Reviewed by Mark Coppenger
It was a privilege to serve alongside Steve Evans in a four-man philosophy department at Wheaton College (chaired by Arthur Holmes) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before I headed out for seminary, and he to a variety of academic posts, from St. Olaf (Curator of the Howard V. and Edna H. Hong Kierkegaard Library) to Calvin College (Dean for Research and Scholarship) to Baylor University (University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities). A year before we met, Steve had received his Ph.D. from Yale as a Danforth Fellow, and, while there, had published an InterVarsity introduction to existentialism, Despair: A Moment or a Way of Life?
One of the six years we were departmental colleagues, Steve studied in Copenhagen on a George C. Marshall Grant, a time for refining his Danish through immersion and for deepening his grasp of Soren Kierkegaard, whose traces are found throughout this bo ok. In our time at Wheaton, I learned a lot from him (my clear philosophical better) and part of the “course” was the virtue of “SK.”
In those days, Francis Schaeffer’s film series, How Should We Then Live? (not yet on DVD) was a sensation in the churches, and we in the department were enlisted to comment and lead connected discussion in local congregations. Each of us Wheaton philosophers had a bone to pick with Schaeffer: I thought he was too quickly dismissive of art works not characteristic of the Northern European Reformation; Holmes took exception to his “trashing” of Thomas Aquinas; and Steve objected to his blaming Kierkegaard for Sartre and much of the madness in modern culture. (This is not to say we didn’t appreciate Schaeffer, and it was my privilege to have him and his wife Edith in my bioethics class when he visited campus in the heyday of his follow-up film series, What Ever Happened to the Human Race?)
Evans’s love of Kierkegaard surfaces in this brief, lucid book on apologetics, giving it a fresh angle. But first of all, he delivers a succinct and winsome response to the latest naturalistic onslaught from the “four horsemen,” Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins. And in so doing, he tracks through many of the standard issues in the philosophy of religion, such as the cosmological argument, miracles, and the problem of evil. It’s a great survey, with brief Christian rejoinders to the critics at every hand. And though Evans’ extensive record of publication includes the most erudite and academically acclaimed of works, his style here quite accessible and compelling, sort of like Mere Christianity, but with footnotes.
Through the years, Evans has been witness and party to an extraordinary resurgence of evangelical apologetics. In our graduate school days, he at Yale and I at Vanderbilt, atheists such as A.J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell, Antony Flew, John Dewey, W.V.O. Quine, J.J.C. Smart, J.L. Mackie, and William Rowe – the children of Hume, if you will – ruled the roost. Avowed Christians were marginalized at meetings of the American Philosophical Association, yet believers found some solace in “the catacombs” of the Wheaton Philosophy Conference, where Christian philosophers from a range of little schools – Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, Taylor University in Upland, etc. – found fellowship with a few notables who’d found positions at prestigious universities, e.g., George Mavrodes at Michigan; Keith Yandell at Wisconsin; and a variety of profs from Notre Dame, including Ernan McMullin and Kenneth Sayre.
But a revolution was erupting. Up at Calvin College, Alvin Plantinga had published God and Other Minds, and William Alston, chairman at Illinois, underwent a conversion experience in a year of leave at Oxford. Alston refused to fall into the old trough which served the maxim, “He was so excited when he got saved that he had to backslide to have fellowship with the rest of us.” So, energized, he proposed that we form the Society of Christian Philosophers, within the American Philosophical Association of all places. We cranked up the old ditto machines (with purple print and the whiff of alcohol on fresh copies) and announced an organizational meeting at the Western (now Central) Division meeting in Cincinnati in April of 1980. (This was the very week of the desert debacle of the Iranian hostage rescue mission when Jimmy Carter was president.)
We reserved a small breakout room, expecting perhaps 35 attendees, only to find over 80 wanting to attend, with latecomers having to stand in the hallway. It was astonishing to see this turnout, and the Society was off to the races. Soon we found unashamed Christians in positions of prominence throughout the profession, editing books at major presses and serving as officers of the APA itself. So when Evans writes, he does so as an early “brother in arms” with a range of philosophers used in this book (e.g., Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff) and those who came to prominence in the aftermath of this meeting (e.g., Paul Moser and William Lane Craig). So Evans, himself a later president of the SCP at the turn of the century, writes this book as a seasoned and honored philosopher of religion, one who has witnessed the descent of academic thought into the relativism of post-modernism as well as the revival of old-time “Enlightenment” skepticism.
He charts a middle course between “Reformed epistemology” (which “argues that belief in God can be reasonable without [propositional] evidence”) and “evidentialism” (“appealing to natural human reason and experience”) by saying that apologetical arguments won’t get you into the Kingdom but that they can help in beating down the increasingly popular position that “nature is all there is.”
Picking up on Thomas Reid’s notion “natural signs,” he says that pointers toward God are learned, even as we learn that a certain scent announces that a lemon slice is present. And, on this model, it is reasonable to suppose that God puts indicators in our environment (beautiful sunsets) and in our hearts (Sensus Divinitatus) to show us the way out of naturalism.
In one chapter, he provides a taxonomy of natural signs for God: The “experience of cosmic wonder; the experience of purposive order; the sense of being morally accountable; the sense of human dignity and worth”; and “the longing for transcendent joy.” He nicely illustrates these indicators with friendly quotes from C.S. Lewis (cf. Sehnsucht) and Kierkegaard (regarding mankind’s stationery “watermark), and with telling remarks from such skeptics as J.L. Mackie, J.J.C. Smart, and Ronald Dworkin.
In the next chapter, he “stress tests” the notion of signs, speaking of philosophical creatures as “methodist” (insisting on epistemological pedigree) and “particularist” (starting with some assuredly known things); the “externalist” (put on the spot by the epistemological environment) and the “internalist” (who insists upon personal, conscious grasp of a truth). Along the way, he deploys the familiar “principle of credulity,” speaks of “defeaters” (and “alleged defeaters”), attempts to put young-earth creationists in their unfortunate hermeneutical place, references William Rowe’s deer burned in the forest fire, and uses the free-will defense to answer the problem of evil.
He does a nice job of drawing distinctions, e.g., explaining that a “leap of faith” is not blind abandonment of reason, but rather “a commitment of the whole person.” (64) And he draws on the distinguishing work of others, such as Pascal who advances both the “Wide Accessibility Principle” (that evidence for God is “pervasive and easy to recognize”) and the “Easy Resistibility Principle” (which shields us from epistemic coercion).
He picks up on challenges to the testimony of the Bible with the “Revelation-Authority Principle,” saying that it is fair to consider the divine source, and he says “thanks but no thanks” to those who have tried to “help” the Bible by showing how gratifyingly reasonable belief in God is to the natural mind (e.g., Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel). If, after all, we could figure things out pretty well for ourselves, why would we need revelation at all?
For assessing the genuineness of a revelation, he offers three criteria – miracles, “paradoxicality,” and “existential power.” For the first, he marshalls the work of Craig Keener and Richard Swinburne to debunk Hume’s debunking. For the second, he compares the Bible to the Koran, saying that the latter is too religiously ordinary to be compelling; the Bible, on the other hand, is impressively awkward, even offensive, whether conceptually (the Incarnation) or morally (requiring repentance). For the third, he speaks of the Kuhnian paradigm shift that comes with regeneration.
This is the sort of book you’d hand to a high school or college student who’s struggling with contemporary challenges to the faith. Still, I’d take a moment to caution the young reader in three areas: First, I don’t think Evans’s working assumption of old-earth evolution does justice to the theological and even scientific difficulties with that position. Elsewhere, he warns of trying too hard to square faith with the prevailing cultural and academic perspectives, but I think he lets up too readily when it comes the notion of evolution-compatibility, espoused by Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne, whom he cites respectfully. As a result, in showing the Bible safe from evolution, he risks demonstrating that evolution is safe from the Bible.
Second, one doesn’t find a clear statement of inerrancy. For my taste, he moves a bit quickly to “excuse” some biblical “infelicities” by saying the writers were merely following another era’s literary standards. Yes, of course, there is place for elements of such criticism (as in acknowledging number rounding), but Evans pairs this with a quote from Kierkegaard which says, in effect, that such concerns are no big deal, so long as one gets the big things right.
I think we have to be very careful here, not only because important theological dominoes could fall, but also because rush to hermeneutical accommodation seems to be an occupational hazard among evangelical apologists. I’m reminded of the seeming consensus among members of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, meeting in San Francisco in 2011, as they circled the wagons around a fellow apologist who had run afoul of his Southern Baptist employers when he suggested that the account of a Good Friday resurrection of some Jerusalem’s dead (Matthew 27:52-53) was not so much an historical verity as a piece of apocalyptic narrative. Southern Seminary’s Dr. Mohler was one to object to this gratuitous interpretive maneuver, and correctly so, I think. (Evans doesn’t address these verses, but I think that his reluctance to sound a strong note of inerrancy could help make the reader more susceptible than needs be to the mistake the other apologist made.)
Third, I’m not enthusiastic about Evans’s insistence that God wouldn’t “coerce” people into belief, in that I’m personally and, I believe, biblically convinced that the Lord had to “open my heart” intrusively and aggressively for me to have any hope of heaven at all.
None of these would dissuade me from handing the book to a budding apologist or a troubled believer, but, again, they would lead me to say, “When you finish, let’s talk about these matters.”
It’s a great read. Steve has always been a graceful stylist and empathetic teacher. And the book packs a lot into small space. I’d urge you to buy it, and I may well use it in my own Worldview and Apologetics course at Southern in the future.
Mark T. Coppenger is Professor of Christian Apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Review Editor for Apologetics here at Books At a Glance.