Friday, August 24, 2012

Biblically defining Philosophy's relationship to Christianity

Acts 17:28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

Discerning the relationship between philosophy and biblical Christianity
In the two above texts, we see the Apostle Paul preaching and writing in two different environments.  In Acts 17 he is preaching to a group of Philosophers at a place called "Mars Hill".  He uses quotations from their own philsophers to lend support to His biblical message on the Sovereignty of God in creation and salvation. 

In the Colossians text, Paul is under house arrest in Rome.  That text was written 10 years or so after his sermon on Mars Hill.  In reading his remarks in Colossians 2:8, one may have the impression that Paul has changed his tune on the use and value of Philosophy.  Is he forbidding its use all together?  No.  Rather he is warning his readers of misusing Philosophy or uncritically accepting all of the answers that Philosophy offers to the questions raised by people about the meaning and purpose of life.

Paul still used philosophical categories, in a sparing way, to demonstrate the validity of Christianity over against the paganism of his day.  For instance, whenever He states Christ to be the "fulness of the Godhead bodily" in Colossians 2:9, the word used for "fulness" is taken straight out of the pagan Gnosticism of which he was battling.  The Gnostics taught that "the fulness" was an impersonal force that revealed itself in varying levels or "emanations" of lesser deities and beings. 

By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul took this Greek Philosophical concept and turned it on its head, taking every thought opposed to Christ and bring it under subjection to Christ's authority. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).  Moses and the children of Israel took the gold of the Egyptians given to them during their Exodus out of Egypt to use in the construction of the tabernacle - demonstrating God's Sovereignty over that false system.  Paul like-wise too took elements of the false system he was battling and revealed how the Gospel calls every Christian to be more than a conqueror.  Christ indeed is Supreme, personal and above any so-called thought of man, philosophy or otherwise.

Sifting everything through scripture
Paul showed that Christ is the embodiment of all authority, and that He alone is the mediator between God and men.  He is the personal Fulness of Deity who revealed Himself in history, and who can be know by Grace through faith.  In one verse Paul undermines an entire philsophical system, with some of the very tools used by the philosophers themselves! 

There are going to be times when encountering any system of thought outside of scripture that believers have to discern whether such a system is valuable, of limited value or of no value whatsoever.  If questions raised by Philosophers mirror those addressed in scripture, then we may have something useful.  The discernment comes in not using the answers given by that system. 

Keeping in mind the distinction between General and Special Revelation
God's General revelation of Himself through nature and special revelation of Himself in scripture can be used to explain why we find similarity of questions raised in Philosophy and scripture.  No doubt Paul had this assumption going into his dialogue with the Athenian Philsophers on Mars Hill in Acts 17.  Paul identified the common questions raised by the pagan philosophy and sacred scripture - testifying to the former's reaction to God's general revelation in nature and God's special revelation in the Bible.  However, Paul was also quick to direct his sermon's answers to those questions to the Special revelation of scripture. 

Conclusions on the biblical relationship between philosophy and Christianity
Questions about meaning, purpose and life, so often raised by philosophy and scripture alike, can only be clearly answers by scripture alone.  Christians can use Philosophy, providing they are careful, discerning,  and draw conclusions that mesh with the biblical record, rather than the philosophical system.  The idea of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) is an important doctrine to uphold in this discussion.  Sola Scriptura is defined as the Bible being the final authority on all matters in comparison to secondary forms of authority - whether it be science, philosophy or tradition.    

One author has noted that "all truth is God's truth".  As we consider how to evaluate things like Philosophy in comparison to scriptures, I would offer this additional thought: God's Truth, perfectly revealed in scripture, discerns the truth He reveals in creation.  There is "truth" that we as human beings imperfectly perceive in disciplines such as science, math, and philosophy and then there is TRUE Truth which is perfectly revealed in scripture alone.  

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