The Missing Links – Sept. 9, 2011

Peter Adamson, Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at King’s College London, takes listeners through the history of Western philosophy, “without any gaps.” Beginning with the earliest ancient thinkers, the series will look at the ideas and lives of the major philosophers (eventually covering in detail such giants as Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant) as well as the lesser-known figures of the tradition.

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The purpose of this site is to set [the] contemporary ‘God Wars’ in their historical context, and to offer a range of perspectives (from all sides) on the chief issues raised by the ‘new atheists’. We hope this will encourage more informed opinion about the issues, discourage oversimplification of the debate, and deepen the interest in the subject.

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Edgar Andrews answers this question in an article written for the Christian Apologetics Alliance.

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Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
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  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    Philosophy Word of the Day — Omnibenevolence

    Whereas classical Greek religion ascribed to the gods very human foibles, theism from Plato onward has affirmed that God is purely good and could not be the author of anything evil (Republic). . . .

    As to our knowledge of divine goodness, Aquinas separates the order of being from the order of knowing: all goodness derives from God but we understand divine goodness by extrapolating from the goodness of creatures. For Aquinas, this requires an analogical (as opposed to an equivocal) relationship between divine and human goodness. For Kant, divine goodness is known as a postulate of pure practical reason: God must be there to reward virtue and punish evil.

    The greatest challenge to belief in divine goodness has been the fact that evil exists, or more recently, the amount and type of evil rather than the mere fact of it. The problem is lessened if it is acknowledged that divine goodness does not require that each creature always be made to experience as much happiness as it is capable of experiencing. Reasons may include, for example, that: it is impossible that all creatures collectively experience maximal happiness (e.g., because the maximal happiness of one precludes the maximal happiness of another), or that there is some higher good than the happiness of all creatures (e.g., John Hick’s view that maturity is that higher good, and acquiring it may entail some displeasure), or that some forms of good are manifested only when certain types of evil exist (for example, forgiveness requires wrongdoing . . . ); or because God’s favor is undeserved and not given in response to merit, it cannot be owed and God cannot be faulted for not giving it. (See full article)

    — Brian Morley, “Western Concepts of God,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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    Philosophy Word of the Day — Omniscience

    “While a few like Avicenna and Averroes seem to have held that a God who lacks certain types of knowledge would be more perfect, most have claimed that God knows everything. This is sometimes refined, for example, to the claim that God knows everything that is logically possible to know.

    “An area of concern going back to Aristotle (On Interpretation 9) is the claim that propositions about future contingent events (that is, those whose causes are not determined by past events) have no truth value. If so they are unknowable, even by an omniscient being (a view held in modern times by so called Open Theism). Some have claimed that even if future events have a truth value, they are logically unknowable. Of special concern is the relationship between omniscience and human free will: if yesterday God knew infallibly that I would do x today, it seems I have no alternative but to do x today–a conclusion that seems to violate free will.

    “To solve this, Boethius and Aquinas appealed to the concept of God’s timelessness, which entails that none of God’s knowledge is past or future. Aquinas also said that God determines all events and determines that they will be done freely. De Molina objected that this amounts to removing free will. He constructed his own view, which said that God’s knowledge is logically prior to his decree of what will be. God knows what an individual will do in all possible circumstances (a capacity called middle knowledge), and he decrees those circumstances in which a person freely cooperates with the divine plan. Thus foreknowledge is compatible with free will.

    “Others have conceded that foreknowledge is incompatible with free will but claim that God voluntarily limits his knowledge of future events so that there can still be freedom. This makes omniscience a matter of having an ability to know rather than having specific knowledge. Another solution to the problem of omniscience and freedom challenges the idea that God’s knowledge limits future free actions in any way. While God knows necessarily that I will do x tomorrow that does not entail that it is necessary I do x. What God knows is what I will freely choose to do. So God knows today that I will do x tomorrow because tomorrow I will freely choose to do x. But if tomorrow I choose to do y, then today God knows that tomorrow I will do y. This view is consistent with what we know about less than infallible knowledge of future events. I may know that a person will choose steak over bologna though I in no way influenced their choice.” (go to article)

    — Brian Morley, “Western Concepts of God,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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    Philosophy Word of the Day – Moral Character

    Plato and Aristotle
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    At the heart of one major approach to ethics—an approach counting among its proponents Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas—is the conviction that ethics is fundamentally related to what kind of persons we are. Many of Plato’s dialogues, for example, focus on what kind of persons we ought to be and begin with examinations of particular virtues:

    What is the nature of justice? (Republic)
    What is the nature of piety? (Euthyphro)
    What is the nature of temperance? (Charmides)
    What is the nature of courage? (Laches)

    On the assumption that what kind of person one is is constituted by one’s character, the link between moral character and virtue is clear. We can think of one’s moral character as primarily a function of whether she has or lacks various moral virtues and vices.

    The virtues and vices that comprise one’s moral character are typically understood as dispositions to behave in certain ways in certain sorts of circumstances. For instance, an honest person is disposed to telling the truth when asked. These dispositions are typically understood as relatively stable and long-term. Further, they are also typically understood to be robust, that is, consistent across a wide-spectrum of conditions. We are unlikely, for example, to think that an individual who tells the truth to her friends but consistently lies to her parents and teachers possesses the virtue of honesty. (Continue article)

    (Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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    Edwards on Knowing Doctrine to Be Divine

    Here’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” where he describes how believers possess certainty of the truth of biblical doctrine.

    A true sense of the divine excellency of the things of God’s Word doth more directly and immediately convince of the truth of them; and that because the excellency of these things is so superlative. There is a beauty in them that is so divine and godlike, that is greatly and evidently distinguishing of them from things merely human, or that men are the inventors and authors of; a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divinity, and reality. When there is an actual and lively discovery of this beauty and excellency, it won’t allow of any such thought as that it is an human work, or the fruit of men’s invention. This evidence, that they, that are spiritually enlightened, have of the truth of the things of religion, is a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence. They believe the doctrines of God’s Word to be divine, because they see divinity in them, i.e. they see a divine, and transcendent, and most evidently distinguishing  glory in them; such a glory as, if clearly seen, don’t leave room to doubt of their being of God, and not of men.

    Alvin Plantinga cites descriptions like these from Edwards (e.g., Warranted Christian Belief, 100-101) in support of his extended A/C (Aquinas/Calvin) model of warranted Christian belief, in which the believer acquires knowledge (both true and warranted belief) of “the great things of the gospel”– a phrase borrowed from Edwards — by the internal testimony or instigation of the Holy Spirit.

    The believers described above by Edwards could be understood to be those on Plantinga’s model who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to believe in the divine origin and truth of core biblical teachings.  They possess “a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence” and “see divinity” in the “things of God’s Word.

    Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology makes a lot of sense to me, and he and Edwards seem to be in agreement on at least this point.

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