Should Christians Study Philosophy?

Dr. Gillian McKeith  (borrowing a famous old saying), entitles her Channel 4 TV programmes; ‘You Are What You Eat’. But this old saying is certainly not true! It should read ‘You Are What You Think.’  The AV puts it perfectly: ‘For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’ (Prov 23:7).  It’s the way we think; that which comes from the inside, which shapes our actions and our whole lives (c.f. Matt 15:19). 
Our worldview, our philosophy of life – the amalgam of our views in every area; religion, history, science, ethics etc, – is therefore clearly of fundamental importance.

Some people study philosophy in depth, either generally, or in a specific area (say history), and even make their living from it.  Although some of the thoughts and conclusions of ‘professional’ philosophers may be very complex, they’ll often eventually percolate down to be accepted by society in general.  A classic example of this can be found in the assertion by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) that nothing whatsoever could be objectively known about God.  Since Kant’s time, the perceived reliability of scripture and Christian tradition has been seriously undermined, and his basic thesis in this regard is accepted by the ordinary, thinking person in the street as being patently obvious. However, the majority of these same people would understand very little of Kant’s original writings. (And nor do I!)

Although we all have our own philosophical views, many Christians are unhappy about getting involved in the study of philosophy; of looking at different worldviews, either generally or in particular. One biblical text which may account for their attitude is Colossians 2:8: ‘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.’ There’s also a line of Tertullian (c AD 150-230), which says; ‘What has Athens to do with Rome?’ This is often quoted in lectures, sermons and Christian writing to suggest that philosophy and Christianity have nothing in common with each other (1).

But is Paul really saying that we shouldn’t look at different philosophical ideas?  His own writings are profoundly philosophical in many places, and he was not afraid to confront opposing worldviews when he came into contact with them (see Acts 17 for example).  Surely he would have had some idea of what, exactly, he was confronting! Are we to suppose that a well educated rabbi such as St. Paul had no idea what, for example, Stoics and Epicureans believed?  

What I believe Paul is saying is that we need to be careful that we’re not led astray by the many Godless ideas which surround us and with which we will inevitably come into contact (2).  Philosophy based on man’s own wisdom, rather than God’s wisdom, can lead us astray.  But surely this is just part of the nature of a fallen world. We can’t simply bury our heads in the sand and pretend there aren’t other ideas and beliefs out there; ideas and beliefs which challenge our own, and compete with them for the attention of those around us. Indeed, if we were to steer clear of all the areas which threatened to tempt us from our faith or to fall into sin, we would not try to help drug addicts, prostitutes, prisoners etc., for fear of being tempted into following their examples. Nor would we try to fight against abominations such as Jerry Springer, the Opera because we would be completely ignorant of what that so-called ‘work of art’ was saying and would therefore be incapable of opposing it!  And are we to be silent about the many ethical and philosophical questions thrown up by recent advances in medical research? Do we even have a right to hold a valid opinion or be heard on such topics if we’re not prepared to examine difficult issues and listen to the (often Godless and wicked) arguments of others?

It’s my view that the success of our mission for acting as salt and light in the world will often depend on our ‘knowing the enemy’ so to speak, and having well-considered Christian answers to the questions which people are asking; questions which often don’t have a simple ‘black or white’ answer in scripture. As we’ve already noted, embarking on philosophical study is not without danger. All I can advise in response to such danger is that we hang on to St. Paul’s words, quoted above. On the positive side, our insights into different worldviews will help us come to see the weak points in these thought systems and to formulate arguments against the many anti-Christian forces which surround us.  In the process of making such journeys out of our own ‘comfort zone’, I’m sure we shall (in the long term) find our faith made stronger and be better equipped to face the modern world.  

(1) I’ve occasionally come across people who believe that this is actually a verse from scripture!
(2) And of course, Paul may have felt a special concern (as do I) for those who were young in the faith and perhaps more likely to be led astray.  If this applies to you, dear reader, I’m not suggesting that you dash out and begin reading Nietzsche, Sartre, or any other atheistic philosopher!

© Chris Lazenby 2006.

  1. thankfully there are a great many excellent and evangelical christian philosophers/apologists out there: alvin plantinga, j.p. moreland, william lane craig, norman geisler to name but a few! im also more and more convinced that having a decent philosophical background helps to interpret scripture in a more in-depth and coherent fashion i.e. look at the theologian jonathan edwards – his philosophical background gave him tremendous insights into the nature of the Bible and exactly what it was saying.. i was also thinking that if we’re honest alot of our creeds that make us orthodox dont actually use biblical language but need to use philosophical categories in order to clarify certain biblical concepts i.e. the nicene creed, deity and humanity of Christ, the trinity etc. – all the heretics like the arians etc. claimed they were using scripture to back up their claims, which they were in many ways, but the orthodox parties needed to step back and take a look at what underlies those scriptural categories.. also the whole controversy with open theism & the classical concept of God needs to be settled both philosophically as well as with scripture – and i think open theism wont stand a chance on either ground.. anyways, just some thoughts..

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