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Dr. Craig's Favorite Philosopher, Debate, and Books

August 23, 2011     Time: 00:21:57
Dr. Craig’s Favorite Philosopher, Debate, and Books


Who is Dr. Craig’s favorite philosopher, the most influential book, and the best debate he’s been in? Dr. Craig discusses life-changing people and events in his life.

Transcript Dr. Craig's Favorite Philosopher, Debate, and Books


Kevin Harris: This is the Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. So glad you're here. I'm Kevin Harris with Dr. Craig. Bill, we have a lot of questions on who your favorite philosopher is, the best debate that you've been in, some of the more influential books in your life. And while you've discussed these questions in past podcasts let's pull it all together and answer some of these questions starting with: who is your favorite philosopher?

Dr. Craig: Well, I think my favorite philosopher is Alvin Plantinga. I have just been so impressed by both the man and his work. He is on the one hand just a genius, his style of doing philosophy is so careful and so clean, so analytical. And every issue that he's touched he's made a major contribution. His work on the problem of evil was epical in terms of resolving the logical version of the problem of evil. His ontological argument was revolutionary, and helped to breathe new life into that argument that many had dismissed before. His work on religious epistemology, and the proper basicality of Christian belief, and his account of warrant has been revolutionary. His work on abstract objects, the nature of God, conceptualism, has been important. He's doing work now in the area of religion and science. And it just seems that every area he touches he does bring genuinely fresh insights to topics that have been discussed and rediscussed for hundreds of years. So I feel that the man is truly one of the great philosophers. I think he is like a modern day Leibniz, in our age. And it's a privilege to be alive and working in this discipline at a time when this man is alive and working. And so he is certainly my favorite philosopher in terms of his work.

But I have to say that Plantinga is also incredibly gracious. He exemplifies the Christian life. He's humble, he is kind, he is charitable toward others with whom he disagrees, he's orthodox in his theology. He really does exemplify Christian character and virtues.

Everybody has a Plantinga story to tell—here's mine: When I was just getting started out as a young philosopher I was invited to a philosophy conference in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, and Plantinga was present there as well. And I asked Plantinga if we could spend a few moments together talking about some issues; I had some questions for him. And he said, “of course.” And so he set aside some time in the afternoon for me to ask my questions of him, and he would respond to them. Well, while we were talking a person from the conference came and interrupted us and said to us, “Excuse me, Dr. Plantinga, the press is here and asking to interview you.” And I thought, “Oh boy, there goes our time.” And to my shock Plantinga turned to this women and said, “Well, tell them to go away; I'm doing something more important. I'm talking about philosophy.” And you can imagine, Kevin, the sense of affirmation and importance that that gave to me as a young philosopher, that he considered it more important to talk to me and to answer my questions than to do this interview with the press. And it just spoke volumes to me about the man's character as a Christian, that he would value other people in that way rather than self-aggrandizement and being a big name in the press and things of that sort.

So Plantinga is a terrific guy, terrific thinker, and when our little daughter Charity was born, when she was just two years old or so and learning to speak, I taught her whenever anybody would ask her to say, “Charity, who is your favorite philosopher?” she would say, “Alvin Plantinga.” [laughter] And they would just be bowled over because they didn't expect this two year old to have an answer. And then I would turn to Charity and I would say, “Well, what's your favorite book, Charity?” And she would say The Nature of Necessity. [laughter] And so these people, these students, would just be rocked at this little two year old talking about the Nature of Necessity and Alvin Plantinga. So I really have appreciated his work a great deal.

Kevin Harris: That's great. I wonder what it would be like to be in one of his classes, to be a student.

Dr. Craig: You know, I've never had that privilege. I've heard him of course at conferences and read his work, [1] but I've never actually sat in one of his classes. That must be a great experience for students at the University of Notre Dame and earlier at Calvin, where he taught.

Kevin Harris: Spiritual mentor: who's been a real spiritual influence? Obviously Alvin Plantinga in many ways, also, but let's kind of broaden the category a little bit.

Dr. Craig: You know, I really haven't had a close spiritual mentor. After I became a Christian my junior year in high school I was never discipled per se by anybody in the way that we talk about discipleship today. I just started going to church, reading my Bible, trying to live for Christ, had a wonderful pastor – Vernon Peterson – of the church that I was attending, and he was a role model for me. But I suppose if I had to pick one person I guess I would say it would be Bill Bright, the late Bill Bright—founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. I've always admired this man's depth of commitment to Christ, the burden in his heart for fulfilling the Great Commission, and the earnestness with which he took his Christian faith, his importance on walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. I think Bill Bright really did exemplify for me the kind of committed Christian that I would like to be. And so, although I didn't know Dr. Bright personally – I only met him once in my entire life – nevertheless I think his example probably more important to me than anybody else that I can think of in terms of my spiritual walk.

Kevin Harris: You know, what's profound about that is that in the way that he kind of mentored you, even from afar, how there's a possibility that we might be that for somebody else that we haven't even met yet.

Dr. Craig: That is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. He didn't know me from Adam and yet I was looking to him as a kind of role model and example, and we never know who might be looking to us similarly as that sort of role model and mentor. So that is a good reminder, I think, for all of us.

Kevin Harris: Bill, you've read so many books it'd probably be hard to crank it down to one or two favs, but what about some favorites?

Dr. Craig: In terms of influence I think it would be the books that one read early on in one's life that diverted one's life in a certain direction, and therefore were so determinative and influential in the path that one's life has taken. If we think in those terms, for me, the book would have to be first of all E. J. Carnell's Introduction to Apologetics. Carnell wrote that book in 1948, just as Evangelicalism was beginning to emerge from the fundamentalist closet, and the intellectual renaissance in evangelical thought and life was beginning to take place. Carnell was a professor at Wheaton College. That was where I attended as an undergraduate; I went to Wheaton. And there were still folks around there who remembered Carnell. My senior year, I believe it was, I read Carnell's Introduction. And I had never read a book like this, Kevin. It just absolutely captivated me as he asked questions like 'what is the nature of truth?' and 'how do we test for truth?' and 'how do I know that Christianity is true?' And it was at that time that I had the vision of becoming a Christian apologist. I thought if I could become a Christian apologist like Carnell that would be the fulfillment of my dreams. And Carnell was, again, a fantastic role model. He had earned doctorates in philosophy and in theology from Boston University and Harvard University. And this was too much to aspire to, to have two earned doctorates in philosophy and in theology. And yet Carnell's example had been set for me, and lo’ and behold as I followed my path that the Lord was leading us on it eventually led to doing exactly the same thing, in earning doctorates in philosophy and theology that have served me very well in the kind of ministry that God's given us. And it was Carnell who was the inspiration for that vision.

The other influential book, as I'm sure almost anybody could guess, would have to be Stuart Hackett's Resurrection of Theism. Hackett was a professor at Wheaton when I was an undergraduate there, and I actually had intro to philosophy with him the fall semester of my freshmen year, upon entering Wheaton. But I never read any of Hackett's own work, and he didn't discuss his own philosophy in this intro class. So I never really gained anything of his own views in terms of argumentative theism until, again, my senior year. [2] And right around graduation time there was a sale in the college book store of used books that were being gotten rid of, they were on the clearance table. And one of them was The Resurrection of Theism by Stuart Hackett. And I had heard that this book was good and so I picked it up and I thought, “Well, I'll read it after graduation.”

And so I bought the book, graduated from Wheaton, and then that fall began to read it. And I was absolutely blown away. In my education at Wheaton I had been taught by my professors in my theology classes, particularly the late Dr. Robert Weber, that there are no sound arguments for God's existence. That all of the arguments for God's existence had been refuted. And although I found that hard to imagine I accepted it on my professor's say-so. He said they'd all been refuted so I guess that was true. And therefore at Wheaton the only sort of apologetic that we had for Christianity was a kind of negative apologetic, along the lines of Francis Schaeffer; namely, if Christianity is not true, if God does not exist, then look at the awful consequences: life becomes absurd, you're left with nothing but despair, and culture and society go down the drain. Well, that kind of negative apologetic doesn't really give you any sort of positive reason to think that God exists or Christianity is true. It just shows you how awful things would be if God doesn't exist and it's not true. And so that was basically all I had coming out of Wheaton.

And then I picked up Hackett's book, and to my surprise I found him defending the teleological, the cosmological, the moral arguments for God's existence, all of these arguments that I'd been told were unsound and had been refuted. And here Hackett was raising every conceivable objection to them under the sun and showing how those objections fail. And it was there that I became aware of the project and the viability of natural theology—of giving arguments and evidence for God's existence.

And Hackett's centerpiece of his case was this argument for the existence of God based upon the impossibility of an infinite temporal regress of events, that the universe had to have a beginning, and therefore there had to be a cause which brought the universe into being. I realized this was controversial, of course, but Hackett's arguments for it seemed persuasive to me. And I determined that I had to solve this question for myself, and that if ever I went on for advanced study in philosophy I would make the object of my study this particular version of the cosmological argument. Well, as you know, I eventually did go on to do doctoral work in philosophy, and I wrote on the cosmological argument for God's existence, and did develop a version of the kalam cosmological argument that Hackett had defended, which I think is sound, and which has served me very well ever since in ministry.

So those two books – Carnell's Introduction to Christian Apologetics and Hackett's Resurrection of Theism – were tremendously influential books in my life.

Kevin Harris: Now, you studied under John Hick, knowing that he'd be a good man to run this argument past.

Dr. Craig: Yes, at that time John Hick was one of the very few philosophers who was interested in natural theology – that is, arguments for God's existence – and was writing sympathetically about the cosmological and teleological and ontological arguments. He didn't think that these were sound arguments in the end. So in the end he didn't judge them to go through. But he treated them very fairly, and very sympathetically, and I thought that's the best I can hope for, is writing under a dissertation supervisor like this. And he did turn out to be like that. It was a dream working with Professor Hick; he become like a second father to us.

Kevin Harris: Wow. Best debate that you've been involved in?

Dr. Craig: Well, you know, I've been in a lot of bad debates, Kevin, [laughter] as debates go, where the opponent just doesn't have the intellectual wherewithal or the debating skills to do a very good job. And quite a number of years ago I was feeling dissatisfied with being in these poor quality debates one after another. And I was thinking to myself: “How would I fare if I came up against an opponent who was really a good philosopher and a good debater. I would love to really have a good contest like that.” Well then I got a call from Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of North Carolina inviting me to participate in a debate with Dr. Doug Jesseph at UNC. [3] And I said, “Great, we'll have a debate,” and the topic was the existence of God. Well, I knew something was up when Jesseph insisted on going first in the debate. I normally go first because I take the affirmative side, and the affirmative typically goes first, but he wanted to go first. And I thought there's something funny about this—why would a negative speaker want to go first? And I thought he wants to go first so that he can launch a preemptive attack on all of my arguments and refute them before I even get up to speak. And I thought there's no way I'm going to let that happen. So I said, “No, I'm the affirmative speaker; I go first.” And he wouldn't back down. And so we finally had to have a coin flip in front of the departmental secretary at UNC and he won the flip, so he got to go first. And I thought, “Oh brother, what am I going to do now?” Because I know what he's going to do. So what I decided to do was I prepared a short speech, not a full twenty minute speech but just a fifteen minute speech, that would leave me five minutes of time to extemporaneously respond to his preemptive attack that I was sure he was going to launch, and hopefully at least bring the debate back to a point of neutrality so that I could then try to pull ahead later in the rebuttals. Well that was exactly what happened. He got up in his first speech and he refuted every one of my five arguments that I was going to give, in the order in which I was going to present them. He had objections to every one of them. And I thought, “Wow, I am in for a good debate tonight.”

Kevin Harris: When you say 'refuted', is there a difference between rebutting and refuting?

Dr. Craig: Not in the way I was using the words. What I meant is he offered objections. He offered refutations.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, alright.

Dr. Craig: He didn't ignore the arguments. He said, “Here are my two responses to this argument; here are my three responses to this argument,” even though I hadn't even given them yet! And so when I got up to speak what I did was I would present my prepared argument, and then I would use part of those five minutes to say, “Now, how would I respond to Dr. Jesseph's attack on this argument?” and I would quickly respond and attempt to at least neutralize his attack. Well that worked perfectly, and by the time of the rebuttals it kind of brought us back to parity again. And then during the rebuttals it was very closely contested. When he spoke he would pull ahead, when I spoke I would pull ahead. Then when he spoke again he would pull ahead. And so it went right down to the closing statements. And I felt it was only in the closing statements that the Christian side really pulled ahead and was able to come out on top in this debate. And afterwards I went up to him and I said, “You are a very good debater.” And he said, “I was on my collegiate debate team.” And I thought, “Ha, that explains it.” So here was a fellow who was a good philosopher and he was also a debater in college. And so this was the best debate I've ever been in. We have a transcript of that debate which is posted at under the debate section. [4] The tape of the debate was too corrupted to be able to sell as a CD, the quality was very poor. But it was good enough to transcribe. And so folks can at least read that debate if they care to.

Kevin Harris: What debate do people most know you for? Which one do you think?

Dr. Craig: I think it's the Willow Creek debate that I had with Frank Zindler from American Atheist—Madeline Murray O'Hare's organization. [5]

Kevin Harris: Yeah, probably because Zondervan put that out.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. It was marketed by Zondervan and so lots of people in England, Australia, as well as North America have seen that debate. And just everybody says the same thing: “Where did they come up with that atheist?”

Kevin Harris: He was supposed to be the go-to guy.

Dr. Craig: Oh yeah. He was.

Kevin Harris: He was chosen by the local colorful, outspoken, atheist in Chicago.

Dr. Craig: Right, right: Rob Shermer.

Kevin Harris: He was supposed to be the man.

Dr. Craig: Oh, he was. He was the man. And I've seen videos of Zindler debating other Christians and he took them to pieces. The only reason he looked bad in that debate was because I was super well-prepared for his arguments and what I thought he was going to bring up. And so was able to put through my case. But, boy, in other debates that I watched him in he did much better. But that debate is probably the one that most folks have heard of, I think.

Kevin Harris: Of all the books that you've written which one are you most proud of.

Dr. Craig: I think that the best book that I've written is Time and Eternity. This is not a scholarly book; it's a popular level book that flowed out of my work on God and time. [6] And it was published by Crossway. It brings together thirteen years of research on the nature of divine eternity, on the subject of God and time. So it is massively undergirded by scholarship. It handles really, really important issues respecting God and time. Crossway did a beautiful job with the book in terms of putting the footnotes at the bottom of each page rather than at the end of the chapter. They have figures, they have pictures in it; it's just beautifully printed and done. And I think that of all the things I've written I'm most proud of that book – Time and Eternity – for its quality, its appearance, and its readability.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, is there a verse that kind of serves as a general motto for you?

Dr. Craig: There is a kind of ministry verse that I've adopted. It's 2 Corinthians 10:5 where Paul is talking about this spiritual warfare that he's engaged in. And he writes this to the Corinthians: we destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to obey Christ. And I thought that's exactly what I want to be about—destroying arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to Christ. So that's the verse that I will typically put the reference to under my name when I sign a book or autograph something. This is the motto for our ministry.

Kevin Harris: Thank you for your time, Dr. Craig. And thank you who are listening. Don't forget that many of the resources that Dr. Craig mentioned are available at So become more involved with us at And we'll see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. [7]