Philosophers and Theologians

Most of the work considered in this book is by philosophers rather than by theologians. In the course of an interesting programmatic essay on the condition and prospects of Christian philosophy at the end of the twentieth century, Alvin Plantinga included a short section on philosophical theology, which he defined as 'a matter of thinking about the central doctrines of the Christian faith from a philosophical perspective; it is a matter of employing the resources of philosophy to deepen our grasp and understanding of them'. He drew attention to the excellent work that had been done in this area in recent years, but remarked that, unlike in the Middle Ages, theologians today 'don't seem to be doing the work in question'. 'I therefore hope I will not be accused of interdisciplinary chauvinism', he continued, 'if I point out that the best work in philosophical theology — in the English speaking world and over the last quarter of a century — has been done not by theologians but by philosophers.'

Curiously, this is not so true of the German-speaking world in the period in question. One of the most encouraging aspects of post-Barthian theology in Germany has been the readiness of scholars such as Wolfhart Pannen-berg,40 Ingolf Dalferth41 and Christoph Schwobel42 to show an interest in and to use Anglo-American philosophical analysis as well as their own continental resources. It is true that Pannenberg's work on the metaphysics of time, not least his retention of simultaneity in his attempt to articulate a more dynamic concept of eternity, is open to serious philosophical criticism. But the possibilities of dialogue and debate and mutual illumination between theologians and philosophers are nevertheless evident from the work of these scholars. And from the English-speaking world, while Austin Farrer's paradigmatic contribution dates from the 1960s, the more recent work of the American Lutheran systematic theologian, Robert Jenson,44 is also, in his case perhaps surprisingly, sympathetic to the philosophers. There is no hostility to philosophy on Jenson's part. He recognizes that theology entails metaphysics. It resists dependence on philosophy, of course, especially on a particular philosophical school. Rather, in conversation with philosophy, theology seeks the truth and coherence of the gospel. Two examples of the fruitfulness of this conversation may be given: Jenson's welcome stress on temporal infinity in talk of God (his criticism of Pannenberg is highly pertinent at this point45), and his wise retention, against both John of Damascus and Jean-Luc Marion, of suitably qualified talk of being where God is concerned.46 However, this does not preserve Jenson from a certain lack of philosophical perception at other points. In a footnote in his second volume, he accuses the present author of denying, in the course of treatment of the problem of evil, that God is both omniscient and omnipotent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point — and this a point brought out by many contemporary philosophers of religion — is that the concepts of omniscience and omnipotence have to be reinterpreted in terms of what it is logically possible to know and of what is compossible (i.e. jointly possible) given the purposes of creation. Much more will be said about these matters in what follows.

To return to Alvin Plantinga: Plantinga himself has concentrated more on negative apologetics and on the epistemology of Christian belief than on the philosophical analysis of Christian doctrine,48 although his work on the concept of God49 is important and will be referred to from time to time here. But his advice to Christian philosophers,50 to devote their attention and their energies to a specifically Christian agenda, has certainly borne fruit in much of the work I shall be surveying. A good example of this, and one that will provide much material for reflection in subsequent chapters, is the volume edited by R. J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement. It is interesting to note that this volume was the fruit of cooperative work by philosophers trained in theology and theologians very much aware of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. It was issued, the editors tell us in their introduction, 'in the hope that it will encourage cross-fertilization of ideas between analytic philosophers and theologians by displaying some of the fruit such efforts can yield'. A similar hope informs the present book. Admittedly the work surveyed here comes more, as I say, from the philosophical than from the theological side. The theologians are respectfully invited to take note and to reciprocate.


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