A review of Kevin Diller’s “Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response”.

One of the biggest challenges in Christian theology, as I see it, is to clarify what it means to know God. If God is out there and interacts with humans by way of the Spirit, revealed truth, and the incarnation, how does the truth value of what is external to us enter our minds and become redemptive? Must all knowledge be filtered through a justification process in order to become true knowledge or is there something in the work of God’s Spirit and Word and person of Christ which exists outside of this requirement?

CAVEAT: For the fundamentalist or evangelical concerned about the theology of Karl Barth: I also have problems with the error that we call “neo-orthodoxy” and also treat it as a serious error. Even so we should note that Barth was not wrong about everything. In this discussion there is much to commend Kevin Diller for his discernment regarding Barth’s theology. At the same time the reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga has been of great use in, among other things, separating naturalism from evolution for a better understanding of science, and other projects of benefit in dealing with the question of human capacities in light of evolutionary ideals. Plantinga’s targeted epistemological apologetic has shown itself quite valuable.

The book contains several threads and is not a simplistic discussion of human knowledge of God. You will need to commit an extended amount of time time reading it. Mr. Diller is thorough in his understanding of both Barth and Plantinga.

Both Plantinga and Barth part with the Enlightenment project and (notably Modernist) assumption of the high capacity of humans with respect to knowing God. By separating from the position which raises human capacities apart from sin and the fall it appears that both Barth and Plantinga share something important about the need for a revelation centered view of a knowledge of God. Of course while the particulars of Barth’s position are problematic for many of us the principle is sound, that a knowledge of God is found first in revealed truth rather than in reason a starting point for reaching God.

The effect here is to contrast Barth & Plantinga not only with the Rationalists but also with the Rationalist movement within evangelicalism. Though Mr. Diller does not spend extensive time on Molinism his argument seems clear. The language is instead couched in a challenge to the epistemology resulting from a Molinist or Rationalist approach in evidential epistemology, especially as we see it in the work of specific apologists. (The evidential approach by its nature begins with reason and the starting point for approaching God, a position contrary to the reformed position but quite popular today in the works of some popular apologists.)

One might boil down the question to this: Can I know or find God by knowing (x) about God? On this question Barth and Plantinga separate either wholly or largely from not only the evidential approach but, by obvious implication, from natural theology. This leaves the revelation of God up to God and not up to the human capacity to find God. Barth rejects natural theology entirely while Plantinga notes some place for it, though not such a place as to allow Reason its desired starting point.

For those who wish to engage in Christian apologetics, this book is a necessary read. There are those in the evidential camp who seem to think that the mind is enough, that the place of Christianity in the public square can be settled by reasoned approach to information. These people might ask themselves what is the place of revealed truth if Reason is adequate? If as a result Reason is not sufficient then at what point does Reason step aside? Is this when humans either decide so or when one makes a leap of faith? Such a structure for apologetics fails to give way to revealed truth. If God in Christ through the Word and Spirit touch the heart and redeem, who initiates this action? This distinction is critical to a proper apologetic and proper evangelism, so the question needs to be answered. Mr. Diller deals with this and he does so in a way that should help the evidential apologist deal with difficult questions.