What is 'Philosophy' and How Can It Aid Theology?
Pastor Eric Sneed New Sharon First Christian Church
If you were to use the word 'philosophy' in everyday speech, how someone understands that word seems to greatly depend on the audience in which it's being received. When I first began my formal academic studies (outside of my theology courses), I recall telling some close Christian friends of mine that I was deciding on Philosophy as my academic course and almost all of them responded with something along the lines of, 'Oh no, Eric! Don't do that! You know what the Bible says about that stuff!' A bit perplexed, it was only until later I discovered why they said this.
This rejection of philosophy as a study alongside theology is a very recent phenomenon and seems very exclusive to the American church. In medieval times, philosophy was viewed as a sister discipline to theology and some of the greatest thinkers of church history such as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and others used it to help develop their doctrines. Now, I myself reject Thomistic metaphysics, however I have a great deal of appreciation for these scholastic authors precisely because they developed what they said carefully, thoughtfully, and with great precision using philosophy. Even today, it's difficult to take even an entry-level theology or philosophy course without studying the work of some of these intellectual church giants.
So why then did those friends of mine have such an ardent, adverse feeling towards philosophy? There are two reasons: First, they're interpreting a passage in Colossians 2:8 incorrectly and secondly, they're conflating philosophy with other dangerous, worldly things (like new-age mysticism, which simply is not academic philosophy). Let's turn now to Colossians 2:8 NKJV to read it & do a quick word study:
"Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ."
If we don't study the passage, it's easy to be alarmed at the surface-level issue. The word of God is saying beware of philosophy! How much more do we need, right? Well, if you were my neighbor & I were to tell you to stay away from fences, you may rightly conclude that I want you to keep away from my fencing in my yard. However, in a later conversation, you come to discover that what I meant by staying away from 'fences' was not the wooden fence along our property lines, but rather individuals who partake in selling stolen or illegal goods! What happened here is you had misunderstood the context of the word, leading you to an incorrect belief that I wanted to keep you away from my yard.
In Colossians 2:8, we have this exact same problem. The word 'philosophy' as we use it for the formal, academic study, comes from two Greek words: Philo (meaning 'love of') and Sophia (meaning knowledge). So philosophy simply means 'the love of knowledge' according to the original Greek. Traditionally, this 'love of knowledge' is simply worked out using logic, thanks largely to Aristotle setting the course here. Logic, simply put, is foundational to all thought and simply fleshes out truth from fiction in our own reasoning. Now, verse eight does use the word philosophia in the original Greek here, but where the issue lies is in how that word gets understood. Those familiar with ancient Greek know that its words can be just as versatile and fluid as English words (i.e. the 'fence' example). In our adult Bible study for Philippians, something I've noted in one of our classes is the fact that the Greek word for 'righteousness' used by Paul (or the 'fruit of right living') is a fluid & dynamic word and requires context in order to properly understand how Paul was intending for it to be received. Thus, Greek words, like English, can be used in varying ways to varying ends.
So what does this all mean for Colossians 2:8? Paul himself gives us the contextual answer right in the verse itself: 'Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ'. In other words, Paul is using the fluidity of the Greek word to mean, not the academic study of logic and reason, but rather to warn us, rightly so, against traditions of men and 'principles of the world'. Indeed, the whole context here suggests that we're to avoid being lied to or manipulated! I see no reason to say anything other than 'Amen' here! In the end, Paul is not saying 'don't use philosophical reasoning' or 'don't use logic', but rather, 'don't be deceived by worldly tradition and principles that go against Christ'. This says nothing against the academic pursuit.
How then does philosophy as a discipline aid us in theology? I'll give one example. One of the most hotly debated issues in theology is the issue of salvation, the role of human free-will, and choice. Is God solely the author of salvation or does mankind have a say in whether he gets saved or not? Is the project and decision of salvation purely a work of God (2 Cor. 1:21-22) or does mankind seem to have some say in the matter (Mat. 23:37)? Most of the time, this debate is understood as the 'Calvinism vs. Arminianism' debate, but lately, there's been a rapidly growing third option in seminaries and academic circles: Molinism. Where the Calivinist says God is purely sovereign over salvation and the Arminian says that the grace of God can be resisted and one could lose their salvation, Molinism provides an alternative to these two. Where philosophy comes into play is that Molinism is a rigorous explanation about the 'counterfactuals of creaturely freedom', man's choice, and yet the fact that God is still sovereign over it all. On Molinism, God has knowledge of what truly free creatures would do in a given circumstance and so He is enabled to arrange the world as He sees fit so that the maximum number of free creatures attain salvation both by the work of the Holy Spirit and the individual's choice to accept.
No doubt, this is a big topic that we could spend a lot more time on, but I'll just say this: Soteriology (our doctrine of salvation) is a secondary issue and one need not agree with Molinism, Calvinism, or Arminianism in particular in order to be saved. Perhaps one of these three is true or perhaps all three are false and a fourth is actually true. Whatever the case, Molinism sprang up in popularity precisely because of Christian philosophers picking apart the minute details of scripture and doctrine and arriving at something unique and different. Philosophy has thus aided this ascension to the forefront of Christian thought and will likely continue to do the same with other doctrines.
Lastly, I'll give us something to think about: If we deny the role of philosophy (as the use of reason) in its aid to theology, then those making such a denial are invoking a contradiction: they themselves seek to deny the use of reason with theology, but simultaneously are using reason to do so! If we say 'don't reason about theology', then this itself is reasoning about theology and it will fail its own test. Simply put, I don't think it's possible to be consistent here.
In the end, when we see that the pursuit of reason alongside theology is an aid to fleshing out the great truths of scripture, we'll also see how philosophy is a wonderful tool God has given us to discern that which is true from that which is false and protect ourselves, as Colossians 2:8 says, from empty deceit and traditions of men.