Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

Here’s the longer version of my review of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? by James K. A. Smith. Edited versions were recently published by The Gospel Coalition (here) and Reformation21 (here).


For some time now James K. A. Smith’s agenda has been to enter into critical but charitable conversation with postmodernist writers, looking for points at which their arguments resonate with Christian claims and undermine the common enemy of modernism. I believe this is a worthy and worthwhile project, although I have questions about whether Smith is sufficiently critical, as I will indicate below. Smith’s 2006 book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? purported to “take to church” three leading postmodernists: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. He argued that some of the distinctive claims of these writers have been misunderstood and misrepresented by evangelicals; properly understood they offer epistemological insights that ought to be affirmed by Christians. The hope was to introduce a lay Christian audience to “the real postmodernism” and to foster, if not a close friendship, at least a fruitful mutual acquaintance.

Who's Afraid of Relativism?Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is a follow-up to Smith’s earlier book. On this occasion Smith seeks to play the role of defense attorney for ‘relativism’; more precisely, the philosophy of pragmatism as propounded by the controversial American philosopher Richard Rorty. His central thesis is easily identified, since it is repeated in different forms throughout the book: pragmatism is a philosophy centered on the recognition of our dependence, finitude, and contingency; thus Christians, who acknowledge the dependence, finitude, and contingency of the creation, ought to be sympathetic rather than hostile toward pragmatism. As Smith puts it, “My thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood.” (p. 12)

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A Brief Response to William Lane Craig on Molinism

A few months back I wrote a post entitled “The Fallible God of Molinism” which was prompted by an exchange between William Lane Craig and Paul Helm. Some folk alerted me to the fact that Dr. Craig briefly responded to my argument in a recent podcast. This is what he said:

I think he’s made a misstep in his argument here. It certainly is true that in any particular freedom-permitting circumstances an agent is free to do other than as God knows he will do. But in that other world in which the agent does something different, God’s plans wouldn’t be the same. What this fellow doesn’t seem to remember is that in that world God would have different plans. God would know in that world that S would do something different in C and so in that world he would have plans for that to happen. So what he’s tried to do is keep God’s plans firm and fixed from world to world, but then vary the value of the counterfactuals, and you can’t do that. If you switch to a world in which S does not do A in C then you can’t say, “Well, in that world God’s plans are that S would do A in C.” No, no, in that world God would have different plans.

So when you switch the truth-value of the counterfactuals, you’ve got to switch the providential plans as well, because the providential plans are based upon the counterfactuals that are true in those worlds. So given that God’s plans are based upon what he knows the free agents would do, the plans will change from world to world along with the decisions of the agents. So there’s just not any problem. God’s plans never fail, and he’s not fallible.

Let me say first of all that I’m honored Dr. Craig considered it worthy of comment! But I do have a few things to say in response.

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Company Sued Over ‘Homophobic’ Catalog

An electronic component supplier is being sued over allegedly homophobic terminology in its product catalog. Daniel Everett, a resident of Burlington, Massachusetts, is seeking nearly $100,000 in damages from Portland-based Posnex Components for emotional distress he claims was caused by images and descriptions in the company’s Spring 2014 catalog.

Everett, an interior designer who recently married his long-term partner Kevin, first became aware of the offensive material while visiting a relative who is a DIY electronics enthusiast. “I sat down at his kitchen table and there was a Posnex catalog lying open at the section for audio and video connectors,” he explained. “As I glanced down the page, the terminology of ‘male’ and ‘female’ caught my attention. But as I looked more closely at the photos and the product descriptions, I became appalled at what I saw.”

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Reformed Perspectives on the Problem of Evil

A correspondent asks:

Could you recommend the best books for me to read on a Reformed perspective on the problem of evil?

I’d recommend the following:

  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, chapters 16-18.
  • D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Baker, 2006).
  • John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (P&R, 2002), chapter 9.
  • Paul Helm, The Providence of God (IVP, 1994), chapters 7 & 8.
  • James S. Spiegel, The Benefits of Providence (Crossway, 2005), chapter 6.

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2006) is very good for a more pastoral perspective.

I’ve heard good things about John Feinberg’s The Many Faces of Evil, but it’s still on my to-read list, so I can’t give a personal recommendation.

Also look out for a forthcoming multi-author volume, Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson (Wipf and Stock). I don’t know exactly when it will be published.

I Reject Christianity Because…

The Gospel Coalition blog has posted a short interview with Matt Smethurst in which I briefly answer four popular objections to Christianity.

Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed

My review of Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed by Alan J. Spence has been published in the Journal of Reformed Theology. Post-print version posted here with permission.

The Bible is a Plain Book

“The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not on that of the Church.”

(Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:183)

On Worldviews

Crossway invited me to write a series of articles for their blog to coincide with the release of What’s Your Worldview?. Since all five articles have now been posted, I thought it would be a good idea to assemble the series here:

The Fallible God of Molinism

I recently listened to the exchange on Molinism and Calvinism between William Lane Craig and Paul Helm on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio program. It was more of a conversation than a debate, but it’s still worth a listen. In this post I want to expand on a point Helm raised but didn’t himself develop. I’ll first summarize the main tenets of Molinism before discussing what I regard as a serious objection to it. (Be patient — the first half of this post is just set-up.)

Molinism is a philosophical theory designed to reconcile a strong view of divine providence (according to which God foreordains all things) with a libertarian view of free will and a synergistic view of salvation (according to which God doesn’t cause anyone to repent and believe; instead sinners freely cooperate with God’s resistible grace in order to be saved). According to Molinism, God is able to providentially direct events by means of his middle knowledge, that is, his knowledge of what any libertarian-free creature would choose in any specific circumstances. For example, God knew prior to his decision to create this world whether I would freely choose a Boston Kreme if I were to go to Dunkin’ Donuts at noon on February 19, 2014, in such-and-such exact circumstances. God is therefore able to plan events down to the very last detail by prearranging the precise circumstances in which his creatures will find themselves and make their free choices. God doesn’t cause those choices, but he does guarantee them in some strong sense by orchestrating circumstances in light of his middle knowledge.

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In Defence of War

[The following review is forthcoming in the Expository Times. It is reproduced here with permission.]

Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War, Oxford University Press, 2013. £25/$55. viii + 361 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-967261-5

In Defence of WarIn Defence of War is an excellent book with a somewhat misleading title. It isn’t a defence of war per se, but rather a defence of just war theory in the Augustinian Christian tradition and, by way of application, of three relatively recent military engagements involving Western nations. As Biggar explains in his introduction, one of his major targets is “the virus of wishful thinking”: the idea that there always must be a course of action better than military conflict. Justice entails that war is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary.

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