It was the Church Father Tertullian who famously asked, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ He meant that human philosophy has nothing in common with the revealed faith of Christianity. In this he merely echoed the sentiments of the apostle Paul some 150 years previously.
The Colossian church was plagued by a heresy that was a hydran mixture of philosophy (human wisdom) mysticism (human spirituality) and Judaism (human religiosity). Paul writes to the church to attack this hydra’s three malevolent heads. The first of these is philosophy. Paul is adamant that human philosophy has no place in Christian faith.
Col 2:8-10 (ESV)
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. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
This is the only direct reference to philosophy in Scripture and it is hardly positive. Elsewhere Paul speaks pejoratively of the ‘wisdom of this world’ which presumably includes philosophy, especially as the wisdom he refers to is specifically Greek.
I find it strange that some commentators (by no means all) claim that Paul’s disparaging of ‘philosophy’ has no reference to Greek philosophy or philosophy generally, but merely to ideas current in C1 cults and mystery religions. It may well be to these cults that Paul refers (though this is by no means certain), however, even if this is so, the ideas current in these cults were simply drawn from the wider philosophical milieu. The theosophic (gnostic) speculation Paul denounces, that matter was intrinsically evil and therefore the body should be denied in aspiring to spiritual enlightenment, has a clear straight line to the major Greek platonic philosophies that denigrated the material world associating it with lesser gods or demiurge. Paul pulls the feet from this Hellenistic dualism when he says of Christ, ‘in him dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily‘; incarnation makes a mockery of platonic wisdom.
We should not doubt that Scripture does not look on human philosophies benignly. They are part of the world that crucified Christ. Pilate’s plaque above the cross was in Greek, as well as Latin and Aramaic; the cross is the moral measure of human wisdom. Had the rulers of this world true wisdom they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8). God, in the cross, destroyed the wisdom of the wise (1 Cor 1:19). He exposed it for the empty vain thing it is. The Lord knows that the wisdom of the wise is futile (1 Cor 3:20). He revealed too its intrinsic animosity to himself since it indicts God’s wisdom in the cross as foolishness (1 Cor 1:22,23). Human learning (in itself a good thing) is corrupt because it is the product of a world hostile to God and blinded by the god of this world; can a bad tree produce good fruit? Human wisdom springs from death and can only produce death; it arises from darkness and can only result in darkness. It is little different from false religion. It has no route to God and sheds no light on God.
Nowhere is the mind independent of God more obvious than in philosophical pursuit. Philosophy is the pursuit of understanding (wisdom) apart from divine revelation. The venture is from the outset rebellious folly destined to fail. It assumes the capability of autonomous reason to arrive at truth and does not submit to God’s truth. It is intellectual hubris. Little wonder Paul associates philosophy with ‘vain deceit’.
And it is vain in both senses of the word (futile and self-regarding). Ancient Greece with its extolling of human reason is considered the cradle of civilization. The humanism that tells us ‘man is the centre of all things’ finds its philosophical roots there. In human reason the ascent of man was believed to lie. Philosophy and learning was and is considered refining and elevating. Philosophy, it was claimed, enabled one to rise above the moral degeneracy of the age. The trouble is the philosophers themselves all too often gave the lie to this. They judged the morality of others yet did the same things themselves (Roms 2:1). Moreover the philosophical assumption that matter was evil produced all kinds of lascivious behaviour. Education makes clever people, not good people, and certainly not holy people.
Paul is clear, the only wisdom that elevates the human spirit above itself and empowers for godliness is the risen reigning Christ. In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (not in philosophy). We are elevated and enriched when we set our minds on things above where Christ is (Col 3:1,2). Neither Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hume, Voltaire, Camus, nor whoever, is the wisdom of God: Christ alone is the wisdom of God. None of these add a whit to him nor to what believers have in him: we are complete in Christ. Philosophy does not commend, compliment or complete Christ; it corrupts Christ. It flows from a different stream altogether.
This truth, however, is not universally recognised. Over the centuries Christians have argued whether philosophy and the Christian faith were friends or enemies. Some like Tertullian rightly saw it as an enemy, others, like Augustine of Hippo, as a friend. Where philosophy was treated as a friend syncretism and confusion soon followed (Augustine tried to synthesize Greek and Hebrew thought). Why not make the scandal of the cross more agreeable to the wise and great? Why not engraft to the Galilean faith the common sense of Aristotle or the wisdom of Plato? The Middle Ages show what a disaster such a venture was. Soon philosophy buried the gospel; human reasoning and biblical faith have nothing in common around which to unite so one must occlude the other. Philosophy caters to human pride while the message of the cross crushes it. Faith repudiates philosophy, not only as a rival but as an ally; it rests only on God’s Word; it accepts that Word as absolute and exclusive. Yet today, our universities again side with Augustine and indeed go further. Theology and philosophy are often the same faculty. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes in 2002,
In the last forty years, however, philosophers of religion have returned to the business of theorizing about many of the traditional doctrines of Christianity and have begun to apply the tools of contemporary philosophy in ways that are somewhat more eclectic than what was envisioned under the Augustinian or Thomistic models. In keeping with the recent academic trend, contemporary philosophers of religion have been unwilling to maintain hard and fast distinctions between the two disciplines. As a result, it is often difficult in reading recent work to distinguish what the philosophers are doing from what the theologians (and philosophers) of past centuries regarded as strictly within the theological domain. Indeed, philosophers and theologians alike are now coming to use the term “analytic theology” to refer to theological work that aims to explore and unpack theological doctrines in a way that draws on the resources, methods, and relevant literature of contemporary analytic philosophy. The use of this term reflects the heretofore largely unacknowledged reality that the sort of work now being done under the label “philosophical theology” is as much theology as it is philosophical.
This is profoundly worrying for the future. It means all Christian theology is approached from a humanistic perspective and not as divine revelation; Athens has captured Jerusalem. What kind of theological training will our best evangelical minds receive in our universities? How far will evangelical colleges and seminaries eager for academic recognition and accreditation capitulate to this paradigm? Does Evangelical theology (a theology submissive to revelation) have a future? I fear the collapse of faith will be profound. (See comment by John Frame here.)
Alongside this marriage, aiding and abetting, is the popular evangelical slogan that ‘all truth is God’s truth’. Its roots are Augustinian though it was popularised in a book of the same title by Christian philosopher Arthur F Holmes. As someone wrote of Holmes,
Throughout his writings and career, Holmes emphasized that, indeed, “all truth is God’s truth.” His desire was for Christians to not shy away from the difficult questions that may arise from whatever subject of academic study they choose. With a firm belief that any truth they find can be reconciled with their faith, Holmes challenged educators and Christians in academia to grapple with what they are interested in, noting that a strong faith can handle some turbulence while coming to a better understanding of God’s creation.’
However, Holmes’ statement, while from a philosophical perspective true is from a biblical perspective untrue. It is untrue for its definition of truth is not biblical. We should be clear that Scripture views truth as EXCLUSIVELY special revelation. God’s Word alone is truth. Indeed, Christ alone is the truth. He is not part of the truth but the whole. There is no truth missing in Christ that needs supplemented by philosophy.
Further, truth, biblically considered, is unitary. It is a whole. Truth is either ‘truth’ or ‘the truth’, it is never ‘a truth’. It is a revelation of things as they really are and as they are in relation to each other. Thus Christ reveals God as he really is. He reveals humanity as it really is (humanity’s true state is exposed at the cross). But Scripture never calls the wisdom of the world ‘truth’, far less ‘the truth’. Rather the wisdom of the world (whatever it may be) and the wisdom of God always stand in opposition. In fact, the world is opposed to truth in its biblical sense. In hatred, it crucified the one who spoke truth and was the embodiment of truth. Jesus said,
John 8:42-47 (ESV)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
The whole world lies in the evil one who is the father of lies; it loves lies and hates the truth. It will not come to the light because its deeds are evil (Jn 3:19). It cannot receive the Spirit because he is the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17). Truth in Scripture is ever a spiritual reality, revealed to spiritual people by the Spirit.
1Cor 2:2-14 (ESV)
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
It is blasphemy to suggest that those who hate the truth can complete the truth that God himself declares He has already revealed in its completion in Christ through his Spirit. The natural man receives not the things of God. Only he that is of God hears God’s words (John 8:47). Philosophy and human learning give no spiritual insight, they cannot, they are ‘of the world not the Father’. Mere factual knowledge that is true is not truth in any biblical sense of the word. Holmes, in his bid to marry philosophy and faith deferred to a philosophical definition of truth rather than a biblical one. This is a parable in itself; when united, philosophy will always trump revelation.
I understand why Holmes argued as he did. He wished to make it easier for Christians to engage positively in the various disciplines of learning. However, by adopting this ‘philosophical’ definition of truth (opposed to the revelatory definition) he fostered (unwittingly) an engagement with learning which is not nearly critical and suspicious enough. I am by no means suggesting that Christians must not engage in the learning process or that they ought not study philosophy (see here for helpful advice for those who do). Daniel was skilled in all the learning of Babylon. Paul was clearly well-educated. Providentially, God in his goodness has allowed knowledge to flourish. Developing human knowledge was always part of his creational intent (Prov 25:2). Thankfully, conscience prevents human reasoning and thinking degenerating as far as it may otherwise do (although fallen reason is always trying to neutralise conscience). Human learning is valuable in many ways but only when we know its limits and its nature. I am not suggesting that we despise knowledge.
What I am suggesting is that we must engage in education convinced of a clear divide between human learning and biblical truth. We ought not to attempt to marry the two or blur distinctions. Nor should we consider human learning innocuous and value-free. Its source insists otherwise. We should approach it with our antennae well-attuned. We should never be enthralled by it, beguiled by it, or in love with it; a critical mind and vigilance is vital. Christ, not human learning, is the object of the Christian’s love and captivation. Christ, who is foolishness to the world, for the believer is the truth that elevates, frees, feeds, matures and thralls.
If our faith is philosophically-focussed rather than Christ-focussed we are losing touch with the head. I have known a number of people who love Christian philosophy and apologetics They enjoy debate, reflection, reasoning, and speculation. They love Augustine or Thomas or Kierkegaard or Tillich or Lewis or Ellul or Schaeffer but sometimes it’s not clear they love Christ and what Paul calls ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’ (Eph 4:21). Philosophy is not Christ and to love abstractions is not to love Christ; Christ is a person seated in heaven on whom the eyes of faith are fixed.
In conclusion, philosophically (wisdom-perspective-wise) our world aind its learnng is opposed to God and cannot be otherwise. If anyone thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. Our faith is at every point an affront to human wisdom, is spiritually independent of it, and complete in Christ without it. Philosophy belongs to the world not Christ. Let Paul’s words, quoted at the commencement of this post, be the final word.
Col 2:8 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive [kidnaps you] by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.