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A Tribute to Norman Geisler

Dr. Craig remembers his teacher, Dr Norman Geisler, with an overview of his life and work and a few funny moments!


KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we have not had a chance to talk about Dr. Normal Geisler who passed away back in the summer of 2019. There have been so many people who have been touched by him – his apologetics work, his philosophy work. I know that you have written some things about him on Facebook. You did a tribute to him – very kind – because you were his student. I thought that maybe you could talk a little bit more about Stormin’ Norman.

DR. CRAIG: That’s a good nickname for him. He loved the fight, and he was zealous for orthodoxy. I first encountered Norman Geisler when I was on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ right out of college. I graduated from Wheaton and I was assigned to Northern Illinois University. The InterVarsity chapter had brought him over from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to speak on the problem of evil and suffering. At that time he had a dark brown beard. He gave a lecture that evening, and I thought it was just remarkable. I had never heard so logical and clear a discussion of the problem of evil before. I learned that evening that he was the head of a program at Trinity in philosophy of religion offering a Master of Arts degree. Well, that really interested me because I had wanted to go to seminary. I knew I was on my way to seminary, but I also knew I didn't feel called to the pastorate. So I didn't want to have to take all of the professional ministerial courses that are connected with a Master of Divinity degree. And so the MA degree in philosophy of religion seemed to be tailor-made for me. I could do my core courses in philosophy of religion and then use my electives to get Greek and Hebrew and systematic theology. So it was a perfect degree set up for me. Over the next year I prepared for the Graduate Record Exam in philosophy and scored sufficiently high on that to be admitted to the MA program in philosophy of religion at Trinity, and then went in the fall of 1973 to study there. I decided that I would get my toe in the water so to speak by enrolling in the fourth term of summer school before the fall semester began. I would just take one course to see what graduate studies were like. And so I took apologetics with John Warwick Montgomery. In that class was a young Indian student with jet black hair named Ravi Zacharias. Ravi and I were classmates at Trinity at the same time. We both then took courses from Norm Geisler. He was the head of the program in which I received my degree. I was educated under him and some other faculty there at Trinity. The priceless gift that he gave to me was a stepping stone from my undergraduate studies, which were not in philosophy, to going on to do a PhD in philosophy at the University of Birmingham in England with John Hick. That MA in philosophy of religion at Trinity served as that stepping stone from undergraduate work to then doing PhD work. So without that link, without that bridge, I would never have been able to go on in the way that I did. So I owe to Norm Geisler and the program that he directed at Trinity an inestimable debt of gratitude.

KEVIN HARRIS: I've had an opportunity to interview him on radio many times. I actually got in trouble. I was working at a secular or a mainstream station and I put him on the air one time during Easter to talk about the resurrection. Norm was a Thomist.


KEVIN HARRIS: How, despite his influence on you, did you diverge maybe perhaps from your views?

DR. CRAIG: Geisler was a devotee of Thomas Aquinas and followed his philosophy including his metaphysics. He would teach this in his classes. Intriguing as it was, I was never persuaded that Thomism is correct. It has a view of God that, frankly, I think is so bizarre and so unbiblical that I just couldn't accept it. But what I did come away from Norm Geisler with was a deep appreciation of the value of natural theology – of having arguments for God's existence – as a preparation for any Christian evidences for Jesus in the Gospels that you might want to present. This has been, and I think continues to be, an underappreciated field of Christian philosophy and apologetics. Again, Geisler there was ahead of the curve in emphasizing the importance and value of natural theology as a Christian philosopher. That is an enduring legacy that I got from my education under him.

KEVIN HARRIS: His son, David, told me one time that Dr. Geisler did not like to read. I said, What? He said, But, Kevin, he is so disciplined that he makes himself read the material and has for years. So he was a very disciplined man, I guess, to have that encyclopedic memory and can remember all that and then write so much stuff.

DR. CRAIG: And he had read everything. When he would teach us the history of philosophy of religion beginning with the pre-Socratics, and he'd read Parmenides and Aristotle and Plato and Plotinus as well as the medievals. He had read these, and could give his own take on them as he taught about these thinkers. So he was very well-read, and I think it is a manifestation of enormous discipline which manifested itself in other areas. For example, his colleague in the philosophy of religion department at that time was the late Paul Feinberg. Dr. Feinberg once told us a story of how he helped Norm do renovations in the Geisler’s basement. They were going to build some walls and do some things of that sort. They began work in the morning, and when it came time for lunch Feinberg said it's time now to take a break and take lunch. Geisler refused to do so. He wanted to work right on through what would have been the lunch hour until the project was finished. Until it was done there would be no break. Paul Feinberg, I remember, just shaking his head and saying how do you work with somebody who's so obsessive like that. But that is typical of his discipline.

KEVIN HARRIS: He was a real staunch defender of the resurrection. He did a good job defending the resurrection of Jesus, and engaged in many debates. A lot of us have listened to many of his famous debates.

DR. CRAIG: That’s true as well. Although I did eight years of high school and intercollegiate debating, the idea of using debate as a ministry outreach had never occurred to me. But Geisler was doing that. When I was a student at Trinity I remember on one occasion he was unable to be in class that day because he was in Canada where he had a debate with the famous atheist philosopher Michael Scriven. He really took Scriven to the woodshed in this debate. That inspired me as well. I began to see that the Lord could use my training in debate as a means of ministry.

KEVIN HARRIS: Scriven was tough. I mean everybody feared debating him.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, he was a very capable philosopher. And to think that this relative nobody from this little divinity school in Northern Illinois would come and destroy him in the debate I think was just utterly unanticipated.

KEVIN HARRIS: He was a mentor to many of us. He could be pretty stubborn in his views. It seems that if he saw something that he thought might lead to unorthodoxy, if he saw something that was an erosion somehow, he would try to head it off at the pass. He was always trying to anticipate – wait a minute, that's gonna lead to this and it's gonna lead to this. So he was pretty adamant about some things. I guess that comes with the territory. As well he kind of got saddled with the whole inerrancy debate. He was big on biblical inerrancy, and if you want to see some great harmonizations read his Bible difficulty material.

DR. CRAIG: He had a pretty wooden view, I think, of biblical inerrancy which is paradoxical because his view of the Genesis creation story was completely non-literal. He did not accept Young Earth Creationism. He didn't think the world was made in six consecutive 24-hour days. But he didn't seem to allow the same latitude with respect to certain other parts of Scripture. He wasn't a New Testament scholar or a biblical scholar. He was a philosopher. I think in many cases he was overly literalistic in his approach to biblical inspiration and inerrancy.

KEVIN HARRIS: As we conclude today, what would be one of your memories of Dr. Geisler?

DR. CRAIG: One of my favorite memories was the Monday night colloquium that we would have in their home in Mundelein, Illinois. We got to see Norm Geisler and his wife Barb there as real people out of the classroom. What we discovered were ardent, warm Christians who were witnessing for their faith. They would hold Bible studies in their home for people in this blue-collar community Mundelein. The people who would come to this Bible study had no idea that this was an esteemed professor. For them he was just Norm. He would attempt to lead these people and disciple them for Christ. He cared about people that much. In the Monday night colloquium that was in their home, all of us philosophy students met together and we would discuss various texts and issues in their den. Now, in the den, Norm Geisler had built a rock fireplace all on his own. He was a builder. He worked in concrete and stone with his hands. He had assembled this massive fireplace out of great boulders. He was so proud of it. He would light this fire during the colloquium. Well, the problem was he didn't build it correctly with a firebox inside, and so as the evening would go on and the fire would burn you would see this gray smoke just rolling out of the fireplace over the front of the chimney and rising to the ceiling and no one dared to say anything! No one could say, Don't you think you might just shut it off or dampen the fire or something? It was just defective. And he would never notice it or admit it. I think he was just so proud of his fireplace. We would be almost asphyxiated by the end of the evening with this wood smoke burning in the fireplace. That was a lasting memory of our times with them on a personal level.

KEVIN HARRIS: He will be missed.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. He was like a father to Jan and me. He was very warm and took a real personal interest in us and in our success. I owe him an inestimable debt of gratitude for the ministry that I pursue today.[1]


[1]           Total Running Time: 16:40 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)