I am indebted to Adrianna Wright and all the nice people at Intervarsity Press, for providing me with a copy of Christianity and Western Thought, Vol. I, by Colin Brown for review.
This is a new softcover edition. There are two other volumes completing the series which are also available.
Mr. Colin’s book takes us from the inception of philosophic thought up until the Enlightenment, essentially through Kant. It covers, thus a huge range of material in its 340 pages of textual material.
As you may suspect, this is a survey book, quite appropriate for college introductory courses in Christian theology. As such, it serves as a singularly useful volume to the student who is interest in beginning to understand how Christian theological reflection has impacted, and was impacted upon by philosophic discourse over the centuries.
It begins as one would expect with the earliest thinkers, those commonly referred to as “pre-Socratic,” moving through the major thought of such people as Thales to the more well-known thinking of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. Much attention is paid to the various schools of Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism as well as the important contributions of Philo of Alexandra, a writer and thinker contemporary to Paul the Apostle.
Brown integrates the thought of these various minds, with that of the New Testament writers, Paul and John. While not embracing the Greek modeling of God and the world, it is without question that both Paul and John were deeply aware of the Greek belief systems of Plato and Aristotle. It is thought that John more consciously adopted the language of Greek thought, perhaps in hopes of appealing to an audience familiar with this mode of inquiry.
Part II addresses the philosophic underpinnings of the Early Church fathers and into the Medieval Scholasticism period. Much of this involves a discussion of such as Anselm and Aquinas and those that came after, until Part III brings us to Reformation and the emerging Age of Enlightenment.
Here we find discussion of relevant parts of the philosophies of such as Pyrrhonian Skepticism, Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal, Hobbes and finally into the thinking of Locke, Hume, Edwards, Voltaire, Rousseau, and finally Kant. Each and all at some points delved into whether God could be proven, and what about God could be proven.
I would be the first in declaring that philosophy is a difficult subject. Like many other disciplines, it has a language all it’s own, and it is difficult for the lay person to understand what seem like simple words, but actually are quite loaded in meaning–meaning that the average person cannot fathom without a guide. Plato and Aristotle talk of a “theory of forms” “potentialities” and “unmoved movers.” There are discussions of ontological proofs and teleological ones.
It all becomes quite mysterious for the lay person to be sure. Colin Brown does a herculean job of trying to make this all intelligible to one who is not planning on a career as a philosopher. He draws the lines of connection between those who would express what the mind can know and what the mind can rationally believe.
This volume becomes a go-to text, a way of refreshing one’s memory on what a particular philosopher argued, with appropriate criticisms of the principles he espoused. It provides an extraordinarily good bibliography and footnoting of the material and anyone can find all the original texts as well as a large compendium of analysis by other authors more limited to specific “schools” or philosophers.
In the end, I discovered that the questions asked by the pre-Socratics are still the questions being asked today. Each generation of thinkers tends to favor or disfavor some school of the past, and considers that they add to, subtract, or alter those before them. Those who favor one group or one philosopher as seminal, are met with an equal number who find that particular thinker mundane or completely overcome by better arguments.
I often hear from atheists that various modern philosophers have destroyed any cogent argument for the existence of God. They tell me that no such case can be proven empirically. Yet as I read through this volume, I realized that no such conclusion can be reached. In fact, the vast majority of thinkers up through the Enlightenment were in fact believers, although many were deists and many would argue that very little can be known of God.
What they point to is that belief in a God is a separate subject, one that need not be beholden to any methodology that has the current fancy of the philosophic world. Indeed, most argue that there is in fact rational basis for belief. That is enough I would argue.
This does not make the study of past thinkers either irrelevant nor wasteful. As Brown points out,
each generation is confronted by the challenge to think through its basic beliefs, assumptions and attitudes. It is the mark of the closed mind to ignore this challenge.
But theology and philosophy–in common with other liberal arts–is not like science. It is not a case that the discoveries of the present make obsolete the views of the previous generation.
We are informed in our thinking today by what was thought in the past. We regenerate some of those ideas and discard others that prove unfruitful to us today. I found it profoundly helpful in understanding the theology of today to examine the progression of thinking of the past.
This book, I can highly recommend to anyone who wishes to explore the philosophical underpinnings of their faith, as well as how faith has diverged from common philosophical ideas. It is no easy go, but in the end there is much you will absorb. It will be a text you can continually refer to as reference and as a beginning point to a fuller investigation.
**The only agreement between myself and Intervarsity Press is that I would review the book which was sent to me free of charge. The actual review is my own opinion there were no further agreements as to its content.