Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Doing Philosophy as a Christian

Doing Philosophy as a Christian (hereafter called DPC) is the latest addition to the Christian Worldview Integration Series, edited by J.P. Moreland and Francis J. Beckwith. In DPC, Garrett J. DeWeese, professor of philosophy and philosophical theology at Talbot School of Theology, puts forward the claim that “there is a difference in the way Christians do, or should do, philosophy” (36). Thus, the purpose of this book, in keeping with the series’s theme of Christian worldview integration, is to show the reader how one’s Christian faith and worldview informs one’s philosophical endeavors. (The book is not an introduction to philosophy from a Christian perspective, nor a book about the Christian mind, nor about apologetics.)

Now DeWeese is quick to acknowledge up front that he is showing a way, not the only way, one goes about integrating one’s Christian faith with the big questions of philosophy, especially since there are a variety of views Christians hold on just about every key topic in philosophy (as is quickly made evident in the various chapters!). There is certainly a presence of humility in DeWeese’s approach that can be discerned from beginning to end. The often repeated phrase used by DeWeese in the book, “By my lights…,” emphasizes that he is giving his opinion on the matter from his study of the Scriptures personally and within the broader tradition of church teaching, but is open to other alternatives (in some cases more than others). So, there is a definite charitableness throughout the book, though he certainly does not hesitate to disagree and give reasons for his disagreement, even with fellow colleagues such as Bill Craig.

DeWeese begins the book with a chapter on wisdom, a theme found in both the Old and New Testament. DeWeese’s approach is unique in that he spends considerable time unpacking the meaning of the Hebrew word hokhmah and its implications for life (wisdom is the intensely practical art of being skillful and successful in life). The Greek equivalent term for wisdom, sophia, originally had the same aim among the writers of the New Testament and early Greek philosophers, but the reality is, much of what is found in the history of Western philosophy is akin more to the Sophists in Plato’s day than to the intensely practical aim of philosophy (“the love of wisdom”). Often times philosophical discussions seem pedantic and pointless, with little focus on the practical cash value of its implications. Here DeWeese seeks to re-orient the aim of philosophy back to loving God and serving the Christian community in one’s philosophical endeavors. This means asking oneself questions such as, “Does this question or problem merit the time and effort to pursue researching it?” (63). DeWeese also offers some practical suggestions on how to cultivate a Christian community of philosophers.

In chapter two, DeWeese follows in the steps of Nicholas Wolsterstorff and argues that Christian philosophy “should be philosophy done within the limits of religion” (66). In other words, Christian theology, built upon the authority of the Scriptures, provides the constraints for one’s endeavors with the purpose of personal transformation and kingdom advancement (67). The remainder of the chapter gives a nice overview of the faith/reason debate.

After spending a chapter on Jesus and philosophy and the ways in which Jesus can be considered a philosopher, the main section of the book focuses on the key questions of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, value theory (he focuses on aesthetics and ethics), philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science. None of the chapters are long enough to develop extended argumentation; rather, each chapter essentially gives a quick thumbnail sketch of the variegated views on the topic (both Christian and non-Christian) and the view that he thinks best comports with Scripture, with a couple of brief reasons/arguments why. Of course, because he is presenting a way of approaching and answering these questions, the reader will not agree on every position he takes (and DeWeese expects that!), but perhaps that is the beauty of what a community of Christian philosophy could look like: iron sharpening iron as we submit ourselves under the authority of God’s word and interact lovingly and charitably with one another?

The final chapter ends talking about the goal of philosophy: spiritual transformation, and he gives a quick overview of the Biblical narrative and sanctification in the Christian life.

Now for a couple of brief criticisms of the book.
  • DeWeese emphasizes up front that this book is not an introduction to the topics in philosophy from a Christian perspective. That being the case, I still had a difficult time demarcating the difference between what DeWeese is trying to do in his book in comparison to what one would find in Moreland and Craig’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview or Cowan and Spiegel’s The Love of Wisdom. Obviously Moreland/Craig and Cowan/Spiegel are more detailed in their scope and analysis of the various topics, but their aim is often to show what views best comport with Christianity (e.g. substance dualism). So I often struggled discerning how DeWeese was not simply giving an introduction to some of the main topics in philosophy from a Christian perspective (albeit in a quick, thumbnail sketch) just like one would find in the other two books mentioned.
  • DeWeese helpfully provides examples of how various philosophical views cash out with practical implications, but I wondered if he could have emphasized those more throughout the book, since this book is a part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series? Again, this is related to the previous observation just noted.
  • The chapter on value theory was too imbalanced, since only four pages (of about forty) were set aside to discuss aesthetics and beauty. He probably could have done without touching on aesthetics and beauty (although I think it is an important topic!), because not much was developed.
Overall, DPC is a good book that would be beneficial for philosophy students and aspiring professional philosophers concerning how a Christian should approach the field. Because of my criticisms mentioned above, I believe Parts 1 and 3 will be the most helpful, but the chapters found in Part 2 (the main thrust of the book, however) do not seem all that different (albeit the chapters being a quick “fly-by” of the key positions) from what one could find in Moreland/Craig or Cowan/Spiegel. I would point the reader in that direction for a more in-depth discussion since those books seek to give both an introduction to the matters as well as their take on how Christian theology should inform our views on those matters.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Covenantal Philosophy's primary interest is philosophy shaped and built upon the foundation of a Reformed world-and-life view. More of CP's writing can be found at Covenantal Philosophy.


Paul D. Adams said...

Appreciate this review overall. I would say that the value theory section was appreciated in that it raised awareness of the topic in philosophy for those of us who are not as familiar. I would rather an author raise awareness than to say nothing at all. Moreover, Garrett admitted he has not had even one class on the subject, so much more could not have been expected.

The book is outstanding and highly recommended. Garrett's pastoral emphases throughout on the practical implications of a philosophical worldview were highly valued and not found in the more extensive Craig/Moreland volume. See here for add'l information.

Jonathan Sherwin said...

Thanks for the review Brian! I alread have 'Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview' on my reading list. If you had to pick just one, which would it be?

Understanding that the books have different objectives, of course.

Brian Auten said...


I would pick Philosophical Foundations. It is great!

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