Briefly Noted: Ideas Still Have Consequences

Readers of a certain age will no doubt remember the 1960s and 70s. Among many infelicities committed by American scholars and intellectuals in those decades was the demotion and near-dismissal of the study of intellectual history (the discipline which tells the history of major ideas and thinkers) from the American university.

Various motivations existed for this devaluation of the history of ideas. Michel Foucault declared that we must cut ourselves off from the traditional ideas and thinkers in order to free ourselves from intellectual, social, and moral oppression. Many other philosophers were condescending toward the history of thought because they found the older thinkers to be, well, outdated. What about Plato? He was beholden to ancient and outdated ways of thinking. Or, Aquinas? Corrupted by the pseudo-discipline of theology. Et . . . cetera.

The good news, however, is that intellectual history is making a comeback. Or, so say Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn in a recent article, “Ideas Still Have Consequences,” in The Chronicle Review.[1] According to the authors, the comeback is more than a mere trend, and it is a much-needed development in Western universities. McMahon and Moyn argue that the study of intellectual history is helpful because (1) it helps brings various disciplines together over the course of history; (2) ideas matter for their own sake; and (3) ideas structure our experience.

But the authors do more than applaud the resurgence of intellectual history. They urge intellectual historians to take their craft seriously as a discipline that “ . . . reminds us where we have been, what we have discarded (perhaps mistakenly) and why, and how practical circumstances can both unleash and constrain our imaginations.”[2] Further, intellectual historians should expand their discipline beyond the West in order to include global ideas and thinkers.

The stakes are high, according to the authors. If Americans were to take seriously historical ideas and thinkers they might be able to transcend their historical moment. They might be able to transcend, for example, the current fascination with economic necessity, utility, and “interest.” Similarly, they might be able to grasp the value of a classical education even when some parents advise their children to avoid the liberal arts in order to study only the “useful” subjects.

I agree with the authors and add several reasons that Christians should value intellectual history as a discipline, and the discussion of ideas and thinkers as a way of life for all people in general. I begin by noting that God is a self-revealing God. Between an infinite God and finite humanity is God’s self-revealing Word. His word has been written down such that the Bible contains within its pages the true story of the whole world. It tells us truth about God, his ways, and his world. So, among the many functions of Scripture is one significant function: to convey true ideas about God and his world. The study of ideas is relevant to the Christian life because God’s revelation of himself is, among other things, a revelation of ideas.

One of God’s revelations about humanity is that we—as God’s imagers—use the capacities with which we are endowed (e.g. spiritual, moral, intellectual, creative, relational, and physical) to “till the soil,” to bring out the hidden potentials of the world God has given us. One of the ways we do this is to study God and his world, articulating our conclusions about him and about it. In addition to being limited by our finitude, we are, after the Fall, limited also by our sinful inclinations. In other words, we are likely to be wrong when we set forth ideas precisely because we are sinners. Our wayward hearts distort our thinking. So intellectual history is relevant because we as Christians can discern when, where, and how human thinking has been derailed by human sin and rebellion.

Finally, way we can honor Christ by bringing our thinking in submission to him. We are now new creations in Christ. As we diagnose the myriad ways which sin and rebellion distort our thinking, we seek to redirect our thinking toward Christ. If the universe consists in him and he will, in the end, redeem and restore it (Col 1:15-20; Eph 1:3-14), then all of our thoughts about the universe somehow relate to him. So the study of intellectual history can be, for believers, a study of ways that we can redirect human thought toward Christ.

There are quite a few other reasons we benefit from the study of historical ideas and thinkers. But these are three that immediately resonate, I think, with a follower of Christ. For thoughtful Christians who are interested in the history of ideas and thinkers, I recommend, for starters, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s Living at the Cross Roads or Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (both of which contain a concise summary and evaluation of Western ideas or thinkers). As a complement, I recommend Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind (a more lengthy, but very accessible, summary of the history of Western thought, whose author does not write from a Christian perspective).


[1] Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn,“Ideas Still Have Consequences,” in The Chronicle Review (Feb 21, 2014), B10-B12.

[2] Ibid., B12.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (12): Further Thoughts on Theology & Philosophy

In the last post, we discussed briefly the relationship between Scripture, theology, and other academic disciplines. In this post, we will follow up on one strand of that discussion by discussing the historically enigmatic relation between theology and philosophy. An account of the theological task must provide an account of the relation of these two disciplines. Before doing so, however, one must define this notion of “philosophy,” which can be used in quite different manners. David Clark points out that theologians use the word “philosophy” in at least four different manners.[1] First, philosophy can refer to a person’s philosophy of life, his worldview, his most basic conceptual grid. Under this view, philosophy is a macroperspective which interprets the whole of life. Second, philosophy can refer to an academic discipline which consists of a cluster of sub-disciplines such as logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics. Third, philosophy can refer to second-order areas of study that have become academic disciplines with their own integrity. Examples include philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. Fourth, philosophy can refer to one’s commitment to critical thinking and argumentation.

When unfolding the relation of theology to philosophy, this post has in mind a combination of the latter three uses of the word philosophy. In our view, Christian philosophy is the attempt to describe systematically the structure of creation (the nature of being, of knowledge, of beauty, etc.), drawing upon God’s self-revelation found in the created order and in the Bible, and using the tools of critical thinking and argumentation. It seeks a comprehensive view of the created order as creation (not merely as “nature”), and draws upon Scripture. Although Scripture does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of creational realities, it does provide the framework and many clues for understanding them. Bartholomew and Goheen write, “In our experience, sometimes people get so excited about philosophy-believe it or not-that they forget that it is Scripture which is God’s infallible word. Indeed, in our opinion a healthy Christian philosophy, like a healthy Christian theology, will take us back again and again and deeper and deeper into the Bible. We also believe that because the Bible is God’s Word for all of life that philosophy too must bow to its authority.”[2]

How, therefore, is Christian philosophy related to the task of systematic and integrative theology (such as the type being encouraged in this blog series)? First, philosophy is helpful for conceiving one’s theological method. For example, Christian philosophers can help the theologian articulate the ontology and epistemology that undergird the theological enterprise. Second, the philosophical sub-discipline of logic helps the theologian conceive and articulate each doctrine in a unified and coherent manner, and further to relate the doctrines to each other in a likewise coherent manner. Third, the philosophical sub-discipline of “history of philosophy” can help the theologian understand both the positive and negative developments in intellectual history. Fourth, philosophical tools can help the theologian make a deep-level exegesis of his cultural context. Fifth, philosophical tools can help clear the ground for a person’s conversion, by answering various objections to belief. Sixth, philosophy can assist the theologian in analyzing various aspects of the creational order and of human life, an aspect of the philosophical task to which we now turn.

[1] David Clark, To Know and Love God, 296-299.

[2] Bartholomew and Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy, ch. 1.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (11): Some Thoughts on Theology, Philosophy, and Science

Many of the most formative moments of my life occurred during college (waaaayyy back in the mid 90s). I had just recently truly embraced Christ and had begun to realize the moralism and self-righteousness that had blurred my spiritual and theological vision. During those years, I began to realize that, if the gospel is true, then it is relevant to absolutely every realm of thought. More to the point, I began to realize that it is relevant to disciplines such as philosophy and science, which have often been held up as the rational ideals and cultural authorities for any civilized person. In the first centuries of the church’s existence, philosophy held the position of “cultural authority” (for many people), while in the past several centuries, science has held that position (for many people). In fact, when Christians do theology publicly, the elephant in the room usually is “the sciences.” Perhaps no subject has been so sharply divisive over the past centuries. One thinks of Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the Catholic and Protestant churches, of the divisive nature of the Scopes monkey trials, and of the acrimony that sometimes exists today between theologians and scientists.

In light of the robust presence of philosophy and science in our cultural spaces, and in light of the contributions that have been made by philosophers and scientists, this installment (together with the next two installments) argues that theologians benefit from dialogue with philosophers, scientists, and those who work in other fields of learning. In such encounters, how should theologians view the fruits of philosophy, science, or some other discipline, especially if the practitioners with whom they interact are not believers and do not take into account the teaching of Christian Scripture?

Levels of Reflection:

Before tackling the notions of philosophy and science separately (in the next two blog installments), first we must provide a conceptual map relating those disciplines to Scripture, biblical theology, worldview, and systematic theology. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen provide such a map.[1] In their view, Scripture is the inspired Word of God. Biblical theology is the study of Scripture which conceives of and articulates Scripture as a unified and coherent narrative which is the true story of the whole world. Worldview consists of the basic beliefs drawn from the biblical narrative, in interaction with a particular culture’s basic beliefs.[2] Systematic theology and Christian philosophy both arise from Scripture, biblical theology, and worldview. They, like worldview, are abstractions from the biblical story. Other disciplines (e.g. the arts, the sciences, business, economics) arise from Christian philosophy and systematic theology, drawing upon them as they study the particulars of their own creational reality.

The larger model, therefore, has five tiers:

Scripture (God’s Word written)

Biblical Theology (the story of the Bible)

Christian Worldview

Christian Philosophy & Systematic Theology

Other Disciplines

They further explain this model by means of an analogy, comparing knowledge with a tree.[3] In this analogy, the roots of the tree are “faith,” or the direction of the heart. All humans practice faith, either in God or in idols. The base of the trunk is biblical theology, providing the foundation and trajectory for the growth of the tree. The main body of the trunk is a Christian worldview, which in turn has two main branches, namely, systematic theology and Christian philosophy. Growing from those two main branches are further branches, which represent the special sciences, the various disciplines which each have their own creational integrity. In this view of things, Christian theology and Christian philosophy stand side-by-side in the search for truth. Neither discipline seeks to build its knowledge independent of God’s revelation. Both disciplines arise from the biblical narrative and its attendant Christian worldview, and therefore find themselves in a healthy and fruitful dialogue and partnership with one another.

[1] Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Invitation to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 26-28.

[2] Goheen and Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads, 27.

[3] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming 2012), chs. 1-2.