On Being a Christian Philosopher: Short Course on Intellectual Virtue

I did not set out to set the world straight as a philosopher. Journalism was my vocation, or so I thought. Then, after failing a typing test at the University of Oregon, I changed my major to philosophy. Providence moves in odd ways, but I am grateful. Nearly forty years later, I have learned a thing or two about philosophy and philosophizing.

Philosophers need long periods of time to be alone and ponder things. This best suits introverts or those with that tendency. They must fight for and prize this solitude. Many pastimes, then, will fall away, as they frown in their studies or bedrooms, hunched over an article or book. If an aspiring thinker struggles with this, it does not mean she is not fit for philosophy. Discipline, after all, may be applied to any good thing to which one is rightly attracted. Max Pickard’s classic, The World of Silence, may prove helpful.

Philosophers, however, also need comradery—like-minded and supportive thinkers with whom they can make common cause. The discipline, professionally speaking, it is a field of cut-throat cognition. Attend any philosophy conference and you will see the sharks circling, ready to attack any argument they deem wrong. Arguments need analysis and critique, to be sure; but much of philosophy is one-up-man-ship. In 1999, I attended a lecture by Alvin Plantinga, one of the world’s preeminent philosophers. One respondent said, “I agree with much in Professor Plantinga’s work, but I will pass over that and say what I don’t like.”

But nurture is nourishing to philosophers. Christians in particular should offer loving support to one another. Fellow students, elders, and peers should provide a community for encouragement and critique and prayer. I first interacted with Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in about 1990. He kindly gave me detailed comments on a paper concerning the mind-body problem. Years later, J. P. is more of a peer (but still my superior) and he continues to offer advice and heart-felt encouragement—even in a short email. I meet philosopher David Werther in graduate school in 1985. We went on to get our doctorates. David has read and commented on a number of my books and papers, most significantly my lengthy book, Christian Apologetics.

Philosophers should remember that academic trends should not dominate one’s priorities in scholarship and teaching. As Plantinga wrote years ago in “Advise to Christian Philosophers,” Christian philosophers should keep in mind the needs of the church in their philosophizing. Since philosophers are trained in critical thinking and in the history of ideas (although some departments sadly neglect this), they afford a tonic to counter shabby thinking and intellectual flabbiness. I have found that theology often needs the discipline that Christian philosophers can offer. While some theologians, such as Gordon Lewis and Millard Erickson, are philosophically savvy, many are not; and instead revel in continental philosophy to their own peril. The analytic theology movement is a heartening antidote here.

It may sound haughty or self-serving, but philosophy, I wager, uniquely serves Christian apologetics. Some of the best apologists today are philosophers: J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and others. Epistemology especially sniffs out bad arguments for and against Christianity and finds the best intellectual meat to chew on. (My apologies to vegetarian philosophers out there.) Philosophers, at their best, can take large swaths of prose and turn them into premise-conclusion arguments ready for analysis. They are skilled at getting to the logical point and addressing it rigorously. All these skills—and more—contribute to a muscular apologetic. There is far more to philosophy than apologetics, but philosophy rightly practiced through the power of the Holy Spirit, is a strong and sharp jawbone with which to slay anti-Christian arguments. Paul’s comments, while addressed to matters of church discipline and theology, should challenge philosophers:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Paul combines the urgency of argumentation—“demolishing arguments”—with “divine power” for the purpose of “waging war.” This shouts that intellectual engagement for the Kingdom of God is not merely a matter of intellectual argument. In Did the Resurrection Happen? Anthony Flew, an atheist at the time, granted Paul’s intellectual powers by saying “he was an outstanding philosophical mind.”

We must intellectually stand against the armaments of spiritual error (See Ephesians 6:10-18). Our environment is human, but also angelic and demonic—all under the jurisdiction of God. Therefore, we pray and work, fighting for the knowledge of God in a world of deception, diversion, and decay.

Arguments are the philosopher’s forte, and I have not mentioned any argument forms in this essay; that will come in a future article. The soul of a philosopher should be formed—through right motives and good habits–for the marshalling of sound and timely arguments for the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) and for the greater glory of the God of all truth (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

8 thoughts

  1. Good article. As a scholar I have to do long periods of reading and writing. As a christian I do lots of praying and reading His word.

  2. “This best suits introverts or those with that tendency.”
    I’m a little worried about this: didn’t Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all develop their ideas in close communion with groups of like-minded thinkers? In fact, didn’t they consider this dialectic essential to philosophy?

    1. “Philosophers, however, also need comradery—like-minded and supportive thinkers with whom they can make common cause.”
      OK, I see you acknowledge this aspect!

  3. Prof. Groothius,

    This is a conversation that a colleague of mine here at Biola and I have often. He has a very keen penchant for analytical philosophy and is often lamenting the lack of rigorous philosophical thinking in theology today (especially in Reformed theology). I understand his point and while I don’t take a strong stance (yet) one way or the other, I have some reservations about the use of philosophy vis-a-vis systematic theology. First, I imagine that many Christian theologians fear a “blurring of the line” between the ministerial role of philosophy and a magisterial role. It seems that historically there could be a case made for having this concern. Second, how would you understand Paul’s concerns in passages like 1 Cor 1:18-31? Finally, do you have a recommendation of a Systematic Theology that in your opinion is also philosophically rigorous?

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