Truth Considered and Applied by Stewart Kelly

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There is a lot of book packed into the pages of this work.  Truth Considered & Applied: Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith is by Stewart E. Kelly, who is a philosophy professor at Minot State University (in North Dakota) and the author of several books.  This book is published by B&H Publishing Group.

The website says that it is for philosophy and theology students.  I agree, but would add that it is valuable for history teachers and students as well (referring to college level history majors).

Here is a bit of my experience with this book.  Back in the fall, I found a stack of copies of this book at a religious bookstore.  Most Christian bookstores don’t have too many titles that are brainy or philosophical books.  Just try this: Walk into your nice Christian bookstore and ask for books by Dooyeweerd, Kuyper, Van Til, Gordon Clark, Rushdoony, James K. A. Smith, or Christopher Dawson.  (Byron Borger’s Heart and Mind Books is an exception.  There are others.) But this store had this book on truth and postmodernism in abundance.

I went back to my office to look up this “new” title.  To my surprise, I learned that this book had been out since 2011.  And no customer reviews were posted on Amazon.  (I am changing that.)  I soon acquired the book, but it has taken a while to work my way through it.  The slow pace was due to the many books I am trying to read, as well as the challenging nature of this book.

For those who want an enjoyable and anecdotal survey of some modern ideas, look elsewhere.  This book has the feel of being a professor’s expanded outline notes.  It has a mountain of bibliographical and footnoted information.  It is a walk through the section of the library dealing with modern thought with glances through the writings of key thinkers.  It will overwhelm you (in a good way) with the books, terms, ideas, and names which have contributed to modern thought and postmodern thought.

The pastor counseling a couple with a few marriage problems or the history teacher with a classroom full of eighth graders will not find answers here.  But I really hope that pastors and history teachers have the time and inclination to get outside of their boxes and explore these issues.  There are connections between the ramblings of brilliant, but misdirected philosophers and the cultural and social problems that we face in everyday life.  As I once told Richard Weaver, “You know, Richard, that all of these ideas I am teaching you have consequences.” (Don’t fact check that story!)

For beginners and novices, like me, this book is a good survey or introduction to lots of issues.  Well chosen quotes begin each section.  The quotes alone are good glimpses of some of the ideas that have been bouncing back and forth between intellectuals, philosophers, theologians, and academics.   I would love to take a class, preferably with Dr. Kelly teaching it, where we were reading and discussing this book.

The first 152 pages of this book are on postmodernism itself.  It is titled “Friend or Foe: The Challenge of Postmodernism.”  The next section, titled “Truth and History,” is much more my area of interest.  In that part, Kelly covers the ways that historians have interpreted history over the past hundred years or so.  Sometimes we may wonder why a person would read four different books on the same topic or era of history.  Certainly, the facts don’t change.  But history books have never been and can never be about listing facts.  Even the encyclopedia is selective and interpretive about what facts to include.

Schools of thought and methods of interpretation change.  With two major world wars and the rise and fall of various ideologies, the histories of the twentieth century are going to reflect both the time they were written and the school of thought of the authors.  This may not change the way that I hope to finish my discussion of Gettysburg next Monday in history class, but it does affect my historical understanding at other levels.

There are people who like hamburgers.  That’s fine.  But some people have to go beyond the culinary delight of two all beef patties on a sesame seed bun to understanding the cattle industry, wheat production, vegetable harvests, and food distribution.  Likewise, some people like history.  May their tribes increase.  Whether it is good biographies, the History Channel, historical fiction, or touring Civil War battlefields, all such interest is good.  But some of us really need to understand the inner workings of the discipline.  This book will help.

In short, some of you really need to get this book and study it.  Pick up on the recurring names and ideas.  Let this book be a launching pad for deeper and further studies.

Post Script:  Dr. Kelly devotes about two pages of small print in an extended footnote listing authors and titles of history works that have influenced his understanding of “postmodern historiography and historical epistemology.”  As one who has been around the library and history block a few times, I am astounded at the range of books he calls attention to.  The journey never ends.

 

 

Augustine and the Problem of Power

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A recurring argument for a book is “the test of time.”  There are exceptions to the rule, for some really good books vanish from sight and mind while other mediocre books continue to be read.  In the field of academic studies, an abiding book is even more rare.  Continued scholarship, new insights, the chipping away of older interpretations results in scholars being interested in the latest work from the presses.  Certainly, there are problems with this approach, but it has its merits as well.

Almost unimpeachable are the books considered as the fundamental classics in the western world.  Many of us have now spent decades trying to erase the shame of having degrees and supposedly being educated without having to read the great minds from Homer to Augustine, from Aquinas to Dante, from Luther to Kuyper.  But along with the great books and world-changing authors are the books that are built upon, that comment and expound, that interpret and apply the great books.

As a matter of practice, it is better to–especially when playing a decades overdue catch-up–to try to hit the actual sources.  Besides, many of the books about Plato and Aristotle are harder to read than Plato and Aristotle.  Many classic works are really short (excepting Herodotus’ Histories, Aquinas’ Summa, or the Leatherstocking Tales of Cooper).  Many classic authors wrote some selections that are short and readable.  One who cannot wade through Calvin’s Institutes can manage the excerpt from it titled The Golden Book of the Christian Life.  For every classical epic, there are plenty of sonnets.

One indisputable giant in Western Civilization is Augustine of Hippo.  (Of course, he is disputed, all the way down to how to pronounce his name.)  The corpus of his works are daunting to tackle.  The City of God itself is a massive and weighty read, but he can be approached through Confessions and through On Christian Doctrine as well as sermons and shorter selections.  Still there is a need for some, many in fact, to attempt to have a working understanding of The City of God.  I know the challenge, for I have read it a couple of times and have taught large portions of it in a high school class.

While it may not have remained on the best seller lists or on the most popular surveys for 1500 years, it has impacted our civilization and has yet to be a spent force.  City of God is relevant to today and is more relevant than many of the current and trending topics and issues.

Charles Norris Cochrane lived the short happy life of a professor grounded in history and literature.  An Oxford trained Canadian, Cochrane served in World War I and then began his academic career at the University of Toronto.  In 1940–not the best year for publishing a book–his defining work Christianity and Classical Culture came out. The intellectual community praised it.  Jaroslav Pelikan  called it “the most profound book I know on Augustine.”  The poet and literary scholar W. H. Auden said, “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of the importance  to the understanding not only of the epoch of which it is concerned, but also of our own, has increased with each rereading.”

Cochrane was positioned to occupy a major role in scholarship for decades to come and was invited to lecture on Augustine at Yale University.  But a heart attack led to an early death and left the world primarily with only the one book. (Cochrane had previously written a work on the Greek historian Thucydides.)

Yet the man of one book remained a key force for studies related to Roman history, Christianity, the transition to the Middle Ages, philosophy, and theology for decades to come.  Christianity and Classical Culture remains in print to this day having been reprinted by the Liberty Fund.

Now, over seventy years since Cochrane’s book first appeared,  we have the sequel.  Cochrane gave a series of four lectures at Yale on “Augustine and the Problem of Power.”  These lectures can be seen as a distillation or summary of his larger work.  He had also written and spoken on other topics related to Roman culture, Machievelli, and Edward Gibbon.

Augustine and the Problem of Power

Long lost to the academic and book world, these papers were discovered by his granddaughter.  As the scattered writings began to be read and thought about, a decision was made to publish them in book form.  From that unexpected series of events, we now have the book Augustine and the Problem of Power:  The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane.  This work is edited by Professor David Beer, who also wrote a lengthy introduction to the collection.  It was published this past year by Wipf and Stock.

I readily, but cautiously, recommend this book.  Readily because of the reputation of the author and the blessing of having a further work by him.  Cautiously because this is not a “Augustine for Dummies” work.  This book is a slow read.  The title of the book is also the title of the four lectures which make up over a third of the book.  The lectures delve into the Greek and Roman views of society and politics that Augustine was answering and refuting.

Quite simply, the Greeks (and the Romans who followed) believed that a perfect or model or ideal society could be fashioned by the right political order, the right political philosophy, the right legislation.  Man and society were, at least to a large degree, perfectable with the correct philosophical and governmental actions.  In short order and directly, Cochrane labels the Greek and Roman political worldview as idolatry.

The antidote to the idols of that age or this one is the Christian faith.  Cochrane says, “Christian faith rests upon the unshakable conviction that, not withstanding the efforts of secularism to rationalize and justify its pretensions, the order of nature revealed by Christ and the Scripture is, the true order; to acknowledge which must therefore be the starting-point for all genuinely fruitful investigation into the problem of perfection”  (pager 78).

The statement above is not easy to swallow without some serious chewing.  It is not bumper-sticker or sound-bite Christian answers to current questions.  It takes unpacking and thinking.  And that is why this book–Augustine and the Problem of Power–and Cochrane’s previous work–Christianity and Classical Culture–and Augustine’s City of God–are so important today.

I received a review copy of Cochrane’s book and am not obligated to sing its praises, but will do so anyway.

Gordon Clark: Presbyterian Philosopher

I first became aware of Gordon Clark somewhere around 1975-76.  He was approaching his last decade, but was still actively writing, while I was just newly introduced to the vast realm of Reformed theology and thought.  There were, for many of us newly minted Calvinists of that time, two primary pillars that were both the attraction and battering rams in Reformed life.

One was soteriology, and remember that we like big words like that.  Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation, and for Calvinists, this began with grasping the Five Points of Calvinism.  The quick track to the 5 Points was found found in a book consisting mostly of Bible texts, titled The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Documented, and Defended by David Steele and Curtis C. Thomas.  But that short book was originally an appendix to Steele and Thomas’ key work titled Romans:  An Interpretive Outline.  Both books were published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

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The man who wrote the introduction for the Romans book and who urged Charles Craig of Presbyterian and Reformed to publish it was Gordon Clark.

At that same point in time, Presbyterian and Reformed mailed out a newsletter every month.  At the bottom of the newsletter was a list of books that were on sale, often for a dollar. One of the book I got was Karl Barth’s Theological Method by Gordon Clark–a hardback edition for a buck! I also got Clark’s book Biblical Predestination.  

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The book on Barth was out of my league, but I was reading everything I could find on predestination.

Over the years, I continued to buy books by Gordon Clark here and there.  I never sytematically or rigously read his books, but through the years I read one here and there.  Favorites included Historiography: Secular and Religious (reviewed here), The Christian Philosophy of Education, A Christian View of Men and Things, and his commentary on 1 Corinthians.

Also, I have read and re-read and have had a love/hate relationship with Clark’s book Logic.  Here is what I wrote about it back in 2006:

Right now, we are studying Gordon Clark’s book Logic in both classes. For Logic class, the book is an introduction, albeit a “push you off into the deep end of the pool” approach…. Clark was a brilliant man, a key Christian philospher, and according to many student testimonies, a great teacher. He was not necessarily a great writer or communicator of logic skills. His book rambles; he makes statements without support; he raises questions he does not answer; he slips wit in where more details are needed; and he strays off here and there. The book gives me the sense of sitting in the presence of a brilliant man whose years of study, reading, and writing are being displayed for all to delight in. I love the book, and I rejoice that I do not have to use it as my primary logic text. It is a great supplement, a useful introduction, a helpful refresher.

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And then there was that weird, jam-packed used book store in Hot Springs, back around the year 2004.  You could not move around in the store and there were stacks and boxes of books everywhere.  But this was a nightmare place, not a delightful hunting ground.  Most–as in 90%–of the books were trade paperback romances and other forms of pulp fiction.  But I am a hunter.  Somewhere in a stack of books almost too high to reach was a book that caught my eye:  The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark: A Restschrift, edited by Ronald Nash.  It was a hardback book and was priced for $5.00.  (I later–to my regret–missed a chance to buy an autographed copy of the same work.)

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My copy is hardback with a dust jacket. The book has been reprinted as Gordon Clark and His Critics.

The big awakening came somewhere around 2005 or 2006.  A friend, Jeff Bruce, sent me a link to an article titled “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind” by James Jordan.  The article completely blew me away.  But it wasn’t because it told me something new, but rather it reminded me of something from my past, as well as that of Jordan and many others.  It was like discovering some vital links in your family tree.  Yes, here were the Calvinist writers who had impacted and dominated my early years.

Jordan’s article was soon followed by a similar type article by P. Andrew Sandlin, titled “The De-Intellectualization of Reformed Theology.” (Why is this not available on the internet somewhere?)  My own contribution to the topic shows up here in a blog post titled “Reformed Thinkers.”  Then I had the opportunity to give some talks in both Virginia at the Christian Worldview Student Conference and in Alaska at a Reformation conference.  My Virginia lectures were called “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years” and my Alaska talks were called “Spheres of Reformation.”

Clark was back on the radar, but I realize now that I did not then nor have given him the wide berth he deserves as a pioneering Calvinist philosopher, worldview thinker, theologian, and model of scholarship.  Douglas Douma’s newly published biography–Gordon Clark:  The Presbyterian Philosopher–will be step one in remedying a widespect neglect of Gordon Clark’s life, thought, and books.

A few brief points on this book:

  1.  Notice the second part of the title:  The Presbyterian Philosopher.  The good news is that Christians–Reformed, Catholic, and otherwise–have carved out a wide swath in the field of philosophy in our day.  As is always the case with academic fields, philosophers–even those sharing Reformed credentials–fall into different schools of thought.  Many are Dooyeweerdians, meaning that they subscribe to or borrow from or build upon the work of Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd.  Many ascribe the expansion of Christian philosophical thought to Arthur Holmes who built the philosophy program at Wheaton College.  The contributions of Charles Taylor, Catholic philosopher and author of The Secular Age,  cannot be ignored.  Time does not permit us to give the praises due to Nicholas Wolterstorf and Alvin Plantiga.                But Gordon Clark is often ignored, overlooked, or dismissed (and disliked?).  Long before Holmes developed the philosophy department at Wheaton, Clark was there influencing young scholars who made their own contributions in the field of Christian thinking.  While Dooyeweerd’s work was still untranslated, Clark was writing on philosophy.  While even card-carrying Calvinists sometimes flinch from the difficult doctrines of Scripture, Clark was using the Bible as a hammer–along with a strong does of Aristotelian logic–to pound philosophies secular and religious that he thought fell short of Biblical truths.

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  1. Worldview thinking has become popular in Christian circles.  There are many books on developing a Christian worldview, and I have and love quite a few of them.  But Gordon Clark did not write about “developing a Christian worldview.”  He demonstrated one.  Consider the fact that he wrote about philosophy, theology, politics, education, pyschology, science, historiography, and other subjects.
  2. Clark is often remembered today for the many theological controversies he was embroiled in.  Beginning with the defining battles in the day with J. Gresham Machen and the liberals of the Presbyterian Church in the north, the twentieth century was the era of “Machen’s Warrior Children,” to use John Frame’s phrase.  A great battle within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the debate over “The Incomprehensibility of God.”  It pitted two giants against each other–Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til.  Douma’s biography aptly covers this conflict, which is often referred to as the “Clark-Van Til Controversy,” but could be called “The Incomprehensibility of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til” controversy.   We can take sides, eschew both sides, wring our hands, vilify either combatant–or more properly, those who continued the combat, or just shrug our shoulders over the whole mess.  But it happened and it impacted–and likely reduced–the influence of Calvinistic thought and Presbyterian church life in America.  The failure of Presbyterians to build more inroads and expansion within Fundamentalist churches have left us with small, very orthodox Reformed congregations.  Leave it to a Calvinist like John Piper to market the message to a wide audience.
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The two primary combatants–Gordon Clark (left) and Cornelius Van Til (right).

3.  Gordon Clark’s name and fame may not be in big lights right now.  And I suspect that Gordon Clark: The Presbyterian Philosopher will not be a “New York Times Best Seller.”  But this is an excellent book and will be a catalyst for many to read Clark again (like me) and others to discover him (as Douma himself did while reading John Robbins’ book on Ayn Rand).  When asked which theologian from our times will be read in 500 years, R. C. Sproul answered, “Gordon Clark.”  Well, I reckon that Dr. Clark, Dr. Sproul, Douglas Douma, and I can judge that comment more accurately in that other realm and not having that long to wait, read Clark now.

But begin with this biography.

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Although they sparred over theological and philosophical points, both Clark and Van Til respected and esteemed one another. As Van Til often affirmed to friends, “Soon we shall sit at Jesus’ feet.” Before that day arrived, they were reconciled.

By the way, I must admit to not liking the author Douglas Douma.  I am not well acquainted with him, but I have this against him:  1.  He is too young to have written such an outstanding book.  2.  He is too smart, since he has degrees in mechanical engineering, business, and theology. 3. And he is athletic and outdoorish.  All three traits have me miffed.

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Should a serious author really be standing at Horn Peak (13,450 feet) like this?

Philosophy–An Area Where Christians Are Winning

I am a history and literature teacher.  To be specific, I am a high school and junior high history and literature teacher.  To get even more specific, I have a junior high understanding of the world.  Frequently, I hear people talk about their desire or ability to “get a Ph.D. and teach in college.”  I don’t believe in such a world because, even with my 8th grade perspective, I read scholars.  Most people sitting in an audience listening to a great pianist or to Ricky Skaggs playing a mandolin should not think that with 3 months of lessons, they could be the ones on the stage.  Completion of a freshman level college course, or even the teaching of such a course (which I am doing now), do not a serious scholar make.

I am in the audience.  One thing I have learned is when to applaud.  Concerning history and literature, I can not only applaud, but also lean over and comment to whoever is sitting next to me.  For example, I could say “That was a good explanation of isolationism, but more needed to be said about Wilson’s foreign policy before World War I” or “Bret Lott may not call himself a Southern writer, but Jewell definitely reflects lots of the same themes as other 20th century Southern authors.”

Philosophy is a different matter.  I don’t even dare applaud, unless those sitting near me applaud.  But I am confident in applauding Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen.  This book is both an historical survey of the key philosophers who appeared during different historical eras and an explanation of the views and issues of philosophy.  Philosophy as a field of study is a vital subset of the study of Western Civilization.  (I don’t doubt the existence of non-Western civilizations and philosophies.  I just know almost nothing about them.  And we are in the stream of Western Civilization.) This book uses a series of ficticious letters between a girl named Abby and a boy named Percy.  Abby is attending a Christian university, while Percy attends a secular university.  Like all young couples in love, they discuss philosophy courses in their letters.  The point of the book and this approach is that it contrasts the difference between a Christain approach to philosophy from a secular approach.  Certainly there is common ground and common sources that are read; however, at many points, and certainly at the presuppositional level, the two approaches to philosophy (and one could add any other subject) differ. Because of the increasing skepticism and despair in Western culture and thought, many philosophers after the French Revolution lost confidence in philosophical answers.  The quest for meaning in a grand or universal sense became a quest for meaning in a personal sense.  By that, I mean many philosophers sought ways that the individual could cope with a meaningless, purposeless universe.  Novels, drama, poetry, art, and music followed more modern philosophies (as they always do) in seeing a disjointed, cruel, hopeless universe.

The Dutch Christian scholar Groen van Prinsterer posed the key question:  “Can Christianity,  after the French Revolution, be revived  in order to have a salutary effect on the direction of western culture?”  The French Revolution is all too often claimed as kinfolk to the American Revolution.  There were similarities, just as there are similarities between a novel and a car repair manual.  The revival of Christianity after the French Revolution occurred.  It has often been marginalized to focus on the soul rather than the culture.  Groen van Prinsterer was not doubting as he raised the question.  In fact, he did some major work in applying Christianity to Western Culture.

Christians often expect to read or hear about yet another cultural defeat in one area or another.  (I even suspect some Christian friends of truly enjoying the Obama Administration because its actions feed their fears.)  “Things are getting worse and worse.”  All too often premillennial Christians are able to build bigger and better facilities because of their conviction that the end is near.  Postmillennials are usually not a very hopeful lot either.  There is an increasing cultural divide.  The anitithesis, a favored word of Francis Schaeffer, is becoming more clear.  But the story is merely not one of Christian retreats and holding actions.

Time magazine reported an amazing trend in 1980.  They said that “a quiet revolution in thought and arguments that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback.  Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers…but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almight from fruitful discourse.”  In other words, the philosophy departments in many universities had been infiltrated.  The scholarly writings among philosophers, not usually not outside the academy, were including an alien group.  Christians are storming the ramparts of philosphy.  (The history in the book Christian Philosphy clearly points to this having happened numerous times before.)

The two major Christian philosphers highlighted in the book are Alvin Plantinga, described as the “world’s leading Protestant philosopher of God,” and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  Both Plantinga and Wolterstorff have roots in Dutch Reformed theology and culture.  Both are heirs of Abraham Kuyper.  This book, which devotes 2 chapters to the work of Plantinga and Wolterstorff, contrasts “Reformed epistemology” with the more continental (European) “Reformational philosphy” of Herman Dooyeweerd.  The philosophy of Dooyeweerd gets its own chapter.

All in all, Christian Philosophy is instructive and challenging.  “Introduction” doesn’t mean easy or overly simplified.  This is or ought to be a college introductory text.  It is fun and informal, but yet very challenging.  The two authors, Bartholomew and Goheen, have previously written two other introductory books.  They are Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story and Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview.  Both books are now high on my wantlist.

Postscript:  The book Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers, edited by Kelly James Clark, contains great accounts by Plantinga and Wolterstorff regarding their spiritual and academic journeys.  Both were students at Calvin College and both studied under Harry Jellema, a forerunner of the renaissance in Christian philosophy.

 

 

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They are no longer youthful, but they have changed the landscape for Christians in the field of philosophy.