Why Philosophical Theology Fails

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 6, 2010 in Christian Theology,Guest Post

Below is another post by Common Sense Atheism guest blogger Ken Pulliam of Former Fundy.


Historically, many Christians have believed that philosophy and theology are enemies. Tertullian’s (160-220 CE) famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” is emblematic of this viewpoint. Tertullian, of course, was actually going back to Colossians 2:8, in which Paul warned the Christians to be leery of philosophy. Tertullian’s full statement reads:

From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?  What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!1

However, in the 1970′s a renaissance of interest in utilizing philosophy to better understand theology developed. Whereas philosophy had largely limited itself to basic questions such as the ones discussed in Philosophy of Religion classes, this new breed of Christian philosopher was interested in “making sense” of classic Christian doctrines, such as “Original Sin,” the Incarnation and the Atonement. Oliver Crisp explains:

In the 1970s and early 1980s Christian philosophers in the analytic tradition began to turn their attention to making sense of particular Christian doctrines, instead of restricting themselves to the more general topics that fall under the generic ‘rubric’ ‘classical theism,’ such as the concept of God, arguments for the existence of God and the problem of evil.2

Of course, this attempt to explain theology using the structures and methods of philosophical analysis was not new. It characterized many of the medieval theologians such as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, as well as later Protestant theologians such as Jonathan Edwards. However, after Kant, many theologians had given up on utilizing philosophy. Philosophers, post-Kant, had been skeptical of talking about theology since they were not sure that we could really know anything beyond our experience. Crisp writes:

[T]hose thinkers whose point of departure is Kant’s Copernican Revolution in philosophy, eschew large metaphysical schemes of thought because (following Kant) they are deeply skeptical that any such schemes are possible. All we can conceive of in our theology and philosophy is that which is phenomenal, a part of this world of sensation in which we live, not the realm of the noumenal, the eternal and unchanging, that is forever beyond us.3

Another problem for theologians who wanted to utilize philosophy was the logical positvism4  which dominated the first half of the 20th century. Logical positivists maintained that all “God-talk” was meaningless since it could not be verified empirically.

When logical positivism fell out of favor in the 1960s, the soil became fertile again for the rise of philosophical theology and philosophical apologetics. In 1967, Alvin Plantinga wrote his first volume, God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God, which laid the epistemological foundation for the resurgence of serious philosophical discussion of theological matters. In 1974, the Evangelical Philosophical Society5 was founded and in 1978, the Society of Christian Philosophers.6

This re-birth of “Christian philosophy” also corresponds to the renaissance of evangelical Christian apologetics. In 1976, Norman Geisler, a Christian philosopher in the Thomist tradition (Ph.D. Loyola University) published his first apologetic work, entitled Christian Apologetics, and Gordon Lewis published Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims. In 1981, William Lane Craig published his first apologetic work, entitled The Son Rises, and in 1984, Reasonable FaithIt was now acceptable for conservative Christians to make use of philosophical arguments in defense of the faith.

However, not all conservative Christians were receptive to this new marriage between philosophy and theology. Some Reformed theologians, especially those of the presuppositional school, were leery. That is because they saw philosophy as man’s reason usurping authority over sacred writ. In other words, philosophical theologians make it their goal to “make sense” out of Christian doctrines. They want to explain how such doctrines as original sin, the atonement, the resurrection, and so on, can be understood and explained philosophically. Philosophical theologians begin with the assumption that man is created in the image of God and is endowed with certain rational and moral sensibilities which make him able to “think God’s thoughts after him.”

Reformed theologians, on the other hand, have typically held that not only is man’s heart fallen but his head is fallen as well. In contrast to Aquinas, they have held that the image of God in man is so twisted and deformed that the unregenerate man can no longer “think God’s thoughts after him.” Man’s intellect is fallen as much as his will is fallen. They believe that is why Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 that the preaching of the cross was foolishness to the Greeks (i.e, the philosophical crowd). The Reformed would say that not only is it a waste of time to try to justify God’s ways to unregenerate man but, that more seriously, it exalts human reason to the place of ultimate authority. Philosophical theologians, in their opinion, are guilty of judging and evaluating doctrine based not on whether it is exegetically based in the Scripture but on the grounds of whether it makes sense logically and whether it is in tune with man’s moral intuitions. Thus, they view philosophical theology with great suspicion as having reformulated doctrine into a form that will be palatable to the unregenerate mind. In J. I. Packer’s words, they have surrendered the home field advantage to reason.7 According to Greg Bahnsen:

The Christian does not look at the evidence impartially, standing on neutral ground with the unbeliever, waiting to see if the evidence warrants trust in God’s truthfulness or not. Rather, he begins by submitting to the truth of God, preferring to view every man as a liar if he contradicts God’s word (cf. Rom. 3:4).. . . By trying to build up a proof of the resurrection from unbiased grounds the Christian allows his witness to be absorbed into a pagan framework and reduces the antithesis between himself and the skeptic to a matter of a few particulars.8

I have to agree with the Reformed presuppositionalists. It is not possible to explain rationally the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the Atonement. These doctrines, as well as other Christian doctrines, are filled with internal contradictions and inconsistencies. One would reject them as irrational, unless one had first presupposed that the Bible is a divine revelation and must be believed even if it doesn’t “make sense.”

The problem with presupposing the truth of the Bible is, of course, that it is merely “begging the question.” One has decided in advance that the Bible is true and will interpret all evidence to agree with that presupposition. For that reason, William Craig, a philosophical theologian and apologist, rejects presuppositionalism. He writes:

Where presuppositionalism muddies the waters is in its apologetic methodology. As commonly understood, presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of “petitio principii,” or begging the question, for its advocates presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism.9

So, I decided to reject Evangelical Christianity. Its doctrines can only be believed by sacrificing reason. If there really is a god(s), it doesn’t seem that he/she/it would require one to go against reason. I could accept the idea that revelation from a divine source might transcend reason but I cannot accept the idea that it would contradict reason. Revelation, in order to accomplish its function, must be understandable.

  1. On the Prescription of Heretics, ch. 7. []
  2. A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (2009), p. 1. Alvin Plantinga defines Philosophical Theology as “a matter of thinking about 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” (“Christian Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in James F. Sennett (ed), The Analytic Theist, An Alvin Plantinga Reader (1998), p. 340. []
  3. Crisp, p. 4; also see Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Is it Possible and Desirable for Theologians to Recover from Kant,” in Modern Theology 14 [1998]: 1-18. []
  4. Logical positivism is “a philosophical doctrine formulated in Vienna in the 1920s, according to which scientific knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge and all traditional metaphysical doctrines are to be rejected as meaningless.” (“Logical Positivism,” Encyclopedia Brittanica (2010).) []
  5. According to the Vision Statement on their website, “The Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS) is a professional society of Christian philosophers who are committed to a high view of biblical authority and who believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, intellectually persuasive, and rationally defensible in the marketplace of ideas.” Past presidents of the society have included: Norman Geisler, Gordon Lewis, Paul Feinberg, John Jefferson Davis, and Gary Habermas. The journal for the society is called: Philosophia Christi. []
  6. According to their website, the purpose of the Society of Christian Philosophers is “to promote fellowship among Christian Philosophers and to stimulate study and discussion of issues which arise from their Christian and philosophical commitments.” William Alston, Robert Merrihew Adams, Alvin Plantinga, Marilyn McCord Adams, George Mavrodes, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eleonore Stump, and C. Stephen Evans are among the past Presidents of the Society. Their journal is entitled: Faith and Philosophy. []
  7. The Logic of Penal Substitution (1974). []
  8. Greg Bahnsen, “The Impropriety of Evidentially Arguing for the Resurrection” (1972). []
  9. Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven Cowan (2000), p. 217. []

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Slowley August 6, 2010 at 4:19 am

Hold on, “I decided to reject Evangelical Christianity. Its doctrines can only be believed by sacrificing reason”, but Craig (who disagrees with the presuppositionalists) is an Evangelical…


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 5:29 am

Has Craig ever been asked if there is anything that he would accept — if proven beyond a reasonable doubt — that would make him stop thinking that the deity of Christianity is in fact real?

If he has answered, did his example allow for investigation and also allow an actual attempt to satisfy his example with an answer providing that reasonable proof?

My understanding is that the answer is no. As such, his position is as inflexible as the presupposationalists that have a kind of shared solipsism.

Corrections and details on what Craig’s actual point of view on this specific issue are appreciated.


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 5:31 am

Addendum: My understanding is that Craig has personal revelations of his version of the Christian deity existing, and thus does not allow for any refutations as that personal revelation is not something that he considers refutable.


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 5:48 am

Addendum 2: In other words, his revelation serves as his evidence and any philosophy is personally meaningless to him but is instead used to convince others who have not had that personal revelation yet.


Ken Pulliam August 6, 2010 at 5:54 am

Craig pretends that he is following reason and evidence but in reality he is not. He, as much as the presuppositionalist, has made a prior commitment to the Bible as truth and even if the evidence goes against the Bible, he will continue to believe. See this link.


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 6:06 am

Thanks for the confirmation Ken. I did not know that was the case, but I remembered hearing enough that I thought it was most likely the case.

Robert, do you think that Craig is not sacrificing reason as the presupposationalists do? If so, could you provide some insight?


G'DIsraeli August 6, 2010 at 6:06 am

A saying from the Jewish sages: “When philosophy is faith isn’t”.

Quite good article. I still don’t think it refutes all theism by saying they beg the question. Atheists many times do the same.
Still very annoying tho they would use reason to make there beliefs hold water, but not to contradict them (double standard).

Hey, maybe this fits in New bits better yet I think you would be interested: “Extremist positions on abortion are now completely mainstream in the Republican Party” -

Out of my favorite site on politics (LGF). Center Left.
A real honest guy runs it.


Ken Pulliam August 6, 2010 at 6:35 am

In re-reading my article, I am not sure I made my point clear. The reason that Philosophical Theology Fails in my opinion is that it is impossible to “make sense” of Christian doctrines such as the atonement, the incarnation, the Trinity, and so on. One believes these doctrines because of an appeal to religious authority not because of evidence or reason and when one tries to employ reason to understand the doctrines, one fails.


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 7:23 am

Ken Pulliam: [from blog post] The Reformed would say that not only is it a waste of time to try to justify God’s ways to unregenerate man but, that more seriously, it exalts human reason to the place of ultimate authority.

Ken, doesn’t that just nuke anything that the Reformed would want to say? They are left with only bare assertions, same many other contradictory or incompatible religions?

* * *

The more I look at religious claims, the closer they seem to be coming from the same place as fans of various types of fiction. I mean, in the Craig video that you linked to in your blog, Craig first talks about the character named ‘the Holy Spirit’ (that other non-Christians — contrary to his assertion — don’t see) and then right after that the character ‘Satan’. This is right in line with how many fictional stories are constructed. Additionally, Craig’s focus is on keeping it all within the Christian book club as he encourages ‘talking to other Christians’ and ‘living with unanswered questions’.

A slight shift, and nearly any other story could be swapped in as a replacement. This just screams to be used as fodder for satire.


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 7:25 am

[ Error: The first paragraph in my last post should have been blockquoted. ]


Dale August 6, 2010 at 7:26 am


Yeah, your comment just above is what I was thinking when I read it too.

When I read the title “Why philosophical theology fails” I kind of expected you to point out some inherent flaw within the whole endeavor, and you kind of hint at one when you quote 1 Corinthians and Tertullian, but then you don’t go on to develop this into some form of argument.

Instead your reason is that they have not made you convinced of these central christian doctrines reasonableness, which to be honest does not impress me very much, not because I disagree with you necessarily (although I do actually, but that is not relevant here) but because you have not shown *in principle* that these doctrines are unreasonable to believe.

Of course I guess you are sort of presuming your own critiques of these doctrines (like your series on the penal substitutionary model of the atonement).

I guess all I am saying is that I expected more from you, since I guess it could still be merely possible that these doctrines could, some time in the future, be reconciled with our minds in a satisfactory manner. Unless you were to show otherwise.

Consider it constructive criticism :)


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 7:29 am

Side note: I wish I could read faces. Craig keeps looking to the upper left as well as up, while his face often jerks back and forth as if he’s saying ‘no’ while he’s talking. I get the strong impression that he’s holding back and wants to either add something else or that he doesn’t believe something that he said. Maybe he’s attempting to convince himself as much as anyone else?


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 7:33 am

Dale, what is being offered as being reasonable to believe?

In the case of reason itself being jettisoned by some of those offering arguments for their position, what kind of dialog would be fruitful with them? They have assertions of knowledge that can’t be swayed, and so anything that could be offered to them will be a waste of time to communicate.


Dale August 6, 2010 at 7:44 am


Yes, I gather this is Ken’s problem with the presuppositional group and the apparently covert presup. group be Craig et al.

If you want a canned answer, craig would probably distinguish between ‘knowing a belief to be true’ and ‘showing a belief to be true’. So, a fruitful dialogue might look something like this:

Christian: I believe in the trinity
skeptic: How does the trinity even make sense?
Christian: Something to do with how water can be more than one state at a time
skeptic: But we are not talking about 3 forms of the same thing at the same time, but 3 different personalities and yet one.
Christian: uh… I don’t know what you just said, I kinda just believe it because it seems to be how the bible portrays it and I think God is revealed most fully in there.
Skeptic: So I can’t really believe then.
Christian: Lame. If only I was more awesome and could show my faith to be true.

That’s about as fruitful as I can imagine in terms of a conversation with an evangelistic context.

Perhaps if the skeptic were really generous, he might try and help out the Christian at this point, and then the dialogue might be fruitful. But at that point it might not be in an overtly evangelistic context.

There are probably fruitful conversations about these things between believers and non-believers who are philosophically trained happening all over the place, as long as you don’t require one person to make a change of heart in order for a conversation to be fruitful. I can think, for example, of the “my ways are not your ways conference’ with plantinga/fales/curly/swineburn/morristen etc. in it.


Ken Pulliam August 6, 2010 at 7:49 am


You are right that I did not prove my thesis that philosophical theology fails. That would be very hard to do given the space limitations. I have attempted to show this on my blog specifically with regard to the atonement. However, in this article, I was pointing out that I agree with the presuppositionalists (and with Paul and Tertullian) that it is impossible to “make sense” of the Christian doctrines. Thus, I think their attempt (the Philosophical theologians and apologists)fails.


tom c. August 6, 2010 at 8:02 am

This is an interesting post, but shouldn’t it be titled “Why Evangelical Christian Philosophical Theology Fails”?

Perhaps I’m quibbling, but it seems to me that different marriages between philosophy and theology will fail, or survive, based on the nature of the philosophical and theological traditions brought together.


Márcio August 6, 2010 at 8:04 am

I agree that there are some things that are difficult to understand in christianity (i don’t think that they are impossible to understand or irrational), but the only thing that really matters is very simple to understand.

We deserves to die because of sin.
Jesus died for us.
We are saved because of Jesus.

Very simple and rational for me!


Martin August 6, 2010 at 8:15 am


Regarding the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, have you read the comments on this post?


Steve Maitzen August 6, 2010 at 8:19 am


You wrote, “I could accept the idea that revelation from a divine source might transcend reason but I cannot accept the idea that it would contradict reason.” As for the second clause, you’re not alone in being unable to accept a revelation that contradicts reason. No one can. Suppose the Trinity is a doctrine that contradicts reason, i.e., is logically incoherent. (It may well be; I take no stand on that.) Anyone who’s prepared to accept the Trinity while conceding that it’s logically incoherent has no grounds for not denying the Trinity while also accepting it. Sure, that would be embracing something logically incoherent, but so what: the alleged believer is already prepared to do that. Nor can the alleged believer simply bite the bullet: Anyone who says “I accept and deny the Trinity” is talking gibberish.

About the first clause: What do you mean by “transcend reason”? I take it you don’t mean simply what’s unknown or even unknowable. We may never know if Goldbach’s Conjecture is true, but that wouldn’t mean it transcends reason, would it? Many things that aren’t provable a priori nevertheless don’t transcend reason. What could transcend reason?

(I’ve made a loosely related comment before, regarding Luke’s interview with Roger Trigg.)


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 8:30 am

Dale, thanks. I understand the example was intended to be as simple as possible, though I personally try and stay away from discussing the finer points of dogma or even their religious text. Basically, I’m not in their book club. The primary contention — that they claim a god really exists and they can say something meaningful about it — is what I usually focus on.

For example, while I was writing Márcio posted this message;

We deserves to die because of sin.
Jesus died for us.
We are saved because of Jesus.

Very simple and rational for me!

I could take apart each of those on a logical or scriptural basis, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. The last sentence is what I would identify as not following the three that proceeded it. It’s entirely disconnected with reality yet it is at the same time dogmatically asserted even though textually inconsistent on multiple levels.

Where’s the common ground with Márcio? He thinks it’s totally rational, while I see it as nothing but dogma wrapped in a blanket. If I were to ask Márcio to describe — using reason — how his conclusion is valid, I would probably not get reasons backed by independent sources but I would get yet more dogma and scripture with no referent outside that. I would be asked to believe first and then think second.

When reason is applied to the basic question of ‘do deities exist and what are they like?’, most of the effort by Christians is put towards the idea of a deistic style deity, not a Christian one. Then, after the plausibility of a deist deity is established (though not with positive evidence) there is a bait and switch where the Christian deity is swapped back in.

The worst thing about that? It’s the best that I’ve seen Christians do in actually supporting any deity, if not their own.


cl August 6, 2010 at 8:33 am

I didn’t quite get the point here. It came across as, “Ken sees contradictions and inconsistencies in various Christian doctrines, so philosophical theology fails,” but we all know that’s not a cogent argument.


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 8:35 am

I understood it, and found it informative. It’s not as simplistic as you describe, though.


Dale August 6, 2010 at 8:49 am

Hermes, fair point about you not wanting to discuss the finer points of Christian doctrine,

Marcio’s statement is not really an argument. Perhaps we could make much of the last two words “…for me”. Here is the only place I can see you have any common ground or something like that, in that at least in principle both of you are trying to be reasonable. Or truthful to yourselves or something like that. That is not much to go on really, and that was only really a brain fart that I had while thinking about what you said.

by the way, I should be clear that I myself am a Christian theist, who would probably identify most closely to evangelical theology, although coming from NZ, don’t attach 90% of the political baggage you get with American evangelistic church to me. And in fact my views on scripture would be considered by some to be um ‘sub-orthodox’ perhaps. My flatmate thinks I am outright heretical.

And yes, as far as natural theology goes, I also see a problem with the gap between say a philosophers god and a thoroughly Christian concept of God. I guess at some point one has to accept that God could reveal himself somehow beyond just human capacity to reason. Of course the question now is “who has the correct revelation?” and I really have no answer to that question at hand. Probably my biggest question ever. Some sort of argument around Jesus could work I guess. That has the benefit of historical analysis common to both parties (at least, in an ideal world), and from there one could perhaps establish that it seems plausible that God is revealed most fully in Jesus. But I don’t know what that argument would look like exactly, and I am hesitant to rely ont eh resurrection in this respect since I find myself unconvinced my Craig et al.’s arguments here, I don’t think the evidence rules it out, but I don’t know what it means for the historian to affirm the statement “God raised Jesus from the dead”. But, at the risk if completely hi-jacking this thread, I will stop.


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 9:06 am

Dale, thanks for the insight. FWIW, I don’t claim to know there are no gods. The deist and pantheist deities seem possible, for example. Every formulation of the Christian deity I’ve encountered, though, is either self-contradictory or so vague as to be incoherent.

This is not a comment on incomplete descriptions, though. Completeness is not required in the case of the deist or pantheist examples either and they are at least possible if not positively supported and thus plausible or even reasonably supported by evidence.

As I don’t claim to know for a fact if some set of deities exist or not, I’m an agnostic. Because I don’t believe there are any, I’m an atheist as well.


Matt K August 6, 2010 at 9:11 am

One thing that is completely glossed over here is that you give a (very abridged) discussion of the changing ways Christian theologians have viewed reason, but you don’t give any demonstration of the ways in which our conception of reason has itself changed over the same 2000 years. The sort of philosophy Tertullian descries, Kant’s critical philosophy, and contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophy (so beloved by atheists today) are three different things. Certain philosophical theologians today (John Milbank, for instance) work out of a very different philosophical tradition and address in a very straightforward fashion precisely the questions you raise. See, for instance, his essay in _The Monstrosity of Christ_, or his essays on these subjects, many of which are available online.


lukeprog August 6, 2010 at 10:09 am

Ken, shall I add the last two sentences of “in re-reading my article” somewhere in the OP?


Bryce August 6, 2010 at 10:11 am

Seems more like an overview of how some Christians throughout the centuries have viewed the relationship between philosophy and theology. It probably would’ve been more apt to point that there have been conflicting views, and leave it at that.

Presuppositionalism does make sense within the Reformed tradition; not that the Reformed tradition isn’t monstrous in its specific theological commitments.


Ken Pulliam August 6, 2010 at 10:23 am


What I mean by “transcend reason” is that it is not fully comprehensible. In other words, there could be some mysteries. However, if what is comprehensible in the revelation contradicts reason, then I don’t see how it can be true.


Ken Pulliam August 6, 2010 at 11:42 am


I don’t think its necessary.


Waldheri August 6, 2010 at 11:48 am

Excuse me if this question has already been asked, because I have not read all the comments, but don’t you think the title is a bit misleading? Essentially, you have equated philosophical theology with presuppositionalism and then rejected the latter. But there are other forms of philosophical theology. What do you think of the Christian theologians who aren’t literalists, but search for meanings and moral lessons rather than a history of the world? Rudolf Bultmann, who takes this very far, was all in favour of “demythologizing” the Bible, discarding any supernatural element of it?

Great article nonetheless!


Hermes August 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

Waldheri, I think much of what passes for Christian philosophy presupposes the conclusion so there’s quite a bit to equate.

One example handled early on in the comments was William Lane Craig (hmmm…three names) using philosophy heavily but not relying on it himself to draw his own conclusions. Read the first few posts and Ken’s link in the comments for specifics.


Ken Pulliam August 6, 2010 at 12:23 pm


I have not equated philosophical theology with presuppositionalism. Presup’s are totally opposed in principle to what the philosophical theologians are doing. As far as the title, I think I defined Philosophical Theology in the article and based on how I defined the term, I believe it fails to accomplish its task which is to “make sense” out of the classic Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement. Of course there are philosophical theologians such as Tillich and others that my criticisms would not directly apply to but Tillich and the others do not defend the classic doctrines of Christianity. Bultmann was not really a philosophical theologian, he was a NT scholar.


Daniel August 6, 2010 at 9:35 pm


An interesting piece. FWIW, I think you can beat down Aquinas much more effectively with a Kantian stick (as you seem to indicate early in your piece), rather than trying to make him fall with his 20th-century counterparts in the face of presuppositionalist objections. And unlike logical positivism, it seems to me, Kantian principles as established in the Critique of Pure Reason are on much more solid ground.

I don’t think Aquinas would agree with the philosophical theologians of the 20th century that you “explain” the Trinity or Incarnation (or prove their necessity or “make sense” of them). But I’m not familiar with them — I’m just basing that off what you said.

For Aquinas, you explicate the Trinity or Incarnation, using reason, in the sense that you show how they are not contradictory (or how the structures these articles of faith imply are logically possible). Reason comes into play further if anyone raises objections to these doctrines, of the form: “The Trinity is logically incoherent because of X” — then Aquinas would say that you use reason to defuse or refute these objections, but you don’t ever fully explain these mysteries using reason. They wouldn’t be mysteries (or articles of faith) if you did. The one exception for Aquinas, of course, is the existence of God: he has to say that it is an article of faith (since he buys into the Nicene Creed), but he also thinks you can prove it.

But it seems to me that, for all the talk about reason amongst the scholastics, reason is working as a sort of rear-guard action for Aquinas when it comes to the mysteries of his faith, saying what it can about them, showing how they aren’t (according to him) logically inconsistent and how they are logically possible, and refuting objections (from strict Monotheists, usually).

I know you’re engaged more with arguments against contemporary philosophical theologians, but I thought it was worth noting.


Ken Pulliam August 7, 2010 at 3:10 am


Thanks. Yes, Aquinas is much more nuanced than these contemporary philosophical theologians who are really apologists. Their goal is to try to show that the classic doctrines of historic Christianity do “make sense.” The reason I bring up the presuppositionalists is to illustrate the difference in thinking between two groups of conservative Christians. One holds that Christianity can be shown to be reasonable to the unbeliever whereas the other holds that it cannot. I agree with the latter (and when I was a Christian I was a presup.) but their problem is that they merely beg the question. BTW, Plantinga is a much more sophisticated variety of presupp. although he would eschew the label.


Tom.R August 7, 2010 at 5:30 am

The reason philosphical theology fails is because god does’nt exist.


Scott August 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm

There’s a great book by Walter Kaufmann (the Nietzsche scholar) called “Critique of Philosophy and Religion” where he uses the Bible itself to lambaste philosophical theology. Consider the story of Job, who questions why God does what he does, and is replied to with a verbal bitchslap. Or Doubting Thomas, who wanted proof of Jesus’s resurrection and Jesus replies, “Blessed is he who believes without seeing”. When your own holy text that you’re analyzing demands that you remain ignorant and obedient, you’re doing it wrong.


lukeprog August 7, 2010 at 9:13 pm


That’s very interesting!


G'DIsraeli August 8, 2010 at 2:06 am

That books looks great.
Reminds me also of book which is a local hit, but I just don’t see internationally.
Leszek Kołakowski came here to be awarded the Jerusalem Prize for his work.
He critiques religion via the biblical stories and god’s character, in a witty manner.
“Rozmowy z diablem” is what I’ve read.


Alex August 9, 2010 at 7:21 am

Matt K,

Certain philosophical theologians today (John Milbank, for instance) work out of a very different philosophical tradition and address in a very straightforward fashion precisely the questions you raise.

As someone who has studied John Milbank’s work extensively, I don’t see how he addresses these matters in a straightforward fashion – hell, that book is pretty bloody complicated! Plus, actually, I’m pretty sure he would endorse a bit of this analysis – that Kant blocked off discussion of transcendence, but with the supplement that Duns Scotus had already done as much through the univocity of being.

In the book The Monstrosity of Christ you mention, the idea is that the aporias of dialectical reason (displayed by Hegel and Zizek) are solved by the endorsement of paradox – for example the co-incidence of transcendence and immanence in matter itself proves “the eternally paradoxical existence of God as pure relationship”. Indeed Radical Orthodoxy’a MO has been discover an aporia in secular philosophy (or social theory, or economics) and suggest that transcendence, particularly Christian transcendence, provides the answer. Christian doctrines are rational in his reading, but require the supplement of faith as both the ground and the mystical opening to the insufficiencies of reason. They are not irrational, but cannot be captured by reason as such but require faith. I will allow an analysis of how similar this is to the stance of

Plus I’d add that Alvin Plantinga’s reformed epistemology has a few important structural similarities with Radical Orthodoxy, inasmuch as it states that God is permitted to be properly basic and reason as such is theologised – theologians and religious philosophers no longer have to attempt to justify themselves to neutral secular reason. Conor Cunningham’s work also has similarities to Plantinga in that it suggestions naturalism undercuts naturalisms own objectivity.


Alex August 9, 2010 at 7:21 am

I will allow an analysis of how similar this is to the stance of = I will leave an analysis of this position to the readers.


Matt K August 9, 2010 at 10:05 am

Alex, that’s a remarkably concise statement of Milbank’s work in _Monstrosity_. The reason I invoked Milbank rather than Plantinga is that Milbank challenges the assumptions and grounds on which this debate (over the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy and theology) takes place. Plantinga is content to do his work within the discipline of analytical philosophy, providing an account of theology’s coherence from within that discipline. But he leaves himself open to the objections raised here by ceding analytical philosophy’s terms. In other words, I’m not sure the original post does much beyond Tom.R’s comment above (nor does it necessarily need to). If your definition of reason is such that philosophical theology is a contradiction, then philosophical theology is going to fail.

But Milbank’s importance, as distinguished from Plantinga, is that he provides an account, not just of the aporias of secular social theory, but of how the secular disciplines of social theory, economics, analytical philosophy took root within theology itself. Milbank historicizes the picture of reason assumed in this post, leaving us with competing versions of reason, one of which (the logical positivistic one assumed by many atheists today) is simply the product of a very particular historical place and time, and which has no warranted grounds for its universalization of itself.

In other words, if Plantinga merely defends (Christian philosophers “don’t have to justify themselves any more”), Milbank goes on the offensive: secular reason itself has roots in particular visions of the world that it then erases in claiming to be universal. It needs to admit its own provincialism instead of masking itself as neutral, universal, and ahistorical.

In any case, perhaps “straightforward” was the wrong word. No, it definitely was the wrong word. Milbank is nothing if not frequently maddeningly obscure and difficult. But I do think he merits consideration as someone who helpfully complicates the rather simplistic version of the faith/reason debate that many atheists and Christians share.


Alex August 10, 2010 at 7:25 am

Good to have a conversation.

In other words, if Plantinga merely defends (Christian philosophers “don’t have to justify themselves any more”), Milbank goes on the offensive: secular reason itself has roots in particular visions of the world that it then erases in claiming to be universal. It needs to admit its own provincialism instead of masking itself as neutral, universal, and ahistorical.

I’m not fan of Plantinga, but I think this is not what he says and that his position is more similar to RO that you permit. What Milbank is saying is that a) discourses not referring to the transcendent are grounded in literally for him nothing – this includes politics, economics, social science, even natural science – early Milbank excepts the postmodern play as nihilistic and uses God to get us out of it b) that secular discourses have unacknowledged theological biases and therefore cannot be said to be neutral, universal and ahistorical – it is not the case just that secular reason has roots, but that the roots are theological, based on Christian orthodoxy or deviations from it, and thus it cannot provide a neutral social theory that Christianity can borrow for its own self-understanding – history is trapped inside Christian history.

But Plantinga claims quite the same a) without transcendence both the normative claims of any moral discourse as such cannot be established and the natural sciences have no grounding by which they might claim to be true – similar to Milbank’s claim about any discourse outside theology qua queen of the sciences being nihilistic b) Plantinga is claiming that belief in God can and should be the grounding for other discourses, and may well be properly basic, due to the collapse of other possibly basic reasons. Thus it is possible for social scientists etc to found their thought on Christianity as opposed to a notion of secular reason. Indeed secular culture is riven with anti-theological premises, just as for Milbank social theory is in that it may be Chrisitan heresy. For example the prohibition of supernatural explanations in Darwinism and Christians should apparently challenge these considering they have a belief that is at least as rationally via – we can think here of Milbank’s project of out-narrating other positions as being quite similar though he has moved away a bit from this focus no narrative as continental philosophy itself has moved away from it to consider metaphysics proper in the likes of Alain Badiou.

Milbank might be into sexy continental stuff, and Plantinga a bit of a analytic bore (apparently) but there are significant structural similarities which a few people other than me have pointed out.


Rob August 10, 2010 at 8:11 am

Good advice from Nietzsche to ex-believers who, surreptitiously drawing succor from the old faith, now evangelize the rational superiority of their atheism: An affectation on departing.


Alex August 10, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Great Nietzsche quote!


Hendy August 12, 2010 at 9:40 am

Luke, JustinMartyr wrote a critique of this post at The Faith Heuristic. Check it out HERE if you want.


Hermes August 12, 2010 at 9:53 am

Hendy, thanks.

In response to it, I’ll be blunt: So what if presupposationalists explain morality and reason by saying their god is the only explanation for them?

It still is an assertion that does not address effectively alternate possibilities, nor does it support the contention positively. Because of that, it still (even if indirectly) presupposes their deity. Adding a twist only makes it sound more sophisticated.

Beyond that, though, it’s not a convincing way to show their deity is credible let alone probable. It is a nice way for people to be smug about a choice they’ve already made while calling ever non-Christian immoral or incapable of true morality.


Hermes August 12, 2010 at 9:59 am

Note: The response was not towards Hendy but towards JustinMartyr’s explanation of what Presupposationalists think. As such, it’s not even a response to JustinMartyr but a critique of presupposationalism.

As a rule of thumb if I suspect that someone is a Christian Presupposationalist, I cut the conversation short. I find Presupposationalists to be maddeningly unresponsive and as much fun as discussing things with solipsists.


Hendy August 12, 2010 at 10:19 am


I don’t know squat about presuppositional apologetics, though I did check the Wikipedia entry and noted that Justin quotes the following from its opening lines:

[presuppositional apologetics] claims that apart from presuppositions, one could not make sense of any human experience, and there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian

But the preceding sentence in the Wiki article is:

In Christian theology, presuppositionalism is a school of apologetics that aims to present a rational basis for the Christian faith and defend it against objections primarily by exposing the perceived flaws of other worldviews while the Bible, as divine revelation, is presupposed.

I think Justin’s quote skews the message quite a bit, as it seems to connote some type of “first principles” as the presuppositions… adding in the first sentence, however, paints a different picture: the presupposition = the Bible is true/divinely inspired!

As such… it’s a huge unfounded presupposition. I’m not sure if there’s more to it than that, but find a stark contrast between how Justin tries to clarify things here:

The essence of presuppositional apologetics is that rational arguments in defense of the faith presuppose human reason.

and what the article actually says on Wiki;

presuppositionalists claim that a Christian cannot consistently declare his belief in the necessary existence of the God of the Bible and simultaneously argue on the basis of a different set of assumptions that God may not exist and Biblical revelation may not be true.

Given what Wiki says, wouldn’t Justin be blatantly wrong when he says:

Luke takes presuppositional apologetics to mean fideism – an irrational faith that presupposes the truth of Christianity. That is simply wrong.


I guess I’m missing something, as the Wiki article Justin is citing seems to directly state that presuppositional apologetics presuppose that god existing and the Bible being divinely inspired are the only possible starting points and that it’s impossible to argue from any neutral grounds with non-believers. Well, if you assume that god exists and the Bible is ture… doesn’t that do precisely what Justin says it doesn’t do, namely presuppose the truth of Christianity? I don’t know where he gets his line about it presupposing human reason that sounds like far more like something in the justified-first-principle bucket (the world is real, we’re actually alive, stuff like that).

I dunno. I could be totally wrong, but that was my read…


Hermes August 12, 2010 at 10:52 am

Hendy, yep. I think your assessment matches roughly what I’ve heard from Presupposationalists I’ve talked with and what I’ve read from their own documents.

I was giving Justin’s review the benefit of the doubt on one narrow point because in practice it doesn’t make any difference; crudely put, it’s still unsupported nonsense.

I take it as an example of Christians attempting to sound sophisticated, but really not adding anything.


Ken Pulliam August 12, 2010 at 11:14 am

Whoever wrote the post at The Faith Heuristic does not by his own admission know much about presuppositional apologetics. Fideism is not the same as presuppositionalism. See my posts on presuppositionalism and fideism


Hermes August 12, 2010 at 11:48 am

Thanks Ken.

I would like to say that I’m surprised. It’s a shame that anyone has to know the obscure details of Christian philosophy well enough to tell them when they’re using it wrong. Very annoying.

I wonder if JustinMartyr stands by what he wrote?


Hendy August 12, 2010 at 1:11 pm


Thanks for the links. I read the two on PA and find them intriguing. It does seem that Justin is potentially off in his explanations and read of Luke’s post, then. Perhaps you could post a short link to your blog on his site? Your call if you feel any desire to do that…


Hermes August 15, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Hendy, good reading your calm and restrained comments on thefaithheuristic, though I’m disappointed that Justin has not retracted his main complaint that seems to be baseless. Instead, he’s off on other issues that aren’t directly about his original complaint.

It’s like talking to a child about a math problem and having the child ignore it when you point out that 1+7=3 needs to be corrected, and instead they start talking about their favorite TV show.


Hendy August 15, 2010 at 6:54 pm


Glad you approved ;) It’s also good to have an “outside opinion” as I was surprised to see his flippant response to the fact that I had linked to his article here as well as an unsupported attack on the epistemology that I didn’t even know I subscribed to! I think some stuff he linked to set things a little more straight, but it does still make me scratch my head about why he linked to Wiki in the first place if 1) he didn’t even agree with it, 2) it directly contradicted what he said, and 3) there was apparently better material that said what he actually wanted to say.

It make for like 10 comments that never needed to happen…


Hermes August 15, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Agreed. Though I expect those reactions now because of frequent past experience seeing them happen, I still think it’s annoying and unnecessarily rude.

I’m frequently told what I think. I’m also frequently given comments along the lines of “OH, that wasn’t the best argument, so let’s try this one!” type comments. Well, if you didn’t lead with your best comments, then why did you go out of your way to make those mistakes even if you want to disavow them now?

Neither point washes with me. At best, those reactions highlight that the person didn’t think through what they meant or they were intentionally spreading bad will if not strident bigotry.

In this case, I think Justin thought about what he was saying and was instead reacting to something he at a gut level did not like.

If Justin is reading this: By all means, go with your gut. Be arrogant and even pushy about it. Yet, before you trot it out to others, if your gut is not backed clearly by actual sharable knowledge, then consider changing what you say or not saying anything at all. Perhaps this is a time to learn something instead of changing the subject?


Hermes August 15, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Hendy, excellent. Your latest also ends with a gracious tone, allowing Justin to be humble and admit his error while investigating the possibility of you being in error.

I expect — cynically, but hopeful that I’m wrong — that Justin will not admit error and will either ignore the issue or focus exclusively on the possibility of you being in error. It would be good to see him break the pattern or (better for others) prove his point thoughtfully.


Hendy August 16, 2010 at 7:53 am


He recently pointed out that he did include his initial links (which present better alignment with his stance) in his original post and I did not follow the links (I think at the time I actually thought they were book links). So… I goofed, but the question still stands as to why he would quote Wiki instead of the source that aligned with him.

Also, I’m far from familiar with the area, but the posts that do support his definition of a presupposition are associated with the transcendental argument for god and thus I’m not really sure that some terms aren’t getting mixed and interchanged. CARM aligns with the Wiki definition and thus it seems that even Christianity isn’t fully agreed on what presuppositional apologetics even are.

The debate is pretty much returning to a mini-debate we had HERE and HERE. The posts there got crazy at times!


Ken Pulliam August 16, 2010 at 8:07 am

Justin does not seem to have a clear understanding of Presuppositionalism. For problems with the Transcendental Argument see See this post.


Hermes August 16, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Ken, once again you provide some great material and focused analysis.

The injection of materialist necessities by Wilson is odd. Well, not odd as in rare but as it is a typical type of strangeness. It’s not ‘God or matter’ as I would doubt that Wilson denies matter exists or that there is (as you point out) a qualitative difference between one hunk of matter and another. We aren’t fish capable of breathing water just because air contains oxygen and hydrogen.

Much more to comment on, but you did such a complete job there’s not much point!


Hermes August 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Hendy: CARM aligns with the Wiki definition and thus it seems that even Christianity isn’t fully agreed on what presuppositional apologetics even are.

I’d provide a sarcastic comment on that, but reality beat me to it.


alex r March 24, 2011 at 4:23 pm

maybe u could read tom morris intro to philosophical theology called “our idea of God” to more inform your perspective


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