by Steven Bouma-Prediger
Nicholas Wolterstorff is widely regarded as one of the greatest Christian thinkers of his generation. A philosopher by training but widely read in a plethora of other fields, Nick taught philosophy at his alma mater, Calvin College, for three decades before teaching at Yale for twelve years. Nick has authored important and influential books on a wide range of topics: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, liturgy, education, social and political philosophy. For many years–the early 1960s through the late 1980s–Nick was also on the board of editors of the Reformed Journal, a predecessor of sorts to this journal. In this issue we intend in a small way to honor and celebrate the work of this esteemed member of the Reformed community at large.
David Timmer leads off with a former student’s reflections on Nick the teacher and scholar. Among other things, David articulates well the sense of gratitude common to all who have known Nick, whether in person or through his many writings. Next, Rich Mouw offers a series of personal remembrances and reflections. Not only did Rich and Nick share a common department at Calvin, but both were on the editorial board of the old Reformed Journal. Rich’s stories, as always, provide much insight together with gentle humor. Calvin College classmate Al Plantinga follows with an essay surveying Nick’s role in the world of American philosophy and, in particular, his influence in the rise of Christian philosophy. Nick, Al, and an initially small but growing cadre of others have changed the landscape of modern philosophy. Finally, University of Vermont philosopher Terence Cuneo provides an astute analysis of Nick’s more recent work in social and political philosophy–on justice and human rights in particular–and tells us why it is important.
I was not an official student of Nick’s at any of the places he has taught, but I was his teaching assistant for a two-week intensive course at Fuller Theological Seminary in early September of 1985. I boldly bypassed the Fuller academic administration and wrote directly to Nick, giving him my academic credentials and offering my services as his TA for a course entitled “Rationality and Religion.” It was a fantastic experience. From day one it was very clear that Nick was a brilliant thinker and magnificent teacher who modeled the very best of Christian scholarship. He was also a gracious and humble human being.
Of all the books Nick has written, most of which remain in print long after their initial publication, I would wager that the one that will have the longest and most lasting influence is Lament for a Son. This profoundly moving series of reflections on death and grief, on the occasion of the untimely death of his son Eric, is simply one of the most honest and hopeful books on suffering written in a very long time. An excerpt from an old Reformed Journal essay, included as the Inside Out in this issue, provides something of the flavor of that important book. As Nick reminds us, commenting on the dialogue between the risen Jesus and the doubting Thomas, “The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them… Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.” May this edition of Perspectives serve as a modest tribute to the life-work of Nicholas Wolterstorff and may it whet your appetite to read, or perhaps reread, some of the many things he has written.