Christians have, in recent years, been wary of philosophy. “Recently” has been for a gaggle of centuries now, for mistrusting philosophy and philosophers has a long tradition in Christian circles. Much of this is justified, for significant levels of bad thinking and false doctrine has been introduced by philosophers in the guise of theology and new thinking. We are also taught in scripture to beware of philosophy, and to beware of those who creep into the church with false teachings. Colossians 2:8 tells us “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.”
I recently ran across a believer who expressed the old adage, ‘what does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?’ which is a statement saying that Greek philosophy should have nothing to do with the church. I also ran across a book by a Christian apologist denouncing Thomas Aquinas for bringing Aristotle into Christian teaching. The errors introduced by philosophy are numerous and significant, and Christians are wise to beware of false teachings and bad philosophy.
The problem comes when we start to tell people to avoid philosophy altogether, which becomes an awkward, virtually impossible task. Philosophy, at its foundation, is merely ‘thinking about things.’ Philosophy is thinking about questions, trying to think through problems. We either have the choice to not think about questions, or try to answer them, and even if we decide to not think about them, what we have often done is to think about the situation and decide to not think about the question.
For example, if we ask ourselves the question “where do I find the nature of an object?” we have three alternatives: 1) the nature of the object is outside of the object, 2) the nature is within the object, or 3) it does not matter to me, I am not going to think about this. Now, as far as I can tell, thinking about a question such as this is not heretical, nor does this question bring false teaching into Christian doctrine. It is just a question about the nature of things.
Let’s consider these three options. It is perfectly acceptable to choose option 3. There is absolutely no problem with not thinking about questions such as this, and many people do not consider such questions and live happily ever after. But I would encourage them to not try to tell the rest of us that it is wrong to think about such questions, for ultimately, these philosophical questions are merely thinking about the nature of things.
If we are to think about the question, options 1 and 2 exhaust all possibilities. Either objects have their natures outside of themselves, or not, in which case the nature is within the object. There are no other possible answers to the question.
Here’s where we now discover we are painted into a philosophical corner. Option 1 was held by Plato and option 2 was held by Aristotle. Plato claimed that the natures of things, which he referred to as forms, were external to the object, and Aristotle held that the forms of a thing was in the thing itself. So we find that if we consider the question, ‘where do I find the nature of an object?’ we end up either following Plato, Aristotle, or refusing to think about the answer. If we decide to not think about the answer, we soon discover that we thought about it, and after consideration, decided to not think about it. Therefore option 3 is often self-refuting. If we choose option 3, we find that instead of avoiding philosophy,, what we have done is bad philosophy. As Etienne Gilson has said, “Philosophy buries its own undertakers.”
Of course, most people are not nearly as interested in the nature of objects as they are the nature of humans. The Bible tells us that humans have a soul, but does not tell us directly whether the human soul is inhered into the body, or distinctly separate. To get a bibical answer, we must read several passages and draw a conclusion (thinking about things again….). I have heard good Christian teachers, who would never entertain the thought of introducing philosophy into a church Bible class, teach that humans were primarily a soul that has been given a body (e.g., option 1). Such a teaching originated with Augustine, who was heavily influenced by Plato’s philosophy. Those who disagreed and said that the human soul is inhered into the human body (e.g., option 2), are teaching something that was taught by Aquinas, who was heavily influenced by Aristotle. Again, there is no other option except to say that I will not think of this question.
Philosophy, specifically bad philosophy, has caused the church no end of doctrinal problems. If we investigate the source of much of the bad theology and bad philosophy, we find it often comes from people who have not studied philosophy enough to recognize bad philosophy when they see it, therefore they unwittingly introduce bad philosophy without realizing they are doing philosophy at all. As C. S. Lewis has said, “Good philosophy must exist because bad philosophy must be answered.”
So indeed, Christians should beware of philosophy. The best way to beware of philosophy is to be aware of philosophy, to recognize it when we see it, and to avoid repeating the bad thinking that has been introduced in the past. The answer is not to avoid thinking about questions, but to think more clearly and wisely. For example, The apostle Paul in Acts 17 demonstrated that he understood and was able to counter the philosophy of two ancient philosophical schools, the Epicureans and the Stoics. The result is that some were saved.
Philosophy is not a demon, nor inherently false per se. Christians should be more accustomed to thinking through difficult questions, and checking our answers by the teachings of the Bible.