Reflections on Biblical and
Christian Philosophy

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Philosophy: Big Books, Famous Names, Unusual Words, Complex Arguments – I Am Confused.  Where Do I Begin?

or

An Introduction to Philosophy for Christians Who Are New to the Subject

If you are just "getting into" philosophy and wondering what it is all about, I can save you some difficulty.  I started this website after more than 20 years in medical ethics and two years working out a Biblical worldview in more than 20 different areas.  As I worked out that worldview, the most difficult areas were mathematics and philosophy.  I did not get very far with mathematics.  I only got far enough to have a few foundational principles for that area.  The difficulty was the vocabulary.  One has to learn the "language" of mathematics to advance into its theory.  I did read enough, however, to know that mathematicians who understand philosophy do not understand why man's mind corresponds to mathematics.  (Hint--God made man's mind to be able to think in mathematical terms.)  The same is true for philosophy, perhaps more so.  Not only does philosophy have an extensive and complex vocabulary, but also a long and complex history! 

It does not seem, in general, that philosophers who are Christians want to simplify philosophy for their brothers and sisters.  I am not sure why this situation exists.  Part of the reason may be that that they are philosophers first and Christians secondarily. (See philosophical imperialism.)  For most of my career, I have read, studied, and written about Christians in psychology and medicine.  The large majority there are psychologists or physicians first and Christians secondarily.  I am convinced that the same is true in philosophy (and all other disciplines--education, economics, arts, etc.).  Since they have spent all their training and time in philosophy, perhaps it is "natural" to think that way.

But, there is a serious problem with their understanding and presentation of philosophy ... they diminish the power of faith in the Scriptures.  Much, perhaps most, of the discussion in matters of Christianity and philosophy has centered around faith and reason.  Both Anselm and Aquinas attempted to "prove" God and some theology by "reason" alone.  They were unsuccessful and contributed greatly to the misrepresentation of faith to reason since that time.  About 800 years before them, Saint Augustine did understand.  He said, "I believe in order to understand."  Faith is prior to reason.  But, that discussion is too long for our consideration here.  It has been discussed in a number of articles on this site.

What I am going to do here is to summarize principles of what I think is a truly Biblical approach to philosophy.  As an introduction, these will only be brief, but all will be developed more fully in other articles on this site.

1.  We can all learn to think more clearly.  Socrates, one of the earliest philosophers, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  I call this statement a “truism.”  That is, it is only partially true.  For the Christian, any life for Christ is worth living.  And, for a Christian to know anything about his faith, he must have examined his life and beliefs to some extent.  But, Christian brother or sister, I daresay that there is further examination and application of the Scriptures to your life and worship.  Thinking about philosophy and learning its tools will greatly assist you in that effort.

2.  You will need to do some reading and make some effort in your thinking.  Another truism is that “You only get out of something what you put into it.”  Another is, “You are what you read.”  While my goal is to have you get as much as possible from a study of philosophy from a simplified approach, you will still need to do some study and thinking.

3.  Perhaps the two most important areas of philosophy for you as a Christian are definitions and logic.  “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).  If I were to ask you now to write a definition of faith, could you do it?  Would it be a definition that would fit every verse in the Bible, including James 2:19, “even the devils have faith” (believe).  What about love, joy, peace, etc.  Definitions are important, especially Biblical definitions.  (I have discussed faith more fully elsewhere.)

4.  You already know a lot.  You can carry on a conversation with another person.  You can read a paper or book.  You can memorize Bible verses.  You already have hundreds, if not thousands of beliefs.  You are already “doing philosophy.”  Now you just need to find out in what areas that you need to think and reason more carefully.

5.  Philosophy can drive you nuts.  Why cannot the rabbit catch the turtle if he only goes one-half of the distance to the rabbit each time he moves?  Why is the carefully thinking person not able to be absolutely certain about anything?  Where does faith end and reason begin, or reason end and faith begin?  Why do the great philosophers disagree about so many concepts?  Can truth be found anywhere?  I will teach or direct you to the teaching on how to have faith, be sufficiently certain, avoid some of the quagmires of philosophy, and many other skills. 

6.  You can witness better and understand your faith much better.  Many Christians are afraid to witness because of the questions that unbelievers might ask.  You can learn some basics that will answer many of unbelievers’ questions and have your faith strengthened at the same time.  Many Christians think they need to take great leaps of faith, even “leaping into the dark.”  God have provided many reasons and much stronger arguments for a Biblical faith than any other form of reasoning.

7.  Do not let the use of big words scare you.  Most “philosophical” words (not unlike theological words), are synonyms of words that you already know.  For example, a “proposition” is simply a declarative sentence, that is, a sentence that makes a statement about something.  “All dogs bark” is a proposition.  “Empiricism” is simply believing that what you observe is real.  “Metaphysics” is simply how was the world made and how did people come to be on planet earth.   “Ethics” is simply a study of what is right and wrong behavior.

8.  Do let the extensive and complicated vocabulary scare you.  “Of the making of philosophical terms there is no end” (my own personal quote). This vocabulary obscures the main important issues of philosophy.  It also obscures the power of philosophy to you, as a Christian.  Unless you plan to pursue more study in philosophy, you do not need to know those terms.  You will miss nothing relative to a greater understanding of God’s world and His teaching for you. 

9.  Read several books by Gordon H. Clark before you read any other books on philosophy, if you plan to pursue more philosophy.  I praise God that He directed me to Gordon Clark early in my Christian thinking.  There is no other philosopher whom I would recommend fully and completely.  (And, I have read many Christians in this area.)  My suggested readings of Dr. Clark are: Thales to Dewey, Christian Philosophy, Faith and Saving Faith, A Christian View of Men and Things and Religion, Reason, and Revelation.  But, you may want to peruse among his many titles at The Trinity Foundation and choose what title interests you.

10.  An understanding of faith is central to understanding the process of philosophy and central to this website.  I have already mentioned that Saint Augustine knew the proper relationship of faith and reason.  All positions of philosophy are based upon faith.  The reasoning is simply this.  All philosophies are based upon a first principle or first philosophy, just as geometry is based upon axioms (a synonym of first principle.)  That first principle cannot be reasoned (logically) and cannot be proved.  In fact, no one is properly required to “prove” his first principle, simply because, by definition, it is first, foundational, basic, and upon which everything else is based.  On this basis all arguments are circular and tautological.

The empiricist is one who finds truth with his senses (sight, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting).  The trustworthiness of his senses is his first principle.  The rationalist believes that he can reason his way to knowledge.   For him, sensation is just perception of the mind.  The pragmatist rests upon “what works,” that is, what is most useful to someone or some people.  All philosophies start somewhere with some first principle.

God posits that His first principle for mankind is His Special Revelation, the 66 books of the Protestant Bible.  To that “axiom” empiricism, rationalism, and pragmatism must bow their authority.

 11.  The tools of philosophy and theology are the same, but perhaps philosophy is more explicit in their identification and application.  The tools of philosophy are logical thinking, accurate definitions, and precise grammar and sentence structure.  Logical thinking not only includes formal syllogisms, but avoiding logical fallacies and other agreed upon rules.  While the tool of precise definitions is supposed to be a part of philosophy, the opposite seems to be the case for philosophers.  So, you will need to avoid this error.  I will help.  And, you may need to improve your grammar and sentence structure.  All these processes are necessary to better theology and philosophy.

12.  Philosophy and religion have the same subject matter.  Philosophy is the pursuit of understanding the universe and the role of a person in it.  Religion is the pursuit of understanding the universe and the role of a person in it.  This common meaning is rarely identified either by Christians or non-Christians in philosophy.  Strange.  If you want to test my position, read through the quotes in the Survey of Philosophy.  Philosophy began as an attempt to divorce any concept of the supernatural from any ultimate questions.  Then, then the Scholastics attempted to prove the existence of God and some basic theological positions without Scripture.  Thus, reason became divorced from faith and vice-versa.  The problem continues today as perhaps the most basic conflict in social ethics and politics. 

All ethics and politics are faith positions—there are no exceptions.  To separate “peoples of faith” from anyone else is to misunderstand greatly what the most basic issues are.  All politics (and law) are based upon ethics.  All ethics are either one’s opinion alone, agreement with an authority, or a majority vote.  The choice of any one of these and the source is “faith-based,” not a basis in reason.  Finally, one author has published a study and a book that identifies everyone as belonging to some faith group.

13.  Any discussion of philosophy must first decide whether it is addressed to Christians or non-Christians.  Philosophy for Christians is limited to the tools of philosophy.  The Scriptures answer the questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  The only other area is logic and formal reasoning.  Philosophy for non-Christians is apologetics, a defense of Biblical beliefs.  Here, the philosopher Christian has a great role: to answer all the objections of pagans.  For the Christian, philosophy and theology are the same.  For the non-Christian, philosophy is a religion that is limited to the reasoning of man.  For more, see this article.

14.  Regeneration.  What happens to a person when they are “born again” (John 3)?  Does their epistemology or metaphysics change?  One of the great changes that takes place in regeneration is the acceptance (belief) that the Bible is true.  The problem of metaphysics is answered in Genesis 1:1, and the problem of epistemology is answered in John 1:1 and John 1:9.  The problem of ethics (right and wrong) is answered in every command and instruction in the Bible.  For more on regeneration, click here and here.

15.  Free choice does not exist—determinism and predestination are true.  No one chooses their nature (genes) or nurture (parents and early schooling).  Any decision that is made thereafter is unavoidably based upon those factors.  Every person is “programmed” to be what he or she is.  Predestination is inescapable.  One’s only choice is whether that predestination is random chance or Personal.  However, no one is coerced by God or any other power—he is “free” in the sense that all his choices are his own.  He just lacks the ability and the omniscience to act any other way that that which he chooses.

16.  There is a limit to what we can explain.  How does gravity work?  Is light a wave or a particle?  How does electricity travel over a wire and not use up all its electrons?  One sometimes hears that God is only used to fill in the “gaps” or our understanding.  However, all “reality” that we perceive is based in Him, “the substance of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). Things are the way that they are because God made them that way.  It is not appropriate to explain some phenomena by “God made it that way,” it is the ultimate metaphysic (truth). 

17.  Biblical Christianity solves the problem of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  The traditional branches of philosophy are: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics (aesthetics and morality).  Logic is sometimes included, but it is more methodology than a philosophical position.  The Bible simply and powerfully answers these three areas—see 14 above where these statements are made.

Biblical Christianity posits a problem with the universe and man's knowledge and being ... The Fall.  No philosophy posits that a severely destructive process happened at the very beginning of man's and the universe's existence.  Neither man nor nature is "normal."  Both are severely damaged and any reasoning about them must proceed from that understanding.  And, the Bible provides "salvation" from that damage.  So, Biblical Christianity must have a division of soteriology added to those traditional to Christianity. 

Biblical Christianity posits a God who has revealed a great deal of Himself in the Bible.  Thus, theology—literally, the study of God— must be added to traditional branches of philosophy.

18.  Necessity of systematics.  The world of philosophy and theology is often one of great confusion by both laymen and professionals alike.  It is quite easy to hold views on every subject from A to Z, if each view does not have to fit into a system.  For example, Roman Catholics and Protestants can never have agreement on doctrine.  Roman Catholics appeal to a Bible which contains the Apocrypha while the Protestants limit themselves to the 66 books of the Canon.  Roman Catholics also appeal to their church tradition, magisterium, and the Pope speaking ex cathedra, neither of which do Protestants recognize as an authority. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms are the most complete, Biblical, and concise system anywhere in Christianity.  It stands as the supreme example of systematic principles in both theology and philosophy.  Its philosophical, as well as its theological, status is grounded in Chapter One, which is also its First or Most Basic Principle—the 66 books of the Protestant Bible.

19.  Necessity of definition.  The fuzzy way that Christians use words is confusing at best and may sometimes be blasphemous at worst.  How do you resolve “love covers a multitude of sins” and “if you love me, keep my commandments?”  How do you gain enough faith to be healed, as in “go your way, your faith has made you whole?”  (Actually, you cannot.  Such miraculous faith is a gift.)  Examples of common Biblical words that are misused: love, faith, joy, peace, good, evil, world, know, truth, spirit, mind, heart, law, grace, and soul.  Any Christian with the most basic Biblical knowledge will realize that these are central to any real understanding of Christianity.  Without precise definitions, Christianity is doomed to mediocrity in form and practice, as well as being impotent to influence its culture.  So, reader  begin to develop your definitions on these words, today!

20.  Death should be the prime motivator for serious philosophy.  It is amazing to me that philosophers speak on and on, as though their audiences have unlimited time.  Death is the great certainty in life.  Now, one can argue about “certainty” in epistemology and “justified true belief.”  But, ladies and gentlemen, this life is finite.  Because it is finite, the “examined life” (Socrates) should face that fact first and foremost.  In one’s lifetime, he cannot read all the philosophers.  He cannot study and experience all the religions of the earth.  But he better quickly decide the meaning of his own death and possible life thereafter.  There are only three possibilities.  (A) Nothing.  (B) Heaven or Hell.  (C)  Nothingness in something—some sort of non-self-conscious continued existence in reincarnation.  Among these options and against them is the great claim of Jesus Christ, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No man comes to the Father but by me.”  By the logic of noncontradiction, he has challenged all other religions and philosophies.  While God has given mankind One Book which can easily be read in a short time, philosophers and other religions have given us many books that cannot be rbead in a lifetime, even if that were one’s full time occupation!

22.  The Bible just takes people and God as they are.  The Bible simply assumes its own metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, truth, and anthropology.  (See regeneration above.)  It is not ethereal, illogical, and mysterious as the Eastern religions.  It requires faith and reason, not one or the other.   It presents people in the Bible with all their superficial and dreadful sinfulness.  The entire Bible is the presentation of man’s total depravity and God’s mercy towards His people.  Even Christ’s lineage reflects this “dualism” with adulterers, murderers, and pagans.  And, as many texts demonstrate, the Bible is systematic and coherent (moreso, than any other religion or philosophy).

23.  The great question in philosophy and all of life is, “Who says so?”   There are only four choices.  (A) Hedonism: “everyone does his own thing.”  But this approach will not work because everyone has to live in family or society.  (B)  A majority vote.  In this system, all minority opinions get crushed, as the unborn babies in America are crushed because of majority vote on the Supreme Court and capitulation of the states to this “non-law.”  (C)  Authoritarianism or tyranny.  One man determines what is right and wrong.  (D)  A Biblical system.  Only the Bible can determine what is right for the individual, family, society, and nations because God has fit them all together under His Lordship.

24.  “All truth is God’s truth,” “integration,” and “the Bible is true about everything to which it speaks.”   Most of the time when these phrases are used, they denigrate the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.  “All truth is God’s truth” tries to equate natural revelation with special revelation.  However, views of natural revelation are tainted with man’s presuppositions, and the issue of how truth is determined is rarely answered.  “Integration” is essentially about the same issues.  Man’s knowledge is considered to be on a par with God’s knowledge, as revealed in Scripture.  Since they are equals, they can be “integrated,” with some man deciding which authority rules on a given subject.  “The Bible is true about everything to which it speaks” must be expanded to include “and it speaks to everything.”  While the Bible does not use the language of science, for example, it does posit a thoroughgoing metaphysic that everything “material” is based upon that which is spiritual, that is, God Himself.

 

 


 

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