David A. Hoekema is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. George Marsden was a professor of History at Calvin College (1965–1986), Duke Divinity School (1986–1992), and The University of Notre Dame (1992–2008). His publications include The Soul of the American University (1994) and Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003), winner of the Bancroft Prize. Richard Mouw taught Philosophy at Calvin College (1968-1985) and Fuller Theological Seminary (1985-1993), and he served for twenty years as Fuller’s president. Among his publications are Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (1992) and He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (2001). Nicholas Wolterstorff was Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale from 1989 until his retirement in 2002. Previously, he taught at Calvin College, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Notre Dame. He has written many books including: On Universals; Reason within the Bounds of Religion; Art in Action; Works and Worlds of Art; Education for Responsible Action; Until Justice and Peace Embrace; Lament for a Son; and Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, from his Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University. Alvin Plantinga taught Philosophy at Calvin College (1963-1982) and The University of Notre Dame (1982-2010), returning to Calvin as the first holder of the William Harry Jellema Chair in Philosophy. His publications include The Nature of Necessity (1984) and Warranted Christian Belief (2000). In 2017 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for having made “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
Things that grow big start small. The January Series at Calvin College fits the pattern. More than 30 years ago it began as a lunch-break lecture series for first-year students enrolled in a three-week exploration of “Christian Perspectives on Learning,” with a mix of local faculty and guest speakers. As its founder June Hamersma was able to add more prominent figures to the lineup, audiences grew and donors vied to be daily sponsors. In January 1997, to cite just one year’s roster, students and local residents had a chance to hear free one-hour presentations by Hanan Ashrawi, David Broder, Morris Dees, Jeffrey Stout, James Fallows, and Jonathan Kozol.
Under the guidance of Hamersma and her successor Kristi Potter, the three-week series has become one of the most popular escapes from the rigors of a Michigan winter, for both the Calvin community and the wider community of West Michigan. Three times it was honored as “Best Campus Lecture Series in the U.S.” by the National Platform Society. In recent years, each lecture has been streamed live to audiences at nearly 50 remote sites. Viewers in Tucson and Tulsa and Denver and Boston have been able to listen to the presentations and even to question the speakers via email and Twitter. (Archived video and audio recordings of most lecturers, and advance notice of each year’s speakers, can be found at www.calvin.edu/january.)
One of the January Series events in January 2016 featured not a single speaker but a panel devoted to “The Renaissance in Christian Thought.” This was a rather grand title for a set of personal and intellectual reminiscences by four former faculty members at Calvin: historian George Marsden and philosophers Richard Mouw, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Each of the four began teaching at Calvin between 1959 and 1968. After a couple of decades at Calvin, each moved on in the 1980s – to Duke, Fuller Seminary, Notre Dame, and Yale, respectively – but maintained close ties to Calvin.
And each is widely recognized for his many contributions to the resurgence of Christian scholarship in the humanities, which was no more than a small seedling in the overwhelmingly post-Christian academy in which they received their graduate training. Enriched by their work in history, philosophy, and theology, and by that of their contemporaries at many other Christian colleges and universities, that seedling has grown into a large and capacious tree – or better yet a whole forest – of faith-infused scholarly inquiry across all the disciplines in the academy. Christian Scholar’s Review has been a vital part of this history as well, from its founding as a successor to the Gordon Review in 1970 to its present status as a pre-eminent outlet for interdisciplinary Christian scholarship.
We asked these four eminent scholars to share their reflections with CSR readers, not as an inclusive or definitive account – many others in many disciplines and on many campuses played no less important roles, after all – but simply as a set of insightful personal narratives from a few of the leaders in the effort to bring religious perspectives back into the conversations of the academy. We hope readers will find something here both to inform and to inspire.
On January 7, 2016 – at precisely 12:30 p.m. – Calvin’s president, Michael LeRoy, welcomed the reunion of “Calvin’s Fab Four” to the stage of the Covenant Fine Arts Center. (Marsden opened his remarks with the comment: “I’m not sure who is John and who is Paul and who is Ringo, but I am definitely George.”) College chaplain Mary S. Hulst added a brief introduction, saying, in part:
Each of the men who we will hear from today spent some time on this campus—two of them as students, all of them as professors. Because of their work, people actually think differently. People think differently about art and justice, evil and the existence of God, evangelicals and Mormons, Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper. Their writing and teaching have shaped the thought life of generations of students, and for that we are grateful.
These four white guys would be quick to point to those who shaped them. From John Locke to Thomas Reid, from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Kuyper, from Harry Jellema to Henry Stob, all of these men have been shaped by those who came before. But the man who shaped them the most is Jesus.
For they are not just professors Marsden, Mouw, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff. They are also Nick, who’s lost a son; and George, who’s fought cancer; and Rich, who knows addiction from the inside; and Al, who understands life with a mentally ill parent.
They are not just worthy of endowed chairs, or status, or fame. They are our brothers, created by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to think and write and love and teach, and to show us how to suffer, and to show us how to stand. It is a joy to welcome our brothers: Nick, Rich, George, and Al.
Remarks by George Marsden
One of the more remarkable American cultural developments of recent decades – and one that has not been widely noticed – has been the burgeoning of Christian scholarship. Particularly remarkable has been the emergence of a vital, sophisticated, and substantial intellectual community among theologically traditionalist – or evangelical – American Protestants. The best evidence of that vitality is the faculties of more than a hundred colleges and universities of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Visit just about any of these and you will find Christian scholars of the most impressive quality. And the thousands of scholars at such schools have their counterparts in thousands more such “evangelicals” who are teaching at non-religious colleges and universities. Such scholars are part of a genuine intellectual community in which they can interact with each other at high levels in the many books, sophisticated journals, as well as online interchanges. This community has British and continental European connections as well as some counterparts who are emerging in other parts of the world.
If you go back half a century or more to when we on this panel were beginning our careers, there was very little like such networks of colleges and scholars. In the early 1950s Calvin College had some outstanding faculty members, but it did not really think of itself as having “peer” institutions, except perhaps Wheaton College – often considered too fundamentalist – or nearby Hope College – often seen as too liberal. In 1965 when I was looking for a job at a Christian college, Calvin and Wheaton were the only sizable possibilities on my horizon. And Wheaton had recently narrowed its statement of faith in a more fundamentalist direction so that it seemed to me not likely a comfortable place to work.
Part of the reason that in that mid-century era Calvin College did not really have peer institutions was that it was not looking for any. Those who were around Calvin at the time will recall what an insular this place was. When I came to Calvin I think there were only two other “outsiders” (meaning non-Dutch) on the faculty. With my non-Dutch name, I was an exotic curiosity.
So what has happened in the past 50 or 60 years to change the larger national and international intellectual-spiritual community in which Calvin is working so dramatically? First of all, people at Calvin began to discover that there was a whole world out there of more or less likeminded people. Charles J. Miller (for whom an annual Christian Scholar’s Review award is named) was one of the non-Dutch Calvin faculty members who preceded me and I well remember riding to his alma mater, Wheaton, for the founding meetings of that journal. I also remember meeting, along with Nick Wolterstorff, Al Plantinga, and a few other Calvin faculty members – I think it was 1966 – with our counterparts at neighboring Aquinas College, just to discover the peculiar things each other believed. At that time we would have been astonished to think that in a few decades two of us would be on the payroll of Notre Dame. Now Catholic scholars are among our closest allies and are an integral part of the larger Christian scholarly community.
But another thing was happening in the later decades of the 20th century that had its own dynamics. That was the burgeoning of the intellectual life of what is now known as the evangelical world. That is something that happened through a combination of spiritual, sociological and other historical forces that made evangelicals – or traditionalist Protestants – the one major American religious community to hold its own numerically and even flourish in the rapidly changing social and cultural atmosphere of the past half century. That flourishing involved growing affluence in such Protestant communities and so large increases in numbers of young people going to colleges. A fair number of such young people went on to graduate education and now make up the cohort of impressive Christian scholars that I have mentioned.
That community has done a good bit of broadening in the last couple of generations, just as Calvin has. Almost all such evangelical groups had some sort of defensive fundamentalist background. A number of the schools in the CCCU were essentially Bible schools around mid-century. Evangelical theological education was in a little better shape in the 1950s but was still struggling with the peculiarities of the fundamentalist heritage. As late as the early 1990s, only 25 years ago, Mark Noll was lamenting “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” and could proclaim that there really was “not much of an evangelical mind.” He wrote just as a dramatic intellectual upsurge was taking place and today he would agree that great intellectual advances have been made in that community. Most of it has moved away from fundamentalist sectarianism to embrace the Christian mainstream—what C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity.”
So what did we who are part of this symposium have to do with all that? Most of what has happened would have happened without any one of us participating in it. Looking at the phenomena historically, we caught a wave that was not of our own making. Yet we also were sometimes good at riding that wave and sometimes succeeded in showing others how it and other waves might be well ridden.
Probably our personal contributions to that enterprise are less important than that we were operating within a larger tradition. We all were shaped by the peculiar Reformed communities in which the Kuyperian tradition was incubating. For those who know the histories of the Dutch Reformed in early twentieth-century America, “incubating” might not seem the best image; they might think of it as more like roosters fighting. But out of the Reformed squabbles of the fundamentalist era – which coincided with Christian Reformed ethnic defensiveness – a more mature outlook of a sort of progressive yet theologically orthodox Kuyperianism emerged. We found ourselves working within a wonderful community within that tradition. Calvin was a terrific place to be because we had so many other wise and impressive likeminded colleagues – honestly too many to mention. Unlike at most places, we did not have to go back to square one in our conversations, but we could start at square three or four and move ahead from there. We just needed to do our homework, hone the tradition we had inherited, and articulate some of its implications.
As it turned out, what we were doing proved to be of considerable interest to some of the emerging scholars in the wider evangelical community. They brought with them some additional traditions and perspectives, so the exchanges have been two-way. But a good many of such emerging scholars came from evangelical traditions that tended toward the anti-intellectualism of populist revivalism and so they were attracted to the more intellectually oriented heritage of the Reformed. The result was that the sorts of things we were trying to articulate here at Calvin found wider audiences and we soon had many more conversation partners. So now the intellectual community that shares these principles is much larger. And we have lots of interactions with Christian scholars of other heritages and points of view, such as Anabaptist, Pietist, Catholic, Orthodox, British evangelical, and mainline Protestants. As a result, I think it is not an exaggeration to say these interconnected networks constitute one of the most vital intellectual communities that can be found today.
Remarks by Richard Mouw
I need to begin by saying how pleased I am to be on the platform with these fellow panelists, who are also cherished friends. The other three presenters are actually the persons who drew me to the Calvin College faculty in the late 1960s. Al Plantinga had been my teacher at the University of Chicago, when he taught a seminar there as a visiting professor. Nick Wolterstorff had not only influenced me by his writings in the Reformed Journal, but I also had attended sessions where he presented papers at the American Philosophical Association. And I can still remember reading in my graduate school days an article that greatly impressed me in Christianity Today by George Marsden, and thinking about how great it would be to work alongside a person with his insights into the evangelical movement. Joining the Calvin community, then, was for me a dream come true, and the dream kept going for the 17 years of my time on the faculty here.
This is a good occasion also to explain publicly why I left Calvin to join the Fuller Seminary faculty in the mid-1980s. The truth is, I had no intention of leaving, but I entertained Fuller’s offer only to use as a bargaining chip with the Calvin administration. At a certain point President Diekema called me into his office, and said that he heard I was thinking about moving to Fuller. “What can I do to keep you at Calvin?” he asked. My well-considered reply was that I would stay at Calvin if he would appoint me as head coach of the men’s basketball team. His immediate reply shocked me into the realization that I had overplayed my hand. Without a moment’s pause he said: “Go to Fuller!” The rest is history.
In all seriousness, my clear sense in leaving Calvin was that the Lord had given me the gift of working closely with an amazing community of colleagues and students, and now he was saying to some of us, “Take what you have learned here into new areas of service.” Within the span of a few short years, then, Al went to Notre Dame, Nick went to Yale, George went to Duke, and then on to Notre Dame, and I departed for Fuller. And there were others also who joined our diaspora during that same period. To name a couple of obvious examples, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen moved to Eastern University, Steve Monsma to Pepperdine, Dale Van Kley to Ohio State, and Paul Henry to the United States Congress. We all went with a sense of a mission to bring the vision that had inspired us here to other important academic contexts.
For me the context was theological education, where Fuller Seminary was— and is—seen as a highly influential center for theological scholarship. Lew Smedes had moved from Calvin to Fuller at the time I arrived in Grand Rapids, and as he was nearing retirement he made it clear that he saw me as stepping into his role as the representative of Calvin College Kuyperianism on Fuller’s faculty. In part, this meant for me that I would keep teaching at Fuller much of the same material that I had taught at Calvin. For example, I regularly assigned Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism to my Fuller students. I will never forget a response to that assignment, from an African American student in one of the first courses I taught at the seminary. “I love what this Kuyper says,” she told me. “Not that I agree with all of his Calvinism” – she was a Pentecostal – “but what he gives me is a Jesus who shed his blood for my sins and who also cares about justice.”
Her testimony expressed a more general longing that was beginning to be articulated in new ways in the evangelicalism of the final decades of the 20th century. Many Pentecostals, Baptists, Wesleyans, conservative students from mainline denominations, people in university campus ministries, the large numbers who were flocking to new-style “emergent” congregations – they were looking for a robust evangelicalism that embraced a Gospel of saving grace that spoke to all of life: the arts, politics, economic systems, the sciences, a concern for the marginalized.
For those of us representing the Kuyperian world and life view in those set- tings, the challenge has been to respect the theological diversity of evangelicalism while finding ways to mine the specific traditions for Kuyperian-like themes that can enrich the more general patterns of present-day discipleship. A case in point: during the past two years I have been invited on several occasions to address audiences in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition about how they can articulate within their own framework the kind of emphasis on Christ’s cosmic Lordship that Kuyper gave expression to in his “every square inch of creation” manifesto. I have reflected with them on John Wesley’s oft-quoted statement that “the world is my parish.” Too often that has been distorted into a church-restricted sense of Christ’s rule, as in “my parish is my world.” But another way to understand Wesley is as insisting that the fullness of creation is a kind of “parish” – a rich and complex expanse in which Christ calls us to serve the cause of his Kingdom.
The first time I met Dr. William Spoelhof – another of the heroes in my life – was when I was interviewed as a potential faculty member at Calvin. I had gone through the process up to the point where the College’s final decision about me depended on whether I received the president’s approval. Those were days when persons from non-CRC backgrounds were a rarity on the Calvin faculty – my memory is that the only colleagues in that category were Charlie Miller, Don Wilson and George. To make matters worse, I had been raised in the Reformed Church in America, which made me more suspect than someone who, like George, had been Orthodox Presbyterian and a graduate of Westminster Seminary.
Dr. Spoelhof focused on two issues in our conversation. One was whether I was willing to support the Christian school system. I receive high grades on that one when I told him I had attended Riverside Christian School in Paterson – also his alma mater. The other issue was my fit with the college’s vision for liberal arts education. Spoelhof made his point forcefully and memorably. To put it in stark terms, he said, if on one evening the college’s worshiping space was burnt to the ground at the same time as the entire Religion faculty died, Calvin would be as Christian the next morning as it had been the previous morning. “What makes this a Christian college,” he said, “is what we teach in chemistry, sociology, literature and all the other disciplines.”
My guess is that Dr. Spoelhof’s formulation was starker than what he really believed, but his basic point was clear and profound. Christian liberal arts education isn’t just about attaching worship activities to a generic conception of the world of ideas. Nor is it just about required theology courses. To make that point in those days was to state something about the uniqueness of our Reformed understanding of higher education within the larger Christian movement. Today, that point is widely accepted in the evangelical academy. And those of us – like the four of us here on this panel – who have been “out there” seeing that vision take hold in new ways, can do so with a profound gratitude for what we were able to be a part of “in here.”
In expressing my gratitude for the formative time I spent with these colleagues on this campus, I must add one observation. We were able to be shaped in profound ways by the Calvin community because it has been a community that has understood that the broad world and life view that Kuyper and others articulated so well has to be grounded in a deep commitment to the details of a Reformed theological perspective in which a central emphasis is placed on our desperate need as lost sinners for a salvation that could only be made available to us by sovereign grace.
Al and I were both present one evening in the 1970s at Calvin Christian Reformed Church when the great Henry Stob preached a marvelous sermon on John 3:16. Stob was an eloquent articulator of the kind of vision set forth in John 3:17, that the Son came into the cosmos – the fullness of the creation – not to condemn the creation but that the cosmos in its rich complexity might be saved through his redeeming work. But in his sermon that evening, Stob made it clear that his wonderful “every square inch” vision was inextricably linked to God’s unmerited love for sinners like us. I thank God for the privilege of having served, with these colleagues, in an academic community wherein we were absolutely clear about that link.
Remarks by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Our topic is the remarkable renaissance of Christian thought that has taken place over the past 50 years or so and the role of Calvin College in that renaissance. George has sketched for you a picture of this development in general. I will now narrow the focus and speak about the renaissance of Christian thought that has taken place within the field of philosophy.
I graduated from Calvin in 1953 and was a grad student in philosophy at Harvard from 1953 to 1956. I was aware, at the time, that there were Christians in philosophy; I knew that Bill Frankena, a Calvin grad teaching at the University of Michigan, was a Christian, as was John Wild, one of my professors at Harvard. But very few Christians in philosophy wrote anything that was recognizably Christian. The main exception to that generalization was O. K. Bouwsma at the University of Nebraska. Bouwsma was a Calvin grad.
Today there is a Society of Christian Philosophers with about 900 members. The big philosophical organization in this country is the American Philosophical Association. The APA has many affiliate organizations; the Society of Christian Philosophers is by far the largest of these. As one would expect, a good many members of the Society hold teaching positions in the Christian colleges of the country, but there are also a good many who hold teaching positions in major universities. At least 10 members of the Society have been presidents of the APA. In short, the Society of Christian Philosophers is a major presence on the American philosophical scene.
The question I want to address in my talk is: how did we get from there to here? How did we get from almost no philosophers writing anything that was recognizably Christian to our present situation of there being hundreds and hundreds of philosophers publishing work that is recognizably Christian? And what was the role of Calvin College in this renaissance?
After getting my Ph.D. from Harvard in 1956 I spent a year in Europe, taught for two years at Yale, and then returned to Calvin to teach in 1959. Al Plantinga, who had been a fellow student of mine here at Calvin, returned here to teach in 1963. In retrospect, there were three aspects of our undergraduate education here at Calvin, and two features of our graduate education, that proved crucial for the renaissance of Christian philosophy. Start with our undergraduate education.
First, our professors, especially Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, inspired us with a vision of how to be a Christian in philosophy; we didn’t have to figure it out for ourselves. The motto we were given was that of the medieval theologian, Anselm: faith seeking understanding. Not faith added to understanding. Not understanding propping up faith. And certainly not faith instead of understanding. Faith seeking understanding. Looking at philosophical issues through the eyes of faith; or to say the same thing in other words, engaging in the discipline of philosophy with a Christian mind and sensibility. The vision we were given was not defensive; that would prove to be important.
The second feature of our undergraduate education here at Calvin that proved important for the future of Christian philosophy was that there was no index of forbidden books. No one deterred us, for example, from reading the virulently anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As with everything else, we were to engage Nietzsche with a Christian mind and sensibility, but nobody said Nietzsche was off-limits. Christian philosophy is not a hole-in-a-corner thing; it is not defensive apologetics.
And third, we were invited to regard the entire tradition of Christian thought as our heritage. Protestants sometimes assume that true Christian thought began with the Reformation, or several centuries later with the Wesleys. We were taught that the Church Fathers were part of our heritage, that the medieval philosophers Anselm and Aquinas were part of our heritage, and so forth, the whole lot of them. For our later discussions with Catholics, that would prove to be important.
Now for the two aspects of the graduate school education of Al and myself that proved crucial. The philosophy that we were taught when we were students at Calvin was almost exclusively the history of philosophy. Our professors at the time were doing almost nothing by way of teaching and writing philosophy of their own. By contrast, what our graduate school training hammered into us was what was called “doing philosophy.” When Al and I returned here to teach, we didn’t just want to study philosophy; we wanted to do philosophy.
Second, our grad school education put us in touch with the American philosophical scene in general. I am not aware that Harry Jellema or Henry Stob ever attended a convention of the American Philosophical Association; as George indicated, Calvin was insular in those days. Al and I, from the very beginning of our careers, have not only attended but made presentations at conventions of the APA; both of us have been presidents of the APA.
All of that is background. Now for how it actually went, as I recall. Shortly after Al and I were together here at Calvin as professors our department decided to meet every week to discuss something that we ourselves had written and distributed in advance. Rich joined us in the fall of 1968. For the remainder of my career at Calvin we met for two hours every Tuesday afternoon, sometimes even in the summer, and went page by page through the paper that had been distributed. “Any comments about page 1?” “Nothing more about page 1? Then let’s move on to page 2.” So it went. Tough love. It was in those Tuesday meetings that I learned how to be a philosopher, in particular, how to be a Christian philosopher.
Al and I knew philosophers at Notre Dame. So sometime in the late ‘60s the idea emerged of the Calvin philosophers getting together every now and then with the Notre Dame philosophers to discuss philosophy. We thought of our Catholic colleagues as co-workers in the project of Christian philosophy. For some years we met twice a year, alternating between meeting here at Calvin and meeting at Notre Dame.
As I recall, it was from those meetings that there emerged the idea of opening up our discussions to others by forming a society of Christian philosophers. Others were brought into the discussion: I think especially of the late Bill Alston and of the Adams, Bob and Marilyn. The Society was officially organized in 1978; it took off immediately. I had the sense of a dam bursting and of a river surging forth. The Society is wonderfully ecumenical in its membership; the only requirement for membership being that one declares that one is a Christian. Nonetheless, I think I can safely say that the two dominant traditions of thought are the Reformed and the Catholic.
Let me close by saying that I feel enormously privileged and deeply grateful to have been a participant in this truly remarkable development, and to have taught here at Calvin for a good many years with these three dear and gifted friends, and with many others like them. Calvin College remains an exceptional institution. That said, those days were a golden era in the history of Calvin College and in the history of Christian learning.
Remarks by Alvin Plantinga
First of all let me say it’s a very great pleasure to take part in this panel. Some people, as I have discovered, impolitely referred to us as the “over-the-hill gang.” These people fail to note that it is age alone that confers maturity, judgment, wisdom, insight – of course, Rich Mouw and George Marsden over here, being only about 75 years old, are a little young for these qualities. They are not perhaps quite dry behind the ears; still, they do seem to be coming along nicely. Also, I’m obliged to correct Nick one on point: Nick said that professors Henry Jellema and Henry Stob never attended meetings at the American Philosophical Association, which is the professional association for philosophers. If I remember correctly though – and Nick thinks I don’t – Henry Stob and some others of us drove down to Chicago to attend such a meeting. And on the way back we got into a violent argument – a really ferocious argument about a certain bottle, a bottle of water. The bottle was, in fact, half-full; the question was whether it could have been, at that very time, whether it was possible at that very time and place, that that bottle should have been empty or completely full – or anything other than half-full. Professor Stob argued, with what I recall great vehemence, that it was essentially half-full. That bottle couldn’t possibly have been any other way than the way it was, namely, half-full.
Our topic is the Renaissance of Christian Philosophy, however, I’m going to stray just a bit from the assigned topic. I’m going to ask instead about the nature of Christian thought, and in particular the nature of Christian philosophy. So what is philosophy? I suspect that for some of you that’s not really the burning issue of the day. Too bad, but there it is. On a common understanding of philosophy, however, philosophy is a wholly disinterested – not, notice, uninteresting – but disinterested, attempt to answer a certain set of questions. These questions have to do with the ultimate nature of reality: whether there is such a person as God; whether there are objective values, including an objective right and wrong; whether humans are just their bodies (whether, for example, I just am this body); whether there are two types of substances, or only one, or none, and so on. And the idea is that philosophy is an attempt to answer these questions in a disinterested way; it’s a disinterested attempt to answer those questions. Our Roman Catholic friends and allies, following the impressive thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, think this way. So for example the twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Étienne Gilson put it like this, in his book The Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, he wrote:
Whereas the philosopher, as such, professes to draw truth from the spring of reason alone, the philosophical theologian draws truth from two different sources: from reason, and also because he is a theologian, from faith revealed by God. (Introduction to Chapter 2)
Philosophy seen in that way is disinterested. As Gilson suggests, it proceeds by reason alone with no room for faith or scientific truth or common sense. I should add parenthetically that quite a few people seem to agree that philosophers don’t display much by way of common sense.
In answering these questions, one can only appeal to reason itself, and in particular you can’t appeal to faith. Thus, the eminent contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel speaks of philosophy as “the view from nowhere.” And I can remember in grad school at the University of Michigan professor William Frankena, himself a Calvin graduate and a member of the Christian Reformed Church, telling us that if in working at philosophy you appeal to what you know or what you think you know by virtue of faith, then what you are doing is really theology, not philosophy.
Now back in the day some 60 years ago, back when Nick and I went to Calvin, one thing we learned from professors Harry Jellema and Henry Stob was that this whole line of thought was eminently questionable. And maybe the first question is, why should we think of philosophy in that way? Who gets to decide or legislate that philosophy has to be disinterested? Why can’t there be such a thing as an explicitly Christian philosophy? Not Christian theology, mind you, but Christian philosophy. As far as that goes, why can’t there also be a thing as Christian science? Not the Mary Baker Eddy kind of science but rather a science that starts from Christian ideas. And working in any science you take a great deal for granted, for example you take mathematics for granted, you take also a lot of commonsense ideas for granted, you take it for granted that we are at or near the surface of the Earth, you take for granted that we breathe air and not water, you take for granted how microscopes, telescopes, and other instruments work. Why can’t you also take for granted the main lines of the Christian story? If you’re thinking about a problem, maybe how to repair a hole in your roof, you ordinarily employ everything you know – what kinds of roof boards and shingles are available, what kinds of shingles will last the longest and provide the best protection against the elements, and so on. It wouldn’t make much sense to artificially limit yourself to just a part of what you know about these things. Well, why shouldn’t it be the same way in answering these philosophical questions? Why shouldn’t you, there too, use all that you know in answering them? Why shouldn’t you use what you know by way of faith in answering them? Of course, many would say, like Bill Frankena, that if you do that then you’re not doing philosophy, you’re doing theology. Maybe so, call it whatever you like, the important thing is to answer those questions – what you call the process of answering them isn’t that important. And if it isn’t important I will call it Christian philosophy. So I say there really is such a thing as Christian philosophy. From my point of view that’s a very good thing, too, because that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 50 years or so.
January Series Panel Q&A
Mary Hulst: “I’m curious, gentleman, as you survey the landscape of Christian academics and academics in general, what’s an area of academic inquiry that you think really needs a reformed Christian touch, that really needs some attention from our faculty, our students, and people who share our values?”
Mouw: “One of the obvious things is the natural sciences. I think, back in those days, we would not have anticipated some of the more recent debates about a “young Earth” and things of that sort. We didn’t encounter much of that sort of thing in our time here at Calvin. And I think this is one of the really big challenges: How do we think about the book of Genesis, the origins of the human race, and the origins of our sinfulness without relinquishing what needs to be seen as the heart of the gospel. At the same time, the great Bernard Ramm whom I once invited here to speak at Calvin wrote a book in the ‘50s called The Christian View of Science in the Scriptures in which he discussed theistic evolution and the like and got in a lot of trouble for it in the evangelical world. When he visited here at Calvin I said to him, ‘Do you ever regret writing that book?’ and he said, ‘No, because I never wanted a student of mine to go on to Harvard and lose their faith because I had not dealt with these issues honestly in my class.’ And I think Calvin has been a good example of that kind of posture but we need to apply it in new ways today.”
Plantinga: “It seems to me it’s really important that science generally at a place like Calvin, and as thought of by Christian educators and intellectuals, should be seriously integrated with Christian belief. Part of the reason is that people that graduate from Calvin and come back to teach at Calvin, go to graduate school where topics of that sort don’t have any currency or indeed any standing at all. It’s something that has to be worked up within our community, and that’s really a tough job.”
Marsden: “The areas that make a Christian college distinctive are often the humanities, which consciously try to sort out issues in the larger perspective. In our fragmented culture, what Christian colleges have to offer is how to cope with this fragmentation. It can be done in this kind of community in a way that is wonderful and really can’t be found much in other places.”
Wolterstorff: “I’d like to pick up on George’s comment and affirm it. When I went to Calvin College the sense I had is that I was entering the intellectual life of my community. When I taught here I had that sense. I still have that sense. That seems to me what we as Calvin must preserve. That this is where an important part of the Christian community thinks together, does its thinking. There are a lot of places, a lot of universities that are turning into job training organizations. I have quite a bit of contact with the Free University of Amsterdam. The Free University was definitely once the center of Dutch Reformed intellectual life; it has almost become a vocational institution. They have virtually abolished, for example, the teaching of ancient languages. It’s not that I am against having courses in Business Administration, teaching young people how to teach, but we must not lose this sense of why we treasure, preserve, and advance Christian Thinking.”
Hulst: “Nick, I was struck when you described when you were taught at Calvin that you were encouraged to take a non-defensive posture. I was wondering from the four of you, what would you suggest are other spiritual disciplines that academics particularly need, particularly as Christians. What are some of the habits that we as Christian academics need to develop?”
Mouw: “I’m glad you asked that in terms of spiritual habits. I do think worship is very important and spiritual formation is an important part of the larger experience of being formed for participation in the life of the mind. Nick mentioned a sense of a generous intellectual hospitality here, that we were willing to entertain ideas, even things that Nietzsche said, not just refute him but to to see if he has a word of judgment on our own Christianity, or something that he is sensitive to that we haven’t been sensitive to, and I think that we can’t divorce that type of intellectual hospitality from a spiritual hospitality, a humility, a sense that God is God and we’re not, that we’re finite, that we’re sinners, that we have a lot to learn, and that non-defensiveness for those of us in the Calvinist tradition ought to come naturally, but the fact is it often has been just the opposite.”
Wolterstorff: “When I was invited to speak at Evangelical colleges, what struck me was how prominent apologetics was: there would be courses in evidence, in yet more evidence, in yet yet more evidence. By comparison our teachers encouraged us to begin by looking at the world in its own terms, how it looks. Of course you answer the objections when they’re posed, but you don’t allow the entire enterprise to become defensive and apologetic.”
Plantinga: “I think what’s important here is a certain amount of Christian courage. Christian courage, maybe Christian optimism; if Christianity is correct it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. We do believe it’s correct, we should present it that way – we’ve got nothing to be apologetic about. There is a discipline of apologetics that I myself have been engaged in a lot, so I don’t think Christians ought to apologize. They should do apologetics but not apologize.”
Marsden: “Rich mentioned humility and I’d say that is a spiritual discipline. The trick is to be firm and have courage about what you do believe but be generous about what you don’t know. And Christianity after all is about human limits. Let’s recognize our limits at the same time we’re saying we have something to say.”