Why do we need philosophy of religion?

To chart a clear course in pastoral ministry, a philosophy of religion focusing on religious experience, doctrine, and practice becomes crucial in a modern, uncertain, religious minefield.

Marina Fabris Garner is a graduate student at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, United States.

His appearance was striking. Tall, with blond hair and blue eyes, he already stood out from the rest of his theology class in Brazil. However, his profound understanding of the Bible and incessant curiosity stood out even more to whoever talked with him about the Bible. Thus, it came as no surprise when he was selected to be a professor at the university that we both graduated from. He was going to be, I was certain, a brilliant theologian and fascinating professor.

However, when his interests led him to do a master’s degree in philosophy at a secular university, it was downhill from there. Five years after I saw him last, I learned he had become an atheist. He gave back his pastoral credentials and moved far away from the institution where we had had so many uplifting conversations about God. Reflecting back on my conversations with my friend after his abandonment of faith, I see that his struggle with faith was not emotional, or even institutional, but intellectual. He had genuine questions that, as far as he was concerned, remained unanswered.

The first reaction of many Christians to stories like my friend’s is to condemn the course of study, the idea being that anyone who studies philosophy becomes destined to leave his or her faith behind.

It is not so simple, though, and with this article I want to look at one crucial field of philosophical study that can be very helpful in strengthening faith: the philosophy of religion. This is a branch of philosophical inquiry that looks at the logical and rational beliefs that form the foundation of religious experiences, doctrine, and practice. I will look at five reasons why the philosophy of religion can be useful to pastoral ministry. I have built my arguments based on interactions with five different Seventhday Adventsts, whom I have named Adventist 1, 2, 3, and so on.

1. Addressing objections

Adventist 1 is a close relative, and while we were talking, he suddenly responded to a moral comment of mine with the claim that “truth is relative to the place and time when spoken!” Although this objection came from an Adventist, these types of objections generally come from nonbelievers, such as atheists and agnostics. Both philosophy in general and philosophy of religion in particular have, for centuries, produced plenty of material about relativism and absolutism, and about the critical consequences of each for human belief and action.1

Philosophy of religion has addressed not only objections to Christianity, such as relativism, but all types of objections that we hear almost every day from our friends, family, and colleagues. According to 1 Peter 3:15, we must “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV). There are very few Christians in the world we live in today who can honestly say that they have not encountered objections to their faith. Until a few decades ago, we lived in a pretty uniformly religious society. Unfortunately, in the post-Christian world of today, that is no longer the case. In the United States alone, the number who self-identify as atheists has doubled in the past several years,2 a reality far from uncommon in other countries as well. Armed with solid arguments for faith, the believer and the church can help many thinking people know biblical truth.

For example, an important objection to the relativism suggested by Adventist 1 could be the following philosophical argument, among others3:

P1. Moral relativists claim that there are no absolute moral standards.

P2. The claim “All moral standards are relative” proposes an absolute moral standard.

P3. To propose there are no absolute moral standards using an absolute moral standard is illogical.

C. Therefore, the relativist’s claim “All moral standards are relative” is illogical. 

Hence the relativist claim that all truth is relative undermines itself.

2. Better understanding of doctrine

Adventist 2 has been a church member all her life. In the midst of a conversation, she asked this question: “I wonder how evil will not start again in heaven. I mean, if we will continue to be free, how can we be certain that it won’t happen again?” This is a serious philosophical question. That is, what

kind of freedom of will do we have, and what kind of freedom will we have in the afterlife? The question about the freedom of the will, as well as freedom in heaven, comes as an extremely fruitful subject in philosophy of religion.4

A Seventh-day Adventist member who studies profoundly the Christian and Adventist doctrine from a biblical and theological perspective should have a much deeper understanding of this issue than would those who do not. And those who complement the theological study with a biblically sound philosophy may enjoy an even deeper understanding. If we believe in this total freedom, the options would seem to be either God will take away our freedom in heaven or we will still have the possibility to sin in heaven. None of these options seems adequate, according to biblical evidence. After a little more thought, we can see that other possibilities are open to us, such as the overwhelmingly attractive vision of Christ in heaven, His love and majesty, which would inadvertently remove our freedom, not as a direct act from God but, rather, a natural response of love. More importantly, while studying our understanding of freedom of will, we will become not only biblically but also philosophically prepared to respond to Christians who challenge this notion of free will.

3. Addressing heresy

Adventist 3 is a studious and faithful member of the church who, in a Sabbath School class talking about evil and God’s foreknowledge, asked this question: “Do you think God knows everything that will happen in the future?” Before I could open my mouth to respond, he continued: “I don’t believe God would allow evil to occur if He knew about it, so I think God knows all the past and present; however, He does not know the future. And that is why tragedies occur.”

The name of this concept is open theism—the assertion that God knows all that can be known. Because the future cannot be known, God does not know it. Unfortunately, I have heard this idea not only from lay members but even from some pastors.

We recognize that philosophy does not exist to subjugate theology. On the contrary, the Word of God is the final authority. In the case of open theism, the Bible has a sufficient amount of instances that clearly go against this alternative, such as the many prophecies that show God’s detailed knowledge of the future. However, philosophy allows a wider array of answers to many issues. The tools to refute open theism and other theological misunderstandings are available in reputable philosophy of religion publications.5 Philosophy may supplement biblical evidences with arguments, such as the following, using the idea of God being the most perfect being imaginable:

P1. God is the most perfect being imaginable.

P2. The most perfect being imaginable should be perfect in all perfectmaking attributes.

P3. Full knowledge of the past, present, and future is a perfect-making attribute.

C. Therefore, God has full knowledge of the past, present, and future.

Also, a large portion of heresies are based on weak arguments. When the Christian learns how to evaluate arguments with logical and theological scrutiny, the possibility of being deluded by false teachings becomes less likely.

4. Evangelism and preventing apostasy

Adventists 4 and 5 are a couple. They had been married for 20 years and had left the church. The church they had formerly attended held a series of meetings directed toward nonbelievers, and the church invited me to lecture on the philosophical arguments for the existence of God. That night, Adventists 4 and 5 were in the audience and were blown away by the evidence. One year later, they personally told me that as soon as they got home, they kneeled and delivered their lives back to Christ. Here, too, a philosophical defense bore great fruit for the Lord.

5. Good reasons for faith

Evidence from the book of Acts suggests that argumentation in favor of the truthfulness of Christianity was the norm, to both Jews and pagans (Acts 17:2, 3, 17; 19:8; 28:23, 24). When dealing with the Jewish public, the apostles referred to the fulfillment of prophecies, the miracles of Jesus, and especially the resurrection of Jesus to give evidence that He was the Messiah (Acts 2:22–32). When speaking to non-Jews who did not believe in the Old Testament, Paul demonstrated the existence of a Creator God through His works in nature (Acts 14:17; Rom. 1:20) and pointed to eyewitnesses of the resurrection as evidence that God had been revealed through Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30, 31; 1 Cor. 15:3–8).

What should we do about those who do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God? Or those who do not even believe in God? In 2011, the Barna group revealed that 36 percent of youth who had left the church said they were not able to ask their most pressing life questions, and 23 percent said they had significant intellectual doubts about their faith.6 Philosophy of religion can help break down some intellectual barriers and open up persons for the reception of the truth.

No question, we need to live by faith. But our faith is an intelligent faith, and the right use of philosophy can show people just how intelligent that faith really is.

Sidebar: Ten books for a beginner’s philosophy of religion library:

1. Davies, Brian. An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

2. Flint, Thomas P. and Michael C. Rea. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

3. Moreland, J. P. and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Westmont, IL: IVP Academics, 2003.

4. Moreland, J. P., Khaldoun A. Sweis, and Chad V. Mesiter, eds. Debating Christian Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

5. Plantinga, Alvin and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds. Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

6. Rea, Michael C. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Edited by Louis Pojman. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2014.

7. Swinburne, Richard. The Christian God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

8. Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

9. Wainwright, William, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

10. Zagzebski, Linda. Philosophy of Religion: An Historical Introduction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.

1 Paul K. Moser and Thomas L. Carson, eds., Moral Relativism: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Peter Kreeft, A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews With an Absolutist (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999).

2 Michael Lipka, “10 Facts About Atheists,” Pew Research Center: Factank, June 1, 2016, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts -about-atheists/.

3 P stands for premise and C stands for conclusion.

4 James F. Sennett, “Is There Freedom in Heaven?,” Faith and Philosophy 16, no. 1 (January 1999) 69–82, doi: 10.5840/faithphil19991617; Kevin Timpe and Timothy Pawl, “Incompatibilism, Sin, and Free Will in Heaven,” Faith and Philosophy 26, no. 4 (October 2009): 398–419, doi: 10.5840/faithphil200926437.

5 Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998). Paul Helm, The Providence of God: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

6 “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” Research Releases in Millennials and Generations, Barna Group, September 27, 2011, www.barna.org /barna-update/millennials/528-six-reasons-young -christians-leave-church#.V6StB-lFlVs.


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Marina Fabris Garner is a graduate student at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, United States.

March 2017

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