite and eternal by means of that which is finite and temporal in a way that is genuinely revelatory while avoiding dilution. As Oliphint puts it, the Eimi and the eikon must be brought together.

An obvious example of this sort of condescension is God's use of human language, but the same dynamic is at work in God's actions in human history. Oliphint offers the example of the burning bush: "what we see in Exodus 3…is the "I AM", the "Eimi", taking on an eikon, an image, in order to show His limited creatures just who he is and what He is like." And the preeminent example of this, of course, is Christ himself, who is the apex of God's revelation.

That said, it is important to note that Christ entered into human history in such a way that his humanity and divinity were both fully real but never conflated. This provides a framework, Oliphint suggests, for thinking about God's relationship to his creation more generally. Whenever God relates to his creation, he does so by taking on certain properties without diluting or changing who he is eternally. Just how he can do that is a matter of profound mystery, but it is no more impossible than is the Incarnation itself. The form of the Incarnation, then, is the touchstone for all discussions of God's relationship to creation. "It is in the Incarnation that we see supremely how God can relate to His creation without in any way changing His essential character or becoming less than God."

The closing chapters of the book bring these observations to bear on the question of free will and the problem of evil. Free will is often used as a means of placing the blame for evil on humans rather than God. In most cases, however, the view of freedom involved is one that precludes God's sovereignty over the future, so that, as mentioned above, one of God's attributes is compromised to accommodate creation. As an alternative to this, Oliphint suggests something like an incarnational model of human freedom where God's providence joins together the fully divine decree and the fully human (and thus free and responsible) choice in the same way that he joined together the divine and the human in Christ. While the mechanism behind this might be mysterious, we should be willing to accept that mystery if we are willing to accept the Incarnation.

Reasons For Faith is not written for a general audience-those without a background in philosophy and theology may find it difficult going. Those with such a background, however, may find some of the philosophical surveys and discussions too brief and therefore oversimplified. But even with these liabilities, Reasons For Faith makes a number of provocative suggestions about the manner of a Christian approach to philosophy. It is a worthwhile read for those interested in the intersection of theology and philosophy and serves as a valuable addition to the body of Reformed apologetic literature.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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