I’ve been taking a philosophy course this semester that has endeavoured to cover roughly 2,500 years of philosophical thought in 12 weeks. The course has been dense and we have had to skim over many philosophers and philosophical systems when a long in-depth study would have been appropriate. The time in this course has been very enlightening for me in many ways and I’d like to share my reflections on how Christianity should interact with Philosophy.
Tertullian is famously quoted saying “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? And what have heretics to do with Christians?” We see by Tertullian’s example that even in 190 AD the church was weary of philosophy and also we see in scripture that the Apostle Paul had warnings about Philosophy (1 Cor. 1:22-23; Col. 2:8). On the other hand we have individuals such as Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Macrina, Anselm, and others whom all had high views of philosophy when it is held within the boundaries of scripture. We have quite a mixed bag of opinion and we need to be wise on how we interact Christianity with the love of wisdom (philosophy).
On the surface of the matter all Christians will agree, if they read their Bibles and believe what they read, that Christians must live wisely in this world and therefore must have a love for wisdom: James says that we should be asking God for wisdom (James 1:5); the entire book of proverbs stands as a testimony to the need for wisdom; the gospel writers parallel Jesus with the wisdom of God (Matt. 23:34 contrasted to Luke 11:49). We see that wisdom is not a bad thing and loving wisdom is certainly not a bad thing. So it cannot be that pursuing wisdom is bad in and of itself.
The question we should then be asking is what Paul is warning against when he tells people to be careful not to be captured by philosophy (Col. 2:8) and also what he means by telling us that the Greeks stumbled over Christ because they desire wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22-23). Philosophy, apart from being guided by and submitting to God’s revelation, can be a tool of deception that uses complex systems of thought to trap people who can’t see through them and so cause them to act contrary to how God commands – this is the philosophy that Paul is warning people to be weary of. The Greeks had their own philosophical systems that they were very proud of and they wanted Christianity to submit to their systems rather than have Christianity reveal to them the axioms upon which they should found their understanding of the universe – they stumbled because of their pride. Christianity is foolishness to people who have dreamt up their own axioms but Christianity is far from foolishness; Christianity is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).
Human beings were created by God and have been commanded to love God with all of their being (Deut. 6:5). This means that our approach to understanding the world must necessarily flow through our love and submission to God – we are creatures that are meant to submit to the ultimate being and receive from Him rather than discover on our own apart from Him. We cannot go out in the world and understand the world around us apart from God giving us explanation because God did not make us to be able to do this. David Hume brought Empiricism to its ridiculous conclusion that we have no empirical reason to believe that the same results will occur from the same situation when it is repeated. Rationalism, apart from being founded upon Axioms provided by God, creates complex systems of thought that are founded upon imperfect attempts at truth that end up causing the system to break down. The history of philosophy has brought no concrete conclusions because neither observing the universe nor rigorous thought can bring a person to absolute truth – neither the human mind nor creation were made to supplant the role of God as the provider of wisdom.
We see that philosophy on its own cannot come to the answers it seeks and that faith apart from wisdom is unbiblical because God tells us to seek wisdom. So the only right approach to Christianity and Philosophy is to prayerfully ask God for wisdom while thinking through what scripture says (2 Tim. 1:7). We think through what scripture says for the sake of gaining wisdom and so we are using scripture as the starting point of philosophy. Philosophy, at every point, must be theological and in complete submission to being corrected and guided by scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17). Only in this way will philosophy truly be the love of wisdom and be the companion and helpmate of Theology rather than an opponent. After all, our God is a rational thinking God who gave us rational thinking minds – we’re meant to think and seek wisdom through God.