Christian Philosophy and “Lame” Adjectives

President Thornbury“Christianity is the greatest of all nouns but the lamest of all adjectives.”

Is that true? Is ‘Christian’ a lame adjective? Well, according to Gregory Thornbury, President of The Kings College, it is. Is that right? Is it always a “lame” adjective?

President Thornbury is almost certainly right that ‘Christian’ can be a lame adjective. For example, labeling an artist “Christian” can sometimes serve as code for “it’s not very good, but cut him some slack because he’s one of us.” Here there are some striking parallels to how many in Canada use ‘Canadian’ to label their fellow actors, musicians, comedians, etc.

Nearly every day I listen to the Toronto broadcast of CBC Radio on the drive home and they regularly feature an “Artist of the Week.” Though this isn’t always the case, more often than not these artists are quite bad. The lyrics tend to be corny and the performances uninspired. Why put up with this mediocrity? Because, well, they’re Canadian performers. They’re not very good, but they’re Canadian. The same goes with Canadian shows you find on TV. They’re almost always really bad (which is why the federal government has to mandate that each channel broadcast a certain percentage of Canadian shows— If they were good, the broadcasters would want to show them and not have to be forced to do so). Why would anyone ever watch them? Because, well, they’re Canadian shows.

Now this, of course, is not to say that there are no talented Canadian performers, actors, etc. But, and this is what I think President Thornbury is getting at, it’s interesting that the best Canadian actors, musicians, and comedians are almost never labelled as “Canadian.” I’ve never heard someone say “Canadian musician, Neil Young” or “Canadian comedian, Jim Carey.” Instead, they’re just introduced as musicians and comedians. Why is that? Well, because they’re good enough at what they do that they don’t need to be cut any slack. Canadians (and everyone else) would want to listen or watch, regardless of whether they’re Canadian.1

This same phenomenon seems to happen within the Chrisitan community. There’s an expectation that we all pretend movies like God’s Not Dead are great, even though we all know they’re not. Sometimes we even qualify our praise of them, “It’s really great, you know for being a Christian movie.” The only reason we take the time to watch them, and not complain loudly while doing so, is because they’re Christian movies and we know that when that label is used, we should lower our standards. So, it seems, President Thornbury is right. Using “Christian” as an adjective is lame.

But is it always lame? I’m inclined to think not. The philosophy department at Tyndale has always made a distinction between being a philosopher who is a Christian and being a Christian philosopher. Is this “lame”? I think not, but there’s a principled reason why, and that reason doesn’t involve using the term as a code for lower standards.

When Dr. Davis and I talk about being Christian philosophers, we’re not using it as code for “our arguments aren’t all that good, but cut us some slack because we’re Christians.” Instead, we’re using to indicate that there is a distinctly different way that we go about doing philosophy. This involves numerous elements, but one of them is that we are motivated to engage in our philosophical projects by our recognition that they are pursued for a particular purpose. I won’t elaborate on what this looks like since Dr. Davis has already done so in an essay that J. P. Moreland has called “penetrating” and a “must-read.”2 I agree with Moreland that Dr. Davis’s challenging, and moving, essay should be required reading for all Christians who are engaged in the philosophical enterprise. Thankfully, his essay, “Christian Philosophy: For Whose Sake?” is freely available as part of the EPS sponsored “Christ-Shaped Philosophy” project.

Another, non-lame, component of being a Christian philosopher is the refusal to be committed to methodologies within the discipline that run contrary to the contours of Christian theism. Here too I need not elaborate since Alvin Plantinga has already set out the basics of what this looks in his influential Faith and Philosophy paper, “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Thankfully, the SCP has also made it freely accessible on their website. I strongly recommend that you take the time to read both of these essays.

Hopefully calling attention to both of these elements will be enough for one to notice that what makes for Christian philosophy has nothing to do with lowering the standards. The Tyndale philosophy department is, if anything, committed to the view that doing Chrisitan philosophy raises the standards lest we bring disrepute upon Christ himself. This is what prevents using ‘Christian’ as an adjective in this context from being lame. It’s also why we’ve published critiques of other Christian philosophers who have argued for God’s existence (see our, “Layman’s Lapse: On an Incomplete Moral Argument for God’s Existence) or who have attempted to defend it (see my earlier blog post, “Geisler’s Gap).

So, it seems that President Thornbury is only partly correct. Using ‘Christian’ as an adjective certainly can be lame, but it’s not always so.

Follow me on Twitter @WPaul.
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  1. The exception is when Canadians want to make sure the rest of the world knows that these successful people are Canadian. ↩︎
  2. J. P. Moreland, “Reflections on the Journey Ahead,” in Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of J. P. Moreland, edited by Paul Gould and Richard Davis (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 234. ↩︎
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