Debating Christian Religious Epistemology

An Introduction to Five Views on the Knowledge of God

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Editor(s): 
John M. DePoe, Tyler Dalton McNabb
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2020.
     240 pages.
     $39.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781350062733.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Debating Christian Religious Epistemology: An Introduction to Five Views on the Knowledge of God raises awareness of how valuable epistemic appraisal is for theistic beliefs, particularly those in the Christian tradition. Edited by John M. DePoe and Tyler Dalton McNabb, the book @Marcostarts with a short introduction to familiarize the reader with basic concepts in epistemology (the study of human knowledge) and philosophy of religion, followed by lively discussions among six scholars on how one could justify religious beliefs.

The editors made a wise decision to ask all contributors to explain how their theories deal with two recent worries for religious epistemology, namely, divine hiddenness and epistemic peer disagreement. The first states that God’s existence is incompatible with there being reasonable nonbelief in God. DePoe, for instance, asserts that the evidence for theism is not the problem, as “there are many beliefs that are strongly evidenced, yet not obviously true” (23). K. Scott Oliphint, quite differently, portrays the alleged problem of hiddenness as “a problem of willful and stubborn human myopia” (158), meaning that the problem lies in one’s sinful interpretation of God’s creation and of God’s existence. Each contributor will have a distinct solution to the second issue, usually rejecting that beliefs must be immediately abandoned in case of conflict.

DePoe’s chapter defends a version of an evidentialist theory of epistemic justification. He upholds it against well-known criticisms and ends the chapter with a brief remark on “faith’s epistemic work” (27). In one of the three explanations as to how classical evidentialism relates to natural theology, there is a relevant suggestion of how an accumulation of arguments that are insufficient on their own to support theism may provide “a strong evidential case for theism” (22). In his answer to the responses from other authors, one finds a further defense of the foundational aspect of his theory, namely, the incorrigibility of basic beliefs.

The central idea of Logan Paul Gage and Blake McAllister’s theory is that one’s beliefs have their epistemic foundations on experiences called seemings, in which “a proposition is presented to the subject as true” (63), which justifies belief in the absence of defeaters. Considering that rationality has a “perspectival nature” (68), the authors offer an evidentialist theory in which experiences can “constitute evidence” (71). Not only do they argue that we have no need for a “special religious faculty” (70) to form theistic beliefs, but they also hold that the Christian faith can strengthen the justification of such beliefs. As initial justifications for religious beliefs will eventually be disputed, given the numerous sources of defeaters, the authors emphasize the development of a mature system of beliefs to remain justified throughout adulthood.

McNabb provides a concise and straightforward explanation of how religious beliefs are granted warrant, a concept originally articulated by Alvin Plantinga, which is an epistemological condition distinct from holding a justified belief. In short, knowledge will only be gained if one’s cognitive faculties form true beliefs in accordance with a plan designed by God—a fact of which one does not need to be aware. In addition to dealing with familiar criticism such as the “Swampman” (111) and the “Great Pumpkin” (142), McNabb also tackles two recent challenges for the unreliability of religious belief from cognitive sciences.

Oliphint address the issue of the knowledge of God through several Bible quotes, highlighting that our understanding must be covenantal from the outset. Holding that Christian faith must precede epistemological endeavors, he believes that our entire understanding must be shaped by the fact that we are all created in the image of God. Due to the implications of sin, not only is human knowledge impaired, but human identity is tainted. Unless one repents and puts one’s trust in Christ, one will continue to suppress “the truth of God’s existence” (157), a truth implanted in humans by God.

Erik Baldwin draws attention to the centrality of traditions in considering the epistemic standards of human inquiry. In his view, any epistemological assessment of religious practices and beliefs “relies on conceptual resources, tools, and methods that are products of traditions of inquiry” (193). This meta-epistemological thesis is strongly based on Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of rationality, which rejects the possibility of its being cross-cultural and ahistorical. Although such standards are tied to traditions, it is possible to achieve objective truths that transcend them. One pertinent epistemological implication is that one remains justified provided that there are adequate grounds for the beliefs, such as faith, without a need to defend them just to please others. The burden of proof “rests on those who would go about convincing others to agree with them” (203).

The aim of the editors of Debating Christian Religious Epistemology is to fill a gap for an engaging introductory material suitable for religious epistemology courses of different levels. Since the book was conceived as a motivational step for diving into the field, it is perfectly understandable that none of the theories outlined in this volume is fully explained, although all of them are overall suitably characterized. Without fail, the content will serve academic-level courses and will also come in handy to anyone interested in the topic with considerable understanding of philosophy and religion.

The two strongest points of the book are the vibrant, easy-to-follow style in which contributors express their thoughts and its grounding in recent work in epistemology. The book resembles a symposium, in which short restatements and apparent misinterpretations of the theories under criticism appear during the responses. These discussions, perhaps unwittingly, turn out to be opportunities for further elaborations that would probably not have arisen in the orderly, expository style of a textbook.

As a final remark, I understand the mention of a “Battle Royale” (11) as nonaccidental. When reasoning about the best theory available, in any area of study, robust criteria take precedence over initial impressions and background beliefs. That said, one will want to read additional sources to reach a well-informed decision on which of the presented theories to accept.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marco Oliveira is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John M. DePoe is Academic Dean of the Schools of Logic and Rhetoric at Kingdom Preparatory Academy, USA.

Tyler Dalton McNabb is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Joseph, Macau.

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