Philosophy is vital for Christians today. It equips us to love God with our hearts and minds. It teaches us to think well and cultivate Christian character. It helps us to understand the history of the faith and the development of foundational doctrines, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. And it enables us to engage the culture.
As C. S. Lewis put it, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” I would add that good philosophy must also exist to help us to pursue goodness, truth, and beauty, which are all grounded in the nature of our great God.
My experience studying philosophy at Talbot School of Theology continues to shape me not only as a philosophy professor, but as a member of my local church, husband, father, soccer coach, and friend. Whatever intellectual and moral virtues I possess, I owe in large part to my training in philosophy.
That’s why I was dismayed to hear that Liberty University has dissolved its philosophy department. What terrible news for the five excellent scholars and teachers who will no longer be employed as of June 30; for the students who will miss out on the transformative experience of studying philosophy at a Christian school; and for the American church, which needs more evangelicals trained in philosophy, not fewer.
Any university worthy of the name—especially a Christian one—needs philosophers to do what they do in the classroom and beyond. As Baylor University’s Francis Beckwith put it:
Liberty’s decision reflects something of a trend in higher education. Philosophy and other fields in the humanities aren’t seen by some as essential to a university education. People mistakenly think graduates in these fields are unable to find gainful employment, even though the data show otherwise, and they completely disregard the role philosophy and the humanities can play in the spiritual growth of students, regardless of their major.
As the president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, I’m disappointed when Christians don’t see the value in the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. But I also see a picture broader than the most recent news of a department closing. While the prospects of philosophy departments are grim in some cases, evangelical philosophy is also flourishing.
There has been a renaissance in Christian philosophy since the 1960s, and evangelical philosophers have been a significant part of this movement. Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Eleonore Stump, Robert and Marilyn Adams, and William Alston were instrumental. Evangelical philosophers like William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Doug Geivett, and Jerry Walls have been a part of it as well.
Now a new generation of evangelicals continues this work, both in the United States and around the world. Evangelical philosophy is flourishing at places like Biola University, Houston Baptist University, and Tyndale University, to name just a few.
Seminary students can receive a top-notch philosophical education at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Denver Seminary, or Talbot School of Theology. Palm Beach Atlantic University has just announced a new Master of Arts degree in philosophy of religion, opening in the fall of 2021.
Evangelical philosophers also publish in all areas of philosophy. The Evangelical Philosophical Society has numerous conferences around the United States every year, with hundreds of scholars and apologists in attendance. The society’s journal, Philosophia Christi, publishes excellent philosophical work by evangelicals, other Christians, and our secular colleagues.
Kent Dunnington at Biola and Ross Inman at Southeastern Seminary are representative of the many evangelicals who have published excellent scholarly works with top academic presses. Dunnington’s Humility, Pride, and Christian Virtue Theory and Inman’s Substance and the Fundamentality of the Familiar are just two examples of the fine work that scholars are doing today.
And evangelical philosophers write for the church, making our work accessible to the people in the pews. We write on a wide variety of topics, exploring the implications of our faith for all of life. We engage the culture for the sake of the kingdom, help equip people in our churches, and seek to shape the hearts and minds of our students for a lifetime of serving God in the home and in their vocations.
For example, Paul Gould’s award-winning book Cultural Apologetics expands our view of what apologetics is, how it can help build the church, and the ways it can be used to truly reach others with the gospel. My own just-released book, God and Guns in America, uses philosophy alongside theology and biblical studies to address the gun debates in the United States from a thoroughly Christian point of view.
But arguably the most important work done by many evangelical philosophers happens in the classroom. That work takes different forms. I’m a professor at a public university, so I strive to love my students and help them think carefully and well about life’s big questions. At Christian institutions, evangelical philosophers help their students integrate their faith into all of life. They train future doctors, nurses, teachers, filmmakers, pastors, missionaries, business professionals, and university professors to see their personal and professional lives in the light of Christ. They teach them how to think hard, and think well, in a Christlike way.
That matters to the life of the church. If you’ve ever bemoaned the lack of discipleship in American evangelicalism, philosophy can help us with this, because it can help those who study it develop intellectual and moral virtue. A slow and careful reading of Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, or contemporary philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s Glittering Vices can be a fruitful exercise in Christian spiritual formation.
At its best, a Christian philosophical education helps us love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It equips us to love our neighbors as ourselves in ways that we might not be able to do without philosophical training. You don’t need a philosophy class or degree to love God and your neighbor, of course, but it can help you do those things in some wonderful and unique ways.
Practical education is important, but given the pace of change in our world, the practical soon becomes passé. Students with a philosophical education, however, know how to think. Because of this, they are able to adapt to changes in industry. They can adapt to changes in the culture that impact how to do ministry well in a given context.
In fact, philosophy is intensely practical. This might sound ludicrous, but philosophers explore issues like the character of God, the true nature of justice, the proper application of scientific knowledge, the structure of good arguments, and the nature of virtue and its connection to human flourishing. All of this is obviously relevant to our daily lives.
In a culture where humility is in short supply, where people who can give sound but also winsome arguments seem rare, evangelical Christian philosophy has much to offer. We must not cast it aside. We should do what we can to encourage its impact in the culture, growth in the church, and continued presence in our Christian institutions of higher education.
Michael W. Austin is the president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He teaches philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University and his latest book is God and Guns in America.