Honoring Alvin Plantinga

May 24, 2010
Posted by Joe Gorra

Many ideas have consequences.

How someone chooses to steward their ideas, influence and care  through institutions, networks of relationships, indeed among friendships, over time can be as consequential, if not more so, than sometimes even the ideas themselves.

Alvin Plantinga’s ideas, and his leadership with those ideas, have been deeply impactful for a whole generation of Christian philosophers. Moreover, his work has also been significantly appropriated by theologians, scientists, historians, psychologists and other Christian scholars working in various disciplines and fields.

“Alvin Plantinga is one of the most important and influential philosophers of the 20th and early 21st centuries,” says Michael Rea in a recent press release. Rea is a Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. “His [Plantinga’s] publications range over a wide variety of fields, but his most enduring contributions have been in metaphysics, epistemology, and, especially, the philosophy of religion.”

Besides introducing important arguments into the literature on the philosophy of religion, however, Plantinga has also played an important role in shaping the way in which many religious philosophers now approach topics in their own fields of specialization …

Of all the teachers I had the privilege of learning from at Notre Dame, none seemed more effective in the classroom than Plantinga. Furthermore, Plantinga takes his role as a teacher of graduate students very seriously.

I treasure the time I spent working with him and the friendship that grew out of it, and I know that my experience was not unique. Several friends of mine were and are students of Plantinga’s, and I know that all of them would have very similar things to say about their own experiences….

In light of the recent “Retirement Conference” (May 20-22) at Notre Dame, with deep gratitude the Evangelical Philosophical Society celebrates and honors our friend and colleague, Alvin Plantinga. Below are comments of appreciation that we received from Tom Crisp, Jim Beilby,  Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland,  and Chad Meister.

“This was, for me, a deeply moving conference,” said Tom Crisp, Biola University’s Professor of Philosophy. “Al means an enormous amount to me as a mentor and friend; the chance to be part of the conference, to hear the various tributes to Al (Nick Wolterstorff’s in particular–there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time he finished), to thank him, to see so many dear friends–all tremendous blessings.”
Plantinga’s wise, Christian life is especially noted by Crisp:
One quick reminiscence about my time studying under Al. He once shared this (or something close) with a class: “In professional philosophy, you’ll find a sort of hierarchy or totem pole, a pecking order of power and influence. If you find yourself somewhere on that totem pole, my recommendation is that you go out of your way to be generous, kind, and helpful to those below you in the ordering, and that you attempt to be somewhat feisty to those above you.” This bit of advice has always struck me as wise and deeply Christian; I’ve seen Al put it into practice on many occasions.

William Lane Craig, Biola’s Research Professor of Philosophy, recalls something similar as Crisp concerning Plantinga’s character:

One of my first contacts with Alvin Plantinga was at a conference in Dallas in 1985. As a young philosopher, I was eager (though somewhat intimidated) to sit down with him and ask him some questions.  We arranged a time together in a section of the hotel lounge and began to talk. At that point, a woman came to him and said, “Prof. Plantinga, the press is here and asking to interview you.”  I figured that was the end of our conversation.  But to my shock, Plantinga said to her, “Well, tell them to go away!  Tell them I’m doing something more important: I’m talking philosophy.” Those words were burned into my memory. Imagine how I felt:  Alvin Plantinga considered it more important to talk to a nobody like me than be interviewed for an article that thousands would read! It spoke volumes to me of the character of this gracious man, who has over the years been such an inspiration to me.

At that time, Craig was also teaching at Trinity Seminary (Deerfield, IL). One of his students was Paul Copan, who is now the current President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and Professor and Pledger Family Chairperson of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

“I was first exposed to his writings as an M.A. student, when I took an Alvin Plantinga seminar class with Bill Craig in early 1986 at Trinity Seminary,” says Copan.

Al has been a tremendous influence on my thinking ever since.  I am very grateful for his astonishing contribution to the philosophy of religion for the last 45 years and his key role in helping to create a truly historic movement for such a time as this.  Al’s articulation of a robustly Christian outlook, his strength of conviction to resist certain fashionable philosophical trends, and his warm-hearted commitment to Christ and to biblical authority have have encouraged and guided so many of us.  He has truly inspired a generation of Christian philosophers; indeed, we stand on the shoulders of a great warrior for the gospel.  “Blessed is he who trusts in the LORD.”

“Alvin Plantinga is, of course, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century,” says James Beilby, professor of philosophy at Bethel University. “His work has greatly influenced my academic work.  He was the subject of my dissertation and I’ve written or edited two books on aspects of his thought.  But his influence on me long predates my dissertation topic.”

During my senior year of college (1990-91) my faith fell completely apart. My crisis of faith was driven by the death of my football coach and a host of other things.  On my road back to faith, reading Plantinga’s God and Other Minds was a milestone.  Not the content, although that helped — honestly, I’m not sure I understood much more than a tithe of what he was really getting at.  It was Plantinga’s openness to dig deep, to question traditional ways of thinking, his clarity of thought, and his wit and humor that grabbed me.  “Christians can’t be all bad if there are some like this guy out there”, I thought.  Around this time, I wrote Al a letter, thanking him and asking what advice he might give to a young would-be theologian/philosopher.  I never really expected to receive a reply, but I did — promptly, two-and-a-half pages, single-spaced.  In the years since, he has encouraged and influenced me in a number of ways — through shared academic projects, personal conversations, games of disc golf, and showing up to my dissertation defense.

I tell this story not because I think my experience is unique, but because I think that it is not.  Al’s scholarly influence, as impressive as it is, is dwarfed by his personal influence.  Sure … he’s probably the best philosopher of our time.  But he’s a better person.

Congratulations, Al, on your retirement.  You said recently that after your retirement celebration that “I’ll be very happy if I don’t hear anything else about myself for, say, the next 20 years.”  I’m afraid that hearing these sorts of complements is the cross you will have to bear.  They are the fruit of your labors and the sign of your influence on so many.

Biola’s Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, J.P. Moreland, notes that “It is, indeed, hard to overestimate the impact of Plantinga’s life; clearly, his writings and lectures are central to this impact.”

But he has been a role model to an entire generation of younger Christian scholars of excellence, courage, faithfulness to Christ, and humility. I have been especially gratified by his critique of certain forms of physicalism and his defense of substance dualism, along with his identification of it as the Christian view. It has been an honor to be in the battle of ideas with him as our general. 

Surely, “Through Alvin Plantinga’s scholarship and his life, he has been the exemplar philosopher and Christian,” says Chad Meister

He is an inspiration to me and countless others-philosophers, theologians, pastors, and laypersons.  Through his framework-shifting articles and books in metaphysics and epistemology, for example, he reset the discussions and debates among philosophers and theologians.  He provided fresh ways of thinking about evil, free will, naturalism, and divine foreknowledge, to name a few key issues, and my own thinking about these matters has in many ways been structured around his profound insights.  He has demonstrated that being a devoted Christian and being a philosopher are not at odds; in fact, quite the contrary.  I am certain that among future generations he will continue to be regarded as one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  I thank God for Al and all what he has accomplished in his productive career.
Clearly, an understanding of Alvin Plantinga’s character and spirituality are not to be divorced from an understanding of his scholarly productivity and the sort of intellectual impact that his work continues to make. (To learn more, see Plantinga’s “Spiritual Autobiography”, which was also featured in Kelly James Clark’s edited book, Philosophers Who Believe)

Although retired from Notre Dame, Alvin Plantinga will not be disappearing anytime soon. He is currently working on a book related to philosophy, science and theology, and he will occasionally teach at Calvin College.

We are pleased to have Alvin Plantinga as our EPS plenary speaker for both the annual conference and the apologetics conference in November. Over the years, Philosophia Christi has been privileged to publish Plantinga’s work, along with important discussions of his work, such as our theme issue on his Warranted Christian Belief.

We welcome your further personal appreciations on Plantinga’s life, leadership and work. Please comment below.