20th Century Christian Contribution to Philosophy

20th Century
Christian Contribution to Philosophy

The twentieth century has also witnessed the same kind of interaction between theology and philosophy as in the early church age. On one side are those who with Tertullian (c.160-230) would ask ‘What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the Academy and the Church?’[1] In other words, Christianity and philosophy are two poles apart. On the other hand, there are those who feel that philosophy can be a great tool in elucidating and establishing theology. One must understand that though philosophy is not recognized to be the ultimate source of theology, yet philosophical categories such as substance, ousia, etc have found a significant place in Western theology. A study of the history of Christian theology shows how St. Augustine was influenced in his theology by Platonic philosophy while St. Thomas Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle in formulating his systematic theology. In the modern period, philosophies such as existentialism and process philosophy have greatly influenced theologies. In the Indian sub-continent itself, one can see the grand influence of the different philosophical systems in the development of Indian Christian theologies.[2]

Thus, it can be seen that philosophy has always had some role in the development of theologies. However, it is even more pertinent to ask how far Christians have contributed towards the development of philosophy in the past, especially in the twentieth century. It is ubiquitously known that Christians played an important role in the development of philosophy in the early period. However, such contribution has not dwindled in the modern period. This article seeks to appraise the twentieth century Christian contribution to philosophy. A few Christian philosophers have been chosen for the sake of study in this direction.
Alvin Plantinga
The name of Alvin Plantinga is of particular relevance in the field of epistemology, particularly in the development of foundationalism which also serves as an apologetic for theism in the epistemology of religion. According to Plantinga, in the human noetic structure, there are beliefs that are not based on nor need any other evidence since they are basic to the noetic structure. One of such basic beliefs is belief in God. Plantinga has shown a skeptical face towards the assumed success of natural theology. His Reformed background may be an explanation for this. To Plantinga the existence of God doesn’t need to be proved at all. He advances an epistemological viewpoint known as broad foundationalism according to which there are certain beliefs that are basic; they do not need to be supported by any other beliefs, on the other hand they are basic to other contingent beliefs.
According to Plantinga, belief in God is basic. His criterion for basic belief is that ‘a belief is properly basic only in certain conditions; these conditions are…the ground of its justification and, by extension, the ground of the belief itself.’[3] Accordingly, ‘there is in us a disposition to believe propositions of the sort this flower was created by God or this vast and intricate universe was created by God when we contemplate the flower or behold the starry heavens or think about the vast reaches of the universe.’[4] To a believer many of the events in his life can be explained by his basic belief in God’s existence and involvement in the world. In fact, unless one has theism at the foundations of his knowledge one cannot be having a healthy epistemic life is what Plantinga contends.[5]
One important contribution of Plantinga has been to trace the epistemological implications of natural evolutionism. According to Plantinga, the belief that the human mind is the product of blind chance interplaying with matter in the natural process implies that the deliverances of the mind are dubitable, obviously because of the flux involved in the process. However, this also implies that one cannot believe the proposition of the mind that humans are the product of a blind interplay of natural processes.[6] Thus, natural evolutionism is epistemologically self-defeating.
In his 1982 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, Plantinga demonstrated the impossibility of anti-realism, an argument which he developed in his lecture “Two Dozen (or So) Theistic Arguments.” Plantinga was reacting to Hilary Putnam’s proposal for anti-realism to replace metaphysical realism which had given rise to much skepticism. Metaphysical realism, simply stated, is the position that reality is objective and unaffected by any individual’s personal interpretation of it. Thus, whether one believes or not that the sun is hot, it is hot. This means that it is possible for a person to be in error with reference to his knowledge of things; thus, giving rise to skepticism. Putnam proposed to solve this problem by replacing metaphysical realism with anti-realism, the view that much or reality is dependent on the noetic activities of human beings. Plantinga shows that such anti-realism is uncalled for. In fact, if one believed in an omniscient God who created humans with the right basic beliefs of the universe and the ability to know then one could still be a metaphysical realist and a theist without entertaining skepticism at all.

Thus, it can be seen that Plantinga has contributed a lot to epistemology by not only providing a theory of epistemology that includes divine existence as a basic belief but also by showing how atheistic naturalism could lead to irrationality and anti-realism but theism leads to rationality and realism.
Francis Schaeffer

An important contribution to the history of modern philosophy comes from the founder of L’abri Fellowship, Francis Schaeffer. There have been many attempts at chronicling philosophy; however, Schaeffer’s work differs from all of them in that he not only sees philosophy in its historical contexts but also sees philosophy in its relation to the sciences and arts while tracing the logical development all through to the present age. Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason, despite its small size, is a bold assessment and analysis of the route taken by philosophy beginning at the Scholastic movement of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

According to Schaeffer, Aquinas is responsible for the bifurcation of knowledge into two storeys, a bifurcation that took momentum until one was completely dissolved by the other. Aquinas had divided all human knowledge into an upper storey and a lower storey; the upper storey contained all that man could know only by revelation, i.e. of God as creator, of heaven and heavenly things etc; the lower storey contained all that man could know by reason, viz., the created, the visible and what nature and man do on earth.[7]

Schaeffer astutely points out that this division of knowledge was foundational to the development of  philosophy in  the  West, eventually  leading  to the despair of existentialism and nihilism in the modern era. Schaeffer’s unique contribution in this field is to show how philosophy is not something within the confines of academicians but is something that has affected the whole structure of human existence pouring itself out in the fine arts that unravel the soul of man and the spirit of the age. It may be noted that the concept of human autonomy entertained by modernism combined with the implications of evolutionism were behind the development of dictatorial regimes in the modern period.

Schaeffer shows that the effect of the Thomistic bifurcation was that man’s intellect became autonomous and, thus, there was at least one realm in which man was now independent. Aquinas had made man autonomous. This led to the development of natural theology on the presumption that God could be known apart from revelation. Philosophy became free and was separated from revelation.[8] This liberating of philosophy from revelation proved very expensive to the West.[9] The influence was instantly visible with Giotto (1267-1337) painting the things of nature as nature and Dante (1265-1321) writing in the way that the painters painted. The ultimate impact could be seen when in 1465 Filippo Lippi painted the Madonna and the girl he painted as Mary was his mistress. This was a shocking difference from the earlier zeitgeist in which paintings of the saints were always reverent and contrasted to the natural. Schaeffer calls the instance of Lippi’s painting the historical juncture of nature killing grace.

Later on, with the sacred and reverence for it out of picture, the bifurcation was seen not between grace and nature but between freedom and nature. The question was whether the individual’s freedom was meaningful in the natural process of things. Obviously, the onslaught of determinism was heavy: freedom was beginning to be lost. Man, nature, and machine became synonymous. At this juncture, Kierkegaard put away the hope of a unified field of knowledge and vouching on the theme of the paradox of faith bifurcated faith from rationality. Thus, faith was seen as irrational. Eventually, with irrationality upstairs and the dissolution of absolute categories, absurdity reigned high. The Theatre of Absurd is a classic example of the effects of making man autonomous.

The consequences have been disastrous: there was the loss of moral standards with no categories upstairs, there was no adequate basis for law, no answer to the problem of evil, and the Church lost its chance of evangelization as truth became relative.[10]

Thus, Schaeffer has made an important contribution to the history of philosophy by showing how philosophy was separated from divine grace and revelation in Scholasticism and how this has led to existential despair in the West. It is no surprising then that many Westerners find in the Eastern philosophies an alternative for their situation. It would be far better if philosophy found its place back in Christianity so that the unity of truth would be seen through the eyes of Biblical revelation.
Norman Geisler
Norman Geisler is both a philosopher and an apologist. His contribution extends to all the main fields of philosophy. Some of the most significant issues of metaphysics, viz., the existence of God, the nature of reality, and human freedom are aptly dealt by him.

In Introduction to Philosophy[11] which Geisler co-authored with Paul D. Feinberg, he tells of the various values of studying philosophy in that it helps to understand society, liberate one from prejudice and provincialism, and help to understand one’s faith in a better way. The book itself is a systematic and comprehensive introduction to philosophy that not only deals with metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics in general but also is filled with insights from the Christian revelation. Thus, Geisler shows the practical relevance of philosophy as greatly beneficial and purposeful when seen within the framework of the Biblical revelation.

Geisler has made an important contribution to Eco-philosophy in his Christian Ethics (1989). He analyses the three important viewpoints of environment and shows how each can influence one’s relation to nature and thus affect ecology. Analyzing the materialistic view, Geisler puts forth arguments to prove why the materialistic concept of the world as eternal, of energy as unlimited, of technology as able to solve our problems, of maldistribution as the root problem, and education as the answer is inadequate. He shows that the concept of an eternal world and unlimited energy is repealed by the second law of thermodynamics or the principle of entropy, according to which the total amount of usable energy is steadily decreasing. Geisler reminds us that education is not the final solution. On the other hand, the fact that Stalin, Hitler, and Adolph Eichmann are examples of evil geniuses proves that education cannot transform a person into a good being.[12] Geisler, then, attacks the Pantheistic view that nature is a living organism, that living species are manifestations of God, that humans are one with nature. Nature can neither be regarded as a machine or a god, he says. The pantheistic view only confounds the human situation and relation to the world.

Geisler shows why the Christian view is a foundation of a better ecology for the following reasons: The Christian view is of the world as God’s creation, of God’s possession, of God’s reflection, as sustained and operated by God, as under covenant with God. God made a covenant with all living creatures after the flood (Genesis 9: 16). The Christian view is that mankind is keeper of the environment and is appointed a steward over it. The Biblical law of stewardship, Sabbath rest, land resting, jubilee, sanitation, and warfare lays down principles by which environmental health is promoted. Thus, Geisler shows that one’s ideological position has a great impact on how one approaches nature.

Thus, Geisler’s great contribution is in attempting to bring Christianity and philosophy together in order to gain a better view of life, world, and values.
Ravi Zacharias
As one of the foremost Christian apologists of this century, Ravi Zacharias’ specialization in Western, Eastern, and Middle-Eastern philosophy takes him to numerous academic circles all over the world. Through his rich literature, broadcast, and record ministry, he has addressed millions of people all over the world. Most of his books and lectures address the present condition of the Western man which he diagnoses as caused by the invasion of rationalistic atheism and secularism in the once Christian societies.

Ravi has shown that the invasion of secularism, existentialism, and Eastern philosophy has led to the relativizing of truth in present day society. His apologetic is against the agnostic and skeptic stance one takes with respect to truth. He says, ‘truth by definition is exclusive. If truth were all-inclusive, nothing would be false. And if nothing were false, what would be the meaning of true?’[13]

With regard to metaphysical issues, Ravi echoes the Socratic dictum ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’ in the words: ‘Everyone: pantheist, atheist, skeptic, polytheist has to answer these questions: Where did I come from? What is life’s meaning? How do I define right from wrong and what happens to me when I die? Those are the fulcrum points of our existence.’[14] Thus, Ravi drives metaphysics to its practical and existential relevance. This is one genius of Ravi that he brings down philosophy to the floor of human life. Philosophy begins to become vivacious in his words; it no longer remains an abstract pastime of the melancholic. Ravi asks whether the non-Christian positions can adequately and consistently explicate the problem of human existence. He concludes that none of them are consistent in their assumptions. It is the Christian world-view alone that provides the most consistent doctrine of creation and destiny that explains the cosmological and teleological dimensions of human reality.

Though Ravi speaks on themes connected with logic and metaphysics, he also has a special thrust upon values in the present age. An expert on existentialism, Ravi divides philosophy into three levels.[15] The first level is theoretical which seems less appealing to the general public due to the theoretical complexity involved. However, this is the foundational level of all philosophy because it is here that experts wrestle. The second level is the arts, where philosophy finds expression. Novels, paintings, music, and movies are the best place where the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) expresses the affect of the philosophical wind that is driving it. For example, Albert Camus’ The Plague (1948) and Sartre’s Nausea (1949) were expressions of the existential despair produced by feelings of forlornness and helplessness owing to the onslaught of atheism and liberalism. The second level doesn’t go into the foundational questions but approaches the philosophical problem only existentially. The third level of philosophy which is of great significance, according to Ravi, is found in the daily life of the layman, which consists of kitchen-table talks and common discourse. For instance, a mother tells her son not to do a certain thing; he asks why he should not do it, and she replies because it is wrong. There is no philosophical argument given in support of her commandment. Something is just assumed to be right or wrong by faith. The third level is just prescriptive and has no reference to the logic of the theoretical. It is very important for Ravi, however, that in certain matters of belief the foundational level must be raised by helping the believer to question his own foundations. The modern generation is a prey of philosophies and ideologies which it never questions, but simply believes and follows the implications. The result is the loss of values since values can have no absolute foundation for existence in the absence of an absolute God. Ravi also notes the post-modern feeling of disgust against the absoluteness of Truth. Post-modernism, he explains, is a mood against truth and rationality. The modern age can’t tolerate anyone professing possession of truth. However, the relativizing of truth can only mean the loss of truth, where one abandons truth to believe whatever he chooses without regard to whether it is true or false; since truth does not exist.

In an age where the visual dominates the rational and people are losing the ability of abstract reasoning, feelings are beginning to rule humans leading to apathy towards absolute values. With unstable feelings as guide, callousness and apathy are the result. Ravi sees the rise of crime to be directly related to the spread of atheism and ungodliness in the world. To Ravi, then, a return to the Biblical concept of God and salvation is necessary in order to restore meaning and purpose to human existence. In a world without definite and absolute categories, philosophy must find an anchor in the eternal Word of God revealed to man.[16]
Plantinga, Schaeffer, Geisler, and Ravi illustrate the kind of contribution Christianity can make to philosophy. Prominent is the concept of positively relating philosophy to Christianity. As Schaeffer has shown, a dividing of philosophy from divine revelation was prompted by the concept of the autonomous man, though limited to a certain storey. This has led to the evidentialist position in epistemology where modernity assumes proof as necessary for any belief. Man becomes the pivot of verification. Plantinga, however, has shown that this approach is not always valid. There are certain beliefs that are basic and do not need to be authenticated by other evidences. Belief in God is one such basic belief that is not in need of proofs from natural theology. In fact, the consequences of not including theism among the basic beliefs leads to an unhealthy epistemic position, which as Ravi shows, ends up in the loss of values and degeneration of morality. The importance of the Christian view is also powerfully stated by Geisler, in that he compares various philosophical positions on different issues with the Biblical worldview and demonstrates how philosophy devoid of the revelatory data can stray into undesired arenas. At the end, it is the Biblical viewpoint that gains better ground.

The Western attitude of separating philosophy from revelation is strange to an Indian mind. Such an attitude assumes that man is not in need of God in the field of knowledge. Man is autonomous in knowledge. Thus, all fields of knowledge are liberated and considered to be scientific only when seen as segregated from divine revelation or grace. Obviously, the loss of spirituality and the increase of the cults and occults point to the failure of philosophy when divided from divine revelation.
Christian philosophers like Schaeffer and Ravi have shown that such bifurcation of faith and rationality is only detrimental. Consequentially speaking, a wedding of Christianity and philosophy is more rewarding than a divorce of them. Devoid of revelation, Western philosophy has reached a position in post-modernity where it considers itself devoid of even truth. Truth no longer exists. It has become relative. As a result, humanity, and all creation, is divided. Christian philosophers have shown that there is only one way by which the world can find unity in diversity; and that is by returning to the basics of the Bible.
Audi, Robert (Gen.ed.). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Bosley, Harold A. The Philosophical Heritage of the Christian Faith, Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1944.
Brown, Colin. Christianity and Western Thought, vol. 1, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Brown, Colin. Philosophy & The Christian Faith, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1968.
Chapman, Colin. The Case for Christianity, Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1981.
Geisler, Norman L. False Gods of Our Time, Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1985.
Geisler, Norman L. Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976.
The loss of spirituality and the increase of the cults and occults point to the failure of philosophy when divided from divine revelation

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Schaeffer, Francis A. Escape From Reason Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968.
Schaeffer, Francis A. The God Who is There, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1968.
Sproul, R. C. Reason to Believe, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
Zacharias, Ravi. Deliver Us From Evil, USA: Wpublishing Group, 1997.

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 40
[2] Sunand Sumithra, Christian Theologies from an Indian Perspective (Bangalore: TBT, 1990), pp. 35-38
[3] Alvin Plantinga, “Religious Belief Without Evidence”, Introduction to Philosophy (ed. Louis P. Pojman; Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991), p. 264
[4] Ibid, p. 264
[5] James Anderson, If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Platinga and Van Til, Calvin Theological Journal, April 2005, PDF format, p. 2
[6] Ibid, pp. 4,5.
[7] Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), p. 9
[8] Ibid, p. 11
[9] It may be noted here that this bifurcation was never successfully made in the Indian sub-continent where religion and philosophy are knit together.
[10] Ibid, pp. 80-82
[11] Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980).
[12] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 296
[13] Ravi Zacharias, “Living an Apologetic Life,” Just Thinking, Fall 2003, p. 3
[14] Julia Duin, “Christian Worldview – An Interview with Ravi Zacharias,” The Washington Times, New World Communications Inc, 2003, http://www.washingtontimes.com
[15] Ravi Zacharias, “Why I Am Not An Atheist.” Audio Tape.
[16] Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil (US: W Publishing Group, 1997), pp. 211-225

Published in Basileia (Itarsi: CITS, Oct, 08). Copyright © 2008 by Domenic Marbaniang

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