I distinctly remember driving down the road one day, and talking about my future plans with a youth leader in a church that I have attended. The subject of college came up and I said I was going to be studying philosophy. I expected to hear the same warnings about majoring in philosophy. I’d been told many, many times that there are no jobs for philosophy majors (and the people telling me this certainly weren’t wrong). But this time, I met a different kind of resistance with which I would eventually become all too familiar; the idea that philosophy is fundamentally opposed to Christianity.
Thanks to certain nihilists (*cough*Nietzsche), pseudo-philosophers (looking at you Dawkins), and a long history of misguided yet brilliant thinkers (Hume, Voltaire, etc.), the long and rich history of Christian philosophy has been eclipsed by atheism, agnosticism, scientism, naturalism, and a long list of other “isms.” The aftermath is that Christians have developed a defensive instinct against philosophy as though it actually is nothing more than “man’s wisdom” vs. God’s wisdom.
Of course, it would be misguided to claim that this line of thinking is anything new. Tertullian, a prolific Christian writer from the second century, claimed, “Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy.” This seems to be the prevailing sentiment in the twenty-first century as well. The objection tends to come from verses like Colossians 2:8 which says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (NASB) and 1 Corinthians 3:19-20 which says, “…the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, …’The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless'” (NASB).
An initial reading of these verses might cause the reader to take a negative view towards anything close to philosophy. But before we continue, we must ask what philosophy actually is. This in itself is a question that could be debated for centuries without being settled (as it has been), but at its very core philosophy seems to be a pursuit of truth, how we may come to know it, and how this affects the way in which we should live. Philosophy tends to include questions concerning being, ethics, consciousness, logic, and general reason. So philosophy tries to answer some very important questions, and it is therefore easy to see why philosophy could go very wrong if we start out with some of the wrong ideas, or do philosophy poorly.
But is it really condemned in Scripture to engage in such a search for truth and a means by which we might come to know it? Is such a search for truth fundamentally opposed to the revelation of Scripture, or is it possible that the two can work in harmony? We have already seen some verses which seem to say that philosophy can lead to false beliefs, but does philosophy necessarily lead to false beliefs?
I believe that philosophy and the divine revelation of Scripture can be harmonized, and we will look at a few passages of Scripture to see why. We can start with Matthew 22:37 which many know to say that we should love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. The word “mind” is translated from dianoia which means “a faculty of understanding” or simply “thoughts.” Thus we are to love the Lord with our cognitive faculties. Colossians 1 expresses a similar idea in its admonition to have “epignosei” (cognitive knowledge, having to do with gnosis meaning “mind”) of God. There are numerous other passages expressing similar ideas, but perhaps the best for our purposes is Romans 1:20 in which Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
Romans 1:20 makes it explicitly plain that God gave mankind rational faculties in such a way that they could be used to come to at least some understanding of His reality. Yes, God has given divine revelation, but He has also given natural revelation which can be studied in a pursuit of truth according to Romans 1. Furthermore, we have also seen that we are to use our rational faculties to better understand God through His divine revelation. This is philosophy. We are told by Scripture that we are both capable of and responsible for a pursuit of truth, a means by which we may know it, and answers for how it is relevant to us. This is not to say that we can do this all by philosophy in relation to natural revelation alone, but the very fact that we are entertaining such an idea means we are doing philosophy.
So why the admonitions concerning philosophy within Scripture? Both Romans 8:7 and Colossians 2:18 shed some light on the issue which is that in our fallen state we are given to a “mind of the flesh.” In other words, we are naturally given to an imperfect mind. Romans 1:20 still holds true despite that condition which means that even in our fallen state, we must be able to reach some knowledge. However, we may take it to be true that our cognitive faculties are naturally very prone to error or wicked corruption. This is why Romans 12:2 is so important in that it tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It does not tell us to set aside our mind and its faculties altogether, rather we are to shape and fashion our minds in the likeness of Christ, and in the fashion of Philippians 4:8 think on whatever is true.
This is why philosophy, properly done, ought to be taken as a friend to Christianity. If God is truth, we ought to seek to understand what truth is. If God is the I AM, a statement of unqualified, pure being, then ought we not study ontology (the study of being) in order to better come to know God most fully? If God is all-good, should we not then study ethics to understand what that means? If God has indeed revealed Himself through His creation, then should we not use our cognitive faculties as parts of that creation to understand those attributes which He has chosen to reveal through the rest of creation in which our minds participate? If we are to do this most fully, then philosophy as a cognitive search for truth is indispensable.
Of course, this is not always simple. The beauty of philosophy is that we must truly become as children in our willingness to question anything and everything which we may have previously taken for granted. A study of philosophy should rattle the foundations of everything which we think we know only to more firmly establish what we may truly know.
This should not scare the Christian. If Jesus is indeed the Truth, then a pure, unadulterated search for that truth should lead nowhere other than straight to the throne of God. Rather, it is the man caught in the false assurances of this world who should be concerned (and hopeful) that in humbling himself as a child in being willing to question everything while presuming to know nothing, that he will be led to the truth and assurance of reality that only comes from knowing the God who is the source of that reality.
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