How Wheaton’s philosophy department helped transform American philosophy

With a sophisticated, dapper aura and an English accent, the late professor of philosophy Arthur Holmes could be remembered for walking into a classroom and stealing the attention of the class with an articulate comment.

Professor of philosophy and department chair Sarah Borden remembered her first class in philosophy at Wheaton particularly well because of his regular comment “All truth is God’s truth.” But the presence of Holmes is not all he is remembered for today. He has changed the practice of Christian philosophy in the United States.

Holmes had a vision for American philosophy in the mid-20th century. In the words of professor of philosophy David B. Fletcher, philosophy in the United States at that time was dominated by “self-assured atheists and agnostics who believed the Christian faith was outdated and irrelevant for our understanding of reality.”

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Arthur Holmes in Edman Chapel. Photo courtesy of the Wheaton Archives.

But Holmes had a vision for the truth and of conversations that Christians could and needed to contribute to the practice of philosophy. His dream was considerable and, for his time, seemed nearly impossible. He wanted 100 Wheaton students to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy. Did he accomplish this? He exceeded it by 15.

This fact came to light just last month. Visiting professor of philosophy Cliff Williams, a Wheaton graduate, remembers hearing about the vision. After checking the Wheaton Alumni site, he discovered with the help of other philosophy faculty that Holmes’ vision had been realized. “I got a big smile on my face when I found the hundredth person,” Williams said.

Having this many Wheaton students go on to earn Ph.D.’s in philosophy from schools such as Yale and Notre Dame has helped transform American philosophy through the influence of Christian philosophers. As Fletcher put it, “None of us dared dream of a day in which prominent philosophers at the best universities would be committed Christians, but that day is here.”

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Holmes knew this and that is what drove his passion for teaching and fighting for the Christian influence in philosophy. Professor of philosophy Jay Wood commented on the relationship of philosophy and faith in Christian schools. In the 20th century, Christian schools and Wheaton College in particular were “emerging from a fundamentalistic past that disparaged human reasoning apart from God’s guidance.”

Holmes was one of the champions of intellect who, instead of running away from academia, continued the fight to return to academia. One of his students, professor of philosophy at Augsburg College Bruce R. Reichenbach, remembers that Holmes emphasized and embodied the integration of faith and learning in academia. Reichenbach stated that “The integration of faith and learning was the subject of his ‘The Idea of a Christian College’. In this, Art emphasized and embodied the connectivity of faith and reason and of Christianity and the academy, and this was greatly influential in helping to shape the Christian worldviews of his student and of those he spoke to in conferences and seminars.”

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Arthur Holmes lecturing to a philosophy class. Photo courtesy the Wheaton Archives.

In Holmes’ early days of teaching at Wheaton College in the early 60s, Wheaton had placed philosophy under the umbrella of the theology department. Holmes fought to separate the two, but, at that time, it was a heated subject. Many professors at Wheaton during this time ridiculed and opposed Holmes idea of creating a department for philosophy to stand on its own.

These professors said that this separation would be seen as separating human reason from God’s guidance.

At one point, Holmes was summoned for interrogation before the Board of Trustees because of this idea. When he arrived, they asked him to affirm the college’s Statement of Faith. Holmes replied in his English-American accent, “Sir, I wrote Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith.” Remembering this story, Wood chuckled while sighing, “Funny how life dishes up a comeback like that.”

Holmes’ vision was not set back. He continued to fight for Christian influence in philosophy, not just at Wheaton but throughout the United States. In 1954, Holmes started the annual Wheaton Philosophy Conference. It gave an outlet for Christian philosophers to unite and converse with other Christian philosophers. This conference was successful and, after about a decade, some of the philosophers who connected through this conference decided they needed to start a national organization of Christian philosophers under the American Philosophical Association (APA).

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Because of this conference, the Society of Christian Philosophers was founded by Holmes and other Christian philosophers in 1978 and now has over 1,000 members, making it the largest subgroup of the APA. This would have been unheard of in the mid-20th century. Wood notes that this represents a “remarkable shift for the ability of outspoken Christians to achieve prominence in the philosophical world” — and Arthur Holmes set the stage for.

Though Holmes’ vision for philosophy was to have 100 students go on to earn Ph.D.’s in philosophy, it included more. He had a vision to cultivate and transform others’ minds to take on the mind of Christ and his Kingdom. Holmes helped shape philosophy in the United States so that it could defend a coherent, rigorous and defensible Christian worldview.

If you want to see a large picture of this dapper English philosopher, step into Blanchard 124, the Holmes’ Seminar Room, and look to your left.

Dozens of Holmes’ philosophy lectures can be found on YouTube here

Merold-Westphal,-Yale

Dr. Merold Westphal; Ph.D. – Yale University. Photo courtesy Merold Westphal.

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Dr. Bruce R. Reichenbach; Ph.D. – Northwestern University. Photo courtesy augsburg.edu.

Jorge-J.-E.-Gracia,-University-of-Toronto

Dr. Jorge J. E. Gracia; Ph.D. – University of Toronto. Photo courtesy buffalo.edu.

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Dr. C. Stephen Evans; Ph.D. – Yale University. Photo courtesy baylor.edu.

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Dr. Julinna Oxley; Ph.D. – Tulane University. Photo courtesy coastal.edu

4 Responses to How Wheaton’s philosophy department helped transform American philosophy

  1. Is there any connection between Dr. Holmes and Francis Schaeffer?

    Did he have anything to do with the invitation from Wheaton to Schaeffer to deliver a series of lectures in 1965?

    What did he think of Schaeffer’s lectures?

    • Dr Holmes was very critical if Schaeffer and was present for the September 1965 week of lectures at Wheaton. We have two of the lecture transcript books Wheaton published for staff and students. This book, and the lecture material delivered to Wheaton and Westmont College was developed and edited to became Schaeffer’s 1968 book The God Who Is There.
      Dr Schaeffer was not only at odds with Dr Holmes and the philosophy department, but also at odds with an element of the student population who were agitating for Neo-Orthodoxy.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article. I must admit I was skeptical when I read your title but I am convinced that you are correct, this professor did have an impact on American philosophy.

  3. I was a philosophy major at Wheaton when Dr. Schaeffer visited. He made a strong impression on everyone but this was due more to the force of his personality than the quality of his arguments, which were criticized especially by students like myself with philosophical and historical interests. Another philosophy student and friend, Mark Newsome, arranged for a private interview with him to which I was also invited. This was conducted peripatetically, i.e., while we walked about campus much as the “original” peripatetic philosopher, Aristotle, is said to have done. Dr. Schaeffer struck me then and now as a kind of reincarnation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in his charisma, earnestness and zeal for the cause of Christ as he saw it. He was utterly sincere in his convictions and while certainly aware of other approaches to Christian Truth he did not see his calling as philosophical dispute, but evangelization not just of non-Christians, but perhaps even more of Christians themselves who were puzzled or dismayed by modern intellectual currents. This kind of tunnel vision of his ideas and purpose made him basically deaf to the merits of less dogmatic approaches to philosophical and theological issues. I imagine St. Bernard responded similarly to anyone who suggested that a Crusade to free the Holy Land was not necessarily a commendable Christian enterprise.

    Dr. Holmes, for whom I worked as a philosophy assistant from 1966 to 1968, was cut from a very different cloth. His philosophy and theology were of the “big tent” variety. He saw philosophy as a means of understanding Truth, which for him was, of course, God’s Truth in all its richness, not a narrow, rigidly defined set of doctrines. Like Augustine, whom he greatly admired and often quoted, he was conscious that as Christians seek to understand their faith in all its implications, they must beware of becoming so dogmatic in their outlook that false or unsupported opinions gain credence among them and thereby discredit Christianity (see Book 1, Chapter 19 of his The Literal Meaning of Genesis for an expression of this view). I don’t remember Holmes ever criticizing Schaeffer directly, rather, he would point out that while Schaeffer represented a prominent strand of Reformed thinking, other approaches should also be considered. Thoughtful deliberation and debate on issues could only enhance our understanding of God’s Truth. In short, while Schaeffer’s response to criticism tended to be little more than a reiteration of his views and an insistence on keeping them pure from modern heresies, Holmes’s response would be to suggest further reading, consideration and debate.

    Art Holmes made a big impact on my thinking as a student, and this has stayed with me. And it was not so much his ideas that I have retained, but his attitude towards inquiry: we all, no matter how much we know or think we know, remain learners.

    Don Evans
    B.A. Wheaton (1968, Philosophy Major)
    M.Phil. Yale (1970, Philosophy)

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