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Christian Philosophy? (1)

Many Christians have warned against the perils of philosophy, arguing that it is, at best, human speculation.1 These people often quote Paul’s warning to the church at Colosse: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). But what was Paul saying? Paul was warning of philosophies after the traditions of men. However, Paul’s implication is clear— there is a Christocentric philosophy that the Colossians, and all Christians with them, should pursue.

Philosophy has traditionally tried to answer the big questions of life, and can be described as the elaboration and defense of our human condition.2 However, as history shows, even the great philosophers have not agreed, and there still seems to be darkness concerning life’s big questions.3 One of the reasons for the lack of agreement may be the method through which philosophers have attempted to determine the answers.

Historically, lovers of wisdom have looked around them to understand where they are and what the answers to the ultimate questions should be. But because people only have limited data about where they are and do not know the necessary perspective to properly fit that data in with the rest of life and history, they cannot arrive at proper knowledge. This method for attempting to determine reality has failed. It may hope that, “the right road map will one day appear. Until then, it will pick and choose road maps, in hopes that one will provide a way forward. But this will not do. What philosophy needs, and has needed all along, is a GPS. Its only hope for real progress is in adopting the second way.”4

What is that second way? It begins with the removal of the faulty map, and then the acquisition and use of another approach.5 It is using the divinely given guidance system that knows exactly where people are, what their surroundings are, and where they need to go. It is using divine answers to life’s questions. This second way reaches for the revelation of wisdom—a comprehensive view that is also clear in its understandings.6

This is the Christocentric wisdom Paul describes in Colossians, because only in Christ, “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Through Christ, reality can be understood. There is a relationship between revelation and philosophy.

While that sounds simple, there have been numerous ways of describing that relationship. K. Scott Oliphint describes four of them in his booklet, The Role of Philosophy. The first view is that philosophy governs theology just as it deals with the boundaries of all other disciplines. Herman Dooyeweerd, among others, supported this position. The second view, which was held by Thomas Aquinas, is that philosophy is more or less integrated with theology, so that knowledge of God can be acquired by reason. The third view is that of Paul Tillich, and states that philosophy is theology and the way to God is through reason. The classic Reformed view is the fourth view, which states that theology governs philosophy.7

Then, even as the governing principle over philosophy is theology, philosophy can act as the ministerial handmaid to theology. Already in the seventeenth century, Francis Turretin described four primary uses of philosophy: it can serve an apologetic purpose as it prepares unbelievers for the Christian faith; it can serve as a testimony of consent and certainty for things we already know; it can serve as a tool of discernment, “according to the rules of good and necessary consequence impressed upon our rational nature by God after it has been illuminated by the light of the divine word”; and it can serve to prepare our minds to receive and understand greater things.8

While much has been written about philosophy and natural revelation and even philosophy and special revelation, what does Oliphint mean when he writes of the revelation of Christ governing philosophy? Is this biblical? To answer this, we will turn to Paul, and particularly his arguments in Colossians in the upcoming articles.

  1. See the arguments in J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 18.

  2. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Faith and Philosophy,” in Alvin Plantinga, ed., Faith and Philosophy: Philosophical Studies in Religion and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 21.

  3. Wolterstorff, “Faith and Philosophy,” 4.

  4. K. Scott Oliphint, Christianity and the Role of Philosophy (Phillipsburg, Pa.: P&R, 2013), 13.

  5. Wolterstorff, “Faith and Philosophy,” 5.

  6. Arthur F. Holmes, Christianity and Philosophy (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1963), 5; See also Gordon H. Clark, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Founda- tion, 1993), 59.

  7. Oliphint, Role of Philosophy, 15–16; See also Holmes, Christianity and Philosophy, 23–25.

  8. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg, Pa.: P&R, 1992), 1:45.

This article was originally published in the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, March/April 2016. Posted here with permission.


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