New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics – May 2013

God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered CultureRon Highfield (IVP Academic, February 2013) *

Does God’s all-encompassing will restrict our freedom? Does God’s ownership and mastery over us diminish our dignity? The fear that God is a threat to our freedom and dignity goes far back in Western thought. Such suspicion remains with us today in our so-called secular society. In such a context any talk of God tends to provoke responses that range from defiance to subservience to indifference. How did Western culture come to this place? What impact does this social and intellectual environment have on those who claim to believe in God or more specifically in the Christian God of the Bible? Professor of religion Ron Highfield traces out the development of Western thought that has led us our current frame of mind from Plato, Augustine and Descartes through Locke, Kant, Blake Bentham, Hegel, Nietzsche–all the way down to Charles Taylor’s landmark work Sources of the Self. At the heart of the issue is the modern notion of the autonomous self and the inevitable crisis it provokes for a view of human identity, freedom and dignity found in God. Can the modern self really secure its own freedom, dignity and happiness? What alternative do we have? Highfield makes pertinent use of trinitarian theology to show how genuine Christian faith responds to this challenge by directing us to a God who is not in competition with his human creations, but rather who provides us with what we seek but could never give ourselves. God, Freedom and Human Dignity is essential reading for Christian students who are interested in the debates around secularism, modernity and identity formation.

God or Godless?  One Atheist.  One Christian. Twenty Controversial QuestionsJohn W. Loftus and Randal Rauser (Baker, April 2013)

Perhaps the most persistent question in human history is whether or not there is a God. Intelligent people on both sides of the issue have argued, sometimes with deep rancor and bitterness, for generations. The issue can’t be decided by another apologetics book, but the conversation can continue and help each side understand the perspectives of the other.
In this unique book, atheist John Loftus and theist Randal Rauser engage in twenty short debates that consider Christianity, the existence of God, and unbelief from a variety of angles. Each concise debate centers on a proposition to be resolved, with either John or Randal arguing in the affirmative and the opponent the negative, and can be read in short bits or big bites. This is the perfect book for Christians and their atheist or agnostic friends to read together, and encourages honest, open, and candid debate on the most important issues of life and faith.

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character DevelopmentPhilip E. Dow (IVP Academic, April 2013)

Templeton Foundation Character Project’s Character Essay and Book Prize Competition award winner! What does it mean to love God with all of our minds? Our culture today is in a state of crisis where intellectual virtue is concerned. Dishonesty, cheating, arrogance, laziness, cowardice–such vices are rampant in society, even among the world’s most prominent leaders. We find ourselves in an ethical vacuum, as the daily headlines of our newspapers confirm again and again. Central to the problem is the state of education. We live in a technological world that has ever greater access to new information and yet no idea what to do with it all. In this wise and winsome book, Philip Dow presents a case for the recovery of intellectual character. He explores seven key virtues–courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, curiosity, honesty and humility–and discusses their many benefits. The recovery of virtue, Dow argues, is not about doing the right things, but about becoming the right kind of person. The formation of intellectual character produces a way of life that demonstrates love for both God and neighbor. Dow has written an eminently practical guide to a life of intellectual virtue designed especially for parents and educators. The book concludes with seven principles for a true education, a discussion guide for university and church groups, and nine appendices that provide examples from Dow’s experience as a teacher and administrator. Virtuous Minds is a timely and thoughtful work for parents and pastors, teachers and students–anyone who thinks education is more about the quality of character than about the quantity of facts.

Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem – Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evan, & Paul Copan, eds. (IVP Academic, April 2013).

The challenge of a seemingly genocidal God who commands ruthless warfare has bewildered Bible readers for generations. The theme of divine war is not limited to the Old Testament historical books, however. It is also prevalent in the prophets and wisdom literature as well. Still it doesn’t stop. The New Testament book of Revelation, too, is full of such imagery. Our questions multiply.

  • Why does God apparently tell Joshua to wipe out whole cities, tribes or nations?
  • Is this yet another example of dogmatic religious conviction breeding violence?
  • Did these texts help inspire or justify the Crusades?
  • What impact do they have on Christian morality and just war theories today?
  • How does divine warfare fit with Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek”?
  • Why does Paul employ warfare imagery in his letters?
  • Do these texts warrant questioning the overall trustworthiness of the Bible?

These controversial yet theologically vital issues call for thorough interpretation, especially given a long history of misinterpretation and misappropriaton of these texts. This book does more, however. A range of expert contributors engage in a multidisciplinary approach that considers the issue from a variety of perspectives: biblical, ethical, philosophical and theological. While the writers recognize that such a difficult and delicate topic cannot be resolved in a simplistic manner, the different threads of this book weave together a satisfying tapestry. Ultimately we find in the overarching biblical narrative a picture of divine redemption that shows the place of divine war in the salvific movement of God.

The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?John Leslie & Robert Lawrence Kuhn, eds. (Wiley-Blackwell, April 2013)

This compelling study of the origins of all that exists, including explanations of the entire material world, traces the responses of philosophers and scientists to the most elemental and haunting question of all: why is anything here—or anything anywhere? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not nothing? It includes the thoughts of dozens of luminaries from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Leibniz to modern thinkers such as physicists Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, philosophers Robert Nozick and Derek Parfit, philosophers of religion Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, and the Dalai Lama.

  • The first accessible volume to cover a wide range of possible reasons for the existence of all reality, from over 50 renowned thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, and the Dalai Lama
  • Features insights by scientists, philosophers, and theologians
  • Includes informative and helpful editorial introductions to each section
  • Provides a wealth of suggestions for further reading and research
  • Presents material that is both comprehensive and comprehensible

Mind, Brain, and Free WillRichard Swinburne (Oxford University Press, May 2013)

Mind, Brain, and Free Will presents a powerful new case for substance dualism (the idea that humans consist of two parts–body and soul) and for libertarian free will (that humans have some freedom to choose between alternatives, independently of the causes which influence them). Richard Swinburne argues that answers to questions about mind, body, and free will depend crucially on the answers to more general philosophical questions. He begins by analyzing the criteria for one event being the same as another, one substance being the same as another, and a state of affairs being metaphysically possible; and then goes on to analyze the criteria for a belief about these issues being justified. Pure mental events (including conscious events) are distinct from physical events and interact with them. Swinburne claims that no result from neuroscience or any other science could show that interaction does not take place; and illustrates this claim by showing that recent scientific work (such as Libet’s experiments) has no tendency whatever to show that our intentions do not cause brain events. He goes on to argue for agent causation, and claims that–to speak precisely–it is we, and not our intentions, that cause our brain events. It is metaphysically possible that each of us could acquire a new brain or continue to exist without a brain; and so we are essentially souls. Brain events and conscious events are so different from each other that it would not be possible to establish a scientific theory which would predict what each of us would do in situations of moral conflict. Hence given a crucial epistemological principle (the Principle of Credulity) we should believe that things are as they seem to be: that we make choices independently of the causes which influence us. According to Swinburne’s lucid and ambitious account, it follows that we are morally responsible for our actions.

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Would Christ Have Come Even If Man Had Not Sinned?

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“[T]he primary purpose of the Incarnation, according to the Christian creeds, was ‘for us and for our salvation.’  However, philosophically minded theologians have given some thought to the wider implications of that ‘for us.’  One way of doing so is to ask, as Austin Farrer did, whether Christ would have come even if the human race had never sinned.  Farrer’s answer was a categorical yes.

Christ would still have come to transform human hope, and to bring men into a more privileged association with their Creator than they could otherwise enjoy.  For it is by the descent of God into man that the life of God takes on a form with which we have a direct sympathy and personal union.

. . . [Richard] Swinburne expresses some doubt as to whether there are strong arguments allowing us ‘to say what God would have done under certain unrealized circumstances,’ but he does consider a number of reasons, over and above the soteriological ones, why God might well become incarnate.  Incarnation would manifest divine solidarity with God’s creatures; it would demonstrate the dignity of human nature; it would reveal the nature and extent of God’s love for his personal creatures; it would exemplify an ideal human life; and it would provide uniquely authoritative teaching.  A sixth reason, based on God’s willingness to subject himself to suffering and evil, spells out the themes of solidarity and love . . . ”

— Brian Hebblethwaite, Philosophical Theology and Christian Doctrine, 70-71.

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Alexander Pruss on the Argument from Beauty

In my view, this is a compelling argument. Richard Swinburne gives an argument from beauty in chapter 6 of his book The Existence of God.

Dr. Pruss distinguishes four varieties:

The argument from beauty, it seems to me, can come in four varieties, each asking a different “why” question, and each claiming that the best answer entails the existence of a being like God.

1. Why is there such a property as beauty?

This argument is the aesthetic parallel to the standard argument from morality. For it to work, a distinctively theistic answer to (1) must be offered. Parallel to a divine command metaethics, one could offer a divine appreciation meta-aesthetics. I think this gets the direction of explanation wrong—God appreciates beautiful things because they are beautiful. Moreover, if what God appreciates does not modally supervene on how non-divine things are, then divine simplicity will be violated. A better answer is that beautiful things are all things that reflect God in some particular respect, a respect that perhaps cannot be specified better than as that respect in which beautiful things reflect him (I think this is not a vicious circularity).

2. Why are there so many beautiful things?

The laws of physics, biology, etc. do not mention beauty. As far as these laws are concerned, beauty, if there is such a thing, is epiphenomenal. So, it does not seem that a scientific explanation of the existence of beautiful things can be given. But, perhaps, a philosophical account could be given of how, of metaphysical necessity, such-and-such physical states are always beautiful, and maybe then we can explain these entailing states physically. Or maybe one can show philosophically that, necessarily, most random configurations of matter include significant amounts of beauty, and then a statistical explanation can be given. But all that is pie in the sky, while a theistic explanation is right at hand. (Continue)

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Review – Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology

Harry J. Gensler of John Carroll University gives a helpful and sometimes humorous review of the new Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology.  One of my favorite quips: “the logical positivists of old must be rolling over in their graves!”


Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, Oxford UP, 2009, 609pp., $150.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780199289202.

This book has 26 essays by different authors, mostly from the standpoint of orthodox Christian faith but using tools from analytic philosophy, on topics like revelation, God’s omnipotence, providence, the trinity, and Islamic philosophical theology.

Part 1, which has four essays, treats theological preliminaries and emphasizes the sources of Christian theology. In the first essay, Richard Swinburne discusses revelation. While Christians generally regard the Bible as God’s word, there are problems in taking all of it literally. For example, one part of the Bible urges the extermination of the Canaanite people, while another part advocates non-violence, and Genesis, if taken literally, clashes with modern science. Early Christian thinkers like Origen and Augustine were aware of the apparent contradictions and cautioned against an exclusively literal reading; Augustine suggested that we not take a passage literally if it clashes with purity of life or soundness of doctrine. But why take the Bible as God’s word at all? Swinburne argues that we can know God’s existence from nature and that the Bible fits exceptionally well with how God could be expected to act. He contrasts this view with that of Plantinga, who argues that Christian beliefs are warranted if they are produced by a process put into us by God in order to lead us to the truth. (Continue)

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Online Encyclopedia of Western Theology

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I just discovered this nice-looking resource on the blogroll of A Time to Think – the Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology.  According to the site, it “contains articles written mainly by students of Boston University Modern Western Theology seminars.”

There’s a great list of articles on important figures in theology such as Augustine, Barth, Jonathan Edwards, Carl Henry, and Niebuhr, as well as significant topics like evangelical theology, Protestant liberalism, Pietism, and the social gospel movement.

Some important figures in philosophy make the list too:  John Hick, Kierkegaard, John Locke, Richard Swinburne, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

Looks like a fine resource for and by students of theology.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Eternity

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I will return to Part Two of the teleological argument soon, but for today – it’s eternity.

Sometimes used to mean simply the whole of time; but more usually used to mean a timeless realm (with no past or future) in which God lives.

Boethius defined it as the “total and perfect possession at once of an endless life.”  It seemed unthinkable that for God there should be a “no longer” and a “not yet.” Most Christian thinkers since the fourth century (unlike the authors of the Bible) held that God exists outside time, but in his timeless realm simultaneously acts at and knows about every moment of time.

It is, however, doubtful if this is a coherent claim—if God sees some event in 500 BC as it happens and sees some other event in 2000 AD as it happens, and all divine seeings are simultaneous with each other, then 500 BC must be the same year as 2000 AD—which is absurd.

Richard Swinburne, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford, 1995), 251.

For Further Reading

God and the Nature of Time, Garrett J. DeWeese

Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time, William Lane Craig

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Cosmological Arguments

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Cosmological arguments (from cosmos + logos: world + argument) are theistic arguments that have historically played an important role in natural theology.  The arguments attempt to infer from the existence of contingent (able to not exist) facts, events, or beings, “a first cause . . .  or a personal being (God).”

Since everything that exists depends for its existence on something else, and because this series of causes and effects can’t be infinite, the chain must end with something whose existence does not require an explanation.  Natural theologians argue that this is God.

Versions of the argument go back to Plato (Laws) and Aristotle (Physics and Metaphysics) and have been defended by Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), al-Ghāzāli (1058-1111), and Bonaventure (1221-74).

William Lane Craig distinguishes three different arguments under this umbrella, each with different emphases: the Leibnizian, the Thomist, and the kalam.

Notable critics have included David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and more recently Michael Martin, Quentin Smith, and Graham Oppy.

Modern proponents of various versions include Robert Koons, William Lane Craig, and Richard Swinburne.

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