Four Reasons Why Christians Are Smarter than We Used to Be

Calvin College recently hosted a session with four of its most esteemed alumni and former professors: George Marsden, Richard Mouw, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. You can view it here, and you should:

Even in the space of an hour, time for only four short presentations and a couple of question-and-answer rounds, one can see the power of a confident, but humble, Christian worldview.

I have been greatly privileged to have been shaped by each of these four scholars. George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture provided me an inspiring early model for the writing of North American church history. George also gave me personal encouragement at key points in the decade or so in which I learned and plied his trade, from a letter (that I still have—of course I do!) kindly praising my master’s thesis that he himself used in his history of Fuller Theological Seminary to his positive verdict, fifteen years later, as one of the two external examiners commissioned by the University of Manitoba to advise them on the matter of my application for promotion to the rank of professor.

George also, however, wrote some of the earliest and most thoughtful reflections on the theory of writing history I encountered, and legitimated for me the novel and bold idea that one could pursue one’s intellectual life straightforwardly as a Christian.

As this video makes clear, that crucial idea was integral to Calvin College’s heritage, and philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have inspired and equipped an entire generation of Christian thinkers to do likewise. Al particularly has helped me, though, in tackling both the problem of evil and multifarious problems of epistemology, generously tutoring me by e-mail—sometimes back and forth a few times as I plodded along trying to catch up with his long Frisian intellectual strides.

I have recognized elsewhere my even greater debts to Nick as he helped me twenty years ago transition to the other side of my training—theology and philosophy—and has gone to bat for me numerous times since: to publishers, granting agencies, and prospective employers. Along the way, I have read with great profit the versatile Professor Wolterstorff on a dozen subjects. But Nick also provided me, as he has so many others, with an early and glorious vision of shalom as flourishing, a view of the world to come that validates the full range of proper human endeavour and creativity.

Rich Mouw has done quite a bit of writing on my behalf as well, but he, too, early on helped me see that the whole world of culture is the Lord’s (his unjustly neglected meditation on Isaiah 60, When the Kings Come Marching Inwas particularly inspiring). He also has exemplified the engaged Christian thinker who is by turns trenchant and hospitable, convinced but also willing to learn—and invariably with good cheer. Indeed, the wry sense of humour these four share—a vein evident on so many pages of the late, lamented Reformed Journal to which they frequently contributed—has also been of both entertainment and encouragement to me, since I have trouble writing or speaking more than a paragraph without pausing to attempt a joke.

As the video session concludes, in fact, we see these themes of courage and humility emerge with humour as a fitting valediction from these four sages…whom the president of Calvin College happily calls “The Beatles of Calvin College.” Take an hour and treat yourself to a few appetizers of what top-drawer Christian thinking looks like.

2 Responses to “Four Reasons Why Christians Are Smarter than We Used to Be”

  1. Mayo

    Hello John, As a young person (26 year old), I would like to say that in many ways your writings in “Finally feminist”, “Humble Apologetics” and “Making the best of it” have influenced my approach to thinking about these subjects just like these individuals did yours . More broadly, my approach to decision making in the “real” world certainly has a Stackhousian bent. I suppose good Christian scholars (those above) engender more of their breed (you). An interesting observation/worry of mine is that my generation does not seem to acquire mentors in the ways that your generation has certainly done. As a member of an eggheaded bunch like Graduate Intervarsity, I do not know of a single of my peers who certainly look up to scholars as yourself for guidance or wisdom or support. We do not get or crave letters of advice like your generation did. However, I have sensed that great and holy scholars generally evolve from same (as stated above). This is true even in more secular realms like mine( science/engineering). I approve of and love the picture above. It just saddens me that it seems to be disappearing away within the church. Anything we can do?

    • John

      Thanks for this generous post, Mayo. I’m not sure what to say about your thoughtful question. I’ve come across Millennials who are big, big fans of popular Christian writers, from Shane Claiborne to Rachel Held Evans to Ravi Zacharias to John Piper. And there seem to be a number of smart people in this age group who hang on every word from, say, Al Mohler, or or Scot McKnight, or Jamie Smith, or David Bentley Hart.

      But maybe you’re talking about a different kind of mentor. The four mentors featured in the blog post are qualitatively different from any of the people I’ve mentioned above, aren’t they? It may be a function of their status as pioneers, which made them more conspicuous: fewer intelligent speakers and writers amid which to make their voices heard. But I think it’s not only that. There is a quality of mind at work in these four that demonstrates both comprehensive awareness of, and deep insight into, their disciplines and the creativity and courage to mount sustained and significant challenges to particular subjects within, or even entire approaches to, those disciplines. (David Martin comes to mind as another such example.)

      I’m not sure, on the spur of the moment, who in my generation has been doing such work. There is more good work than ever being done by my Christian scholarly peers, to be sure, as the Four Wise Men suggest in their Calvin talks. But how much of it is aimed at fundamental questions, at paradigm-challenging issues, versus faithful piecework within existing paradigms–well, that’s perhaps what you’re wondering about. Is it?

      If so, I wonder who ought to be recognized for following in the train of these four worthies…

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