Should a Christian study philosophy?
Question: "Should a Christian study philosophy?"
Answer: The word philosophy comes from the Greek word philosophia, which means “love of wisdom.” The study of philosophy is about using rational argument and critical thinking to analyze the way human beings think and know and perceive the world around them—both the physical world and the abstract world of ideas. Questions like “what is real?” and “can the truth be known?” and “what is beauty?” are all philosophical questions. As lovers of God and believers in Jesus Christ, we should love wisdom (Proverbs 4:6; 7:4), and there is therefore nothing wrong with a Christian studying philosophy. A study of philosophy is good and proper insofar as it furthers a pursuit of truth. The book of Ecclesiastes delves deeply into philosophical matters, dealing as it does with several different worldly philosophies before concluding that a philosophy that fears and obeys God is the best (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
All necessary questions pertaining to God, eternity, and the godly life are answered in the Bible. However, as a field of academic study, philosophy can be enlightening and beneficial in one’s dealings with the world. It is fascinating to study how men have thought through the ages about the nature of reality and their purpose (or lack thereof) in the cosmos. It is as equally fascinating to find that various philosophers throughout history have hit upon biblical truths, sometimes unwittingly.
An understanding of the various philosophies of men is a valuable tool in evangelism. It helps to know where people are “coming from” and to have an idea of why they think the way they do. Does this person subscribe to Spinoza’s version of pantheism? Has he been reading Hobbes? Does he lean toward rationalism, subjectivism, or existentialism? An evangelist with some knowledge of philosophy can more readily engage individuals who care about such things and meet them where they are. Paul gives a great example of this as he was able to engage the philosophers on Mars Hill because of his familiarity with Greek writings (Acts 17:28). He also quoted a Cretan philosopher to make a point in Titus 1:12.
Faith is often seen as a “non-intellectual” pursuit, something understood with the spirit and the heart and not with the mind. Some people—even some Christians—go so far as to say faith is opposed to reason, as if faith were necessarily irrational or anti-intellectual. If it doesn’t make sense, that’s okay. But the Bible presents faith in God and in the gospel as being grounded in reality. We believe in what is real; our faith is founded upon historical happenings recorded by eyewitnesses to extraordinary events. Luke writes of the “many convincing proofs” of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:3). The ministry of Christ “was not done in a corner,” as Paul points out to a skeptical king (Acts 26:26).
The idea that faith and reason are in conflict goes all the way back to ancient times. The Greek culture, the birthplace of philosophy, could not understand the Christian message, which seemed irrational to them. As Paul said, the preaching of the cross was foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23)—an intimation of the limitations of human philosophy. Man-made philosophy, while a valid field of study in its own right, can never arrive at the truth of the gospel on its own. Paul warned of giving heed to “opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20) or “so-called knowledge” (NLT). Much of secular philosophy falls into that category. We need God’s revelation to see the truth. “By faith we understand” (Hebrews 11:3).
Without God’s revelation of the Bible, man in his natural state cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). Wisdom does not come from the natural mind because man’s mind and his reason are fallen; that is, they are affected by sin. Wisdom is a gift from God (James 1:5). To be truly able to think rationally, a person must be introduced to the ultimate source of wisdom, which is God Himself. We need “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Through faith, we rely on God’s direction and not simply our own wisdom (Proverbs 3:5–6).
Christians can and should study philosophy if led in that direction, but, as in all things in life, the study must be carried out in submission to God. Philosophy can be used to build beautiful and enlightening arguments based on what is revealed by God to be true, or it can be used to deconstruct and confuse a fallen mind that trusts itself rather than its Creator. We praise the Lord for Christian philosophers through the centuries who have exerted a positive influence in the world of philosophy and have pointed people to the truth: Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Kierkegaard, and others. We are also indebted to more modern thinkers such as C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Norman Geisler, Francis Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias, and William Lane Craig, who have continued to prove that Christian theology more than holds its own in the study of philosophy.
Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
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