Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Value of Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Curiosity, they say, killed the cat. In philosophy, if one is not careful, it can damn the soul. William Halverson, in the opening section of his book on philosophy, links philosophy to curiosity. Curiosity – the desire to understand and to know – lies at the root of all science and philosophy.[1] Human beings are very curious creatures. Our desire to understand and know lies at the very center of who and indeed, what we our. In fact, it is the rational faculties of the human species that separates us from the beasts of the field. Who among us is not curious about the basic questions of life? In one sense, philosophy is the human question to know and understand the mystery of life, of reality.

Everyone does philosophy. Craig says, "Everyone has a philosophy of life. That is not optional. What is optional and, thus, of extreme importance is the adequacy of one's philosophy of life."[2] While I am very sympathetic with Christian leaders and theologians in their concern over the inappropriate use and influence of pagan philosophy within the Christian community, I also understand that it is impossible to avoid the practice of philosophy. 

The Task of Philosophy

The task of philosophy is to understand and organize one's view of life, of reality, into a system that has come to be known as a worldview. The three branches of philosophy are commonly referred to as metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. These areas are explored in an effort to answer the most basic questions of human existence, of knowledge, and of meaning. In short, philosophy seeks to organize a coherent and meaningful way for how we should understand human experience. We call this system a "philosophy of life" or a worldview.

One of the most famous philosophers of all time developed an approach for what might be termed 'the critical task' of philosophy. I am referring to Socrates, of course. "He became famous (or infamous) in ancient Greece for accosting people on the street with inquiries about truth, goodness, knowledge, and many other issues."[3] The Socractic method is one of the most effective methods used to date in the critical thinking process. It is just as valuable for philosophy as it is for science as it is for theology. The critical task then of philosophy is to ask questions in search of the truth. "The critical task of philosophy is to question truth claims whenever they may be put forth – to ask, so to speak, by what right this or that belief is to be accorded a place in the fund of human knowledge."[4] The idea that we should not ask questions about any truth claims should strike any rational person as odd. Every truth claim must stand up to the scrutiny that it deserves. Otherwise, it looses it's right to stand alongside other truth claims. The critical task of philosophy then is to purge the system of error.

A second task of philosophy then is the constructive task. This is the task of making claims about reality, knowledge, and ethics, about human experience. Halverson writes, "The second task of philosophy – the constructive task – is to develop a picture of the whole of reality, in which every element of man's knowledge and every aspect of human experience will find it's proper place."[5] This task seeks to unify man's knowledge into a cohesive system of thought. What good can come from a system of thought if it is proven to be contradictory? The task of constructive philosophy also seeks to provide for a system of thought by which men can not only think, but also live in this world. For what good is a philosophy of life if it cannot be lived out?

Understanding Philosophy

For good reason, there are a number of Christians that express serious reservations about the idea of the study of philosophy. Far too often, Christian leaders have been guilty of being uncritical of philosophical assertions and have unwittingly mingled pagan thought with divine revelation. The irony is hard to miss, but the fact is that many leaders are found to lean on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle far more than they do Paul, James, and John. For this reason, philosophy has earned a bad reputation in many Christian communities where the Word of God takes preeminence. While I agree that pagan philosophy has no place in biblical theology, I cannot follow my brethren to the point of ridding ourselves of philosophy altogether for the reasons stated above. Philosophy is impossible to avoid. Even the view that all philosophy should be avoided is a philosophical viewpoint. Yes, it may be based on one's theology or on a particular theological interpretation, but nonetheless, it remains that one is doing philosophy when they espouse such views.

One would be hard pressed to convince Solomon that all philosophy was bad. Theological philosophy, biblical philosophy, or Christian philosophy as we might call it, is not evil, nor does it have its roots in pagan philosophy. The real value in philosophy is twofold in my opinion: it's critical nature forces us to be excellent critical thinkers, or what Scripture calls, exercising discernment. Paul says, "He that is spiritual appraises all things."[6] The word, "appraise", means to examine, to judge, to question. 

Christians make a careful examination of all truth claims. This is doing philosophy is the proper sense of the critical task mentioned above. It just happens to be the case that Christian philosophy is anchored in divine revelation. Christian philosophy has as its sole authority the divinely revealed Word of God, and not the wisdom of Plato.

Biblical Philosophy

Once we understand what philosophy actually is, we can begin to understand the value it brings to the Christian life. Philosophy is not ipso facto hostile to the Christian worldview. Christians love wisdom. And the love of wisdom is essentially what it means to do philosophy. When we understand that true philosophy does not lead us to God, but rather is the product of true knowledge of God, we can clear the path for acquiring a better understanding of this wonderful tool and employing it for the glory of God. William Lane Craig admits as much when he says, "Now in one sense, it is theology, not philosophy, which is the most important domain for thought and intellect. As the medieval rightly saw, theology is the queen of the sciences, to be studied as the crowning discipline only after one has been trained in the other disciplines."[7] 
To you O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men. O naïve ones, understand prudence; And O fools, understand wisdom.[8]

Philosophy done theologically, done biblically, in submission to God's Authoritative Word can be of great use and worth to the Christian community. It can make us better thinkers, godly discerners, better apologists and evangelists.


[1] William H. Halverson, A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, 4th ed (New York: Random House, 1981), 3.
[2] William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 11. While I do not agree with Craig's apologetic method, his credentials as a philosopher are impeccable.
[3] Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville, TN: B&​h Publishing Group, 2009), 2.
[4] William H. Halverson, A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, 4th ed (New York, NY: Random House, 1981), 6.
[5]  Ibid (n.d), 7.
[6] 1 Corinthians 2:15 (NASB).
[7] William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 3.
[8] Proverbs 8:4-5 (NASB).

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