Approaching Philosophy of Religion

An Introduction to Key Thinkers, Concepts, Methods & Debates

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Anthony C. Thiselton
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , January
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anthony C. Thiselton’s Approaching Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction to Key Thinkers, Concepts, Methods and Debates is written for those who are encountering philosophy of religion for the first time; this book is meant to serve as a guide to that vast territory. Philosophical reflection on religion goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, so Thiselton’s goal to acquaint the reader with the major thinkers and concepts in this subfield of philosophy is an ambitious task—especially in two hundred pages or less! 

For Thiselton, philosophy of religion “considers an entity or entities beyond the world, and how this Being interacts with the human situation” (1). Accordingly, Thiselton interacts with the major thinkers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and includes some (minimal) interaction with thinkers from Eastern religions. As a Christian theologian, it is understandable that Thiselton appeals to and cites the Bible more times (at least ninety times) than other sacred writings (there are approximately thirty references to Jewish literature and a few references to the Quran and other writings of Eastern religions). This suggests that this book is intended for readers who are of the Christian persuasion.

In the introduction, Thiselton provides a brief chronological survey of the spread of philosophy of religion, starting from the ancient Greeks, through the medieval period, and ending with the modern era. After the introduction, the book neatly divides into three parts: Approaches, Concepts and Issues, and Key Terms. Readers are not required to read the book in a linear fashion and may choose to jump around from section to section since the entries are self-contained and encyclopedic in nature—thus, Approaching Philosophy of Religion may be seen as a reference book.

In part 1, “Approaches,” Thiselton describes the major methods for engaging philosophy of religion. These approaches are: analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, empiricism and rationalism, existentialism, feminist philosophy, personalism, phenomenology, and pragmatism. The first chapter has a good discussion on logical positivism, the threat it posed to meaningful talk about God, and how logical positivism was refuted, allowing progress in the philosophy of religion.

A few worries with this section—at least for some people— are worth noting at this point. First, Thiselton spends only nine pages on the analytic approach and almost thirty pages on the continental approach (chapters 2, 4, and 7); this is curious because the analytic approach dominates academic philosophy in the Western world. Second, it is unclear how some of the approaches mentioned here connect to the philosophy of religion—the chapter on feminist philosophy is a prime example. Thiselton describes the feminism movement and notes some feminist contributions to religion and theology—this is all fine, but how does this help the reader approach the philosophy of religion, even from a feminist perspective?

In part 2, “Concepts and Issues,” Thiselton introduces readers to some of the main ideas in the philosophy of religion and how they were developed. Here, one finds a discussion on everything from animals, evolution, and morality to the arguments for God’s existence, religious experience, and revelation. Some of the entries in this section are solid, like the discussions on the design argument, miracles, and religious knowledge. Some of the entries seem unnecessary, like the entry on gender—which, surprisingly, is the same length as the entry on the attributes of God. Some entries are underdeveloped, such as the one on “good and evil,” where the focus is on the different views of the good and the problem of evil is not discussed. Admittedly, Thiselton does address the problem of evil—perhaps the biggest objection to theism—in the introduction but the entry consists of one page (and one additional paragraph elsewhere in the book under “theodicy”) and gets an oversimplified treatment. In all fairness, many important issues will be omitted in a book like this for the purpose of being concise.

Some entries illustrate one major weakness of the book: Thiselton discusses issues in the philosophy of religion not as a philosopher, but as a theologian (which is not a bad thing in itself—but some may find this unappealing). For example, when discussing free will, the attention is on the theological debate between Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Pelagius, Erasmus, and Arminius. (Interestingly, Thiselton classifies Arminius as a “compatibilist” (109); and if—as Thiselton later defines—compatibilism is the view that “freedom and responsibility may be consistent with some form of determinism” (135), Thiselton is surely wrong on this account.) Thiselton’s theological approach to the philosophy of religion is seen in the numerous references to Barth, Pannenberg, and other major theologians throughout the book. Again, this is not a deal-breaker, but it suggests that Thiselton’s work might be seen more appropriately as a work in philosophical theology rather than philosophy of religion.

This book could be better if it included other controversial debates in modern philosophy of religion. Specifically, debates on God’s relationship to abstract objects, objections to theism based on divine hiddenness, and the problems posed by religious pluralism are all missing; but surely, these are some of the biggest problems on which newcomers to this discipline need to be informed.

Part 3, “Key Terms,” explains ninety terms pertinent to the philosophy of religion, although some of these seem gratuitous, like alienationdeconstructiongenderhermeneutics, and myth. These entries are short (a paragraph each) and to the point and may be used alongside the first two parts of the book.

In conclusion, and as a suggestion, this book will serve as a good introduction to the philosophy of religion for people who are (i) interested in theology—and specifically, Christian theology, and (ii) don’t mind good doses of continental philosophy in their reading diet. As a heavily theological approach to the philosophy of religion, those of like-mind with Thiselton’s methodology and interest will be pleased—others will have to find greener pastures to graze on.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andre Leo Rusavuk is a doctoral student in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony C. Thiselton is Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham and a fellow of the British Academy. His recent publications include Approaching Philosophy of ReligionDiscovering RomansSystematic TheologyThe Holy Spirit, and The Last Things.


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