For anyone seeking an overview of Western philosophy from a Christian perspective, Bartholomew and Goheen’s latest book will be a welcome starting point. Written in an accessible and entertaining style, it takes us from the Pre-Socratic philosophers to the present day with illuminating commentary that reveals the authors’ wide-ranging expertise as philosopher-theologians in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper. One of the underlying themes is that all philosophy harbours worldview – hence religious – perspectives.
Before this book came along, my preferred reference work on Western philosophy was Philip Stokes’ Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers (2002, Arcturus). This presents a large full-page summary of key themes of some of the most notable philosophers. I still find this a useful overview, but now I combine it with Bartholomew & Goheen’s account for fuller insights into many of the same thinkers. Their book offers another – arguably better – view of where each philosopher sits in the evolution of ideas about the structure of reality and our place within it.
Why might this book with its Christian perspective guide us better in the history of philosophy than a popular secular alternative? All histories – indeed all narratives – either reveal a vision of what constitutes significant novelty or genuine progress or they degenerate into catalogues of disconnected minutiae. The generalisations that make histories intelligible and interesting (here’s when someone first claimed this, or did that) reflect categories of meaning for understanding trends and changes. Such categories are always contestable, so we should explore them and see how different traditions and perspectives make a difference. In the case of philosophy, some histories might chart progress from vagueness to precision, for example, or from mysticism to enlightened self-awareness. The beauty of Bartholomew & Goheen’s offering lies in its story of progress both in our appreciation of the world’s amazing complexity and in philosophers’ awareness of the ways in which embodied minds situated in real history have conditioned our thought. It suggests strengths and weaknesses in each new turn in the narrative, from a faith perspective that is gradually unveiled as the account progresses. And it seeks out the presence of authentically Christian strands of philosophical thought in every age. The book’s cover image shows Søren Kierkegaard, but the authors argue that Kant’s Christian confidant Johann Georg Hamman (1730-88) is one of the most underrated philosophers of the Western tradition.
The book’s final chapter brings its distinctive Christian perspective into focus. The authors find the Reformational tradition the most fruitful in engaging with other philosophers (via Herman Dooyeweerd’s principles of immanent and transcendent critique) and, crucially, in evoking original insights that can spill over to enrich other disciplines. As a scientist, this is what has long attracted me to Reformational philosophy. But Bartholomew and Goheen actually give more space to looking at the fruits of Reformed Epistemology, the better-known cousin of Ref. phil. Since both schools emanate from the Calvinian tradition and are indebted to Kuyper, the authors hope for greater dialogue between them.
The book comprises three parts. Part 1 comprises 2 introductory chapters on “Approaching Christian Philosophy”, laying out the relation that will be assumed between faith and philosophy. Part 2 then provides “The Story of Western Philosophy” in a sequence of 9 narrative chapters. Part 3 concludes with 4 chapters on “Christian Philosophy Today”.
“Christian Philosophy” is primarily written for philosophy undergraduate students in North American Christian universities, but I see it as the best primer to philosophy for Christians anywhere. I suspect that the Reformational engagement with some of the philosophers surveyed could be deepened, and the presentation of Reformational philosophy in the final chapter could be sharpened. But that’s really the point of the book: to encourage, equip and inspire new generations of Christian thinkers to join in an exciting but demanding enterprise: to develop a framework for understanding God’s created order better than ever before. That’s something we can pray for: thinkers being won by Christ-honouring philosophy to the cause of God’s kingdom and a growing community of those who really love wisdom, and will live in it forever.
I’m grateful to David Hanson for editorial improvements to this piece.