The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga & Thomas M. Crisp

Christian Standing in Public Academia

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
May 17, 2012

Christian philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff think back to when they were students and reflect on the progress that has been made in recent years in terms of tolerance for Christians in the academic world.


You think, maybe, one of the reasons why, in philosophy, it’s not as easy to be buffaloed is because there is this large society for Christian philosophers where you can find community with other Christian philosophers? Each of you were involved in the founding of the Society for Christian Philosophers years ago. Do you think that has played a role in creating space for Christian philosophical thinkers to be expressly Christian in their philosophizing?

Well, I’m pretty sure that it has. It certainly is true that, now, there is much more such space than there was when the society began, and undoubtedly, the society has played some role in that, but it is also true, if you go back to that time, back to the time when Nick and I were in grad school for example, there weren’t very many… There wasn’t any project of Christian philosophy. Catholics were doing their thing, but there wasn’t any connection between what they were doing and what went on in the rest of the philosophical world, and in the rest of the philosophical world, there were Christians at places like Kelvin College and Wheaton and some in many other places as well, but they were, for the most part, very low-profile. For example, one of my teachers was William K. Frankena. I mean, people that come from Priestlant have names like Gelevov, Frankena, Planinga, Paulzinga, Hoydinga, et-cetera. This is Frankena. He was a member of the Christian Reform Church, a graduate of Kelvin College, came to the campus chapel on Sunday and the like, considered himself a Christian, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from his work at all. He never addressed any questions that had anything specific to do with Christian belief or anything of the sort. Partly the reason was it just wasn’t a done thing. I remember also a conversation with Roderick Chisholm and Norman Malcolm, and Norman Malcolm became a Christian and at the time of this conversation he was sort of in process, and Roderick Chisholm never became a Christian, but he had leanings towards Theism, and we three were talking about these thing and they said that they were really glad, they said that this sort of thing has to be kept under our hats. I mean, if it gets out that we think this way, things won’t go well. Now that sort of thing wouldn’t happen anymore.

So I think the society played a significant role, The Society for Christian Philosophers, but almost simultaneously, maybe a little bit before, I think some important things happened within philosophy in general, and that is the death of what I’ve sometimes called the policing function. When I was in grad school, when Al and I were in grad school, Positivism was still, well it was actually near death but it seemed to be in its heyday, and Positivism was a sort of policing function. It went around through philosophy and said, “That sentence has no meaning, that sentence does, “that sentence has no meaning,” and so forth, and in particular sentences of metaphysics and of theology were by the canon of the Positivists, meaningless. So it had this profound function like a cop. You’re just uttering sentences, you’re not saying anything. Then shortly after that the brief life of Oxford Ordinary Language Philosophy, which consisted of chastising people by saying, “But one wouldn’t say that,” and of course by “one wouldn’t say that” they meant an ordinary speaker of the English language would not say that, and by that criteria, probably most of philosophy consists of things that one would not say. Both of those died a sudden death in the 60’s and that opened up the field, and there’s a little bit of policing in philosophy. I mean in your field of metaphysics, people have to find truth-makers and so forth, but it’s basically the policing function in philosophy is over, and that opened things up. Nobody charges anybody, in general, I mean now and then, of course, people speak nonsense, but there’s not some general criteria of meaningfulness or sayableness or knowability.

One thing that struck me back in the heyday of Positivism was the way in which… The way in which Positivism was so dominant that many Christians had no idea how to respond to it.


I remember one article in mind where I think a Christian philosopher, at least someone interested in Christian philosophy and philosophy as a Christian, was thinking about the Positivist claim that a statement like “God loves us” or “God has created the world”, the Positivists said, “Well this is just meaningless,” so said the Positivists, “It doesn’t conform to the verifiability criterion.” This person suggested that, “Well, I guess that’s “the way things are.”

So be it, yeah.

I mean, so we just have to reinterpret these statements. So to say that God created the world means something like… Many of the features of the world redound to human flourishing. That’s why they say God created the world, and–

Or take your pick. I’m struck with awe sometimes when I see the Rockies or something.

Yeah, something like that, and similar things of that sort which strikes and then at that time did strike me as insufficiently bold. I mean, Christians, they should have said their criterion implies that these statements are meaningless, but they’re not, so I guess there’s something wrong with your criterion, you know?

I sometimes get the sense that in certain segments of the academy, Naturalism plays this placing role that you talk about. It’s not so in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, but in the sciences, from a distance anyway, it seems that Naturalism plays that kind of role. Why do you think that would be? Why would Naturalism be functioning that way in some segments of the academy and not philosophy?

And not in philosophy. Well, because it’s not so easy to articulate. It’s easier to talk about Naturalism and to say “I’m a Naturalist” and so forth, than it is to explain just what it is to be a Naturalist and that down to defend it against objections, so philosophers are more cautious. They may in fact be intuitive Naturalists, a lot of them are, see, Intuitive Naturalists, but to stick your head up and articulate it and defend it, that’s not so easy. [upbeat music]

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