Review of Peter van Inwagen, God, Knowledge, and Mystery

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Due to my work on tomorrow's Christian Carnival, I haven't had time to post anything today. Here's a book review I wrote on Amazon in November 2002. This book is currently out-of-print, but these academic books go in and out of print every few years, and I imagine used copies are much more available over the internet than it used to be. A good library with interlibrary loan connections with academic libraries should be able to get ahold of it fairly easily also.

Peter van Inwagen, God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology

Peter van Inwagen is a first-class philosopher, widely respected as one of the best metaphysicians of our day. This book collects previously-published work in philosophy of religion. He is a sincere Christian thinker who began his philosophical career as a nonbeliever. The value, difficulty, and strengths and weaknesses in this book vary from paper to paper.

"Ontological Arguments" was before van Inwagen was a Christian, but he agrees with it still. The traditional ontological argument for God's existence fails as a demonstration of anything. Hardly any philosopher, Christian or not, questions this today, though some think more can be made of this argument than van Inwagen does.

"The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God" is his defense of a God who cares about certain things and is sovereign in that what he cares about happens, but there are lots of things that aren't essential to his overall plan, and he allows them to go however they turn out. This is chance. It's striking in contrast to the biblical God who is sovereign over all history while human beings are fully responsible for their actions. Van Inwagen stands with the current Christian philosophical consensus on this question and develops a picture of God resulting from his insistence that there's nothing God can or desires to do to resist certain human free actions. This incompatibilism is an assumption the biblical writers don't seem to assume, but van Inwagen has developed the logical conclusion of holding it ? God must take risks. This paper develops that, which seems to threaten any response to the problem of evil, which ironically is what led to it to begin with. God now seems not to care about people's insignificant problems. This comes up in the papers on the problem of evil also.

"The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence" compares contemporary concerns about the problem of evil with an ancient issue about atomists and gaseous states of matter and the contemporary belief in alien life with no sign of their communication with us. His conclusion is that genuine problems come up with evidence, and the problem of evil is a problem but not one that makes belief in God irrational. We don't have enough information to solve these problems. The evidence available to all doesn't answer the question either way. We can come up with explanations one way or the other, but it doesn't necessarily convince opponents. In general this paper makes some nice points, though I do have trouble with many things he says about God and evil along the way.

"The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil" is an excellent response to complaints about how bad evil is, how long it's gone on, and how many people experience it. He gives a good account of the theistic picture and why it answers some of these questions, thereby giving a possible account of why evil exists in these ways. Immediate restoration after the first rebellion against God would require memory loss, or perfect relationships would be impossible. That would be wrong, so God had to deal with sin as it existed. Perhaps evil had to go on as long as it did so more people would be able to respond to God's salvation. God doesn't protect us from the worst effects of evil actions because it gives us motivation to turn to him by helping us see the effects on our lives and character. Perhaps God wanted us to reach a certain level of cultural and linguistic development to be able to present the nuanced revelation of the biblical portraits and to be able to spread news of such revelation more rapidly (i.e. under the Roman empire). Then he adds as an afterthought his more suspect thesis, that God doesn't care about which evils happen to whom, as long as they're not directly involved with his general plan.

The rest shifts somewhat outside philosophy, though his approach remains that of a philosopher. "Genesis and Evolution" discusses extreme positions on these matters. Some take Genesis' early chapters as matter-of-fact reporting of history, using terms as a scientist would use them. Others believe the world came about without God. Van Inwagen sees as a middle path. The "days" of Genesis are "aspects" of how the world developed, and God was behind it. Some of evolutionary theory may be right, but he spends considerable time undermining key theses within standard evolutionary theory along lines standard in the intelligent design movement. Genesis sets up the story of the Bible and does so perfectly. He talks as if Genesis got some things wrong, because if it got everything right it would be so detailed that no one could understand it. That's a misleading way to say that it does merely what it sets out to do. You don't need to call it error.

"Critical Studies of the New Testament?" seeks to undermine those who see the Bible as a mere human product, as if no one fully human could be inspired by God to write the message God wanted written while having it come out shaped through the human writer's personality, vocabulary, style, and theological emphases. He basically argues that this so-called higher criticism is not necessary for the average believer (not that good work can't happen under its methods).

"Non Est Hick" argues against universalism about salvation (i.e. all are saved no matter what). He focuses on what it is to reject God, what that leads to, and what it is to belong to a group of people called together by God.

The two final papers apply the philosophical doctrine of relative identity (which most philosophers find laughable), to defend the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation, which many have found contradictory. His solution is highly technical and relies on significant revisions to logic, probably too revisionist to work. Problems arise that he hasn't dealt with, but for those who enjoy formal logical work these are fun papers.


I am really proud of Dr. Peter van Inwagen. May God bless you richly. We really incoraged and motivaged from what you have writting. The Evangelical Society for Apologetics fervently praying for you and the ministry you have accepted from God Almighty.

Yours in Christ,
Tesfaye Robele
Founder and Director

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