I have written so much on the negatives of philosophy that one might wonder whether I thought there was anything good in “Athens.” Well, there is much good… so much in fact that I think that properly taught courses should be in all Christian high schools, colleges, and especially seminaries. But note the qualification, “properly taught.” Almost all philosophy being produced by Christians today has serious Biblical, if not logically fallacious flaws. That is the reason for this website. But, now for positives for philosophy.
These are not ranked by order of importance.
1. Strengthening faith. Perhaps the greatest use of philosophy to a Christians is to challenge what they believe. This reason is one of the qualifications about its being “properly taught.” This method would strengthen and legitimize Christian (Biblical) truth, not destroy it. For indeed, this Truth is the only truth that man will know in his earthly life. Through philosophy the discerning Christian can build a solid, impenetrable system of belief.
Epistemology and the limitations of empiricism. Philosophy challenges how we know anything. Empiricism (induction, scientific method, observational reasoning, etc.) can only yield “probable” knowledge. Now, this probability may approach 99.9 percent certainty (rarely), but nevertheless it is not unchanging truth. Virtually all philosophers agree with this notion—one of the few about which they en masse do agree. Empiricism functions quite well in the domain of the more “objective” sciences, but in the human sciences it looses most of its validity. For example, sociology can never prescribe, it can only describe. There are no oughts in “what is,” the only proper domain of sociology. The same is true of psychology—the Bible is the foundation for knowledge of the soul which comes from the word itself: psyche means mind or soul and ology—study of. God created the soul, and He is the only one that can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9). And, to the extent that God has revealed His directives for the mind and for behavior, man can understand and know what is expected of him. (For more on the subject of empiricism, see below. For more on psychology, see here.s)
Logic. Logic is a division of philosophy (but perhaps it should not be, as it governs all disciplines). All students should know how to reason logically and avoid logical fallacies, else they will make common blunders. Even if one starts from true premises, fallacious or improper reasoning can lead to wrong conclusions. And vice versa, one can start from false premises, one can make valid syllogism, and still have false notions. Because of the detail necessary, however, logic should be taught as a separate course, not in just in basic philosophy.
The conflict of faith and reason resolved. All reason has a starting point that should be resolved into a first philosophy: premise, presupposition, axiom, assumption, bias, and numerous other synonyms for the place where one begins—one’s basic beliefs. As such, all philosophy begins in faith which is exactly the same as “first philosophy.” So, everyone… every philosopher that ever wrote or opened his mouth, starts with faith—his first philosophy or first principle. From there, he builds a system within which he attempts to be coherent. His system, then, is challenged by the Biblical system with the truth of Scripture as the Christians’ first principle. Thus, the Christian sees how his “faith” challenges all other positions of “faith.” The conflict of faith and reason in the history of philosophy is one of the greatest confusions in the human race. There is no conflict—there is only the necessary understanding of the true nature of each. Complex reason has already been applied just to make a statement of faith. (See “language” below.)
Definitions and synonyms. Philosophy should deal with precise definitions and the consistent (coherent) use of them throughout one’s system. For example, few Christians today understand the words “love” and “faith,” as they are used in the Bible. I was so concerned about the latter, that I wrote a book, Without Faith It Is Impossible to Please God. The definition of love is the sacrificial application of every directive given by God in Scripture—that is, love is the sacrificial application of the law. Thus, a primary focus of philosophy should be the creation and use of definitions and synonyms. I am coming to understand that failure to connect synonyms with each other is a major problem in both theology and philosophy. If there are ten synonyms for a word, and all are discussed without connection to each other, it appears that there are ten different concepts being discussed. An example from Scripture is faith and hope. They are virtually identical except for some nuances. Grace, mercy, justice, and love are very close, also, but they are used as though they were totally different concepts.
2. The complexity of language. Johann Hamann stated, “Language is the hypostatic union of the sensible and the intelligible.” Now, this statement is complex, employing notions of Kant, the Greek concept of “substance” (hypostasis—ground of being, ultimate being, thing in itself, “what is,” etc. found in Hebrews 11:1: the “substance—ultimate ground—of things hoped for.”) However, it gets one thinking about the complexity of simply language structure. Noam Chomsky has stated dogmatically that the complexity of language-communication cannot possibly be “learned” within the time that humans spend in childhood until they acquire these skills. And, there are no primitive languages. Some third world languages in “primitive” cultures have as many as 200 words for “tree.” English places verbs in the middle of sentences; German places verbs at the end of the sentences. Statements in one language cannot be fully translated into another language. And, on and on. Language-communication is an extremely complex subject. Without precise definitions, reasoning is impossible.
What does this mean for Christians? (1) Translation of Hebrew and Greek into English is not simple. Language itself is not simple. Therefore, all this complexity has to be considered to understand Biblical texts. (2) Because communication is so complex, everyone needs to work a little harder at accuracy in conversations, speaking, and writing. God has implied the complexity with His admonitions to clarify and correct mis-communications (for example, Matthew 5:23, Matthew 5:27, and Ephesians 4:26). (3) The traditional (apparent) conflict between faith and reason cannot even be argued without the complexity of reason that is inherent and integral to statements about the issues. And, faith is assumed also in the very possibility of language. So, in actuality faith and reason cannot be separated from each other. What is needed is accurate definitions, clarification, logic, coherence, system, and other concepts that construct one’s philosophy or religion.
3. The complexities and myths of “proof.” All reasoning begins with starting points and, if properly performed, moves to first principles (as just discussed). Those principles are assumed on faith and are called foundational beliefs—they are the foundation for the system that is built with reason. Proofs can only be made within systems. From a Biblical system, one cannot prove that God exists to an atheist. He has already assumed that God does not exist, so no amount of reasoning can convince him that he is wrong. If he does accept some of your arguments, he is being inconsistent with his own system, and therefore, irrational. Likewise, he cannot attack your system of Christianity (assuming that it is well constructed) because to allow the possibility that God does not exist is to be inconsistent with your own system. Likewise, all philosophical systems, such as those of Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, cannot be proved to those other minds because their foundational beliefs differ. Thus, all valid reasoning is circular which also means that all systems have “faith,” that is, first principles or “properly basic beliefs” for their foundations.
On this basis all cosmological and ontological arguments are false. That many, if not most, pagan philosophers have seen through these fallacies demonstrates (not proves) this point. Again, examine the discussion of starting principles above and elsewhere. If someone becomes convinced by a cosmological argument that God exists, then it is the Holy Spirit that has convicted them, not the argument itself. And, He has done so by changing that person’s foundational beliefs.
4. Worship of God. The complexities of language, communication, and reasoning should provoke a person to fall down and worship God. While the complexities of nature via Intelligent Design and other intricacies of nature are well-know, these complexities just named are not as well known. They were not known to me until I began to study what exactly is meant by “reason,” “reasoning,” and “rationality.” When one thinks at these terms, he tends to identify with logic or logical fallacies. But if one looks in a textbook on logic, he will find a chapter on definitions. Thus, modern philosophy has analyzed language and communication to show its complexity. Simply to state the proposition, “All humans are mortal,” much less the complete syllogism, one has already moved through a process that is considerably complex. Many, if not most, evangelical theologians identify the “image of God” in Genesis 1:27, as reason and the ability to think. So, they have been right about their conclusions, but perhaps not realizing that the seemingly simple task of making those statements themselves is highly complex. Understanding this complexity is just another great motive to worship God “in the beauty of holiness” and to worship Him “in spirit and in truth.” Could spirit and truth simply be synonyms here and elsewhere?
5. Opportunities in academic settings. I have recently gone to a local university for courses in philosophy. One of the amazing things that I found was the centerpiece of “God” for so many philosophers in history, beginning with the early Greeks gods and the true “God” of Augustine. Of course, the 20th century and into the present, God has been lost to much of the process. But Augustine, the Scholastics, and the philosophers of the 17-19th centuries, either centered their philosophies in God or opposed Him in their own systems. I realize and have discussed at length, that their “gods” were not the God of Biblical orthodoxy. Nevertheless, here is a place where God is openly discussed in state university classrooms! What an opportunity to discuss the weaknesses of these philosophies and the strengths of Biblical Christianity, if… (1) The student has a good grasp or the foundations of reasoning and Biblical Christianity to engage in intelligent discussions. (2) The student is consistent with Biblical orthodoxy, if not Reformed Christianity. I think that the latter is the only Christian (Biblical) system that is logically and rationally correct. It is by careful design that the Westminster Confession of Faith has The Scriptures as Chapter One. Thus, belief in the Bible is the first principle of Christianity—which does not even exist apart from that first principle. Chapter Two establishes who God is. The errors of philosophers who use an unbiblical god cannot be discerned unless the real God is known accurately and substantially.
Alas, alas! Most Christian philosophers today are not rationally coherent with Scripture. In fact, I do not know of any alive, as of this date (February 2009) that I would recommend. Past philosophers that I highly recommend are Gordon H. Clark, Carl F. H. Henry, Ronald Nash, Cornelius Van Til, and Greg Bahnsen. Some of their works can be found among the references on this website. All their works can be found at various places on the web and in their books, especially those Reformed. In my Table of Contents, you can find critiques of other Christian philosophers so that you can understand where they are in error.
6. The simplicity of the Biblical message as a “philosophy.” The Bible speaks variously of light and darkness, the world and the Spirit, principalities and powers vs. Christ and Christians, and the Kingdom of God vs. the Kingdom of this world. Then, there is the serious deception pictured in the title for Satan, as “The Angel of Light.” Thus, there are only two philosophies in the past, present, and future: Biblical Christianity and all others—the autonomy of Satan or the autonomy of man. How helpful is this simple division! There are not tens or hundreds of philosophies in the past and present or more to come in the future. There are only two! So, all these other philosophies are variations of the one that opposes God. You do not have to be misled that many philosophers use Biblical and Christian themes (for example, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard). You simply have to decide whether they are Biblically coherent or not. You see, you are many, many steps ahead of “professional” philosophers with this simple Biblical division.
7. Cutting through empirical data. Empiricism is variously known as experimental data, observation and conclusions, scientific method, induction, and cause and effect. As such, it is the primary method by which mankind discerns the patterns in his world that God has designed. It is the method by which the Creation Mandate is enacted and progress made in a fallen universe. However, there is an inherent fallacy to this method. As noted above, empiricism never arrives at truth. It may arrive at extremely high degrees of probability, but it may also err entirely. For example, the fact that the sun will appear each morning is virtually certain—until the Second Coming of Christ. Getting into our automobiles to go to some destination is highly predictable, but we have all experienced times that we did not make it due to car failure, a traffic accident, or other limiting event. But consider the stock market. Everyone has their own strong indicators—empirical data—charts and more charts, but the fact is that the market on a day to day basis is highly unpredictable. It is doubtful that most investors in the past 10 years have made any money at all. Yet, everyone’s data is “soundly” based in empiricism. (Try reading The Black Swan by Nassim Teleb.)
Now, the most important area to “cut through” empirical data are the “sciences” that closely overlap Biblical truth: psychology, medicine, sociology, and perhaps others. One often hears, “All truth is God’s truth.” But on the concept of empiricism, this proposition cannot be true because empiricism does not arrive at truth, only probability. This conclusion may be one of the most prevalent areas of agreement among all philosophers, especially those who specialize in logic and logical fallacies. I have written extensively on the fallacies of Christians in medicine and psychology, so the reader can research that on my medical-ethical and worldview websites. The truth of Scripture must be authoritative over any empirical conclusion in these areas.
Sometimes the response to this question of empiricism is, “You read your Bible don’t you,” implying that reading is an empirical process. It is nothing of the sort. The eyes are an instrument, like phone lines and wave transmissions from the mind of the author (the words on the page) to the mind of the reader. We have reviewed the complexity of language, so placing words on a page in a coherent manner is a complex process. Reading is no less a complex process of processing, understanding, and storing the book data into the reader’s mind. Reading is not empiricism, and the very notion that it is, strongly and clearly indicates the need for philosophical understanding on the part of the one making that statement. And, those who make such statements are often “leaders” in the Christian community!
I am convinced on this one issue alone that evangelical Christianity could have a far greater impact on all cultures and furtherance of the Creation Mandate! For my more complete development of the problems of empiricism, see Empiricism: A Modern Danger.
8. Enhancement of Biblical interpretation. Many laymen, preachers, teachers, and theologians may never have considered that principles of hermeneutics are not found in Scripture! Rarely does the Bible say what genre a text is: historical narrative, poetry, hymn, or didactic (teaching, doctrine). For example, the Bible does not instruct on Hebrew parallelisms that one set may be a re-statement of the same concept or that it is a contrasting statement. The Hebrew language and careful deduction tells the interpreter that. The Bible does not say that the historical-critical method is the best method over the allegorical. Careful reasoning and common agreement have determined that hermeneutic. And on and on down the list of hermeneutical principles which are primarily and almost entirely rules that apply to the interpretation of all writings in various languages—derived from rational thought and language study (which are not necessarily different in themselves).
Consider the widely stated aphorism that “God is love.” When this phrase is used, “love” is rarely defined. But “love” is a predicate which may be nominative or adjectival. I contend that in this context “love” is adjectival—it speaks of only one of God’s attributes. It is a limiting description of God. God is also justice, mercy, grace, eternal, truth, omniscient, etc., etc. Love is one of the most complex of Biblical terms. If one does not do the Biblical study to determine what love is, he should not use “God is love.” Such vague, non-defined love is and has been severely damaging to the Church and God’s Kingdom. This is a hermeneutical issue. I have done the homework on love; therefore, I am qualified to speak. Let others qualify themselves, also. Then, the issue will be better exposed for discussion.
Again, I refer to the Westminster Confession of Faith. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Chapter I:6). Valid deduction of truth is truth. Compare this statement with what I have said about empiricism: truth vs. probable conclusion. For example, The Trinity is an orthodox concept without which Christianity fails as a system. But “Trinity” and “One God in Three Persons” appears nowhere in the Biblical text. They are logical deductions. Again, valid deduction of truth is truth. In the language of logic, the truth of the predicate is found in the truth of the subject. Logical deduction is a hermeneutic of Scripture that is one of the most important for Biblical interpretation.
9. The unique nature of the Bible in epistemology—the objective philosopher’s dream come true . Epistemology—the theory of what can be really and truly known—is one of the major branches of philosophy. Some philosophers claim that it is the most foundational of the branches. From my perspective, there is an interdependency of epistemology with metaphysics and ethics with coherency of logic necessary to any system. Nevertheless, epistemology is quite central to philosophy—nay, to “know” anything. Thus, the Bible is unique, as it is an objective, transcendental, and supernatural message from God. All other knowledge is innate, empirical, reasoned from existing knowledge, or mystical (transcendental and supernatural, but subjective).
Because of its inculturation in the West, the Bible is not often appreciated for its objectivity. It is God’s mind objectified… it is His Special Revelation objectified… it is the knowledge that God wants humans to have available to them objectified. The Bible is the knowledge of God entering history through a source that is an object. It is there in the public square for the Church and for society to gain understanding and direction. It is the objectively thinking philosopher’s dream: a source of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics in a fixed, determined source that he can study!
10. Learn informal fallacies relevant to Bible study and everyday reasoning. A person is asked, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Whoa! He cannot answer without incriminating himself. This fallacy is called asserting the consequent. One fallacy we have already seen: “All truth is God’s truth,” where truth includes empirical reasoning. A double fallacy is found in the common interpretation that Jesus and Peter have two different meanings for “love” in John 21:15-17—Jesus using agapeo and Peter using phileo. The issues is resolved in that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, while John wrote in Greek. The differing ideas of love are not found in the Aramaic language. That is a fallacy of translation. In the same passage is another fallacy, one of differing definitions. Agapeo and phileo are synonyms, e.g., the latter verb is used to designate how the Christian is to love Jesus Christ. Surely, no one would contend that he is to love Jesus only in a “brotherly way,” the commonly espoused meaning of phileo. Careful reasoning and logic are extremely important to Biblical interpretation and these errors are made by some of the best interpreters. For an abundance of Biblical fallacies, see Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson.
11. What autonomous reason looks like. Philosophers are great thinkers who are autonomous thinkers. That is, they are thinkers without Special Revelation (The Bible) being the controlling authority or even a part of their process. Of course, many philosophers, especially the Scholastics, and to a lesser extent some of the Enlightenment thinkers (Descartes, Leibniz, Hegel, and Kierkegaard) used Biblical terms, but re-defined them for their own systems. Ancient, Greek, and modern philosophers are totally autonomous except for whatever influence the sensus divinitatis affects their thinking (Romans 1:19-21). Our first reaction as Bible-believers is, “That is foolish thinking. How could they come up with that?” Of course, it is foolish—that is what the Bible calls it (Psalm 14:1). Nevertheless, we see autonomous man in great and extensive discourse trying to devise a system without God, sin, and salvation! It is first of all to be pitied. But secondly it must be countered at every proposition (I Peter 3:15).
12. Learn to examine Christian philosophers. Philosophers who are Christians get away with entirely too much because of the complex language of philosophy which they make increasingly more complex. For example, note the length of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, the last of his trilogy on that subject. It is so complex that he uses narrower margins for his own references and digressions, and in the text makes very frequent references that “this subject cannot be addressed here.” This never-ending pursuit reminds me of scientific research that always ends with “more research is needed to establish fully these results.” Where does the “justifying” and the “warranting” end?
Christian philosophers do not use the Bible as the controlling epistemological authority in their philosophy. Just look at any issue of Faith and Philosophy (the periodical of The Society of Christian Philosophers) and note the paucity of Biblical and theological references. Dear readers, the Bible is God’s revelation to man. It does not take much reasoning power to know that the infinite and omniscient God knows more than finite and rebellious philosophers! Duh! (As a modern teenager would say.)
This exposure of Christians doing non-Christian philosophy is a major task of this website. And, more exposure is needed by Christians who “philosophize” consistent with the Word of God.