A philosopher is someone dedicated to the wise pursuit and dissemination of true answers to significant questions through the practice of good intellectual habits. Christian spirituality is greatly concerned with wisdom, truth and goodness. The term philosopher is derived from the Greek words philo, meaning ‘brotherly love’ and sophia, meaning ‘wisdom’; hence a philosopher is literally a ‘lover of wisdom’. Philosophy as such, then, is not alien to the gospel; for scripture teaches that Jesus is the Christian’s brother (Hebrews 2:11-12) ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ (Colossians 2:3) As Thomas Aquinas said, ‘The pursuit of wisdom especially joins man to God in friendship.’[i]
Everyone has a philosophy in the sense of a worldview – a way of understanding and navigating through reality. Not everyone makes the effort to think systematically about the wisdom of their worldview. However, Christians are called to love God with their minds as well as their hearts and their strength (cf. Mark 12:30-31), and as David A. Horner explains: ‘Truly loving God with your mind means being intentional about your intellectual life, learning to think well.’[ii] Thus the apostle Paul urges Christians: ‘Do not conform . . . to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ (Romans 12:2) The contents and intellectual habits of our minds, coupled with the choices, commitments and attitudes of our hearts, issue in the behaviour that characterises and re-enforces our spirituality. Thus philosophy is an integral component of any spirituality, including Christian spirituality.
A philosopher seeks to know and defend the truth by thinking carefully and arguing well. These attitudes and activities, and the philosophical tools and virtues they require, are integral to the Christian ministries of teaching (including bible-study, preaching and systematic theology) and apologetics (i.e. persuasive evangelism). Philosophy helps us to fulfil the command of 1 Peter 3:15: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect . . .’ On the flip side of this coin, it was Paul who highlighted the need for Christians to ‘demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God’ (2 Corinthians 10:5) As C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.’[iii]
Why should Christians study philosophy? First, because philosophy is unavoidable and its wiser to have a studied opinion than an unstudied opinion. Second, because philosophy is part-and-parcel of our spirituality, and the divine command to love God includes the command to love Him with our minds and to be spiritually transformed by the renewing of our minds. Third, because philosophy plays an indispensable role in the teaching ministry of the Church broadly construed. None of this means that Christians are all obliged to study philosophy formally. Nevertheless, we should heed the call ‘to work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility.’ (Philippians 2:12, J.B. Phillips) Philosophy can help us to do that.
Peter’s latest book is A Faithful Guide to Philosophy: A Christian Introduction to the Love of Wisdom (Paternoster, 2013).
Peter has a new website @ www.peterswilliams.com
[i] Thomas Aquinas, Suma Contra Gentiles, Book One.
[ii] David A. Horner, Mind Your Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), p. 49.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, ‘On Learning in Wartime’ in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (MacMillan, 1980), p. 28.