Reformed Epistemology: Philosophical Imperialism? A False Religion?
Is Reformed epistemology a legitimate
approach for Christians?
Does it provide insights necessary to the Christian
faith? Is 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
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.
Epistemology concerns “how do we know… how do we
really know… who do
we know with certainty?” 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
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
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.”
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.
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
Virtually no other “religions” other than Christianity are
K. Scott Oliphint simplifies matters.
In our now “enlightened” context, the terms
reason, when discussed
together, fall under the rubric of philosophy of religion…. this
is terminology used to designate an old, old task, that of
So, with respect to the tasks philosophy sets for itself,
philosophy of religion
is fairly new terminology.
(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
had his Ideas.
Kant’s ultimate was the human mind itself.
Descartes had to have some idea of God to tie his system
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,
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,
Thus, Frame identifies the relationship
between Christian philosophy and theology.
philosophy is a Biblical philosophy.
A Christian philosophy that does not posit Special
Revelation as the governing authority is an illegitimate
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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…”
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.
Dear reader, do not pass lightly over these
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!
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.”
Philosophy has no answers in either metaphysics or
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.
Philosophy is lauded for its Christian discussions, but
“Christian” there ranges from virtual secular humanism to
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
Does Philosophy Have
Anything to Offer?
The strength of philosophy is to ask
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
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!