Review of Smith’s Questions of Religious Truth

by John M. Frame

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 30:2 (May, 1968), 241-242. Used by Permission.]


Wilfred Cantwell Smith: Questions of Religious Truth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1967. 127. $3.65.

These lectures argue four major theses:

1) The death-of-God movement (William Hamilton to the contrary notwithstanding) is a religious system wherein the phrase “God is dead” serves as a primal religious symbol, a presupposition rather than a demonstrated conclusion.

2) All religions—and even commitments to reason”—make similar presuppositions on the basis of “faith”. Only by noting such presuppositions in others and in ourselves can we engage in a proper examination of religions (one which is fair to them and honest with ourselves).

3) Religions are not “true” or “false”; these terms may be applied only to behavior and thinking which is performed in a religious context.

4) “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Buddhist”, and analogous terms should be understood as adjectives, not as nouns. Thus there are no “Christians”, but only “Christian” qualities of life (which may characterize believers in, say, Islam as easily as believers in Christ).

Reformed readers will find the first and the second points interesting, even appealing; the third and the fourth, however, are clearly vitiated by a dogmatically asserted Kantian epistemology which insists that God is unable to tell us anything which is true. Thus, though Smith is most

WTJ 30:2 (May 68) p. 242


acute at exposing the presuppositions of others, he is curiously blind to his own. If they are read in context, then, even the first and second theses finally serve only to relativize all religious claims in order to give full sway to a meta-religious claim, the claim of the comparative religious specialist to know “what religion ought to be” (p. 70; cf. pp. 84ff). In the end, we must judge this meta-religious claim to be just another religious claim, and to have no more normative significance than any other human scheme to usurp the interpretative prerogatives of God.

From the title and chapter headings, one might unwarily conclude (at least this reviewer did!) that these lectures were attempting to interact with recent discussions of “religious truth” by analytic philosophers. In fact, however, though Smith deals with some of the same topics as these men, he shows no acquaintance with their writings (except for a footnote on p. 66) and sometimes even talks as though he were the first person to ask seriously what “religious truth” might mean (cf. pp. 39ff, 65ff). Despite this audacious independence, however, the book presents us with nothing new. The author, Professor of World Religions at Harvard University, operates from that standpoint of thoroughgoing modernism and religious syncretism which has dominated his field since its nineteenth-century beginnings. He presents this viewpoint with a certain freshness of style, but conceptually he offers little to advance the cause of clarity, let alone truth. He vigorously expounds all those time-worn Kantian distinctions (e.g., “abstract systems” vs. “personal relationships”) as though everyone knew just what he was talking about. Those who find such distinctions misleading, unclear, or unbiblical should look elsewhere for meaningful dialogue.

What the field of comparative religions needs is more good Reformed scholars who will interpret the data of the religions from a biblical standpoint: not to prove the Bible “superior” by some neutral standard of comparison, nor merely to show how the Bible differs from other holy books; but rather, using the Bible as a critical tool, to show concretely how man outside of Christ “changes the truth of God into a lie”, and how such religions carry the logical elements of their own destruction. Such a method would take religious presuppositions seriously, as Smith’s does not, and thus could contribute much to current discussions of the logical structure of religious truth and error.

John M. Frame
Yale University,
New Haven

Sign up to receive new posts via e-mail