Aren’t Christians supposed to be simple minded, superstitious and anti-intellectual? After-all, that is the picture of Christianity that the popular media portrays. However, a question needs to be asked: is the Christianity portrayed in the media really what Jesus taught?
The objection to religious belief is oft made that believers in Christ are simply not living a morally and intellectually worthy lifestyle. Either they accept the claims of Christianity on an emotional or flimsy basis, or they simply treat others in ways that are clearly immoral. The Dali Lama is famous for saying that the reason he was not a Christian was because of Christians! But does that tell us anything about Jesus? All such an objection does is to show that the particular people in question are living a certain way – but whether that’s what Jesus taught is a different issue and isn’t even addressed by such an objection. The Dali Lama may – rightfully – judge that many Christians are living a lifestyle that doesn’t fall into line with what Jesus taught: but that simply shows that these people probably aren’t really Christians after-all (they might be what is termed “cultural Christians”).
Although it’s most likely true that a large number of those who calls themselves Christian are not living in accordance with Jesus’ teachings, this doesn’t tell us anything about Christianity proper. What one must do is look at the teachings and claims of Christ, and then test those.
And here’s the point I want to make in accordance with the topic to follow: just because the vast majority of Christian’s today are not living intellectually rigorous lives, it doesn’t mean that it is what Christianity claims and teaches. In fact, Jesus and the apostles taught that all Christians must be intellectually rigorous in his or her life. This article will address that topic.
The format of this study is as follows: I want to look at what philosophy is, whether the New Testament tells us that Christians should use and learn philosophy, and finally I want to describe some basic tools and categories that philosophy can equip us with.
What is Philosophy? Is It Biblical?
First, let’s look at what philosophy is. Simply defined, it is: “Thinking carefully about important issues, and the tools needed to do so, in order to gain truth.”
The question to ask for our next purpose is, Does the Bible command believers to be able to think well about important matters?
Let’s look at a few portions of scriptures to find out:
Matthew 10:16 – “[Jesus said,] Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “But examine all things; hold fast to what is good.”
1 Peter 3:15-16 – “But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect . . .”
A few more scriptures to check – Isaiah 1:18, Acts 17:2, Acts 18:28, Romans 12:2, and 2 Cor. 10:4-5
Jesus, Paul and Peter all command believers to be involved with life on a rational level. They also practiced it themselves. Believers are to be diligent in honoring God by using their minds and growing in their intellectual life. The scriptures are clear that God has important purposes for this:
(a) Being able to discern God’s will (Romans 12:2).
(b) Being able to discern the truth and keep from falsehoods (1 Thess. 5:21)
(c) Being able to reveal and refute false beliefs (2 Cor. 10) and then demonstrate why Christianity is true (1 Peter 3:15).
(d) The truly rational person will recognize his inability to be morally perfect and trust in God for his/her forgiveness (Isaiah 1:18)
Also, (e) understanding and being aware of the evidences that support the truth of Christianity will serve to build and strengthen our trust in God.
Finally, (f) our philosophical foundations inevitably guide how we form some of our theology! (Examples: free-will vs. God’s sovereignty; God’s relation to time, the nature of man; the issue of miracles and nature’s laws, how God’s “omni-attributes” are defined, etc.)
Philosophy In Christian Tradition
Throughout it’s history, has the church treasured philosophy? If Jesus and the apostles commanded that we be good thinkers, then shouldn’t that be reflected somewhat in the Christian tradition?
I’d like offer that the practice of thinking well has generally been considered a virtue within the history of Christianity. Although within the last two hundred years or so this virtue has been viewed as a kind of opposition to belief in God, if one were to look at the names of the most influential Christians from today going back throughout the centuries then they would find that a large number of these people were some of the most well known philosophers, scientists, and general thinkers known to man.
Modern science itself was birthed through the efforts and contributions of mostly Bible believing Christians (Boyle, Kepler, Ray, Pasteur, Newton, Kelvin, Maxwell, Ampere, Faraday, Harvey, Galilei, Copernicus, Da Vinci, Pascal, Mendel, etc.).
Many of the greatest philosophers were/are Christians (Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, Swinburne, Plantinga, etc.)
Also, most of the early church fathers were sort of philosophers in their own right (some being philosophers by professional trade) and they used their minds very well! Anyone who’s studied or read any of the early church fathers knows that most of them were dealing with intellectual issues, whether that be theological or philosophical.
I would like to present some quotes by two well known Christians who, I think, represent the overall tradition very well, in order to give us an understanding of this point:
John Wesley (major player in the reformation) said:
“Ought not a Minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness. . . . Is not some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic, (metaphysics), if not so necessary as [logic itself], yet highly expedient? Should not a Minister be acquainted with at least the general grounds of natural philosophy?”
“In an age in which infidelity abounds, do we observe [parents] carefully instructing their children in the principles of faith which they profess? Or do they furnish their children with arguments for the defense of that faith?”
We’ve seen that the historical Christian tradition has, in-large, valued the mind and the intellectual issues of life. This naturally springs from the Bible itself, which promotes and commands Christians to be diligent in cultivating and using the mind. Philosophy, being the process and tools to think carefully about important issues, is exactly what the Christian is looking for!
In the next part of this series we’ll look at philosophy itself and see how it can help us to think well and, of course, see what issues have been traditionally raised within the field and how they concern Christians.