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Book Review: Philosophy and the Christian

January 17th, 2019 | 5 min read

By Nathan Luis Cartagena

By Nathan L. Cartagena

In high school, I rarely took classes with other Christians. This wasn’t intentional. It was the outcome of taking “advanced courses” in a school with “advanced students” who had rejected Christianity by middle school. So though I craved the presence of other Christians—a presence which Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes ‘is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”—it wasn’t to be had.

Worse still, my colleagues relished taking opportunities to bash Christians. I vividly remember their taunting questions. “How can you be in this class and be a Christian?” “Don’t you know the Bible is riddled with contradictions?” And, most painful of all, “Don’t you know that Christianity is the White Man’s religion? As a Puerto Rican, how can you believe that supremacist trash?”

Fearing that this tidal wave of questions would drown me, I looked for high ground. I saw none. My Christian friends lacked good answers. And I was scared that my parents wouldn’t have any either. Finally, filled with desperation, I asked my youth pastor for help. He directed me to apologetics.

While reading books by Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig, I encountered names I couldn’t pronounce—writing in the margin, “How do you say ‘Nietzsche?’”—and ideas and arguments that encouraged, perplexed, or both. These were the first theology books I read. And they were my first exposure to philosophy.

Zacharias and Craig used philosophical argumentation to defend the Christian faith. The Kalām Argument, the Argument from Morality, the Argument from Consciousness—these formal arguments cut my philosophical teeth. And they gave me resources to stem the tide of my colleagues’ pointed questions.

Seeing that philosophy was helping me, my Dad encouraged me to study it during college. Since he was paying the bills and I liked the idea, I did. This proved revolutionary. My professors showed me that philosophy is more than apologetics, logic, or puzzle-solving; properly speaking, it is a communal quest for wisdom and the good life, exemplified in Socrates and his historic followers.

The latter conception of philosophy motivates Philosophy and the Christian: The Question for Wisdom in the Light of Christ. Edited by Joseph Minich, this book is a collection of essays intended to “commend an evangelical Christian philosophy” through “conversation[s] with the past.” And it is a Pierre Hadot inspired retrieval of the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life—a lived, communal pursuit of wisdom and the good life—that Minich and Peter Escalante defend in the concluding chapter as the variety of philosophy that Evangelicals should pursue. Before that, authors from various vocational backgrounds evaluate historic perspectives and questions Christians have had about philosophy.

After a consideration of the Bible’s explicit and implicit metaphysical commitments (Andrew Fulford and David Haines), Philosophy and the Christian offers readers ten historically tethered philosophical discussions that culminate in Minich and Escalante’s chapter. The topics and authors run thus: early Christian views of philosophy as preparatio evangelica (Blake Adams); the goal of philosophy in medieval theology (Christopher Cleveland); John Colte’s Neo-Platonic Exegesis of 1 Corinthians (Andre A. Gazal); Philip Melanchthon and Niels Hemmingsen on human reason (E.J. Hutchinson); natural theology in Reformed orthodoxy (David Haines); early modern Protestant philosophy (Nathan Greeley); modern Reformed philosophies (Gayle Doornbos); Postmodernity and the structures of creaturely life (Matthew A. Stanley); Analytic theology (Ryan Hurd); and science, philosophy, and Scripture (Derrick Peterson).

The length and breadth of these chapters varies. So do their accessibility for a general readership. The treatment of early Christian conceptions of philosophy, though long and extensive in scope, requires less initiation into the history of philosophy and theology than the shorter, more narrowly focused treatment of John Colet. This should be expected: survey chapters do not require the level of familiarity of context and consequence that concise discussions of lone figures do. Relatedly, the discussion of postmodernity, with its focus on Martin Heidegger and Edith Stein, is better suited to serve those with background knowledge about phenomenology and the like; nothing similar holds for the survey study of Reformed philosophies.

Speaking of Reformed, the majority—if not all—the authors hail from this theological camp, which should come as no surprise given the publisher: The Davenant Press, an arm of the Davenant Institute. This theological perspective explains some topic selections. Whereas a similar text by Roman Catholic authors is likely to treat the virtues and their relationship to law, the relative absence of these matters in Reformed circles anticipates their absence here. Perhaps related reasons informed decisions not to discuss topics like class, economics, and race.

The Reformed bent also shapes the tone of several chapters. Most notably, Haines intends his treatment of natural theology “[to] provide a powerful corrective” to K. Scott Oliphint’s book on Thomas Aquinas. This direct attack is jarring—for there is nothing else like it in the volume. Hence it heightens the feeling that you are eaves dropping on a heated family feud.

Philosophy and the Christian, therefore, commends a Reformed evangelical Christian philosophy. Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig are not here; Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper are. This is fine: understandings of philosophy’s relationship to Christianity needn’t be all things to all people. And most of this books readers are likely to be Reformed given its publisher. Still, I alert those readers who are not.

I also alert readers to two difficulties this book handles better than most: there are numerous conceptions of philosophy, and few know the ancient one Hadot revives. A worldview, a perspective on something like teaching (e.g., a teaching philosophy), a search for truth, a method of inquiry and argumentation, an academic discipline, the application of logic, and a way of life—these and other conceptions of philosophy are part of everyday language.

Hence the need to clarify what is meant by “philosophy.” And though the authors don’t always do this—sometimes slipping from one conception to another—they often do. For this we are in their debt. Likewise, we owe Adams, Escalante, and Minich in particular a debt of gratitude for presenting and defending the ancient view of philosophy as a way of life—“a disciplined quest for wisdom in which the seeker must be transformed in order to attain the requisite insight.” As these authors note, the quest for wisdom is not merely an academic exercise, but “the whole of life lived ardently.” And given that “transformation of the whole person is involved, the means and methods of philosophy therefore comprise far more than systematic explication.” The end of this transformative quest is Christ, the Wisdom of God and the “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). The agent guiding it is the Spirit, who applies Christ’s redemptive work to the people of God, sanctifying them and conforming them into the Son’s image that they may have eternal life—an intimate knowledge of the Father and the Son (John 17:3).

There is no Pelagianism here. Those on the quest for wisdom are working out their salvation by the power of God (Phil. 2:12-13). Nor is there a hyper-individualism. Christ’s philosophers participate in this transformative quest within the Church, receiving and benefiting from the gifts and graces—including, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, the gift of intimate conversation with other Christians—Christ provides His bride. Unlike professionalized academic philosophy, which verges on a vicious obsession with triviality, this ancient, Hadot-inspired model of philosophy supports a life-long growth in wisdom that empowers Christians to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Having undertaken an agonizing search for resources to address intellectual challenges to my faith, I rejoice to see that the Lord is raising up authors like the contributors to Philosophy and the Christian to help congregants. To know that such books existed would’ve encouraged me then. Granted, I would not have been ready to read it—remember, I couldn’t pronounce “Nietzsche”—because it is suited for the philosophically literate. Nevertheless, this book testifies to all that Christians can practice philosophy for Christ and His Kingdom.

Nathan L. Cartagena (PhD. Baylor University)  is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College (IL). He currently teaches courses on race, justice, and military ethics.

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Nathan Luis Cartagena

Nathan Luis Cartagena (PhD. Baylor University) is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College (IL). He teaches courses on race, justice, critical race theory, and military ethics.