Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction

February 4, 2014 — 14 Comments

9780801039119Craig 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.

Overview

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):

  1. The origin of philosophy in its pagan form among the ancient Greeks
  2. The Christ even as the fulfillment of the Old Testament with its major implications for philosophy
  3. 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)
  4. The unraveling of this synthesis in the late Middle Ages and following centuries
  5. The emergence of modern, autonomous, humanist philosophy in the Enlightenment
  6. 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.

Strengths/Weaknesses

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.

Conclusion

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.

Giveaway


 

Notes:

  1. The correct answer is “why not?”

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

14 responses to Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction

  1. Probably the biggest reason why I’d like to study philosophy is in order to become a better apologist. Like your quote mentioned, it’s also important for cultural engagement, Christian scholarship, and Christian life. Furthermore, I just find it inherently fascinating; it tickles my nerdy fancy 😛

  2. Are you familiar with the methodological disagreement b/w Van Til and Dooyeweerd? My guess is that Goheen and Bartholomew hold a similar criticism: Van Til wasn’t “doing philosophy” (Dooyeweerd said Van Til’s method wasn’t truly transcendental, merely “transcendent.”). There are, as you well know, a lot of people that in principle say the same thing today, that Van Til was doing theology under the guise of apologetics.

    • I am, I actually mainly know of Dooyeweerd through Van Til (which I’ll fix at some point). I can understand not giving him exposition, but it seemed like he should have at least been referenced, even to just make the point you just did.

  3. I think philosophy will improve my critical thinking and clarity of writing.

  4. I think philosophy needs to be taught better so that people can see the underlying assumptions made by arguments

  5. Thanks for the review. These authors are pretty amazing, and it is good to see this conversations.

    I wondered, though: why do you tell people to buy it at amazon? Other real bookstores – including some that try to do business in light of the very multi-faceted philosophy promoted by these authors — try to make their living selling books. Amazon may have it (although you sure couldn’t talk to them about it) but there are other stores as well. Indie booksellers feel so hurt when like-minded book lovers imply that the porno-dealing, much reviled, faceless, publishing industry bully is the natural default place from which to order books. As a bookseller myself, my heart sinks when this exclusive link is offered, as if they are the only game in town.

    Thanks for your consideration. You might just want to add a line — or at your favorite bookstore” or “wherever fine books are sold” or even at the indiebound link that allows stewardly consumers to find a real store that they might want to support.

    • I usually include links to Westminster as well (and link to them more than Amazon), but when I made the template for this post, they didn’t have the book in stock.

      I could link to my local indie bookstore, but they don’t have it in stock either and they direct people to Amazon on their product page for it.

      I can see where you’re coming from. Westminster is actually my default to link to, I might consider adding the line you mention, or direct local people to the nearby indie store.

  6. By the way, your comment about Van Til is interesting — although I don’t know if your hunch is right. These are international authors — Bartholomew is from South Africa and Goheen is Canadian. They get their stuff from Dooyeweerd, an internationally known Dutch philosopher. Van Til, intense and important as he was to some of us, is of a slightly different school of thought, from a different geographic locale. He was influenced somewhat by Dooyeweerd, but being at Princeton and then Westminister, I’m not sure he stood in that tradition the way these authors do. I doubt if they drew on him knowingly and excluded him intentionally. Dooyeweerd was a continental philosophy proper and Van Til known in the US for apologetics. I’d love to know more if these authors drew on Van Til… You know Van Til, but they may not, much, and actually may not draw on him much. The Princeton/ Westminster Reformed orbit may not have reached to South Africa quite the way the Dutch Reformed did, so I suspect (although don’t know this) that they’d be surprised to hear they were swiping Van Til without admitting it. It may be that they end up sounding like him in some respects because they are Dooyweerdians.

    In any event, they are brilliant thinkers and Godly men, with a robust, full-orbed worldview, and this book on philosophy compliments their previous two that you mentioned, one on Scripture and one on worldview. Those are great for anyone! Thanks again for helping us think about all this.

    • I realize now my wording was not clear, and I’ve adjusted it above. I wasn’t implying they drew on him at all, I would actually assume the opposite for many of the reasons you list. I was wondering why, given his influence here, he wasn’t at least footnoted for his philosophical writings. I suppose the same could be said for people like J. P. Moreland or William Lane Craig, and perhaps even more so since, well, they get out more than Van Til did.

  7. Philosophy has been weak in both my formal and informal academic study. Neither my undergrad or graduate programs offered strong coursework in philosophical study…so this resource, I believe, would serve as an excellent primer on the subject.

  8. good thoughts from Byron. I’m a WTS student myself, and my sense is that those who start from Van Til, if they know about Dooy, know about him through Van Til so don’t find it super necessary to learn about him on his own terms, and vice versa from the Dooy side.

    Their camps seem to be largely overlapping circles content-wise, which would make it such that their people wouldn’t necessarily see the need to deeply study the other camp. But where they differ really is important. In my mind, Roy Clouser has pointed it out (though perhaps not explicitly referencing Van Til) in his “Knowing with the Heart.” Not sure yet, but if I’m right, it comes down to interpretation of Romans 1.

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