What has Jerusalem To Do with Athens?–The Unnatural Welding of Christianity and Philosophy

In the early years of the Church, Tertullian posed the rhetorical question, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” This question highlighted what Tertullian perceived to be a problem in the early Church, namely the mingling of philosophy (i.e. Athens) with the Scriptures (i.e. Jerusalem). Tuesday night, that question was posed to me, not by a person, but by two hours of the literal wrenching of my gut by my conscience in my Christian Philosophy class. It is not as though the question has not been posed to me before then, but it has never impacted me with such an incapacitating force. The question had my eyes flooding with tears of conviction and confusion as I drove home from class, and it presently has me sitting up typing this instead of sleeping as I would like to do.

I am sure you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Who cares about how Christianity and Philosophy coincide?” To be honest, I would have probably asked those same questions to myself a few months ago or would have at least had a certain apathy toward them, but I believe that our Bible study on Romans 9 has had a much more monumental effect on my convictions than I would have ever dreamed. To give you a taste, I wrote a post that almost directly addresses my present issue with my Christian Philosophy class entitled, “Bounding Our Pursuit of the Knowledge of God.” In it I argued that the sum of our knowledge about God and his ways is to be found in Scripture alone, and to delve outside of Scripture is to delve into wickedness and vanity.

My problem with Christian philosophy is that its base goal is to do just that—to look for answers about God and his Creation that he does not reveal to us in his Word. Most people who pursue it, I believe, are sincere in their efforts and believe that they are glorifying God (which they may be—the jury of my conscience is still debating on the matter), but I do not think that they ask themselves the right questions before that flippantly dive into the mysteries of God with their feeble and corrupt minds.

For the sake of my conscience, I would like to pose some questions that I would like some answers to on this concept of Christian Philosophy:

1. What is the point of Christian Philosophy?1
It seems that among Christian Philosophy’s goals, the most amiable is evangelistic in nature. It was rhetorically asked by one, “Does not God love the heathen and atheist too?” Which implies that Christian Philosophy is the method by which you reach a certain type of people with the Gospel. Which brings me to my next question:

2. Is Christian Philosophy the proper means to evangelize the atheists, etc.?
There seem to be two proof texts that Christian Philosophers use to defend or even demand that their practice be done—one is Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Acts 17:22, and the other is 1 Peter 3:15. In Acts 17, Paul kicks off his preaching of the Gospel to the Areopagus with a reference to the “unknown god” that they worshipped. For this reason, advocates of Christian philosophy claim that Paul knew the culture well before he preached the Gospel, and it was the proper means to present the Gospel to them. Funny thing is, Scripture says, “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship…” (Acts 17:23). Paul must have been a fast learner of culture.

The second is a quotation from 1 Peter 3:15 that says, “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” I am not fully convinced that Peter had Christian philosophy in mind here, but I will grant that for the time being.

3. What is the effect of Christian Philosophy on the atheists, etc.?
Supposing for argument’s sake that a Christian Philosopher discovered a means by which he could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the God of the Bible is the true God and that Jesus Christ is his Son whom he sent to atone for sin and thereby proved that all other world views are wrong, what effect would that have? Would the whole world then become Christian, i.e. regenerated? Of course not, for we know that the Gospel is foolishness to natural men, and natural men will never believe the Gospel apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, this is Christian Philosophy’s greatest dilemma, viz. to make what natural men regard as foolishness become wisdom to natural men apart from the Holy Spirit. Christian Philosophers will deny this of course and say that they depend upon the work of the Spirit, but Spirit does not work apart from or beyond the proclamation of Christ crucified for sinners. It is the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation, not the concocted wisdom and arguments of Christians (cf. Rom. 1:16).

4. Why does our reason, which could not bring us to the right knowledge of God apart from Scripture, now have the ability to bring us to unrevealed truths?

5. Why do Evangelicals need to be esteemed by the Academy?
This seems to be great concern of Christian Philosophers, but I challenge them to give one biblical reason why we should give a rip about what the Academy thinks about Christianity. I think that the moment that Christianity begins to be esteemed by the Academy will be the moment that we throw out the Gospel.

6. Why do we need Christian Philosophy to reach across cultures?
Is not the Gospel universal? Did God do a such a poor job of revealing himself in Scripture that we must pick up his lack with Christian Philosophy?

7. Are the rhetorical questions posited by the Apostle in Romans 9, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” fair game for Christian Philosophy?
I asked my professor, “Should there be boundaries to the knowledge we pursue?” To which he replied, “Why should there be?”

A Warning
Dabbling in the subject of Christian Philosophy seems to be dangerous territory to me, for it essentially says, “God’s Word is not enough.” There might be some realms in which Christian Philosophy might have some God honoring benefit, but I think that it is more likely to make arrogant Christians that preach the Gospel as a last resort than it is to have much benefit. I believe that the student of God’s Word would be much better off to search for his answers in the confines of Holy Scriptures and be content with its declarations.

1- I did in fact pose some questions to my professor which he kindly answered, and I will likely incorporate those answers from time to time.



Categories: Theology

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19 replies

  1. Peter Kreeft says that Philosophy is the Love of Wisdom, Jesus is Wisdom personified, thus Philosophy, done right, leads to Jesus. I tend to agree.

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  2. I guess the question then is, "How do we do philosophy rightly?" And that is a genuine question that I am asking.

    Thanks for the input, Josh. I hope you're well.

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  3. Well, I'd say, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that Philosophy serves us as a handmaiden to Theology. A philosophy done with Theocentric lenses is naturally going to be kept straight. A quick read to see how Philosophy helps us in our understanding of God would be Peter Kreeft's, "Between Heaven and Hell." He writes it as a dialogue between Aldous Huxley (a Pantheist), JFK (a humanist), and C.S. Lewis. It's just over 100 pages and I think shows how Philosophy isn't always in vain (which is, of course, why St. Paul qualifies "philosophy" in Col 2:8 with "vain"…if all philosophy were in vain, such a qualification would be unnecessary).

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  4. Is a theocentric lens synonymous to a Scriptural lens?

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  5. No, because God isn't contained in Scriptures. The Scriptures testify to God, but He's not contained in them (how can the result be greater than the cause?). God existed and was interacting in man's life long before anything was written down. Could one have used their God-enabled reason, compelled by grace, to discover Him? Of course – St. Paul says as much in Romans. This doesn't mean that a theocentric lense is somehow antithetical to Scripture, "?? ???????" as St. Paul would say.

    I see you're still at SEBTS – have you considered speaking with Dr. Ashford or Dr. Spencer about this?

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  6. This is precisely where I break from Christian Philosophy, for I do believe that there does exist a Natural Revelation of God, but that it is only vague (viz. to demonstrate his eternal power and divine nature; cf. Rom. 1:20) and is only sufficient for condemnation. Even if the greatest and most untainted mind were able to perceive through Nature even some core doctrines, e.g. God is triune, Man is enslaved to sin, that keen perception is still not sufficient to save his soul through Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit.

    My question for Christian Philosophy is the same that I asked before, viz. "Why does our reason, which could not bring us to the right knowledge of God apart from Scripture, now have the ability to bring us to unrevealed truths?" Also, I would like to ask, "Why do we need answers to questions about God and his workings apart from Scripture." This question encompasses such mysteries as the supposed "problem of evil" that Scripture seems to intentionally leave blank and even to forbid its pursuit (cf. Rom 9:19, etc.).

    And no, I have not spoken with either of them concerning this. I'm considering speaking to my professor, but I'm not expecting that to go well.

    Grace & Peace

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  7. I think Romans 9:19 answers the problem of evil – "Is there evil with God?" that's an aspect of the problem of evil (though, a simplified form) right there in Scripture. Paul doesn't go into a discourse here on why not, but he does answer it. I also don't see anything in Romans 9 that precludes us from investigating it further.

    And, again, if all Philosophy were evil, Paul's qualification of "vain" Philosophy makes no sense. If it's all vain, that's a needless repetition on Paul's part. (Col 2:8)

    Also, I'm curious as to what you think about Christology. Most of the categories that were used to describe Christ that orthodox Christians have maintained for hundreds of years were given to us by philosophy (person, nature, etc). I'm not saying that Philosophy gave us the ideas about Christ's divinity, but rather provided the categories necessary to assimilate that data and explain it. Do you maintain a Christology that agrees with the statements made at Chalcedon, Ephesus, Nicea, and Constantinople?

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  8. @Josh
    As much as I am sure that I seem to on one side with regards to this issue (which I will admit my bent), I'm genuinely asking questions of myself as well as of others. As for Romans 9, perhaps I might have misinterpreted its meaning, but I will keep my present convictions until convinced otherwise.

    As for philosophical terms, etc. being used in theology, I am not against it per se. I think those categories might be helpful insofar as they remain the hand-maiden to God's Word. My problem begins when philosophy is used to explain things that are not supposedly addressed in Scripture. I have yet to hear a biblical warrant for such a practice, and I would like to hear one.

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  9. As to point #2, Paul didn't learn the culture simply as he walked by. The observation happens while he walks by, not the learning of culture. In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers back to back – the first part of his quote is from Epimenides, the second part is from Aratus. Paul was obviously familiar enough with philosophy that he was able to provide the ready defense.

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  10. @Josh
    I'll grant that my statement there was probably wrong, though Paul could have easily come to the knowledge of that thought without much effort; he was in fact in Greece and speaking Greek. Anyways, I just love how Paul went among the philosophers and preached the Gospel. He definitely didn't take the approach that Rick Warren took in his prayer at the inauguration.

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  11. Do you really think that Paul, walking around, just happened to hear two quotes from poets hundreds of years removed from one another that were germane to his preaching? I believe in Divine Providence, certainly – but Occam's razor seems to cut in the direction of Paul having been trained in philosophy. And he doesn't just bring the Gospel to them as the antithesis of what they already know – he shows how close to the Truth they are. Certainly, this was by God's grace, but – nonetheless, a God-given gift (reason) brought them far enough that Paul, being well-versed in their thought, was able to show how much greater the Holy One of Israel is. I stick with my initial statement: Philosophy, as the love of Wisdom (personified in the person of Jesus Christ), if done right, will lead to Christ.

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  12. Obviously you misunderstood me. Paul lived in a Greek influenced culture and could have very well heard their poets quoted on a daily basis, much like I might hear the garbage that Oprah spouts without ever watching her. Anyways, that is all beside the point. I do not see how you can get a mandate from this narrative concerning the manner by which we are to preach the Gospel. Yes, Paul does quote their writers and incorporates it briefly into his preaching of the Gospel, but (correct me if I'm wrong) I do not see anything else like it in Scripture, especially in the writings of Paul. I actually see in Paul the opposite of that which you're trying to propone, namely "I know nothing apart from the cross" and anything in 1 Corinthians . What you are arguing has exactly the same amount of ground as those who say that Scripture demands that Christians live communally from Acts 2. It's narrative; treat it as narrative.

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  13. I think all I have to show is that understanding philosophy and using it is not prohibited by the New Testament and I think I've done it. Curious that Paul does so with no condemnation. I'm rather skeptical that Paul just picked these things up and was able to quote them word-for-word…this sounds like special pleading. I can't give you any Oprah quotes and she's far more ubiquitous in our culture than Epimenides and Aratus were in Paul's culture.

    I never said learning philosophy was normative (nor would I say living communally is normative) – however, it's certainly not prohibited by Scripture.

    And I think Paul's epistemology in 1 Cor (I'm thinking particularly 1:18-31) is still in line with what I'm saying. Jesus' work on the Cross has opened up a new avenue of knowledge for Paul and a new means of receiving that knowledge. Paul knows other things apart from the cross, he's just using strong rhetorical language (cf. 1:25 – obviously God isn't foolish…).

    I would say that since we have an Apostle who quotes from Greek philosophers in order to advance the Gospel (who else do you imagine would have been trained well enough? The rest of the Apostles didn't receive the education that Paul would have as a Pharisee and as a citizen of Tarsus) and we have no condemnation of doing so, the Gospel is atleast open to the possibility of one using Philosophy. That is, there's no inherent contradiction between philosophy (and how could there be by my definition of what Philosophy is?) and the New Testament.

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  14. I think all I have to show is that understanding philosophy and using it is not prohibited by the New Testament and I think I’ve done it.

    I think you have. And I believe that I agree with everything that you said just then. Especially:

    I would say that since we have an Apostle who quotes from Greek philosophers in order to advance the Gospel (who else do you imagine would have been trained well enough? The rest of the Apostles didn’t receive the education that Paul would have as a Pharisee and as a citizen of Tarsus) and we have no condemnation of doing so, the Gospel is atleast open to the possibility of one using Philosophy.

    Perhaps I have been putting the words of someone else in your mouth the whole time, and if I have, I apologize.

    But let me ask you this: Would you call a preacher of the Word irresponsible if he did not go to great lengths to learn as much philosophy as he could so that he could engage the culture?

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  15. I'm not sure what how great the lengths should be. If anyone doesn't learn Philosophy simply because they dislike philosophy despite its potential in spreading the Gospel, then I imagine there's some level of culpability there. If one just doesn't have time for whatever reason, I don't imagine there's anything wrong with that.

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  16. The reason that I ask that is that I have heard someone (not naming names right now) who said if a pastor did not know philosophy he was not "rightly dividing the Word." In case he thought that we might have misheard him, he said that same thing several times and went so far as to say that, for example, in order for an atheist to come Christ, he must be won over philosophically to theism and then won over to Christianity. For, he said, "The gap between atheism and theism is greater than the gap between theism and Christianity." That did not sit well with me at all.

    I also appreciate your acknowledging that there are only 24 hours in a day. I'm sure you know this from experience, for, if I remember correctly, you were working quite a bit while you were going to Southeastern. I personally feel that I could (if I were a pastor) study the Word of God all day so that I might rightly divide the Word and, along with other pastoral duties, simply not have enough time to read what silliness Richard Dawkins has to say (which I did attempt to read "The God Delusion" on my own accord and wanted to throw it through his face, but I digress).

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  17. On the Dawkins bit – having read Dawkins' book, I think I'm more prepared to address his arguments. I know that I've been disenfranchised in the past by pastors I've had who had no idea what I was talking about when I would ask a question about a book or whatever. As someone who was an atheist, I have a really profound respect for men like Peter Kreeft – you may be interested in his book, "The Philosophy of Jesus".

    Likewise, when I converted to Catholicism, I had a lot of Southeasterners who tried to witness to me – but the Catholicism they were arguing against doesn't exist (except in their head). I asked why they didn't bother to look up what Catholicism actually teaches and they said "I don't read things like that." This is a rather odd notion to me – how are we to say why we don't believe something (beyond the "Because I don't think it agrees with the Bible" answer) if we cannot correctly articulate it first? And how else will we be able to correctly articulate it if we don't have a knowledge of it?

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  18. I often challenge Baptists who make blanket statements about Catholicism to justify their statements, and I often get blank stares as though they were expecting me to say, "Amen," simply because I'm a Baptist. I, for one, respect the Catholic position on contraceptives, etc. a thousand times more than the Evangelical non-stance, but that's another topic.

    And I hope that it is not coming across that I'm arguing for ignorance for the sake of ignorance, I simply want to address the what I perceived some declaring, "Philosophy is the power of God unto salvation."

    I have read some Peter Kreeft but not your recommendation. It will be next on my list of books that I read for pleasure.

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  19. And I love Gerard Manly Hopkins, so I have to defend some Catholics.:)

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