Book Review: Christian Philosophy

BartholomewBook Review: Christian Philosophy by Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen

It is a rare gift to be able to write many books, yet ones that are always worth reading regardless of the subject. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen have demonstrated in their previous collaborations that their work is always accessible, thoughtful, and practical. Their latest publication, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Baker Academic, 2013), is the third book in a series of helpful introductory textbooks. For those interested in philosophy, the Christian worldview, or the Dutch Reformed tradition in general, this is a book worthy of sustained attention.

Summary & Analysis

Like many introductory texts, this one narrates the story of philosophy from antiquity through the present, explaining, analyzing, and critiquing key figures and movements along the way. However, this is no conventional philosophy introduction. As the authors say in the introduction, “There are different ways to introduce philosophy” [2]. Their approach combines systematic philosophy and the history of philosophy. Yet they place this material (Part 2) between two sections: the first which explains the rationale and significance of philosophy and explains its relationship to faith (Part 1); and the final section which offers a more constructive account of philosophy based on Reformed epistemology and the larger Dutch Reformed framework (Part 3).

Philosophy is spiritually important for the purpose of apologetics, missional cultural engagement, Christian scholarship, and discipleship more generally. This is why Bartholomew and Goheen’s explanation of how philosophy, worldview, Scripture, and theology relate is especially helpful. They are well-acquainted with the different ways these have been related to one another in past discussions. Yet they offer a clear account that draws on the Augustinian tradition as seen in Kuyper and his successors. In their words, “Central to this tradition is the view that redemption involves the recovery of God’s purposes for all of creation and that no area of life, including philosophy, is neutral and exempt from religious presuppositions” [3].

I would insert here that this is a surprisingly refreshing feature of the book. It is transparent in its method and basis of criticism. These early explanations not only help one understand how they will approach the rest of the book. They also show that the Christian tradition offers us ways of understanding the philosophical tradition that are coherent and faithful.

Part 2 of the book moves somewhat swiftly from ancient pagan philosophy (that is, the pre-Socratics and Socrates), to Plato and Aristotle, to the Medieval period (Augustine to Abelard), to the rediscovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance and Reformation eras are considered, followed by modern philosophy from Bacon to Gadamer. The story of Western philosophy concludes by considering postmodernism and philosophy today.

Some readers will perhaps be curious as to the brevity of some sections. For example, Locke, Hume and Kant, towering figures in their own right, receive 10 pages combined. This may cause one to worry if explanation gives way too quickly to critique and synthesis. However, I think when Part 2 is read in its natural context between Parts 1 and 3 (and especially in light of the authors’ stated purpose), it will survive scrutiny. After all, professors will always have to supplement such introductory texts with primary source reading for the best encounter with philosophy.

Part 3 is where the authors move beyond description and analysis to a more constructive assessment of what they feel is the most faithful philosophy being done today. Bartholomew and Goheen call attention to late 20th century developments, namely the renaissance in Christian philosophy. They argue that the Reformed epistemology (“RE”) of Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff are among the compelling examples of how Christian philosophy is being done today.

RE, the school of thought represented by Plantinga and Wolterstorff, is explained thoroughly. Chapter 14 applies it to several areas, including evolution, art, and political philosophy. While Bartholomew and Goheen are very supportive of this philosophical work, they want to call attention toward “Reformational philosophy.” Though RE and Reformational philosophy both developed out of neocalvinism in the twentieth century, the former has developed more in the analytic tradition, and the latter in the Continental. Though outsiders to the Dutch Reformed tradition will see these distinctions as negligible, Bartholomew and Goheen want to tease out some differences and the implications these have.

A further word is needed about two specific apparatuses included in the book. First, the annotated reading list in the back of the book will likely be helpful for philosophy students who want to go beyond this introduction.

The second apparatus is also intended to make this a student-friendly text. Readers are presented with two fictional Christian students, Abby and Percy, who both begin taking an introductory philosophy course at their respective colleges. However, one is attending a Christian university and the other a secular school. Each chapter begins and ends with a brief email exchange between these two fictional characters trading insights and questions gained from their study of the chapter’s topic from their particular institution’s perspective. While this particular apparatus was distracting at first, its use is understandable given the book’s target audience.


As university professors, Bartholomew and Goheen both have a keen sense of what type of book will be useful for students. Given their background at Reformed schools, it is no surprise that this book emerges out of that framework. Yet I think readers will find that this book is especially good for this reason—it just doesn’t tell the story. It helps Christian students engage and critique the story. It offers handles for students of philosophy who are trying to climb above caricatures to seeing the horizon of philosophy for what it is—yet through a particularly Christian lens.

Philosophy will strike many readers as simply one of those required general education subjects from college. However, I think for Christian readers, Christian Philosophy clearly portrays the story that has shaped our civilization, as well as the tools to evaluate its movements, trajectories, and underlying theological commitments.


[1] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), pp. 204; $22.99.

[2] Christian Philosophy, xii.

[3] Ibid., 24.

Author: Jackson Watts

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