What is Philosophy?: Its Importance for the Christian

Philosophy is a term and practice that unfortunately, can seem almost taboo in the Christian circle. Christians can appear suspicious of it as if it were a practice to be avoided at all costs. These suspicions, of course, can seem well grounded. After all, if one sticks around the church long enough, they will most likely hear a story of a Christian who becomes an Atheist through their secular philosophy professor. However, it also seems, that one might also hear of a story of someone who was a Christian that begins to refuse that they can believe in God, due to his severe punishments executed in response to sin in the Old Testament. The idea in regards to philosophy appears to be, one has observed one convert from Christianity to Atheism through it, and therefore the philosophy is to blame. It seems then, that if one applies this same logic (however spoken or unspoken it is) to Bible reading that they do to the practice of philosophy, the answer would be to stop reading the Bible. Of course, no one would say this though, because it is apparent the Bible is not at fault, instead the person is. In contrast to this suspicion, one could observe sometimes an indifference to philosophy. The indifference with no ill intent, of course, one that merely does not see oneself as a philosopher, given that they don’t study philosophy for a living. However, while Christians might not think of themselves as philosophers, they nonetheless participate in philosophy by holding a worldview. Therefore, the study of philosophy is of great benefit for the Christian because it can help them to personally develop a more coherent Christian worldview, aid them in defending the reasonableness of the Christian worldview, and help them to answer bad philosophy, which seeks to minimize the truthfulness of the Christian faith.

In discussing the benefit of philosophy for the believer, it is best to first define what is meant by the term philosophy. The word philosophy is rooted in the Greek words philia (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”). “Thus philosophy is ‘the love of wisdom'” as Paul Copan notes.[1] To look further at the practice itself and define philosophy even further John M. Frame has said, it is “the disciplined attempt to articulate and defend a worldview.”[2] In order to accomplish this, philosophy is made up of subdivisions, which make up the discipline of philosophy itself. These subdivisions are metaphysics (ultimate reality), epistemology (the theory of knowledge), axiology (values and virtue), ethics, and anthropology (the nature of human beings).[3] Therefore, philosophy seeks to answer questions such as Does God exist? If so, is he personal? Is the universe eternal? Was it created? Can we know truth? If so, how do we know truth? Is truth relative? What about morals, are they universally true for everyone? Do they exist? Why ought one behave a certain way? Are humans free? Are humans naturally good or bad? The questions could go on and on. Broadly speaking, philosophy is the pursuit of answers to life’s most ultimate, as well as, fundamental questions. The answers held to these questions are what formulate a worldview. Or as defined by Nash, a worldview, is “the sum total of a person’s answers to the most important questions in life.”[4]

Perhaps, the most significant reason for a Christian to study philosophy is summarized in the words of John Frame: “Philosophers are in the business of thinking clearly, cogently, and profoundly… People involved in nonphilosophical fields can benefit from exposure to the rigor of philosophical formulations and arguments. That includes Christians.”[5] While the benefits of thinking well and clearly ought to be obvious, it is necessary to explore why. In Romans 12:1-2 Paul gives a command to think for the purpose of being transformed, that is, to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind”. Now, it might not seem clear at first why this is a command to “think”. J.P. Moreland in his explanation of this verse gives insight to why this is so, he says, “Mind is [in the greek] nous and means ‘the intellect, reason, or the faculty of the understanding.’”[6] So, Paul is in effect saying to be transformed by the renewal of your intellect, reason, or faculty of understanding. The intellect is the very thing to be renewed, in contrast to being “conformed to the world”, that is, the sinful thoughts and patterns of the world. Here, we see that Paul refers to renewing the intellect (or faculty of understanding) as a means by which the believer is sanctified (“do not be conformed to the world”). Sanctification is a theological term, defined by Wayne Grudem as, “a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”[7] In addition, Paul’s purpose statement is helpful, “So that you may prove what the will of God is.” Moreland argues, that to “prove”, is to “make known to ourselves and others what God’s will is.”[8] Thus, in contrast to being conformed to the world, the believer is to be transformed (changed) by the renewing of the intellect, by reason. By having transformed intellect, the believer may know and make known to others, the will of God. What is the correlation between having a transformed intellect and philosophy? Philosophy is a means by which the Christian can be trained to think clearly, cogently, and profoundly, thus, the believer may be transformed in their intellect and make known what the will of God is. This is, of course, assuming the relevant disciplines of philosophy are applied to learning the scripture, such as the rules of logic, epistemology, etc. In all of this, philosophy gives aid to the believer in helping them to develop a more coherent Christian worldview, as they prove what the will of God is.

In addition, philosophy gives aid to the believer in defending the reasonableness of the Christian faith. As said previously, it helps the believer develop a more coherent understanding of the Christian worldview. Also, philosophy trains any individual to think more critically about all worldviews and philosophies of life, evaluating them for truth. Of course, it may be said that some worldviews don’t believe in truth at all, or that it is knowable. It may be said of these that philosophy has still aided them in reaching that conclusion. To claim that there is no truth is to claim that, it is true that there is no truth, therefore they have still evaluated for truth. In order not to diverge too far, philosophy trains the Christian, as well to think critically about other worldviews and acquaints them with them. John Frame explained this very point when he says, “so when Christians study philosophy, they become acquainted with the most formidable adversaries of the gospel: non-Christian thought in its most cogent form. Acquaintance with these is very beneficial for gospel witness.”[9] This is important because understanding other worldviews is crucial for defending Christianity. According to Dr. Stephen Wellum, Christians should use a two-fold methodology for defending the reasonableness of Christianity.[10] First, they should look at the world from the other worldview’s perspective, and then, seek to expound on the assumptions of it. While doing this Wellum says, we are “seeking to show those outcomes of the assumptions” of the opposing worldview. In order to do this, the Christian must understand the worldview well enough to refute it. In all of this, seeking to show that the individual’s worldview is unreasonable, or incoherent. Second, the Christian should seek to demonstrate the coherence of their worldview. Take naturalism for example, which says everything in the universe is self-explanatory and all that there is. Naturalism (as implied by the name) denies that anything can be brought about supernaturally. Furthermore, this worldview asserts, that random processes bring everything about. Ronald Nash, however, finds an inconsistency here when it comes to the mind; how human reasoning can ever be valid if it is random. Nash says:

“If they [naturalists] are consistent with their naturalistic presuppositions, they must assume that our human cognitive faculties are a product of chance, purposeless forces. But if this is so, naturalists appear inconsistent when they place so much trust in those faculties… if they assume that their cognitive faculties are trustworthy and do provide accurate information about the world, they seem compelled to abandon one of the cardinal presuppositions of metaphysical naturalism and conclude that their cognitive faculties were formed as a result of the activity of some purposeful, intelligent agent.”[11]

As Nash makes this observation, he reasonably concludes, “The only way a person can provide rational grounds for believing in naturalism is first to cease being a naturalist.”[12] Nash here demonstrates the benefit of philosophy for the Christian. Through the discipline of philosophy, he becomes well acquainted with naturalism and has been taught to think clearly about it. As a result, he shows the inconsistency of naturalism and shows how it is more reasonable to assume that an intelligent agent has purposely designed their cognitive faculties. Here would be the time to take step two of Wellum’s suggested methodology and show how Christianity gives a coherent answer for our cognitive faculties. The Christian may likewise have and share the same benefit as Nash in practicing philosophy, and one could assume this would certainly increase their faith as a Christian, as they become more confident of its truthfulness.

Similarly, as said above philosophy helps the Christian to develop a more coherent worldview, as well as, helps them to become acquainted with other worldviews such that they may refute them. Thus, Christian philosophy is beneficial for answering other philosophies hostile to the Christian faith, or any philosophy that would seek to minimize the truthfulness of the Christian worldview. The reason this is a benefit to the Christian is because it aids them in guarding themselves against the very thing the Apostle Paul warned the believers at Colossae about, Paul says in Colossians 2:8, “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.”[13] Now, to be clear, some Christians use this verse as an objection against the discipline of philosophy, saying that Paul is commanding Christians to avoid philosophy. However, the philosophy in mind in this verse is that which is not according to Christ, that which instead is deceitful. Moreland says of this verse, “In the context of Colossians, Paul was warning the church not to form and base doctrinal views according to a philosophical system hostile to orthodoxy.”[14] Further, he argues:

“His remarks were a simple warning not to embrace heresy; in context, they were not meant to represent his views of philosophy as a discipline of study. In fact, one of the best ways to avoid hollow and deceptive philosophy is to study philosophy itself, so you can learn to recognize truth from error, using Scripture and right reason as a guide.”[15]

According to Moreland, then, philosophy as a discipline is a tool to recognize truth from error. As the Christian begins to recognize truth from error, using scripture and right reason as a guide, they can more proficiently answer bad philosophy and thus not be taken captive by it. Therefore, philosophy is an excellent tool and is beneficial for the Christian who seeks to answer philosophies that seek to minimize the truthfulness of the Christian worldview.

It has been argued that philosophy is a very beneficial discipline for the Christian, that it helps them to develop a coherent Christian worldview, defend the reasonableness of it, and helps them to answer philosophy that seeks to minimize the truthfulness of the Christian worldview. The coherency of the Christian worldview is learned and understood better as the believer is trained to think cogently and clearly about his or her own worldview. By extension, as the Christian begins to think cogently and studies philosophy more and more, they inevitably become more acquainted with other worldviews. Understanding other worldviews helps to defend the reasonableness of Christianity. This is done by a two-fold process: (1) attacking the inconsistencies in opposing worldviews. (2) putting on display the consistency of the Christian worldview. Furthermore, as the Christian begins to discern truth from error, they become more equipped to answer bad philosophy. The greatest benefit is that through the practice of philosophy the Christian may become more confident in their faith.

 

[1]Copan Paul, A Little Book for New Philosophers: Why and How to Study Philosophy. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 31

[2] Frame M. John, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, P&R Publishing Company, 2015), 1

 [3]Listing and definitions from Nash Ronald, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 15-17

 [4]Ibid., 392

[5]Frame, 3

 [6]Moreland J.P., Love your God with all your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012), 76

 [7]Grudem Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 746

[8]Moreland, 52

[9]Frame, 4

[10]Find this methodology from Stephen Wellum, “Worldview Types” (lecture notes, Boyce College, Louisville, KY, 2008), 12

[11]Nash, 56-57

[12]Nash, 57

 [14]Moreland, 69

[15]Ibid., 69

 

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