“Philosophy” is a word that is a pariah among most Christians. The word conjures up images of intelligent men in university classrooms dismantling the faith of young, simple-minded Christians. Most believers would argue that we as a church must step back from philosophy; after all, doesn’t the Apostle Paul warn us to be wary of philosophy (Col. 2:8)? We should, it is said, avoid this dangerous and toxic field of study: philsophy is the death of believers.
Correcting our Misunderstandings
This line of thinking is, in my opinion, unfortunate. There is everything good and right about being en garde against the onslaught of unbiblical philosophy that is rampant in our modern world; there is everything wrong, however, with ignoring the riches of God’s revelation in Scripture and not engaging the pagan philosophy around. It seems, in my estimation, there are two issues we must address: what Paul means when he warns us about philosophy, and how (if we even can) to construct a biblical philosophy.
Paul and Philosophy
The first text that most Christians go to with regards to philosophy is Colossians 2. We immediately jump to verse 8 of this passage:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
It is obvious, so the argument goes, that we must be wary of being spoiled (ruined) by philosophy; we must, therefore, avoid it at all costs. We can do nothing with philosophy. It is opposed to Christ, and we must reject it outright. As one Christian put it centuries ago,
What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?
-Tertullian, c. 155-240 CE
This position, however, misses the context of the passage. First, we must notice the overall context. Paul is writing to the church in Colossians in order to, among other things, warn them about false teachers who were coming into the church (2:4). In response, he lays a foundation by stating:
in [Christ] are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
This is a stunning claim. In response to the false teachers coming in, many of whom would be bringing in false philosophical ideas, Paul says that this: every philosophical question and pursuit finds its ultimate locus in Jesus Christ. Every piece of wisdom and every shred of knowledge has, as its root, source, cause, and ultimate meaning, Jesus Christ. It is this background into which Paul brings the reader when he gives us verse 8.
Second, we must notice the immediate context. What does the verse actually say? If we read carefully, we see that Paul is not writing to tell the Colossians to avoid every kind of philosophy: there are two contrasting philosophies in this verse, one of which is good and the other bad. Notice verse 8 again, with my explanatory comments:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, [with what follows being the kind to avoid] after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ [with these being the kind to seek].
Paul, then, is not arguing that we should avoid all philosophy. Instead, we must avoid the wrong sort of philosophy while seeking the right sort: we must avoid the philosophy of unsaved men and seek the philosophy of Christ.
The Bible and Philosophy
With this foundation laid, it must be asked how we are to approach this topic. How are we to seek to have a philosophy according to Christ? What does it actually mean to have a Christian philosophy? I would submit that a Christian philosophy is defined by things: a commitment to Biblical authority, a commitment to Christian issues, and a commitment to serious challenging.
Christians recognize that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith for the life of the Church. This doctrine, known as sola Scriptura, has many implications. One implication is that we as believers have one perfect source of information when we seek to construct a philosophy according to Christ: the Bible. Christ has given us one Book, one Revelation, and one Guide; it is the only concrete thing we have when we seek to answer the questions of philosophy (such as ‘Does God exist, what is right and wrong, is the universe desinged, etc.’).
Second, there are many issues that a Christian philosohpy must address that a non-Christian philosophy would not. For example, unbelievers are not too overly concerned with how the Trinity operates or how Jesus Christ is the God-man. Believers, on the other hand, must make it their focus to develop a Christian philosophy that takes into account these doctrines, how they operate, and how they apply to every-day life. We must recognize that we will have different issues we must deal with and apply, and we must do so without hesitation or fear.
Finally, we must be unafraid and unashamed to boldly challenge the ongoing tide of worldly philosophy around us. We must not-no, we dare not-take the dominant position of neutrality: we must not set aside our commitments and our beliefs in order to be given a seat at the academic table. Instead, we must challenge the unbeliever with the claim that Christ owns the academic table (Col. 2:3). We must then approach them and show them how their system of philosophy, since it is not based on God’s Word and is therefore not based on the real world (since God’s Word perfectly interprets the real world), will not work; it will contradict itself. The Christian must do this, without hesitation or fear.
The Medieval Period saw a time when theology (the study of God and His Word) was given a preemince in the universities; it also saw philosophy being given the title “Theology’s Handmaid.” It was recognized that theology, and therefore the Bible, held absolute authority and control over all areas of life. It was also seen that philosophy, when developed in submission to and under the guidance and rule of Scripture, could serve the church and help to equip it with clear thinking and concise wording. May God grant that His church would once again see this truth.
Most of the material presented is taken from Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith and Reason for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology by K. Scott Oliphant. See these works for an in-depth treatment of these topics.