Life’s Ultimate Questions: A Contemporary Philosophy of Religion

Written by John P. Newport Reviewed By James Gilman

How can we explain the biblical account of the origin of life in the context of a scientific age? To what extent are miracles, providence and prayer relevant in an age of science? Is there life beyond death? Can we know that there is one true religion? What is the biblical approach to other world religions? Does human existence and history have any meaning? How important are the arts and culture, and what contributions can Christians make to them? On what basis should Christians make moral decisions? Professor Newport’s approach to each of these and related questions is systematic and forthright, such that Life’s Ultimate Questions functions nicely as a kind of guidebook, sketching paths through the sometimes mystifying maze of issues which philosophers of religion and Christian apologists typically address.

In each chapter Newport formulates an issue in terms of several basic questions, presents the major arguments competing as answers to these questions, and concludes with his own arguments and answers which are based on what he calls the biblical worldview, a view generally consonant with evangelical positions. Newport’s biblical worldview, in fact, is the thread which holds together the diversity of philosophical questions which make up the fabric of this book.

To take one example, in chapter 7, ‘The Question of Evil and Personal Suffering’, Professor Newport first discusses the ways in which the question of evil and personal suffering emerge and the urgency with which they confront us. Second, he discusses what he calls ‘non-evangelical approaches’ to this problem, including such views as ‘evil is illusion’ (Hinduism, Christian Science), ‘evil is basic to human existence’ (Buddhism), ‘matter is evil’ (Plotinus), ‘coequal power’ (Manicheism), ‘finite-god’ approach (Kushner, Brightman), and others. Third, Newport delineates the ‘revealed principles’ of his biblical approach, and finally suggests ways of formulating a biblical, evangelical answer, based on those revealed principles. This format, which is typical of all chapters, renders Newport’s discussions readily accessible to the alert student and layperson. However, it would be misleading to leave the impression that Newport’s biblical worldview is a fully developed philosophical theory of the universe from an evangelical, Christian perspective. Instead, what he provides throughout each chapter are the basic biblical principles upon which such a theory should be erected.

One great value of this book is that Newport includes the views of evangelical philosophers of religion and apologists which are systematically ignored by most books on philosophy of religion. In his chapter on faith and reason, for example, Newport not only includes the classic writers on the subject (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Kant and others), but also the views of American evangelical apologists like Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Gordon Clark, Cornelius Van Til, and Carl Henry.

Newport originally developed this material, he tells us, as a ‘series of Sunday evening talks’ (p. xiii) to a church congregation, and later as material for college classes. Consequently, the treatment of the subject matter is not specialized and assumes no prior knowledge of the material. The book is organized so that the subject matter and arguments are relatively easy to follow, although not all arguments are easy to understand. Accordingly, it is appropriate for and accessible to motivated laypersons, and appropriate for some Sunday School classes, study groups, and those interested in these sorts of philosophical and apologetical questions.

On the other hand, this book, in my estimation, is not really appropriate for college-level inquiry and study. Partly this is due to the vast volume of material Newport undertakes to cover, which gives the book the quality of a survey or guidebook rather than of a critical analysis. In fact, the variety of topics is so wide that there is never space enough to offer more than a superficial overview of the philosophical problems and their solutions. And partly it is due to the fact that it is not quite as ‘contemporary’ a philosophy of religion as it might be. In fact, Professor Newport seems to be more familiar with recent developments in theology than he is with recent developments in philosophy of religion. He typically appeals to the views of theologians like George Linbeck and Stanley Hauweras and neglects the work of contemporary philosophers of religion like William Alston, Richard Swinburne, and Richard Purtill. Contemporary philosophy of religion has experienced a kind of renaissance in the last ten to fifteen years; neglect of this most recent work makes Life’s Ultimate Questions somewhat less than the contemporary philosophy of religion its sub-title claims for it.

Nevertheless this book introduces the reader to many of the classical problems in philosophy of religion and to a wide variety of solutions. The interested reader may well be enticed to pursue elsewhere any one or all of these problems at greater length and in greater depth.

James Gilman

Mary Baldwin College, Staunton, Va.