When I heard that Alvin Plantinga ’54—distinguished alumnus of Calvin and perhaps the best known and most heralded Christian philosopher of our generation—was back on campus and teaching, I was curious. What brought him back? What are his impressions of Calvin today? What is he working on now? And I was sure I wasn’t alone in wondering. So we sat down in the library of the Youngsma Center, the new home of the alumni offices, and caught up on these subjects and more.
Plantinga is the emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He taught there from 1982 until last year, when he retired. Prior to Notre Dame, Plantinga taught philosophy at Calvin for 19 years, from 1963 to 1982. He earned his PhD from Yale University in 1958.
In 1980, Time magazine called him “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.” He has written scores of books and articles, among them God and Other Minds (1967); God, Freedom and Evil (1974); Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (1983); and Warranted Christian Belief (2000).
His role model and mentor was another famed Calvin philosopher, William Harry Jellema ’14. In fact, it was Jellema’s teaching that drew Plantinga to study at Calvin rather than Harvard, and it was Jellema’s position on the Calvin faculty that Plantinga took upon Jellema’s retirement in 1963. Jellema was also named a distinguished alumnus of Calvin—in 1966. Plantinga was so honored in 1986.
In November, Plantinga gave the inaugural lecture as the first holder of the William Harry Jellema Chair of Christian Philosophy. He said he is “sitting lightly in the chair” for a few years to allow for full funding of the chair.
What brought you back to Calvin?
I retired from Notre Dame in June of last year and Grand Rapids seemed like the logical place to settle. We have kids and grandkids here and many old friends. I guess you could say I was in exile for 28 years, and now I’m back.
Did you enjoy your years at Notre Dame?
Yes, very much so. I like the university immensely. I was teaching graduate students, and typically I had many evangelical Christians in my classes. Notre Dame draws them in large numbers.
I hear you are teaching again at Calvin. In what capacity?
I’m going through my new book with about 15 juniors and seniors. We meet once a week and we take one chapter at a time. They read the chapter and prepare questions for me and we embark on a discussion. Next semester I’ll be assisting [Calvin philosophy professor] Lee Hardy as he teaches a course at the seminary. And we’re talking about a course for next fall at the college titled “How to be a Christian Philosopher.”
What an amazing experience for those students! What has been your experience in the classroom with today’s Calvin students?
The kids are very bright; they are very good students. Teaching undergrads is a bit different from teaching grad students. Undergrads are usually willing to say chancy things; grad students don’t want to say anything that others might consider dumb. The conversations with Calvin students go in delightful and unexpected directions.
So tell me about your new book. What is it about?
It is called Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism. The main theme is that there is deep concord and superficial conflict between religion and science, but that there is superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science. Perhaps the most surprising contention is that there is conflict between naturalism and science. In my view, naturalism leads to a perspective that our cognitive faculties are unreliable and that’s what I call a “defeater.” It defeats the basis of the scientific mind.
Is this a radical contention?
It is fairly radical, but has precursors in Darwin, Nietzsche and C.S. Lewis. I develop the line of reasoning a bit further.
Who will be your primary critics?
Oh, there will be some who really hate this book, especially naturalists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Some Christians will be positive about the book, others will be suspicious.
Calvin has been getting into the news again over human origins. Does your book address those issues?
No, I don’t venture into the Adam and Eve question. It seems to me that evolution and natural selection are not incompatible with C.S. Lewis’ “mere Christianity.” But everything really depends on your definition of the theory of evolution. If you believe evolution is unguided—that there is no Designer/Creator/Sustainer—then they are incompatible. But where do you go to get the definitive definition of evolution? My guess is that Darwin thought evolution to be unguided. And then there’s that word “random” that gets used in evolution debates. What does “random” mean? Again, if it includes being unguided, that’s problematic. If guided, there is compatibility. Over at Notre Dame, there was a lot of talk about Pope John Paul II’s comment that evolution was not a mere theory. Another prominent cardinal said the issue was murky. Many times it comes down to what definition you are using.
So what about an original human pair?
I don’t see a specific conflict here. God could have picked a pair of humans and gave them a property that allowed them the ability to discern good from evil, the freedom to obey or not, with a choice between obedience and disobedience. This seems wholly compatible with current evolutionary theory.
It seems that at Calvin you can always count on these contentious debates from time to time.
Well, that’s always been part of our Reformed tradition and that’s a good thing. There are perplexing issues out there and we ought to think hard about them. When we learn something new in science, we know we are still in the process of becoming clearer about the way God designed things. In the same way, we have to admit that our understanding of faith is not always clear, either. John Calvin wrote 22 volumes of biblical commentary. If everything in the Bible was so clear, he shouldn’t have needed to do that. Even if you think your intent to discern scripture is true, it is not always clear, as the conversation about the early chapters of Genesis shows.
It is not always a given that our understanding of the faith has to give when there is apparent conflict. Sometimes it does, sometimes not.
Calvin has always been in the middle of these conversations about the intersection of faith and science.
These discussions and disagreements are the consequence of something good. At Calvin, people are very serious about the Bible, and very serious about the life of the mind. This doesn’t seem to be true at most Christian colleges. I’m reminded of Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In too many places you won’t find debate and discussion. That has never been true of Calvin, and I hope that tradition continues.
Calvin’s philosophy department has championed that tradition.
Yes, it has. The Tuesday Colloquium continues to this day, and it began when I started teaching here, so that’s almost 50 years running. The colloquium consists of one professor presenting a written work and the entire department discusses it, usually quite amiably.
And your impression, coming back to Calvin, of the philosophy department today?
Oh, the department continues to have very productive and excellent philosophers. That all began in the ’20s when Harry Jellema came to Calvin. We are nearing the 100-year anniversary of Christian philosophical excellence at this college. I heard that once [Calvin philosophy professor] David Hoekema was introduced at a national conference and the speaker said David had graduated from the finest graduate philosophy program in the nation—Princeton—and the finest undergraduate philosophy program in the country—Calvin.
If you could recommend a major to a young Christian scholar today, what would it be?
Philosophy, of course. It is the most interesting subject because it has dealt with the great human questions for 3,000 years. What are humans like? What is the right way to live? How do we relate to the rest of the living world? These are intrinsic questions of enormous interest. If I were coming to college now, I would certainly major in philosophy.
What three books should every Calvin alum have read—philosophy major or not?
Plato’s Republic. We ought to have more opportunities for people of all ages to engage that text. Another is Jonathan Edwards’ A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. I didn’t read this volume until I was 50; I should have read it when I was 20. Most people only know Edwards through his fiery sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” because it is often included in anthologies. Every minister in the time of Edwards had to have a “fire and brimstone” sermon in his back pocket. But this sermon is so unlike Edwards and the rest of his work. He was a thoughtful and loving teacher and scholar. The third book would be Augustine’s Confessions.
What are your general impressions of Calvin as you settle back into the campus?
I think the college is flourishing and should keep on doing what it is doing. Even if a smaller number of students are attracted to what goes on here, Calvin should stay the course. This school is what a Christian college should be, even if some of the research and study and debate communicate an unpopular stance. That kind of education ought to be treasured and supported.
Calvin has just added its second master’s degree program to the curriculum. Should there be more graduate programs here?
I used to think that Calvin should not; it should just do undergraduate education really well. Now, I think Calvin ought to consider some other graduate programs, and in the humanities—philosophy, English, history. I realize that will take more resources and more time. Calvin could provide a seriously Christian graduate program.
Any advice on who should be Calvin’s next president?
I know that nowadays presidents have to be adept at fund-raising and public relations, but primarily the president of Calvin College should have a serious love for the life of the mind and a serious love of the faith, with a deep understanding of the Reformed version of Christianity. We’ll all be watching with interest.
Watch an episode of Inner Compass featuring Alvin Plantinga on the question:"Christian, Evolutionist or Both?"