Why Philosophy – Randy Everist

JodiRandyBeach 2012-02-04 042This past weekend I had the opportunity to participate in an Apologetics Conference at a local church. Now, I don’t consider myself an apologist, but I enjoy learning and took the chance to sit under some good scholarship. By and large I enjoyed the conference and apart from a few tiny objections methodologically, I didn’t have any nits to pick. I wanted to offer a brief review and slight critique of one presentation by Randy Everist. Everist presented a lecture titled Why Philosophy (click through to take a look at his power point) which served to demonstrate broadly why philosophy is an important tool in the utility belt of the Christian.

First, I want to make a few comments about Everist. Everist is a sharp thinker, a charismatic presenter, and a generally funny guy. He demonstrates integrity by not only seeking to be charitable and present the best form of his opponent’s argument, but also by encouraging others to do so. He leaves room for a broad Christian orthodoxy while appropriately observing the boundaries of historic Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology. I enjoyed his presentation very much.

His presentation began by defining philosophy in an easy to approach way and by drawing the crowd in by including them in that definition as philosophers. This engaged people like myself who would usually balk at the idea of being called a philosopher, but given the definition he was using I could get on board. (More about the definition later)

After some brief comments regarding the general importance of thinking well, he launched in to the meat of his presentation. Everist gave two specific reasons why Christians should be conversant with philosophy, and I disagree with neither. Under each reason he gave a few specific examples, which is where the few nit picks that I do have lay.

Everists first reason was that philosophy helps us avoid unnecessary problems in apologetics. Bringing up the classic omnipotence paradox (Can God create a rock so big that he himself cannot lift it) he handily demonstrated via the law of non-contradiction that this paradox is actually simply nonsense. While I would have liked him to explain a little more specifically why “a rock so big God can’t lift it” is a contradiction, I understand that he was short on time. My concern however is that those in the audience who are not familiar with this paradox, may not understand why exactly “a rock so big God can’t lift it” is a contradiction. (Hint: God by definition can lift any size rock, so a rock so big it can’t be lifted by God is a violation of the definition, thus a contradiction in terms) He also brought the example of the Euthyphro dilemma, with the conclusion that because God’s nature is good that it is neither God’s will, nor some standard external to God, that causes it to be good. However, again I think because of time constraints, Everist did not unpack how exactly God’s natural goodness resolves the issue. (Hint: Something is good in so far as it is in accord with God’s good nature, thus it is neither determined by God’s will since God does not will his nature, nor is the standard of good external to God since it is part of his own nature). Everist also unpacked the classic “How can hell be eternal when the offense was temporary.” He was somewhat tentative in his conclusion on this, but he offered the suggestion that the time or extent of an offense is not typically the determining factor in the time or extent of the punishment. Rather the one that the offense is committed against, or the magnitude of the offense, was. Thus since an offense committed against God is of infinite magnitude due to God’s infinite nature, the punishment can not be anything less than eternal. He also offered the idea that those in hell continue to sin, thus meriting further punishment for eternity. It seems to me that likely both are the case.

Everist’s second reason was that it helps us to avoid unnecessary problems in our theology. As a theologian, my primary objections were found in this section. The first example was the perennial question of the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and the freedom of Free Agents. While I disagree with him on the theological resolution of this tension, I don’t want to spend too much space on that. (He’s a Molinist, I’m a Calvinist, I’m sure you can put together how the disagreement would go) I will say one thing, though. Everist’s resolution was that God’s knowledge is informed by what is true, rather than by truth being informed by God’s knowledge. While this is a possible resolution I find it to be unsatisfactory. God looking at our response and deciding to save us fundamentally renders our salvation to be obtained by something inherent in us rather than in God’s gracious decision to save. I understand he would object to this and has a complex philosophical reason why it doesn’t, but I couldn’t in good conscience as a Reformed theologian leave that stand without comment. I suspect that Everist would also affirm that there are multiple philosophical ways to resolve the tension, and would probably even acknowledge that the Reformed way of doing so is one way (although I would suspect he would claim it is an insufficient way).

Even though there were specific objections I had, I want to identify what I see to be a common problem that happens when Philosophers talk about Theology (and probably when Theologians talk about Philosophy as well). Although it could probably be teased out in all of his examples, I think his final example reveals it most clearly.

His final example was in the question “Could Jesus have sinned?” I was surprised to hear his answer was a resounding “No” given his Molinism and his education at Liberty. I was pleasantly surprised to seem him aptly apply the Christological theology of Chalcedon in resolving the issue. However, my first thought was “But that’s using theology to resolve the issue, not philosophy.

This is where the disagreement lies. Everist’s definition of philosophy was so broad, that it essentially included any act or form of thinking. Deciding what the best kind of pizza is involves weighing out various factors. Philosophy. Should I punch this old lady in the face, or help her across the street? Philosophy. Is Jesus fully God, or fully man, or both? Philosophy.

Now, as I implied, theologians can engage in this kind of reductionism too. I chuckled as I heard him say “The question isn’t if you are a philosopher or not, it is if you are a good philosopher or not.” This line of thinking can be traced back VERY far in theological circles, most recently in Dug Down Deep by Joshua Harris when he says “We’re all theologians. The question is whether what we know about God is true.”[1] Everyone’s a Theologian by R.C. Sproul in light of the title and when he writes “So it is not a quesiton of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound.”[2] Or in the announcement of my Church’s systematic theology class (led by your’s truly) which states “[Theology] It is inescapable. The question isn’t whether or not you are a theologian doing theology, it is whether or not you are a theologian whose theology accurately describes the God of Christian Faith.”[3]

However, what this does is blurs the line between theology and philosophy. Philosophy isn’t just thinking thoughts. Theology isn’t just thinking thoughts about God. Both characterizations are designed to draw people in, and from a popular level are both true. But not from a technical level. Everist’s use of Chalcedonian categories to clear up the question was a use of good theology to prevent bad theology. Now, I fully understand that Everist could (and probably will) respond that philosophy was used to get to that theology. I agree fully. But that doesn’t make the conclusion a philosophical conclusion.

I don’t have a great answer to be honest. The delineation between philosophy and theology is something that has always been a fuzzy line. I tend to say that the difference is between that which is accessible by reason and nature alone, and that which requires special revelation. Thus, while Chalcedonian Theology uses philosophical tools in its reasoning, because the nature of Christ as God and Man is a conclusion we can only come to by means of Biblical special revelation, it is a theological conclusion. This is not to minimize the importance of Philosophy, but rather to elevate it as its own discrete and significant discipline. I would suspect that Philosophers would draw similar lines if I were to exegete Genesis 2 and say that my exegesis of God creating a body, breathing a spirit into that body, constituting a living soul constituted a philosophical explanation of the human metaphysical reality.

I want to reiterate that this is not so much a problem with Randy’s presentation itself, but a problem that exists in the very fabric of the disciplines of theology and philosophy. It is most certainly not a question that will be answered by a couple of bloggers, but the discussion is important none-the-less. I had a great time and enjoyed Randy’s presentation. I look forward to a future of fruitful dialog with Randy and wish him the best.


 

[1] Harris, Joshua (19 January 2010), Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters, Multnomah Books, p. 11
[2] Sproul, R.C. (11 March 2014), Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Reformation Trust, p. 12.
[3] http://www.wlcconline.org/Spire/Issue/2030