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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Tim Bertolet

Philosophy for the Rest of Us

September 11, 2015 •

While being a philosopher and/or being a theologian can be a vocational calling in an individual’s life, most of us will never call ourselves either philosophers or theologians in any professional sense of those terms. However, knowing a bit of philosophy with our theology and understanding how to dialogue with individuals who have more philosophical backgrounds can be helpful in our evangelistic and apologetic efforts as everyday believers.

For example, if one reads a few of the works of the so-called ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennent, as numerous reviewers have pointed out, they generally lack an understanding of basic philosophical argumentation (let alone their abysmal understanding of Christian theology). Yet in our everyday interactions with people, we will find those who consider such atheistic screeds appealing and rationally compelling. For the Christian, being a little philosophically aware can be an extra tool in responding to such arguments.

Let us consider two Biblical boundaries markers that can guide us, whether we are professionals or laypersons, in the use of philosophy in our theological, apologetic, and evangelistic efforts.

First, we ought to be careful that we are not held captive to philosophy rather than Jesus Christ and His Lordship. Do not let philosophy become a siren song that becomes more appealing than God and His Son Jesus Christ. Do not let it become more authoritative than Christ and His Word.

God’s Word warns us of this much: Col. 2:8 “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” In this context, philosophy and human traditions includes alternative religions that emphasis worship or communion with angels and ascetic practices (Col. 2:18). In the twenty-first century, we might consider how some “Christians” today find eastern religious practice of meditation appealing and practice methods of communion with ‘the divine’ that are not biblical but false.

Occasionally, one will find professional theologians who consider philosophy more important in the formation of theology than ability to solidly exegete the Word of God and draw systematic conclusions from it. There are times that certain contemporary philosophical debates or questions will determine where our field of engagement needs to happen. We should be aware of these things and ready to engage. However, we must not let philosophy become the engine that drives our theology.

Second, there are appropriate times to redeem and use philosophy particularly in our cultural engagement. Think of it as a sort of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ without succumbing to them. This, I believe, is illustrated by the Apostle Paul in Acts 17.

In this passage, Paul stands up in the Aeropagus and proclaims the resurrection of Christ. It is the very spot, where according to legend in Aeschylus’ Eumenides Apollo stood and declared “Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection” (lines 647-648). So Paul confronts a worldview in Acts 17 without compromising.

Yet, Paul is aware enough of Greek literature, that in Acts 17:28 he can quote Epimenides the Cretan and a part of Aratus’ Phenomena that is actually a hymn to Zeus (See F.F. Bruce, Acts, 338-9). Acts 17:28 read “for “In him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”  While Paul may find a point of contact, he takes what is stated in these texts and re-contextualizes them to mean something different than intended. Paul is not talking about Zeus, he is confronting false God and explaining we are all actually created by the true God. It is as if to say “even your philosopher recognized that god sustains us and I’m now giving you the identity of the true God.”

There may be times where despite different contexts and arguments, we can find a point of agreement or a point of contact to engage. Think of it like a hook that may start with something an unbeliever is familiar with so that you might walk them to Biblical arguments they are not familiar with.

Let me give one example. I am by no means an expert on Nietzsche, yet he is one of the few atheists who actually followed the implications of atheism as applied to ethics and the meaning of life. He follows the argument where it leads: to nihilism. Far too many atheists today, want to affirm God’s non-existence on the one hand and then on the other hand carry through with their ideas of social justice, compassion, care and the things that illustrate that life has meaning and value outside of just our self-assignment of its value. In our response, one cannot help but ponder that Solomon in Ecclesiastes beat Nietzsche to his conclusions. Even more, in our Western capitalistic context where Americans have an embarrassment of wealth maybe it is time we return the book of Ecclesiastes to our apologetic toolbox.

On a more popular level, many who uphold Darwinism, biological evolution, and forms of sociological evolution/progress rarely apply the concept ‘survival of the fittest’ with any ruthlessness or consistency nor would we want them too. But this is a point worth pressing home. Being a little bit philosophically aware at some of these points can help the everyday believer respond to unbelievers who are still image bearers of God and as such have the marks of consciences, even in their blind unbelief. 

There are others who are called to take inaction with philosophy further and even perhaps for some it becomes a vocation. While the average believer may not go that far, we live in a world where we are bombarded with competing ideas, values, and arguments. Again, we should be aware and can appropriately use philosophy but we should not become captive to them.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.



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