Friday, May 6, 2011

The Benefit of Philosophy in Theology and Apologetics

Some people, when they hear what it is I am interested in theologically and academically, listen politely for a while, but ultimately say something like, “We are limited by man’s understanding.” Sometimes they’ll even say “these kind of questions are prompted by satanic influences,” or “the Bible forbids getting involved with philosophy and vain janglings.” Is this true? If it is, it should be noted interpretation of the Bible requires inference, so that philosophy must be done on at least some level. If it is not, what role does it play in apologetics and theology?

First, philosophical reflection can influence theology greatly.

Suppose one believes, philosophically, that divine omniscience cannot coexist with human freedom. On the basis of this philosophical reflection, then, one either denies divine omniscience to be true, or denies human freedom. From there, one’s entire theological perspective may be altered dramatically as implications arise.

In a less dramatic and more useful (biblically) way, I have discovered certain “problems” in theology can be readily solved once philosophical reflection gets involved. Take, for instance, the problem of Jesus’ ability to sin. There is quite a contemporary debate among laymen as to whether or not Jesus could have sinned. However, applying possible world semantics, we can point out if Christ could have sinned then there is a possible world in which he is not God. But since God is a necessary being, either Jesus could not have sinned or he is not God at all. Jesus is God; therefore, Jesus could not have sinned.[1] Other problems in theology may be solved this way. In short, problems in theology can be exacerbated by bad philosophy or solved by good philosophy. Since philosophy is inescapable, which would you prefer?

Second, philosophical reflection can influence apologetics greatly.

Perhaps one of the largest problems in apologetics is the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. Pure theological reflection only (if there is such a thing) can help those who are already saved greatly in this area. The answer for them is something like this: you have trusted God already for your salvation, and you know he is good. Trust him to be good here. This is a very biblical response, and I would never minimize it for the believer. But for the unbeliever this response comes across as intellectual hand-waving.

Philosophy can help us to question even the questions behind the objections to God’s existence. Further, it can help us provide an offensive case for Christianity (instead of merely defending it). Philosophy permeates everything we as Christians do. If we evangelize, we do so in a particular way; we think this way is best for this person. Since we cannot escape philosophy, we should do it in a way that benefits both Christians and unbelievers.

Third, God may use philosophical reflection to bring you closer to him.

Since God is truth it only stands to reason that knowing more of him will bring you closer to him in many cases. As we do philosophy, theology, and apologetics, we must remember that this is not primarily an intellectual engagement. This is primarily an engagement of the heart. If this sounds cliché to you, then you’re the one I am talking to. I’m speaking to myself, and to anyone who is tempted to think and check their heart at the door (even though the reverse is a far more prevalent problem).

Many people seem to fail at Matthew because they think the Lord is speaking in terms of compartmentalization. They think Jesus is saying, “love God with this, and then that, and then this,” and this stutter-step way of thinking will leave you unbalanced every time. Jesus’ point is very simple. Love God with all of your being. Can you love God without being philosophically trained? Absolutely. Can God use philosophy to help you in your knowledge of him? Absolutely. Should top-notch apologists and theologians use philosophy? Without question!

                [1] One could go to the dramatic move of claiming God is not a necessary being, but that leads us to deny that God is the creator of all reality external to him; that is, some things could have come into being without his influence (which seems contrary to biblical and intuitive truth).

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  1. Thoughtful post. I have also encountered folks who say philosophy is influenced by Satan or that the Bible forbids our study of it. They've also provided similar justifications in my experience, that it's "just man's reasoning." They say often say it pejoratively with a condescending tone.

    I disagree with them. I don't think philosophy is itself Satanic, or that the Bible forbids studying philosophy.

    I find it interesting that these folks tend not to question the morality of science, because it is also based on "human reason"

    Just a thought.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Great post, Randy! I especially appreciate that you mentioned that people should not try to check their heart at the door. I remember when I first started with apologetics, I struggled with that a lot.

  3. Hi Paul thanks for commenting! :) That's definitely a good thought concerning science. My personal theory is that people are all too happy to debate things within Christian theology they think they know about. But when something comes along they haven't heard of, that's when they play that card. It allows one to disengage from thinking about it.

  4. Hi Luke, thanks for the kind words! I still struggle with my heart being in evangelization for unbelievers and equipping for believers sometimes. I'll simply be out to win--that's just as sinful as shutting off one's mind! :)

  5. Hi Randy we met at ISCA. Good post! There certainly are humanistic philosophies inspired by demons (Col 2:8),but that is why the Lord raises up some "to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). CS Lewis said it this way, "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered." I'm afraid some folks are intellectually lazy (or incapable) and just don't want to think that hard.

  6. Hi Cris (that is you, right?!). Thanks for commenting! I agree with you 100%. I can sympathize with those who will never truly be able to do advanced philosophy and theology, and I would never say God requires of them such things. They would be required, however, to do the best they can to have an answer for the hope that is within them--even if that answer is their own changed life and testimony!


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