He Left Harvard to Study at Calvin College and Became a Premier Christian Philosopher – Who is He?

Normally you would think that once someone was accepted into such a prestigious university like Harvard that it would be foolish to leave and study at a much smaller and lesser known college like Calvin College. But this was exactly what Alvin Plantinga did. In a new book from Eerdmans, Finding God, we are treated to a panoply of conversion stories. Some of them are drawn from other sources but it’s nice to have such a compilation in one book. Here’s the part I enjoyed reading Plantinga’s story.

“I found Harvard enormously impressive and very much to my liking. I took an introductory philosophy course from Raphael Demos in the fall and a course in Plato from him in the spring. I still remember absorbing argumentative intricacy and serious moral tone relieved now and then by gentle, almost rueful witticisms at the expense of Sophists. . . . At Harvard I encountered serious non-Christian thought for the first time–for the first time in the flesh, that is; I had read animadversions on Christianity and theism by Bertrand Russell (Why I am Not a Christian) and others. I was struck by the enormous variety of intellectual and spiritual opinion at Harvard, and spent a great deal of time arguing about whether there was such a person as God, whether Christianity as opposed to Judaism (my roommate Herbert Jacobs was the son of a St. Louis rabbi) was right and so on. I began to wonder whether what I had always believed could really be true. At Harvard, after all, there was such an enormous diversity of opinions about these matters, some of them held by highly intelligent and accomplished people who had little but contempt for what I believed. My attitude gradually became one of a mixture of doubt and bravado. . . . During spring recess I returned to Grand Rapids to visit my parents; since Calvin’s spring recess did not coincide with Harvard’s, I had the opportunity to attend some classes at Calvin. I had often heard my father speak of William Harry Jellema, who hade been his philosophy professor at Calvin int he late twenties and early thirties. Accordingly, I attended three of Jellema’s classes that week–it was a course in ethics, I believe. That was a fateful week for me.

“Jellema was obviously in dead earnest about Christianity; he was also a magnificently thoughtful and reflective Christian. He was lecturing about modernity: its various departures from historic Christianity, the sorts of substitutes it proposes, how these substitutes are related to the real thing and the like. Clearly he was profoundly familiar with the doubts and objections and alternative ways of thought case up by modernity; indeed, he seemed to me to understand them better than those who offered them. But (and this is what I found enormously impressive) he was totally unawed. What especially struck me then in what he said (partly because it put into words something I felt at Harvard but couldn’t articulate) was the thought that much of the intellectual opposition to Christianity and theism was really a sort of intellectual imperialism with little real basis. We are told that humankind come of age has got beyond such primitive ways of thinking, that they are outmoded, or incompatible with a scientific mind-set, or have been shown wanting by modern science, or made irrelevant by the march of history or maybe by something else lurking in the neighborhood. (In this age of wireless, Bultmann quaintly asks, who can accept them?) But why a should Christian believe any of these things? Are they more than mere claims?”

“I found Jellema deeply impressive–so impressive that I decided then and there to leave Harvard, return to Calvin and study philosophy with him. That was as important a decision, and as good a decision, as I’ve ever made. Calvin College has been for me an enormously powerful spiritual influence and in some ways the center and focus of my intellectual life. Had I not returned to Calvin from Harvard, I doubt (humanly speaking, anyway) that I would have remained a Christian at all; certainly Christianity or theism would not have been the focal point of my adult intellectual life.”

I love that. But here’s the “rest of the story.” Plantinga now holds the Jellema Chair Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College.

Finding God is edited by John M. Mulder. It is a paperback with 418 pages and sells for $22.00.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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