Two Caveats: Diller's Concluding Unphilosophical Postscript on Barth & Plantinga

Kevin Diller's constructive and dialogical study of theological epistemology in the work of Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga has received some rave reviews (for example, see Darren Kennedy's piece for the Center for Karl Barth Studies). DET's Travis McMaken has expressed appreciation, yet with some ambivalence about Diller's project (see here and here . The second of these posts -- on "Barth, Pannenberg, and Fideism" -- generated one of our longest comment threads in recent memory). I also received a review copy of Diller's book and am submitting a review of it to an academic journal, so I won't analyze it at length here. I found this book very informative, especially on Plantinga, and overall stimulating. Today, though, I want to muse on two important caveats about the limits of his project that Diller raises in the postcript to his tome (pp. 295-300). "Caveat" is my own language; he labels these issues "concerns."

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

"Mr. Pipo Think 03" by Nevit Dilman
(via Wikimedia commons)
First, Diller flags what he calls the "self-deception concern." As both Barth and Plantinga argue, Diller has shown, the warrant for the veracity of Christian belief (such as it is) comes from the free gift of divine revelation and not from any independent basis of human knowledge. How can we have any ultimate guarantee that our religious beliefs aren't all made up -- that they aren't based on some alienating projection, let's say (a la Feuerbach)? Diller admits, correctly, that no philosophical or theological framework can finally eradicate the question of doubt. Indeed, he writes, the possibility of self deception is intrinsic to human knowing as such and pervades all species of inquiry:

The [Barth-Plantinga] proposal leaves us with no way of ruling out the possibility of self-deception. But being unable to rule out this possibility is just a feature of being human and follows from our acknowledgement that we are humanly unable to self-secure the grounds of knowledge (p. 297).

If we could post of some sort of magic pill that would make the problem of doubt go away for good, we would be something less than human; what's more, as Diller writes, we would no longer be in the situation of relying utterly on divine grace to illumine our paths to knowledge.

Diller's second caveat is the "practicality concern." In some ways, I find this issue more interesting than the first. Diller writes:

This concern has to do with the apparent uselessness of this proposal for determining whose view is the right view on a number of debated questions in contemporary theology. In fact, this proposal fails even to offer an argument to settle the most basic questions in theological epistemology (e.g., is there a God to know?) (pp. 297-298).

The foundations of the truth of revelation -- as both Barth and Plantinga maintain (each in his own idiom) -- simply are not at our disposal, for we are creatures and not the Creator.

Of course, the forgoing points don't entail we wallow in agnostic despair. To see how, according to Diller, Christian theology and philosophy of religion might offer tools for answering skepticism, you will have to read the book for yourself. Still, whatever other uses the Christian thinker might make of Diller's erudite study, for my part, I'd like to take his two caveats and print a bookplate to put in the front cover of all my books of theology, philosophy and social theory.


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