Whenever I teach on Barth, the aspect of his theology that routinely generates the most interest and angst is his doctrine of revelation. Notice, I didn’t say his doctrine of scripture. That’s a fun topic as well, but I find that students are more energized talking about what Barth means by revelation, what implications that has for what it means to say that we know God truly and can say true things about him, why Barth rejected natural theology, and so forth. By the time we’re done, everyone, even those who still disagree with him strongly, have found something to chew on. But we almost never have time to explore those issues as thoroughly as we’d like.
I’ve had similar experiences talking with students about Alvin Plantinga’s “reformed epistemology.” It’s a challenging topic, but once we get into it, students begin to realize why epistemology matters: What is knowledge? What is truth? What does it mean to say that an idea or belief is true? How do we know God? How does sin affect the extent to which we can really know God? And so on. Although Plantinga is far from the only one raising these questions, he offers a great starting point: theologically nuanced, philosophically sharp, and extremely thorough. But once again, unless you’re teaching an entire class on the subject, you only get to scratch the surface.
That’s where Kevin Diller’s new book on theological epistemology comes in. Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (IVP Academic, 2014) brings Barth and Plantinga together in a creative dialog that (to my knowledge) has never been attempted. Indeed, many would have assumed that such a dialog would have been almost impossible. After all, how can you have an interesting conversation between a professional philosopher who supports natural theology (Plantinga) and someone with a reputation for denouncing philosophy at every turn and rejecting natural theology as the tool of the antichrist (Barth)? Actually, that would probably be a very interesting conversation, but I’m not sure how productive it would be!
But Diller argues that not only are Barth and Plantinga not on different theological planets, they’re actually asking many of the same questions and offering highly compatible answers. In the process of explaining what he means, Diller offers an outstanding study of two of the most important modern voices in theological epistemology. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I am friends with the author, we studied at St. Andrews together, and I picked up the book with a strong disposition toward liking it. But I don’t think any of that changes the fact that it’s an excellent book well worth reading for those interested in these kinds of questions or in either of these two figures. It will be particularly helpful for those who know only one of these two thinkers and would like to see how that person’s ideas relates to an important contribution from another field.
The real focus of the book is showing how Barth and Plantinga both offer important and compatible answers to “theology’s epistemological dilemma.” Here’s how Diller defines the problem at the beginning of his introduction.
More often than not, the difficult conversations I find myself in these days stem from some kind of challenge to the credibility, reliability or relevance of Christian theology. These challenges are pointed, have serious consequences and influence theology at every interface–public, academic and ecclesial. At their root is the epistemological dilemma created by two indispensable but conflicting affirmations. Christians theologians are required to adopt a high view of theological knowledge while also maintaining a low view of the unaided capacities of the human knower to secure such knowledge. to use the biblical imagery, Christian theology must acknowledge itself an impoverished earthen vessel while daring not to diminish the value of the treasure it confesses.
More than occasionally, attempts to respond to this dilemma champion one of these affirmations at the cost of excluding the other. Consider the impact of relaxing one’s commitment to either of these competing assertions. If we abandoned conviction in the knowability, universality and war range of theological truth claims, then theology becomes impotent and largely irrelevant. To some degree, this has happened in the academy, where christian theology often persists by cultural inertia or morphs into something altogether different. On the other hand, if we relinquish affirmation of the weakness, inadequacy and fallibility of the Christian theologian, we violate our own theological principles, prove ourselves intellectually naive and–most seriously–threaten to abandon and distort the very object of theology. And, despite how well-intneioned, desperate attempts to demonstrate the credibility, reliability and relevance of Christian theology are perhaps the surest way to undermine it.
The point of this book is to promote a constructive through not desperate response that addresses and reframes this fundamental epistemological question confronting not only Christian theology but also Christian belief universally.
The rest of the book unfolds through an explanation of how Barth and Plantinga work their way through this dilemma. Each affirms both poles of the problem (real knowledge of God and the inadequacy of unaided human knowers) and, according to Diller, each responds to the dilemma with surprisingly similar answers. It would take too long to unpack the details of Diller’s argument, so you’ll have to read the book yourself to see what these thinkers have to say and why Diller thinks their answers are so similar. I’ll admit that I think the subtitle of the book is worded a bit too strongly. Although Diller succeeds in showing that these two thinkers offer remarkably compatible responses to this epistemological challenges, enough differences remain that I’m not sure we should speak of a “unified response.” But that’s a minor quibble at best.
In the end, if you want a book that will help you understand two of the most important Christian thinkers of the twentieth century and how they address what it means to know God truly as fallen and finite creatures, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma is for you.