Summary of “Advice to Christian Philosophers” by Alvin Plantinga

Academia can be a wild place. Despite what people might think, there are often entire paradigm shifts between generations in academic circles. This has happened in philosophy – just two generations or so ago, things were wildly different, and things now are different from one generation ago. I now want to summarize famed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s article in the journal Faith and Philosophy [1] that mentions these changes and gives sound advice to philosophers living and working in the midst of that change.

Keep in mind that this article was written in 1984. Thus, when I write now, I mean during the timeframe the author wrote the article. Some parts of the article reference how things are right now, so to speak. I’ll use now in the context of 1984, just as the author did. At the end, I’ll speak to the developments referenced by the author in the modern day, and my impression of the extent to which the advice of Plantinga has or hasn’t been followed in the modern day… at least as far as I can determine from my perspective.

For the article I am summarizing, see [1]. Pretty much everything from the ‘summary’ section is my paraphrase of the main ideas I take from Plantinga’s article.

Summary of Plantinga’s Main Points

Christianity has been on the rise in academia. In the 1940s and 1950s, pretty much all of academic philosophy was profoundly anti-Christian in its views. Not in the discriminatory sense, but in that it rejected probably every single truth a Christian believes. At this time, philosophers largely worked within a framework called logical positivism. We don’t need to go all the way into what this framework was, but it will suffice to say that on this view, sentences like “God exists” were treated as literal nonsense. The claims of religions like Christianity and Islam that “there is such a being as God” were not even given the dignity of a claim – they were treated as a meaningless combination of words. But now (~30 year later) things are different. There are large philosophical societies dedicated to Christian philosophy, filled with openly Christian philosophers working both at Christian universities and secular universities. Christianity is on the rise in academia.

But just because it is on the rise doesn’t mean it has arrived at a reasonable destination yet. This new generation of Christian thinkers is, so to speak, the first generation. We have only taken a few steps, we still have much to learn about operating in the current American/Western culture. We will look at a few ways that Christian philosophers are still being treated differently from, or at least thinking differently from, secular philosophers and how that ought to change. Also, it is worth noting that this advice could apply equally well to Muslim, Jewish, or deistic philosophers, we here we will discuss Christianity specifically.

To use Plantinga’s own words, most of academic philosophy has “next to nothing to offer the student intent on coming to see how to be a Christian in philosophy – how to assess and develop the bearing of Christianity on matters of current philosophical concern, and how to think about those philosophical matters of interest to the Christian community.” [1, pg. 254]

Plantinga has two suggestions for Christian philosophers, summarized in the following quotation:

“First, Christian philosophers and Christian intellectuals generally must display more autonomy – more independence of the rest of the philosophical world. Second, Christian philosophers must display more integrity – integrity in the sense of integral wholeness, or oneness, or unity, being all of one piece… And necessary to these two is a third: Christian courage, or boldness, or strength, or perhaps Christian self-confidence. We Christian philosophers must display more faith, more trust in the Lord; we must put on the whole armor of God.” [1, pg. 254]

We Must Be More Autonomous

Why should these even need to be discussed? Again, Plantinga provides the explanation. In his words,

“Philosophy is a social enterprise; and our standards and assumptions – they parameters within which we practice our craft – are set by our mentors and by the great contemporary centers of philosophy.” [1, pg. 255]

In other words, we tend to think in the same ways as those who taught us. This of course has its benefits – after all those who came before us were smart people – but we should also have the ability to break through those conceptual and psychological barriers when necessary.

The inability to get over this boundary is very harmful. Just like any other group, Christians long to understand the world through the lens of what they already believe. And Christian philosophers have a crucial role in helping the rest of the church to learn to think about the world around them. This isn’t a call for Christians to retreat from important philosophical issues of the secular world – far from it, Christians should be involved in those. But this does mean that Christians should be involved in issues of special importance to Christians. Not in an isolationist sense though.

Consider politics as an analogy. If you follow a particular politician, you will find them engaged in (at least) two main lines of work. Firstly, you will find them debating and working with members of opposing political parties. Secondly, you will find them debating and working with members of the same political party. Both of these tasks are important. For instance if you are a Democratic senator, then part of your job is to work alongside Republicans as best you can to get good things done for the country and part of your job is to work within the Democratic party itself to bring the whole party in the direction you think it should go.

In the same way, Christian philosophers can and should work both within secular philosophy (analogous to working alongside all politicians, friend or foe) and should work on specifically Christian matters (analogous to working alongside your own political party). For example, shouldn’t we reflect more on God? Who is God, and what is He like? What does the Bible tell us, and what doesn’t it tell us? How can we think about all these issues? What of the story of salvation, with Jesus dying for our sins? Is this fair? How do we understand this story? These are all discussions where Christians can learn greatly from a Christian philosopher who has thought about these questions in light of their education in philosophy.

We Must Be More Unified

This one is fairly simple, and follows out of the first. There shouldn’t be debate within the realm of Christian philosophers regarding whether or not Christian philosophy should be done. Furthermore, there ought not be disagreement between Christian philosophers on the absolute broadest of issues in the areas that we disagree with most secular perspectives. Christian philosophers should, in this sense, be supportive of one another. Not that all Christian philosophers must agree on everything – just like secular philosophy, there will always be disagreements. But there ought to be a fundamental level on which Christian philosophers are unified. Just as the body of Christ is unified on the fundamental level, so ought Christian philosophers be unified.

This would equally apply to any other community – say Mormon philosophers or Muslim philosophers. Both the previous points are natural consequences of what it means to be part of a family – for Christian theology clearly teaches us that all who follow Christ are brothers and sisters. I’m sure Mormonism and Islam have similar ideas of community between believers, even if they don’t use the language of family.

We Must Have More Courage

This point flows out of the first two. Both of the first two points require disagreeing with the ‘mainstream’. Just as in any other break from the mainstream, a certain kind of courage is required here. The word strength could be equally applicable. When someone takes this step, resistance on both intellectual and social levels is sure to follow. That’s just how society is. But since the Christian holds his convictions dear to his heart as the truth, he is justified in holding to those convictions and standing by them publicly, even in academic work.

An Example: Verificationism

This has to do with the “Verifiability Criterion of Meaning”, as it is often called in philosophy. The logical positivists of forty or so years ago claimed that if a sentence is not verifiable using your senses (usually just the five) or elementary logic, then the sentence has literally no meaning. According to this “criterion”, sentences like “God created the universe” aren’t true or false at all – they literally don’t mean anything. The person who says “God created the universe” might as well have picked totally random words out of a dictionary. It is like saying “sell qualification climate miss” (a randomly generated set of words) – it just doesn’t mean anything at all. Or, to use a meaningless phrase from Alice and Wonderland, “T’was brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gymbol in the wabe”. According to the logical positivists, all sentences about religion are as meaningless as that.

This position certainly carried a very academic air to it – it feels sophisticated and modern on an emotional level. And yet, as a Christian philosopher, it is completely unacceptable. The Christian philosopher is, in the first place, fully entitled to think about the nature of God even if other people think they are speaking nonsense. Secondly, the Christian philosopher has the right to point out that sentences like “God created the universe” or “God exists” obviously have meaning – the Verifiability Criterion is just obviously wrong. Why should a Christian cave to the opinion of the non-Christian masses if that opinion is obviously wrong? By now, this viewpoint has been thrown in the trashcan of history – and rightly so – but why were not more Christians willing to speak out against it in its heyday in the 30s and 40s? We should have had a unified voice against it, and we should have had the courage and strength to speak out against the public opinion.

Other Examples: Knowledge and Persons

Plantinga’s article also has discussion on examples of the intersection with theism and the theory of knowledge and the theory of persons (i.e. what is knowledge, and what is a person). Discussing these would make the summary too lengthy – the main points are already all discussed. So, if my reader wants to see what Plantinga has to say in those areas, they can go for it. Otherwise, we move on to conclude the discussion.

Conclusion of Article

In rereading Plantinga’s paper, I find the following segments to be the best summary of what Plantinga wants to say.

“Many Christian philosophers appear to think of themselves qua philosophers as engaged with the atheist and agnostic philosopher in a common search for the correct philosophical position vis a vis the question whether there is such a person as God. Of course the Christian philosopher will have his own private conviction on the point; he will believe, of course, that indeed there is such a person as God. But he will think, or be inclined to think, or half inclined to think that as a philosopher he has no right to this position unless he is able to show that it follows from, or is probable, or justified with respect to premises accepted by all parties to the discussion – theist, agnostic, and atheist alike. Furthermore, he will be half inclined to think he has no right, as a philosopher, to positions that presuppose the existence of God, if he can’t show that belief to be justified in this way. What I want to urge is that the Christian philosophical community ought not to think of itself as engaged in this common effort to determine the probability or philosophical plausibility of belief in God. The Christian philosopher quite properly starts from the existence of God, and presupposes it in philosophical work, whether or not he can show it to be probable or plausible with respect to premises accepted by all philosophers, or most philosophers, or most philosophers at the great contemporary centers of philosophy.” [1, pg. 260-261]

“The Christian philosopher does indeed have a responsibility to the philosophical world at large; but his fundamental responsibility is to the Christian community, and finally to God.” [1, pg. 262]

“Now my point is not that Christian philosophers must follow Calvin [a theologian] here. My point is that the Christian philosopher has a right (I should say a duty) to work at his own projects – projects set by the beliefs of the Christian community of which he is a part. The Christian philosophical community must work out the answers to its questions; and both the questions and the appropriate ways of working out their answers may presuppose beliefs rejected at most of the leading centers of philosophy. But the Christian is proceeding quite properly in starting from these beliefs, even if they are so rejected. He is under no obligation to confine his research projects to those pursued at those centers, or to pursue his own projects on the basis of the assumptions that prevail there.” [1, pg. 263]

On These Developments in Christian Philosophy

The article I am discussing was written by Plantinga in 1984. I am writing this post in 2021, which of course is 37 years later. We are about as far from this article as the article is from the dark days of logical positivism it references in its introduction. How have things gone since then? Have philosophers taken his advice? I think they have – to conclude, I’ll discuss this briefly with some examples.

We Are More Autonomous

There has certainly been an increase in Christian perspectives within secular philosophy. But has there been more autonomy? I think there has been. In my experience with philosophy, I have encountered plenty of Christian philosophy dedicated to specifically Christian matters. Perhaps the best way to show what I mean is to give examples of serious Christian philosophers who have written on topics of both secular interest and specifically Christian interest.

The proliferation of examples could be continued. I’m not trying to be comprehensive here. My point was to select a few big names from the philosopical conversations I’ve been a part of and to point out that those people have all done significant philosophical writing on expressly Christian topics. This means progress. We’ve done well.

We Are More Unified

This one is not as positive as many others. There is, in the Christian community at large, quite a bit of vitriolic disagreement that isn’t appropriate (although some of it might be). There are many minor disagreements that are treated as if they were much bigger than they are. This may be rampant among Christians in general, but the situation is a lot better in academia. There may not be agreement necessarily, but there is unity of purpose nonetheless. Each Christian philosopher I have read or listened to appears quite clearly to be pursuing God as truly as they can, even if they sometimes arrive at some different conclusions. This is a wonderful development and I hope this attitude spreads to the church at large.

We Are More Courageous

This one also isn’t fully positive. If a person has misguided motives and supreme courage, then the result can be horrifying. Take Hitler as an obvious example – for most of his public life, you couldn’t accuse Hitler of being cowardly – he was quite bold in his proclamations. But his motives and desires were obviously misguided, and the result was horrifying. Sadly, there are Christians and people who claim to be Christian but likely aren’t who are in a less extreme but analogous position – people of great courage but whose goals are misguided. But there are also plenty of Christians who exhibit great courage and who have pure motives – those who do ministry in countries in the Middle East that want to execute them would be amazing examples of such people. There are less obvious but equally real examples of such courage in academia as well – the willingness of Christian academics to enter into recorded debates with opposing views that I have seen serve as a wonderful example – see debaters like William Lane Craig and James White if you want to see fearless, courageous Christian debaters.

Conclusion

I think Plantinga’s advice has been taken seriously and that we have followed through on that advice. I only hope we continue to follow through on that advice. By reaching into deeply Christian philosophical discussions in a unified and courageous manner, we can educate the Christian community and raise up an even stronger generation of new Christian academics, both in philosophy and in other fields – like my own field of mathematics. I’d love one day to write something like Plantinga’s article for the mathematical community – hopefully one day such an article will be widely read in the mathematical community. But until then (or until I find that article if it doesn’t exist), the Christian community can continue to work towards that point.

References

[1] Plantinga, Alvin. “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy, vol. 1, no. 3, 1984, pp. 253–271., doi:10.5840/faithphil19841317.

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