Today we’re pleased to feature a guest post from Christopher Reese. Chris is coordinator of international outreach for the Evangelical Philosophical Society, an editor with Moody Publishers, and author of the theology-philosophy-writing blog Cloud of Witnesses.
* * * * *
The last forty years have witnessed a renaissance in philosophy done by Christians and applied to important topics in theology and religion. One reason this is remarkable is that Christian philosophy of religion had nearly been vanquished in the decades between 1920 and 1960, due to the dominance in academic philosophy of the movement known as logical positivism.
This movement and its related “verification principle” insisted that only statements that were either true by definition (all bachelors are unmarried males) or empirically verifiable (helium is lighter than air) could be considered meaningful. This meant that theological beliefs like “God is love” or “Jesus is Lord” (which couldn’t be empirically verified) were literally without meaning—something akin to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Thus philosophical work on religious topics was marginalized and unable to gain a hearing in journals, books, or academic conferences.
However, criticisms of logical positivism began to mount and the edifice eventually crumbled. One especially hard-hitting critique was that the verification principle itself couldn’t be verified by its own criteria, meaning it was self-defeating. (On a related note, the scientism of the New Atheists has much in common with the old logical positivism.) Shortly thereafter, a small group of Christian philosophers began to make waves in academic philosophy, establishing a reputation for rigorous argumentation, original insights, and open commitment to (and often defense of) Christian theism.
Many believe the turning point came with the publication in 1967 of Alvin Plantinga’s book God and Other Minds, in which he argued that if one were rationally justified in believing in other minds, one was also rationally justified in believing in God. Plantinga went on to make landmark contributions in epistemology (The Warrant trilogy), metaphysics (The Nature of Necessity), and philosophy of religion (e.g., God, Freedom, and Evil). He was joined by other noted Christian philosophers such as William Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Robert Adams, and William Wainwright, who have all made significant contributions in their areas of specialization.
In 1978, several of these philosophers joined together to create the Society of Christian Philosophers and established the journal Faith and Philosophy, now one of the leading journals in philosophy of religion. The Evangelical Philosophical Society formed about the same time and founded the journal Philosophia Christi in 1999. Both groups hold frequent meetings and stimulate discussion on issues such as the existence and nature of God, philosophical perspectives on Christian doctrines, and the nature of the Christian life.
There are at least two significant benefits of this great renaissance in Christian philosophy. One is that specifically Christian approaches to philosophical topics have gained greater academic standing and respect. This, in turn, affords the Christian worldview more opportunities to be heard and taken seriously in the university (and in time, one hopes, the public square). Second, as in the past, through its philosophers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Edwards, the church has the opportunity to benefit from the rational, theological, and moral insights of committed believers thinking deeply about matters of faith. There is much we can learn from the fruit of their labor.