The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology

Written by Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea, eds Reviewed By James R. Gordon

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology continues high-level introductions to various disciplines provided by the Oxford Handbooks Series. This particular volume, edited by Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea, gives evidence of the radical resurgence of philosophical theology that occurred in the second half of the twentieth-century. An impressive list of twenty-six different philosophers contribute to the volume, which is divided into five sections (and twenty-six chapters): Theological Prolegomena, Divine Attributes, God and Creation, Topics in Christian Philosophical Theology, and Non-Christian Philosophical Theology.

Weighing in at over six hundred pages, this volume is difficult to summarize quickly. With that in mind, this review will introduce each of the sections, highlight the most exemplary chapters, and comment on the success and potential criticisms of the work.

The first section of the work discusses theological prolegomena. Inevitably, a theologian examining this handbook would cheer to see a section in which philosophers dealt with theological prolegomena. However, that same theologian would likely be disappointed with the section, for it is less about how (or if) one is justified in applying analytic concepts to the task of theology and more about the relationship between Scripture, tradition, and the church (Swinburne), the means of divine revelation (Davis), mystery in Christian theology (Wainwright), and the place of science in the Christian faith (Ratzsch). The disappointment on the theologian’s part would certainly not come from the quality of the essays in this section, for they are indeed top notch. Yet this section reads much more like a philosophical introduction to and treatment of concepts relevant to theological prolegomena than a genuinely philosophical-theological prolegomena.

The second section of the book deals with the area that most likely comes to mind when one thinks of “philosophical theology,” namely, a discussion of the divine attributes. In this section, the concepts of God’s simplicity and aseity (Brower), omniscience (Wierenga), divine eternity (Craig), omnipotence (Leftow), omnipresence (Hudson), and moral perfection (Garcia) are given an in-depth examination. The essays in this section of the work are superb: they are precise and offer terrific (high-level) introduction to the topics at hand. However, being a volume on philosophical theology, this section is likely to receive further criticism from many contemporary theologians in that it pursues the attributes of God from a standpoint represented primarily by natural theology with little interaction with God’s revealed identity in the pages of Scripture.

The third section of the work is dedicated to questions pertaining to God’s acts in creation such as divine action and evolution (Collins), divine providence (Flint), petitionary prayer (Davison), morality and divine authority (Murphy), the problem of evil (Paul Draper), theodicy (Murray), and skeptical theism and the problem of evil (Bergmann).

The fourth section demonstrates what are the most properly theological topics with which philosophical theology deals such as the Trinity (Rea), original sin and atonement (Crisp), the Incarnation (Cross), the resurrection of the body (Merricks), heaven and hell (Walls), and the Eucharist (Pruss). This section provides the most intriguing material of the entire work. From Michael Rea’s substantive introduction of the contemporary scene in Trinitarian philosophical theology to Oliver Crisp’s innovative use of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election to bolster a “realist” variety of penal substitution to Alexander Pruss’s proposal of a “symbolic presence” view of the Eucharist, this section of the work steals the show. Indeed, those theologians who may be skeptical of philosophical theology’s import for genuinely theological work need only examine this section to see that a quick dismissal of the discipline certainly will not do.

The fifth and final part of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology illustrates that much philosophical theology is being done outside of the Christian tradition. Dealing with Jewish (Frank), Islamic (Leaman), and Chinese (Berthrong) philosophical theology, these chapters show that genuine philosophical reflection in theological studies is not the invention of Western culture.

Before commenting on the success of the handbook, it is important first to mention an additional worry that may result from the release of this volume. As mentioned above, the contributors to this volume are first and foremost philosophers. And while this is certainly not a bad thing, at the very least it illustrates the attitude of most theologians towards philosophical theology. While many philosophers are often willing to carry their analytic tools to the theological field, theologians are unsure as to what extent their properly theological tools will be of any use in what may seem like the barren far-country of analytic philosophy. While this reviewer is convinced that analytic philosophy can serve a useful purpose in theology, it is unlikely that this volume will convince any opponents of its legitimacy. Rather, those theologians searching for a justification of philosophical theology as a genuinely theological enterprise would be better served by looking to the chapters by Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea in Analytic Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

Nonetheless, naysayers aside, this volume represents a rigorous and genuinely helpful and informative introduction to philosophical theology. The essays within are well-argued and competently survey the relevant literature for the given subjects. It is certain that a good portion of these essays will find their way into many syllabi and will become standard reading for graduate students (and advanced undergrad students) of philosophical theology. Of course, the hefty price tag accompanying this hardcover volume will solidify its use as a reference tool in the library rather than in the home office.

James R. Gordon

James R. Gordon
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

The gist of this new book by Peter Enns is that evangelicals should revise their expectations of Genesis and Paul—with reference to Adam and the fall—in order to relieve perceived tensions between Christianity and evolution...

In June 2011, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) passed an overture entitled, “A Call to Faithful Witness...

I was very grateful to David for sending me a copy of his essay before publication...

Is it stating the obvious to say that a children’s bible is not a Bible? Perhaps...

Martin Salter has recently argued that Reformed paedobaptists are mistaken in citing Col 2:11–12 ‘as evidence that baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign signifying the same realities...