What Am I Reading? Kevin Diller on “Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma”

This is an important book.* For evidence of this claim, one need only consult the back cover and the blurbs from an intellectually diverse group of scholars who laud the work as . . . well . . . important.

Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (IVP Academic, 2014).

Before I move on to further reflection, let's be clear on what this book is trying to do. Diller expresses the titular dilemma thus: "Christian theologians are required to adopt a high view of theological knowledge while also maintaining a low view of the unaided capacities of the human knower to secure such knowledge" (17). For Diller's money, the tendency is to emphasize one or the other of these. Such a move then results in unhelpful consequences. But never fear, Diller tells us, because it is possible to cut this Gordian knot by drawing on the work of Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga since "each provides a deeply cogent and theologically faithful response to the epistemological grounding problem in their respective disciplines but also that their responses are compatible and complimentary" (21). Consequently, Diller speaks in the second part of the book (after explicating each of these figures) of a "Barth/Plantinga" model or position with which he (Diller) is working. Anyone familiar with the broad scope of Reformed Christianity in North America, and with the challenges of theological epistemology, will recognize that any serious attempt to do what Diller sets out to do - and his attempt is, indeed, serious - would make for an important book.

That said, this was also a hard book for me to read.

Now, let me allay your fears. The book is very well written and clearly argued, even if the argument is complicated, multifaceted, [supply your favorite related term here], etc. But Diller writes well and clearly, and non-specialists will be able to profit from this book even if they may be forced to read slowly.

So I do not mean that this book is hard to read. No, it was hard for me to read.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book that was very well done (which, as I’ve already intimated, this one is) and yet crucially just enough different from your own position to be the intellectual equivalent of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard? I have. This wasn’t the first time, but it was the most recent.

I’ve turned this over in my mind, and I’ve come to the conclusion that where I beg to differ from Diller is in his understanding of faith. This is not to say that I think his way of treating faith is incorrect. Far from it – his treatment has many salutary aspects. It is, however, distorted by the absence of one very important consideration: namely, the event-character of faith. Diller talks about faith as a gift. No argument. This gift involves a cognitive process. Sure. That cognitive process pertains to content, which he calls “deliverances.” Fair enough (although I have some serious reservations about this bit as well and would want to be very careful in determining precisely what these "deliverances" are). And all this can and must be positively related to the function of human reason somehow. Most certainly.** But faith is also – and, I would argue, first – an event. Faith is primarily something that happens to you. When it does happen to you, it kicks into gear a cognitive process that involves all sorts of creaturely factors including our material conceptualities – supplied by our communities, by scripture, etc. But all of this is secondary and derivative of faith’s event-character. It is all part of the entirely human response to God’s self-revealing activity, coordinated with it but different in kind. Furthermore, faith is something that happens for you not only once for all, but also again and again. Any account of the "more and more" in faith - the epistemological form of which is what I take much of Diller's work to be concerned with, at least in terms of providing a theoretical foundation for it - must be treated asymmetrically.

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that Diller's reading requires a neo-Orthodox Barth rather than a dialectical Barth.

This has wide-ranging implications. It complicates many of the connections that Diller tries to forge between Barth and Plantinga, as well as the (in my view) somewhat too facile association of Barth’s thinking on these matters with folks like Kuyper and Bavinck. It also has consequences for Diller’s engagement with the questions of natural theology, apologetics, the place and importance of propositions in knowledge of God, and the doctrine of scripture (spoiler on this last point: Diller represents his unified Barth/Plantinga position as a “qualified inerrancy,” suggesting that this position has room both for those who do and do not think the biblical texts make what in common speech would be called factual mistakes, and himself [Diller] affirming that he has not seen any convincing evidence of such mistakes).

All of this is spoken as, admittedly, something like an unusually radical “Barthian,” and none of this is meant to take away from Diller’s accomplishment – which is very real and deserves to be engaged at first hand. As a certain kind of Reformed evangelical writing for others of his tribe, Diller has perhaps provided a tempting gateway drug to dialectical theology. If this encourages more such people to read Barth less defensively, so much the better and I commend him for it. But I’ll cross my fingers and hope that they all eventually get hooked on the hard stuff.

So I encourage you, gentle readers, to get your hands on a copy and check it out for yourselves. And I’ll be posting a time or two in the future to highlight some especially interesting sections, as is my wont. But I had to get this off my chest . . .

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* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy.

** I abstain from providing page citations because Diller’s indices are absolutely first-rate.

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