Saturday, January 11, 2014

Contending with Christianity's Critics

What follows is a review I did of one essay of the book "Contending with Christianity's Critics," ed. by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig. It is an excellent resource. The essay itself is by Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty. Enjoy, and feel free to comment below!

            The authors make several points that are not only fascinating, but also contribute greatly to a rich conception of God. First, they rightly note that several of God’s attributes serve to enhance the others; it is suggested that one is needed in order to describe the other. They provide the illustration of God’s omnipotence and His omniscience by writing, “Arguably, a being without omniscience would have less power than one with omniscience. The attributes of God . . . form a coherent whole” (185). This insight allows the Christian to explain why it can be thought that God has the particular attributes He does.
            Taliaferro and Marty are not intending to delve into every single challenge that has been or could be leveled against the coherency of God. The scope of their essay is to defend the coherency of this conception of God and His interconnected properties as they relate to six areas: “necessary existence, incorporeality, essential goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, and eternity” (185). Their goal is to show that each of these areas survives popular attempts to show logical contradiction.
            For the uninitiated reader, the authors do an excellent job of explaining what it means to be logically coherent. If it is possible that some thing exists or obtains, then it is coherent (186). The person who wishes to understand whether or not the concept of God is coherent must understand both logical consistency (being free from internal contradiction) and certain metaphysical concepts, like what it means to be a person, possess certain properties, and so on.
            The discussion on incorporeality is helpful as well. Incorporeality is the idea that God is not literally materially embodied. While Christ was incarnate, it was not a case of God’s being identical with a particular body. However, some philosophers object that an incorporeal agent is a “contradiction in terms” because every idea that is coherent about every agent is about a material or embodied agent, not an incorporeal one (189). The correct response is to show that while a property may be completely common (so as to be universal among all known examples), it is not necessarily the case that such a property is essential for that being.[1]
            Another interesting objection offered is that such talk about incorporeal agents is meaningless because it is not subject to scientific investigation or testing. The authors’ response is to distinguish between intentional and nonintentional explanations of events. For them, science can only concern itself with nonintentional explanations. Intentional explanations would include things such as values, designs, and purposes (whereas nonintentional explanations lack these facets) (191-93). By showing that science cannot account for intentional explanations (like the reading and writing of a book), they show that science cannot rule out a priori an incorporeal agent such as God.
            Their discussion on omnipotence and the various puzzles that have been thrown at it may be the best section in the essay. They consider three sets of arguments against omnipotence, including the problem of the stone. What makes this section so good is that instead of conceding ground to the objector (by postulating that perhaps God can perform evil acts), they develop an underlying principle of God-ness that undercuts all such objections as these. They claim: “the ability to do evil is not a power that is proper to a maximally excellent being” (197). When applied in conjunction with God’s not being able to do a logical contradiction (since, like evil, it is not something to be done), the contentions that God cannot be omnipotent melt away.
            Finally, their discussion about omniscience affords several answers to a couple of major objections. The first is the objection that divine foreknowledge entails that no future contingents are free. The authors argue from the symmetry of the past and our knowledge of it. They claim, quite rightly, that our knowledge of the past does not undermine the free aspect of those actions, so why would it in the future as well (198)? The next objection rests on the idea that in order to be omniscient, one must have experiential knowledge of colors, and that God, being incorporeal, could not have this experience, and thus does not know the concept of red. They challenge this assumption by stating that it is surely possible for humans to understand certain concepts without experiencing them, and so it would be for God as well (200-01).
            While this was an excellent essay overall, there were a few issues that could have been treated better. First, the discussion on necessary existence is bound to confuse the average layman. This is because the authors did not distinguish between an internal critique and an external critique. Most of the section deals with why Dawkins cannot claim that the universe is necessarily existent (as God is), but the actual treatment of the following objection is short. The objection is that we can conceive of a universe without God, so that God really is not necessarily existent. The seemingly obvious reply is to state that what the objector is doing is epistemically possible (that is, for all he knows, the state of affairs of God’s nonexistence and the universe’s existence is possible), but not metaphysically so. In order to show it is metaphysically possible, the objector has to have “an argument that God’s existence may be known to be impossible” (188). While they do toss this bone, many readers are not prone to understand the thinking behind this nor the brief discussion following that focuses on conceiving of God’s existence. While I agree with their conclusions, the average reader is likely to think this is some verbal sleight of hand because of the lack of explanation.
            Second, the authors’ discussion of the problem of evil was more or less waved away as a concern but not one they had space to address. While it is appreciated that the problem of evil would be an essay unto itself, surely they could have discussed some part of it or sketched a brief solution for one or two pages. To their credit, they do appeal to a couple of solutions, but these solutions are literally given in name only.
            While the section on omnipotence was quite good, I thought they might have missed an extra opportunity to show why the particular objections were faulty. One such objection included “Molech,” a being that is just like God but who lacks essential goodness (196). It would seem that such a being is not even logically possible. This is because both God and Molech would be necessarily existent. Both of them would share the property of creative ultimacy. Creative ultimacy would entail that all beings are under the creative control of the one who possesses this property. It would then follow that both God and Molech possessed this property, meaning both God and Molech would be under the creative control of each other. This would mean that both God and Molech were actually contingent, and neither of them were necessarily existent. This means that, as an internal critique of coherence, Molech fails (on incoherence grounds, ironically).
            Next, although they did a good job explaining coherence itself to the reader, they did have one misstep. In attempting to explain metaphysical concepts, they introduced the idea of a person without a body, claiming this “is not a bona fide possibility” (186). Why think this is so? God is a person, and yet, as a being, He is not embodied.[2] Even if this is so, this is such a confusing example that the reader may be distracted by this element.
            Finally, the discussion on God’s eternality seemed to be quite weak. While they may or may not be correct, it seemed their response to the simultaneity objection was question-begging. The objection is supposed to show that God cannot be eternal (where eternal means timeless), and yet their response is that God is not temporal (which is to say timeless, which is to say eternal). It would not help any reader struggling with the coherency of God’s eternality to resolve the issue.
            The essay by Taliaferro and Marty set the tone for the rest of the section on the coherence of theism. Their goal was not to answer every objection, nor was it to deal with every attribute of God. Rather, their goal was to take six of the most well known attributes of God and answer the most popular objections against their coherency. While at times their analysis seemed incomplete or even misleading, the majority of it was both well written and insightful. They did accomplish their goal quite well. This essay would be recommended for a popular audience who was mostly unfamiliar with Christian responses to these problems. It should only be used as a springboard into a deeper investigation into these issues (as I believe the authors both understood and intended).

[1] Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 63.

[2] While God the Son is surely embodied, the Triune God certainly was not.


  1. Hi Randy,

    Not to take this off-topic, but in relation to attributes like omniscience and omnipotence which were mentioned near the start of your review, how do we prove that a creator is endowed with those? I can only think of two ways myself: 1) Appeal to the Ontological argument; 2) Appeal to Scripture. Just wondering if you know of any other arguments that can be used?

    1. Hi James. Well, you don't have to appeal to the ontological argument as a whole, but merely the concept of the maximally-great being, which entails these things. There may be room for other arguments, like the best explanation of power is an ultimate source of power, which is then in turn all-powerful, and this is best explained by God; or knowledge indicates truth, and there is an objective ground to all truth, and plausibly this ground of truth would know all truth as he knows himself, and the best explanation is God--these are starters, but would need to be seriously developed.

    2. Ah, OK, maybe I've misunderstood the Ontological argument slightly then?.I thought it was the joining together of the concept of a maximally-great being with the language/concept of possible worlds, which then get us to this being actually existing. But you seem to be saying the maximally-great being concept is just part of the Ontological argument. Is that right? Or am I misreading you?

    3. It is the exploration of the concept with the concept of possible worlds, yes. But what I am saying is that you don't have to discuss the concept of possible worlds in order to argue for omniscience. Say that someone disagrees necessary existence is possible, for example, but would want to affirm God is the greatest possible being (for whatever reason). They could then accept the argument that God is omniscient/omnipotent/whatnot without being saddled with that belief (even though I think it is entailed by being maximally great). :)

    4. OK, thanks. One last thing: in regards to an attribute like omnibenevolence, apart from using the maximally-great being concept or appealing to Scripture, could you use the Moral Argument to show the creator has this attribute? I've heard some people say you can, but I can't quite see why myself, for although I can understand us thinking the creator must be (at the least) a good being if He has implanted moral values in our minds/conscience, how does it follow from that alone that He is all-good rather than just mostly-good?

    5. Yes, I think you can. I think this is also where different types of moral arguments can come into play. For instance, if our moral argument is only that God is the being responsible for why we have a sense of moral values, then yes, it doesn't follow from that that God is all-good. However, if our moral argument argues for God as the ground or source of objective moral values, then he must be omnibenevolent. If he is the source, then he is identical to the good (the solution to the Euthyphro), and in that case good is not not-good (or evil), and then it follows that God is all-good. I also think there is a case to be made from the idea of obligations. It seems plausible (though this idea needs work) that we only owe obligations to persons who are the law. In moral terms, then, we only owe moral duties to that perfect standard of goodness, which is God. We don't owe them to lesser beings, even though we owe certain attitudes and behaviors towards persons, these are secondary obligations (i.e., you must do X; Y is an instantiation of X; you must do Y). Anyway, I just think it's plausible that moral obligations indicate a perfect standard that is a person. :)


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!