Faith and Philosophy

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/24/2013

For some Christians, faith and philosophy are strange companions. When used properly, though, philosophy is a friend, not a foe, an ally, not an antagonist.

“Stay away from the philosophy department,” is the advice frequently given by well-meaning pastors and parents to their college-bound charges. “It will ruin your faith.” No doubt their caution is an attempt to pass on Paul’s warning not to be taken captive by the empty and deceptive traditions of men (Colossians 2:8). This admonition to students, though, is based on a misunderstanding of Paul and the nature of philosophy.

Tools of Thought

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether a faith that’s capable of being ruined through rigorous analysis is even worth having, I have this comment. Those who give such advice err by not distinguishing the tools of philosophy from the opinions of philosophers.

Paul’s warning, of course, was against certain opinions of men that were not according to Christ. Ironically, the tools of philosophy have helped to safeguard the church from the empty and deceptive traditions Paul was referring to. Careful philosophical thought has been vital in protecting Christians since Nicea from the “elementary principles of the world” that concerned Paul.

When Christians abandon these fundamental tools of thought, what remains are ad hoc theologies justified by scattered proof texts rather than by rigorous and clear-headed thinking coupled with a focused look at the Scriptures. Believers try to add the roof before they build the walls.

This brings me to the issue of the integration of philosophy and theology. Sometimes difficult questions are answered by an appeal to theological slogans. Often the intentions are good, but the point is so misstated it creates more confusion than clarity.

Sloppy Slogans

There’s nothing wrong with catchy ways of expressing a conclusion based on careful consideration. In fact, Jesus was a master at using short, pithy statements (known as aphorisms) to drive a point home. Sloganeering in the hands of the unskilled, though, tends to be a sloppy business. The kernel of truth is lost beneath a pile of misleading chaff.

Many slogans are not answers, but clever dismissals. No careful work has been done to justify the verdict. Let me explain.

One truism I’ve heard regarding the problem of God’s sovereignty versus man’s freedom goes something like this: “God is a gentleman. He won’t tamper with your free will.” The statement has a ring of truth to it, and as a slogan it has populist appeal. Yet, more often than not, the statement is like a roof hanging in mid-air; the more demanding foundational work needed to support it simply has not been done.

For example, this maxim is vulnerable to a couple of simple observations. First, the Scripture doesn’t make this particular claim about human freedom. It doesn’t even imply that God is a gentleman who won’t interfere with our lives. To the contrary, there are a number of biblical examples that indicate just the opposite.

Take Paul on the road to Damascus, for instance. He was in total rebellion against God. He dragged Christian men, women, and children into prison and even presided over executions. Paul was, in his human will, an enemy to the cross of Christ. So God knocked him off his horse on the Damascus Road, blinded him, then spoke to him like thunder from the sky (Acts 9:3–7). Was God tampering? It looks like it.

Consider poor Nebuchadnezzar. God had him chewing grass with the cows in the fields of Babylon for three years until he finally looked heavenward, came to his senses, and gave God the glory (Daniel 4:28–37). Was there any divine pressure here? Seems like it to me.

Prayer and Free Will

Second, the notion that God doesn’t tamper with our free will presents problems in the area of prayer. For example, what exactly are we asking for when we pray for someone’s salvation? Aren’t our very words, “God, change this person”? Aren’t we asking God to intervene by influencing a person’s will in order to elicit a response of faith? It seems difficult to argue that God doesn’t tamper with free will and then pray this prayer.

The problem doesn’t just present itself when praying for someone’s salvation, though. It includes prayer for anything involving human agency.

God answers prayer in two ways. He can respond directly, like he did when Peter was in jail and an angel released him. Since there was no human involvement, no one’s will was violated. The same is true when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes or raised Lazarus from the dead.

It seems, however, that most of our requests entail God’s mediate action, in which the answer involves the agency of another person. Characteristically, we’re not rescued by angels. Usually, God doesn’t multiply food or raise the dead in direct, immediate response to our prayers. Instead, the garden variety of prayer sets the will of God against the will of man.

Our prayers for a new job involve a human decision to hire. Our requests for the protection of the unborn speak to intentions of legislators and judges. Our petitions for good grades relate, in part, to the benevolence of a professor. In fact, with many prayer requests, the contrary will of a person is the precise issue of concern. Most prayers appeal to God to prevail upon other human wills. In effect we’re praying, “God, use Your will and Your power to overcome the power and will of others.”

Did God Do It?

I have a friend who was on her way to India with Youth With a Mission when she was diverted to Thailand because of an air-traffic controller’s strike. Upon her arrival, she discovered that the YWAM team there had been praying for more helpers. They hailed her rerouting as a wonderful answer to their prayers.

Consider this, though. Labor strikes happen when individuals with grievances agree together not to go to work. If a strike is the result of human choices, in what sense did God answer the missionaries’ prayers? It seems that without the direct agency of God on the wills of men, apparent answers to prayer are mere accidents.

This illustration points to an even larger issue: Does God have a plan? Is His plan something He merely desires, or is it something He decides will happen? Does God guarantee the outcome of His desires, at least in some cases?

If God cannot determine people’s actions in some way, how is it possible for Him to have a plan? Clearly, God does have a plan. Therefore, it follows that our understanding of human freedom is not accurately expressed by the slogan, “God won’t tamper with free will.”

However we resolve this issue, we must give fair consideration to the fact that God does seem to tamper with the wills of men. Sometimes He does so aggressively, even in ways (like causing air-traffic controller strikes) that seriously inconvenience a lot of other people. If He didn’t, history would simply be the chaotic record of human impulse instead of the grand unfolding of God’s design.

Beliefs Worth Having

In tackling difficult questions, I try to work from the known to the unknown, and this short discussion hopefully gives us some fixed points to aid our navigation. Where this ultimately leads regarding the question of human freedom depends on further considerations.

This reflection only raises the question and begins to define the landscape. There are many issues that need to be pondered: What are the necessary pre-conditions for a free act? What are the different ways of understanding free will? What role does character play? Does man have a nature that seriously restricts his options?

This is where the tools of philosophy come in, being carefully employed to serve theology. Ad hoc assessments and theological slogans aren’t adequate. It’s easy to state a belief. It’s much more difficult to build an argument that will weather rigorous scrutiny.

That’s the only way to have a belief worth holding, though. Such a faith can’t avoid philosophy, nor should it.