When I began to write this article, it had been only a few days since philosopher Alvin Plantinga formally received the 2017 Templeton Prize at a ceremony in Chicago. Through his teaching at Calvin College and then at the University of Notre Dame—and through a bevy of influential articles and books—Plantinga revived serious philosophical engagement with theological and religious topics. The existence of God, the reliability of religious knowledge, the legitimacy of innate beliefs and revealed truth—most of these vital topics were considered philosophically dead or passé by the middle of the twentieth century.
Philosophy had moved on to other, mostly smaller topics even as it was gripped by the belief that if something could not be proven with scientific rigor and precision, it did not count as a reliable piece of knowledge (that’s “logical positivism,” if you want the technical term). Today a serious study of religion and of theological themes is a robust part of philosophy worldwide, and most people—including the Templeton Foundation in awarding Plantinga its $1.4 million annual prize for lifetime achievement—believe it was Al Plantinga who created the change.
But why am I mentioning this at the head of an article aimed primarily at preachers? Probably because of something else I’ve had in mind in recent months, ever since my now-retired colleague John Cooper gave his “Last Lecture” in the spring of 2017 on why it is still necessary for pastors to know philosophy. That assertion is perhaps a tougher sell these days than it once was. Today aspiring pastors and many of the seminaries that train them want to focus on leadership skills—the hands-on practices pastors will need in order to survive in a competitive church environment where many pastors are bounced out of their churches for not possessing such practical skills to a high enough degree. In this environment, not a few might regard being familiar with philosophy as a waste of time, a skill set no one in the average congregation is hankering for their pastor to possess.
But Cooper pointed out that the very word philosophy means “the love of wisdom.” And wisdom assumes a pretty high profile in the Bible, culminating with Jesus Christ as the very wisdom of God incarnate. Wisdom in the Bible is, among other things, the ability to notice in God’s world what makes for shalom and what makes for misery and then adapting one’s life patterns to go with God’s flow. Wisdom looks for how things fit together, for where God has apparently set up some boundary fences. The wise one then seeks to live inside those fences—not as fools who believe they can reinvent the world on the fly and move boundary fences to suit their own desires, all supposedly without negative consequences.
Philosophy ties in with that biblical tradition on multiple levels. But philosophy also teaches us the habits of mind we need to probe God’s creation, to ponder the things God has revealed, to understand how God communicates with us and why it is perfectly rational and normal to receive revelation from God. Learning philosophy disciplines our minds, keeps us from foolishly sloppy arguments, and hones our ability to defend our very faith.
In this cultural moment, minds that have been trained with philosophical rigor seem like a Model T car: quaint, but of no use on modern highways where you have to drive seventy-five miles an hour to get anywhere.
Of course, these days we are tacitly schooled in the idea that hard and orderly thinking is unnecessary. Split-screen debates on cable news channels reinforce to all of us day in and day out that thinking well doesn’t matter. What counts today is firing off any fool thing that comes into your head. Winning a debate has nothing to do with the merits of one’s thought process but everything to do with rapid-fire abilities to respond a little quicker, yell a little louder, or be a little more insulting than whomever it is you are debating. In this cultural moment, minds that have been trained with philosophical rigor seem like a Model T car: quaint, but of no use on modern highways where you have to drive seventy-five miles an hour to get anywhere.
But I will side with my teacher/colleague John Cooper: Preachers do well to know the outlines of philosophy even as the mind of the preacher could do with the orderly discipline that can accumulate by being taught to analyze various subjects thoughtfully. As Cooper pointed out in his lecture, many of the attacks that come against the reliability of Christian belief these days are themselves the result of someone’s having made a philosophical claim. They may trickle down in various pop versions, but many of the assertions of unbelievers that can lead Christians to have serious doubts began with philosophical ideas articulated by foes of Al Plantinga—people with names like Dawkins or Dennett or Hitchens. Being philosophically astute enough to understand some of those nuances—and to let them trickle into our sermons and other teaching opportunities—is an act of pastoral care for struggling members of the congregation.
What’s more, most seminarians these days sense that at some point after they become pastors, they will almost certainly be confronted with various aspects of the debates that occur at the intersections of faith and science. Navigating those discussions requires some solid knowledge but also the nimbleness of mind that allows the pastor to see things from multiple perspectives even as the philosophical underpinnings of this or that claim can be uncovered and discussed. In all these things, some background in the careful thinking to which philosophy contributes will help.
Skilled and thoughtful preachers know this. If you have spent much time listening to the preaching of Tim Keller, then you sense that his mind has been well trained. Keller’s sermons evince a thought process that bears the fingerprints of orderly thinking as well as the ability—even in the heart of New York City, where Keller for so long ministered—to understand where the counterclaims to the Christian faith are coming from these days and how best to take those on thoughtfully and biblically and well.
Of course, people like Al Plantinga and John Cooper would be the first to tell you that they would not want to listen to sermons that sound like philosophy lectures. That is not the idea. But insofar as preaching brings the Word of God to bear on the contemporary world, sermons should display a level of clear thinking and thoughtful engagement with—not merely a sneering dismissal of—the ideas and arguments that cause some Christian believers today to have very real crises of doubt.
Seminaries, like many schools of higher learning, have tended to silo the various disciplines. Bible courses don’t creep into theological courses; pastoral care courses don’t creep into church history courses, and so on. But maybe one day, we can imagine, we could have a course team-taught by a philosopher and a pastoral care professor: “Philosophy for Pastoral Care.” That would be a course I’d like to take! The skills it would engender would be ones that every preacher should want to have in the twenty-first century.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.