Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of Eleven Leading Thinkers. Ed. by Kelly James Clark. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. 276 pp. Cloth, $24.99.
We live in a skeptical age. And there is no more skeptical crowd living in our skeptical age than philosophers! That’s one of the factors that makes Philosophers Who Believe so intriguing and encouraging. To read about 11 well known and respected philosophers from around the world who have come to some semblance of faith in Christ—more about this in a moment—tells the doubter, “If they can believe, so can I.”
Several elements make this work stand out. First, the writers not only share their reasons for faith in Jesus Christ, but also tell the story of their journey to the point of faith. I was profoundly touched by entering the personal world of these great thinkers, to feel their fears, weaknesses, and pain, and to see them humbly wind up at the doorway of faith. After reading such human accounts of the struggle to believe, never again should even atheistic philosophers intimidate the doubting Christian. They will simply be seen as intelligent human beings with a huge God-shaped vacuum crying out to be filled with Him.
Second, each writer makes it very clear that while there are substantial evidences that brought them to the door of faith, it was spiritual experience that compelled them to walk through the door. Doubters searching for a final, airtight intellectual argument from these seasoned thinkers will need to look elsewhere. Christianity is reasonable, they say, but it was God’s personal touch that convinced them of His reality. Of course, a completely or primarily experiential faith can lead to problems. But many doubters are compulsive about finding all the answers to every tough question. These intellectuals remind us that God is personal and that a credible part of the validation of our faith concerns how He meets us daily in relationship. In this truth, doubting readers will find a measure of the freedom from doubt they are seeking.
A third strength deals with the sheer intellectual weight of the contributing authors. These men and women are brilliant and are seen as such by the secular world. This gives the book an apologetic appeal for use in pre-evangelism with intellectually oriented non-believers.
One final strength of this work is the challenge it issues to modern evangelicalism to minister the Gospel in a skeptical world. Several of the authors decry a general American trend away from dealing with the hard philosophical questions offered by contemporary society and call us to be ready with reasonable answers to honest inquirers.
But with all its strengths, Philosophers Who Believe has one major weakness: The Gospel is muddied, often confused, and sometimes misstated. This doesn’t mean there are no flashes of clarity! But they are followed just as quickly by sometimes even contradictory statements. For example, Fredrick Suppe (whose story is particularly touching), one moment says correctly that “if one can be justified by good works and cultivating the virtues, then Jesus’ death was gratuitously unnecessary” (p. 174). He also says, “I know that I can be saved only through the grace of God…and cannot merit everlasting life by my own efforts” (p. 175). Yet on the same page he fears falling away from his faith because of the probable result: “I’ll lose the resurrection gift; I’ll be damned” (p.175).
The authors who come from the sacramental traditions are especially unclear in their Gospel statements. In fact, in some cases, their conversion seems to be more to the church or Christendom than to Jesus Christ. Perhaps more disappointing is the confusing language of the philosophers from a Reformed background who do lift up the name of Jesus, but still confuse the terms of the Gospel. For example, Stephen Davis uses “commit” in place of “believe or trust” of his own conversion, yet in another place writes of “accepting Christ.” On the one hand, Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “Authentic faith transforms us; it leads us to sell all and follow the Lord” (p. 267), an obvious allusion to the need (in his mind) for perseverance in order to have assurance of salvation. Yet in another very moving section, quoting the Heidelberg Catechism as his own, he writes that his only comfort in life and death is “that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” (p. 261). Obviously these authors are sincere in their devotion to Christ. But from a Gospel perspective, they are at least confused on the terms of how to come to Christ.
All this to say that the strength of this work is not its theological precision or its clarity on the Gospel. Philosophers Who Believe wins because of the impact of the personal stories of these great thinkers on the reader, especially the reader who struggles with doubt.
J. Kevin Butcher
Grace Community Church