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Interview with Sean McDowell, Part Two

December 28, 2020     Time: 35:47


Dr. Craig  continues his personal life with Sean McDowell, including a discussion on how God sometimes uses failure to accomplish things in our lives.

KEVIN HARRIS: Hello! It’s Kevin Harris. Let me remind you that at this recording there are only a few days left to take advantage of the matching grant which will double whatever you give to Reasonable Faith. A generous donor will match whatever amount you give up to three hundred thousand dollars. It doubles the impact of your financial gift to the work of Reasonable Faith. This matching grant is only in place until the end of the year, so please give now. And if you're listening to this podcast after the first of the year, remember that your gift is always appreciated any time of the year. Give online at

SEAN MCDOWELL: I've heard my father say – he came from a pretty broken background – he'll say to me, “Son, I never imagined that a woman could love a man the way your mom loves me.” And I get teary-eyed thinking about it. It sounds like that she [Bill’s wife Jan] plays that same role in your life in the times you might not be as motivated or discouraged. She is that person that shapes you. Would you talk about just how she does that and what that looks like in your relationship?

DR. CRAIG: Well, one very, very practical way is that she was trained as an executive secretary. She could type like 120 words a minute on an IBM Selectric typewriter. So she has typed both of my Masters theses, both of my doctoral dissertations, all of my books, all of my articles that I published up until very, very recently when now I can do them with dictation software myself. But that would be just one very practical way in which she has been a help to me. Even today she will say to me, “Give me the grunt work. I'll do it. If there's somebody that needs to be called, I'll call them. If there's some word processing thing to do, I'll do it. You spend your time on the important stuff. Let me do the grunt work.” So just in very practical ways she lightens my burden. Not to mention the fact that she's a great cook and homemaker, the mother of our children! She’s a Proverbs 31 woman.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's amazing. I love to hear that. I’d be curious about the books that most influenced you. And they could be books – obviously the Bible is an answer that is obviously huge in your life – but even over a career, what book was pivotal to you, changed your thinking, formative in some sense?

DR. CRAIG: I would say it was reading Edward John Carnell's book An Introduction to Christian Apologetics while at Wheaton. I took a course called Conflicts in Biblical Christianity, and for that course I read Carnell's book. I had never read anything like this before in my life. In this book Carnell was asking questions like: What is truth? How do we test for truth? How do we know that Christianity is true? These were the kinds of questions I was interested in. So it was really Carnell that catapulted me in this direction. Carnell was interesting. He was himself a Wheaton grad. He had earned doctorates in both philosophy and theology. I thought, wow, if I could ever do that someday that would be a dream come true. But I never imagined that I actually would. But Carnell set that example and goal for me.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's really fascinating to see that influence. You don't hear him cited as much. Is it because he maybe didn't publish in an academic book that his research would have been a part of some of the 60s and 70s philosophical revolution? Did that maybe play a role in it?

DR. CRAIG: I think that's right. Carnell died, I think, in 1968. He was a professor at Fuller Seminary. He belonged to the era of Carl Henry and Ockenga and Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til, and that generation was just completely eclipsed by the revolution in Christian philosophy that's taken place since around 1967 or so.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That makes sense. That's powerful. In class, I believe it was Philosophy of Religion, I had you in my Master's program and M.A.-Phil program at Talbot, so this is probably 16, 17 years ago, you started off by sharing a story of how you deal with failure related to (if I remember correctly) your doctorate in theology. Would you be willing to share that story and just kind of the lesson that you took away from it?

DR. CRAIG: Yes. Briefly, when I finished my doctoral dissertation under Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich I had to take oral examinations in theology. And I didn't know how to prepare for these. So I sought to have an appointment with Professor Pannenberg over and over again. But German professors are like little demigods compared to their students. Students are like dirt under their heels. Professor Doctor couldn't be bothered to meet with me, and so I was never able to get an appointment with him to learn how to prepare for this oral exam. I thought, well, I'll go to his assistant and I asked [him] how should I prepare for this exam. And he said, “Oh, forget about it!” Well, I wasn't that stupid. I said, “No, no. Come on now. How can I prepare for this?” He said, “Pannenberg always asks questions only over his own writings. So master everything he's written, and you'll be prepared.” Well, that sounded like good advice to me. So over the next few months I read literally, or virtually, everything that Pannenberg had ever published and took notes on it and memorized it and so forth. I went into this exam and sat down with Professor Pannenberg, the dean, and one other faculty member. And the questioning began. And Pannenberg began to ask questions on subjects that were not discussed in his writings. And over and over and over again I had to respond “I don't know.” And I could feel my doctoral degree slipping away like sand through my fingers, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It was the most terrifying, horrible feeling I’d ever had. And at the end of the exam Pannenberg asked a couple of condescendingly easy questions as if to come down to my level. My humiliation was complete. Well, I was just crushed. I was devastated. We believed that God had called me to do this doctorate in Germany, and he provided marvelously all the way to do so. And now I had failed and was going home in defeat. Well, I learned a lot of lessons out of that, but one of the things that one of our friends advised us about was don't make a decision right away what to do about this. Give it some time to heal. In Germany, if you fail the exam once you can take it again in a year's time. And I knew after thinking about it I had to do it again. Otherwise I would spend the rest of my life second-guessing what would have happened if I had taken it again. So I knew I had to risk it. That first year back in the States teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I spent every spare moment I had preparing for this exam in systematic theology back in Munich. I spent more time preparing for that exam than I did preparing for my lectures in my classes. I really neglected my teaching responsibilities to prepare for this exam. Well, finally, the next August then (a year after coming home), I went back to Munich. I had a stack of notes about a foot high on systematic theology from the ancient church fathers to contemporary theologians on every aspect of systematic theology – doctrine of God, doctrine of Christ, doctrine of sin, doctrine of salvation, doctrine of the church. And here's one thing that I learned, by the way, preparing for that. I discovered that I had been woefully under-prepared by my seminary education in the United States. I think that the training that we give at our American seminaries in systematic theology is like elementary school compared to what German students get. I learned more about systematic theology during that year of preparation than during my entire seminary experience. I walked into Pannenberg's office. It looked just like it had before. There was the dean. There was Pannenberg. There was one of the other faculty members. And he began to ask questions. And to my absolute joy the answers just rolled off my tongue just fluidly, easily, effortlessly. There was only one question that tripped me up that I couldn't answer and that was why Hegel's Christology entailed the death of God. I thought, “Who cares?!” That one I didn't know. So Pannenberg awarded me a magna cum laude on my exam and my degree. I came out of there, I was dancing on air. It was such a victory. I learned so much about theology as a result of failing that exam. But then the spiritual lesson that I learned was just as important. I had always naively thought that if you're a Christian walking in the center of God's will you cannot fail. Now that may sound very naive, but I had a rather nuanced understanding. I thought there would be trials. Of course. Tribulations. But if you're walking in the center of God's will, God will see you through those trials and you'll come out victorious in the end. What I learned is that God's will for your life can include failure. It could be God's will that you fail, and he will lead you in the fullness of the Holy Spirit into failure because God has things to teach us through failure that we could never learn through success. And that was the case for me.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's a great lesson. I love that. That's really encouraging again. Those notes that you took, if I'm not mistaken, have become the basis of your Defenders series.

DR. CRAIG: Right! That's exactly right.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's pretty awesome. Another question for you. Do you have a favorite book in the Bible, or a favorite story in the Bible, that just motivates you?

DR. CRAIG: I've always really enjoyed the book of Colossians. There Paul warns about the dangers of philosophy and shows how it is through Christ that we find the fullness of God in human form and that all these other religious efforts to reach God apart from Christ are ultimately futile and unavailing. So Colossians has been a book that I've greatly appreciated.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That is really fascinating. I don't know if I've ever heard somebody say that was their favorite book. That's interesting. On the flip side, you mentioned how you deal with failure, what about success? You've had some pretty high profile opportunities being invited on the Ben Shapiro show, sharing the stage with Jordan Peterson. How spiritually do you deal with success and try to stay grounded faithfully.

DR. CRAIG: Well, Paul says, “Let no man think more highly of himself than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” And when I think with sober judgment I am acutely aware of my shortcomings and limitations and insignificance. So in that sense one is humbled by how little one knows. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. I have right here on my desk beside me under the glass a picture of Isaac Newton – perhaps the greatest physicist who ever lived. I want to read you the inscription from Newton's Principia. He says, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” If Newton could have that sense of humility and his own ignorance, how much more is that true of me. That right there next to my right hand on my desk is a reminder of the need for that kind of humility.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's a wonderful way to just daily remind yourself of somebody obviously as great as Isaac Newton is. You've been doing this for a few decades. How do you stay motivated? Did you ever feel like you're burned out sometimes? How does motivation work for you?

DR. CRAIG: I think for motivation – to be candid – is that I love what I do. I am pursuing my passion. I don't think I'll ever retire because I'm already doing what I want! I'm just completely free to do whatever I want to do, and this is what I want to do. I don't even study topics that I think are important. I study topics that I'm passionate about. When you're following your passion, it's easy to stay motivated. A few years ago I began to lose some motivation. I said to Jan, “I feel like I'm losing my motivation. I used to be able to study from morning until night without a break, and it wouldn't be a problem. But now I find that in the afternoon I'm kind of worn out and I just don't want to work anymore. I think I'm losing my motivation.” And she said to me, “You're not losing your motivation. You just need to have a different schedule.” And so she arranged it so that in the morning when I'm fresh, that's when I would do my heavy philosophical work. Then immediately after lunch I would do lighter more popular level work. And then from about four o'clock until six o'clock in the evening when my brain is fried I would do interviews with Sean McDowell that don't require a great deal of intellectual effort. And that completely restored me. Just having that schedule change restored my energy levels and motivation so that I'm able to go full bore now until six in the evening when Jan and I have supper together.

SEAN MCDOWELL: I love hearing that story. It was fun to see the two of you together in Israel a couple years ago and just see the partnership and love and just  . . . there's so much to be said for that. She's just giving you the right advice at the right moments. What a blessing from the Lord through her. By the way, for those of you listening, if you have some personal questions for Dr. William Lane Craig  – just about how he studies, people that have influenced him, not apologetic questions (we can come back to that another time) but if you have questions you've always wanted just to ask him, put them in and I will do my best to address those comments. But one question I've never asked you but I've always wondered is do you have doubts about your faith sometimes? Do you ever doubt and just think, “Am I crazy? Did a man really rise from the dead?” And if so, how do you address those?

DR. CRAIG: Well, I think that every Christian has doubts. Let me back up. Every thinking Christian has doubts. Anybody who holds to a position will ask himself, “Is my position really true? Could I be deceived? Could I be wrong?” And here I find it important not only to maintain one's personal devotional life so that the witness of the Holy Spirit will bear testimony to the truth of God in your heart but also to have those arguments and evidence to review. I will be entirely candid and honest with you. When I look at these arguments for God's existence that I have defended in debates or in publications and I weigh them, I look at these things and I shake my head and I said, “These are really good arguments.” These really are convincing. This was a real source of strength for me during my historical Adam study. I really struggled with this whole thing about the existence of a historical Adam and how we’re to understand that subject. I went through real doubts about this. And I was always able to fall back on the evidence for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus. I was so thankful for that, that my faith had a firm rational foundation that could explore doubts like the historical Adam honestly without walking away from the faith or losing one's faith.

SEAN MCDOWELL: I heard you working through the historical Adam. There's some times where I think you said something to the effect of “I'm not really sure what to do with this. It makes me a little nervous or unsettled.” And you were sharing that publicly. And, I thought, clearly you've thought through the implications of doing that. What was the reasoning and basis for sharing that before you came to conclusions? Is it showing vulnerability? Honesty? What was the thinking behind how you approached that?

DR. CRAIG: Well, what it was, unfortunately, was an impromptu discussion with Joshua Swamidass in which Josh was prompting me to say, “Why are you struggling with this, Bill?” For Josh this is fun. It’s great. Let's talk about all these different views. And here I was agonizing over these questions! So this agony kind of came out in the interview as to why I was struggling so. It had to do with Christology because it seemed to me pretty clear that Jesus of Nazareth believed in the historical Adam. He refers to him, and Eve as well. Now, if Jesus is divine that means he's omniscient and therefore can hold no false beliefs. As a philosopher I understand that (many theologians don't). But if Jesus believed there was a historical Adam, and in fact there was no such person, that means Jesus held false beliefs, that he was therefore not omniscient, and therefore he was not divine. And that just completely undermines the entire Christian faith. And so this historical Adam question took on a proportionality that seemed wholly out of size with the issue itself. Now, unfortunately, an atheist podcaster picked up this interview with Swamidass and made it sound like I was saying that the deity of Christ stands or falls on the existence of the historical Adam. And that's not at all what I think. As you'll read in the book, what I explain is: let's imagine a worst-case scenario. Let's imagine that there was no historical Adam. Would Jesus be convicted then of having held a false belief? And I give an argument as to why that's not true based upon a distinction that is very common in philosophy between accepting a proposition P and believing a proposition P. And what I suggest is that Jesus of Nazareth accepted the proposition that there was a historical Adam even if the divine Logos – the person Christ is – did not actually believe it. And I think that that answers the objection. In fact, there are some things about that model of the incarnation that make it a more plausible model than one in which one would say that Jesus did not accept any false beliefs. For example, Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, or he talks about the moon giving its light when in fact the moon, as we know, is not luminous. What we can say is I think very plausibly the incarnate Christ during the state of humiliation accepted those common beliefs but the Logos – the divine Son of God – did not believe those false beliefs and therefore it doesn't impugn his omniscience. Now, that's the worst-case scenario. It shows, in fact, you can defend the deity of Christ even given the worst-case scenario, but then the whole rest of the book is devoted to showing that it's perfectly scientifically plausible to believe that there was a historical Adam.

SEAN MCDOWELL: When is that book coming out?

DR. CRAIG: I don't know. I've already returned the copy-edited proofs to Eerdmans. They're scheduled in January to send me the print proofs and then once I return those then within a few months they should have it bound and published. So maybe sometime in the spring I hope.

SEAN MCDOWELL: Good. I hope we can have you on and help you spread the word for you.

DR. CRAIG: I'd be happy to talk about it with you.

SEAN MCDOWELL: Here's a quick question. I've heard you answer this before. You can probably do it in ten seconds: When is the beard coming back?

DR. CRAIG: Never! I think in general a person with a gray beard looks so old and haggard and worn. I just don't want to have that image. So it won't come back.

SEAN MCDOWELL: OK. Here's one a couple people asked about. What's your personal devotion, prayer, or bible study approach like?

DR. CRAIG: I typically get up in the morning about 5:30 and I spend time in prayer for myself, for Jan, for our children, and then for the various events of the day, and the work of the ministry and the staff of Reasonable Faith. And then I will read a portion out of the Greek New Testament. I want to maintain my New Testament Greek, and so I find the best way to do it is to do my devotional reading in the New Testament in Greek. Currently I'm reading the Gospel of Mark. In the past I've sometimes also read a commentary in connection with what I'm reading and a page out of the church fathers.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's awesome. Oh, I just missed one here. It said, “What do you do for fun?”

DR. CRAIG: My work is fun! I love what I do, and so that is my fun. But in addition to that, on the weekends I enjoy gardening. I go out and, as Jan puts it, I commune with the weeds. I take out my frustrations and stress by yanking weeds. I hate weeds, so I pull them all over the yard. I will spend every Saturday morning out in the garden in the yard hoeing and weeding and cutting and trimming and things of that sort. That's a great outlet. I really enjoy that.

SEAN MCDOWELL: And you still enjoy exercising and lifting as you can?

DR. CRAIG: I do exercise, and I have to say (as you probably have found) that if it becomes habitual it actually can be enjoyable. At first I just hated it. It was just pure discipline. Dr. Montgomery, who was my church history professor, once put it so well. He said, “Whenever I feel like exercising I go lie down until it goes away.” That's sort of the way I felt. But if you can make it a habit then after a while it just becomes routine and it actually does feel good and you can enjoy it. So, yeah, I do that. Jan and I also enjoy going out to eat when we can. And when we travel we love to go sightseeing. If we're in Turkey, for example, we'll go sightseeing in Istanbul, or when we're in China visit the Great Wall, or in Italy go to the Coliseum or St. Peter’s Cathedral. We really enjoy sightseeing and so we like to do that, too, when we can.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's awesome. I love hearing that. Here's a couple about the program. What's unique about the M.A.-Philosophy program that you've been involved in for a long time with J. P. Moreland at Talbot? Why should somebody consider doing that program?

DR. CRAIG: OK. Well, I don't think there is any other M.A. level program that has the caliber of faculty that we do at Talbot. M.A. programs are sort of a dying breed. People typically go right from their B.A. into a PhD program, and they may just sort of throw in the M.A. as a kind of throwaway degree. But at Talbot the M.A. is our terminal degree because we don't want to give out cheap PhDs. We want to prepare students for PhD programs at the top secular universities by giving them a stepping stone to a terminal degree at one of those schools. So we have a very highly developed curriculum and excellent faculty that routinely places our graduates in PhD programs all around the United States and abroad. The other couple of things that should be mentioned is the Christian emphasis at Talbot. You will be getting a Christian worldview – a Christian perspective – on philosophy. The faculty in the department are committed to certain philosophical distinctives like the value of natural theology (arguments for the existence of God), the objectivity and knowability of truth, the objectivity of moral values, mind-body dualism. All of these would be philosophical distinctives that the faculty agree on and teach in our classes. So students will be equipped, I think, in a Christian world and life view when they come away from Talbot. I guess the last thing that I would mention is it's quite remarkable that all of the faculty in the philosophy department at Talbot have either pastoral or missionary experience. They have been the pastors of churches or they've been staff members with Campus Crusade for Christ. They are involved or have been involved in ministry, and this pastoral heart is reflected in their teaching and in their classes.

SEAN MCDOWELL: I think I've told you this. I did my undergrad at Biola. Loved it. Did my doctorate at Southern Baptist. But that M.A.-Phil program – my wife, who you know (Stephanie, my high school sweetheart), said during that three years she saw more transformation in my life (just my confidence, my beliefs, my understanding of faith) than any season in my life. So any of you watching this, you've thought, “You know what? I’ve gone back to Master's program, thought about studying apologetics at Biola or the M.A.-Phil program,” we now have a full distance program. Come study with me and even more importantly come study with William Lane Craig. If I can ask you two more questions. One is just fun, which is: What is your favorite movie?

DR. CRAIG: Boy, that's really hard because there's so many right at the top of the list.

SEAN MCDOWELL: I officially stumped William Lane Craig just for the record. Let it be stated that I got him, although that wasn't . . .

DR. CRAIG: Well, it's from a wealth or an abundance of riches. I think Ingrid Bergman was fantastic, and so I love movies like Notorious and Casablanca and Gaslight. In the movie Gaslight there's a scene where she looks at her husband who's been deceiving her trying to drive her crazy, and if looks could kill, oh man! The look that she gives at him would be a manslayer. It's really remarkable. So I like these old Ingrid Bergman movies. The Maltese Falcon is another great movie with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. I love that movie. And then The Bridge On the River Kwai is a very moving film that is an ethical film that I really enjoyed, too. So those would just be a few that come to mind.

SEAN MCDOWELL: Those are great examples. The final question that people ask me almost daily. I'll get a tweet or an email or somebody like today a young man asked me from Canada. He's in grade 11. He said, “I want to be an apologist. Maybe I want to go to Biola. What advice do you have for me? What can I do now as a younger kind of aspiring apologist?” What advice would you give to younger apologists to be effective?

DR. CRAIG: Well, now if he's really that young I think he needs to embark on a college prep program in his high school and maybe even his junior and senior year take AP classes that would prepare him for college. I kind of sloughed off in high school in some respects, and I wish I hadn't. I would encourage students at that age to really bite off as much as they can chew and take that good college prep curriculum while they're in high school. I would supplement it, I think, with some study of logic as early as they can. I have a little textbook for children called Introduction to Logic that is very suitable for 8 to 11-year-old kids and people of all ages. I would recommend that. I suppose though most of all I would not emphasize the academic preparation as much as I would his spiritual preparation. He needs to be sure he's read the Bible from cover to cover, he understands Old and New Testament contents, he has some understanding of Christian doctrine. I would say work through a book like Bruce Milne's book Know the Truth which is a very good survey of Christian doctrine. I think he needs to be really grounded theologically even before he begins to plunge into philosophical studies.

SEAN MCDOWELL: That's great advice. I actually remember you gave me that advice similar when I was at Talbot. I was getting an M.A.-Phil and you said to get a theology degree, too. You and my dad both encouraged me to get an M.A.-Theology, and it has served me very well.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, good!

SEAN MCDOWELL: There is a whole bunch of more questions people have, but I definitely want to respect your time. This has been so interesting. Thanks, not only for your ministry and friendship, but just coming on and sharing some stories and giving us some insights about your life. Again, Dr. Craig, thanks for coming on.

DR. CRAIG: My pleasure.[1]


[1]Total Running Time: 35:47 (Copyright © 2021 William Lane Craig)