IS PHILOSOPHY "BAD" FOR CHRISTIANS?

Should We All Avoid It - No Matter What??



Perhaps it should not be so, but I often find it amusing when this question comes up. Why? Because the question masks certain great misunderstandings about what philosophy really is. Frankly, a lot of people who ask questions like, 'Should philosophy become involved in Christian teaching?' have never even defined exactly what 'philosophy' is, and they are speaking emotionally. They just know that the apostle Paul warned about human philosophy and that is good enough for them. If Paul did not like it, it must be bad and something to be avoided! So some of these people want something to be thrown out of Christian teaching, although they themselves usually cannot even define it!

We will look at what Paul wrote in a moment, but - first of all - let us define what 'philosophy' is:

Well, like a lot of these words, modern usage has broadened the meaning, but the real meaning is something like this:

'The science or study which tries to account for the phenomena of the universe, with consideration of life, ethics, reason and metaphysics; the general principles underlying such knowledge.'

So, philosophy concerns consideration of what life is all about, it considers questions concerning how men and women can most happily live their lives and what meaning - if any - there is to human life and existence.

Let us be absolutely clear about this: Christianity itself is a philosophy of life!
It claims to have relevance in every area of human existence - bar none. It claims to have the only correct teaching and understanding on morality, ethics, reason, the metaphysical and on science and philosophy themselves. This makes Christianity a pretty all-embracing philosophy!

Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher, dramatist, screenwriter, novelist and critic. He was a leading figure in 20th century French philosophy and would be one of the worst philosophical examples for Christians to ever choose to follow, since he was a commited atheist.

All religions constitute a philosophy of life, as do Marxism, atheism, existentialism, Nietzscheism, nihilism and modern liberalism (by the way, there is a lot of 'dove-tailing' and cross referencing between those examples). Not only is Christianity a very distinct and clear philosophy all on its own, but various philosophies have come along (or even pre-dated Christianity), and offered to contribute to how Christianity should be best understood and applied; Platonism, Augustinianism, Calvinism, Arminianism and Existentialism have done that! Frequently such philosophies have offered insights which have aided our understanding but sometimes their influences have been harmful as well. The truly wise Bible expositor will look at these extraneous philosophies and use or discard according to the principles of the Bible's own philosophy.

To see how these things can work, Existentialism, as applied to biblical teaching, led to Neo-Orthodoxy in Christian theology. Was that all bad? No, I don't think so but it did lead to a few problem areas. Interestingly, the 'grand master' of Neo-Orthodoxy, Karl Barth, seemed to reject that philosophy more and more and to become more wholly biblical as his life proceeded, I think that is encouraging. However, we must keep in mind that the Bible really presents its own philosophy and this is where true believers must stand. But it is in the 'gray areas' of biblical teaching where we would like to know just a little more than scriptural teaching tells us, that extraneous philosophies have offered support; it is also here, of course, that we must be highly discerning!

Now, what did the apostle Paul say about philosophy?

'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.' (Colossians 2:8, NIV).

Notice that Paul talks about erroneous philosophies 'taking one captive' - that is, taking over one's whole life, just as existentialism took over atheists like Camus and Sartre and all logic and reason flew out of the widow. I myself quote this comment of Paul's in my article on modern so-called "Christian counselling" through which Freud and liberal Christianity is now infiltrating evangelical churches. See Christian Counselling Courses; Are They Just Fine?

Paul is saying that we must hold on to Jesus Christ as absolutely central in everything which we do and believe. If and when we use the tools of non-biblical philosophy we should only do it with utmost discretion. However, to simply read a little philosophy is hardly doing wrong, in fact, all writers who seek to address the modern human condition, and to use this as a base for evangelism, must know a little of the major philosophies in order to be prepared for the various questions which will certainly travel in their direction.

I am a little amused that the American Christian writer/theologian who made this most recent call for Christians to separate themselves from philosophy has himself used a lot of philosophy in his articles (he has mostly used it very well, I may say). But let us be clear about this: Christianity itself is a philosophy; that is, it is a whole belief and theory about what human existence means and about how men and women can live the most happy, contented and meaningful lives upon this earth: that is what Christianity offers! It tells us - without any reserve - what human life is all about and carefully outlines an Eternal God who will demand obedience. In fact, Christianity is the strongest philosophy there has ever been, or ever will be.

The absolutely worst use of philosophy within Christianity would be to use a flawed philosophical approach to overturn the major Christian doctrines. Obviously this happened within the older Liberal Protestantism and still occasionally happens. But the major Christian doctrines are well-outlined biblically and not subject to compromise nor reduction.
Robin A. Brace, 2007.


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