Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Final Thoughts – Philosophy, Just Do It

This post concludes my interview with Dr. Mark Coppenger (SBTS) in 2007 on the role of philosophy for the believer.  Here I offered my thoughts on my interview with Dr. Coppenger; I post my thoughts from 2007 unchanged for my sentiments remain the same.  I hope to write another post soon tying together my interviews with Drs. Cabal and Coppenger.


Many people view, study and even teach philosophy as if it were just a collection of thoughts and ideas from the past with no real bearing on our lives today.  Dr. Coppenger likens this to the insect trapped in amber – it’s something interesting to look at, but it’s dead and useless.  Philosophy, however, is not a passive discipline. Continuing with Dr. Coppenger’s illustration, we should “crack open the amber, fire up that insect, and fly it around the room.”  In other words, we should interact freely with philosophy, for the issues dealt with in the past are practically the same issues we deal with today.  Rather than just merely studying philosophy, we should do philosophy as we study the thoughts and ideas of the past and seek to answer today’s questions.

I’ve had the opportunity to sit in three of Dr. Coppenger’s philosophy courses in the past two years – Apologetics, Worldviews, and Ethics – and he teaches philosophy the way he learned it, by getting right into the issues and getting your hands dirty.  Every night in class, we cracked open more amber-trapped insects and flew them around them room.  Though this form of learning is quite different from that which I’m used to (straight lecture), Dr. Coppenger taught me how to look at issues and what questions to ask – he taught me how to do philosophy.  More importantly, though, I realized how lazy a thinker I’d been and how I took for granted my beliefs.  So, I encourage you, if you have the opportunity to study under Dr. Coppenger, do it.  You will be challenged and stretched, but will learn much in the end.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2012

Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part II

This is the second part of a three part series of an interview I did with Dr. Mark Coppenger (SBTS) in 2007 on the role of philosophy for the believer.

Danny:  I would venture to say that a small majority of Christians are called to study philosophy.  What would you say those Christians who are not called to study philosophy?  What are some things that you feel they can do to at least to be familiar with philosophy?

Dr. Coppenger:  I will first say this, that there are very few philosophers who write clearly.  You don’t have to be obscure to be a philosopher.  But, there are people who explain philosophy [clearly].  For example, the book Philosophy for Dummies by Tom Morris.  He has a Southern Baptist background and has taught at Notre Dame.   Just as I right now am listening to a book tape about basic economics during the Great Depression, and I am doing more particular studies of American painters from the Hudson Valley School, I broaden myself to see what’s out there.  People should become familiar with what’s out there and know the tools.

I think a simple course in logic is not a bad thing.  You have what’s called formal logic, which is like mathematics or geometry where you have symbols.  [And you have]  informal logic, where you go over the fallacies, where you can recognize what an ad hominem argument is, where you attack the person instead of his ideas. Where you can recognize an over-worked appeal to pity where you get the audience crying and off the issue.  A little review of those fallacies [would be beneficial].  To commit a fallacy doesn’t mean that your point is false, it just means that you got there in a cheesy way.  So, a little bit of that is good.

Socrates over said it when he said an unexamined life is not worth living.  I think a lot of unexamined things are worth living.  That doesn’t mean we commit suicide if we haven’t examined our lives.  But, I think that if you are raising your kids with a very firm conviction – this is what patriotism is, this is what kind of art should be on our wall, this is what zoning laws ought to be, this is how we should treat Shariah law if it crops up in our neighborhood – if you are teaching those things, I think there should always be a desire to walk around the issue, to be reflective.

As John Milton, I believe, said, “It is good to be promiscuous readers.”  By promiscuous, he didn’t mean reading tawdry books, but to be well read.  It turns out that a lot of philosophy in journals of opinion.  If you read New Republic, Weekly Standard, or Books and Culture, they are doing philosophical sorts of things.  If want to stand back and look at where something leads, be a reader; just be a reader.  You’ll discover as you read broadly that you’ve been breathing in philosophy and speaking philosophy.  It’s really rational, thoughtful reflection on the bigger questions of life.  It used to be that philosophers were cosmologists and they were dealing with things such as: What is the universe?  Is it earth, air, fire and water?  But, Plato really set the table.  Alfred North Whitehead said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.  What Plato did is, dialogue by dialogue, he put out a human concern so that, in one dialogue you talked about justice.  In other dialogues: friendship, courage, love, knowledge, art and beauty.  We’ve been wrestling with those questions ever since.  What is a just state supposed to be like?  What is it to be virtuous?  If I go into a 7-11, there’s beer in the back of the store and I know that I shouldn’t drink beer, is it more virtuous for me to struggle?  So I walk past the beer section several times and fight the urge and then get in the car?  Is that more virtuous, to fight the good fight every day?  Or, is it more virtuous to have a habit of not even going near the beer and it’s nothing to you?  Well, Aristotle would suggest that virtue is a habit.  What is praiseworthy?  What is to be sought – to be constantly fighting, or to have a more automatically thoughtful life?  Virtue, that’s an issue.  Courage, is it courage to get up and charge a machine gun [in war], or is it courageous to wait until dark and sneak around the flank?  What is courage?  So, just understand that the conversation has been going on for a millennia and it’s great to get in on it because it has to do with how you live your life.

One of the great fun things of philosophy is that its subject is everything.  If I am in organic chemistry, I’m going to be really focusing on amino acids and things like that, but in philosophy, one does everything from analyzing a presidential speech, to fighting off Richard Dawkins on atheism, to dealing at a block party whether or not [theneighborhood association] should have a green friendly lawn care service.  You do ethics, you do arts, etc.  Anything is out there.  There is philosophy of sports, philosophy of arts, etc.  It’s just great fun to have the worldview picture.

Danny:  So, it’s not something we should be afraid of.  Granted, there have been many weird philosophers out there, and in general, that’s probably what most people see and are afraid of letting their kids or themselves be exposed to.  But, being ground in God’s Word, Christians should not be afraid to go out there and get our hands dirty.

Dr. Coppenger:  It’s kind of the same as theology.  There’s a lot of scary theology and a lot of people have been messed up by theology, but there is a lot of wonderful theology in doing theology once you see how it covers and connects all kinds of stuff.  That’s a joy too.

Danny:  Is there anything else that you would like to add to those interested in studying more philosophy?

Dr. Coppenger:  It seems to me, and this is good for preaching as well, that if you are a promiscuous reader, in the good sense, then your vocabulary grows, you see things that you’ve not seen before and then you walk with people around an issue.  It’s when we become so insulated that we don’t get to test our ideas against anything else, so our mettle isn’t tested and tried in the fire.  Then we are always sort of frightened or vulnerable.  Now, we do understand that the Bible is true, we don’t have to re-establish that, so we’re not afraid that the Bible will be disproved or that we’ll lose our salvation.  But, you really want to be in there pitching thoughtfully when the ideas are flying around the room.  The more you read, the more you have illustrations, the more you see connections.  With writing, writing is re-writing.  You put an idea down and you walk away from it, then you look back and keep refining it.  Again, it’s an uncommonly stubborn attempt to think clearly, and you can watch people do it and you can join in on it.  C. S. Lewis models this beautifully.  Read how he wrestles with ideas in the book God and the Dock, where deals with the humanitarian theory of punishment.  He lines out four theories of punishment and walks around each theory, pressing and pressing each one to determine which is actually more humanitarian.  Again, a beautiful model of philosophy.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2012

Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part I

This post, and the subsequent posts, originally appeared in my now defunct blog “Musings of a Wannabemuser.”  I want to repost this interview with Dr. Mark Coppenger of SBTS as it fits within the purpose of my blog and he offers some key insight into the role of philosophy for the believer.  I have left what I wrote in 2007 intact.

I had an opportunity to interview with Dr. Mark Coppenger, Professor of Christian Apologetics, of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on October  9, 2007. This interview is the second part of an indefinite number of interviews designed to show the value of philosophy to the Christian faith.  What I intend to do in this interview is not to raise philosophy to a high standard such that it replaced the Gospel; rather, I want to make an awareness of its importance in the life of the believer and of the Church. 

Two primary areas are dealt with in this interview: general misconceptions of philosophy held by Christians and the professor’s answers to these misconceptions, and what Christians can do to familiarize themselves with philosophy.  As with my interview with Dr. Cabal, I first begin with Dr. Coppenger’s own ‘testimony’  in regards to philosophy.In editing the interview transcript, I try to keep it as close as possible to the actual interview.  By allowing this transcript to read conversationally as it appears on the recorded version, I intend for the professor’s thoughts to remain intact while avoiding the mistake of my editing misconstruing his intention.  I did clean up some obvious grammatical errors (mostly on my part!), make some clarifications, and leave out some redundant statements.  Overall, this transcript closely matches the recorded interview which I hope to post soon (as soon as I figure out how to post a file in .wav format).

Danny:  What is your history with philosophy – how did you come to know that you have a joy for it?  Did you ever have misconceptions about philosophy, and how do you answer those misconceptions?

Dr. Coppenger: My dad had a Doctorate in Church History and he taught at Baptist schools – Carson Newman, Belmont and Ouachita.  There weren’t a lot of trained Southern Baptist Philosophers back then, so they would draft some of the religion teachers and bible teachers, and he was drafted to teach philosophy.  So, I grew up on family trips hearing him talk in passing about philosophical things.  He would have names out there like Plato, or dialectical materialism, or metaphysics, and I just thought that was about the grandest thing on earth.  I would ask him questions about this and that, and in my junior high years, I remember thinking that [philosophy] was interesting.  Every now and then I would pick up one of his textbooks – he was teaching Church History, Greek, Theology and other things, but he also had this going – and so, I became interested in it.  Philosophy wasn’t, then, sort of scary or other-worldly, it was just something my dad did.

It was the 60s when I was in college (I started college in ’66 and graduated in ’70).  There was a lot of upheaval – cultural and intellectual upheaval: old verities were being questioned, there was innumerality, they were burning flags, anarchy was exotic, and people were smoking dope and having sex and all that kind of stuff.  Also floating around the campuses were some pretty strong anti-Christian thoughts (not my campus – Ouachita).  You had logical positivism – all religious talk is meaningless (Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer).  Then you had existentialists, people who were following John Paul Sartre; it was all just a sort of subjectivity, dread, cynicism and meaninglessness.  So, I got a missionary sense, like, “Wouldn’t it be great to be a Christian in the midst of all of this, to be a voice representing the truths of the Bible, yet philosophically competent?”  And so, I felt called.  My dad’s formula back then for God’s call was to follow your bent – your inclinations.  Look for the gleam as you take steps – is there a sense of rightness and wholeness?  Then, watch for open doors.  Well, the door opened, and I got a full scholarship to Vanderbilt.  One thing led to another, and I had my Ph. D.  So, it was basically hanging around my dad – picking up the language and being intrigued by it, pursuing it and then seeing it as a mission field.

Danny:  So you didn’t really grow up with some misconceptions about philosophy because you saw it practiced?

Dr. Coppenger:  Right.  My dad was a supply preacher and he taught at the college.  I would go with him as he preached at churches across Arkansas.  He was very sound.  My mother was a WMU leader.  So, we weren’t on the fringes of anything.  He just made it very normal that you would do [philosophy].

to be continued in another post…

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2012