evangelical philosophers

I’ve been teaching apologetics for the past two weeks, and the experience prompted me to reflect on the current state of evangelical philosophy.  I write this as an outsider—I took a few doctoral classes and passed a comp in philosophy, but my expertise is in historical and systematic theology.  These are only general observations, written from my subjective experience—and I welcome comments from those who have experienced something else.

Evangelical philosophers are:

1. Provocative, passionate, and stimulating.  The most interesting papers at the Evangelical Theological Society are typically read at the sessions of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, which is why I spend most of my time there.

2. Largely Arminian.  Perhaps in part to the influence of the Biola school, the great Alvin Plantinga, or the need to figure it out (philosophers who punt too quickly to divine mystery may lose their union cards), but I don’t know many evangelical philosophers who would call themselves Calvinists.  In Grand Rapids, labeling the other side an Arminian is the shortest way to win an argument.  Outside of Grand Rapids, it is the quickest way to lose.

3. Not always constrained by the biblical text.  Here are a few examples from Reason for the Hope Within, a textbook written by philosophers that I used for my apologetics class.

a. Several philosophers claimed that divine silence is necessary to protect human freedom.  They wrote that if God pulled out a celestial megaphone and announced to the world that he existed, then we would have no choice but to obey him.  This claim seems hard to reconcile with numerous examples in Scripture—such as Adam, Pharoah, and the children of Israel—all of whom had indubitable knowledge of God and managed to disobey anyway.

b. One philosopher said that Romans 1 teaches that because of their sinful suppression, some people honestly don’t know that God exists (try to make theological sense of that).  Another philosopher in another textbook said that Romans 1 was true at the time it was written, but it is no longer the case that everyone knows that there is a God (consider the implications of this hermeneutic).

c. And then there are the unforced errors:  One philosopher read the parable of the vineyard exactly backwards, using it to teach that those who are saved the longest are the ones who most enjoy their salvation.  Another didn’t know how to fit the Potter and the clay analogy into his Arminian theology, so he observed that Scripture more frequently compares God to a Shepherd.  That may be true, but don’t we still have to make sense of the Potter analogy?

4. Overly enamored with what is logically possible.  One philosopher said that it’s possible that there is a reason for the existence of evil, and as long as it’s possible, then he has defeated the problem of evil.  Another philosopher in another book explains the resurrection by saying that it’s possible that at our death God makes a duplicate of our body by splitting its simples in two, so that one body is a lifeless corpse and the other is already resurrected in heaven.  I guess this is possible, but it’s not terribly convincing—or biblical.  Which leads to another observation:

5. Reluctant to say enough.  The philosophers in Reason for the Hope Within do a fine job of showing that we are rational for believing in Jesus and Scripture, but can’t we go further and also explain why we are right?  I’m glad to know that I’m permitted to believe in the Christian God, but I’d also like to say that everyone is obligated to do the same.

This is one reason why I like presuppositional apologetics.  Cornelius Van Til may have promised more than he delivered, but he was on to something important.  See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 240, for an articulation of Van Til’s fundamental insight that without God it is impossible to know anything.

6. Sometimes more concerned with being accepted than with being Christian.  This is the temptation of every evangelical academic:  will you argue your views from a Christian perspective, even if you lose credibility, or will you lay your Christian beliefs aside in an impossible quest for neutral, common ground?  Alvin Plantinga has shown the way forward with his “Advice to Christian philosophers” (Faith and Philosophy 1: 253-71) and his fight against both metaphysical and methodological naturalism, but some of his protégés have not followed suit.  In their quest to win approval in the broader academy, they sometimes settle for limited arguments that say more about the rationality of the speakers than the rightness of the view they are defending.

In so doing they let non-Christians off the hook, telling them that they are just as rational for not believing in God or miracles or the truthfulness of Scripture as Christians are for believing the same.  This is an improvement over where we stood only a few decades ago, but we can do better.  We can say more, as Van Til and Plantinga have made clear.

10 Comments

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  1. So, would you say Alvin Plantinga is an Arminian?

  2. Overall, I would agree with your assessment. I think the reason that many Evangelical philosophers don’t say enough is precisely because they are Arminian. Once you’ve carved out room for human autonomy, your philosophy will be impotent to prove the necessity of Christianity. How do you argue/assume the unbeliever’s assumption of autonomy to the conclusion that he is not autonomous (and depends on the Creator in order to make sense out of anything)? This is schizophrenic for the apologist (assuming autonomy in philosophy and “theonomy” in theology). The best you have at that point is the probability or mere possibility that Christianity is true. The thing that I really appreciate about Greg Bahnsen, Van Til, Plantinga (to a small extent), and other reformed apologists is their recognition of this fundamental antithesis. They understand that even what you hold as possible is interpreted by one’s presuppositions. It is not enough or even theoretically sound to argue with the unbeliever using commonly held epistemological/ metaphysical standards because no such thing in the final analysis exists. The point of apologetics, on this model, is to show the unbeliever that on his espoused worldview he is not even able to give an account or justify those very presuppositions that make up that worldview. He assumes the laws of logic, the principle of induction and the universality of the moral principles but is unable to justify them on his worldview.

    I greatly appreciate much of the work J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Paul Copan and others have done. However, I think that evangelical philosophy would provide a more devastating and penetrating critique of unbelief if we had more people at the highest levels in the academy who dealt seriously with the insights of Cornelius Van Til (especially his transcendental argument).

  3. Dr. Wittmer, 2 questions:

    1) Would it be possible for you to post your reading list in a comment here? If you get a chance, I’d love to see it. This class sounds fascinating.

    2) What’s your professional opinion of Lee Strobel’s Case for… books?

    And a subjective opinion:
    Plantinga’s writing in The Knowledge of God – his thoughts are clearer than his writing style suggests.

    I’d like it if philosophers always worked with bold editors; for if I write philosophy in tongues, my spirit evangelizes, but the hearer’s mind is unfruitful. 🙂

  4. To your 2nd point, may I introduce Paul Helm or Doug Groothuis?

  5. Great analysis. Libertarian free will is axiomatic in most Christian philosophy, even in places where you would not expect it.

  6. Paul:

    I thought of Paul Helm and John Frame, but these are by and large exceptions to the rule.

    Chris:

    Alvin’s free will defense is textbook Arminianism. I heard him say once in a lecture that if you want to call him an Arminian, that is fine with him. His brother, Neil, a theologian that than which nothing greater can be conceived, says in “Not the way that it’s supposed to be” that he espouses incompatibilism, which is the philosophical equivalent of Arminianism.

    Adam:

    I’ll email you the syllabus as an attachment, as the list is too long to publish here. I haven’t read Strobel’s books, but his titles indicate that he is probably in the evidential/classical apologist camp. A presuppositionalist would never use those titles, though we reserve the right to plunder his books for anything that we can use (any evidence can be used if one pays attention to starting points).

  7. Jonathan Shelley January 27, 2010 — 2:45 pm

    Mike,

    Do you think the Arminian tendencies of many of these philosophers may be a result of their theological convictions as evangelicals and not necessarily the result of their love of their own brains? It seems that with the strong influence of the pietists and the Wesley brothers on evangelicalism, along with the Billy Graham style of revivalism that is popular in postfundamentalist evangelicalism, it should not be surprising that many of the theologians and philosophers who gravitate to evangelicalism would be of the Arminian bent.

    On the flip side, the reputation of evangelicals such as Carl FH Henry would have served to attract many of the best and brightest theologians and philosophers to evangelicalism (much like Al Plantinga’s works have convicted so many contemporary philosophers), so maybe there is something to your idea of rational pride coming before the Arminian fall.

    I should also clarify that I do not believe that theological convictions and philosophical method are unrelated. My question is whether (and which) one preceeds the other.

  8. You’ve got me thinking about proclamation. It may be a lost art.

    It seems much of American Christianity is confused about how to effectively proclaim the gospel. Or at least I am.

    One possible motivation is that we’re embarrassed by some people who do proclaim, and we don’t want to be lumped in with them. But that isn’t the only motivation…

  9. A couple of brief thoughts. (If I haven’t missed the point) The mere possibility of there being a reason for evil does deflate the logical form of the problem of evil. There are of course other forms, but these have risen largely due to the fact that the logical form was destroyed by Plantinga.

    Also, Arminianism is not the only option for incompatibilist. Many adopt Molinism or at least see it as a live option that works with the free will defense.

    And lastly, saying “overly enamored with what is logically possible” is a bit critical I think since from the philosopher’s perspective they are doing their best to be epistemically responsible. And what is the alternative if your field of study is ideas, to hold what is logically possible lightly?

    Peace,
    Chris Sandoval

  10. Chris: Thank you for this. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Arminianism and Molinism are the same kind of category. The former is a theological construction while the latter is a philosophical one. Many Arminians are Molinists, and I would think that all Molinists are Arminians. I think the contrast you have in mind is between simple foreknowledge and middle knowledge (the latter being the distinctive of Molinism).

    Of course it’s important to discuss what is logically possible. My only point is that we should submit what is logically possible to the Scriptures, and if they don’t allow for a certain idea, then we should not hold it out as a viable belief for evangelicals, even if it’s logically possible. We must submit our philosophy, as we do our theology and everything else, to God’s Word.

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