Have you ever tried reasoning about things in the Scripture and try to go deeper into the truth of a topic only to have your conversation partner quote a portion of the Bible to you and then act as if that should end the discussion? If you have then you will recognize the following:
“Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit… (Colossians 2:8)”
The implication being that philosophy is bad or dangerous and that we shouldn’t go chasing after “speculations.” What I want to explore in this article is that this sort of mind set is not only in opposition to the Bible, but that it is crippling the church at large as far as our effectiveness not only to reach out to those who aren’t Christians (as it makes Christianity seem deeply anti-intellectual and irrational when the Bible paints the opposite picture) but also to the overall growth of us as Christians as well. Before we can examine whether the charges stick as far as philosophy being dangerous we need to first briefly examine what we mean by the word philosophy.
What Is Philosophy?
There are many definitions given for philosophy, but in its original sense it is the combination of two Greek words, philo and sophia which combined mean “the love of wisdom.”1 Philosophy seeks to answer life’s Big Questions (such as, “Why are we here?” or “Does God exist?” or “Can we know such things?”), but that is certainly not all it seeks to do, as Stephen B. Cowan and James Spiegel put it:
“Philosophy is properly about more than acquiring an intellectual grasp of answers to life’s Big Questions. It is about gaining insights which culminate in a life well-lived. Good philosophers not only think well but live virtuously.”2
Another definition that I really like for philosophy is from one of the greatest living Christian philosophers, Alvin Plantinga, who describes philosophical reflection as:
“Not much different from just thinking hard,”3
What Does the Bible Say About Loving Wisdom and Thinking Hard About Stuff?
It seems that many churches and many Christians have unfortunately bought into an unbiblical definition of “faith” where faith and facts do not mix. So it would mean that faith and reason are enemies. This is demonstrably false and unbiblical, although it is wildly popular. I dealt with that issue in this article “Faith and Reason: Friends Or Foes?” so I won’t rehash the discussion here, rather I will just reiterate that faith in the biblical sense is a “reasoned trust” in a person or the truth of a statement/proposition and it is certainly not “blind” or a “leap.”
When one surveys the biblical landscape for the portrait of a Christian what one finds may very well be a shock to their system! It is the portrait of an individual who is to seek, find and love wisdom as well as understanding (Proverbs 4:5-7). A person who values wisdom more than gold or precious stones (Proverbs 8:10-11), as well as being a mature thinker (1 Corinthians 14:20) who has moved on from the basics to grow in those more deep and advanced teachings with training in discernment (Hebrews 5:11-14). The portrait also shows one who is ready able to defend the truth of their faith (1 Peter 3:15), hold to sound doctrine and can instruct those who contradict and oppose it (Titus 1:9) as well as live exemplary moral lives (1 Timothy 4:7-11) by continually identifying and then eliminating any sin we may find present in our lives (1 John 3:9). This extends to and is required/applicable to all Christians generally, not just ministers or scholars.
This is certainly very contrary to the portrait the average person would paint when describing a Christian, and that is unfortunate. I would offer that it is due primarily, although not exclusively, to two things: Christians aren’t living up to the biblical portrait (nor are they exerting much effort to) and that those on the outside do not understand what the Bible actually teaches (and unfortunately many Christians do not either) and grossly misrepresent and seemingly depict Christians in the opposite way, namely as buffoons who blindly believe nonsense. Remember the definitions of philosophy given above in light of this emerging portrait of the Christian, and we notice that they parallel one another rather than contradict! I would even offer that obedient Christians should be the best philosophers due to their divine instruction to exemplify the above attitude toward wisdom.
To close I want to revisit our initial conversation about quoting the verse from Colossians about being taken captive through philosophy and implying that it is therefore dangerous. I only half-quoted the verse at the opening of the article for a reason, namely to show that those who misuse that verse in that way only half quote it as well! Here is the full quote:
“Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
So we are here warned of a specific type of philosophy to avoid, not philosophy itself! Any philosophy based upon human tradition and not on Christ is to be rejected, which would imply not that we should avoid philosophy all together, but rather that a philosophy that is Christ centered is to be sought after. This also accords with the many verses we examined and used to paint our biblical portrait of a Christian. So as Christians we should strive to be like the portrait painted in the text and not neglect the use of our minds as Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind and all of your strength.” Remember that being a better philosopher will help make us better Christians according to the Bible.
I really pray this helps you to realize the importance of philosophy and that not only is it not dangerous to Christians, but we are commanded to engage in it! Seek out a deeper understanding of things, ask life’s big questions and through that draw closer to Christ through the exercising of your mind and commitment to living a godly life!