Why Philosophy? Why Talbot?
by William Lane Craig
In this issue
- Why Philosophy? Why Talbot?
- Bioethics and the Pastor
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus News
- Faculty Activities
In 1986, after teaching philosophy of religion for seven years at a well-known evangelical seminary, I found myself out of a job. The Academic Dean, convinced that Philosophy of Religion was not an integral part of a seminary education and eager to divert funds into the new doctoral program in theology, persuaded the President to go directly to the Board and have the department closed and the M.A. in Philosophy degree abolished. Seven years later, Talbot School of Theology opened its doors to the first students in its new M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Was this an incredible blunder on Talbot’s part, a failure of administration and faculty to understand the purpose of a seminary education? Or were they inspired by a different vision that discerned more clearly the strategic role played by philosophy in the task of theological education? Why philosophy? Why Talbot? Let’s take those questions one at a time.
Let me suggest three reasons why philosophical study ought to play an integral part in theological training.
First, Christian philosophy is vital to transforming our post-Christian cultural milieu. In America we now find ourselves living in a post-Christian culture that is increasingly coarse, superficial, promiscuous, and profane. Beneath it lies the widespread conviction of religious relativism. There is no one true religion, and to assert that there is to expose oneself as arrogant, coercive—even evil. In the absence of objective truth, religious belief becomes a purely private matter of subjective feelings.
Such a cultural context is inimical to the mission of the Church. In order to speak the Gospel effectively, the Church needs an intellectual milieu where the Gospel can be heard as an objectively true alternative; otherwise it will either be dismissed as superstition or appropriated only as “true for me but not for you.”
The Church thus faces, as Charles Malik emphasized in his inaugural address at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, two tasks in our evangelism, saving the soul and saving the mind; that is to say, not only converting people spiritually but converting them intellectually as well. And the Church is lagging dangerously behind with regard to this second task. Malik declared,
I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. But intellectual nurture cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People who are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is vacated and abdicated to the enemy. Who among evangelicals can stand up to the great secular scholars on their own terms of scholarship? Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does the evangelical mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode in the great universities of Europe and America that stamp our entire civilization with their spirit and ideas? For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.1
These words hit like a hammer. Evangelicals really have been living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence. The average Christian does not realize that there is an intellectual war going on in the universities and in the professional journals and in the scholarly societies. Christianity is being attacked from all sides as bigoted or irrational, and millions of students, our future generation of leaders, have absorbed this viewpoint.
It is the awesome task of Christian philosophers to help turn the intellectual tide back to a milieu in which Christian faith can be regarded as an intellectually credible alternative. Since philosophy is foundational to every disciple of the university, philosophy is the most strategic discipline to be captured for Christ. Malik himself realized this. He emphasized,
It will take a different spirit altogether to overcome this great danger of anti-intellectualism. For example, I say this different spirit, so far as philosophy alone—the most important domain for thought and intellect—is concerned, must see the tremendous value of spending an entire year doing nothing but poring intensely over the Republic or the Sophist of Plato, or two years over the Metaphysics or the Ethics of Aristotle, or three years over the City of God of Augustine.
This is not a popular message for seminaries. J. Gresham Machen in his article “Christianity and Culture” observed that “many would the seminaries combat error by attacking it as it is taught by its popular exponents” instead of confusing students “with a lot of …names unknown outside the walls of the university.” But, Machen insisted, the scholarly method of procedure
is based simply upon a profound belief in the pervasiveness of ideas. What is to-day matter of academic speculation begins to-morrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate. So as Christians we should try to mould the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity.2
Like Malik, Machen also believed that “The chief obstacle to the Christian religion to-day lies in the sphere of the intellect,” and that it must be attacked in that sphere. “The Church is perishing to-day through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it.”
Second, Christian Philosophy is an integral part of training for Christian ministry. What is ironic about the attitude that doubts philosophy’s rightful or important place at a seminary is that it is precisely our pastors and evangelists who are in need of this training. Machen’s article was originally given as a speech entitled, “The Scientific Preparation of the Minister.” A model for us here is a man like John Wesley, who was at once a spirit-filled revivalist and an Oxford-educated scholar. In 1756 Wesley delivered “An Address to the Clergy,” which I wish all future ministers would read before commencing their seminary studies. In discussing what sort of abilities a minister ought to have, Wesley distinguished between natural gifts and acquired abilities. And it’s extremely instructive to look at the abilities which Wesley thought a minister ought to acquire. One of them is a basic grasp of philosophy. He challenged his audience to ask themselves,
Am I a tolerable master of the sciences? Have I gone through the very gate of them, logic? . . . . Do I understand metaphysics; if not the depths of the Schoolmen, the subtleties of Scotus or Aquinas, yet the first rudiments, the general principles, of that useful science? Have I conquered so much of it, as to clear my apprehension and range my ideas under proper heads; so much as enables me to read with ease and pleasure, as well as profit, Dr. Henry Moore’s Works, Malbranche’s “Search after Truth,” and Dr. Clarke’s “Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God?”3
Wesley’s vision of a pastor is remarkable: a gentleman, skilled in the Scriptures and conversant with history, philosophy, and the science of his day. How do the pastors graduating from our seminaries compare to this model?
I can personally testify to the immense practicality and even indispensability of philosophical training for a ministry of evangelism. My ministry involves not just scholarly work, but speaking evangelistically on university campuses with groups like Campus Crusade for Christ. Again and again, I see the practical value of my philosophical studies in reaching students for Christ. The conventional wisdom is that “You can’t use arguments to bring people to Christ.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this said. I suspect those who say this just don’t do a lot of campus evangelism. The fact is that there is tremendous interest out there among unbelievers in hearing a rational presentation and defense of the Gospel.
Very often I’ll be invited onto a campus where a local professor has a reputation for eating Christians for lunch in his classes, and we’ll challenge him to a public debate on some issue like “Does God Exist?” or “Christianity vs. Humanism,” or “Who Was Jesus?” or some such topic. And I find that hundreds and sometimes even thousands of students will come out to hear these debates. Frankly, I don’t know how one could minister effectively in a public way on our university campuses without training in philosophy.
Third, Christian philosophy is an important aid to spiritual formation. Our churches are filled with people whose minds, as Christians, are going to waste. J. P. Moreland, in his challenging book Love Your God with All Your Mind, has called them “empty selves.” An empty self is inordinately individualistic, infantile, and narcissistic. It is passive, sensate, busy and hurried, incapable of developing an interior life. In what is perhaps the most devastating passage in his book, JP asks us to envision a church filled with such people. He asks,
What would be the theological understanding… the evangelistic courage, the articulate cultural penetration of such a church?... If the interior life does not really matter all that much, why spend the time… trying to develop an interior, intellectual, spiritually mature life? If someone is basically passive, he or she will just not make the effort to read, preferring instead to be entertained. If a person is sensate in orientation, music, magazines filled with pictures, and visual media in general will be more important than mere words on a page or abstract thoughts. If one is hurried and distracted, one will have little patience for theoretical knowledge and too short of an attention span to stay with an idea while it is being carefully developed…
And if someone is overly individualistic, infantile, and narcissistic, what will that person read, if he or she reads at all? Such a person will read Christian self-help books that are filled with self-serving content,… simplistic moralizing, a lot of stories and pictures, and inadequate diagnosis of issues that place no demand on the reader…. What will not be read are books that equip people to… develop a well-reasoned, theological understanding of the Christian religion, and fill their role in the broader kingdom of God…. In such a context, the church will be tempted to measure her success largely in terms of numbers—numbers achieved by cultural accommodation to empty selves. In this way… the church will become her own grave digger; her means of short-term “success” will turn out to be the very thing that marginalizes her in the long run.4
What makes this description so devastating is that we don’t have to imagine such a church; rather this is in fact an apt description of far too many American evangelical churches today. It’s no wonder, then, that despite its resurgence, evangelical Christianity has been so limited in its cultural impact.
Philosophical reflection is vital to recapturing the life of the mind in Christian discipleship and in the Church. In my own life I can testify that my worship of God is deeper precisely because of, not in spite of, my philosophical and theological studies. In every area I have intensely researched—creation, the resurrection, divine omniscience, divine eternity—my appreciation of God’s truth and my awe of His person have become more profound. I’m excited about future study because of the deeper appreciation I am sure it will bring me of God’s person and work. Christian faith is not an apathetic faith, a brain-dead faith, but a living, inquiring faith. As St. Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding.
To summarize: Christian philosophy is vital to transforming our post-Christian cultural milieu; it is an integral part of training for Christian ministry; and it is an important aid to spiritual formation.
If that answers the question, Why philosophy?, then it remains to be asked, Why Talbot? Why should Talbot be involved in training people in philosophy?
Well, if it’s true that Christian philosophy is an integral part of training for Christian ministry and is an important aid for spiritual formation, then obviously it belongs at a School of Theology. If it is our goal to help equip Christian men and women to be all they can for Christ, then we shall want to give them this training.
But beyond that, Talbot has a special contribution to make. We desperately need Christian scholars who can, as Malik said, compete with non-Christian thinkers in their own fields of expertise on their own terms of scholarship. It can be done. There is, for example, a revolution going on right now in Anglo-American philosophy. In recent decades Christian philosophers have been coming out of the closet and defending the truth of the Christian worldview with philosophically sophisticated arguments in the finest secular journals and professional societies. And the face of American philosophy has been changed as a result. In fact, many of America’s finest philosophers at our most prestigious universities are outspoken Christians. According to the respected philosopher Roderick Chisholm, himself no evangelical, the reason atheism was so influential a generation ago was because the brightest philosophers were atheists. But today, he says, “the brightest people include theists, using a kind of tough-minded intellectualism” which was previously lacking on their side of the debate. This sort of scholarship represents the best hope for the revolution that Malik and Machen envisioned, and its true impact for the cause of Christ will only be felt in the next generation.
Unfortunately, if the truth be told, this Christian revolution in philosophy is not always evangelical in orientation. Many Christian philosophers could not properly be called “evangelical,” and there is a great deal of heterodoxy with regard to doctrines concerning the incarnation, atonement, the soul, etc. One of the most visible examples of this tendency is so-called “openness of God” theology; another would be the trend to deny the existence of an immaterial soul. It is vitally important to the cause of Christ that there exist a graduate program in philosophy which is unequivocally committed to evangelical theology and the philosophical distinctives which that implies. Talbot has the only such program that I know of. This is it!
Moreover, the Talbot program is very good at achieving this goal. Talbot has assembled a team of formidable philosophers committed to an evangelical perspective. They model the synthesis of first-rate minds and a heart aflame for Christ and His Kingdom. I know that these men constantly turn down job offers from other institutions because of their commitment to Talbot. I had to smile when I learned recently that the very seminary which years ago eliminated its department and degree in Philosophy of Religion, is now anxious to re-open it and have sought to lure men from our department as faculty, but to no avail.
I believe that God has His hand on this program at Talbot. This is God’s doing, and He is accomplishing something of major importance here. Our graduates are being placed in the finest doctoral programs in philosophy and are even solicited by them. We now have nearly 100 Talbot philosophy grads who have gone on to pursue PhDs in some of the finest universities around the country, and they are excelling in those programs. A number have earned their doctorates, and are in faculty positions at both Christian and secular universities, and seminaries. Think of the impact for Christ that these young scholars will have as in universities, colleges, and seminaries around the country! Moreover, one of the most exciting recent developments is the moving of the offices of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its new journal Philosophia Christi to Biola. This is the only evangelical journal of philosophy in the world, and it is first-rate. Equally important, it is here at Talbot. My aspiration and goal is to help make Talbot a mecca of evangelical philosophical thinking that will be transformative in the Church and the culture.
In sum, what is happening here at Talbot in the field of Christian philosophy is vitally important to the Church and to her mission. I consider it an honor to be aligned with this work of God in our day.
1 The address has been widely reprinted, for example, in William Lane Craig and Paul M. Gould, eds., The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar: Redeeming the Soul, Redeeming the Mind (Crossway Books, 2007). Malik’s address may be viewed at http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/BGCdedication.htm.
2 J. Gresham Machen, “The Scientific Preparation of the Minister,” delivered September 20, 1912, at the opening of the one hundred and first session of Princeton Theological Seminary. It was first published in The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 11, 1913. Available at http://www.cambridgestudycenter.com/artilces/Machen2.htm [sic].
3 J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (NavPress, 1997), pp. 9-4.