Why We Shouldn’t Hate Philosophy
Article contributed by Probe Ministries
Probe’s Michael Gleghorn explains that thinking critically about some of life’s most important questions is a way for us to fulfill the biblical mandate to love God with our minds.
A Walk on the Slippery Rocks
For many people in our culture today, Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians got it right: “Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks.” But for some in the Christian community, they didn’t go far enough. Philosophy, they say, is far more dangerous than a walk on slippery rocks. It’s an enemy of orthodoxy and a friend of heresy. It’s typically a product of wild, rash, and uncontrolled human speculation. Its doctrines are empty and deceptive. Worse still, they may even come from demons!
Such attitudes are hardly new. The early church father Tertullian famously wrote:
What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic? . . . I have no use for a Stoic or a Platonic . . . Christianity. After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research.1
Should Christians, then, hate and reject all philosophy? Should we shun it, despise it, and trample it underfoot? Doesn’t the Bible warn us about the dangers of philosophy and urge us to avoid it? In thinking through such questions, it’s important that we be careful. Before we possibly injure ourselves with any violent, knee-jerk reactions, we may first want to settle down a bit and ask ourselves a few questions. First, what exactly is philosophy anyway? What, if anything, does the Bible have to say about it? Might it have any value for the Christian faith? Could it possibly help strengthen or support the ministry of the church? Are there any potential benefits that Christians might gain from studying philosophy? And if so, what are they? These are just a few of the questions that we want to consider.
But let’s begin with that first question: Just what is philosophy anyway? Defining this term can be difficult. It gets tossed around by different people in a variety of ways. But we can get a rough idea of its meaning by observing that it comes from two Greek words: philein, which means “to love,” and sophia, which means “wisdom.” So at one level, philosophy is just the love of wisdom. There’s nothing wrong with that!
But let’s go further. Socrates claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. And throughout its history, philosophy has gained a reputation for the careful, rational, and critical examination of life’s biggest questions. “Accordingly,” write Christian philosophers J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, “philosophy may be defined as the attempt to think rationally and critically about life’s most important questions in order to obtain knowledge and wisdom about them.”2 So while philosophy may sometimes be a walk on slippery rocks, it may also be a potentially powerful resource for thinking through some of life’s most important issues.
Beware of Hollow and Deceptive Philosophy
In their recent philosophy textbook, Moreland and Craig make the following statement:
For many years we have each been involved, not just in scholarly work, but in speaking evangelistically on university campuses with groups like . . . Campus Crusade for Christ . . . Again and again, we have seen the practical value of philosophical studies in reaching students for Christ. . . The fact is that there is tremendous interest among unbelieving students in hearing a rational presentation and defense of the gospel, and some will be ready to respond with trust in Christ. To speak frankly, we do not know how one could minister effectively in a public way on our university campuses without training in philosophy.3
This is a strong endorsement of the value of philosophy in doing university evangelism on today’s campuses. But some might be thinking, “What a minute! Doesn’t the Bible warn us about the dangers of philosophy? And aren’t we urged to avoid such dangers?”
In Colossians 2:8 (NIV), the apostle Paul wrote, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” What does this verse mean? Is Paul saying that Christians shouldn’t study philosophy? Let’s take a closer look.
First, “the Greek grammar indicates that ‘hollow and deceptive’ go together with ‘philosophy.’”4 So Paul is not condemning all philosophy here. Instead, he’s warning the Colossians about being taken captive by a particular “hollow and deceptive” philosophy that was making inroads into their church. Many scholars believe that the philosophy Paul had in mind was a Gnostic-like philosophy that promoted legalism, mysticism, and asceticism.5
Second, Paul doesn’t forbid the study of philosophy in this verse. Rather, he warns the Colossian believers not to be taken captive by empty and deceptive human speculation. This distinction is important. One can study philosophy, even “empty and deceptive” philosophy, without being taken captive by it.
What does it mean to be “taken captive”? When men are taken captive in war, they are forced to go where their captors lead them. They may only be permitted to see and hear certain things, or to eat and sleep at certain times. In short, captives are under the control of their captors. This is what Paul is warning the Colossians about. He’s urging them to not let their beliefs and attitudes be controlled by an alien, non-Christian philosophy. He’s not saying that philosophy in general is bad or that it’s wrong to study philosophy as an academic discipline.
But doesn’t Paul also say that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world? And doesn’t this count against the study of philosophy?
Is Worldly Wisdom Worthless?
In 1 Corinthians 1:20 (NIV) the apostle Paul wrote, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Some Christians think this passage teaches that the study of philosophy and human wisdom is both foolish and a waste of time. But is this correct? Is that really what Paul was saying in this passage? I personally don’t think so.
We must remember that Paul himself had at least some knowledge of both pagan philosophy and literature — and he made much use of reasoning in personal evangelism. In Acts 17 we learn that while Paul was in Athens “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (v. 17; NIV). On one occasion he spent time conversing and disputing with some of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers (v. 18). Further, when it suited his purposes, Paul could quote freely (and accurately) from the writings of pagan poets. In Acts 17:28 he cites with approval both the Cretan poet Epimenides and the Cilician poet Aratus, using them to make a valid theological point about the nature of God and man to the educated members of the Athenian Areopagus. Thus, we should at least be cautious before asserting that Paul was opposed to all philosophy and human wisdom. He obviously wasn’t.
But if this is so, then in what sense has God made foolish the wisdom of the world? What did Paul mean when he wrote this? The answer, I think, can be found (at least in part) in the very next verse: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21; NASB). In other words, as Craig and Moreland observe, “the gospel of salvation could never have been discovered by philosophy, but had to be revealed by the biblical God who acts in history.”6 This clearly indicates the limitations of philosophy and human wisdom. But the fact that these disciplines have very real limitations in no way implies that they are utterly worthless. We need to appreciate something for what it is, recognizing its limitations, but appreciating its value all the same. Philosophy by itself could never have discovered the gospel. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not still a valuable ally in the search for truth and a valuable resource for carefully thinking through some of life’s greatest mysteries.
In the remainder of this article, we’ll explore some of the ways in which philosophy is valuable, both for the individual Christian and for the ministry of the church.
The Value of Philosophy (Part 1)
Moreland and Craig observe that “throughout the history of Christianity, philosophy has played an important role in the life of the church and the spread and defense of the gospel of Christ.”7
John Wesley, the famous revivalist and theologian, seemed well-aware of this fact. In 1756 he delivered “An Address to the Clergy”. Among the various qualifications that Wesley thought a good minister should have, one was a basic knowledge of philosophy. He challenged his fellow clergymen with these questions: “Am I a tolerable master of the sciences? Have I gone through the very gate of them, logic? . . . Do I understand metaphysics; if not the . . . subtleties of . . . Aquinas, yet the first rudiments, the general principles, of that useful science?”8 It’s interesting to note that Wesley’s passion for preaching and evangelism didn’t cause him to denigrate the importance of basic philosophical knowledge. Indeed, he rather insists on its importance for anyone involved in the teaching and preaching ministries of the church.
But why is philosophy valuable? What practical benefits does it offer those involved in regular Christian service? And how has it contributed to the health and well-being of the church throughout history? Drs. Moreland and Craig list many reasons why philosophy is (and has been) such an important part of a thriving Christian community.9
In the first place, philosophy is of tremendous value in the tasks of Christian apologetics and polemics. Whereas the goal of apologetics is to provide a reasoned defense of the truth of Christianity, “polemics is the task of criticizing and refuting alternative views of the world.”10 Both tasks are important, and both are biblical. The apostle Peter tells us to always be ready “to make a defense” for the hope that we have in Christ (1 Pet. 3:15; NASB). Jude exhorts us to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3; NASB). And Paul says that elders in the church should “be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Tit. 1:9; NASB). The proper use of philosophy can be a great help in fulfilling each of these biblical injunctions.
Additionally, philosophy serves as the handmaid of theology by bringing clarity and precision to the formulation of Christian doctrine. “For example, philosophers help to clarify the different attributes of God; they can show that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are not contradictory; they can shed light on the nature of human freedom, and so on.”11 In other words, the task of the theologian is made easier with the help of his friends in the philosophy department!
The Value of Philosophy (Part 2)
Let’s consider a few more ways in which philosophy can help strengthen and support both the individual believer and the universal church.
First, careful philosophical reflection is one of the ways in which human beings uniquely express that they are made in the image and likeness of God. As Drs. Craig and Moreland observe, “God . . . is a rational being, and humans are made like him in this respect.”12 One of the ways in which we can honor God’s commandment to love him with our minds (Matt. 22:37) is to give serious philosophical consideration to what God has revealed about himself in creation, conscience, history, and the Bible. As we reverently reflect on the attributes of God, or His work in creation and redemption, we aren’t merely engaged in a useless academic exercise. On the contrary, we are loving God with our minds—and our hearts are often led to worship and adore the One “who alone is immortal and . . . lives in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16; NIV).
But philosophy isn’t only of value for the individual believer; it’s also of value for the universal church. Commenting on John Gager’s book, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity, Drs. Moreland and Craig write:
The early church faced intellectual and cultural ridicule from Romans and Greeks. This ridicule threatened internal cohesion within the church and its evangelistic boldness toward unbelievers. Gager argues that it was primarily the presence of philosophers and apologists within the church that enhanced the self-image of the Christian community because these early scholars showed that the Christian community was just as rich intellectually and culturally as was the pagan culture surrounding it.13
Christian philosophers and apologists in our own day continue to serve a similar function. By carefully explaining and defending the Christian faith, they help enhance the self-image of the church, increase the confidence and boldness of believers in evangelism, and help keep Christianity a viable option among sincere seekers in the intellectual marketplace of ideas.
Of course, not all philosophy is friendly to Christianity. Indeed, some of it is downright hostile. But this shouldn’t cause Christians to abandon the task and (for some) even calling of philosophy. The church has always needed, and still needs today, talented men and women who can use philosophy to rationally declare and defend the Christian faith to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope that we have in Christ (1 Pet. 3:15). As C.S. Lewis once said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”14 These are just a few of the reasons why we shouldn’t hate philosophy.