William P. Alston, 1921-2009

September 18, 2009
Posted by Joe Gorra

The EPS honors the life and work of Christian philosopher Dr. William P. Alston, who died on September 13, 2009.

Below is an obituary received from Valerie Alston, Dr. Alston’s beloved wife. And a personal tribute from Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. We welcome further personal and professional appreciations about Dr. Alston’s life and work. Please submit your comments to this blog post (see below).

William Payne Alston

William Payne Alston, 87, died September 13, 2009, at the Nottingham Residential Health Care Facility in Jamesville, New York. He was born November 29, 1921 in Shreveport, Louisiana.

In 1942, Bill received a Bachelor of Music degree from Centenary College. During WWII, he served in an Army Band stationed in California. While in the service, he became interested in philosophy, and after his discharge from the Army, he entered the Graduate Program in Philosophy at the University of Chicago. His Ph.D. work led to a position at the University of Michigan, where he taught philosophy for twenty-two years and established himself as an important American philosopher. He then moved to Rutgers University and, later to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1980 he joined the faculty at Syracuse University where he completed his fifty-year career teaching and writing about philosophy. He was best known for his work in the philosophy of language, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. He published several books and over 150 articles. His many Ph.D. students play a major role in philosophy today. He was founding editor of the journals Faith and Philosophy and Journal of Philosophical Research.

Bill received the highest honors of his profession. He has been President of the Central Division American Philosophical Association, the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and the Society of Christian Philosophers. His international travel included trips to the Vatican as part of an eight-year project on “God’s Actions in the World in the Light of Modern Science,” sponsored by the Vatican Observatory. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and he received Syracuse University’s Chancellor’s Award for Exceptional Academic Achievement.

He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Valerie Alston; a daughter, Ellen (John) Donnelly of Wayne, NJ and grandchildren, Patrick & Anna Donnelly; step-children, Marsha (Gary) Dysert of Charlotte, NC, James (Nancy) Barnes of Toledo, OH, Kathleen (Blair) Person of Troy, MI; four step-grandchildren and three great step-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral on November 2, 2009 at 11:00 a.m. Fairchild & Meech are in charge of arrangements.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, 310 Montgomery Street, Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.


A personal tribute to William P. Alston, from Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society

On September 13, 2009, Christian philosopher William P. Alston died at the age of 87. Alston wrote prolifically on a wide range of topics in the philosophy of religion—from the problem of evil to divine action to the Spirit’s indwelling to divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Alston’s groundbreaking work is particularly noteworthy in the areas of defending meaningful religious language and articulating an epistemology of religious experience. Other significant contributions include his rigorous defense of truth in realistic terms (“alethic realism”) and of metaphysical realism.

I first heard of Bill Alston when I was a philosophy student at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois in the mid-1980s. (I was a student of Drs. Stuart Hackett and William Lane Craig back then.) During this time, I began subscribing to the Society of Christian Philosophers’ journal, Faith and Philosophy. I was aware that Alston and Al Plantinga had helped launch the SCP—a momentous achievement whose time had finally come and for which Christian philosophers everywhere will be ever grateful.

During my studies at Trinity, I had my first exposure to Alston’s writings. The very first Alston piece I read was his essay “Divine-Human Dialogue and the Nature of God” (Faith and Philosophy, January 1986). I not only appreciated the topic he tackled; I marveled that a sophisticated philosopher would give a questionnaire to adults at his church, asking them, “Do you ever feel that God speaks to you? (Not necessarily in audible words. The question could be phrased: do you ever feel that God is communicating a message to you?)” Alston tallied the results: Yes-17; No-2. Thus began my great appreciation and respect for Alston’s insight and exceptional scholarship as well as his personal devotion as a Christian.

After my studies at Trinity, I had the opportunity to meet Alston in 1988 at a Society of Christian Philosophers conference at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. He was one in an impressive line-up of presenters, which included Richard Swinburne, George Mavrodes, Stephen Evans, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eleonore Stump, and Marilyn Adams along with biblical scholars Anthony Thiselton and the late James Barr. A few of these presented papers made their way into the Faith and Philosophy October 1989 issue.

Years later, I wrote a book review of Thomas Morris’s God and the Philosophers (Oxford University Press 1994) for The Review of Metaphysics (June 1997). Alston’s autobiographical chapter gave me further insight into his experience with God personally—even speaking in tongues—through the influence of charismatic Christians. Alston discussed his attraction to the Christian community through the love he had experienced within it: “my way back [to Christ] was not by abstract philosophical reasoning, but by experience—experience of the love of God and the presence of the Spirit, as found within the community of the faithful” (p. 28). Alston has served as a model of rigorous philosophical thought as well as a deep experience of God by His Spirit. His experience reminds us that the gospel is powerful in a holistic sense: it not only has explanatory philosophical power, but it has the power to transform lives and meet the deepest of human needs.

Back in 2002/2003, I had the privilege of working with Alston on a book project. With Paul Moser, I coedited The Rationality of Theism (Routledge), and Bill led off with the superb essay, “Religious Language and Verificationism.” He concluded his piece by calling the Verificationist Criterion to be “but a paper tiger, in philosophy of religion as elsewhere.” He added, “It poses no threat to the apparently obvious truth that talk of God contains many statements about God that have objective truth-values—whether we can determine what they are or not.”

I am honored to have learned from and worked with this notable philosopher and, even more significantly, a brother in Christ and a partner in the gospel.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.


Other remembrances about Alston can be found here:

For further info, see Daniel Howard-Snyder’s helpful bibliography of Alston’s scholarly work (since 2006) and Daniel’s 2005 biographical entry in the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers.

We welcome personal and professional appreciations in honor of Dr. William P. Alston. Please submit your comments to this post!