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I recently had occasion to read one of the more obscure publications by one of the more famous Christian philosophers of our time, Nicholas Wolterstorff. An article he first presented as a conference paper at Calvin College (now University) in 2000 is currently available in the handsomely produced two-volume series of Wolterstorff works edited by Terence Cuneo (Practices of Belief, Cambridge University Press, 2010). Herein Wolterstorff deals with two of the most basic ideas of one the most famous philosophers of all time, Immanuel Kant. And by “dealing with” these ideas, I mean that Wolterstorff exposes one as a mistake and the other as, well, a sort of mistake also. But there is more here to ponder than philosophical disagreement.

First, Wolterstorff shows—to his own satisfaction and to mine, at least—that something Everyone Knows Kant said Kant did not, in fact, say. (I should note that Kant’s terminology in this discussion takes some getting used to, so I will use my own language, not his, to clarify these points here.)

According to the standard version, Kant taught that we understand the world by reflecting on our various experiences of it—so far, so very empiricist. That understanding, he went on to say, is always structured by categories we already have in our minds: categories such as “cause-and-effect” that, as David Hume famously pointed out, cannot actually be witnessed but must always be inferred. Our interpretations of our experiences—the conceptualizing of our intuitions or perceptions—are always informed by these innate ideas of ours, these a priori categories.

This claim is standard textbook stuff, and Wolterstorff has no quarrel with it. What Wolterstorff looks for in Kant, however, is the closely related, but different, assertion that Kant also believed that our very apprehension of the world, our immediate sensing of it, is itself always a composite of impressions and those categories. The categories don’t come later, as tools to help us make sense of our impressions (as empiricists, such as John Locke, typically claimed). They are right there working immediately to give shape to our very intuitions, our instant apprehension of things.

As a sometime philosophy student, I confess that I could never form a clear mental picture of what Kant was supposedly talking about here. How could our categories instantly govern our immediate perceptions? But Kant is notoriously difficult to understand, so I submitted to my betters and not only dutifully recorded that that is what Kant said, I later reported to my own students that that is what Kant said.

Nick Wolterstorff, however, noticed the same problem and instead chased it down. As he recently told me in email correspondence, “It was a matter of getting things right for my students.” So he read Kant and the main secondary literature on Kant and came to the conclusion that Kant did not, in fact, make this latter claim. Anywhere. The textbooks were just wrong.

This essay of Nick’s, as I intimated, in fact packs a one-two punch. For he not only corrects Kantians and Kant textbooks, but he then goes on to correct Kant—or, at least, to critique the author of the most famous “critiques” in history. Nick questioned Kant on whence those famous categories come. Nick found Kant rather blithely claiming that they come from our human nature. We just know them because we’re human.

This sounded wrong to Nick, as it sounds wrong to me. It’s rather as if because I am a Canadian I somehow have innate and correct ideas about what it means to be and, more particularly, to think like a Canadian. And that can’t be right. When Nick tried to find anywhere Kant actually argues for how we somehow have these innate ideas by dint of merely being human, he finds the cupboard bare: “When we open the box, we find nothing there” (61).

A few thoughts occurred to me, then, upon finishing this quietly startling essay. Here’s one. Kant, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, has been systematically misrepresented by almost everyone almost everywhere on one of the most basic ideas in one of his most important discourses: epistemology. Worse, he is actually wrong—or, what is almost as bad, he makes an unsubstantiated assertion—about another one of his most fundamental ideas in this discussion.

We thus come to Stackhouse Speculation #1: that God allows every thinker, and especially the most eminent, to make at least one important mistake so that we will attribute infallibility to no one but Jesus. Yes, it took a philosopher as conscientious, as curious, and as courageous as Nicholas Wolterstorff to expose these two errors in Kant. But once you see them, you can’t forget them.

The scope of Speculation #1 isn’t confined only to the textbook greats, however. A few years ago, on a panel of the American Academy of Religion celebrating a new book by our mutual friend Miroslav Volf, Nick mused aloud about the strangeness of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I recall the gist of Nick’s musing along the following lines. You and I don’t demand an atoning payment when we forgive someone. We just forgive them. Why doesn’t God do that? Why does anyone have to suffer, let alone Jesus Christ himself suffer and die in our stead?

I was taken aback, sitting among the hundreds in the audience. How could my philosophical hero—and, I am grateful to say, my mentor in philosophical matters—make such a basic theological mistake?

I hurried up to Nick afterward and asked if I had heard him aright. He confirmed that I had. So on the spot I made up a little story that I have since used in various writings to get across the idea of the necessity of substitutionary atonement. It goes like this.

Five-year-old Trevor is told by Mommy that he is to sit quietly on the dining room floor and color in his coloring book (and nowhere else) while Mommy makes a short phone call. Trevor is happy to comply, and Mommy steps into the kitchen to talk to her friend.

The call takes longer than Mommy expects, and Trevor becomes bored with his book. Looking up, he spies the white Irish linen tablecloth gracing the dining table nearby. Convinced that he could improve it, little Trevor clambers up onto a chair and sets to work with his crayons.

A shriek from Mommy interrupts his art, and Trevor instantly realizes he has transgressed. He jumps down from his chair, runs to Mommy, and buries his teary face in her lap as he apologizes over and over for his misdemeanor. Mommy is a far better parent than am I and immediately forgives him. Mommy hugs Trevor, they are reconciled, and all is well. No one needs to suffer.

So far, then, Wolterstorff’s view. But what about the tablecloth? That’s what atonement is centrally about: repairing the damage, repaying the debt, serving the time.

Nick listened, then nodded, and murmured something affirmative. I left him then because other friends had lined up to greet him. But it left me thinking that it is a strange world in which John Stackhouse has anything corrective to say to the likes of Nicholas Wolterstorff, whom I had heretofore been strongly inclined not only to revere (which I do to this day) but to idolize.

Now it’s a step down, as Nick would agree, from Immanuel Kant to Nicholas Wolterstorff—but, in my view, it’s not a big step. By contrast, it is a huge plummet down a cliff face from Wolterstorff to the likes of Stackhouse. And yet God allows the latter to correct the former. Stackhouse himself, moreover, is corrected with irritating frequency by his students (and family members, and friends, and strangers on social media…). None of us escape fallibility.

Thus Stackhouse Speculation #2: God lets each of us, and not only great thinkers, not see things we are in fact capable of seeing because the combination of our errors and others’ correction of those errors accomplishes more good than if we were, in fact, always correct on our own. Someone telling me something I might have seen for myself provides an occasion for humility for me; for affirmation for the other; for camaraderie and interdependence for us both; and for gratitude to the Source of All Good. Such a fact also reminds us to test everything, to maintain an appropriate critical attitude at all times and toward everyone, treating no one but the Holy Spirit as an oracle.

That’s quite a lot of good packed into encounters that are less “efficient” than would be the case if each of us got everything right all the time. It points us once more to the Providence of God that uses all sorts of things, including intellectual lacunae and outright mistakes, to produce lasting and important good.

Reflecting on this essay of Wolterstorff’s on Kant led me to another set of questions, however. Nick went to all this trouble to analyze portions of one of the most notoriously difficult philosophers in our history because he suspected (against considerable odds) that the textbooks were wrong about something pretty basic, and that Kant himself was dangerously vulnerable about something else equally basic. Nick found he was right, wrote it up, and published it.

And, so far as either he or I know, the world of Kantian exposition spun on, unmoved by his corrections. How is he supposed to feel about that? How are any of us supposed to feel about scholarship worthily rendered that seems to make little or no impact? That’s what I want to write about next.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr. is the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada. His most recent book is Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford).


  • C. S. Lewis offered a parallel critique of Kant in THE PILGRIM’S REGRESS, a page with Lewis’ heading “The Moral Imperative does not fully understand itself” (Book 2, chapter III; page 30 in the Wade Annotated Edition).

  • David McAnulty Ph. D. says:

    Hard to believe the author believes the tablecloth story was effective (as a defense of substitutionary atonement) & worth repeating. I suspect Wolterstorff’s murmuring was hardly agreement. The take away from the entire article seems to be that great intellect does not protect one from the blind spots of ideology. Perhaps an already well known fact?

    • David McAnulty, PhD says:

      This post was a bit impulsive and snarky. I apologize. So, here is my more measured response. I found the article interesting and challenging as a non-philosopher who teaches about the history of psychological thought, in that it reminded me to be cautious of others interpretations, even well established ones, of famous thinkers like Kant (who are particularly challenging to read for non-philosophers). Wolterstorff’s example in taking his teaching seriously is helpful and a higher call. Likewise, the author’s reminder that even great minds can have less than well developed ideas that may require push back is helpful. It is true I did not find the tablecloth story particularly convincing, and found myself incredulous about its ability to persuade anyone who did not already espouse that particular atonement view, since (as a non-theologian) I find substitutionary (like ransom and other) atonement motifs in the NT to be helpful metaphors, but simply that. Metaphors that do not describe the *actual* mechanism of Christ’s redeeming work. When the full weight of an elaborate theology of atonement is placed on these limited and incomplete metaphors, I fear they break down. But, I am aware this is a long, long debate between Reformed and non-Reformed theologians that is likely to go on, and one which I have very limited qualifications for.