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Alvin Plantinga’s Good Advice for Christian Philosophers: A Summary

By: Justin Wishart

Alvin Plantinga is one of Christianity’s greatest living philosophers. He is perhaps most famous for developing the “Free-Will Defence” to the Problem of Evil. However, he has contributed greatly to philosophy in other areas, particularly Christian philosophy. He even helped develop a branch of apologetics called ‘Reformed Epistemology’ along with the ‘Modal Ontological Argument’ and the ‘Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’ to name a few contributions. So, when he writes giving sage advice to up and coming Christian philosophers, it is probably a good idea we heed his words.

So, what is his advice? The last sentence of his article sums it all up. “We [Christian philosophers] must therefore pursue our projects with integrity, independence, and Christian boldness.” However, what he exactly means by this must first be unpacked. First, we must outline the problem Plantinga is trying to address. He provides this illustration:

“Consider a Christian college student — from Grand Rapids, Michigan, say, or Arkadelphia, Arkansas — who decides philosophy is the subject for her. Naturally enough, she will go to graduate school to learn how to become a philosopher. Perhaps she goes to Princeton, or Berkeley, or Pittsburgh, or Arizona; it doesn’t much matter which. There she learns how philosophy is presently practiced… It is then natural for her, after she gets her Ph.D., to continue to think about and work on these topics. And it is natural, furthermore, for her to work on them in the way she was taught to, thinking about them in the light of the assumptions made by her mentors and in terms of currently accepted ideas as to what a philosopher should start from or take for granted, what requires argument and defense, and what a satisfying philosophical explanation or a proper resolution to a philosophical question is like. She will be uneasy about departing widely from these topics and assumptions, feeling instinctively that any such departures are at best marginally respectable. Philosophy is a social enterprise; and our standards and assumptions — the parameters within which we practice our craft — are set by our mentors and by the great contemporary centers of philosophy.”

Our new philosopher exercises her profession, with the subjects and approaches she has learned. This does not seem to be a problem for the Christian philosopher right? Plantinga disagrees.

“Christian philosophers, however, are the philosophers of the Christian community; and it is part of their task as Christian philosophers to serve the Christian community. But the Christian community has its own questions, its own concerns, its own topics for investigation, its own agenda and its own research program. Christian philosophers ought not merely take their inspiration from what’s going on at Princeton or Berkeley or Harvard, attractive and scintillating as that may be; for perhaps those questions and topics are not the ones, or not the only ones, they should be thinking about as the philosophers of the Christian community. There are other philosophical topics the Christian community must work at, and other topics the Christian community must work at philosophically.“

Plantinga insists that the Christian philosopher must become a servant of the greater Christian community. We must not be sucked into the pull of our secular institutions, but must focus on issues that are pressing for Christians. Plantinga is equally emphatic that we do not close ourselves from the surrounding philosophic community; we learn from them and interact with them. It would be arrogant and foolish not to. But, we do so in service of the greater Christian community instead of the greater philosophic community.

So, when Plantinga talks about “integrity”, he isn’t meaning things like not stealing or loving your neighbour, although I am very confident he would whole heartily agree with those things. But, what he means is the Christian philosopher must be honest with his Christianity; that we are Christians first, and we submit our philosophic training and skills to Christianity. “Christian philosophers must display more integrity — integrity in the sense of integral wholeness, or oneness, or unity, being all of one piece.”

Secondly, Plantinga says that it’s important that the Christian philosophic quests remain “independent” from the overall philosophical community. “Christian philosophers and Christian intellectuals generally must display more autonomy — more independence of the rest of the philosophical world.” We have our own needs and questions. This is not to say that there will be no interactions with the general philosophic community, there will be overlap and defenses of the faith that will have to be made. But, we must not forget our “integrity” to the Christian community. Many think that this is a problem, that one must do philosophy on secular philosophic terms. Plantinga disagrees. He explains why integrating our faith with our philosophy is not only the right thing to do, but that it is also intellectually possible to do.

“But we come to philosophy with pre-philosophical opinions; we can do no other. And the point is: the Christian has as much right to his prephilosophical opinions as others have to theirs. He needn’t try first to ‘prove’ them from propositions accepted by, say, the bulk of the non-Christian philosophical community; and if they are widely rejected as naive, or pre-scientific, or primitive, or unworthy of “man come of age,” that is nothing whatever against them. Of course if there were genuine and substantial arguments against them from premises that have some legitimate claim on the Christian philosopher, then he would have a problem; he would have to make some kind of change somewhere. But in the absence of such arguments — and the absence of such arguments is evident — the Christian philosophical community, quite properly starts, in philosophy, from what it believes.”

Thirdly, Plantinga insists that Christian philosophers have “Christian boldness”. We should have “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.” We should not, and have no reason to, be timid in our philosophic endeavors as Christians. Plantinga uses an example of an outdated philosophy called the “verifiability criterion” that at one time caused much concern for the Christian philosopher. However, it is very simple for the Christian to see that this criterion is false.

“What was needed here was less accommodation to current fashion and more Christian self-confidence: Christian theism is true; if Christian theism is true, then the verifiability criterion is false; so the verifiability criterion is false.”

Of course, Plantinga is not here saying that this is the argument one should necessarily use if someone insists on the verifiability criterion; other arguments should be developed and used. However, what he means here is that if some philosophic concept comes about that seems to trouble the Christian philosopher he needn’t be troubled by it. He can boldly examine the concept and find its error because it contradicts the truth (if Christianity is true).

There is one last major component to Plantinga’s presentation. What does it actually mean to be a Christian philosopher? How is one to service the Christian community? I will give Plantinga the final word here and allow him to answer these questions.

“I said earlier that it is a matter of systematizing, developing and deepening one’s pre-philosophical opinions. It is that; but it is also an arena for the articulation and interplay of commitments and allegiances fundamentally religious in nature; it is an expression of deep and fundamental perspectives, ways of viewing ourselves and the world and God. The Christian philosophical community, by virtue of being Christian, is committed to a broad but specific way of looking at humankind and the world and God. Among its most important and pressing projects are systematizing, deepening, exploring, articulating this perspective, and exploring its bearing on the rest of what we think and do.”

[i] Plantinga’s article ‘Advise for Christian Philosophers’, and all quotes attributed to him here, are found in: Chad V. Meister & Khaldoun A. Sweis, Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Zondervan, 2012