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Why Christians Should Study Philosophy: A Reply to John MacArthur

written by Dr. Bernard J Mauser

Ambiguous or absurd statements are funny. When we don’t understand the meaning or absurdity we miss the joke. Verses in Scripture when considered alone have different meanings as well. For example, the Bible says in Psalm 14:1, “There is no God.” Many would be astonished by this phrase if they read nothing else and had no knowledge of the text in question. If you look at the entire sentence it says,

            The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Considered in its entirety, the meaning of the two claims are vastly different.

All people should understand, whether reading the Bible or anything else, that the context of a statement helps us discover its meaning. The context gives us the meaning as it considers all of the other statements that appear with the text. This surrounding material sheds light of the meaning of particular words and phrases. It can help a person discover the sense in which to understand what is expressed. Context is the most important principle of interpretation.

Not understanding the context of something can be insignificant or very significant. Considering cases where it is significant as it relates to the Bible, misunderstanding can be dangerous or even heretical. Heresy is simply false doctrine. Keep in mind that not everyone who misunderstands a verse of Scripture is a heretic. However, those who do have missed something about the context of the verse.

Consider for example those who think that Col. 2:8 shows that all philosophy is useless. The apostle Paul writes:

 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:8: NIV)

One pastor who follows this line of thought, John MacArthur, says philosophy “can’t show the cause of the world’s existence or offer moral direction.” He also warns that philosophy is a predator who makes captives of those who study it independent of divine revelation.

There are many reasons that this interpretation is mistaken. I will offer five here.

  1. Philosophy is Unavoidable

As one of my colleagues, J. Brian Huffling, has shown, “it is not possible to make statements about the world, God, or the Bible without taking philosophical positions, regardless of if you are aware of them or not.” Philosophy, which is the love of wisdom, considers the nature of all aspects of reality and properly thinking. Any claim you make about reality assumes a view about the nature of reality. Any study of the nature of things is a philosophical endeavor.

Consider just two areas of philosophy: metaphysics and logic.  The philosophical discipline of metaphysics explores the basis for what makes up everything that exists. You have a view of reality whether you’ve formally studied it or not. Whether you think Jesus is a literal gate with hinges (Jn. 10:9) depends upon what you think about the nature of reality. In other words, your metaphysical view about the natures of Jesus and a gate determines how you understand this Scripture. Moreover, any claim you make is either rational or not. Those that are rational are guided by the principles of logic. Even if you have not formally studied logic, all our lives we try to act and communicate in a logical way (or we would be not only incoherent but dead).

2. The Context of the Passage Warns against Bad Philosophy

Certainly Paul’s warning says that Christians need to worry about hollow and deceptive philosophy and elemental spiritual forces of the world. This bad philosophy depends on human tradition.

Christian apologist Richard Howe offers the following insights about this passage. If Paul is using the term philosophy as we use the term today, this still wouldn’t show that is useless to study philosophy. Just as physicians study infectious diseases to learn about them to help the rest of us, so too Christians should study philosophy in order to avoid being deceived by bad philosophy. However, if he is not using the term philosophy as we use the term today, it stands that we can still study philosophy. In either case, this passage does not show that we shouldn’t study philosophy or that it is useless to do so.

Many scholars actually hold that the term ‘philosophy’ in this verse is not to be understood in the way we use it today. Louw and Nida, for example, write that the word may mean “the way in which people understand things” or “the way in which people reason” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, New York, 1996: 384). The Jewish historian Josephus uses the term philosophy to refer to the religious worldview of the different Jewish sects (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18:1).

3. We are to Imitate Paul who Studied Philosophy

Paul himself studied and used philosophy to persuade people to accept Christianity. He reasons with the philosophers on the Areopagus (Acts 17), and quotes pagan philosophers (clearly having studied philosophy enough to memorize some of their material). He also tells believers to imitate him in many places (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Cor. 4:16).

4. There is a Parallel that Shows What Philosophy is Being Warned Against

Paul is warning against the philosophy that seeks to undermine the righteousness we have through Christ. This bad philosophy depends on two things. These are human tradition and the principles of this world. Immediately after this verse Paul explains the legalism associated with these two. In verses 20-23 he links the principles and human tradition, which is the philosophy (notice the word wisdom in the text), he had mentioned as taking people captive in verse 8. Note the parallels in italics.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

The human commands and teachings are the philosophy being condemned. In the passage Paul is condemning the philosophy that is legalism. The passage has nothing to do with philosophy and its branches (metaphysics, epistemology, logic, etc.) as we think of it today. Thus, the context of the verse shows that it is not talking about philosophy in the sense MacArthur (along with others) mention.

5. Studying Philosophy Helps us Love God with our Minds

The greatest command is that we should love God with all our minds. Philosophy helps us both understand and interpret Scripture. It also helps us to become clearer in our thinking in order to love God better. It has also helped many people consider the claims of Christianity by clearing intellectual objections so they could see the cross clearly. There are many who have come to the faith after considering the philosophical proofs for God’s existence, and others who chose to not kill their unborn children due to the moral guidance offered by the philosophical case for life independent of Scripture (contrary to MacArthur’s claim).

The greatest minds in Christendom have promoted the great use of philosophy as a tool to promote the faith. Paul admonishes us that ‘we are to demolish arguments and every thought that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.’ (2 Cor. 10:5) Justin Martyr, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and many other great saints saw the study of philosophy as a way to do this very thing.

Realize there is not really a choice as to whether we have a philosophy. All of us do. The real decision is between having a good or a bad philosophy. Avoiding any study of philosophy puts us in the greatest danger of deception. C.S. Lewis writes:  

To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether (Learning in War-Time).

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