Book Reviews

REASON WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF RELIGION, by Nicholas Wolterstorff; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976; pp., $2.45 (paper). 

This is a somewhat difficult book to review. There are several reasons for this. 1) The book is not easy to understand. It is philosophically oriented and the language is not always as clear’ as it could be. 2) In a way, to do justice to the book, one ought to offer a rather lengthy critique of what Wolterstorff writes. And yet a critique of the entire book would probably involve another book of the same length; and that is manifestly impossible in a review. 3) The book is so totally foreign to the Christian faith that there is almost nothing in it with which one can agree if he takes his stand on the position of the historic Reformed faith. One scarcely knows where to begin in a review of this sort. 

The book is really an attempt to establish a Christian epistemology—epistemology being that branch of philosophy which deals with the whole subject of how we know. It is a rejection of the position which has been held by those of the Calvinistic and Reformed faith, and it is an attempt to develop an alternative which will be philosophically defensible. But it offers no real Christian alternative. In fact, as I read the book, it offers no alternative at all, but comes perilously close to skepticism. 

The first half of the book is intent on destroying all the positions which have been held in the past. Among those destroyed are the position of Augustine—”Credo ut intelligam,” “I believe that I may know”; the position of Aquinas and his use bf natural reason; and the position of Calvin. All these views are described as being the position of “foundationalism,” i.e., “the existence of a body of foundational propositions—that is, propositions which are not only true but can be known noninferentially and with certitude to be true.” (p. 42.) 

It would seem that this position of Wolterstorff implies a rejection of the key role of Scripture in all our knowledge. This is indeed true. Wolterstorff does not have very much respect for Scripture (and with Scripture, faith) in the process of our knowing. 

Perhaps a brief statement of his position is in order. In a footnote (sic) Wolterstorff states what seems to me his most basic error. Here he distinguishes between God’s speaking and God’s revealing. He writes:

One might be inclined to respond that to speak of God revealing is to say the same thing in different words as to speak of God speaking. But this is false. The difference can perhaps best be seen by reflecting on human speech. Suppose I say to you “Close the door.” No doubt in saying this I reveal various things, in particular, various things about myself. But I would regard it as perverse on your part for you to focus on that. For it was only in the course of issuing a command that I revealed something. And my intent. in issuing the command was not to satisfy your curiosity about me, but to get you to close the door. Now it is because faith has always been paired off with revelation in the classical theologies, and because I think that God’s speaking rather than God’s revealing should be taken as our basic theological concept, that I wish to avoid using the concept of faith at this point. (p. 112, footnote 34)

This is totally wrong, and deadly. While it may be true what Wolterstorff says about human speech, he is completely wrong about God’s speech. All God’s speech is the revelation of Himself in the face of Christ His Son. And eternal life is “to know the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.” (John 17:3.) Every command in Scripture is a revelation of God. Every command has its justification because God is what He is; and He has told us what He is; and we must obey because of this. 

If Wolterstorff takes this erroneous position, then it follows that there is no doctrine in Scripture. And this is precisely what the book says. Or, perhaps somewhat more accurately, doctrine, if it is there, is not really important, can change from age to age, may in fact be false. A few quotes will make this clear.

To be a Christian is to be fundamentally committed to being a Christ-follower. . . . (p. 67) 

Anyone who is fundamentally committed to being a Christ-follower will in consequence do and believe certain things. . . . (p. 68)

On what basis a Christian ought to believe one thing (even what the Bible teaches) and not another is not explained in the book so far as I could detect. Wolterstorff does not accept the inerrancy of Scripture.

But committing yourself to be a Christ-follower also presupposes that you have some conviction about the complex of action and belief that your following of Christ ought to be realized in. On the matter of what that is, Christians of course disagree widely (as they do on the issue of how one ought to go about finding out). Yet every Christian, whether liberal or conservative, has some notion of how his fundamental commitment ought to be realized. And the complex of action and belief that its realization ought in fact to assume, for any given person, is what I shall call his authentic Christian commitment. (p. 68)

If this last statement does not make all knowledge relative and subjective, then I cannot understand the English language.

This (expressed as briefly as possible) is how in my judgment our following of Christ ought to be actualized. Notice that on this view authentic Christian commitment is not to be identified with subscription to dogmas. Indeed, it is not to be identified with the believing of propositions, dogmatic or otherwise. But notice also that it does incorporate this in several ways. (p. 69) 

It may even be that the belief-content of my authentic Christian. commitment contains certain falsehoods. Frequently in teaching children one tells them what is, strictly speaking, false. So also it may be that some of what God says to us is, strictly speaking, false, accommodated to our frailty. Yet, it may be that we are obliged to believe it. (p. 113, footnote 38.)

Notice that here Wolterstorff says, in so many words, that God’s revelation may be false.

The obvious consequence of all this is that there is no real or genuine Christian perspective in scholarship. The whole of Chap. 11 is really devoted to this matter, and it is not always clear exactly what Wolterstorff is saying. But he writes, e.g.,

From these corollaries it is clear that it will often be insufficient for a Christian scholar to propose as his reason for holding some theory the fact that he is a Christian (i.e., that the theory is entailed by belief-content of his authentic commitment). The belief-content of his authentic commitment will frequently neither contain nor entail theories on the matter that he as a scholar considers. . . . (p. 76.)

What basis is left for a man to determine what is true and what is false?

It should be added that a person’s theory of whether theory acceptance and nonacceptance is sometimes, at least, warranted is itself influenced by his control beliefs. We cannot at this point jump back onto some foundation. People no more agree on this matter than on any other. It is my own conviction that man throughout his existence is a responsible agent. This I view as a component in my authentic Christian commitment. And it is this which leads me to the conviction that sometimes we are warranted in accepting some theory and sometimes we are warranted in not accepting some theory. (p. 100)

So that is the end of the matter. The only standard for judging the rightness or wrongness of a matter is that “man throughout his existence is a responsible agent.” How Wolterstorff can even be sure that this is true, I have no way of knowing. And how this can serve as a basis for determining what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong, is a mystery to me. 

I say again: Wolterstorff’s position can only lead to skepticism and theological suicide.

Perhaps the thought uppermost in my mind as I read this book was: how interesting and important it is to develop a genuine Christian epistemology based on God’s infallible Word.