Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy

Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy

by James K. A. Smith


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Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy by James K. A. Smith

The past several decades have seen a renaissance in Christian philos­ophy, led by the work of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, Eleonore Stump, and others. In the spirit of Plantinga’s famous manifesto, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” JamesK.A. Smith here offers not only advice to Pentecostal philosophers but also some Pentecostal advice to Christian philosophers.

In this inaugural Pentecostal Manifestos volume Smith begins from the conviction that implicit in Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality is a tacit worldview or “social imaginary.” Thinking in Tongues unpacks and articulates the key elements of this Pentecostal worldview and then explores their implications for philosophical reflection on ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, language, science, and philosophy of religion. In each case, Smith demonstrates how the implicit wisdom of Pentecostal spirituality makes unique contributions to current conversations in Christian philosophy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802861849
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 06/15/2010
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 746,248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he also teaches in the congregational and ministry studies department.

Read an Excerpt

Thinking in Tongues

Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy
By James K. A. Smith

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 James K. A. Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6184-9

Chapter One

Thinking in Tongues Advice to Pentecostal Philosophers

I must begin with a confession: my vision for a pentecostal philosophy owes an original debt to Calvinists. In fact, the chapter subtitle hearkens back to my junior year in college: sitting in chapel, I excitedly opened a letter from the University of Notre Dame. Several weeks earlier I had the audacity to write a personal letter to one of the leading figures in philosophy of religion: Alvin Plantinga, then recently appointed as John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and a key figure in a Christian renewal in philosophy both at Notre Dame and across the profession. Just before that I had come across Plantinga's 1983 inaugural address given on the occasion of this appointment and later published as "Advice to Christian Philosophers." Plantinga's manifesto was my tolle lege moment, my wake-up call to a vocation. Having heard what I believed was God's call to become a Christian philosopher — through my concurrent reading of other Calvinists, like W. G. T. Shedd's Dogmatic Theology and Francis Schaeffer's Trilogy — I began to contemplate graduate study in philosophy and turned to the obvious place: Plantinga and Notre Dame. The letter I opened was Professor Plantinga's gracious reply that encouraged me in my pursuits. And while my training would take place at another Catholic university — and in quite a different philosophical tradition — I am happy in this chapter, which sketches a vision for a distinctly pentecostal philosophy, to repay something of a debt to Plantinga's influential vision for an integrally Christian philosophy and his personal encouragement to an aspiring Christian philosopher.

Plantinga's "Advice" quickly became something of a manifesto for a movement of Christian, and largely evangelical, philosophers — a call to them to exercise "Christian courage" and "display more faith, more trust in the Lord" in their development of an "integral" Christian philosophy. "We must," he urges, "put on the whole armor of God" (p. 254). I want to issue a similar call to the community of pentecostal scholars to have the same courage — maybe even "Holy Ghost boldness" — in the development of a distinctly and integrally pentecostal philosophy. I will do so by engaging Plantinga's program for Christian philosophy, then considering how a pentecostal philosophy should further develop this program.

Excursus: Why a Pentecostal Philosophy?

But before doing so, I need to first answer some questions. I can anticipate — and have heard — several initial reactions and objections to the notion of a "pentecostal philosophy." The first comes from my brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal and charismatic communities who, quoting Colossians 2:8, have grave concerns about philosophy per se and are concerned that a "pentecostal philosophy" would be akin to "pentecostal transcendental meditation." Since they do not constitute my audience here, however, I will limit my comments to one point of reply: Paul's concern in the letter to Christians in Colossae is not philosophy per se but a specific philosophy that undermined Christian faith and was founded "according to human tradition" rather than revelation. Paul speaks of "the philosophy," indicating a particular philosophical school that would have been known by the Colossian Christians. The point is illustrated by how he qualifies this philosophy: it is "according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ" (Col. 2:8). This final apposition points to the possibility of a philosophy that would be "according to Christ." In addition, Paul himself employs philosophical reasoning in his proclamation of the gospel (e.g., Acts 17), and other NT authors, particularly in the Johannine tradition, take up philosophical concepts (such as logos) to communicate the Christian faith.

The second set of reservations would be expressed by scholars from within the pentecostal community and has two aspects: First, do we really need a "philosophy"? Are not the questions that such a philosophy pursues already broached by our theologians? Doesn't the development of a pentecostal philosophy run the risk of treading upon pentecostal theology's turf? Second, if we do need a philosophy, shouldn't it be enough that it be a Christian philosophy? Can we not simply adopt the conclusions of other Christian and evangelical philosophers?

In response to the first aspect of this concern, it is important to distinguish between the different tasks of a philosophy and a theology and the corresponding distinction between their "fields" of concern. First, we might distinguish between "religion" (or "spirituality"), on the one hand, and theology and philosophy on the other: both theology and philosophy are modes of second-order reflection on our lived faith or religion, which indicates our pretheoretical, fundamental commitments implicit and embedded in practices and disciplines of the faith. As Wittgenstein's aphoristic interjection suggests, theology is akin to grammar, whereas lived religion or spirituality — the lived practices of faith — are akin to "speaking the language." A grammar is a second-order articulation of the norms and rules that are implicit when competent users speak the language — and one can be a competent user of the language without necessarily being able to articulate the grammar. One might operate with a competent but implicit understanding of such grammatical norms and rules. In a similar way, theology and philosophy are articulations of what is implicit in a religion or spirituality (understood as a constellation of practices and rituals that embody the faith). Theology and philosophy, as theoretical modes of reflection, bubble up from pretheoretical faith. Thus pentecostal spirituality or "religion" is not first and foremost a "theology" (which is theoretical) but, more fundamentally, a kind of "worldview" (which is pretheoretical). Such a pentecostal worldview — the constellation of practices and beliefs that constitute pentecostal spirituality — should then undergird both a pentecostal theology and a pentecostal philosophy. What distinguishes the theology from the philosophy is not its faith basis (as though philosophy were somehow neutral or autonomous) but rather its field or topic. Theology might be described as a "special science" that investigates and explicates our being-toward-God and God's revelation of himself in the Scriptures. As such, theology ought to be done in the church, by the church, and for the church; in addition, it ought to be always a biblical theology rooted in revelation and investigating the narrative of Scripture and the dogmas of the church that arise from that (classical loci such as incarnation, sin, grace, and eschatological hope). Philosophy, on the other hand, also undergirded by (pentecostal) faith, investigates fundamental questions of ontology and epistemology: the nature of reality and knowledge. If the theologian asks, "How can we know God?" the philosopher asks, "How can we know?" The latter is not a neutral question — and no answer to that question will be religiously neutral. So it's not the case that the philosopher is "objective" and "rational" whereas the theologian is biased and committed. Our philosophical reflection is also always already informed by pretheoretical faith commitments. But the philosopher is asking questions that are more formal. Because of this, the philosopher has a different methodological formation (with a specific focus of argumentation and analysis) as well as a different set of conversation partners across time. While these aspects of philosophy are historically contingent, they do mean that philosophy today constitutes a different universe of discourse from theology.

There is a further complication of this relationship between faith, philosophy, and theology: historically, philosophy has often provided the basic concepts (Grundbegriffe) that theology employs. Thus theology has to be suspicious of what's "loaded" into the philosophical concepts it employs. If no philosophy is religiously neutral, then the Christian theologian must be critically aware of the religious assumptions that are implicit in philosophical concepts and frameworks. Ideally, Christian theology should find its basic concepts in an integrally Christian philosophy — which should itself be nourished by a Christian spirituality or "worldview." In a similar but more specific manner, pentecostal theology should utilize basic concepts forged in a pentecostal philosophy. And just as an integral pentecostal theology cannot simply adopt the theological frameworks of evangelical theology (as Archer and Dabney have admonished above), so a pentecostal philosophy should integrally develop from the resources and implicit intuitions that are "carried" in pentecostal spirituality and worship. In this respect, just as pentecostal theology ought to be wary of adapting off-the-shelf theological paradigms from, say, evangelical theology, so too must a pentecostal philosophy exhibit a prophetic suspicion of the regnant paradigms in Christian philosophy and its evangelical permutations. Outlining just what such an "integral" pentecostal philosophy could look like is the task of this book.

A third concern about the very idea of a "pentecostal philosophy" — skeptical in tone — might come from the broader community of Christian philosophers who, after an initial surprise (and perhaps chuckle), will question what pentecostals could possibly bring to the philosophical table. Will there now be altar calls at meetings of the Society of Christian Philosophers? Would papers be delivered in tongues? These, of course, are caricatures; but they are intended to indicate that the broader Christian philosophical community is only acquainted, secondhand, with caricatures of pentecostal worship and lacks an understanding of pentecostal distinctives that would make a difference in the philosophical community. One of the goals of this "outline" of pentecostal philosophy will be to indicate those distinctive pentecostal commitments that should impact epistemological and ontological reflection. In doing so, I hope to lay out the task of the ensuing chapters as well as sketch a program for an emerging generation of pentecostal philosophers.

Plantinga's Program for Christian Philosophy

A model for the development of a distinctly pentecostal philosophy can be found in Plantinga's "Advice" to those developing a Christian philosophy. In this seminal article Plantinga consistently emphasizes three key themes: (1) an apologetic movement defending the "rights" of Christian philosophers to philosophize from out of their Christian commitments; (2) a related call to Christian philosophers to demonstrate more "autonomy" vis-à-vis the philosophical establishment and more "integrity" or "integrality" (p. 254) in their philosophizing; and (3) the need for Christian philosophy to display more Christian boldness or self-confidence. Let me briefly unpack each of these before considering their implications for the development of a distinctly pentecostal philosophy.

First, Plantinga's address is dominated by what we could describe, following Mary Ann Glendon, as "rights talk." Here, in response to the (secular and antitheistic) philosophical establishment's dogma regarding the "objectivity" or "neutrality" of philosophy, Plantinga clears space for the viability of a Christian philosophy by pointing out that even these supposedly "secular" philosophers begin from fundamental prephilosophical commitments and assumptions (pp. 255-56). So if the neutrality thesis of the philosophical establishment is a myth, and "secular" philosophers have a "right" to their prephilosophical assumptions, then by the same rules Christian philosophers cannot be denied their corresponding "right" (an "epistemic right" [p. 261]) to philosophize from their Christian prephilosophical assumptions. Plantinga functions here as a kind of civil rights advocate for Christian philosophers, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (or, in fact, under the shadow of the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus) demanding, not "special" rights for Christian philosophers, but simply equal rights with respect to the role of prephilosophical assumptions in philosophizing. If W. V. O. Quine can begin from his philosophical assumptions, then "the Christian philosopher has a perfect right to the point of view and pre-philosophical assumptions that he brings to philosophic work" (p. 256).

But while this is a persistent apologetic element of his article, it is interesting to note that the point is precisely to free Christian philosophers from the self-imposed burden of only engaging in apologetics. In asserting that "the Christian philosophical community quite properly starts, in philosophy, from what it believes," Plantinga then notes that "this means that the Christian philosophical community need not devote all of its efforts to attempting to refute opposing claims and/or to arguing for its own claims" (p. 268).

By thus outlining the "rights" of Christian philosophers to begin from their fundamental Christian commitments, Plantinga is led to the second key emphasis of his "Advice": the need for the Christian philosophical community to demonstrate more independence and autonomy from the guild of philosophy at large (which is dominated by assumptions antithetical to Christian faith). By this he means that the agenda of investigation for the Christian philosopher should not be determined by trends in the philosophical establishment, but rather by questions that arise out of the Christian community and the Christian faith of the philosopher. "My plea," he emphasizes, "is for the Christian philosopher, the Christian philosophical community, to display, first, more independence and autonomy: we needn't take as our research projects just those projects that currently enjoy widespread popularity; we have our own questions to think about" (p. 268). Note that this alternative agenda stems from the fact that the Christian philosopher serves the Christian community, the church: "The Christian philosopher does indeed have a responsibility to the philosophical world at large; but his fundamental responsibility is to the Christian community, and finally to God" (p. 262). Plantinga also warns, however, that this does not mean that Christian philosophers should withdraw from the wider philosophical community into a kind of Christian ghetto: "Nor do I mean to suggest that Christian philosophers should retreat into their own isolated conclave, having as little as possible to do with non-theistic philosophers.... Christian philosophers must be intimately involved in the professional life of the philosophical community at large both because of what they can learn and because of what they can contribute" (p. 270). In other words, one of the responsibilities of the Christian philosopher will be to function as a witness to the broader philosophical community — but not in the narrow sense of evangelism. Rather, such philosophical work witnesses to creational wisdom and unveils the structures of a good creation. Indeed, it gives witness to the creational goodness of engaging in the cultural task of philosophizing. This leads to what Merold Westphal describes as the "two hats thesis": the Christian philosopher has two audiences (the church and the academy) and even two allegiances (first to the church and secondarily to the academy, based on the notion of "integrity" below). As such, we also have two vocations: to serve the Christian community but also to be a witness and testimony to the academy.

Christian philosophers, then, will demonstrate more autonomy by establishing an agenda that arises from their own faith commitments and their service to their own (distinctive) faith communities. This demands what Plantinga calls "integrity" or "integrality": our philosophy and philosophizing must begin from our Christian commitments, not assumptions laid down by the antitheistic philosophical establishment. "The Christian philosopher who looks exclusively to the philosophical world at large," he warns, "who thinks of himself as belonging primarily to that world, runs a two-fold risk. He may neglect an essential part of his task as a Christian philosopher; and he may find himself adopting principles and procedures that don't comport well with his belief as a Christian" (p. 264). While we may display autonomy by choosing philosophical questions that are unique to the Christian community, we must also think about those questions in a way that does not unwittingly adopt frameworks that are foreign to, and likely antithetical to, our fundamental Christian commitments. Now, to display this autonomy the Christian philosopher—as part of the Christian philosophical community — will need to be reflective and critically consider just what those "fundamental Christian commitments" are and what they entail. Then she or he will be in a place to critically evaluate trends in the broader philosophical community. As a result, the Christian philosopher who demonstrates such integrity "may have to reject certain currently fashionable assumptions about the philosophic enterprise — he may have to reject widely accepted assumptions as to what are the proper starting points and procedures for philosophical endeavor" (p. 256).


Excerpted from Thinking in Tongues by James K. A. Smith Copyright © 2010 by James K. A. Smith. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: What Hath Athens to Do with Azusa Street?....................xi
1. Thinking in Tongues Advice to Pentecostal Philosophers....................1
2. God's Surprise Elements of a Pentecostal Worldview....................17
3. Storied Experience A Pentecostal Epistemology....................48
4. Shattering Paradigms, Opening the World Science, Spirit, and a Pentecostal Ontology....................86
5. From Beliefs to Altar Calls A Pentecostal Critique of Philosophy of Religion....................106
6. At the Limits of Speech A Pentecostal Contribution to Philosophy of Language....................123
EPILOGUE: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy....................151
Name Index....................152
Subject Index....................154

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