[Originally published as the first half of Beware of Philosophy]
A colleague of mine once said, “Stay away from philosophy. The Bible says that philosophy is bad and that we should avoid it.” But does the Bible really say that? What exactly is philosophy, and what does the Bible really say about it?
The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word meaning “love of knowledge” or “love of wisdom.” In this sense, the Bible is very pro-philosophy. The Bible commends obtaining both knowledge and wisdom. Proverbs 2:6 states, “For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Proverbs 3:13 states, “How blessed is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding.” But what is meant by the English word ‘philosophy’ and does the Bible really condemn it?
The modern term ‘philosophy’ has multiple lexical definitions, including, “all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts,” “a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology,” and “an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs.” These are compatible definitions, and express the modern conception of the word ‘philosophy,’ that it is a discipline in which we analyze the logical grounds of fundamental beliefs, particularly in one of three sub-branches:
The study of the nature of reality is called metaphysics. Questions in this field are:
- What is the nature of the universe?
- Is it one or many?
- Does God exist, and if so, what is His nature?
- What is the nature of man?
- What is the relationship between physical objects and conceptual ideas?
If you have ever asked or attempted to answer any of these questions, you have done metaphysics.
The study of the nature of truth/knowledge is called epistemology. The main question this field of study attempts to answer is:
- How do we know what we know?
Other specific questions are:
- What is truth?
- How do we define ‘truth?’
- What is the relationship of truth to knowledge?
- What kinds of questions can be answered by the field of science?
- What kinds of questions can be answered by the discipline of logic?
If you have ever asked or attempted to answer any of these types of questions, you have done epistemology.
The study of the nature of morality is called ethics. A person with ethical questions might ask:
- What activities are morally right?
- What activities are morally wrong?
- What do ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean?
Most people have given more thought to this branch of philosophy than the other two. We have been taught from our youth that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that punishment is the right reaction when we violate certain moral standards. In any case, if you have ever reflected on then nature of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or have had any opinions on which behaviors fall into which category, then you have participated in ethics.
We must admit that nearly everyone has given some thought to at least some of the above questions. People have beliefs about the nature of the universe, God, truth, ethics, and so on. Hence, everyone has done philosophy. Is this a sin? Does the Bible really condemn us in asking or attempting to answer such questions?
Philosophy in the Bible
On the contrary. The Bible itself encourages us to reason, and gives us the foundational information necessary to answer all the above questions.
“What is the nature of the universe?”
The Bible gives the answer: the universe is the creation of God (Genesis 1:1). This verse also answers the question “Does God exist?”
Consider the question,
“What is the nature of God?”
The Bible gives the answer: God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, triune spirit (Genesis 17:1, Jeremiah 32:17, Job 42:2, Psalm 147:5, John 16:30, Jeremiah 23:24, Psalm 139:7-10, Hebrews 1:8, Genesis 1:1-2, John 4:24).
“What is the nature of man?”
The answer: man is a creation of God, and has been made in God’s image (both male and female) but has rebelled against God and is now sinful by nature (Genesis 1:26-27, 3:6-7, Romans 5:12).
The Bible also gives us the foundation for answering epistemological claims:
“What is the nature of truth?”
The answer is: truth is that which corresponds to the mind of God. When Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life,” he was making a philosophical (epistemological) claim (John 14:6). Jesus is truth because He corresponds perfectly to the mind of God since He is God in the flesh (Colossians 2:9).
And of course, the Bible makes numerous ethical claims. It implicitly defines ‘right’ as that which corresponds to God’s approval (Ezekiel 18:25,29, 1 Kings 11:33). God’s ways are necessarily right, and anyone who deviates from God’s ways is morally wrong (Isaiah 55:7-8). The commandments of Scripture give specific instances of those things of which God approves or does not approve.
The Bible encourages us to defend the faith (Jude 3, 1 Peter 3:15), to reason with unbelievers (Acts 17:17), and to preach the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20). When we defend the faith, we are proclaiming the nature of reality (metaphysics), helping unbelievers to distinguish truth from error (epistemology), and encouraging them to repent of sin (ethics).
To defend the faith and preach the gospel, we must of necessity do some philosophy.
We must also note that the claim, “we should not do philosophy” is an ethical claim, which is a branch of philosophy. So anyone claiming we should not do philosophy is necessarily doing philosophy. The claim is self-refuting.
God created us to be rational creatures—to think about the nature of the universe, truth, and morality. These are philosophical issues, and we should consider them. And people do consider these issues.
So everyone does philosophy. Not everyone does it well. Not everyone reflects on these issues in a fully self-conscious way. But we all have a philosophy—a view of the universe, truth, and ethics.
Unfortunately, most people have a philosophy that is contrary to Scripture. And that is the problem. The problem is not philosophy in some generic sense, but rather unbiblical philosophies. Any way of thinking that is contrary to God’s character is empty, ultimately futile, and leads to destruction (Proverbs 16:25).