Paul Helm: Faith and Understanding

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Puritanboard Clerk
This book isn’t a smooth narrative, as I am not always sure how each chapter connected with the others. With that said, Helm anticipates some of the “Narrative ethics” fads and communal epistemology, and brings several pointed rejoinders to them. And the chapter on Jonathan Edwards is an analytical feast.

Understanding and Believing

Helm’s interlocutor is D.Z. Phillips. The man is relatively unfamiliar, but Phillips anticipated the current craze about communal epistemologies. As Helm puts it, “For Phillips religion is essentially a practice or set of practices, a way of life, and the beliefs that are religious are identified by such practices, and can only be understood in relation to, this form of life” (Helm 65). This is almost word for word the theology of James K. A. Smith.

So what is the problem with it? We can try to list several:
1) It is impossible to critique any other position, as one would necessarily be outside that position and not sharing in its liturgical practices.

2) We do not have so much a religion, but a set of religious practices.

2.1) What about prayer? This is the most basic of religious practices. Yet, as Helm notes, could we even expect an answer to prayer, since that would involve empirical issues (69ff)? Indeed, petitionary prayer “connects the activity and value of religion with how things go.”

Edwards on Original Sin

Edwards raises the problem of identity through time.

1. Temporal part: an individual thing which exists only for a moment.

2. Personal identity for Locke: principle of consciousness.

JE, however, will advance several radical claims: “nothing exists for more than a moment” (Helm 157). Edwards writes, “The existence of created substances, in each successive moment, must be the effect of the immediate agency, will, and power of God” (Edwards, Original Sin, 400).

Original Sin

3. “A series of momentary parts, qualitatively similar in important respects, is treated by ourselves and God as if it were numerically one thing” (Helm 163).

The payoff, if at a steep price, is obvious: God can count us guilty for Adam’s sin because in some way (??) we are identical with Adam. As it stands, though, this argument won’t work. JE needs to posit an identity without collapsing me into Adam. But before we prove that, JE will make another claim:

4. God recreated x each moment. JE might not be saying this. It is a stronger version of (2) above, as he says an “antecedent existence is nothing,” which means my continuing existence isn’t because of my prior moment’s existence.

3*. Adam is constituted the root of the human race by virtue of a real union with the world of mankind (Helm 169). JE can now say that there is a real union, a real imputation which isn’t a legal fiction, yet we aren’t pantheistically connected.

Unfortunately, I think JE paid too high a price. He must surrender either his view of Original Sin or his view of the Will. In the latter he said that each moment’s prior state was the cause of the next state. But here he seems to say that the antecedent cause has no real existence. If it doesn’t, then it can’t cause the next state, pace Freedom of the Will.

Oliver Crisp has raised yet a bigger problem: if God is recreating me each moment, and I am a sinful human, then is God creating evil and sin each moment?

But even with these problems, this was a fine chapter and a fine book.
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