Clark Rejects the Rationality of Evidentialism, Part 2

Kelly James Clark, Return to ReasonKelly James Clark. 1990. Return To Reason: A Critique of Enlightenment Evidentialism and a Defense of Reason and Belief in God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One reason that many people dismiss apologetics is influence of the romantic period (early nineteenth century) has led many Christians to focus on heart rather than head in their faith. Pastors have been known to say—“people won’t care what you know until they see how much you care.” While there is truth in this expression, head and heart cannot be separated.

After the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards observed that, if revivals were not followed by sound teaching, the formerly fervent new believers soon wandered off, never to be seen again in church. We witnessed this very same pattern in the weeks after 9-11 as the new faces in church after the attack soon disappeared again. Clearly, we need apologetic insights into the faith that we adopt with our hearts in order to remain faithful when our fervent hearts cool.

In part one of this review of Kelly James Clark’s book, Return to Reason, I gave an overview of Clark’s argument about evidentialism

“Evidentialism [according to Clark] maintains that a belief is rational for a person only if that person has sufficient evidence or arguments or reasons for that belief.” (3)

I will examine in part 2 three arguments for the existence of God laid that Clark critiques: the cosmological argument by Richard Taylor, William Paley’s argument from design, and a probabilistic argument outlined by Richard Swinburne. Clark describes attempts to prove God’s existence from facts known about the natural world at natural theology (15).

The Cosmological Argument

This argument begins with a question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (17) Citing Taylor, Clark appeals to the principle of sufficient reason:

“…for every positive truth there is some sufficient reason which makes it true. There are two ways that statements can be true. Statements can be contingently true, which means their being true depends on something else; and statements may be necessarily true, which means their truth is not dependent on the truth of other statements.” (18)

Taylor sees no reason to doubt that the existence of the world is contingent on something else that we do not know (the chain of causality must lead to something eternal and imperishable). This eternal and imperishable being is God (21-22).

While the conclusion from this argument that God exists is obvious to a theist (someone who already believes in God), a non-theist sees no reason to conclude that the world is contingent on anything (23). The theist stops when God is presented; the non-theist asks whether God is contingent (24). Thus, the pre-supposition that God exists renders the argument moot.

The Argument from Design

Clark summarizes Paley’s argument succinctly:

“The world shows design; design implies a designer; hence, the world requires a designer.” (27)

Paley arguments that the existence of a stone poses no evidence that anyone ever put it there, but if one found a watch lying on the beach, the precision and subtly of a watch begs the question of who made it.

Hume argued, unlike with a watch, we have no experience with how the universe was made and so it appears as a unique item. Our explanations are therefore by analogy, not direct knowledge. Suppose, for example, the universe were created by a committee, not just one person. Thus, we cannot intuit the existence of God from design, except perhaps through anthropomorphism (51). Darwin believed that instead of design, the extinction of species pointed to an absence of design and to evolution as the mechanism for the creation of complex animal features (33-34).

A Probabilistic Argument

Clark summarizes Swinburne’s probabilistic argument as follows: 

  1. “The existence and design of the world—including morality, free moral agents, religious experience—are extremely improbable without the hypothesis of theism.
  2. The hypothesis of theism significantly raises the probability of the existence and design of the world.
  3. The hypothesis of theism explains and unites under a sign hypothesis an otherwise disparate and unlikely set of phenomena—the existence and design of the world, religious experience, miracles, and evil.
  4. The hypothesis of theism has sufficiently intrinsic plausibility.
  5. Therefore, it is like that God exists” (38).

Mackie looks at the same evidence and concludes that a materialistic or naturalistic origin for the universe is more likely, particularly because we have never observed a person without a body (38-39). Consequently, once again we see that the probabilistic argument depends heavily on the fundamental beliefs that you hold, prior to the argument rendering the argument moot (40).

Clark argues that because each of the arguments for God’s existence (or non-existence) do not stand alone, independent of prior beliefs, experience from the natural world cannot be used to substantiate the existence of God. In statistics, we are taught that relationships among observe data cannot determine causality, a restatement of Clark’s conclusion. It is accordingly pointless to pursue the requirements for proof under evidentialism (43). He therefore proceeds to explore alternatives.

In his book, Return To Reason, Kelly James Clark examines the Enlightenment claim that insufficient evidence exists to believe that God exists, an argument that he describes as evidentialism. He reviews three arguments for the existence of God and their weaknesses. He then goes on to reject evidentialism as a standard for determining rationality and to discuss the rationality of belief in God. Clark’s concise presentation should interest anyone who cares about apologetics.


Darwin, Charles. 1958. Autobiography (Orig Pub 1887). Edited by Francis Darwin. New York: Dover.

Hume, David. 1980. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Orig Pub 1776). Edited by Richard H. Popkin. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Mackie, J.I. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paley, William. 2002. The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (Orig Pub 1785). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. Online: Cited: 18 November 2017.

Swinburne, Richard. 1979. The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon.

Taylor, Richard. 1974. Metaphysics. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Clark Rejects the Rationality of Evidentialism, Part 2

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Clark Rejects the Rationality of Evidentialism, Part 1

Kelly James Clark, Return to ReasonKelly James Clark. 1990. Return To Reason: A Critique of Enlightenment Evidentialism and a Defense of Reason and Belief in God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (After December 5: Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those of us that grew up believing in God at an early age, apologetics seems a bit unreal. How do you prove that your parents exist? The answer is that you do not prove their existence; you simply point to them. Still, the arguments give comfort that your own existence makes sense and includes continuity with those that went before, something like a genealogy study proves royal lineage.


Kelly James Clark’s book, Return to Reason, focuses on a crucial critique offered during the Enlightenment:

“Evidentialism maintains that a belief is rational for a person only if that person has sufficient evidence or arguments or reasons for that belief.” (3)

This statement is an epistemological presupposition, which is an untested, presumption about how we know something, has intuitive appeal because we all want to believe that we are rational thinkers. However, as Clark argues, almost nothing that we believe actually meets this criterion which, particularly in view of the damage that it has done to the Christian faith community, leaves us wondering if a bias has been exhibited merely by posing this standard for belief.

Responses to Evidentialism

Clark points to three basic responses to evidentialism. The first response (theistic evidentialism) is that some people believe that sufficient evidence for God’s existence can be demonstrated. The second response (fideism) is to admit that sufficient evidence does not exist, but we must simply have faith that God exists. The third response is to reject evidentialism (reformed epistemology) and develop an alternative definition for rationality. Clark writes in support of this third response and argues that evidentialism is doubly flawed (6-8).

Outline of Book

Clark writes his book in four parts:

  1. “Proving God’s Existence: Problems and Prospects
  2. God and Evil
  3. The Irrelevance of Evidentialism: God—Hypothesis or Person?
  4. Return to Reason: The Irrationality of Evidentialism” (vii-viii).

In view of the importance of these arguments, I will write this review in two parts. Part one will focus on Clark’s argument. In part 2, I will examine Clark’s problems with the classical apologetics.

Background on Clark

Kelly James Clark (1956- ) is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and Professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids Michigan. Clark received his Phd from the University of Notre Dame where his dissertation advisor was Alvin Plantinga. He has held professorships at Calvin College, Oxford University, University of St. Andrews, Notre Dame & Gordon College. He also served as Executive Director for the Society of Christian Philosophers from 1994-2009. Clark’s books include Religion and the Sciences of Origins, Abraham’s Children, The Story of Ethics, When Faith Is Not Enough, and 101 Key Philosophical Terms of Their Importance for Theology.[1]


In his book, Return To Reason, Kelly James Clark examines the Enlightenment claim that insufficient evidence exists to believe that God exists, an argument that he describes as evidentialism. He reviews three arguments for the existence of God and their weaknesses. He then goes on to reject evidentialism as a standard for determining rationality and to discuss the rationality of belief in God. Clark’s concise presentation should interest anyone who cares about apologetics.


[1] @KellyJamesClark.

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Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 3

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of GodTimothy Keller.[1]  2016. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.  New York: Viking Press. (Part 2, Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A core tenet of the scientific method lies in using reproducible empirical evidence to validate or fail to validate a hypothesis. Because God created the heavens and the earth, he lies outside the created order, where evidence might be found. Therefore, scientific testing of the existence of God is impossible. However, the created order can be used to draw inferences about God, much like we might observe fingerprints of a potter on the pottery.


In part three of his recent book, Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller summarizes six arguments for the existence of God from: 1. existence, 2. fine tuning, 3. moral realism, 4. consciousness, 5. reason, and 6. beauty (217). These bear repeating.

From Existence

For existence to even be, it had to have had an uncaused cause (218). Think about the evolutionary hypothesis. Life somehow presumably spontaneously emerged from non-biological substances and evolved until we were created—this is creation story according to many atheists. But who created the non-biological substances? The usual answer given is that the universe just always existed. However, according to the big bang theory held by most scientists to be the accepted theory of creation, the universe has not always looked like it does today. According to one online dictionary:[2]

“a theory in astronomy: the universe originated billions of years ago in an explosion from a single point of nearly infinite energy density.”

Given that the universe shows evidence of an uncaused cause, it is reasonable to infer that God created the universe in his own inscrutable way.

From Fine Tuning

Constants in physics appear to be precisely adjusted to allow life to exist. Keller writes:

“The speed of light, the gravitational constant, the strength of the strong and weak nuclear forces—must all have almost exactly the values that they do have in order for organic life to exist…the chances that all of the dials would be tuned to life-permitting settings all at once are about 10-100.” (219)

Given such a small probability that the laws of physics were randomly aligned in this way, many scientists have concluded that it is not an accident; it was intentionally planned this way. It is kind of like finding a working clock on the beach and assuming that it was randomly constructed—no reasonable person would assume that, but would rather assume that a clockmaker had to exist.

From Moral Realism

Most people, even ardent atheists, believe that moral obligations, like human rights, exist that we can insist everyone abide by. Keller writes:

“…some things are absolutely wrong to do. Moral obligation, then, makes more sense in a universe created by a personal God to whom we intuitively feel responsible than it does in an impersonal universe with no God.” (221)

Even an argent atheist would not idly stand by and watch another person drown or be killed in a burning house when something could be done to aid them in surviving. This kind of moral obligation is something that virtually everyone feels, yet is counter-intuitive from the perspective of personal survival—water rescues and running into burning buildings routinely kill rescuers, even those trained and equipped like lifeguards and firefighters. Why do we feel obligated to put ourselves at such risk? Christians answer that God created us with a moral compass.

From Consciousness

Keller, citing Thomas Nagel (110), writes that “all human experience has a subjective quality to it.” (222) It is pretty hard to argue, as does Francis Crisk (3), that

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (224)

Keller summarizes: “Consciousness and idea making make far more sense in a universe created by an idea-making, conscious God.” (224)

From Reason and Beauty

Keller reports that has been popular in recent years to argue that our reasoning and appreciation of beauty both developed from the process of natural selection because they helped our ancestors to survive. Evolutionary psychologists have gone a step further arguing that even our faith in God is a product of evolution and natural selection because it helped our ancestors to survive.

The problem exists, however, that many animals seem to have survived just fine without developing any capacity to reason at all. Furthermore, if our faith is a product of natural selection, why wouldn’t we trust our reasoning capacity to tell us the truth? (225). The arguments for beauty parallel those for reason.

Keller, citing Luc Ferry, writes: “truth, beauty, justice, and love … whatever the materialists say, remain fundamentally transcendent.” (226) In other words, they all point to the existence of a loving God.

Limits to the Proofs

Most proofs of God’s existence focus only on making it sensible to believe in God in an abstract or philosophical sense. They really do not give us a detailed picture of God’s character, as revealed in the Bible.

Philosophers remind us that God transcends our universe being removed from it having created it—God stands outside time and space, as we know it. He is also removed from us by virtue of being holy—sacred and set apart. God’s transcendence makes it impossible for us to approach God on our own; he must initiate any contact that we have with him. Christians believe that God revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Uniqueness of Christ

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes the case that God not only exists, but that he is God of the Old and New Testaments (228). Keller makes the stunning observation that only Christianity is truly a world religion; it has indigenous believers fairly evenly distributed across all regions and continents of the world, long before it became a religion in Europe and North America. He writes: “today most of the most vital and largest Christian populations are now nonwhite and non-Western” (228)

Why is it that Christianity continues to grow in spite of strong influence of secularism in the West and obvious persecution of Christians outside the West? For me, the answer lies in God’s continuing and loving presence in each of our lives. What about you?


My brief overview of the third part of Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, does not do it justice. Keller’s book is a jewel. It answers better than most books focused on apologetics some of the basic concerns of our age.


Ferry, Luc. 2011. “A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living.” Translation by Theo Cuffe. New York: Harper Perennial.

Crisk, Francis. 1994. “The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.” New York: Simon and Schuster.

Nagel, Thomas. 2012. “What is It Like to Be a Bat?” Mortal Questions, Canto Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 3

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Keller Argues the Case for God 

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Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of GodTimothy Keller.[1]  2016. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.  New York: Viking Press. (Part 2, Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Why does anyone care about theology, the study of God? In our thoroughly secular society, God would seem to be irrelevant, yet these are not happy times. Suicide rates have recently reached record levels and life expectancy went down last year in America for the first time driven by increases in death rates from preventable causes. If your faith is in the basic goodness of human beings, why is nuclear war an increasing worry? If your faith is in rational decision-making and technology, why Is life expectancy declining here in America due to preventable causes? As the presumptions of secular society have proven to be at best false and at worse idolatrous, turning to God and the study of his ways might seem a sensible response.


In his recent book, Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller sets forth these objectives:

“…I will compare and contrast how Christianity and secularism … seek to provide meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, a moral compass, and hope—all things so crucial that we cannot live life without them. I will be arguing that Christianity makes the most emotional and cultural sense…” (4-5)

A bit later he addresses his target audience: “If you think that Christianity doesn’t hold much promise of making sense to a thinking person, then this book is written for you.” (5) Keller writes in three parts: (1) Why does anyone need religion? (2) Religion is more than you think it is; and (3) Christianity makes sense. (vii-viii)

This review is written in three parts that correspond roughly to Keller’s own divisions. The first part will, in addition, provide an overview of the book.

Who is Timothy Keller?

Timothy Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York in 1989. While many pastors have founded churches in recent years, Keller stands out for having successfully witnessed to young, urban professionals with a faithful message, something thought inconceivable until he did it. He writes prolificly about Christian apologetics and his writing is passionately followed by young pastors and seminarians interested in urban ministry. He grew up in Pennsylvania, attended Bucknell University (BS), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Westminster Theological Seminary (PhD).

Keller distinguishes three uses of the word secular. In the first, a secular society is one that separates religion from the state, as is true in most Western countries. In the second, a secular person focuses on the material world and is skeptical that anything exists outside it. Finally, a secular culture focuses on the present, material reality and “meaning in life, guidance, and happiness are understood and sought in present-time economic prosperity, material comfort, and emotional fulfillment.” In a secular culture, even people professing faith may not act on it in making significant life decisions. (2-3)

In this sense, secularism is an atheistic religion, one of many, because God no longer occupies first priority in the lives of secular people, regardless of their professed religion.

Why Does Anyone Need Religion?

While the number of cultural Christians continues to decline in the U.S., the number of devote Christians continues to grow here and abroad. Why? Keller offers two reasons:

“…many people find secular reason to have ‘things missing’ from it that are necessary to live life well. Another explanation is that great numbers of people intuitively sense a transcendent realm beyond the natural world.” (11).

What’s Missing?

Secular postmodernism asserts many rights, such as human rights, that are a legacy of Christian morality, but it has no justification for maintaining them outside the Christian tradition. For the Jew or the Christian, human rights make perfect sense because they believe that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), but for the Marxist, who does not believe God exists and believes that all rights are conferred by the state, such logic seems meaningless. Citing Habermas, Keller writes:

“The ideals of freedom…of conscience, human rights and democracy [are] the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love…To this day, there is no alternative to it.” (13)

For the radical individualist, the absence of any moral obligation beyond the individual leaves no philosophical justification for human rights yet most assert human rights should be respected without a justification. Passing a law to assert disembodied values can certainly be done, but what happens when an evil coalition passes contrary laws? Many people have sensed that something important is missing and have come to see faith in God as essential to maintaining a just society.

A Sense of Transcendence

The sense of transcendence becomes obvious when contemplating the limits of the material world. Keller writes:

“Steve Jobs, when contemplating his own death, confessed that he felt that ‘it’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience…and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” (16)

In my own experience, I came to understand that even nihilism, complete denial of the existence of God, points itself to God because the human heart refuses to live without hope.


Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, is a jewel. It answers better than most books focused on apologetics some of the basic concerns of our age. In parts two and three of this review, I will turn to Keller’s other two concerns: why religion is more than you think it is and how Christianity makes sense.


Habermas, Jürgen. 2006. Time of Transitions. UK: Cambridge.



Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1

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Return to Leadership

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy
of double honor, especially those
who labor in preaching and teaching
(1 Tim 5:17)

Return to Leadership

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My term as elder began in January 2003 when Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) ordained me and I was elected as clerk of session, a leadership position. As clerk, I worked closely with the pastor to set agendas for the session and congregational meetings, and kept the official notes on all meetings.

Pastor Rob encouraged the elders to deepen their faith and to become more involved in the life of the church. He encouraged us involved dedicating the first half-hour of our meetings to study and prayer. The first book that we used in this effort was Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership, which served to make the point that elders were more than merely the board of directors of the church. Session soon became my first small group.

Pastor Rob also encouraged us was to become more involved in the life of the church through preaching and teaching. In the spring, our associate pastor resigned and Pastor Rob asked that elders to offer personal testimonies on Sunday morning to give him some time off.
At first, I avoided the question, but after thinking about it, I told him:

I am uncomfortable giving a personal testimonial, but if you want, I will preach for you. I am used to teaching college students so it should be no problem to preach.

He agreed and shared a book, Communicating for a Change, with me by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones to help me get started. Over the next year, I preached four times on the call to faith and ministry, the problem of pain, the Book of Esther, and the covenants of law and grace.
The following year, I taught my first adult Sunday school class, a video series crafted around R.C. Sproul’s book: Reason to Believe. We had more than twenty adults who attended the class and, because of the success of the class, I was encouraged to teach Bible studies, starting with the Book of Romans in 2005. After that I taught Luke, Genesis, Hebrews, Philippians, and Matthew.

After a point in teaching, I got frustrated by the poor attendance on Sunday mornings. I thought: “Where are the elders? Where are the deacons?” When I looked around the room, I realized that only one or two in a class of a dozen were even church members. My class consisted primarily of family members, colleagues from work, and active, non-members who wandered in. These were people who, like myself, struggled to understand their faith and chided at the usual pat answers.


Sanders, J. Oswald. 1994. Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago: Moody Press.

Sproul, R.C. 1982. Reason to Believe: A Response to Common Objectives to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Stanley, Andy and Lane Jones. 2006. Communicating for a Change. Colorado Springs: Multinomah Books.


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Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 1

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard not to notice the crisis of identity facing Christians and the church today. If we as Christians see ourselves as created in the image of an almighty God, then nothing is impossible for God and, by inference, for us as heirs to the kingdom. On the other hand, if we start to believe our critics that God does not exist and church is just another human institution, then our options are no different than anyone else’s—limited by the time and money immediately available. Because we act out of our identity, we need to care about what our identity is in our heart of hearts, not just on our business cards. For Christians, our truest identity is defined in our theory of God or, in other words, in our theology.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher writes:

“This book represents some of the philosophy I have been reading, as one context for thinking about a new way—or maybe a very old way—of doing theology.” (7)

By “old” Placher means to argue apologetically from a Christian perspective with Christian assumptions. This “old” perspective, which he calls the “unapologetic” approach, is interesting because:

“Christian apologists can adopt the language and assumptions of their audiences so thoroughly that they no longer speak with a distinctively Christian voice.” (11)

Arguing from the “new” Enlightenment perspective means:

“questioning all inherited assumptions and then accepting only those beliefs which could be proven according to universally acceptable criteria.” (11)

If those universally acceptable criteria preclude faith in Christ Jesus by their nature, then the “new” perspective blunts effective witness (12). Worse, if no universally acceptable criteria exist, which essentially means that the Enlightenment (or modern) era is over, then the price of arguing is paid without gaining any credibility as a witness. Thus, adopting an unapologetic stance appears warranted in the postmodern era which we find ourselves in.

Placher’s argument raises two questions that we care about. First, is the modern era truly over and, if so, how do we know? Second, because Placher clearly believes that the modern era is over, how do we approach apologetics in the absence of universally acceptable criteria for discussion? We care about these questions because it is hard to witness for Christ in the postmodern era if, in effect, we do not speak the language of a postmodern person.

In part 1 of this review will focus on the first question while part 2 will consider the second.

Is the modern era over? Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:

“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (26)

For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:

“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (29)

If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.

For logicians, Placher observes:

“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guarantee to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.” (33)

Placher notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus (32). While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:

“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice.” (34)

In conclusion, Placher cites Wittgenstein observing:

“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.” (34)

In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, is a fascinating review of modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part one of this review I have summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part two of this review, I will summarize Placher’s arguments for how we should do theology and witness understanding that we are in the postmodern era.


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Incentive to Examine Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christians face an enormous challenge in living out their faith today because major tenets of Christian theology are being openly challenged in the media, in schools, and in the political arena. What are we to believe and, then, how are we to apply those beliefs in our daily choices?


The question of what are we to believe falls in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge (how do we know what we know). Epistemology is an intimidating subject normally reserved for those with a strong background in philosophy, but, like it or not, each of us has to answer these questions of faith without the benefit of a doctorate in philosophy. As such, our decisions always involve a high level of uncertainty.

Why is Epistemology Interesting?

Even though none of us are adequately prepared for this challenge, two reasons force us to pay attention to epistemology.

First, the rate of cultural change in this generation is a consequence of a fundamental shift in philosophy. Modernism is dead; postmodernism is unstable and transitioning to something else. Philosophical change directly affects our understanding of theology and how to apply it. The most obvious illustration of this problem has been the breakdown of the division between church and state which had existed since the time of the reformation.

Second, when philosophical disagreements arise, institutions leveraged on them no longer can be relied upon to provide guidance on how to handle the changes. Professional pastors, for example, receive specific training in biblical interpretation, pastoral care, and preaching; they receive no more training than the rest of us in journalism, politics, psychology, science, philosophy, and business management. Institutions actively engaged in self-preservation offer little shelter to those dependent on them.

Complex World Requires More Understanding

Because of these changes, much like the average person following the mortgage crisis needs to know more about financial decision making, they also need to know more about epistemology. The alternative is to reject faith leaving one open to unreflective acceptance of the many pseudo religious alternatives (atheism), to accept pagan or other faith alternatives, or to merge Christian faith with either of the prior alternatives (syncretism). Everyone has a belief system; not everyone reflects systematically on what they believe.

Now, some of you may be thinking, why do I need to bother myself? Why can’t I just apply scripture and be done with it? Of course, you can. However, if you do this on Sunday morning and forget about it on Monday morning, then do you honestly believe your Sunday morning applications or are they simply an interesting mental exercise? Blind acceptance of faith invariably leads to beliefs only tentatively held and of little use when life’s challenges arise. In some sense, epistemology provides a lens for viewing the current age through the eyes of scripture so that it is more meaningful, hence, more applicable.

Project Objective

The purpose of this writing project, Simple Faith: Something Worth Living For, is examine the fundamentals of epistemology from the perspective of faith. In many cases, I will take the arguments no deeper than the fundamentals of apologetics—offering a defense of the faith—but to shy away from deeper debates would be a disservice. Each and every day we are asked to make decisions about epistemological topics with a minimum of information—decisions under high levels of uncertainty. Any additional information is accordingly most valuable.

Incentive to Examine Faith

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3 Reasons that Christian Apologetics and Spirituality Should not be Separated

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Interviewers love experts. Specialists dominate public discourse. Problems arise when one field depends heavily on another and experts have to depart from their expertise. The fields of Christian apologetics and spirituality suffer from this problem.

Christian apologetics focuses on defending the truth claims of Christianity[1] while spirituality focuses on living them out[2]. Balance between these two fields is clearly needed in a world of imperfect information because learning more about the truth claims of Christianity informs how they are lived out and vice versa. Thus, treating either field independently of the other renders the spirituality dead and the apologetics impractical.

At least three reasons can be cited for why apologetics and spirituality should be closely linked.

The first reason for unity of apologetics and spirituality arises in the context of the apologist’s favorite Bible verse fragment:

“…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV)

The context of this fragment—in fact, the entire book of 1 Peter—is one of “lifestyle evangelism” in the midst of persecution. For example, we read:

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy … [fragment] … having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:13-16)

In other words, the Apostle Peter says to shame your tormentors with your godly lifestyle!  We to offer a verbal defense only in the context of an authentic Christian lifestyle (spirituality).

The second reason for unity of apologetics and spirituality arises because their separation affects a division between heart (spirituality) and mind (apologetics)—an example of Greek dualism. The Bible teaches that heart and mind cannot be separated, in part, because God created them both just like God created the earth and heaven (Genesis 1:1). Jesus’ bodily resurrection also speaks to the unity of the body (heart) and spirit (mind; e.g. Luke 24:36-43).

The need for unity of heart and mind has been debated throughout church history.  For example, Pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13)—when writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening—noted that both head and heart were necessary for effective discipling. More recently, Matthew Elliott has argued that God of the Bible is an emotionally stable deity and consistently expresses emotions in keeping with his character. This is unlike other deities in the ancient world who were typically characterized as selfish and capacious in dealing with humans[1]. In other words, God displays emotions consistent with his thinking more frequently than we do with ours!

The third reason for unity of apologetics and spirituality arises from the observation that separation leads to serious lifestyle problems. If our spirituality is not informed by our thinking, then we will be more likely to act solely on emotions—doing what feels good.

Working as a chaplain intern in a Washington hospital in 2011 and 2012, I noticed a disturbing trend among patients. More than half of all patients admitted to the emergency room had problems stemming from relational problems and poor life-style choices[2]. Overweight patients came in with diabetes, asthma, joint problems, and cardiac problems. Men passed out on the street from excessive drinking or other drug abuses. Young men and women fearful of contracting AIDS came in to be tested. These trends were even more pronounced among psyche patients.

We should expect these patient outcomes—doing what feels good comes naturally. The standard behavioral learning model teaches that even an amoeba will response to a positive stimulus by repeating the behavior that evoked the positive stimulus and doing less of the behavior associated with a negative stimulus. When the standard behavioral model breaks down, as it does in most moral dilemmas, then disaster directly follows. For example, this is the story of many addictions.[3] In this respect, the Apostle Paul lamented:  “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18).

Knowing that apologetics and spirituality inform each other, are treated as part of a unified whole in the Bible, and serve to strengthen our moral resolve in a world of temptations, Christians and theologians need to reflect on how this integration of heart and mind can be strengthened both in theory and in practice. Let’s start today.


Chan, Simon.1998. Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (orig pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Sproul, R.C. 2003. Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics. Wheaton: Crossway Books.


[1] “The term apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which literally means ‘a reasoned statement or a verbal defense.’” (Sproul 203,13).

[2] “Generally,spirituality refers to the kind of life that is formed by a particular type of spiritual theology. Spirituality is the lived reality, whereas spiritual theology is the systematic reflection and formalization of that reality.” (Chan 1998,16).

[3] Elliott distinguishes 2 theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” (47) while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion (46). In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we believe strongly. Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained—they are not mere physiology. Elliott writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” (53-54) informing and reinforcing moral behavior. Review at: (

[4] Speaking later with the head surgeon, he corrected my observation.  He reported that not half the patients but three-quarters of them were admitted with relational problems and poor lifestyle choices.

[5] Behavioral psychologists are well aware of this moral dilemma.  See, for example, Cross and Guyer (1980).  Review at: (


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Plantinga Defends Merits of Confessional Faith, Part 1

Plantinga_review_05092015Alvin Plantinga. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  (Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Part 3 of my Longfield review ended with a rather frustrating assessment:

“The weakness in the evangelical position is philosophical:  very few PCUSA pastors and theologians today subscribe to Scottish Common Sense Realism.  If to be postmodern means to believe that scripture can only be interpreted correctly within its context, then we are all liberals in a Machen sense.  A strong, confessional position requires philosophical warrant—a philosophical problem requires a philosophical solution—which we can all agree upon.  In the absence of philosophical warrant and credibility, the confessions appear arbitrary—an act of faith.” [1]

For most of the period since 1925, evangelicals have had a bit of a philosophical inferiority complex—having to take on faith that the confessional stance of the church since about the fourth century was not defensible in a rigorous philosophical sense.  It is at this point that Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief becomes both an important and interesting read.

The philosophical problem is more specifically found in epistemology—how do we know what we know?  Because Christianity is a religion based on truth claims, epistemology is not just nice to know—it is core tenant of the faith.  For example, Jesus said:

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 ESV)

Being unable after 1925 to agree on the core confessions of the denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and evangelicals more generally were placed on the defensive. Faith increasingly became private matter as more and more the denomination withdrew from public life, from active evangelism and missions, and from teaching about morality.  Later, unable to meet the modern challenge, the denomination came to be coopted by postmodern philosophies—if faith is simply a strongly held value, then it will crumble when confronted with more deeply held beliefs.

Into this crisis of faith, Plantinga defines his work in these terms:

“This book is about the intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief.  When I speak here of Christian belief, I mean what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church.” (vii)

Notice that Plantinga has to both specify that he is writing about epistemology (theory of knowledge)—“intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief”— and specify what Christianity is—“what is common to the great creeds”.  Plantinga expands on this problem saying:

“Is the very idea of Christian belief coherent?…To accept Christian belief, I say, is to believe that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world, who loves us and was willing to send his son into the world to undergo suffering, humiliation, and death in order to redeem us.” (3)

In other words, in his mind the measure of the depth of this crisis of faith extends to the very definition of the faith.

Alvin Plantinga wrote Warranted Christian Belief while working as the John A O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame [2].  He writes in 14 chapters divided into 4 parts:

Part 1: Is There a Question? (pages 1-66)

  1. Kant
  2. Kaufman and Hicks

Part 2: What is the Question? (67-166)

  1. Justification and the Classical Picture
  2. Rationality
  3. Warrant and the Freud-and-Marx Compliant

Part 3: Warranted Christian Belief (167-356)

  1. Warranted Belief in God
  2. Sin and Its Cognitive Consequences
  3. The Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model: Revealed in Our Minds
  4. The Testimonial Model: Sealed in Our Hearts
  5. Objections

Part 4: Defeaters (356-499)

  1.  Defeaters and Defeat
  2.  Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship
  3.  Postmodernism and Pluralism
  4.  Suffering and Evil

Plantinga lays out his argument in a lengthy preface and follows his chapters with an index.

Plantinga’s book focuses on two main points which he describes as:

  1. “An exercise in apologetics and philosophy of religion” where he answers a “range of objections to the Christian belief”; and
  1. “An exercise in Christian philosophy…proposing an epistemological account of Christian belief from a Christian perspective.” (xiii)

In other words, Plantinga responds to objections the faith and lays out a model for understanding the philosophical acceptability of faith—an idea that he calls “warrant”.  Plantinga defines warrant as:

“warrant is intimately connected with proper function. More fully, a belief has warrant just it is produced by cognitive process or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for the exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.” (xi)

The core discussion of warrant lays out what he refers to as the Aquinas/Calvin model of faith. He writes:  “Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin concur on the claim that there is a kind of natural knowledge of God.” (170). This innate knowledge of God given at birth he refers to as a “sensus divinitatis” which is triggered by external conditions or stimuli, such as a presentation of the Gospel (173).

Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief is an important contribution to epistemology because he meets the objections to faith head on and offers a plausible explanation for why Christian faith is reasonable, believable, and true. Christians need to be aware of these arguments both to know that their faith is defensible and to share this defense when questions arise.

Part of this argument is that if the existence of God cannot be logically proven and cannot be logically disproven then it is pointless to talk about logical proofs—the modern challenge to faith is essentially vacuous—empty without philosophically based merit. Faith rests on what is more reasonable and more consistent with experience—what beliefs are warranted, not mathematical proofs[3]. From Plantinga’s perspective, we accordingly do need not be defensive about our faith.

In this review, I have outlined Plantinga’s basic presentation.  In part 2, I will review the arguments against faith and, in part 3, I will look at Plantinga’s model of faith in greater depth.


[1] Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3 (


[3]In financial modeling of complex firms, the rule of thumb is that it takes a model to kill a model—managing the firm without a model threats firm profitability and ultimate survival.

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Jesus: Meek is the Pastoral Gene

Life_in_Tension_web“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Meekness is the pastoral gene. “Freedom lies in obedience to our calling.” [1]

We know this not only from the words of Jesus, but his disciples and those that followed. For example, Jesus says:

“And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt. 10:42 ESV)

The Greek word used here for disciple, μαθητής, means: “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice” (BDAG, 4662). Here the expression, “little ones”, which is used six times in the New Testament (NT) [2], refers not to children but to young believers (or seekers). Consequently, disciples are not just Jesus’ students but are instructed to teach young believers with meekness—to have a servant attitude in teaching. Teaching is one activity that pastors do all the time—they teach by what they say and what they do.

The Apostle Paul paraphrases Jesus’ command and makes this meekness an explicit requirement for church leaders. For example, he writes:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Tim. 2:24-26 ESV)

Elsewhere Paul includes meekness and gentleness in his lists of the fruit of the spirit. [3]

This same sentiment is echoed by James, Jesus’ brother, and leader of the church in Jerusalem when he says: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” (James. 3:13 ESV) The Apostle Peter admonishes us to practice apologetics also with meekness: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV) But as Bridges (1996, 180) observes, citing George Bethune: “No grace is less prayed for, or less cultivated than gentleness.”

Interestingly, meekness is cloaked in one of the most famous images of Christ: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 ESV) The image of the Good Shepherd is, in fact, a Messaic image prophesied by Isaiah in one of his Servant Song passages:

“He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isa. 40:11 ESV)

The Apostle John pushes this metaphor even further in the Book of Revelations where the shepherd is also a lamb (Rev 7:17).

In the Gospel of John’s great pastoral passage, the risen Christ asks Peter three times if he loves him and to each of Peter’s responses he asks Peter to care for his sheep (John 21:15-18). Just like he does with Peter, Jesus bids us, as disciples, to care for his flock and to do it with gentleness clothing ourselves with meekness.


[1] Colson and Fickett (2005, 30)

[2] Matt. 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2.

[3] e.g. Gal 5:19-23; Col. 3:12-14.


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Bethune, George. 1839. The Fruit of the Spirit. Reiner Publications.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Colson, Charles and Harold Pickett. 2005. The Good Life. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers.

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