He was 13 when he attended that life-changing Sunday service led by his evangelical, Bible-extoling uncle in Knockemstiff, Ohio, the impoverished hamlet of recent literary notoriety where many people were not encouraged to attend college and typically began working at the nearby paper mill after graduating from Huntington High School.
It was during that service, as the congregation sang the hymn “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,” that he felt the call to preach that would forever change his life and lead him to attend Ivy League institutions, publish 12 critically acclaimed books with another on the way this month and become one of the foremost Protestant apologists of his generation.
Remembering that moment still brings tears to the two brown, knowing eyes that peer out from the gray-bearded face of Dr. Jerry L. Walls, the Yale-, Princeton- and Notre Dame-educated Christian apologist and philosopher who currently serves as the visiting professor in philosophy at HBU.
Walls, 56, began working at the University last fall after concluding a research fellowship at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion and in December won the 2012 Christianity Today Book Award in the Apologetics/Evangelism category for “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality,” an argument for the belief in God on the basis of morality which he co-wrote with Dr. David Baggett, professor of philosophy at Liberty University in Virginia.
Baggett took classes taught by Walls at Asbury Theological Seminary in 1989 and praised his former professor whom he now describes as a friend.
“Jerry’s influence on students, body of written work, speeches through Tom Morris’s Institute for Human Values, and contributions at the highest levels to numerous areas of academic inquiry qualify him, in my estimation, as one of the most important living Christian philosophers today,” Baggett said. “When you combine that sort of intellectual rigor with warmth of heart and passionate conviction, you get quite a result. Houston Baptist is lucky to have him.”
The national recognition from the Christianity Today award is only the latest entry in a career that has made major inroads in the Ivory Tower, where Walls’ polemic texts have stirred interest and passion, and the Christian community, where his works have been greeted with a similar reaction. His book “Why I Am Not a Calvinist” stirred controversy regarding the historic Arminian-Calvinist debate, and his trilogy on heaven, hell and purgatory proposed and even answered decisive questions about these supernatural realms from a Protestant academic’s perspective.
“A good rule is if it doesn’t make someone mad, it isn’t worth writing,” the Christian philosopher said recently while discussing his life and career in his barebones office tucked away in a corner of the University Academic Center.
He would stumble onto the field of philosophy, another one of his lifelong passions, almost by accident while attending Circleville Bible College, located near his Ohio home. His father brought home a work by Francis A. Schaeffer, the second-most influential Christian apologist in the 20th century. Its title, “Pollution and the Death of Man,” caught Walls’ eye, but its content would spark a voracious engine of intellectual curiosity that propelled him to this career of national renown as a Christian apologist and philosopher.
“There are not many philosophers from Knockemstiff,” Walls said of the small Ohio community that gained its name, according to folklore and conjecture, when a preacher came upon two drunken women fighting over a man. The preacher said someone should “knock him stiff,” referring to the man, because he probably was not worth the trouble.
Schaeffer’s works would have a profound affect on Walls’ faith. “He helped me to think of my faith in a much more comprehensive fashion than I had done before,” Walls would later write about the influential apologist. By the time Walls had graduated from New York-located Houghton College with a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy in 1977, he had finished reading every work by Schaeffer and was busy fusing his experiential-based Christian upbringing with the philosophical mindset his readings had produced.
After earning a Master’s of Divinity at Princeton Seminary, Walls pursued a Master of Sacred Theology at Yale Divinity School, a top theology school in the nation. It was here that he would take a course, “Emotions, Passions and Feelings” taught by Dr. Paul Holmer, that would provide him with the tools to merge his experiential Christian upbringing with Schaeffer’s doctrine-driven approach to theology.
“I think it’s very important for Christians to know truth with their minds, bodies and soul,” Walls said, adding that he eventually saw emotions as a critical component for a holistic understanding of the faith.
This holistic view of faith has influenced him for much of his career, in which he has employed a skillful pen to defend and analyze key tenets of the Christian faith. He has invested time in examining the philosophical and theological underpinnings of C.S. Lewis and his influential “Chronicles of Narnia” heptalogy.
The physically active Walls, an avid sports fan, has also directed his quill toward examining basketball from a philosophical perspective. He co-edited a 2008 anthology called “Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint,” which included an essay that explained how basketball shooters “in the zone” embody Taoist principles.
His latest book, “Wisdom from the Hardwood: Seeing a Success Worth Shooting For,” based on a speech he has given several times, should be published later this month and will include a foreword by Bob Knight, the legendary Texas Tech men’s basketball head coach.
Coming to Houston
Dr. Robert Stacey, interim provost and dean of the Honors College, described Walls as an influential scholar and key player in the University’s expansion of the relatively young department of philosophy, which separated from the Christianity department four years ago. “He added gravitas to the philosophy department,” Stacey said. “We were very providentially able to bring him on board this year.”
Walls began teaching at the University last fall after his Notre Dame fellowship, in which he wrote the final book in the supernatural trilogy. This semester, his courseload includes a Philosophy of Religion course, an area in which he specializes.
On a recent rainy Monday morning during the 10 a.m. Philosophy of Religion course, Walls rapidly unspooled the core structure of the Irenaean theodicy, an ancient attempt to resolve the problem of evil in the face of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity. Wearing a T-shirt emblazed with the Texas state flag and rumpled bleached jeans, the professor walked back and forth in front of the 16 students in his class, delivering the key principles of the theodicy almost as quickly as he drives his beloved British-made, six-cylinder 1973 Triumph TR6.
“Paul says the sufferings of this time do not compare to the heavenly rewards,” Walls said in his lecture, referring to a chapter in 2 Corinthians where the apostle discloses the amount of persecution — from beatings to being stoned nearly to death — he experienced while spreading the message of Christianity.
The professor explained to the students that, according to the Irenaean theodicy, God utilizes these sufferings to allow humans to fully mature and reach their full spiritual potential, something that would not occur without the challenges of life.
After the class, junior Annette Taylor, a philosophy major and one of the 16 students in the course, said she was inspired by Walls’ teachings: “He makes you think about the overall problems with humanity and our connection to God,” she said. “He’s very studied.”
Walls said that, as a young person, he imagined himself becoming what he described as an “educated evangelist” and eventually decided that he wanted to pursue a doctorate and enter the realm of academia while attending Houghton. In this realm, the professor has met with remarkable success while devoting himself to defending the Christian faith and improving the world’s understanding of its foremost religion.
The father of two — a son, Jonathan L. Walls, an aspiring filmmaker who recently published a book and is married; and a daughter, Angela Amos, who is married to an Air Force sergeant and has a baby on the way — explained his success dismissively. “I’ve just had a lot of issues I’ve cared about,” he said. “When something grips you…”
His voice trailed off as if his mind was in another, perhaps more philosophical realm. For Walls, the learned scholar who felt the call to ministry so many years ago in that small Ohio town with the unique name, this would only be natural.