“Philosophy for Theologians” on Aquinas and Other Topics

Philosophy for Theologians logoIn a recent post I recommended the "Philosophy for Theologians" podcast for more information about Hume on miracles.

I've now listened to their first several episodes and can give a more comprehensive (both in the sense of covering more of there work and in the sense that I better understand their point) evaluation.

First, this is a good case to counter anyone who equates being Christian with being philosophically sloppy or positively stupid. What attracts me to this mainly is that the guys (there are a few regulars plus guests who are studying some particular figure and want to present him) give nice, in-depth presentations of (short) philosophical texts. The majority of many of the discussions is not about their Christianity (in their case, it's "reformed," meaning Protestant descended from Calvinism), and in fact it takes some work and digging into the episodes to figure out what their religious views are.

...That being the second point of interest to the podcast. Now, theology typically bores me to tears, and you're just not going to see us, e.g. do an episode on a creed like the OPC Confession of Faith that these guys (being based at the Westminster Theological Seminary) profess. What's interesting is the interaction with philosophy: why are these guys spending time reading Hume and Quine instead of repeating dogma back and forth to each other? What philosophy actually gets taught at a seminary? It took me about two dozen references to "Vantillian" before I figured out that the guys' central influence is Cornelius Van Til, whose influence in Christian thought is rated (on the Wikipedia page) as comparable to Kant's influence in secular philosophy. Van Til "opposed the traditional methodology of reasoning on the supposition that there is a neutral middle-ground, where the non-Christian and the Christian can agree." Now, that doesn't sound very heartening to good philosophical discussion, but what it means for the podcasters is exactly the kind of self-marginalization (though I'm sure they wouldn't describe it that way) that I appreciate in a Christian outlook.

To greatly oversimplify, what you might call a natural theology approach to Christianity a la Thomas Aquinas is that any rational person following the evidence will get to Christianity. This is a difficult position to sustain in the modern age (though Swinburne held this position without embarassment, and I'm sure other classy examples abound), the debate having shifted more to "can any rational person actually buy into Christianity?" What you might call an existentialist approach to Christianity (e.g. that of Kierkegaard or Schleiermacher) says that you have to start the enterprise of philosophy already committed to Christianity and interpret everything in light of that. Why would you possibly commit yourself to something like that in advance? For personal reasons, basically, though surely they think the motivators are there for anyone to pick up on (the world itself being Revelation and all).

But again, the podcast doesn't spend time on that background motivation: it's aimed (nominally, at least) at those already indocrinated, and as I've said, the interpreting everything in light of a pre-accepted Christianity doesn't mean that they ignore and skew what the authors they're reading are saying: the account of Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" in their third episode (the first really good one; I was not crazy about their Descartes presentation, and episode one really does them a disservice: it's just a clip starting in the middle of a heavily inside-baseball kind of conversation; I'd strongly recommend they record a proper intro to the podcast and rebrand that one) seemed to give a pretty thorough and charitable presentation of Russell's views. Still, it interests me, at least, to see what their responses to new (and old) atheist critiques are, much as I appreciated reading the new atheists themselves as a list of political talking points against the arguments made by religious representatives.

In short, the podcasters rely on skeptical critiques of folks like Quine (in their lengthy and meaty episode on him) and post-modernism to undercut any possible criticism of Christianity. If you want to say, for instance, that the whole "dying for my sins" thing sounds morally suspect, or that the reports of these particular miracles don't seem any more plausible than the many others reported by the superstitious ancient world that Christians want to reject, or you want to argue that reliance on a text because it tells you it's authentic is circular reasoning, then they'll reply that in order to make such claims, you have to have a full epistemological theory worked out with a foundationalism that has been found through philosophical history to be impossible. It's a fancy version of "all of your ultimate underlying assumptions have to me taken on faith" with a denial that simple pragmatism supports the more everyday assumptions used to support science, or rather that these pragmatic considerations can't be extended either to high fallutin' metaphysical realms, a la Kant's claim (and Wes's), or even to those parts of Christianity that directly impinge on our actual experience and the findings of science.

The podcasters' view (or rather views, as they have some disagreement) on exactly how scripture is supposed to take precedence over philosophy and every other corner of the intellect is elaborated directly on a recent episode called "The Relation of Philosophy to Theology." I won't try to do that discussion justice here; just check it out if you're interested. However, I think it's apparent by the end how the view destroys itself: one can't interpret a sacred text without a large set of skills and background knowledge, so you can't then declare the text itself somehow primordial over that very set of knowledge requisite for understanding the text. Likewise, they reject the subjective, Cartesian, phenomenological beginning point of inquiry in favor of an "objective" starting point: scripture, but it'll always be you reading the scripture; you can't circumvent your own epistemological limitations by pushing the responsibility onto some external entity, whether it be God or scripture or hermeneutic tradition or anything else.

Despite this, I'm pleasantly surprised to find a podcast of this sort that is doing basically the same thing as we are: diving into texts and giving their opinions on the details and arguments they find. So, to bolster your consumption of our God episode, I recommend their episodes on Thomas Aquinas, both of which feature guest Bob LaRocca. They go into more detail, I'm sure, than we ever will:

On Thomas's "First Way."
On Thomas's "Second Way."

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Kathleen Ryan says

    Because of you, Mark, and your earlier reference to these guys, I, too, have gotten caught up in their podcast presentations and methodology, though it’s been rather hard-going at times. Even though I was raised Catholic (Mom) and had a Protestant father (Presbyterian/Congregationalist), I never fully got much of the dogmas mastered, and am now more or less an atheist. I’m also a grad student in an analytic philosophy dept. that has no use for history even as many of AP’s “problems” it is trying to resolve (such as free will and causality, identity, universals and particulars, objectivity and relativism, possible worlds, etc.) are as contingently set in religious disputes as AP thinks they are ever eternal and fixed.

    Since I think philosophy’s greatest “sin” now is in the amount of time it devotes to the paradoxes that religious belief left us without being much interested in disclosing the source and record of this earlier discourse first, I find these guys filling in a lot of the gaps that so actively puzzled me, even as they shame me as to how little I know about the stuff I’m supposed to know about (and distress me as to where their absurd claims about notions like the “resurrection” are supposed to lead).

    So I’m happy to hear you also continued to listen to them, at least for a bit. Now I don’t feel so guiltily alone!! I also appreciate your very cogent and helpful digest of what you’ve gotten out of them so far as you outlined it here in this blog. Of course you guys at PEL do such great work yourselves, and I continue to silently thank you for how much you’ve opened up my mind.

    The tributaries of thought continue to fascinate when we see how they mix with and resist each other. What happens when our minds open up is that our gaps are able to be filled.


    (and no: I have not been converted yet to the realm of the “faithful”)

  2. Kathleen Ryan says

    BTW: Just now got as far as the first podcast of Dr. Ronald H. Nash explaining Christian Apologetics; am now realizing how much these guys hook into the folks that ostensibly influenced Michele Bachman and other right-wing Christian evangelical pols via Francis Schaefer (as noted by Ryan Lizza’s helpful New Yorker article on Bachman this summer). Can anyone offer more info as to how influential they might be in other philosophical depts. within the theological academies? I should have noticed when the Wikipedia bio on Van Til spoke of his alliance with R.J. Rushdoony, who has also been identified with Christian Dominionism.

    Nash, BTW, has his own rather clever sense of humor that strikes well against secular humanists like me. At least I’m understanding better where the lines are being drawn (he claims his mission in life is to eradicate empiricism from the face of the earth!!). We relativists have no proper sense of borders or limitations, that’s for sure…

    (any comments from anyone on McCumber’s old “Time in the Ditch” thesis would be appreciated about how analytic philosophy was designed precisely to evade such religious/political influence in academic governing and funding. McCumber sees it as the reason why AP is so imaginatively constricting).


  3. says

    Hey Kathleen and Mark,

    Thank you for the kind words and charitable review! Wikipedia (as I am sure you already know) being the unreliable source that it is, misrepresents VanTil in his connection to Rushdoony. VanTil critiqued both Schaefer and Rushdoony for their eschatological leanings. VanTil was Amillennial in his view of Eschatology, which means that VanTil would be strongly against “Dominionism” the way in which Rushdoony spells out. VanTil, also was heavily critical of both Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher. This is due to his influence that goes back to his teacher at Princeton … Geerhardus Vos.

    The foremost “VanTilian” Scholar/Philosopher today is a man by the name Dr. K. Scott Oliphint. While he is not featured on “Philosophy for Theologians” he is featured on a number of “Christ the Center” episodes (http://reformedforum.org/ctc140/). Another is a man named Dr. Lane G. Tipton (http://reformedforum.org/rfe1/). The two episodes above probably represent the some of deepest VanTil scholarship out in the Blog-world concerning VanTil and his thought. Thanks again for the review guys, and I hope that this comment somewhat helped!

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Thanks, Jonathan; I’ll check those out. Should you or one of your cohorts feel inclined to listen to our recent arguments for the existence of God episode, I’d be tickled to hear what you think.

  4. Kathleen Ryan says

    Many thanks, Jonathan. I too will check these out. It helps to know that there are distinctions between Van Til and Rushdoony. How influential has Van Til been in the Reform movement at large? Would he be considered one of the premier theologians, or is he competing equally with the likes of Rushdoony and Schaefer? How does this get broken down? Do different Reform seminaries tend to have their own theologians that they favor, and are there any leading trends?

    And what do you think of Dr. Ronald H Nash’s scholarship, if you are at all familiar with it? I’m really enjoying his lecture podcasts on Christian Apologetics, even though he’s basically slamming my “world-view” at every turn. Where is he at vis-a-vis Schleiermacher — do you know? (and I see he passed away in 2006 — do you know when these lectures might have been recorded?)

    It’s all quite interesting, that’s for sure!


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