Debating Christian Religious Epistemology: A Book Review

By David Pallmann


February 15, 2021

The book, Debating Christian Religious Epistemology, was a brilliant idea. It is educational, cordial, up-to-date with current scholarship, and quite enjoyable. For my friends (especially my Christian friends) who often ask me for good introductions to epistemology, this is among the best at least with respect to religious epistemology.

The book begins with a helpful overview introducing the reader to religious epistemology. The topics covered include the structure of justification, the nature of defeaters, the role of evidence, the definition of knowledge, internalism vs. externalism, the connection between religious epistemology and philosophy of religion, natural theology, and divine hiddenness. All of this will doubtless prove helpful to readers who lack familiarity with epistemology or philosophy more generally.

From here the book transitions to the essays and replies. John DePoe kicks things off by lucidly arguing for Classical Evidentialism. He combines evidentialism with classical foundationalism and argues that this traditional approach to epistemology best gives both a subjective and an objective connection to truth. The criterion for foundational beliefs, according to DePoe, is incorrigibility. From there, one can build the rest of their beliefs justifiably. He argues that theistic belief is appropriate based only on evidence. Moreover, he contends that the strong evidence for theism renders the problem of divine hiddenness obsolete. DePoe’s essay takes a radically internalist position. For this reason, the other contributors express worry that it entails severe skepticism. But DePoe remains confident that this is not the case.

Next up, Logan Paul Gage and Blake MacAllister offer a defense of Phenomenal Conservatism. They take epistemic justification to be based primarily in seemings. If something seems true to me, I have prima facie justification for believing it. Their approach is both internalist and evidentialist. But it differs from DePoe’s in being less rigid in the criteria for basic beliefs and justification. For this reason, their position allows for Reformed epistemology, roughly defined as the thesis that belief in God can be justifed non-inferentially. Many of the other contributors express concern that seemings don’t have an appropriate connection to truth. But Gage and MacAllister are convinced that such concerns are misplaced.

Tyler McNabb defends a Plantingan style Proper Functionalist account of epistemology. McNabb takes knowledge to be warranted true belief where warrant is understood to apply to beliefs which come about through a reliable process, in an appropriate environment, according to a good design plan, and not overcome by a greater defeater. As such, it is distinctly externalist. He offers numerous examples, particularly swampman, which he thinks make such an account plausible. The other contributors are not satisfied since McNabb’s account offers little to no subjective assurance for the truth of our beliefs. McNabb is unfazed by such worries since he is more concerned with knowledge than justification.

After this, Scott Oliphint steps up to the plate to defend so-called Covenantal Epistemology. This is really just a glamorous title for what most of us know as Presuppositionalism. Oliphint believes that Romans 1 unquestionably teaches that everyone knows that (the Triune, Christian?) God exists but that unbelievers suppress this knowledge. He takes Scripture to provide the fundamental principles of epistemology (what he calls “principia”). Oliphint’s basic thesis is, in true presuppositionalist fashion, agree with the Bible or live in absurdity. The other contributors are worried that Oliphint’s approach involves circular reasoning and can be used for any religious belief. It lacks the tools to differentiate among competing beliefs. Even McNabb, who expresses some sympathy towards circular reasoning at the metal-level, is concerned that Oliphint’s approach is viciously circular. Oliphint doesn’t care. His commitment to Scripture is his highest priority and he doesn’t believe circular reasoning can be avoided in any case.

Lastly, Erik Baldwin offers the final essay where he argues for what he calls Tradition-Based Perspectivalism. He claims that there is no tradition-independent way of evaluating an epistemic system. He offers three arguments in support of his thesis. First, that it is necessary. Second, it functions as a powerful antidote to modern liberalism. Third, he argues that the major rationalist alternative is a failure. The other contributors don’t find this satisfactory. They believe that there are indeed objective epistemic principles and methods for determining superior systems, and indeed, Baldwin allegedly utilizes them in his essay. Moreover, they are extremely worried about the subjectivism entailed by Baldwin’s view. Baldwin does not see these as being serious challenges.

It is my opinion that John DePoe stood head and shoulders above all of the other contributors both in writing and in content. The only other essay that I found compelling was Gage and MacAllister’s. McNabb’s essay was written quite well although I found his account deeply problematic. Baldwin’s essay was exceptionally well documented and well written, even though I found it hard to believe that anyone could seriously believe what he was advocating.

I must take a moment to give some negative criticism regarding Oliphint’s essay. It is no secret that I regard presuppositionalism as a failed endeavor. But the validity of the system aside, Oliphint’s essay was stylistically offensive. All of the other contributors were well aware of their limitations and, although all were quite confident, they were obviously willing to allow for reasonable disagreement. Not so with Oliphint. He was right. He knew it. Disagreement was futile. His essay honestly felt a lot like a sermon. It was incredibly assertive with only the thinnest supporting argumentation. I suppose one could argue that this is simply due to Oliphint’s personality. But I really think this is simply the result of the sort of dogmatism presuppositionalism inspires. The system doesn’t inspire humility or allow for honest disagreement. I thank God that I know some few presuppositionalists who don’t act like this. But sadly, these are the exception rather than the rule. Nonetheless, the fact that Oliphint takes the approach that he does is actually a plus. It will give readers a “true to life” look at how Presuppositionalists tend to behave themselves.

But Oliphint’s essay not withstanding, Debating Christian Religious Epistemology is an excellent book. I recommend it highly. It will equip readers with a fine understanding of the arguments involved and acquatint them with many of the major players.


About the Author

By David Pallmann

David Pallmann is a student at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. He is also a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians and directs the YouTube Apologetics ministry Faith Because of Reason.