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.