|Dr. Alvin Plantinga|
Thursday, November 14, 2013
The Lutheran theological tradition has sometimes been attacked for being inhospitable to philosophical reflection. Even the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago publicly displays Luther's famous one-liner, "reason is a whore." If one knew nothing else about him, that statement would likely be understood wrongly in the extreme. Out of context and used in a context whose aims Luther would likely have supported, the quotation ignores the fact that Luther operated at a high level of "reasoning" himself, that he was quite familiar with the most important streams of philosophy in his day, and that he has had a profound influence on later philosophers and thinkers (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard come immediately to mind). For insight into this aspect of the Lutheran tradition one should consult the venerable works by Bernard Lohse (Ratio et Fides: Eine Untersuchun ueber die ratio in der Theologie Luthers [Goettingen, 1958]) and my teacher, Brian Gerrish (Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962]), in addition to the set of essays in the more recent work, The Devil's Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress), edited by Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth.
Of course the Lutheran tradition also includes Philip Melanchthon, Luther's university colleague and humanist friend, who was no philosophical slouch himself. Melanchthon, who lectured on what was then called "natural philosophy" (a discipline that developed into today's "natural science"), once said: “Not infrequently I weigh in my mind all the reasonings of the natural philosophers concerning God, so that I can more clearly refute the tricks of false opinions, which the Epicureans or Academics spread over the eyes of people. We learn from the natural philosophers that nature that has understanding cannot originate from the irrational, or be produced by chance” (P. Melanchthon, "On Natural Philosophy," in Orations on Philosophy and Education, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 136).
When Melanchthon wrote these words in the 16th c., as a part of his strong recommendation that educated Christians study philosophy and what we today would call the natural sciences, he surely was thinking of the kind of philosopher we find today in Dr. Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O'Brien Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and currently an emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College (where he also taught before going to Notre Dame). This observation is not meant to suggest that Dr. Plantinga’s reflections are out-dated! Not so. I am merely suggesting that were Melanchthon around today he would find in Dr. Plantinga a helpful resource for refuting the tricks of false opinions.
I was privileged to host Dr. Plantinga last week on our campus, where he delivered two public lectures on the broad topic of "science and religion." (I was impressed by how clear he could be after sharing a bottle of wine with me over dinner before each of the lectures!) Both lectures are based on a recent book he published (his 17th), Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
In this work he attacks the rather sophomoric "new atheists" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) and their naturalistic, materialistic metaphysical assumptions. He critically engages more reputable and sophisticated atheistic thinkers (Thomas Nagel, William Rowe, Michael Tooley), and he generally makes the argument that contemporary evolutionary theory is not incompatible with theistic, Christian belief. Along the way he makes the case that the main antitheistic arguments involving evolution are unpersuasive and, stunningly, that naturalism (the thought that there is no God or anything like "God") is in fact incompatible with evolution. Whatever conflict exists between "science" and "religion" is not a conflict between theistic religion and science but between naturalism and science.
Let's be clear: Plantinga fully accepts the theory of Darwinian evolution as the best available explanation for the development of species on the planet. He thus accepts the scientific consensus regarding the age of the earth (ca. 4.5 billion years old), the thesis of descent with modification, the thesis of common ancestry, and the view that the principal mechanism that drives this process of descent with modification is natural selection and random genetic mutation.
But let's also be clear: Plantinga makes the strong case that contemporary evolutionary theory is compatible with theistic, Christian belief. He correctly surmises that many Christians have wrongly equated "evolution" with "naturalism" or "materialism" (and thus with "atheism"), and that this is why so many American Christians reject the theory of evolution. Such Christians could benefit from reading Plantinga's work or listening to his online lectures that deal with this topic. He's good at refuting "the tricks of false opinions." He's also quite good at explicating the deep concord that exists between Christian belief in God the Creator and the "deep roots" of the natural sciences.
To listen to an online lecture similar to the one he gave at Valpo last week, you can go here:
You might also benefit from reading the thoughtful, respectful review of Dr. Plantinga's book by Thomas Nagel, one of the most important American philosophers of the past half century. You can read that review
I am grateful for Dr. Plantinga's work and for the help he provides in making a strong case for the compatibility between orthodox, mainstream Christian faith in God the Creator and the contemporary scientific theory of evolution.