Theology & Spirituality

Philosophy and the Re-evangelization of the West: An Interview with Elmer Thiessen

I find it interesting that many popular contemporary Christian figures are philosophers or at least philosophically oriented thinkers: William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Bishop Robert Barron, and others. Last year I went to hear Zacharias speak and was fascinated by the huge crowd that gathered to hear him talk about a few philosophical questions. As I thought about the event afterward, it reminded me of the accounts of the masses that would gather to hear revival preachers like George Whitefield and Dwight L. Moody. Philosophy, though that word might not be used very much, is obviously of profound importance to contemporary Western Christians, and if anything, its role seems to be increasing year by year.

One reason for philosophy’s prominence seems to be the decline of Christianity and the drive for apologetics-based evangelism. We quite naturally feel the need to come up with concise, sharp arguments for the existence of God and the truthfulness of the Christian religion, and in order to do so we must learn at least to navigate the world of philosophy. I think another reason is that, in this era of rising multiculturalism, Christians routinely encounter a diversity of worldviews and recognize that meaningful conversations with their non-Christian neighbours may require some prior reflection about how they themselves perceive the world, how their neighbours perceive the world, and how the Christian message could offer hope to these neighbours. Philosophy, as becomes apparent to many, is extremely important in thinking through these questions, and many believers therefore turn to intellectuals like Zacharias for help.

In reflecting on the prominence of and need for philosophy within contemporary Western Christianity, I decided to contact the most experienced and most interesting Christian philosopher I know: Elmer Thiessen, a long-time professor at Medicine Hat College in Alberta, Canada, and the author of books such as The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011) and The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018). I first encountered Thiessen when I took one of his courses at Emmanuel Bible College, one of the schools he has taught at in recent years, and was deeply impressed by his perceptiveness and intellectual vigour. As a philosopher who is concerned with evangelism, he is well equipped to address the concerns I briefly touched on above—sharing the gospel with the use of apologetics and having meaningful conversations with our neighbours—and he kindly agreed to answer a few introductory questions about philosophy and its role in what some have called the re-evangelization of the West. I trust his thoughts and recommendations will be welcome to those involved with witnessing for Christ in the Western world today.

DD: There is a great deal of discussion about the changing place of religion in the West, but few are talking about shifts in philosophy. What do you think are the biggest philosophical issues and developments affecting the Western world, particularly Canada and the United States, at the present time?

ET: I believe the postmodern turn in philosophy is one of the more significant developments in philosophy in the Western world today. I like to think of postmodernism as a reaction to the Enlightenment notions of objectivity and universal reason. While postmodernism has correctly taught us that our seeing and our thinking are always shaped by a particular point of view or a particular narrative, this has opened the door to epistemological relativism. The notion of truth is in peril.  Indeed, the idea of a reality independent of our seeing and thinking is often denied. Thus we find ourselves locked in the prison of our own interpretation of reality. Then there is Michel Foucault, who has taught us that knowledge is reduced to power plays. These postmodern themes have created a skepticism regarding knowledge and truth that I believe to be the key challenge facing philosophy today.

When I began my postsecondary education, linguistic analysis was the dominant approach to doing philosophy.  My Ph.D. dissertation is a 448-page treatment of the meaning of the word “indoctrination.”  I am now somewhat embarrassed about this work, and thankfully most philosophers have come to recognize the barrenness of doing only linguistic analysis. Words gain their meaning within particular contexts, and we need to pay more attention to the presuppositions underlying the narratives within which we use words.

Logical positivism was also in its heyday when I began my studies in philosophy. Thus metaphysics was viewed with suspicion and the language of God was declared to be meaningless. While I don’t believe, as some do, that logical positivism is dead, metaphysics and talk about God have been rehabilitated to some extent.  Indeed, the philosophy of religion is one of the more vibrant branches of philosophy today, and the Society of Christian Philosophers has been growing steadily since its inception some forty years ago.

DD: Do you see the average Westerner expressing postmodern ideas, or is postmodernism mainly popular among people with philosophical training and direct exposure to writers like Foucault?

ET: No, you don’t need to be a philosopher or have direct exposure to writers like Foucault to be influenced by postmodernism.  Everyone is being influenced by these ideas because they have become part of the DNA of our culture. They are embedded in our schools, our movies, our newspapers, and, sadly, even in some sermons we hear in our churches.

DD: Throughout history, Christians have had varying ideas about the usefulness of philosophy. Some love it, and some are nervous of it. What do you think is the appropriate way for Christians to approach philosophy, especially philosophical systems developed by non-Christians?

ET: When I began my studies in philosophy many years ago my family was very nervous about my decision to switch my major from physics to philosophy. They thought the study of philosophy would cause me to lose my faith.  But I found philosophy to be more interesting and more important than physics! I was also concerned about intellectual integrity with regard to my Christian faith. Could my faith stand up to rigorous critical scrutiny?  While there was a point in time at university where I nearly gave up my Christian faith because I wasn’t finding answers to the critical questions I was facing, I eventually worked my way through these doubts and have now developed what I hope is “a proper confidence” with regard to my Christian convictions.

I am convinced that Christians have nothing to fear from philosophy. If all truth is God’s truth, then inquiry in any field will ultimately lead to God, as long as inquiry is done with an open mind and heart.  Of course, all of us, including Christians, do not ever come to inquiry with completely open hearts and minds. Our thinking is always tainted by sin. Therefore, we must always be open to being corrected, and again, that includes Christians. Here philosophy can play an important role in helping us to evaluate critically our assumptions and biases.

How should we as Christians approach philosophical systems developed by non-Christians?  With charity and a desire to learn from them.  I have learned much from non-Christian philosophers, even from atheists. Although they are suppressing the truth, as Paul puts it, non-Christians can never suppress the truth completely. They live in a world created by God, and they themselves are created by God. Thus, I, as a Christian philosopher, have a lot in common with non-Christian philosophers. Of course, there are also areas of disagreement. These need to be treated charitably, and objections need to be stated clearly, with the assumption that we are together searching for truth. There should always be a redemptive component to interaction with non-Christian thinking on the part of Christian philosophers.

DD: Within Christian history there have been different schools and styles of Christian philosophy. Is there a particular school and/or style that you identify with?

ET: Although I am Anabaptist/Mennonite by persuasion, I have been strongly influenced by Calvinist/Reformed philosophy. Indeed, I often say that I owe my philosophical salvation to Reformed philosophers who have built on the writings of John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper.  I was first introduced to this philosophical tradition by the writings of Francis Schaeffer in the late 1960s. I found Schaeffer’s overview of the history of ideas most instructive. He introduced me to the notion of presuppositions, underscoring the importance of penetrating to the underlying assumptions of a belief system in order really to understand a position or argument. I am probably the only Mennonite philosopher in North America who has Herman Dooyeweerd’s four-volume A New Critique of Theoretical Thought on his shelves. I identify very much with what has come to be known as “Reformed epistemology,” and here my thinking has been shaped by contemporary writers like George Mavrodes, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston. Alvin Plantinga’s 1984 essay “Advice to Christian Philosophers” has long been an inspiration in my own research and writing. I should perhaps add that my own writing is still very much shaped by the analytic tradition in philosophy even though I recognize the shortcomings of this approach to doing philosophy.

DD: There is a great deal of discussion about re-evangelizing the West. What role do you think philosophy should have in sharing the gospel in the contemporary West?

ET: I think philosophy has a very important role to play in evangelism, though not in the way that is often assumed. I believe that apologetics, as traditionally understood in terms of proving the existence of God, is of limited value. We need to focus on belief systems rather than individual beliefs. Philosophy can play a key role in evaluating alternate belief systems by exposing and evaluating the underlying presuppositions and assessing the coherence of these systems of belief.  At the same time, philosophy can play an important role in comparing a Christian belief system with alternate belief systems and then showing how a Christian belief system is more coherent and elegant and has more explanatory power and pragmatic value than alternate belief systems.

I have spent most of my career in the secular academic context. Teaching philosophy within this setting has been for me a challenging mission field. Beyond the exciting challenge of just doing good philosophy, I see the classroom as a context in which I can also do some pre-evangelism.  Here I can break down the many artificial barriers that stop students from considering the Christian faith.  I can also challenge their secular and materialistic presuppositions.  Early on in my career, at Waterloo Lutheran University (1969–1970), I recall a student who came to me and said that I had shattered his worldview.  He now felt adrift in a desert and didn’t know where to turn.  In my office I could, of course, point him beyond the desert.

DD: What direction would you give to a Christian who would like to begin a journey of studying philosophy and using this in evangelism? Where should he or she start?

ET: I would encourage any Christian considering the field of philosophy as path towards evangelism and mission to make a careful study of the notion of worldviews (see, e.g., David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]) and, more specifically, a Christian worldview (see, e.g., Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005]).  It is also very important to get a “big picture” understanding of the Bible (see, e.g., Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014]). Read biographies as well (for an inspiring recent account of a Christian philosopher, see Gary W. Moon’s, Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018], and of course, keep studying the Bible.

Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash.

David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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