In a sense I must apologize for presuming to write an article concerning philosophy since I am no philosopher, nor have I studied much philosophy, nor do I have much appreciation for the whole subject of philosophy. At the same time, however, I have given some time to answer for myself the question — “What is philosophy and what place may it have in the life of the child of God?” The reason, then, that I write this article is out of a hope that our readers may be benefited by it and deepened in their desire to make the Word of God their only rule for faith and life.
Part of the problem in understanding the subject of philosophy is getting a clear hold on the meaning of the concept. The word “philosophy” is used in so many ways with so many shades of meaning. The first and most basic meaning can be derived from the root idea of the word. The word “philosophy” literally means love of wisdom. Secondly, we can get a glimpse of the idea of the meaning of “philosophy” from the fact that originally philosophy involved itself in a study of being as being, that is, of the existence of matter and of man and of all things. It inquired into the ultimate cause of all things and asked “what is the purpose and destiny of all things.” Thirdly we may notice that later philosophy concerned itself with the application of accumulated knowledge to the problems of man. In the fourth place, in our attempt to ascertain the meaning of philosophy, we should also notice that the term “philosophy” is used to denote the underlying principles of any discipline or field of study, for example, the philosophy of education.
A factor that adds still more confusion to the whole subject of philosophy is that there is a true philosophy and a false philosophy. In each one of the above stated uses of the term “philosophy” we need not condemn them all as false, but ask the question, “Is the reference to true philosophy or false philosophy?”
In order to determine what is true philosophy and what is false philosophy we must turn to the Scriptures. Many times both in the Old and the New Testament Scriptures we read of wisdom. Since philosophy is the love of wisdom we must look more closely at the idea of wisdom in the Scriptures. Both in Psalm 111:10 and inProverbs 9:10 we read “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Notice that wisdom is connected with the fear of the Lord. The only way, then, to enter into wisdom’s way is by the way of the fear of the Lord. The implication is that without the fear of the Lord there is no true wisdom. This Word of God gives us the criterion by which we must determine whether or not a philosophy is true or false. A love for wisdom that proceeds out of the fear of the Lord is true philosophy; on the other hand, a love for wisdom that does not proceed out of the fear of the Lord is false philosophy.
In the context of Colossians 2:8 the apostle Paul teaches the Colossians that in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He also tells them that “as ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.” Paul warns the Colossians in 2:8 to “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit . . .” Christ is presented by the inspired apostle as the ground and fountain of all wisdom and knowledge. Christ Jesus is the object to which the faith and love of God’s people must be directed. The people of God are instructed to be philosophers in the sense that they love Christ who is the wisdom of God. It is obvious from Colossians 2:8 that when the apostle Paul warns the Colossians against philosophy that he warns them against false philosophy. That this is true is seen from the fact that in verse eight philosophy is further described as “vain deceit,” that is, that philosophy is empty and misleading.
The word “philosophers” appears in Acts 17:18 in the context of which the apostle Paul is disputing with the Jews in Athens, a city wholly given to idolatry. In verse eighteen, we read “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection.” Now we cannot say that all philosophy is condemned by the Scriptures, but we can certainly say that all false philosophy stands condemned. We must notice in that connection that philosophy as a whole stands in a very unfavorable light from its use in Scripture. In both its occurrences philosophy stands as the antithesis of the truth.
Philosophy in the commonly understood sense of the word, that is, the use of man’s reason in the service of man, and to the glory of man stands opposed to the revelation of the truth of God in Christ Jesus. Philosophy in that commonly understood sense did not have its beginning in the Church. Rather philosophy established its principles and mode of operation outside the Church and apart from the Word of God.
Even though it is true that philosophy stands opposed to the truth of God, nevertheless, it has always been closely connected with religion. The reason for that undoubtedly comes from the fact that both philosophy and theology have involved themselves with very similar subjects. The object of the study of both philosophy and theology are the so-called basic issues of life; the origin, purpose and destiny of all things. The similarity between the two disciplines stops there, however. The basic questions of life; in the case of theology, are answered simply and clearly through the revelation of God in His Word. On the other hand, in the case of philosophy there have been almost as many answers given as there are men to give them. Philosophy, therefore, is clouded with confusion because it did not begin in the fear of the Lord, and cannot and will not arrive at the true answers to life’s most basic questions.
Philosophy is, practically, the religion of the unbelieving scholar. He bends all his efforts in the seeking of a solution to the problems of man. He does that, however, apart from the objective authority of the Word of God. Man, to him, is the measure of all things. This can also be seen from an evaluation of a late professor of philosophy at Yale University, G. T. Ladd.
For “first philosophy” investigates being as being; it inquires into the first principles and ultimate causes of things; and thus it renders possible the knowledge of that absolute principle which presupposes nothing more ultimate than itself. The peculiar characteristics of philosophy are thus held to be its certainty, universality, independence, supremacy and a kind of divine character. This last characteristic makes it worthy of honor even by Deity itself. (1)
That philosophy is the religion of philosophers can further be seen by the quasibiblical quote from the seventeenth philosopher Frances Bacon. “Seek ye first the good thing of the mind and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will be felt.” (2)
The truth is that philosophy is vain deceit. Philosophers are men who are ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. The worldly philosopher is supposedly seeking truth through wisdom but through their wisdom they do not arrive at the knowledge of the truth of God as it is contained in the Scriptures.
Since philosophy and theology are so similar in subject matter and yet so diverse and opposite in their approach and conclusions the question may be asked “Can a Christian be a philosopher or study philosophy?”
My answer to that question is that a Christian may study philosophy, but he may not be a philosopher. To be a philosopher implies that one adopts the approach and the basic rules of operation of men without the fear of the Lord. This, of course, a Christian may not do. He must begin, proceed and conclude in the fear of the Lord, and then he can be sure that he is in the way of wisdom, the love of which is true philosophy.
A Christian may, however, profitably study philosophy. We must explain, however, that a study of philosophy is not necessary in order to come to a complete understanding of the truth of God. Nor must we think that one who has studied philosophy has a private insight into the truth. The Bible is entirely adequate to make us wise unto salvation. Nevertheless a study of philosophy can aid one in the understanding of history and of the influence that philosophy has had on the church. Calvin says in that connection “And I do not forbid those who are desirous of learning to study them (the philosophers).3) In another place Calvin writes
All philosophers were ignorant of this transformation, which Paul calls “renewal of the mind’
For they set up reason alone as the ruling principle in man, and think that it alone should be listened to . . . But the Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit so that the man himself may no longer live but hear Christ living and reigning within him
While there is place for the study of philosophy in the life of a Christian, at the same time a warning must be issued regarding the dangers and pitfalls involved. “Beware lest any men spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit . . .”
Philosophy and theology have always been closely connected. Especially was that true in the Middle Ages when philosophy was considered by the “theologians” to be their handmaid, and logical argumentation, their sword and lance. This mixture of philosophy and theology was called Scholasticism.
The Schoolmen used all the forces of logic and philosophy to vindicate the orthodox system of theology, but they used much wood and straw in their constructions, as the sounder exegesis and more scriptural theology of the Reformers and these later days have shown.5)
Philosophy has continued to have an influence in the Church; an influence that has not been good; an influence that tends to lead men away from the truth of the Gospel, and into the empty and deceptive pitfalls of false philosophy. Today more than ever is the grave warning of the Word of God to be heeded. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit . . .” Lay hold upon the truth of the Word of God and the truth shall make you free.
1) “Philosophy”, Encyclopedia Americana, 1949 ed., vol. 21, p. 769
2) Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiafum VIII, 2, quoted by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1927, intro. p. 2
3) Calvins Institutes, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 19601, book I, Chapter XV, section 1, p. 690 4) ibid, book III, chapter VII, section 1, p. 690 5) Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 19671, Vol. 5, p. 590