September 29, 2016

Biblical objections to philosophy?

"Still Life with Bible" by Vincent van Gogh (1885)
By Hendrik van der Breggen

The Carillon, September 29, 2016

Biblical objections to philosophy? 

Let's examine four “biblical” objections to Christian philosophy. We'll see that they fail.

Objection 1: 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.”

Reply: The focus here is philosophy that's hostile to truth. Christ is the Truth and Logos, and the Logos is the Word/ Rational Foundation of the universe. This verse doesn’t preclude philosophy founded on Christ.

Objection 2: Philosophy emphasizes reason, but the Fall makes human minds incapable of knowing truth via reason.

Reply: This exaggerates the Fall's effects.

Philosopher J. P. Moreland: “The fall damaged but did not destroy the image of God in us. Our reasoning abilities are affected but not eliminated. This can be seen in the fact that the writers of Scripture often appeal to the minds of unbelievers by citing evidence on behalf of their claims, using logical inferences in building their case, and speaking in the language and thought forms of those outside the faith.”

Objection 3: Isn't Paul against philosophy, in Corinthians?

1 Cor. 1:20-21: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

1 Cor. 2:1-5: “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.... My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.”

Reply: Context is needed.

Moreland: “if [this passage] is an indictment against argumentation and philosophical reason, then it contradicts Paul's own practices in Acts and his explicit appeal to argument and evidence on behalf of the resurrection.... The passage is better seen as a condemnation of the false, prideful use of reason, not of reason itself....”

Moreland adds: “The passage may also be a condemnation of Greek rhetoric. Greek orators prided themselves in possessing ‘persuasive words of wisdom,’ and it was their practice to persuade a crowd of any side on an issue for the right price. They did not base their persuasion on rational considerations, but on speaking ability, thus bypassing issues of substance. Paul is most likely contrasting himself with Greek rhetoricians.”

Moreland adds: “Paul could also be making the claim that the content of the gospel cannot be deduced from some set of first principles by pure reason. Thus, the gospel of salvation could never have been discovered by philosophy, but had to be revealed by the biblical God who acts in history. So the passage may be showing the inadequacy of pure reason to deduce the gospel, not its inability to argue for the truth.”

Objection 4: Reason judges God.

Reply: Nope.

Philosopher Tim McGrew: “Though the Bible offers us salutary warnings about the dangers of an overweening confidence in our own intellectual abilities or the scope of our knowledge, neither Scripture nor a sound systematic theology affords the slightest ground for despising reason itself. And this is as it should be. For without reason, we would be at a loss to adjudicate the competing claims of proposed revelations.”

McGrew adds: “Even to talk of adjudicating such claims is to run afoul of some theological critics who object that it is blasphemous to speak of judging the Word of God when we should rather say that the Word judges us. But this is at best a mere play on words. When we are rightly persuaded that a revelation has come from God, we are indeed in no position to pass judgment on the Almighty.”

Biblical, Christ-centred philosophy? Yes! Amen!

“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” – C.S. Lewis

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.

For further reading:

  • J. P. Moreland, "Philosophy," in Opening the American Mind: The Integration of Biblical Truth in the Curriculum of the University, edited by W. David Beck (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991).
  • Timothy McGrew, "Convergence: Philosophy Confirms Christianity," EPS Article Library, Evangelical Philosophical Society (2016).

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