Is Reformed epistemology a legitimate approach for Christians? Does it provide insights necessary to the Christian faith? Is Reformed epistemology “Reformed?”

The first question that must be asked is, “What is philosophy?” Reformed epistemology is a branch of philosophy, albeit a narrowly focused one. Now, this question might seem too simple. People have been “doing” philosophy for almost 3000 years. Does that not make it legitimate? No, people have been sinning against God for twice that long: sin will never be legitimate. Am I comparing sin with philosophy? Well, not exactly, but let us continue to look at philosophy.

What is philosophy? Traditionally, it is divided into metaphysics, epistemology, ethics (or values) and logic. Logic is primarily about the reasoning process, so it has more to do with the tools of philosophy than philosophical content per se. Metaphysics concerns origins, the foundation of reality, “what is,” substance, essence, meaning, reality itself, the nature of the universe, the ground of all being, etc.[1] Epistemology concerns “how do we know… how do we really know… who do we know with certainty?”[2] Then, there is the question of ethics, “What is right and what is wrong in thinking, speech, and behavior.” These three are interrelated and interdependent. What I believe about origins will affect my understanding of knowledge and my ethics. And, vice versa is found among all three. To some extent, reasoning (logic) are the tools of this process, and mostly distant from the same interdependency. I find consideration of this interrelatedness rare, as most philosophers seem to deal with each of the three separately.

Now, I realize the brevity of this overview, but I present it simply to illustrate that philosophy concerns the meaning of the universe and man’s place in it. I don’t think that many philosophers (perhaps none) would argue against that idea. But, what else concerns “the meaning of the universe and man’s place in it—religion! Philosophy and religion[3] concern the same issues! John Frame, one of the best theologians today whose college and graduate education was largely philosophical recognizes this identity.

A new movement began around 600 BC, when some thinkers tried to understand the world without the help of religion. They were called philosophers—lovers of wisdom…. What distinguishes Greek philosophers from Greek religions and other ancient wisdom teachers is their insistence on the supremacy of human reason, what I shall call rational autonomy…. Reason must be autonomous, self-authenticating, and subject to no standards other than its own…. reason itself became something of a god—though they did not describe it as such—an object of ultimate allegiance, and the ultimate standard of truth and falsity, of right and wrong.”[4]

The first observation that I would make here is how infrequently philosophers tie what they do to “religion.” On my website I have quoted many philosophers about what is philosophy over a period of 3000 years. If one does a word search of those quotes, the word religion is rarely used. And I selected those quotes particularly on the basis of their correspondence to religion!

The second observation that I would make is how little attention Christians in philosophy pay to a definition of religion. In all my reading the only one whom I can recall is Gordon Clark in various places.[5] Surely, there is frequent discussion of the philosophy of religion. But in the West philosophy of “religion” is philosophy of Christianity. Thus, the very term itself is curious. Why not just call this area, “philosophy of Christianity?” Virtually no other “religions” other than Christianity are discussed.

Scott Oliphint simplifies matters.

In our now “enlightened” context, the terms faith and reason, when discussed together, fall under the rubric of philosophy of religion…. this is terminology used to designate an old, old task, that of natural theology. So, with respect to the tasks philosophy sets for itself, philosophy of religion is fairly new terminology.[6] (Emphases are his.)

So, as I reviewed the approximate synonyms of metaphysics (footnote), Oliphint has linked natural theology with philosophy of religion. And, as I have said, philosophy of religion in the West is philosophy of Christianity.

But, is there not a strange association here? My earlier discussion said that philosophy is concerned with the same issues as those of religion. Christianity is the religion of the West (with already stated caveats about “religion” per se). So, if we substitute “philosophy,” in “philosophy of religion,” we have “religion of religion!” That combination is a sort of nonsense, is it not? Yet, have I not been accurate in this substitution? Again, philosophy and religion are concerned with the same issues: origins and meaning. They are synonyms. The accuracy of this association is also seen in the prevalence of some sort of transcendental being or idea among philosophers. Plato had his Ideas. Kant’s ultimate was the human mind itself. Descartes had to have some idea of God to tie his system together. Kierkegaard was concerned with some idea of God. (For more, see Gods of the Philosophers.)

Frame was right—philosophy is the religion of man without the God of the Bible. It is man looking to himself as God—“rational autonomy.” Philosophy, as literally “the love of wisdom,” is a lover of man’s wisdom without God. (Yet, even in this pursuit he has to posit some sort of god to hold his systems together.)

Beginning with the Scholastics, philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology. That is, philosophy was to be subservient to theology—the systematic study of God’s Special Revelation. But these same Scholastics began an integration of philosophy with theology that has handcuffed and curtailed Christianity since that time. Frame, first identifies philosophy and theology, then he cautions against “philosophical imperialism.”

It is difficult for me to draw any sharp distinction between a Christian theology and a Christian philosophy. Philosophy generally is understood as an attempt to understand the world in it broadest, most general features. It includes metaphysics, or ontology (the study of being, of what “is”), epistemology (the study of knowing), and the theory of values (ethics, esthetics, etc.). (Ed: Frame left out logic.) If one seeks to develop a truly Christian philosophy, he will certainly be doing so under the authority of Scripture and thus will be applying Scripture to philosophical questions. As such, he would be doing theology, according to our definition. Christian philosophy, then, is a subdivision of theology. Furthermore, since philosophy is concerned with reality in a broad, comprehensive sense, it may well take it as its task to ‘apply the Word of God to all areas of life.’ That definition makes philosophy identical with, not a subdivision of, theology.

If there are any differences between the Christian theologian and the Christian philosopher, they would probably be (1) that the Christian philosopher spends more time studying natural revelation than the theologian, and the theologian spends more time studying Scripture, and (2) that the theologian seeks a formulation that is an application of Scripture and thus absolutely authoritative. His goal is a formulation before which he can utter, “Thus saith the Lord.” A Christian philosopher, however, may have a more modest goal–a wise human judgment that accords with what Scripture teaches, though it is not necessarily warranted by Scripture.

A Christian philosopher can be of great value in helping us to articulate in detail the biblical world view. We must beware, however, of “philosophical imperialism.” The comprehensiveness of philosophy has often led philosophers to seek to rule over all other disciplines, even over theology, over God’s Word. Even philosophers attempting to construct a Christian philosophy have been guilty of this, and some have even insisted that Scripture itself cannot be understood properly unless it is read in a way prescribed by the philosopher! Certainly, philosophy can help us to interpret Scripture; philosophers often have interesting insights about language, for example. But the line must be drawn: where a philosophical scheme contradicts Scripture or where it seeks to inhibit the freedom of exegesis without Scriptural warrant, it must be rejected.” (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, page 85-86)

Thus, Frame identifies the relationship between Christian philosophy and theology. A Christian philosophy is a Biblical philosophy. A Christian philosophy that does not posit Special Revelation as the governing authority is an illegitimate philosophy. It is guilty of “philosophical imperialism.”

Frame implies what I will state clearly. The large majority of Christian philosophy today (and perhaps since Anselm and Aquinas) is guilty of philosophical imperialism. At least one Christian philosopher, J. P. Moreland, has even scorned Biblical authority as “over-commitment” to the Bible.[7] Robertson McQuilkin comments, “theology and Christian philosophy are in the highest category, derived from Scripture exclusively. The authority or functional control of Scripture is direct and totally pervasive.” (The Behavioral Sciences Under the Authority of Scripture)

Who am I to make this broad and condeming statement? I am a physician who has been a medical ethicist (bioethicist) for 30 years and has interacted with Christian ethicists and psychologists who are doing just what Christian philosophers are doing—minimizing, even downgrading[8] the Bible to humanistic, empirical principles. Why should I (or anyone) expect the situation to be different in philosophy? But philosophy does pose it own problems of analysis—a terminology that is a foreign language to most theologians, much less to laymen. So, perhaps, Christian philosophy has received less criticism than it should have.

As seen here, Frame has been quite helpful. He has even made specific comments relative to Reformed epistemology here. For whatever reason, he has soft-pedaled his criticism using such language as, “in general I approve of their approach.” Consistency would require that he condemn their approach—as indeed they are guilty of his philosophical imperialism.

But really I am making no great insight—no great in-depth reasoning that is beyond the ordinary, thinking Christian. Just go back to where I started. What is philosophy? Philosophy by definition concerns origins and ultimate meaning. That is the same concern of religions. Philosophy is religion without God. How can there even be a “philosophy of religion,” which is just a “philosophy of philosophy” or a “religion of a religion.” When rephrased in this way, philosophy of religion is just redundancy and repetition of terms.

Christianity is the only true religion because God has posited His truth in His Special Revelation. Does it not make sense that God’s Word ought to govern all thinking? Does it not make sense that God’s Word ought not to be “integrated,” but to the ultimate authority with a thoroughgoing application to every area of scholarship? All religions, whether they are called philosophy or Buddhism, are false religions. As Frame has said, for Christians theology and philosophy are about the say things, with perhaps a slightly different emphasis. The tools of philosophy do have something to offer. See infra.

I will garner a little more evidence before closing and give one caveat to “philosophy.” If one reads enough, pieces can be found to support this position. First, Peter van Inwagen says that there are no answers in metaphysics.

“In the end we must confess that have no idea why there is no established body of metaphysical results. It cannot be denied that this is a fact…. In metaphysics you are perfectly free to disagree with anything the acknowledged experts (philosophers) say…”[9]

Then, Oliphint disparages epistemology.

Truth be told, the same problems that plague metaphysics plague epistemology as well. If van Inwagen is correct, then there is no established body of accepted metaphysical results to which one interested in the subject must appeal in order to enter the debate…. Metaphysics remains in a near-total state of flux and chaos.

But so does epistemology. Discussions epistemological abound in the history of philosophy, and it could easily be argued that, as in metaphysics, there is no established body of accepted epistemological results to which one interested in the subject must appeal in order to enter the debate.[10]

Dear reader, do not pass lightly over these statements. What they are saying is that all the philosophy in history has provided no real answers. For all their exploration of origins and meaning, they have no answer! Anyone can virtually say anything that they want, and nothing that anybody else says has any claim on anyone else. “Flux and chaos” exists indeed!

Summary Ideas

Thus, we have three powerful reasons that “Christian” philosophy is illegitimate. (1) Philosophy is subservient to theology. To move out from under that authority by “integration” or “all truth is God’s truth” is “philosophical imperialism.” (2) Philosophy is religion apart from God. All religions apart from Biblical Christianity are false. Only the latter is a true philosophy or religion. Apart from Biblical revelation all religion is philosophy, all philosophy is religion, and all are falsely based. Philosophy of religion apart from Biblical Christianity is simply a philosophy of humanism or what has been called historically “naturalism.” (3) Philosophy has no answers in either metaphysics or epistemology. Anyone can say anything and have just as much relevance as anyone else.

Just in case someone wants to try to slip “justified true belief” or “warrant” as exceptions to the above. There is no agreement here either! While Christian philosophy is proclaimed to have gained acceptance and made inroads into secular philosophy, where is the agreement here? Each philosopher differs with the other in major and minor ways. Faith and Philosophy is lauded for its Christian discussions, but “Christian” there ranges from virtual secular humanism to Biblical Christianity. Has any progress towards a standard or resolution of issues been made after almost 30 years? Soon, I will have much more to say in the way of specific problems of these issues in general, and Reformed epistemology in particular.

Does Philosophy Have Anything to Offer?

The strength of philosophy is to ask penetrating questions. How do we really know? How do we know with certainty? What is truth? Where do ethics come from? How are ethics decided in the public square (politics)? What is language? Can it communicate adequately? And, on and on. As Frame, said philosophy is to serve theology, the study of Special Revelation.

Yes, philosophy investigates and discusses all these areas in depth and breadth. But there is a powerful subtlety here. These questions involve the “tools of philosophy”: logic, philology, semantics, grammar, definitions, etc. These inquiries involve method, not substantive answers. Frame indicated this connection when he said that there is no real distinction between (Biblical) philosophy and theology. In the latter the tools of philosophy can be of great help, discerning the particular and troublesome issues of Biblical interpretation.

However, the Bible has already answered the major problems in philosophy. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” answers the problem of metaphysics. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” answers the problem of epistemology. Then, all the commandments of Scripture—numbering 1400 or more, but summarized by the Two Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments—answer the problem of ethics (right and wrong). All that is then left are the tools of philosophy—and we should use them to their nth degree to discern what God has communicated to us in His Word.

I can see the renowned Christian philosophers of the day smiling at my naiveté. I will take my chances, standing on the Word of God, in the face of men’s opinions. Show me a philosopher who quotes Scripture as much as he posits his own opinions and those of his colleagues, and you will have demonstrated a truly Christian (Biblical) philosopher. May their tribe increase!


[1] One of the complexities of philosophy is a general failure to state and recognize synonyms. I say “metaphysics,” you say, “cosmology.” Another person says “origins.” We are talking about the same thing, but who can tell if we use different words. Here is my list of approximate synonyms of metaphysics: Naturalism, science, scientism, scientific naturalism, idealism, realism, scientific realism, evidentialism, existentialism, subjectivism, experientialism, perception, scientism, logical positivism, nominalism, universals, sensation, materialism, physicalism, essence, object, real, substance, being, evolution, humanism, secular humanism, secularism, phenomenalism, instrumentalism, operationalism, functionalism, pragmatism, and monism. I do not presume that this list is complete nor that these are exact synonyms, but it should illustrate the confusion that can result when these words are used by different philosophers.
[2] The question could be asked, “How certain does one need to be?” I would answer, and I think Christians should see this easily, “Sufficiently certain that one is willing to base his current life and eternal destiny upon that knowledge.” That degree of certainty may not be absolute, but it is all that is necessary for anyone. What else is more important?
[3] I am aware that Gordon Clark says that there is no such thing as “religion,” because only Biblical Christianity is the true “religion,” and all others are counterfeit. But I am trying to cover vast territories without too much digression! Please, I understand much of the complexity here. But I also think that what I am doing is valid and defensible.
[4] John Frame, “Greeks Bearing Gifts,” in Andrew Hoffecker, Revolutions in Worldview, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2007), pages 5-6.
[5] One place is a recording at entitled, “Is Christianity a Religion – Parts I, II, III.” Or, see Clark’s Religion, Reason, and Revelation (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 1986).
[6] O. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2006), page 13.
[7] “How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007.
[8] The astute reader will make the link to Charles Spurgeon’s reference to the “Downgrade controversy.”
[9] Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 2nd Ed. Dimension of Philosophy Series (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002), page 12.
[10] Oliphint, Reason for Faith, page 122.