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Is Ramified Natural Theology at odds with Christ-Shaped Philosophy?

The Winter 2013 (vol. 15. no. 2) issue of Philosophia Christi showcases a lively discussion on the character and stature of “Ramified Natural Theology” with a lead article by Richard Swinburne. Purchase this special issue today!

To explore some foretastes of the “Ramified Natural Theology” discussion in Philosophia Christi, please also consider these online contributions:

While ramified natural theology is an exciting and newly popular area of scholarly inquiry, it is also one which can very quickly get one into theological trouble. In this article I explore the necessary theological presuppositions for various views of ramified natural theology, offering two models for the possible theological place of the endeavor. Distinctions in the theological role of ramified natural theology allow one to find an appropriate place for it in apologetic discourse, either as in reach to believers or outreach to unbelievers. 

In this paper I argue that the ‘argument from miracle’ can best be understood as a powerful instance of what is coming to be known as ramified natural theology. Traditionally, it has been assumed that natural theology must eschew consideration of special revelation from God and consider only data that is available to unaided reason. This, however, is to ignore the fact that a purported revelation may include content that is empirically verifiable and thus within the purview of natural theology. Miracles are publicly observable events that cry out for an explanation. One need not come to such events already accepting the interpretation placed on them by religious believers – the Bible can be read as historical evidence rather than authoritative Scripture – but neither is one prohibited from considering whether that interpretation does indeed provide the best understanding of the events. This opens up the possibility that someone who initially does not accept theism might at once accept both the claim of God’s existence and the claim of God’s self-disclosure. 

Interested readers may also want to consider the following exchange between Angus Menuge and Paul Moser on “Ramified” and “Christ-shaped philosophy”:

Paul Moser has illuminated the spiritual terrain of Christian philosophy by revealing a stark contrast between the poles of spectator natural theology and Gethsemane epistemology. In this paper, I will first suggest that Moser’s work is most helpfully viewed not as a statement about the sociological habits of Christian philosophers, but as a prophetic call to self-examination and repentance by each and every Christian philosopher. That said, I argue that between spectator natural theology and Gethsemane epistemology there does seem room for an intermediary position: a chastened natural theology which provides a lived dialectic, a “ramified personalized natural theology.” I suggest this not as a critique but as a constructive proposal for rapprochement that attempts to find a worthy place for both natural theology and an evangelistic call to a personal encounter with the living Lord. 

Acknowledging the deficiency of traditional natural theology, Angus Menuge seeks an alternative in “ramified personalized natural theology.” I share his sense of the deficiency of traditional natural theology, but I raise some doubts about his proposed alternative, and suggest a more direct approach to the evidence for God. 

As part of the ongoing “Christ-Shaped Philosophy” discussion with Paul Moser, this note briefly responds to two main challenges that Paul Moser makes to my suggestion that Ramified Personalized Natural Theology may constitute a third way between standard natural theology and Gethsemane epistemology. First, Moser charges that ramified natural theology is likely incoherent because ramified theology will appeal to supernatural premises. My response appeals to a forthcoming essay by Hugh Gauch (Philosophia Christi 15:2), which provides a framework in which evidence counts across competing worldviews. Second, Moser claims that the “divine personalized experience” provided by the Holy Spirit makes natural theology redundant. I appropriate Charles Taliaferro’s idea of a “golden cord,” and suggest that the evidential threads of this cord, whether natural or supernatural, provide a means by which Christ may draw us to himself. 

This article is a rejoinder to Angus Menuge’s latest proposal of “a third way between standard natural theology and Gethsemane epistemology” for the Christ-Shaped Philosophy project. I contend that we do not have a stable third way, because any alternative to Gethsemane epistemology, like the arguments of traditional natural theology, neglects the distinctiveness of the evidence for the self-authenticating Christian God and does not offer a resilient defense of belief in this God. Advocates of the traditional arguments of natural theology fail to represent the ontological and evidential uniqueness of this God. 

 Explore the dozens of other contributions to the EPS Christ-Shaped Philosophy project.

Introduction to a Special Issue of Philosophia Christi on Ramified Natural Theology

Extended Discussions of Ramified Natural Theology

In light of the Philosophia Christi (Winter 2013) themed discussion on “Ramified,” we welcome ongoing web contributions directly related to the Philosophia Christi articles or as fresh additions to that discussion. For example, consider these worthwhile papers:
For more interactive discussions on “Ramified Natural Theology” and “Christ-Shaped Philosophy,” see the various papers at this associated web project.

A Renaissance of “Traditional Natural Theology”

What may be called “traditional natural theology” is widely understood as the project of establishing the existence of God and at least some of His attributes through the testimony of the senses and reason, without relying on the authority of divine revelation. Some believe traditional natural theology was dealt a mortal blow by David Hume, Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers. To the contrary, it has undergone a startling renaissance, as evidenced by many fine volumes in recent years.

(One could easily cite a large number of  more specialized works devoted to updated versions of the ontological, cosmological, teleological and moral arguments as well as the arguments from reason, consciousness and abstract objects).

Beyond Natural Theology’s “Generic Theism”

However, even if successful, the arguments of traditional natural theology can hope at best to establish a “bare” or “generic” theism: they cannot tell us which of the competing theistic religions is most likely true. The received wisdom is that further illumination about the identity of God is only available through special revelation. This assumption is challenged by an approach that Richard Swinburne has dubbed “ramified natural theology” [Richard Swinburne, “Natural Theology, Its ‘Dwindling Probabilities’ and ‘Lack of Rapport,’” Faith and Philosophy 21(4): 533-546 (2004)]. The idea is to present public evidence which discriminates between competing theistic religions because they do not all explain that evidence, or explain it equally well. While Swinburne is the most famous contemporary proponent of this approach, it has many precedents, for example in the arguments of various church fathers and of Blaise Pascal that Christianity is the true theistic religion because of its uniquely strong support by well-attested miracles and fulfilled prophecy. And Alister McGrath’s recent work may also qualify, as he develops an approach to natural theology which is both Christocentric and anchored in specifically Trinitarian theology [Alister McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008). What is controversial in McGrath’s approach is his contention that nature must be interpreted in an appropriate way to disclose its secrets: will this depend on presuppositions that are not neutral between competing worldviews?]

The Promise of “Ramified Natural Theology”

The promise of ramified natural theology is considerable.   On the one hand, as developed by Swinburne, ramified natural theology is an extension of traditional natural theology [Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Was Jesus God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)].  Thus Swinburne’s case for the truth of Christianity assumes the general background evidence for God’s existence (which he himself has developed in a powerful cumulative case argument), and supplements it with the evidence for the prior likelihood of the incarnation and the posterior unlikelihood of our having the evidence we do for the life, death and resurrection of Christ unless these events were the result of God’s plan of salvation [see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)].  On the other hand, it is by no means obvious that a ramified approach must build on evidence from traditional natural theology.  At least in some cases, a ramified argument may be made independently of a prior case for theism.  For example, as Hugh Gauch has pointed out, in the case for the resurrection developed by Timothy and Lydia McGrew, only Bayes factors are used, dispensing with prior probabilities.  More generally, using a likelihood approach, it is possible to assess the relative merits of a range of competing worldviews without presupposing any of them [see Hugh G. Gauch, Jr. “Natural Theology’s Case for Jesus’s Resurrection:  Methodological and Statistical Considerations,” Philosophia Christi 13 (2011):  339–55; Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew, “The Argument from Miracles:  A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (West Sussex:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 593–662].

To the extent that practitioners of ramified natural theology are sanguine about traditional natural theology, they can exploit the latter’s strengths by developing arguments that extend or supplement its results.  At the same time, to the extent that a ramified natural theological argument is developed independently of traditional natural theology, reservations about the latter do not justify a failure to seriously consider the former [In a recent symposium on Paul K. Moser’s religious epistemology, Moser expressed his skepticism toward the value of traditional natural theological arguments, while Kathryn Waidler, Charles Taliaferro and Harold Netland defended it, but ramified natural theology did not surface. See Philosophia Christi 14 (2) (2012), 263-311].   Ramified natural theology’s flexible relationship with traditional natural theology gives Christian apologists valuable latitude when seeking to address the diverse epistemic states of unbelievers.  For hard-nosed materialists, traditional natural theology may help provide a theistic foundation so that a case for the resurrection (or miracles in general) has more appeal.  But for many others, for whom theistic religions are among the live hypotheses, a ramified approach may be sufficient by itself to select the best worldview option.  There are many new questions and exciting opportunities in this growing area, and we are confident that the nine following essays will help to develop a sense of the potential for ramified natural theology to transform Christian philosophy and apologetics.

The Winter 2013 “Ramified Natural Theology” Issue of Philosophia Christi

The lead article by Richard Swinburne and the subsequent discussion in the next two articles concern Jesus’s resurrection.  Swinburne’s initial essay summarizes several of his book length studies and serves as a paradigm case of ramified natural theology.  Using a Bayesian formulation, Swinburne shows that there is one and only one individual—Jesus of Nazareth—who plausibly satisfies both the prior and the posterior requirements to be God incarnate, and that since the evidence for this is so strong, God would have to be a grand deceiver (or one who permits some lesser agent, such as the devil, to perpetrate grand deception) if some other past or future figure were the messiah, but this is incompatible with God’s perfect moral character.

This last claim of Swinburne’s is the target of the next paper, by Robert Cavin and Carlos Colombetti.  The authors claim that Swinburne’s argument does not satisfy the demand for total evidence, because it overlooks the evidence for intentional human deception by false prophets (and self-deception) on a massive scale.  Given their disagreements about which revelation is authentic, it is arguable that either Christians or non-Christians must have been deceived in some sense. Cavin and Colombetti conclude, contra Swinburne, that it is not improbable that the evidence for the Incarnation and Resurrection is mistaken or misleading.

In his response, Swinburne provides a close study of different kinds of deception, and argues that Cavin and Colombetti conflate God’s unjustifiable permission of deliberate deception with His allowing people to hold false beliefs or to be deceived in justifiable ways.  He claims that the examples provided by Cavin and Colombetti fall into the latter category, and that this is compatible with God’s moral perfection. This exchange is likely only the beginning of an important dialogue on the evidential impact of “negative theology” on the project of ramified natural theology.

While this project is vitally important to Christian philosophers and apologists, is it something theologians proper should take seriously?  Rodney Holder provides several reasons for an affirmative answer.  The first is premised on the fact of religious pluralism: the many competing religions all provide internal criteria for the correctness of their beliefs, but these do not give the outsider an independent means of deciding which revelation is most likely true.  Drawing on the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Brian Hebblethwaite and others, Holder argues that theologians need ramified natural theology to overcome this impasse.  They also need it to avoid circular presuppositionalism and to show that Christians have a faith founded on historical fact.  As Holder concludes, “the traditional division between natural theology and revealed theology breaks down as soon as we ask why we should believe in a putative revelation and how we can commend our own perceived revelation to others.”

Some may suspect that ramified natural theology employs an ad hoc procedure of argumentation, gerrymandered by religious apologists to show their faith in the best light.  To the contrary, Hugh Gauch argues that like natural science, ramified natural theology functions with the most basic presuppositions of empirical method required to gain factual information about the world.  Since these presuppositions are held in common between parties in disagreement, and since only public evidence and standard logic is permitted, ramified arguments are capable of objectively discriminating between worldviews.  Sound methodology is vital because, Gauch argues, “Any success and significance that ramified natural theology may have originates in, and depends on, its methodology being clear, impartial, settled, and effective.”  Gauch shows in particular that this approach is ideal for investigating the facticity of miracle claims.  Reinforcing Holder’s assessment, Gauch suggests that natural and revealed theology are not competitors but partners in a fruitful synergy.

One of the extraordinary differences between contemporary natural theology and the natural theology of previous centuries is the former’s integration of the rigorous formalisms of deductive logic and probability theory.  Timothy McGrew and John DePoe seek to show how these technical breakthroughs provide sometimes surprising insights into what does and does not count as a strong argument of natural theology.   On the cautionary side, they show that common intuitions about the probability of deductive arguments are often wrong.  Yet they also show that an important implication of Bayes’ theorem for ramified natural theology is that the combination of many individually weak pieces of evidence can yield a cumulative case argument of great certainty.  They further point out that there are many possible goals of natural theological arguments, and that the value of the argument will often depend on the epistemic state of its audience.

The remaining articles illustrate the wide range of potential application for a ramified approach to natural theology.

Lydia McGrew uses a Bayesian approach to show that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. Her argument nicely illustrates the fact that even if each piece of evidence raises the probability of a hypothesis by a modest amount, their combination can yield a powerful cumulative case argument.  She further argues that if we consider the remarkable fact that this Messiah is prophesied both to die and also to have a glorious future, the resurrection is much more probable.  This essay thus provides some further support for Swinburne’s conclusion that Jesus was God incarnate and was raised from the dead.

The moral argument for God is a staple of natural theology and many have undertaken to establish the existence of a good God from the apparent facts of moral obligation.  In their paper, David Baggett and Ronnie Campbell seek to extend this argument by showing how Christianity provides superior resources to account for what it means to be a good God, particularly if it has been shown that such a being must be essentially loving.  This is because the Trinity does real explanatory work in showing us what it means for God to be loving in His own nature.  The authors point out that not only does this approach favor Christianity over non-Christian theistic religions, it also provides a reason to prefer some denominations over others on account of their portrait of God’s character.  They dub this intra-Christian inquiry “doubly ramified natural theology.”   This matters not only to the Christian seeking the true church, but also has an impact on non-Christians, as they may reject the faith because some denominations offer a distorted picture of what God is like.

In a similar vein, Travis Dumsday argues that once we consider evidence such as visions and miracles which may favor Christianity over its rivals, it is an unavoidable possibility that some of this evidence will favor some denominations over others.  Dumsday argues that ramified natural theology is, in any case, already at work in interdenominational debate, since philosophical and historical arguments are used to defend or critique confessional positions e.g. on baptism, predestination and whether scripture can coherently be claimed as the sole source and norm of Christian doctrine.  Dumsday points out that these arguments are typically not decisive as, for example, evidence may be rejected as the result of demonic delusion, yet there are limits to how far a Christian can reasonably (and charitably) pursue this dismissive strategy.  In all this, he urges a posture of “cautious, critical open-mindedness.”

How a “Ramified Mode of Investigation” Benefits Various Philosophical Projects

We hope that this special issue of Philosophia Christi helps to clarify the nature and purpose of ramified natural theology.  We believe that ramified natural theology should be of interest to both Christian and non-Christian philosophers and theologians, and those in religious studies and biblical studies.  It is our hope that, soon, ramified natural theology will have a prominent place in any survey of philosophy of religion.  To that end, we edited this volume in order to stimulate further work, whether this involves a defense, critique or proposed improvements of extant arguments, or the creative application of a ramified approach to a neglected source of evidence.  For example, the following is an incomplete list of cases which would benefit from a distinctively ramified mode of investigation (in some cases, excellent, initial forays have been made into these areas):

  1. The problem of evil.
  2. Contemporary miracle claims.
  3. Aesthetics and the imagination as a guide to plausibility and truth.
  4. The psychology and neuroscience of religious experience.
  5. Near-death experiences.
  6. Metaethics and moral ontology.
  7. Revisiting the ontological, cosmological, moral and design arguments from a Christocentric perspective.
  8. The existence of the soul and the mind-body problem.
  9. The nature of information and language.
  10. The ontology of knowledge.
  11. The argument from reason.
  12. The nature of truth.
  13. The status of abstract objects.
  14. Existential angst.

The promise of the ramified approach suggests that the neglect of natural theology (and apologetics more generally) in many seminaries is founded on an unduly limited perception of the scope of natural theological arguments. So long as “natural theology” is taken to be synonymous with “bare natural theology,” natural theology has limited interest to the theologian because it does not tell us who God is or help us to decide which revelation is correct.  Yet this is precisely the target of ramified natural theology, and increased recognition of this fact should spur seminaries into a reconsideration of the role of natural theology in their curricula.

In closing, the beauty of a ramified approach to natural theology is that it calls Christians to take seriously scripture’s claim that Christ is present throughout reality, holding all things together (Colossians 1: 15-20).  If we really believe this, then we should expect that a Christocentric (rather than a merely theocentric) mode of inquiry will ultimately be the most rewarding.

Note: Thanks to Hugh Gauch, Justin McGeary and Daniel Murphy for their comments on two earlier drafts of this introduction. 

Christ-Shaped Philosophy Project

WELCOME to a unique and ongoing project at the website of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, where we are featuring interactions with Paul Moser’s paper, “Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Wisdom and Spirit United.”

Abstract: Christian philosophy is a distinctive kind of philosophy owing to the special role it assigns to God in Christ. Much of philosophy focuses on concepts, possibilities, necessities, propositions, and arguments. This may be helpful as far as it goes, but it omits what is the distinctive focus of Christian philosophy: the redemptive power of God in Christ, available in human experience. Such power, of course, is not mere talk or theory. Even Christian philosophers tend to shy away from the role of divine power in their efforts toward Christian philosophy. The power in question goes beyond philosophical wisdom to the causally powerful Spirit of God, who intervenes with divine corrective reciprocity. It yields a distinctive religious epistemology and a special role for Christian spirituality in Christian philosophy. It acknowledges a goal of union with God in Christ that shapes how Christian philosophy is to be done, and the result should reorient such philosophy in various ways. No longer can Christian philosophers do philosophy without being, themselves, under corrective and redemptive inquiry by God in Christ. This paper takes its inspiration from Paul’s profound approach to philosophy in his letter to the Colossians. Oddly, this approach has been largely ignored even by Christian philosophers. We need to correct this neglect.

Read the full-text of Moser’s paper for FREE by accessing it here (readers might also be interested in the discussion on Moser’s “religious epistemology” in the Winter 2012 issue of Philosophia Christi).

PROJECT PURPOSE: For philosophers and theologians, we invite you to consider submitting a carefully-honed response to one aspect of Moser’s thesis and argument, whether by critiquing it, advancing it, applying and integrating it to various areas of philosophy, theology and spirituality, or even by articulating some practices conducive toward ‘doing’ Christ-shaped philosophy.

LENGTH: 1500-2000 total words. You are welcome to work with the Project Editor on length issues.

DEADLINE: TBD with editor/coordinator (see below).

Each month, we plan to feature at least one new contribution in this space


How Can You Contribute? 15 Suggestions

  1. Interact with the paper’s thesis on its own merit. Perhaps you might want to discuss an assumption, concept, claim, distinction, methodology, etc., in Paul’s paper.
  2. Do Christ-Shaped Philosophy. Instead of just talking about it, perhaps you would like to model how Christ-Shaped philosophy can be done regarding some carefully-honed topic, whether one that Paul has addressed or something else.
  3. Address how to do Christ-shaped philosophy, whether as a discussion focused on relevant prolegomena issues or concerning the practical processes or practices involved. Here, we welcome even just a proposal for the ‘how to.’
  4. Explain the theological assumptions of Christ-shaped philosophy and show how it contributes to this way of ‘doing’ philosophy.
  5. Contextualize Christ-shaped philosophy in view of other relevant works by Paul Moser. (Paul’s paper is a continuation of his work in earlier publications such as: his Faith and Philosophy paper, “On Jesus and Philosophy”; chapter 4, “Philosophy Revamped,” from his book The Elusive God; his “Introduction” to his edited book, Jesus and Philosophy. A goal here may include drawing an overall general  picture of his conception of ‘Christian philosophy’ from his relevant works).
  6. Envision what it might mean to do Christ-shaped philosophy as and for the church. What are the ecclesial factors and significance for Christ-shaped philosophy? What might be the epistemic significance of theological tradition for informing Christ-shaped philosophy?
  7. Develop how Christ-shaped philosophy might affect philosophy practices (e.g., teaching, dialogue/discourse, and writing/publishing in philosophy). If it does (re)shape practices, explain how it does to distinctively?
  8. Compare the approach and benefits of Christ-shaped philosophy with Analytic Theology. Are they interrelated? Are they addressing similar topics yet asking different questions?
  9. Convey what are the implications of Christ-shaped philosophy for philosophy as a professionalized and specialized discipline in the academy, whether of an analytic or continental variety. Does Christ-shaped philosophy defy that categorization?
  10. If Christ-shaped philosophy is not ‘respected’ or ‘taken seriously’ in the academy, should it be attempted in that context?
  11. Envision the vocation, moral-spiritual character development training and skills of a philosopher if Christ-shaped philosophy is true. Consider this especially in the context of the contemporary practice of analytic philosophy in academic environments. How might graduate work look different if Christ-shaped philosophy is a goal? How might the socialization process and factors of becoming a ‘philosopher’ look any different?
  12. Consider the purpose and outcomes of Christ-shaped philosophy for ‘doing’ Christian apologetics and theology. How might apologetics and theology work differ in relationship to ‘Christian philosophy’ work if Christ-shaped philosophy is true and enacted?
  13. Develop the value and development of Christ-shaped philosophy in conversation with ‘contemporary’ and ‘historical’ voices. Which voices might help advance or help assess Christ-shaped philosophy, whether these are theology, philosophy, or spirituality voices.
  14. Consider whether Christ-shaped philosophy can be a ‘synthesis’ posture/framework for doing philosophy as a Christian, whether one is working from Reformed Epistemology, Evidentialism, Post-Foundationalism, Covenant Epistemology, etc.
  15. Envision how the basic contours of Christ-shaped philosophy might be viewed as a model for Christians ‘doing scholarship,’ regardless of their discipline or area of specialization. How might it be address so-called ‘worldview integration’ issues?

Project Coordinator & Editor
Tedla G. Woldeyohannes
Department of Philosophy
Saint Louis University
Saint Louis, MO 63108

Project Developer & Overseer
Joseph E. Gorra, Consulting Editor, Philosophia Christi

Copy Editor Assistant
Dave Strobolakos

A Victorious Life Overflowing with Grace and Truth: Remembering Dr. Dallas Willard (1935-2013)

O could I flow like thee,

And make thy stream my great example,

As it is my theme!

Though deep, yet clear, though gentle not dull;

Strong without storm,

Without overflowing full

Sir John Denham, “Cooper’s Hill”

Those things, which you have both learned, and received, and heard,

And seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

St. Paul, Philippians 4. 9



n any lifetime, there are at best only one or two people who completely transform the way we think about our short time on this earth.  Such people are exceedingly hard to classify because they see all the ultimate issues of life in ways that their generation has either missed or disregarded.  Unquestionably, Dallas Willard was one of those larger-than-life figures for the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  He grappled as seriously as anyone ever has with the fundamental questions concerning the nature of consciousness, the ontological structures of knowledge, the philosophy of mathematics and logic, the existence of God, the history of philosophy, phenomenology, systematic metaphysics, the philosophy of Husserl, the truth of Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, the process of character transformation, the nature of a good life, and how specifically to become a good person.  One only needs to look at Dallas’ unbelievable output of articles, books, video series, sermons, and lectures to see this. 

I have never met anyone who was so singularly alive to the lifelong pursuit of truth concerning the crucial questions of human existence, while remaining thoroughly humble and approachable.  In appearance, he seemed utterly ordinary—even slightly grandfatherly— (he once said to me, “Greg, I’m just a peasant”), until he began to speak.  Within a few sentences, you would realize that you had never heard anyone say so much in so few words.  However, it wasn’t only the content of his words that was compelling; it was also the way he said them.  There was such a firm, warm, concern conveyed in his voice that one seemed to get a glimpse into his sterling character through his words.  Although he was never the least bit pretentious, his lectures and sermons were almost always an accessible and inviting tour de force of insights, humor, quotations, stories, and Scriptures presented in a wholly new light.  Listening, one kept thinking, “I never thought of that before.”  I recall that he started one sermon by saying, “The key to all of human history is man’s rejection of God and His ways.”  Again, “God loves to forgive if He can only find a way” (Matt. 23.37).  The surprising part was that he made it look so effortless.
He often said that his fundamental guiding principle was “the drive for cognitive clarity.”  He thought that adopting this attitude was the only way to hack through the hopeless tangle of confusions, absurdities, trivialities, and falsehoods that make up so much of the contemporary world.  (Accordingly, he said, “People don’t like the truth because they want a little room to wiggle around in.”)  Like C. S. Lewis (and just as rare), he could deftly uncover the ultimate issues upon which an entire complicated controversy turned.  Simply put, he was the smartest person I ever met.  Dallas could argue powerfully for a point, weighing in with logic, history, fine distinctions (especially modal ones!), Scripture, and the nature of one’s own experience, but he never tried to force acceptance.  He would constantly say things like, “This is how it seems to me, but you must examine the evidence yourself as you try to honestly and diligently search for the truth” (Lk 10. 26).  This approach, equally rigorous and relaxed, allowed people to look at the relevant evidence and data for themselves without retreating into a debate and win-at-all-costs mode.  He wasn’t interested in academic victories.  He was interested in the truth.  What else could explain his statement, “If Jesus knew of a better way to live than following him, I’m sure that he would be the first one to tell you to take it”?
Even more amazing was Willard’s kindness.  In his irrepressibly winsome and unassuming manner, his acceptance of others, even when disagreeing, gently disarmed even the most severe critic.  I remember how Richard Rorty was visibly moved by Willard’s sensitive critique of his views when they participated in a dialog on “The Question of Authority” at Stanford in 2005.  The closest I can get to succinctly describing Dallas is best captured in two characters from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: Great-heart and Valiant-for-Truth. For a more contemporary comparison, if you can remember George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, the most generous and loved man in Bedford Falls (played by Jimmy Stewart), you are on the right track. 

Over the decades, we discussed almost every topic under the sun, and sometimes he would be moved to tears over the brokenness of humanity.  Many academicians relish making others feel intellectually inferior.  Not Dallas.  I was always amazed at his sensitivity in adjusting his words to the person and circumstances.  He tried immensely hard to discern the truly important question often hidden behind the presented question.  Many were surprised to find that he was often quite transparent about his own inadequacies and disappointments.  Dallas would never have wanted anyone to think his life was without problems, and tribulations.  (He used these as an entry into the need for God’s grace.)  

Dallas, possibly more than anyone I have ever met, was completely comfortable laughing at himself.  I think that he saw funny situations as part of the human condition, and he had a wonderful sense of what should be taken utterly seriously and what should not.

Willard’s humor is legendary, not only because he could be so nonchalantly witty, but because his spontaneous quips always pointed to something profound.  It’s not that he told yarns or stories in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.  Rather, his humor was insightfully woven into all his teaching whenever it helped reveal the truth.  For example, the philosopher David Hume famously argued that knowledge of the self or the mind is impossible.  Hume said, “When I look into myself I cannot find myself.”  When lecturing on this, Dallas said, “This is like a man who tries to discover whether he’s at home by going outside and looking through the windows to see if he’s there.”  (For philosophy, this is funny!)  As everyone who teaches college painfully knows, some students love to defend absurd views.  Dallas was profoundly skilled at helping students break through their resistance to reality.  Another time, after a student had taken up a good portion of the class arguing for an absurd position, Dallas gently said, “You don’t believe what you are saying.”  But, the student persisted.  Finally, Dallas said in a non-confrontational way, “Okay then, will you run your view by your grandmother and see what she thinks?”  The student was momentarily stunned, and then burst out laughing.  Then the whole class and Dallas were laughing too, because, given the look on the student’s face, we all knew that he didn’t need to run anything by his grandmother.  He had just discovered some truth.  I’ve never forgotten Dallas’ buoyant laughter, nor his weighty question.  

Under his extraordinary teaching at University of Southern California for the last 47 years (1965-2012), thousands of students attended his lectures.  Most had absolutely no idea what they were in for.  Similarly, scores earned a PhD in philosophy under his wise and even fatherly guidance.  (In his home office, literally overflowing with books, is a card tacked up to a bookshelf with all the names of his PhD students who are carrying on his work.  It is simply entitled, “Our Boys”).  They now carry on his vision of ontologically-driven philosophy and life-transforming Christianity wherever they are teaching.  It is not off the mark to say that Willard was the dominant thinker in our time who reintroduced a detailed evidentialism to Christian thought—both on the apologetic and theological sides.  (His exhortation to us was, “Logic will provide the principles on which you will fight your philosophical battles.”)  The singular aim of his life, to convey in the most reasonable and detailed way the loving presence of God in this world, was accomplished: we heard, we watched, we learned, and we remember.

Nobody can be a great teacher without being supported by a myriad of people.  Of course, there were all the great thinkers of the past whose thoughts filled the thousands and thousands of books Dallas carefully studied during his entire life, and there were his great professors.  Things really came together for Dallas at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in graduate school.  It was Professor William Hay who said to Dallas, “Well you are asking all the right questions, so you are now ready to read Husserl’s Logical Investigations.”  This would set the direction for all of Dallas’ subsequent work in philosophy and religion.  (William Hay had been greatly influenced by Gustav Bergmann when Hay taught at the University of Iowa in 1946-1947.  Bergmann had the highest regard for Husserl and introduced Hay to his writings.  Hay and Bergmann corresponded often until Bergmann’s death in 1987.) 

However, far eclipsing these powerful influences was the inspiration that came into Dallas’ life from a young woman who had been born in Macon, Georgia.  One day in 1954 while walking across the campus of Tennessee Temple College in Chattanooga, Miss Jane Lakes, heard the voice of a young man singing in a classroom.  Not only was she profoundly intrigued by that voice, but also soon after by the nineteen-year old man behind it.  That love and friendship grew and inspired him for the next six decades.  Dallas often said that apart from the knowledge of God, Jane had been the greatest blessing in his life. “She not only made my life possible, but she held me steady and preserved me from going off track.”  In the fullest sense of the word, they were partners—not only in life but also in ministry.

For those of us who knew and loved him, studied under him, or labored with him, ten lifetimes with him would not have been enough.  The experience of missing a loved one is a small clue that we were made for eternity.  Each time with him was an intellectual, emotional and spiritual adventure as his mind and heart were always open to, and overflowing with, new insights and applications of the great truth that God has poured out His unfathomable love in the historic Jesus.

The last time I spoke with him on the phone he was as joyously content as ever, fighting to regain his strength so he could get back to his beloved writing.  He expressed his interest in helping others by writing about all the new things he had been learning in his struggles with cancer.  We spoke about getting together this summer, sitting in his backyard garden relaxing and drifting from topic to topic, “talking the old, old talk that has no end.”  Now, that garden will have to be on the other side of what he liked to call “the pre-life,” when he will no longer be “a peasant” in any sense, but a cherished child of the King Himself.  And, He “shall wipe away all tears.”

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is   with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

St. John, Revelation 21. 3-4         

Greg Jesson, PhD
Department of Philosophy
Luther College