How Can the Christian Use Philosophy?

Philosophy as a Tool

Like the beans and maize in an oven-placed, sizzling sufuria, so are the variety of ideas and thought forms in the world. Rather than being a place with a singular thread of all of its information, the university, in our globalizing reality, is a multi-verse. Such variety of ideas consumed my undergraduate years. I had a thirst for truth, and knowledge in general. Having detached myself from a Church, I had no sounding board for my questions from a biblical perspective, with the exception of my father. Upon my many questions about the faith, why Christianity was the only way for example, my father would advise me to “seek the truth with a genuine heart, and you will find it.” Without any other evidences for this claim, in retrospect, it was indeed a biblical counsel. The fact that I came to profess Jesus Christ and to live in Him, proved this point. As an act of undeserving grace, through the eyes of faith, I trusted the content contained in the Scriptures about Jesus Christ, and continue to do so. Here, then, was the real evidence for faith: who Jesus Christ is and what He has done is worthy of my trusting. Yet, I wondered, is there a place for thoughtful responses to philosophically minded non-believers? Is there a role that philosophy, as a tool can play in Christian life, evangelism and witness?

            The photographer is an artiste whose eye for the suave, unobservable detail is captured through the click of her camera. Her camera is only a tool that enables her to achieve her task, and to relay her observation to her audience. Philosophy as a tool may serve various purposes for the believer. Perhaps before I go further, it may be helpful to give some definitions of what I take philosophy to be so that we can dialogue. Following this, I hope to think through some difficulties that have been raised towards the case for a Christian philosophy and conclude with some practical uses of Christian philosophy in the life and witness of a believer. Akin to the photographer’s camera as a tool that only serves a purpose of relaying what is already there, Christian philosophy is a handmaid of the implications of God’s revelation to mankind.

            Christian Philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig offer three helpful definitions of what philosophy is.[1] First, an etymological framework is given that dissects philosophy as philo (meaning to love) and sophia (wisdom), where the philosopher is seen as a lover of wisdom. Second, is to look at philosophy as a second-order study that analyzes and critiques the presuppositions of other first-order fields. For instance, whereas science, as a first-order subject, deals with the study of observable phenomena and the scientific laws inherent in them, philosophy may deal with whether scientific methodology is the only method of attaining knowledge. Concurrently then, one may engage in a philosophy of science, philosophy of education or philosophy of religion, among others. Lastly, philosophy may be generally described as a study of the questions of life such as what is knowledge? Are there any values that are better than others in different moral categories? And so on and so forth. I will focus on the second definition a bit more in this conversation.

            Given these definitions, is there any way then that philosophy may be an obstacle for the Christian? Yes and No. The former may be the case for the individual who wants to isolate himself from God’s self-revelation, whereas the latter may be the case, if God is central to his life. After all, Paul admonishes the Colossians to do ALL things to the glory of God, by extension, including philosophizing as a human pursuit. Many fault philosophy at this point of being a detractor of the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures due to the fact that many have attacked, and even worse, wandered from the faith for philosophical reasons.[2] However, this claim may be as fallacious as thinking that hip-hop music is bad since some musicians use it to promote downgrading of females, or perhaps, the idea that going to church devotionally should be avoided since some leaders have used it as a basis for financial gain. To aid this fallacy, some have used some scriptures to make their point.

Misconceptions about Philosophy

            Colossians 2:8 stands out as the elephant in the room, where Paul addressing the believers (1:2) in Colossians says that “see to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” A surface reading leads many to cast a blind eye to the purpose and benefits of philosophy and the practical applications that it may aid in. Read a whole, Paul is not bashing philosophy as a discipline, but he is bashing “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” The adjectives preceding the noun here imply the fact that there is “good philosophy,” and in this context, one that is rooted upon the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The center is Christ. Further, the following verses pass along the idea that some in the church were judging others as unfit for the Kingdom of God due to their eating of certain foods and drinks (2:16). Paul thus disqualifies this hollow and deceptive philosophy as one that is based on human tradition and not on Jesus Christ, the head of the Church (2:19) and the means through which the believer is sanctified (2:23).[3] The point remains, philosophy in itself as a discipline that clarifies is not necessarily in error, though given the fallen nature of man, it presents a propensity to falter.

            Another objection to my last conclusion stems from the commonly held idea that “sin’s effect on the mind, render the human intellect incapable of knowing truth” and hence we should pour cold water on philosophy.[4] This is linked to an error of some believers in the misconception of the idea of total depravity: total depravity is the reality that the whole of man’s faculties (including the mind) have been affected by sin, as opposed to man as being totally incapacitated by sin such that he can do no good whatsoever.[5] Moreover, if the gospel message is a message of renewal of the human person in her totality (Rom. 12:1 ff.), then isn’t this a pointer to the fact that we are called to live out this renewal by way of intellectual honesty, calm and clear argument as well as virtuous character? (Eph. 2:10) Isn’t this a call to the goodness of creation, the idea that God is making right the wrong of Adam, and by consequence, righting my wrong (my thinking and doing) in light of the coming consummation of all things? It is a call to loving God, with body, mind and soul, and loving others.

            Finally, a major objection stems from the antagonism that has been created between faith and reason, the latter to which philosophy rightly thrives. Moreland and Craig give a tripartite definition of faith from the Scriptures that includes the idea of i) faith being based on a certain content i.e. certain Scriptural claims, and so forth; ii) faith as trusting and iii) faith as the ascent of the intellect to a proposed truth claim.[6] In effect, the above definitions ground the idea of biblical faith as a belief in something, rather than a leap in the dark. It is a hope for that is anchored upon a hope in something (Heb. 11:1), in this case, a God who fulfills promises and who rewards faith, for example. In effect, believers anchor their belief in God based on who He is. My aim here is not to give proofs for the existence of God, but to illustrate that faith is believing in certain reasons. Here, faith and reason find an integration that strengthens the faith of the believer in times of suffering and also, provide reasons that may give the unrepentant heart a posture for the flourishing of the gospel seed in the providence of the Spirit.

Benefits of Using Philosophy for the Christian

            To this effect then I can trace out two benefits of a Christian philosophy to the believer:

  1. Christian Philosophy as a tool for integration of a Christian Worldview:

J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, speaking of American evangelicalism, claim that though there are many believers, few integrate their faith with the whole of their life due to a lack of philosophical reflection.[7] Similarly, here in Africa, theological scholars such as John Parratt, Kwame Bediako, John S. Mbiti and Jean Marc Ela observe that the missionary enterprise’s issue of integrating biblical faith with African identity has led to Africans whose Christianity has not sipped into their soul, thus maintaining African practices, for instance witchcraft, which are a stark contrast to their faith in the Living God.[8] It is this view, of the whole of reality that the mind takes, which the polymathic professor and theologian James Orr defines as worldview.[9] How then does Philosophy aid in developing a robust Christian worldview?

          Through its analytical and critical nature, it provides ways of integrating other disciplines and thought forms with a Biblical worldview, and in other ways, critiques thought forms that are in opposition to Christian truth. Since it deals with foundational assumptions, and their warrants, Christian philosophy may serve as a bridge to areas of life that are not explicitly stated in the Bible. Such examples include euthanasia or genetic sex changes or appropriate technology. In such cases, through the help of the Spirit, philosophy may give Biblical arguments deeper clarity as much as a lens sharpens the focus, so that the observer can see what is already there.

In such cases, through the help of the Spirit, philosophy may give Biblical arguments deeper clarity as much as a lens sharpens the focus, so that the observer can see what is already there.

  1. Christian Philosophy as an aid to apologetics and evangelism:

Aside from integration, philosophy aids in apologetics. Defined as the reasoned defense of the Christian faith, apologetics remains a valid field of study in light of the pluralisms of world religions and philosophies. In such contexts, philosophy provides the marrow with which logical arguments can be used to correct wrong thinking and wrong ideas, in effect, providing a sturdy framework for the intellectual coherence of Christian belief. Its role in evangelism is similar, since for the intellectually minded unbeliever, his presuppositions on certain issues may be challenged and his crutch shaken with the solid foundation of the life-giving gospel. In both cases, it plays a preparatory role upon which all thoughts are taken captive to the gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 10:3 – 5).

          In essence then, philosophy’s task is not to replace the gospel. It is the work of God and His divine Word and Spirit that can regenerate the heart that is clouded with unbelief. This re-birth is a divine work of grace, a free gift of God. Yet our task as sharers of the gospel presumes two tasks: i) Having a Christian worldview that grows from a heart and mind that acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus over all of life and ii) Persuasively sharing the hope of the gospel to all people, both intellectual and otherwise (1 Pet. 3:15 – 16). If we are to empathize with the intellectual wrestling that is definitive of “genuine” seekers of the gospel, and if we are to engage in any meaningful dialogue that honors their dignity as people whom God cares for, then philosophical argument may be a tool that God can use to shine His light of grace and truth to them.[10]

          In the same way He has used human language to reveal His truth to us, and in the same way he uses our natural talents and life stations for Christian witness, so does He use philosophical argument for His glory. One of the benefits to be accrued to the believer is a more reflective faith, a faith that is grounded even in differing and shaky life seasons. In the integration of God’s redemptive story in scripture with life experiences and thought forms, the logical connections of the tapestry of biblical theology give a unifying vision of God’s grandeur. In such meditations and reflections, the believer is then led to the deeper truths of the gospel and hence to a richer experience of worship. Additionally, the believer can walk with his head held high in the public sphere since he can calmly and graciously engage in dialogue with the aim of sharing the true intellectual (and spiritual) riches that will last.

          Philosophy used this way for the Christian paints the beautiful picture of the rich tradition of the faith and truth of the gospel, which has been handed down the centuries through other profound thinkers and servants of the Church such as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Machen, John Owen, Byang Kato, and Kwame Bediako amongst others. Such witnesses, and many who have gone before us, remind us of the paradox of Christian philosophy and worldly philosophy.

Philosophy, the search for wisdom, can only gain illumination and insight through divine and spiritual enabling.

Philosophy, the search for wisdom, can only gain illumination and insight through divine and spiritual enabling. For the believer who stands on the foundation of Scripture, a philosophical methodology is a task worthy of use for the glory of God. Such a task remains a worthy pursuit, especially in Africa, where new issues and ideas may be attempting to hold the gospel at bay. May God help us to remain faithful witnesses.

End Notes

[1] J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 13

[2] From a research I had conducted from youths who’ve left the church, one of the reasons given was that they had found other philosophical systems. Research done by Barna Foundation and Lifeway Research supports this findings.

[3] Colossians 1:15 – 23 beautifully paints the centrality of Jesus Christ for the believer, and the benefits accrued to Him through a union with Him.

[4] J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, 18

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester: IVP, 1994), 497

[6] J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, 18

[7] Ibid., 6

[8] John Parratt; Keith Ferdinando; John S. Mbiti; Jean Marc Ela.

[9] “The Wonder of Worldview I: Protestant Evangelicalism,” in David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Michigan & Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 7

[10] My own personal journey to faith was refined, and my heart prepared, by the writings of thinkers such as C. S. Lewis and William Lane Craig, prior to my belief in Jesus Christ after the reading of John’s Epistles.

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