Friday, April 07, 2017

The bell curve of theism

1. Having done a post on the bell curve of atheism:

I was, not surprisingly, asked about a sequel for Christianity or theism. A few preliminaries:

i) There are different kinds of intelligence. Because Christianity is a religion centered on historical events and sacred texts, it recruits for scholars who excel at linguistics and historical reconstruction. That's a different kind of intelligence than a mathematical, philosophical, or scientific aptitude, although those are not mutually exclusive. 

To take an example, Aquinas probably had a higher IQ than Calvin. However, Calvin is interdisciplinary. A great pioneering systematic theologian. A fine philosophical theologian. An outstanding Bible commentator, by the standards of the day. He's a product of Renaissance scholarship. Knew Greek and Hebrew. It's a different skill set than Aquinas.

ii) The bell curve is about IQ. That's not a criterion of truth. A person can be very smart and very wrong. And that's a crucial distinction in theology. For instance, Rahner is very brilliant, but his frame of reference is hopelessly mistaken. This post is not a list of recommendations–although some of them I strongly recommend. 

It is useful, however, to point out that people aren't Christians or theists because they're too dumb to know any better. 

iii) My list will skimp on Jewish representatives simply because I'm more conversant with the Christian landscape than the Jewish landscape. Needless to say, Jews are disproportionately represented in math and science. There's a further distinction between nominal/secular Jews and believing Jews. 

iv) I'm not qualified to handicap how some people rank in the pecking order of science. I judge them by reputation. 

v) Who makes the cut in my divisions is somewhat arbitrary. Even within my divisions, some are more gifted than others. 

vi) I'm not sure quite how to classify pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. How theistic were they? 

Likewise, I'm not sure how to classify Da Vinci. Nominal Catholic? 

vii) Finally, my lists aren't meant to be exhaustive. No doubt I may omit or overlook significant figures. Sometimes that's deliberate, sometimes inadvertent. 

2. At the very tippy top of the bell curve are some theists of genius, viz. Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Bayes, Berkeley, Cantor, Alonzo Church, Descartes, Jonathan Edwards, Euler, Gödel, William Hamilton, Leibniz, Maimonides, Maxwell, Newman, Newton, Pascal, Plato, Riemann, Scotus. 

That's a list of historical figures. They're about as smart as humans get. 

A bit lower on the bell curve, but very significant, are Butler, Locke, Paley, and Reid. Perhaps this is where I should put Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg. 

3. Among contemporary figures, theists at or near the very top of the bell curve probably include Francis Collins, William Dembski, Donald Knuth, David Gelernter, Saul Kripke, John Lennox, Juan Maldacena, Robert Marks, Stephen Meyer, Martin Nowak, Don Page, Jonathan Sarfati, Henry Schaefer, Rupert Sheldrake, Wesley So, James Tour, and Andrew Kamal.

That list has a focus on math, and science. And that list could no doubt be expanded. 

4. Among recent or contemporary Christian thinkers, I'd say the smartest are probably: William Lane Craig, Peter Geach, Michael Almeida, Alvin Plantinga, Vern Poythress, Nicholas Rescher, Alexander Pruss, Bas van Fraassen, and Peter van Inwagen.

(3) and (4) overlap.  

5. A list of the most talented scholars includes Dale Allison, Richard Bauckham, Gleason Archer, Roger Beckwith, F. F. Bruce, David Noel Freedman, Martin Hengel, Kenneth Kitchen, Craig Keener, Meredith Kline, John Lightfoot, Bruce Metzger, D. S. Margoliouth, Alan Millard, Adolf Schlatter, Donald Wiseman, Edwin Yamauchi, E. J. Young, Theodor Zahn. 

6. It would be a mistake to overlook artistic genius, viz. Bach, Handel, Dante. 

7. Vos and Warfield were the intellectual standouts at Princeton. 

8. Robert Adams, Elizabeth Anscombe, Alston, Swinburne, Tim & Lydia McGrew, Van Til, Wolterstorff, John Warwick Montgomery are topnotch thinkers. As are James Anderson, John Frame, Paul Helm, Paul Manata, and Greg Welty. And keep your eye on Jonathan McLatchie and Neil Shenvi.


  1. Although his piety (modesty) prevents it (Prov 27:2), Steve Hays ought to be on this list!

    1. I agree. In terms of both his erudition and his pure "processing power".

    2. Without a shadow of a doubt, chaps. Hays is an exceptional thinker and formidable debater.

      I have James Anderson's Why Should I Believe Christianity on a shelf, and it is no surprise to see such a sophisticated thinker as Anderson give special mention to Steve Hays in the book's acknowledgements.

      I imagine Hays will shudder at such talk, which is another mark of the man.

    3. I totally agree with you all. If there was a fan club, I'd be a card carrying member.

    4. I'd have to steer clear of a fan club. One can't be seen engaging in too much praise.

      But I get your point, AP :)

  2. Where do you think Bahnsen would be on the list had he lived, upper half or lower half or not at all?

    1. Bahnsen was not an original thinker. Rather, he has the kind of high intelligence that can master complex positions and complex arguments, then redeploy them to argue for his own position. He's comparable to guys like Francis Beckwith, Thomas Morris, and Randal Rauser in that respect–although he's more orthodox.

  3. Kudos to Peter van Inwagen for making it twice.
    Wesley So is an interesting addition. The top level of chess requires obsession and a very specific kind of intelligence. I'm not sure whether some are like a kind of savant with a freak skill but in various facets not necessarily recognizably genius.

  4. I suspect some Clarkians will resent that their hero wasn't included, while Van Til was. No doubt Clark falls under one or the other of what Steve wrote:

    No doubt I may omit or overlook significant figures. Sometimes that's deliberate, sometimes inadvertent.

    Steve also wrote:
    iii) My list will skimp on Jewish representatives simply because I'm more conversant with the Christian landscape than the Jewish landscape.

    I suspect Steve would say the same thing about Islamic thinkers. Some of whom were also brilliant.

    1. BTW, Van Til himself repeatedly said that he believed Gordon Clark was a better philosopher than himself.

    2. "I suspect some Clarkians will resent that their hero wasn't included, while Van Til was. No doubt Clark falls under one or the other of what Steve wrote."

      There are people I could have added on both posts. That said, Van Til is a more original thinker than Clark.

      Had I wanted to be more ecumenical, I might have added Al-Ghazâlî, Ibn Khaldūn, and Hossein Nasr. Or Hindu mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

      Again, though, the post is illustrative rather than exhaustive. Moreover, it's about the cream of the crop. Although Clark is an influential figure in 20C Calvinism, he's hardly in the upper echelon of Christian thinkers generally.

      Notice that I didn't include R. C. Sproul. He didn't make the cut because he's just a popularizer. Even within Calvinism, there are far more able apologists, philosophers, and theologians.

      The post is not about the best, but the most gifted. If orthodoxy had been my criterion, rather than high IQ, the list would be very different.

  5. I would say Blomberg and NT Wright alao deserve the top-scholars rank.

    Mike Licona and Gary Habermas may occupy that too. Their case of Ressurrection is probably the best of yet.