A Defense of Philosophy
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2, ESV)
Those who have spent time in the discipline of philosophy often get this response from their friends—”Isn’t that dangerous? Aren’t you learning human wisdom rather than God’s wisdom?”
If this is a fair critique of philosophy, it’s an important one—if this intellectual discipline is dangerous or deceitful, we need to be wary of it. However, if it is helpful in teaching us the truth about God and ourselves, we need to encourage it. Or if it is a mix of dangerous and helpful, we need to learn how best to navigate it. In this article, I’ll look at whether philosophy is a valid study, and what it can teach us.
Before I begin, I should note that most words have several definitions. This kind of ambiguity is the source of many fruitless arguments and misunderstandings. Take, for example, a word that Christians often use: “believe.” What does it mean when Joe says, “I believe in God”? It could mean any of the following:
- a) Joe believes that God exists,
- b) Joe has dedicated his life to God, or
- c) Joe trusts God to bring out the best in a particular situation.
Thus, if we want to talk about belief, we need to say what kind of belief we are talking about, or confusion will result. There are also several definitions of philosophy, and people can often confuse them. I will be using the following definitions:
“Philosophy” is the study or discipline of using human reasoning to understand abstract truths, to evaluate worldviews and ways of thinking. This discipline has created a conversation that spans generations, where people today evaluate the ideas of people who lived long ago.
“A philosophy” is a worldview that includes certain beliefs and ways of thinking.
The two are closely linked—philosophy is used to evaluate individual philosophies. But to make this simpler, I will usually call “a philosophy” “a worldview,” and keep the word “philosophy” for the process or study.
The Principles of Logic
Now that we have defined philosophy, there are some foundational principles that we need to lay. Our first principle has to do with the nature of God and of His universe.
Scripture tells us that God does not contradict himself. God is entirely good, without a shade of evil in him. Paul says that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) and that he is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33). James calls God “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17, ESV). John says that the true message about God, given to all Christians is “that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:5,6, ESV).
In three of these passages, the authors put this important fact about God at the very beginning of their message, so that no one for a moment would assume that God will contradict himself.
Since God inspired and revealed Scripture, it is like God in that its message does not contradict itself either. If we found contradictions in the teachings of Scripture, we would have no certainty as to what to do based on that message. People often point to little details in Scripture that are sometimes difficult (though not impossible) to reconcile, but, in any case, the entire message of Scripture is clearly unified. Every book of the Bible contributes to the uncontradictory story of God. And even when we seem to see a contradiction, we know that it cannot be a contradiction, and we need to take a closer look at the passage.
Furthermore, since God is the standard for what is true and right, true things cannot contradict each other. There can never be a situation in which a statement and the negation of that statement are both true.
For example, if a bowl contains apples, it cannot contain no apples at the same time. If a car is in motion, it cannot be standing still at the same time. Of course, there are situations where something is true in one sense and false in another. A man in a moving car can look at his wife in the passenger’s seat and say, “She’s not moving,” and at the same time, a person on the street, looking in, can say, “She is moving, as is the car.” However, we see that the statements do not contradict, because they are about two different things—two different relationships between objects.
This principle is called the law of non-contradiction, and it is absolutely important for discovering any kind of truth. We couldn’t be sure of any fact if the opposite could also be true at the same time.
The second principle I want to lay down is that truths are deeply interconnected. Since God made all things, every statement that is true about a thing tells us something about God. For example, I can look at a flower and say, “It’s so beautiful and symmetrical!” From this, I could infer that God values beauty and symmetry. I can look at Scripture, which is inspired by God, and see that it says that God is the greatest of beings. And I can trust that there is some relationship between these two facts: a) God values beauty and b) God is the greatest of beings. I might suggest that the present connection is that God is beautiful, and that he values beauty because it is a reflection of his ultimate beauty.
What if, on the other hand, we see a dead animal? What might that tell us about God? It would tell us that God allows good things to come to an end. From this point, and from the point that God is the greatest of beings, we can infer that God can make powerfully good things come even through death. These truths relate together, none of them contradicting, and each of them telling us more about the same things.
My point is not so much that these conclusions are true, but that it is right to draw conclusions of this nature. If people disagree with the conclusions that I have come to, they will argue that, “No, the conclusion doesn’t follow, because of such and such.” And each “because” statement relates two statements, a cause and an effect, and thus relates the statements in a different way. But the relation is always there, even if I’m confused as to what the relation is.
A Conclusion from the Principles
If everything that is true is non-contradictory and there are relationships between truths, then we can find out new truths through logical inquiry. The word “logic” is used to mean many things to people, but here I use it to mean that everything that is true conforms to a pattern laid down by God’s Logos, his creative power in Jesus. The whole universe and the entire spiritual world operate within boundaries that God has set, and logic, as I’m defining it, is the prescribed order of all things that God has written into the universe. Logic belongs to God. Just as 1+1 is never 3, anywhere in the universe or in the spiritual realm, something cannot be both true and false, anywhere in the universe or in the spiritual realm. God’s character dictates that.
What I don’t mean by saying that logic is the order of all things is that everything will make sense to human beings. Just because everything is logical does not mean that everything is rational or reasonable. If something is rational or reasonable, that means that it can be understood by a thinking mind.
We see this distinction between logic and reason clearly in Scripture as well. Paul says
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor 1:20-25, ESV)
Here, Paul points out that what makes sense to God is often inaccessible to mankind, who think that it is weakness and foolishness. We know that it is not—we know that according to true logic, God’s wisdom makes perfect sense. But according to human reasoning, it is incomprehensible. God thinks of things as they are, and they make sense to him. But we think of things as they appear, and they sometimes make sense to us, and sometimes not. God has a logic behind the universe, one that is sometimes but not always accessible to mankind.
God Calls Us to Think
God could have created the universe so that the order behind it is inscrutable to humans. Instead, he has made so that we can access this order at times, and he even calls us to do so. In the Scriptures, God calls us not only to listen to his logic, but also to think clearly according to what he has given us. In Isaiah, God calls us to “reason together” with him about the mysteries of his atonement (1:18). James says that the wisdom from above to which God calls us is “open to reason” (3:17). Furthermore, the entire book of Proverbs calls us to get wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.
After all, the ability that we have for reasoning is from God. He gave us eyes to see and ears to hear, and he commands us to use those abilities for good purposes—even though our eyes and ears are not always right. Is it possible that he would make us able to think if we were not to do so? Of course, we don’t always think rightly—we make many mistakes—but the gifts that God gives are not so easily destroyed that we can just assume that we are completely incapable of any kind of valid reasoning.
Furthermore, there are many examples in history of people reasoning to the truth. Some of the ancient Greek philosophers arrived at many good conclusions. For example, Plato recognized that there is a source of good that is above all other things, at the same time realizing that many of his culture’s religious stories had to be wrong, since no true God would do the evil things in those stories (Republic 377c-378a). Though he never came to a full knowledge of monotheism, he at least knew that any true God must be good, and that the highest of all things is the paradigm of goodness. Paul also quotes Greek philosophy at the Areopagus—things that are true of God that even some pagans had learned: “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28).
Now, this is certainly not to say that we are never warned to be careful in using our rational faculties. Paul tells us to “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8). Also, he tells Timothy to “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1 Tim 6:20, 21). This warning is an important one, since we can easily convince ourselves that our worldviews are correct, and conclude terrible things. But does this mean that the humans who think these things are following logic? Certainly not. Men may reason their way into “exchang[ing] the truth about God for a lie” (Rom 1:25), but we see this as a flaw in thinking, rather than thinking correctly. We never argue that Arius or Calvin or Mary Baker Eddy were actually logically following the truth that God wrote into the world and into the Scriptures. We realize that they were illogical—that they made mistakes in reasoning because they failed to be committed to the truth about God. We do not suggest that logic failed, or that God structured his universe in order to deceive people.
Similarly, these verses do not suggest that we should not think, but instead suggest that we should think in accordance to God’s revelation. The verse from Colossians says that we should avoid philosophy which is according to humans and according to the spirits that hold our world in bondage. Instead, we should practice thought which follows after Christ. To Timothy, as quoted above, Paul in fact encourages right thought, saying that we need to flee from worldviews with contradictions—worldviews that are false knowledge, rather than true. To discover whether they are right or wrong, we need to follow true knowledge.
What these verses do suggest, with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, is that we must take every thought captive for our King (2 Cor 10:5). And as Proverbs argues again and again, we need to begin in wisdom via “the fear of the Lord.”
And this is really the point. We can and must fear that our own whims might cloud our reasoning, just as we fear that our impatience and selfishness would mar our relationships. But instead of cutting ourselves off from all human relationships because we will never have perfect relationships, we choose to live out our relationships, praying continually for humility and guidance. In the same way, we must continue to think, praying for God’s impartial wisdom in the Spirit.
Furthermore, thinkers need to check and recheck our interpretations, not coming to hasty conclusions. We check every spirit against the gospel of God, ensuring that we are not led astray (1 John 4:1). We see whether the Scriptures corroborate or contradict our findings, and many times we will cast down our conclusions and begin again from the beginning, seeking the knowledge of God.
God is seeking to know us, and he will not turn away one who loves him. Philosophy certainly has its failings. However, it is a search after God’s truth, and we can trust that God will reward the one who diligently seeks him.