Review: 101 Philosophy Terms for theology

Clark, Kelly James., Smith, James K. , and Lints.  101 Philosophy Terms for Theology (Westminster/John Knox Press).

This is one of the better “key terms intro” books out there.   It is quite selective, of course, and one’s favorite term/theologian/philosopher probably won’t be covered.   The three editors represent three different fields (analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, and theology proper, respectively)  One of the refreshing take-aways is that one can appreciate points in one field and different points in another without having to “take sides.”

For example, analytic philosophers and continental philosophers do not like each other.  The latter accuse the former of “logic-chopping” and speaking at a level of symbolic precision that few mortals can follow.  There is certainly truth to that, yet the former can equally respond that the latter are incoherent and have an uncomfortable number of Marxists in their ranks.  Fortunately, K.J. Clark and Smith rise above such squabbles.

This means I can like disparate guys like Plantinga, Thomas Reid, Van Til, and Dooyeweerd without having to “pick one aside agin’ da other.”   I am not going to give an exhaustive entry-like review, but I will highlight some entries that I think are particularly strong and end with some criticisms.

Good section on apologetics.  what is considered as “rational” is always conditioned by pre-rational beliefs and assumptions (7).  Is this similar to Dooyeweerd’s “pre-theoretical thought?”  They note elsewhere that “what goes under the name ‘reason’ depends on religious commitments” (28).

Epistemology:  the standard question was phrased around justified true belief: a person p knows x if and only if p believes x and p belief in x is justified and p is true.  Plantinga has replaced and bettered this model with “a belief is warranted if it is produced by our cognitive faculties working in accord with their design (20).

essence/essentialism: belief that objects have essences and that is their identity.  An object’s essence is a collection of all the universal properties it possesses (20).


Free-will:  usually defined as “the ability to do otherwise” (30).  Hard determinism holds that all of our actions are determined by genetics or sociality or the decrees of God.  Soft Determinism holds all actions are determined but some of them are at least free.  Augustine distinguished between freedom of choice and free will.  A sinner can choose a number of things but because of the corruption of the will he cannot will the highest good (31).

God, His Nature.  Classical theism holds that God has the standard attributes found in systematics discussions (communicable and incommunicable).  The incommunicable attributes are what is necessary for a most perfect being to exist.  While there are tensions in how the classical model is often portrayed, one of its strengths, as critics of open theism point out, is if we deny the standard incommunicable attributes of God, precisely what is there unique about the divine nature that is left?

Heidegger, Martin.  Human beings are the kind of beings who reflect on what it is to be. MH avoided calling the human being a subject and rather called it da-sein.

Human nature.  What makes us human? The options are usually functionalistic (define by what people do) or some form of essentialism. Both accounts are inadequate, as any good text on the imago dei will make clear.   Recent discussions suggest that God’s Triune relationality is an analogy.  Humans are not seen as static individuals but humans-in-a-relationship.  This isn’t perfect, but it is a good way forward.

Hume and causality.  Standard treatment of Hume.  Good discussion on causality.  We can only know when x occurs y occurs, but we cannot observe x’s causing y.

Idealism.  Berkeley argued that our only evidence of the world is perception, but perceptions are mental, not physical. Thus, only the reality of ideas.

(Though the authors do not point it out, the entries on Hume and Idealism set the stage for Thomas Reid–and Princeton Theology).

Leibniz. Fine discussion.  Each substance is isolated and pre-loaded by the Creator for self-sufficiency (that’s how he explains the problem of causality–when two substances “bump” into each other, the pre-loaded causal forces are actually doing the moving and not the other substance).  Raised the charge of determinism and the rejoinder of best possible worlds.  Principle of Sufficient reason:  claim that every claim must have some sufficient reason why it, rather than its denial, is true.  Used for the cosmological argument.

Omniscience and Foreknowledge.  While affirmed by classical theism, it does raise some interesting challenges and clarifications.  If God is *out*side of time, can he know what happens *in* time?  Time is changing; God is not.  How can the two meet?  The most famous response is Boethuis’.   All things are eternally present for God.  God sees everything at once and so doesn’t force an action.   While a neat solution, this effectively guts any real definition of God and numerous biblical passages.  It also seems to posit the realm of the “eternally appearing” now as independent of God’s creating act.

Rationality.  Measures how one believes, not what.   It is person- and situation-specific.  We trust the beliefs produced by our cognitive faculties unless we have good reason to reject them.

  • the problem with the evidentialist’s demand is that such evidence cannot be provided in a large number of cases with the cognitive faculties with which we have to work.
  • If we were required to prove everything, there would be an infinite regress of provings.
  • “We have been outfitted with cognitive faculties that produce beliefs we can reason from” (80).
    • the sensus divinitas is one such reasonable belief.  a) most of our cognitive faculties produce beliefs immediately, without reasoning or evidence.  b) belief in God is more like belief in a person than a scientific hypothesis.

Substance.  the stuff in which an individual thing’s properties or attributes inhere.  However, it is difficult to distinguish between a substance of a thing and its properties.  How does one identify the substantial “core” in an object?

Theodicy.  Rather than deal with logical problem-solving, thinkers like Brueggemann and Ricouer see it as “lament.”  I think this method has promise.

Truth.  Correspondence theories of truth face several challenges.   1) How do sentences (linguistic reality) correspond to facts (non-linguistic reality)?

Criticism:  They seem to link Barth with the Social Trinitarians and the stressing of plurality of persons over unity of essence (89), but this is false.  Barth is usually accused of being a modalist!  In any sense, Barth preferred tropos hyparchos over “person” as a Trinitarian category.   Whether Barth is right or wrong, he certainly can’t be accused of “Social Personalism” if for no other reason that he was uncomfortable with the concept of “person!”

Smith begins his section on aesthetics with a good discussion of Platonism’s rejection of art as a category of knowledge.   That’s fine but then he projects that understanding forward to modern day Reformed, and then ties in the Reformed with 8th century iconoclasts.   While many Reformed are gnostic platonists, the main reformed objection is not that beauty is bad and the divine can’t be imaged, but what has God said for his worship?  Smith writes, “appeal is often made to the liturgy…where all of the senses are engaged in order to communicate the truth of grace” (1).  Maybe so, but that is no safeguard.  Any Baalist in ancient Israel could have made the same argument.   “We aren’t worshipping the image, you silly Jew; we are worshipping God through the Golden Calf.”




Published by J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics

3 replies on “Review: 101 Philosophy Terms for theology”

  1. “Substance. the stuff in which an individual thing’s properties or attributes inhere. However, it is difficult to distinguish between a substance of a thing and its properties. How does one identify the substantial “core” in an object?”

    I don’t claim to be a philosopher, but from my reading a substance in the Aristotelian or Thomistic sense is not “stuff” but is itself the “thing” in which properties and attributes inhere. Thus, you and I and cats and trees and rocks are all substances. As opposed to accidents, which are things like color, size, weight, etc., which can’t exist on their own but can only inhere in substances. Also as opposed to an artifact, which is, so to speak, an artificial substance, a thing made by an artisan rather than occurring in nature, such as a table or a car. The difference between an artifact and a natural substance is that the latter’s nature is intrinsic to itself, whereas an artifact has its nature imposed on it by the artisan.

    I decided to comment on this particular term because it’s one that I had a lot of trouble with, particularly when arguing with a Mormon over the Trinity. He argued basically that the Trinity wasn’t substantially different from the Mormon Godhead — the key point of disagreement being whether a godhead consisting of two beings with physical bodies (the Father and the Son), plus a third being who was a spirit, could be considered “of one substance” like the Trinity. Obviously not.


  2. Here is my second (and longer ) response.
    Per substance, I was giving Smith/Kelly’s usage of the term, not necessarily mine. You are correct in the medieval reading of substance, though the term has had a trouble history and probably defies any universal definition. In the Arian controversies, a lot of semi-Arians opposed homousios, not because they had a low view of Christ, but because the term ousia had material connotations. Of course, that kink was worked out.

    Mormons, I suspect, are operating with a similar Hellenic (and wrong) understanding.


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