September 4, 2008
I finished my master’s dissertation, in systematic theology (though my dissertation was on epistemology). Hopefully the examiners will be generous, and/or happy drunk, when grading it. It was a surprisingly difficult topic, largely due to the many different avenues that could be taken but would have required a much larger project (and skill). The topic was the moral epistemology of John Henry Newman, especially as related to the problem of certitude (i.e., how can we claim to be certain when we have been previously certain about various matters and later noticed our error?). It was all very interesting, if frustrating because there is no real “solution” to the problem. Newman is brilliant, but, more than brilliant, he has amazing psychological insight. This makes for a highly complex epistemology, because he sees logic just as fundamentally a moral enterprise as it is a rational enterprise. Apart from self-evident truths (e.g., basic mathematics), our assents are dependent upon our hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, loves, opinions, prejudices, traditions, and so on. Our beliefs are rational (or not), to be sure, but they are rational because they cohere with a larger perception of reality and fittingness. This extends even into his religious epistemology where he argues that our faith depends on a prior regeneration of our moral self, so our faith (or doubt) is dependent upon our likes, dislikes, loves, etc. What makes faith “supernatural” is this prior regeneration, a work of the Holy Spirit, but the act of faith itself is not really different from our other assents and their dependence upon our moral constitution. So, there’s some of what I’ve learned.
As for the University of Aberdeen, School of Divinity, I have the highest praise. The four dogmatics professors/lecturers are, of course, the primary reason for attending the school if you want to study dogmatics. Phil Ziegler and Don Wood are the lecturers. Dr. Ziegler will tell you everything you need to know, and more, about Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, and everyone else who wrought all the mess that the 20th century had to clean up. But he is far from dismissive of this liberal tradition, which I greatly appreciated because I came from a philosophical training which took this tradition as basically the final word. As an undergraduate, I studied Tillich, not Barth — my professors never once even uttered Barth’s name. Moving on: Dr. Wood is a fine lecturer, cutting to the chase, ever directing us poor students away from unnecessary byways and toward the fundamental logic. His specialties are hermeneutics and contemporary dogmatics. Professor John Webster, of course, is the Professor of Systematic Theology. Webster is one of the few great evangelical dogmaticians working today. If you enjoy serious dogmatic work and can see its (not-so-obvious) importance, then Webster is your man. He has specialized in Jüngel and Barth, but has more recently been giving devout attention to classic Reformed theology (Calvin to Turretin) and Herman Bavinck. He is currently beginning work on a multi-volume systematic theology. My other professor at Aberdeen was Francesca Murphy, formerly Reader in Systematic Theology, now Professor of Christian Philosophy. She is an amazing teacher and amazing asset to the department. A follower of St. Thomas, Gilson, von Balthasar, and the Pope, she provides a nice balance to the other, rather Reformed, Protestants on the faculty. Considering my own desire to balance quasi-Reformed commitments and more natural law (moral) sort of thinking, I especially appreciated Dr. Murphy, who directed my dissertation.