Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, October, 2013. 304 pp. Paperback, $22.99.
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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!
Lately, I’ve been really into philosophy. This is actually a return to an early love that I had kind of abandoned, rather than a new fling. Also, I’m prepping/studying for Ph.D entrance exams at the end of this month. Part of that has been doing a lot of reviewing, but also, it has been a lot of new reading.
Although I didn’t plan it like this, I bought for myself a copy of Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction back in the fall, before deciding to apply to do Ph.D work. I really liked this compact history of philosophy, so I later requested a review copy. Obviously, I could have reviewed it without a review copy. But, I couldn’t offer to give away my own personal copy now could I? Read on to get a feel for this book, and then at the bottom of the post, enter the giveaway.
Authors Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen have collaborated before. First, they offered an introduction to the Christian worldview, and then an overview of the biblical storyline (which is a very helpful book FYI). Now, the tackle the story of western philosophy, using two characters, Abby and Percy, who they introduced in The Drama of Scripture. Though kind of gimmicky, it is not obtrusive to have their fictional e-mail exchanges at the end of the chapters as Abby is supposedly studying at a Christian university and Percy at a secular school. It is imaginative if nothing else, but I would have been ok if it were left out.
As to the main contents of the book, the introductory chapter asks “Why philosophy?” 1 The authors answer that is important for apologetics, missional cultural engagement, Christian scholarship, and the Christian life. As they say early on,
Philosophy, from our perspective, is the attempt to discern the structure or order of creation, and to describe systematically what is subject to that order. The difference that a Christian philosophy makes is that the whole of life, apart from God, is studied as creation. (p. 3)
Accordingly, they see a primary motive in philosophy as “wonder,” and that animates their pursuit. In chapter 2, they move on to the question of how faith and philosophy relate. This leads naturally to a discussion of the relationship between worldview and philosophy. Ultimately, they see themselves working in the Augustinian tradition of Abraham Kuyper and his followers (p. 24). This means no subject of study is pursued neutrally, and that the correct mode of study is faith seeking understanding. Reading Scripture according to the rule of faith yields a biblical theology which produces a Christian worldview that is then the lens through which all other disciplines are pursued. In the tree-like diagram they draw, philosophy and theology are the first branches off the trunk of worldview/biblical theology (Scripture is the roots underground and faith is the soil).
From here, the story of western philosophy proper starts. Prior to that, the authors list their “major building blocks” in offering a Christian narrative telling of this story (p. 26):
- The origin of philosophy in its pagan form among the ancient Greeks
- The Christ even as the fulfillment of the Old Testament with its major implications for philosophy
- The synthesis of the gospel – for better and worse – with pagan Greek philosophy in the centuries following the time of Jesus and the establishment of the early church, as evidenced particularly in the works of Augustine (Plato) and Aquinas (Aristotle)
- The unraveling of this synthesis in the late Middle Ages and following centuries
- The emergence of modern, autonomous, humanist philosophy in the Enlightenment
- The development of distinctively Christian philosophy
Chapters 3 and 4 deal with point #1 (pre-Socratics and Plato/Aristotle), and the start and culmination of the medieval synthesis occupies chapters 5 and 6 respectively. In chapter 7 we are introduced to the impact of the Reformation, while chapter 8 segues to the Enlightenment. Modern philosophy takes two chapters to cover, and then postmodern philosophy takes the last installment of the story.
There is a turning point here toward Christian philosophy specifically in the final four chapters. First, we are introduced to key figures in the Catholic tradition. Then, we are given two chapters on Reformed Epistemology and the legacy of Alvin Plantinga (chapter 13) and Nicholas Wolterstorff (chapter 14). Finally, we are introduced to the distinction between Reformed Epistemology (primarily an American movement) and Reformational Philosophy (primarily a Continental movement). The authors identify with this latter stream, seeing it as the outworking of Kuyper’s legacy in modern Christian philosophy. Particularly of interest in Herman Dooyeweerd, as well as Dirk H. Th. Vollenhoven. That brings readers nicely up to speed in the present, and so with a brief conclusion, and an annotated further reading list, the book comes to an end.
While there are many strengths of this book (clear style; accessible size to average reader, engaging prose), I’m going to focus on the negatives, of which I think there are a few. First, while many of the main divisions in western philosophy had key figures profiled in their respective chapters (Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc.) no so figures are given extended treatment in the chapter on postmodern philosophy. I would have liked to see Foucault, Derrida, and maybe Rorty given more treatment. Certainly the authors are free to choose who to profile and who to leave out, but I felt this would have strengthened the presentation.
Second, I’m not the first to notice this, but a clear absence in the final chapters was a mention of the influence of Cornelius Van Til in Christian philosophy. I could perhaps understand his absence in a book like this, but when the authors spend time dealing with Dooyewerd and Vollenhoven and not even mention Van Til it seems a bit odd. Clearly Van Til was intentionally excluded, I’m just curious why. He doesn’t really fit in either the Reformed Epistemology/Reformation Philosophy (he predates the former but was writing during the same time as the figures in the latter), but he was an influential Christian philosopher/apologist that at least deserves mention. I would have liked extended interaction, but I can only really fault the authors for not commenting on his connection at all.
Lastly, a kind of an extension of the previous point, the explanation of Christian philosophy today was very narrow. I would have liked another chapter that covered influential Christian philosophers who are very modern, and perhaps even still writing, but that don’t fit into Reformed Epistemology/Reformational Philosophy camps. They hit on many of the main figures, but I think more could have been highlighted.
In the end, I wouldn’t let these negatives take away from the overall value of the book. I thought it was an enjoyable read, and obviously wanted to be able to offer a giveaway copy. It is a useful snapshot of Western philosophy and introduces many of the major thinkers and their ideas. If you’re interested in either beginning to study philosophy more seriously, or would just like a fresher that isn’t a 500 page textbook, this book is probably worth checking into.
- The correct answer is “why not?” ↩