Christian View of Philosophy

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Certain Greek thinkers in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. were the first to call themselves philosophers, literally "lovers of wisdom." Discounting the traditional myths, doctrines, and common sense of the priests and poets of classical Greece, the first philosophers held that the most important questions all human beings need to answer are those concerning social order and the origin, nature, and development of the material world. Their method of approaching these questions included the critical scrutiny of confessedly human theories about the natural order. Alleged revelation from the gods offered by the religious leaders was explicitly repudiated. Not all philosophers since the first ones in ancient Greece have been antisupernaturalists, but they have all been concerned primarily with the most basic questions common to every human being, and they have adopted a method which tries to be critical of every assertion and the assumptions behind it.

Focusing on the most fundamental and general issues facing mankind, philosophers traditionally have attempted to synthesize all knowledge into a coherent, consistent system. No scientist or group of scientists can accomplish this task, for they are all limited in the scope of their investigations to just parts or certain aspects of the experienced world. The dominance of the scientific method in the modern era has brought with it a skepticism by many, including some scholars in philosophy, about going beyond the methods of science in describing reality. Consequently the synthetic and synoptic function of philosophy is considered less than attainable by some philosophers today.

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More in vogue presently is the other characteristic associated with the philosophers from the time of the ancient Greeks onward, namely, their attempt to be analytical. In this role the philosopher gives leadership in the careful evaluation of the assertions, concepts, assumptions, methods, and conclusions of anyone who claims to be describing reality or prescribing for human behavior.

The Four Types of Philosophical Problems


Distinguishing good reasoning from bad cannot be done scientifically, for the ability to make this distinction is presupposed by all thinkers, scientific or otherwise. The philosophical field of logic seeks to ascertain the principles of the thought patterns one ought to follow if reality is to be reflected adequately or if reality is intentionally not being reflected in one's thought or utterances. Thus logic is the normative discipline of correct reasoning as such.

Theory of Knowledge

Although as important as any area in philosophy, the theory of knowledge, also designated epistemology, has seen surprisingly little progress in moving past the issues raised by the first philosophers over two and a half millennia ago. These issues include the definition, criteria, and sources of knowledge. Equally significant is the question of whether there is a foundational structure of directly known principles of evidence upon which reasoning can be built. Also, there is the problem of deciding on the conditions that must exist for a statement to be true.

Metaphysics and Ontology

The term "metaphysics" was first used to refer to what Aristotle claimed to be "a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature." He distinguished this "science" from all the "so-called special sciences," for none of them dealt "generally with being as being." Although the etymology and traditional use of the term "ontology" makes it a synonym of "metaphysics," its meaning has become narrowed in contemporary philosophy. This constriction began with Immanuel Kant's theoretical separation of reality from the appearance of reality and the limitation of human knowledge to the latter.

Prior to Kant metaphysics was commonly understood as the theoretical grasp of the overall structure of reality. Following Kant's distinction between reality and appearance metaphysics has been seen by many as the dispelling of illusion about what can be known of reality, assuming the human inability to transcend the realm of appearance.

In the analytically oriented philosophy of today's English-speaking world metaphysics amounts to a rigorous examination of the concepts used when referring to the basic categories of being. The term "ontology" is usually preferred, leaving "metaphysics" for the largely discredited speculative account of reality as a whole. By way of contrast, continental European philosophy considers ontology to be the disclosure of the world of appearance which is reality. Many philosophers, however, reject the kantian distinction between appearance and reality by striving to grasp reality as a coherent system toward which human thought is advancing. For them metaphysics is understood in its traditional sense.

Value Theory

The fourth major department of philosophy includes ethics and aesthetics. The primary focus of the study of aesthetics is upon the question of whether beauty is relative to the observer. The answer has a direct bearing on the practical problem of whether standards should be imposed upon the creation, appreciation, and criticism of art works.

Ethics is mainly concerned with the grounds warranting human actions to be judged right or wrong, and persons and events good or evil. Ethicists who take moral statements to be cognitively meaningful and who find an objective basis for ethical values are divided into two standpoints in their theory as to what makes human behavior morally right or wrong. The teleological approach looks for the moral quality of an action in its tendency to bring about an intrinsically good state of affairs. Instances of such states that have been proposed include the greatest pleasure for the largest number of people, the full development of one's potential as a rational being, and the attainment of eternal peace. The competing standpoint is that of deontological ethics, which maintains that the rightness or wrongness of some human actions is not based on the results of those actions. Keeping a promise, for example, is thought right in any situation, because it is one's duty or is commanded by God. Traditionally Christian ethics has had both teleological and deontological elements.

The Christian Attitude Toward Philosophy

The apostle Paul's warning to the Colossian believers is clear: "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ" (Col. 2:8). Such a warning was to be expected in light of what passed for philosophy in Paul's time. But he makes a philosophical assertion himself by continuing in the same passage to point out that in Christ "the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily" and that Christ is "the head of all rule and authority" (Col. 8:9-10). Apparently Paul regarded at least some problems of interest to the philosophers of his day worth addressing. For instance, "Christ" and "the elemental spirits of the universe" are taken by Paul to be alternative answers to a philosophical question he considers important.

Secular philosophers began losing the initiative to Christian thinkers within a few centuries after Paul's death. Indeed, during the thousand years prior to the modern era virtually all European philosophers were Christians. They took seriously the need of providing an interpretation of divine revelation in nature, Christ, and Scripture for a culture built on the framework of the ancient Greek philosophers. The basic questions every human must ask had been so clearly articulated by the Greeks that the Christian philosophers sought to formulate equally cogent answers from the standpoint of God's general and special revelation.

Secular philosophy, often anti-Christian, has regained the leadership in the modern period. The foundational issues with which philosophy deals have not changed, but their specific formulations and proposed solutions in the last few centuries have not always been compatible with Christianity. Hence, there is a great need for the insights and truths of divine revelation to be reestablished as being worthy of philosophical consideration.

This goal of contemporary Christian philosophy cannot be attained apart from the assistance of biblical scholarship and theology, however. Since orthodox Christianity is grounded upon, and intended to be consistent with, the events recorded and interpreted in Scripture, the Christian philosopher must come to understand Scripture as it understands itself. Of particular assistance will be theological interpretations of Scripture limited to the problems dealt with by God's inspired prophets and apostles. The Christian in philosophy will build upon this theological framework but will never supplant it.

Since much has been learned from and about both God's and mankind's creative work since the origin of the human race, the Christian thinker must contemplate more than the problems of concern to the biblical writers. Moreover, in order to encompass as much of God's truth as possible from natural revelation within a comprehensive view of the universe created and sustained by the merciful, loving God of Scripture, the Christian must engage in philosophical speculation. This does not entail an outlook inconsistent with Scripture. Specifically, there is no need to repudiate the miraculous, historical events upon which the Christian faith rests.

A philosopher's synthetic standpoint is not necessarily secular, much less anti-Christian, even though the first philosophy began this way and has largely reverted to this stance in the modern era. All that a Christian must do to pursue philosophy properly is critically to scrutinize the discoveries, insights, and theories that have increased our knowledge of God's universe, and coherently to weave this knowledge into an adequate whole consistent with Scripture. This will involve a consideration, assessment, and evaluation from the scriptural viewpoint of every area of the human quest for knowledge, for control of the environment, for human governance, and for artistic expression.

The Christian philosopher's overriding purpose is to love God with one's entire being, including the mind. In addition, the Christian philosopher desires to assist the theologian in two important ways. One is to provide leadership in developing techniques of rigorous, critical analysis of both cultural and theological assumptions, concepts, and doctrines and their implications. The other line of assistance is in the formulation of a synthetic and synoptic scheme of thought in order that the systematic theologian, particularly, can show Scripture to be relevant to contemporary life and thought. The simple fact that any systematic theologican must adopt a philosophical system makes it crucial that Christian philosophers make available guidance in the selection and use of one consistent with the teachings of Scripture.

S R Obitts
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R. M. Chisholm et al., Philosophy; M. D. Hunnex, Philosophies and Philosophers; H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers; B. L. Hebblethwaite, The Problems of Theology; R. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man; W. Corduan, Handmaid to Theology.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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