Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology

Article by   April 2007

Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, and so a direct academic descendent of Cornelius Van Til. At the outset of the book he pays tribute to CVT, and says that although he is rarely mentioned in what follows, his fingerprint is on every page. Oliphint sets out his view of the relation of philosophy to Christian theology in a very broad way, the body of the work being taken up with a discussion of basic epistemological and metaphysical issues, which are then put to work in a short series of implications and applications. To my way of thinking these discussions start and stop too quickly, and leave a good few loose ends. But the general trajectory of them is to be welcomed. It is that in the discussion of the relation between theology and philosophy, and the trading between them, Christian theology should have priority. Philosophy should be in the service of Theology, as the book's cover tells us. In this review I shall concentrate my remarks on this point.

Since the death of Van Til in 1987 there have been two very significant developments that are relevant to an understanding of the relation between philosophy and theology in Reformed theology. One has been the rise and rise of the influence of Alvin Plantinga, who in a monumental body of work (culminating so far in Warranted Christian Belief in epistemology and the Nature of Necessity in metaphysics) has set forth epistemological and metaphysical ideas and arguments that illuminate and do not (in the main) compromise a generally Calvinistic outlook. This body of work is nevertheless integrated with the language and some of the distinctive theses of current epistemology and metaphysics in analytic philosophy. The second development is the recovery of interest in and appreciation for Reformed Scholasticism, as can be seen in another equally monumental body of work, Richard Muller's four volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.

Professor Oliphint is living with these changes. The fingerprints of Plantinga and Muller are on every page. His mentor CVT adopted a buttoned-up, belt and braces approach to the relation between the Reformed faith and philosophy. While himself (apparently unselfconsciously) using the language of his Idealist mentors such as Josiah Royce, he quoted philosophers only to refute them, and it seems had little positive appreciation of anything in theology that occurred between the death of Calvin and the birth of Abraham Kuyper. In this book there is evidence that Oliphint wears looser fitting clothes. To change the metaphor, he has opened the windows. Not only to Plantinga and to Muller's Reformed scholastics, but also to the 'genius' of Thomas Aquinas and to others.

I must say that I, for one, warmly welcome all this. The fresh air cannot but be beneficial. Why is that? For one thing, Oliphint seeks to reposition Reformed Theology where it has historically been situated, in the rich and varied tradition of debate and discussion between philosophy, arising from Greek culture, and Christian Theology which, in its Reformed variant at least, seeks to be obediently faithful to Holy Scripture. Plantinga's work is in this line. For another thing, the working relationship that Oliphint is endeavouring to establish (or rather, to re-establish) between Reformed Theology and philosophy is appropriately eclectic, as the work of Muller has shown. Reformed theologians (with few exceptions) have never been Aristotelian or Platonic or Stoic, Thomist or Scotist, Cartesian, Leibnizian or Edwardsean. The idea that, besides Theology, a 'Christian Philosophy' has to be constructed has largely been shunned. The Reformed tradition has not allowed itself to be taken over by any one philosophical outlook, but it has appropriated elements from here and there as it has seen fit. Theology has called the shots. This is, alas, not the temper one finds in much current 'Christian Philosophy', despite the benign influence of Plantinga. All too often theology is allowed to trail behind the latest philosophical idea. Oliphint is quite right to draw our attention to all this.

As was said, within the welcome 'Faith Seeking Understanding' trajectory endorsed by Oliphint, there are many loose ends that call for comment. This is, in a way, how it should be. I am tempted to tug away at some of these ends, but I shall resist the call. That'll do for now.

Scott K. Oliphint / Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006
Review by Paul Helm, Professor Emeritus of University of London



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