Is it beneficial for Christians to study philosophy?
Every person has a philosophy. The only question is, "how good is it?" Contrary to popular belief, philosophy does not consist of abstract thought experiments within the confines of stuffy college lecture halls. Rather, philosophy is thinking (often very deeply) about things, properly ordering these thoughts, and aligning them with action. It involves the most basic principles and precepts that govern what a person judges to be good, right, and true. For instance, should human rights be protected? Should we explore outer space, and if so, what is the best method? Is the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ coherent? These questions, and countless others, are questions of philosophy.
Unfortunately, many people associate philosophy with some banal request to define "meaning." In other cases, philosophy is closely aligned with movies like The Matrix, which take our imagination in various directions. Few people have much interest in such inquiries, and perhaps rightly so. However, this is a small, and historically unrepresentative, sample of philosophy.
Philosophy literally means "love of wisdom" (philo = love, sophia = wisdom). Modern philosophy is typically broken down into two major fields; metaphysics (the study of what is real) and epistemology (the study of knowledge), though one is not necessarily compelled to accept and study along these lines of bifurcation. There is nothing unbiblical about a Christian studying philosophy per se, at least insofar as they might study other things (astronomy, chemistry, biology, medicine, law, etc.), though one should always explore their reasons and motivation. Studying and understanding philosophy can provide an extremely helpful aid when communicating with skeptics and unbelievers. Philosophy also helps in the application of the Bible to daily life, especially in the passing and enforcement of societal laws and regulations.
There is a close association between philosophy and ancient Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle. These men were pagans, so many Christians think we should not pay any attention to them. The common view is that, since what the ancient Greeks said is not revelation from God, studying them (and those following in their footsteps) is, at best, a waste of time. At worst, it seems to go against Scripture. Many Christians take verses from the Bible to mean that philosophy should be avoided. Colossians 2:8 is commonly cited in support of such a view. A close analysis of this verse, and others cited to impugn the study of philosophy, shows only that vain or bad philosophy must be avoided. The apostle Paul repeatedly warns his readers about bad theology and doctrine, yet Christians do not take this as an indictment against theological study.
Careful reflection shows us that there are many reasons Christians should have at least a basic understanding of philosophy. As mentioned above, philosophy is extremely helpful when discussing our faith with others of differing worldview. Perhaps more importantly, philosophy is helpful when studying the Bible. This is not to say that 20th century analytic philosophy of language is a needed skill. Rather, the principles and precepts of philosophical thinking are employed every time we read and interpret the pages of Scripture. For example, we think that God exists, that it is possible in principle for God to give special revelation, and that such revelation can be understood, is non-contradictory, and so forth. The Christian believes that there is a God who speaks and who communicates in a rational way with rational creatures. Moreover, the Christian must decide what God is like based upon many disparate descriptions of Him in the Bible. The tools of philosophical thinking are invaluable in this regard.
Jesus tells us that God is spirit (John 4:24). Deuteronomy 26:8 tell us that God has arms and hands. Other verses speak of God having physical body parts (Genesis 3:8). The Bible itself does not list step-by-step instructions for how to discern the correct interpretation. How can God be spirit but also have physical parts? Can we say something true about what God is like? Most Christians will answer this question by stating that the language about God having body parts is metaphorical or figurative, and the other language should be understood literally. Here the Christian employs philosophical reasoning to draw this conclusion. The Bible presupposes that man, as a rational being created in the image of God, will use his intellect to ascertain the truth. Man engages all of his God-given faculties when studying the Bible.
Philosophy is well conceived as the "handmaiden" of theology. The Bible is given to man in linguistic form, with many literary genres and different authors. The Bible spans several thousand years and touches many cultures and languages. The Bible describes God and His action in the world in diverse ways, which require reasoning and analysis to properly adjudicate and piece together passages so that we do not fall into error. Sound philosophy, developed by study rooted in the very creation spoken into existence by God, is needed to help us rightly divide the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15). For example, the Bible does not directly tell us that God is triune. We arrive at this doctrine via theological deduction from Scripture. And philosophical reasoning and explication not only show the coherence of this doctrine, but allow for it to be successfully defended against heretical and skeptical attack. When we say that there is one God that is three Persons, we must do more than simply make the assertion. We must present to ourselves, and others, an understanding of God and "Person" that is at least non-contradictory (God cannot lie) and which conveys positive information of some kind.
The false dichotomy of "God's Word" versus "the philosophy of man" is easily avoided by acknowledging that all truth is God's truth. The study of God through His effects in creation will necessarily give us less overall knowledge of God than special revelation (the Bible). But natural theology (via philosophy) is always used, if even implicitly, when we study the Bible. Both modes give us knowledge and draw us closer to God. The Bible tells us in many places that we can know about God through His creation (Job 12:7–10; 38:1—39:30; Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:18–20; 2:14–15).
In the ultimate sense, wisdom is the proper ordering of things. God is said to be all-wise. One way He demonstrates His wisdom is in the fact that all things are ordered by God and point toward Him (John 1:3; Acts 17:22–29; Hebrews 1:3). The love of wisdom (philosophy) in its purest sense would be to love the way God has ordered things. To do this would be to place God above all and to see His activity in each moment of our lives. If this is true, then we should seek to know God in this way.
Christians can absolutely benefit from studying philosophy. There are many good Christian philosophers and thinkers to learn from, such as Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Sean McDowell, and more. Philosophy does not supplant nor supersede anything the Bible says. Rather, the study of philosophy will enliven and benefit our study of Scripture.
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