The Value of Philosophy

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/24/2013

An historical perspective on how philosophy has significantly defined our culture, and how the church has responded.

We had a conference for Stand To Reason a couple of weeks ago and Dr. J.P. Moreland was one of our speakers. He spoke to our church about the circumstance that American Christians find themselves in now, seriously marginalized, considered a little bit whacko and encouraged, directly or indirectly to take their Christianity back to their closet where it belongs and not poke their spiritual noses in anybody else’s business with it. It hasn’t always been that way in this country. There has been a significant change in attitude since the Civil War and he talked about that, this idea that religion should be privatized is a result of something else that Christians actually had something to do with. After the Civil War it became evident that Protestant Christianity, especially in this country, was taking some severe hits from three different directions. One, from philosophy—the impact of Kant and Hume. Second from German higher critics. And the third from Darwinian evolutionary philosophy. So from Biblical criticism, science and philosophy, Christianity was taking a hit. Instead of standing up and doing the hard work of responding to the critics, Christians basically opted out and said, It doesn’t matter what the facts say, I feel Jesus in my heart and that’s all that really matters to me. So we opted for a subjective pietism instead of hard thinking on the issues, and therefore we lost our place in the public square.

One of the things that Dr. Moreland has emphasized, and I will say in my own life has been very, very important, is that if you want to compete in the marketplace of ideas you have to understand the language of ideas. And you have to understand ideas. There is a discipline that has traditionally addressed those things and the discipline is philosophy. This is why there are many times I have incorporated certain tools of philosophy in trying to answer the question. The reason is because the tools have been very helpful to me and they’re the tools of thought.

Keep in mind, by the way, if many of you are thinking of Colossians Chapter 2 where Paul says, “Do not be taken captive by vain philosophies, according to the tradition of men instead of according to Christ,” that Paul is talking about something very particular there. He is not saying that you ought not have anything to do with philosophy at all. He said you ought to be careful of being captivated by vain philosophies that are in the tradition of men. There is a difference between the tools of philosophy, which are the fundamental tools of thought—and you can’t avoid them even if you wanted to—and the opinions of philosophers on different things. Paul was referring to a particular set of opinions of a particular philosophy that was contrary to Christ. In his case, it was probably some pre-gnostic influence. Gnosticism, which took the field in a robust form there in the second century, was there in a seminal form in the first century and the Apostles had to deal with it. Paul is saying be careful of these philosophies of men, but he is not saying that you ought not be involved in philosophy whatsoever because if you stay away from philosophy, which trains you in the tools of thinking, then it isn’t that you won’t do philosophy. You will do it. In other words, you will do your thinking. You just won’t do it very well. You won’t have the categories that are necessary to make the finer distinctions on the critical issues.

In the last three or four years I’ve been receiving some training that has really helped me in that, so I want to commend this to you, this idea that learning about philosophy helps you in understanding your faith more clearly. In fact, it seems pretty evident to those who have studied church history, especially the anti-Nicean fathers, and actually all those right around that period of time, the time of the second, third and fourth centuries, when critical debates about the nature of the person of Jesus and the nature of God and the Trinity were taking place, that the Fathers would not have been able to prevail in effectively defending the truth if they did not have some philosophic distinctions that allowed them to make their points clearly. In other words, these men were students of philosophy. If you think of any of the great thinkers of that period of time, Irenaeus, Augustine, later on in the medievals, like Anselm and Pascal and others like them, Thomas Aquinas, these are people who made phenomenal contributions to the field of Christian theology and Christian thought. All of these people were very, very careful and rigorous philosophers. In fact, that’s how they were able to make a contribution.

There are some of you out there who simply still feel very, very resistant to letting your child go to university to study philosophy. There’s a couple of thoughts I want to toss out to you. I have to admit that these are not my thoughts. They are Melinda’s thoughts as we talked about this a couple weeks ago. So the next four points I’ve stolen from “The Enforcer.” It shows that she’s a clear thinker as well as a powerful and effective Terminator.

The first is this: Why is it that we don’t send our kids to study philosophy in college? Is it because we’re afraid that Christianity is not going to stand up? Sometimes that’s the case. Maybe there’s an underlying belief that Christianity can’t be tested against these other theories of knowledge. I guess you have to ask yourself whether you are willing to pit your child, equipped with a solid, clear understanding of Christianity, against any ideas at a university, because those ideas are wrong. They can be refuted, but it’s going to take somebody doing the hard work to be able to do that. So possibly part of our reluctance in letting our kids study philosophy is that we’re afraid that their faith can’t stand up to that. I’m here to say it can.

Secondly, our goal in studying philosophy is not to study the philosophies of men per se, but primarily to learn how to think. In other words, to manage the tools of philosophy, the tools of thought, and then understand what other people have thought so we can see whether they really and genuinely comport with reality. We use our tools to make that distinction, to come to that decision.

Third, it’s not the philosophy department’s fault that children have lost their faith. It’s the church’s fault because we have sent them out of our religious communities without training them to think for themselves, and to think effectively, and to think well.

Finally, if you think that you are going to protect your child by keeping him out of the field of philosophy, keep in mind that from a worldly perspective, all fields are dangerous. Do you think that by sending them to the science or literature departments they are going to escape philosophy? No way. That they are going to escape worldly thinking? No way. Those professors have philosophies that can also damage your child’s faith as well. They don’t always admit it, but sometimes they do quite clearly. “Yes, I am out to destroy your faith,” some of them say that from the outset.

My point is simply this. The way to deal with vain philosophies, wherever they may be found, is to have good philosophy, not to abandon the art of critical thinking altogether. And if the church is to survive in the twentieth century as an important and significant player in the marketplace of ideas, then those who are members of the church are going to have to recapture the traditional emphasis on the mind and learn to manage and use the tools of thought in defense of the Gospel.