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A REVIEW OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY

Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen. Baker Academic, 2013. 289 pp. $22.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-3911-9.

            In his Introduction to Metaphysics Martin Heidegger claims that “A ‘Christian philosophy’ is a round square and a misunderstanding. To be sure, one can thoughtfully question and work through the world of Christian experience – that is, the world of faith. That is then theology.”[1] Josef Pieper counters Heidegger’s claim as follows: “This is the question: Is it permissible for the philosopher also to include in his philosophizing reflection information about the world and human existence not stemming from experience and rational argumentation but coming from areas such as are properly called ‘revelation’, ‘sacred tradition’, ‘faith’, or ‘theology’? Can the inclusion of such non-empirical and preter-rational assertions into one’s philosophizing possibly be justified? My answer to this: it is not only possible and justified but indeed necessary.”[2] Josef Pieper had written in an earlier essay, that “to be vital and true, philosophy must be the counterpoint to a true theology, and that, post Christum natum, means Christian theology.”[3] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, in Christian Philosophy, the third book in their series of Introductory textbooks, demonstrate the error of Heidegger’s claim, and the truth of Pieper’s claim. This book is a history of, and introduction to, philosophy written from the perspective of the Dutch reformed position that was initiated and developed by Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven. In this review I will consider the purpose of the book, and provide an outline of how the author’s seek to obtain their goal.

            The purpose of this book is to provide students with an introduction to philosophy from a reformational position. “the way you tell the story of philosophy is never neutral, and our goal is to tell the story from a Christian perspective.”[4] There are many ways of introducing the student to philosophy, and they choose the method which is, by far, the most interesting, and arguably the best – a survey of the history of philosophy concluding with the author’s own philosophical positions. They are not the first to write this type of book, but, they do an excellent job of providing the beginning student with an affordable, brief and easy to understand introduction to philosophy as viewed through the eyes of reformational philosophy.

            The book is divided into three main sections. In the first section, composed of 2 chapters, they attempt, successfully, to answer the question “why study philosophy?” The two most important reasons, for Christians who will not be pursuing degrees in philosophy, are: (1) “a basic introduction to Christian philosophy will help in answering your neighbor’s queries.”[5] (2) A basic understanding of the history of philosophy is necessary for understanding contemporary culture.[6] If we don’t understand our culture, we will not be able to connect with our children (who are educated in it from elementary school to the end of their studies), we will be unable to understand the actions, attitudes and reactions of our neighbors, colleagues, and friends, and we will be unable to reach this world with the Gospel.[7] The second part of the first section is a consideration of the relationship between faith and reason. Though I see some difficulties with their understanding of the relationship of worldviews to philosophy, they provide an excellent analysis of the relationship between theology and philosophy.[8]

            The second main section is an overview, composed of 9 chapters, of the history of philosophical thought. In chapter 3 they give an overview of the main views of Socrates and the Pre-Socratic philosophers. In chapter 4 they consider the views of Plato and Aristotle. Chapter 5 is an introduction to Medieval philosophy, beginning with Augustine and finishing with Anselm. Chapter 6 is an introduction to the thought of Aquinas and the medieval recovery of Aristotle. In chapter 7 they consider the renaissance philosophers and the preparation for modern philosophy. Chapters 8-10 consider the development of modern philosophy from Bacon to Hegel and his legacy. In chapter 11 they consider the primary influences in contemporary philosophy and the post-modern movement.

            In the third main section they give an overview of contemporary Christian philosophy. In chapter 12 they provide a survey of some of the important thinkers in contemporary Catholic philosophy, including Alasdair MacIntyre, René Girard and Jean-Luc Marion. There are some notable philosophers that are missing, namely, Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Norman Kretzmann, Joseph Owens, and Eleonore Stump. Chapter 13 is an overview of the thoughts of the most well-known proponents of Reformed Epistemology, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Chapter 14 is an overview of the ways in which reformed thinkers are actually engaging philosophy without sacrificing their theology. They distinguish between Reformed Philosophy and Reformational philosophy, and in chapter 15 they outline their own views by providing an overview of the views of the main proponents of this position, Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven. They conclude with a call to Christians “Our hope in writing this book is that for many readers this is not the end or the beginning of the end, as Winston Churchill once said, but perhaps the end of a beginning on the rich and vital journey of Christian philosophy.”[9]

            There are a number of technical errors about some of the philosophers (including doctrinal as well as historical errors), but these do not take away from the usefulness of this book. My main difficulty with this book is that the authors seem trapped in the post-modern view, influenced by Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger,[10] that all knowledge is necessarily tainted by one’s Worldview – that is – everybody approaches this world from a particular perspective.[11] They consistently claim that all facts are necessarily interpreted from some position (a worldview), and that there is no way to get out of that position to look at the world. The question, of course, remains, how do we know which position is true? Is there one true position. They claim that there is, however it is unclear how they know that it is true. It seems, therefore, that they are trapped in a relativism of Worldviews with no way of knowing which worldview is true.

            All in all this book was an interesting and inspiring overview of the history of philosophy, and a great introduction to the reformational school of philosophy. It is ideal for use in a course on Christian philosophy as it is endowed with an annotated bibliography, a well outlined table of contents, and a large index. The authors also provide plenty of footnotes that will allow the student to continue their research in areas that interest them. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of philosophy, with the warning that the authors presuppose the truth of Calvinism, and approach the history of philosophy from within this tradition.



[1]Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 8 [6].

[2]Josef Pieper, In Defense of Philosophy, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 109.

[3]Josef Pieper, “The Philosophical Act”, in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).

[4]Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), xii.

[5]Ibid., 6.

[6]Ibid., 7.

[7]A brief lecture of Acts 17 will demonstrate that even Paul was familiar with the general mindset of the culture that he was attempting to reach, and he was able to interact with and even quote some of the most well-known authors of that era.

[8]Ibid., 20-21.

[9]Ibid., 270.

[10]Though the alert reader, already familiar with Kant and Heidegger, will immediately recognize the influence of these great thinkers, Bartholomew and Goheen readily recognize that Dooyeweerd (who they recognize as the philosopher who they rely on the most, and who was a great influence on Cornelius Van Til), was influenced by Kant and Heidegger (Ibid., 243.).

[11]Ibid., 22, 23, 42, 63, 92, 115, 199. This seems to be a position that is accepted as truth in most reformed philosophical and apologetical traditions. Cornelius Van Til accepts an even more extreme version of this view, as do many others including Alvin Plantinga, Francis Schaeffer, and the contemporary presuppositional (Covenantal) Apologetical tradition.

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