How Philosophy Relates to the Bible

Philosophy is feared by many Christians, especially as they heed the Apostle Paul’s warning concerning a false religion tempting an early Christian fellowship:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:6-8).

Paul did apologetics and preached to the Athenian philosophers, so it is unlikely that he is condemning all philosophy (Acts 17:16-34). Our passage makes clear that Paul is drawing a contrast between a false philosophy about Christ and the gospel. He adjures his readers not to be ensnared by false and deceptive philosophy, not philosophy itself. Paul even quoted two Greek thinkers to make his case. If the Bible does not foreswear all philosophy, how might this ancient discipline be brought to bear on the Holy Scriptures. But what is a philosopher? I wrote this in On Jesus:

I propose that the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a philosopher (whether good or bad, major or minor, employed or unemployed) are a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning, and to do so with some intellectual facility.

These philosophical matters are, in broad categories, metaphysics (the study of what is), epistemology (how do we know?), and axiology (the theory of value, moral or otherwise).

C. S. Lewis wrote in “Learning in War Time” that “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Good philosophers should employ good philosophy. How might good philosophy contribute to the mission of God in the world? Good philosophy ought to be articulated by good philosophers.

First, philosophy contributes to Christian apologetics. Most of the best apologists today are those with philosophical educations. Philosophy at its best disciples the mind to think critically about ideas by giving and analyzing arguments, understanding argument forms (deduction, induction, and abduction) defining terms, and understanding the history of ideas—all necessary for defending the Christian worldview as objectively true, compellingly rational, and pertinent to the whole of life.

Second, philosophical categories elucidate concepts in Scripture. One should never impose an alien philosophy on the Bible (as many now do with postmodernism), but rather use ideas to bring out biblical themes. For example, the Gospels do not articulate moral theory in philosophical terms. Yes Jesus’ teachings, when considered in terms of meta-ethics, deontology, virtue theory, and consequentialism, yield significant insights, as I argue in On Jesus, “The Ethics of Jesus.”

Third, philosophical acumen should inform and inspire exegesis and theologizing. Theologians like Karl Barth to the contrary, sound reasoning according to the canons of fundamental logic open up the Bible’s truth as found through interpretation and theology. Even more, knowing about non-philosophical systems—such as Hegelianism and Marxism—alerts us to ways in which the Bible can be twisted to serve ungodly ends (See 2 Peter 3:16).

Fourth, philosophy aids us in applying common grace to our worldview. Common grace pertains to the gifts God gives to those who do not follow him, including what is true in non-Christian worldviews. In the debate between realism and non-realism, an atheist philosopher such as John Searle gives the Christian sound arguments against a position that opposes the very notion that objective truths exist and may be known. See his work, The Construction of Social Reality. “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” written by Arthur Leff, is perhaps the most cogent article on meta-ethics that I have read, even though his (inconsistent) conclusion does not affirm God as the basis of morality.

Books without end have been written on philosophy’s relationship to the Bible. I hope that this short essay stimulates wise thinking for those who want to follow the Apostle Paul’s example:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

4 thoughts

  1. “Paul did apologetics and preached to the Athenian philosophers, so it is unlikely that he is condemning all philosophy (Acts 17:16-34)”–>
    I’m not sure why the conclusion of “so it is unlikely that he is condemning all philosophy” could be drawn, as it could simply be the case that Paul preached to “bad guys” (just like what we are taught nowadays) and I think in the chapter, there is no mention about “all” philosophy and Paul also didn’t give any positive comment on philosophy.

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