A Philosophy of the Christian Religion

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Nancey Murphy
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , April
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In A Philosophy of the Christian Religion, Nancey Murphy recognizes “the impossibility of writing a single book about religion in general” (1). In fact, she argues “there is no such thing as religion in general” (301). She instead writes on topics typically addressed in philosophies of religion from within the context of the Christian tradition, and due to this narrowing, she does not define the term “religion.”

The British edition of the book has a longer title: A Philosophy of the Christian Religion for the Twenty-First Century. Murphy gives it this title in order to emphasize that knowledge is historically conditioned. While some assume that topics addressed in philosophy of religion, such as the problem of evil, remain the same from one era to the next, her approach recognizes that people in different eras bring different perspectives to the table when responding to these issues. In fact, Murphy agrees with other recent thinkers that philosophy of religion is not a single discipline. She says, “[r]ather, there are particular problems, arising in various time periods, from reflections on particular religions” (4).

Murphy sees philosophy as a “second-order discipline,” one that investigates problems that arise in other disciplines. So, while A Philosophy of the Christian Religion is, in one sense, an introductory level book, Murphy states that “it will be most meaningful for those who already have some grasp of the content of the Christian tradition itself” (6).

In part 1, Murphy provides a historical sketch of how Christians have understood the relation between faith and reason. The first chapter covers the Pre-Socratics to Thomas Aquinas. Chapter 2 describes the collapse of the medieval synthesis and the rise of modern epistemology as seen in René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Reid, and Immanuel Kant. These shifts led to both the scriptural foundationalism of the 19th century Princeton School, and the liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Chapter 3 describes 20th century developments in the philosophy of religion, as well as philosophical schools that had an influence within the subdiscipline, such as evidentialism, Reformed epistemology, “Wittgensteinian fideism,” logical positivism, and neopositivism. Murphy concludes the chapter by arguing that we need to abandon foundationalist theories of knowledge in favor of the kind of holist epistemologies exemplified by W.V.O. Quine, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos.

In chapter 4, Murphy provides an account of Alasdair MacIntyre’s understanding of rationality, which she considers to be “the best understanding of human reasoning described to date” (12). She argues that MacIntyre draws upon the insights of holist epistemology and turns them “into a new theory that will turn out to fit a religious tradition like a glove” (79). Murphy, drawing upon MacIntyre, argues that a tradition is “socially embodied in institutions and practices” (90). Traditions come to face various crises in different ages and contexts, either from new sources of information or confrontations with rival traditions, arguing that “[a] tradition can be trusted to be true if it has overcome its crises in the past” (90). This chapter serves as the central chapter of the text—for in it, Murphy not only describes her own understanding of rationality and of Christianity as a religious tradition, but this chapter serves as the framework for the issues addressed in part 2.

In part 2, Murphy spends six chapters responding to the crises that Christianity has faced since the rise of the modern period. These include epistemological problems, biblical criticism and pluralism (chapter 5), special divine action (chapter 6), the problem of evil and suffering (chapter 7), Christianity’s relation to modern science (chapter 8), anthropology (chapter 9), and Christianity and naturalism as competing traditions (chapter 10). Within these chapters, Murphy demonstrates that the Christian tradition has the resources within it to resolve these crises. While acknowledging that she cannot exhaustively respond to all of Christianity’s rival traditions, Murphy seeks to give a sympathetic treatment of those she does address—such as naturalism—while also pointing out their shortcomings. She closes the book with some recommendations for further reading.

Three things set Murphy’s text apart from others in philosophy of religion. First, as Murphy has doctorates in both philosophy of science and theology, she draws upon scientific insights in an unparalleled way throughout the volume. The second is her utilization of MacIntyre’s perspective of rationality; and the third, as an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, Murphy utilizes insights from the Radical Reformation.

While this work could serve as a textbook in an upper level undergraduate or graduate level class in philosophy of religion, it would also benefit those scholars interested in philosophy of religion and post-foundationalist Christian theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun C. Brown will receive his doctorate in Theological Studies from Wycliffe College, University of Toronto in 2019.  He is an online instructor at Hope International University.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nancey Murphy is Senior Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary.


Nancey Murphy

I found this review to be entirely accurate and to the point. The fact that it was written by a graduate student indicates that I may well have attained my goal of writing clearly enough to be understood by my intended audience.


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