Updated: May 19, 2020
The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Historically, philosophy has been characterised by a relentless search for wisdom, a single-minded and insatiable desire to set forth the fundamental aspects of human existence to guide human activity.
So what exactly is philosophy? Generally speaking, it is a theoretical activity that seeks to make sense of the world to make sense of our place in it. In its activity, historically, philosophy has concerned itself with three broad categories:
Metaphysics is the study of being. What is real?
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. How do you know what you know? What is your means by which you obtain knowledge? What is truth?
Ethics are moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity.
Everyone does philosophy, for everyone comes to views of reality, knowledge, and ethics. The difference between “the philosopher” and the ordinary man in the street is simply one of degree. Everyone does philosophy, but not everyone attempts to do it well.
Greg Bahnsen, Beware of Philosophy!
The Bible On Philosophy
The Bible only mentions the practice of philosophy in one place and that is Colossians 2:8:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
In verse three of the same chapter Paul just taught us that all wisdom and knowledge are deposited in Christ:
[Christ] in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Many have taken this passage to mean that Christians are meant to stay away from philosophy, however, a closer reading of the text will reveal that it says no such thing. Paul is warning Christians to stay away from a particular kind of philosophy: The kind that is according to human tradition and the elemental spirits of this world. There is a particular kind of philosophy that is not warned against and that is the kind according to Christ.
It becomes clear therefore that to subscribe to any philosophy that is not according to Christ will rob you of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge — it will be a vain pursuit. Ironic when you consider that philosophy means the love of wisdom.
It will also not escape the reader that the Bible speaks on all three the branches of philosophy mentioned above. Indeed the Bible does provide us with a complete Christian philosophy. Scott Oliphint writes that
It will not escape the alert reader that the three big areas that we have laid out as central to philosophy are also central areas of discussion in the Christian faith. It may be the case that the questions are phrased differently. It may be that most Christians would not ask, “What is the nature of ultimate reality?” or “How do I know that?” Even so, fundamental to Christianity is a response to both of those key questions.
K. Scott Oliphint, Why Philosophy Needs a GPS
The Bible speaks of metaphysics. What is the nature ultimate reality? The triune God. How do we know what we know? Because God reveals to us. What is right and wrong? God’s nature is the standard, summarised in His law.
Jason Lisle describes it as follows:
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).
Jason Lisle, Beware of Philosophy!
What does it mean when Paul warns us about philosophy according to elementary principles of the world? Lisle continues:
The Greek word translated ‘elementary principles’ is ‘stoicheion’ and has the meaning of the basic elements, or first, primary, fundamental principles. In logic, we refer to these primary foundational principles as presuppositions. Presuppositions are the most basic beliefs upon which all our other beliefs rest. Paul is, therefore, warning us not to be carried away by secular presuppositions – the foundational principles of reasoning used by non-believers…
Paul is not warning us about philosophy in general. As thinking beings, we cannot avoid having beliefs about the nature of the universe, truth, and ethics. Rather, Paul is warning us about anti-Christian philosophies – views of reality, truth, and ethics that are contrary to God’s revealed Word.
The Role of Philosophy
Philosophy has always been touted as “the handmaiden of theology”. It doesn’t take much to realise that the Bible does not contain a complete handbook on laws of logic or advanced calculus. Does this mean that humans cannot develop these areas of study further? Of course not! So long as the ideas cohere with the ideas we can learn from Scripture. God created us to be rational creatures – to think about the nature of the universe, truth, and morality.
As Lisle said earlier, we cannot help but hold certain beliefs about reality, truth and ethics from the outset. This is due to the way God created us. For example, we read in Romans 2 that God has written His law on our hearts, and in Romans 1 we learn that God reveals Himself to all men and that we are without excuse for denying Him. Hence each person has an implicit knowledge of God (metaphysics) and morality (ethics), and by being made in the image of God, we were created to be investigative and use our senses and reasoning (epistemology).
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
Romans 2: 14-15
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.
Romans 1: 20-21a
From these principles, we can understand and read the Bible initially. This is an important point to stress and is what is known as the distinction between the proximate - and ultimate starting points. We can begin to understand the world we are living in from our proximate starting points, but revelation from God serves as our ultimate starting point which gives an accounting of our proximate starting point(s).
As we develop in our Christian philosophy and ask the tough questions with the correct metaphysic, epistemology and ethic, we can grow in our understanding of Scripture and theology. It allows us to develop deep and complex Christian doctrines from Scripture knowing that the development of our philosophy is anchored in revelation and not arbitrary.
Admittedly I have never read any philosophers like Aristotle or Plato. I’ve only ever read apologetics and theology books so my commentary on this subject might be limited and not fully informed. Despite this, I would like to make a few comments. Should we discard Plato, Aristotle and other pagan philosophers completely? Even though their philosophy is ill-informed and not founded on Scripture, they still might have some useful ideas that do not stand in outright contradiction with Scripture.
Take for example Aristotle’s corresponding theory of truth. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle stated:
To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.
This is obvious enough and does not contradict Scripture. What Aristotle was getting at is that we cannot describe something in a way contrary to what it is. We may not contradict ourselves. This is Biblically sound as well:
If we are faithless, he [God] remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
2 Timothy 2:13
So we know that God cannot deny (contradict) Himself, and neither should we being made in the image of God (we may not say of that which is, that it is not). From this, we know that we cannot interpret the Bible in a way that it contradicts itself. We can read from these pagan philosophers and incorporate many of their terms and concepts insofar as it is in agreement with our ultimate standard of Scripture
The question to ask Aristotle were he still around would be a simple “Why?”. Why should we follow his definition and not some other definition of truth? Take for example the consensus theory of truth:
That which is universal among men carries the weight of truth.
According to a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views which was carried out in November 2009 (taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students) 45% of respondents accept or lean towards correspondence theories, 21% accept or lean towards deflationary theories and 14% epistemic theories.
So why should we take Aristotle’s word over others? At the end of the day, if your philosophy is not based on Christ and His revelation, you will ultimately be lost in subjectivism with the inevitable result of scepticism.
When someone tries to teach you something, in particular about philosophy ask these questions: “Who says? Why should I trust them?”. We must, therefore, place Scripture over and above our philosophy, and allow our theology to act as a ‘GPS’, as Oliphint put it, to guide our thoughts and not the other way around. Without Scripture, our philosophy is hopelessly lost.
The apostle Paul was faced with a similar situation in Acts 17 at the Areopagus. For this section I’m going to quote from Bahnsen’s exposition of Acts 17 at length where Bahnsen points out how Paul was familiar with the works of the pagan philosophers and was able to extract their ideas and put them in proper context:
Since God is near at hand to all men, since His revelation impinges on them continually, they cannot escape a knowledge of their Creator and Sustainer. They are without excuse for their perversion of the truth. Paul makes the point that even pagans, contrary to their spiritual disposition (1 Cor. 2:14), possess a knowledge of God which, though suppressed, renders them guilty before the Lord (Rom. 1:18ff.).
Paul supports this point before the Areopagus by showing that even pantheistic Stoics are aware of, and obliquely express, God’s nearness and man’s dependence upon Him. Epimenides the Cretan is quoted from a quatrain in an address to Zeus: “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28a; interestingly, Paul quotes another line from this same quatrain in Titus 1:12). The phrase “in him” would have denoted in idiomatic Greek of the first century (especially in Jewish circles) the thought of “in his power” or “by him.” This declaration—”By him we live...”—is not at all parallel to Paul’s theology of the believer’s mystical union with Christ, often expressed in terms of our being “in Christ.” Rather, Acts 17:28 is closer to the teaching of Colossians 1:15-17, “in him were all things created...and in him all things consist.” The stress falls on “man’s absolute dependence on God for his existence,” even though the original writing which Paul quoted had aimed to prove that Zeus was not dead from the fact that men live—the order of which thought is fully reversed in Paul’s thinking (men live because God lives). Paul’s second quotation is introduced with the words, “as certain of your own poets have said.” His use of the plural is further evidence of his educated familiarity with Greek thought, for as a matter of fact the statement which is quoted can be found in more than one writer.
Paul quotes his fellow Cilician, Aratus, as saying “for we are also his offspring” (from the poem on “Natural Phenomena,” which is also echoed in Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus”). Paul could agree to the formal statement that we are God’s “offspring”. However, he would certainly have said by way of qualification what the Stoics did not say, namely that we are children of God merely in a natural sense and not a supernatural sense (John 1:12), and even at that we are quite naturally “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Yes, we can be called the offspring of God, but certainly not in the intended pantheistic sense of Aratus or Cleanthes! Knowing the historical and philosophical context in which Paul spoke, and noting the polemical thrusts of the Areopagus address, we cannot accept any interpreter’s hasty pronouncement to the effect that Paul “cites these teachings with approval unqualified by allusion to a ‘totally different frame of reference.’”
Those who make such remarks eventually are forced to acknowledge the qualification anyway: e.g., “Paul is not commending their Stoic doctrine,” and he “did not reduce his categories to theirs.”
Berkouwer is correct when he says “There is no hint here of a point of contact in the sense of a preparation for grace, as though the Athenians were already on the way to true knowledge of God.” Paul was well enough informed to know, and able enough to read statements in context to see, that he did not agree with the intended meaning of these poets. He was certainly not saying that these philosophers had somehow arrived at unqualified, isolated, elements of the truth—that the Zeus of Stoic pantheism was a conceptual step toward the true God!
Greg Bahnsen, The Encounter of Jerusalem With Athens
Application to Aristotle’s Ethics
Aristotle’s view on ethics is summarised as follows:
To know what is good is to know the final aim and purpose of it. Everything in this world has a proper function. We say that something is good when it performs its function well.
For Aristotle, man is a rational being, and hence a virtuous life for man is life according to a rational principle.
Now, of course, this sounds all good and well, but it is highly dependent on your view of what man is. For example, if you're an evolutionist the purpose of man is propagate his DNA. Therefore the most ethical man is the man who spends most of his time producing offspring.
So what can we learn from Aristotle’s ethic? What is man? We were created in the image of God to glorify God. So when is a man ethical? Man is ethical when he lives his life per the revealed will of God. So Aristotle’s ethic does not bring us any closer to the truth of how man ought to act. It doesn’t escape subjectivism. But when we bring the proper GPS of theology, we can place it in its proper place. Therefore, we don’t discard Aristotle, we place him in his proper place.
A question to think about — was it needed to consider Aristotle’s philosophy before being able to grasp that we ought to fear God and keep his commandments? Of course not. Scripture is clear enough on this.
We should never take ideas from non-Christian philosophy and apply those ideas to Scripture. We should rather allow Scripture to form our philosophy and reform our philosophy. For me, this works closely with what is called the hermeneutical spiral. The more time we spend in the Bible, the more the Bible will reform our philosophy to be more according to Christ.
I am immediately sceptical when someone says we first need to study non-Christian philosophy before we can understand or read the Bible. If we can’t understand the Bible, how are we able to understand Aristotle or Plato before reading the Bible? God made man in his image and in His likeness which means that He created man to communicate not only with Him but with each other. Human language, logic, grammar, and the rules of hermeneutics (interpreting written material secular or religious) was hardwired into humanity at man’s creation, and that ability exists in all people today. It had to be or men couldn’t even begin to communicate with each other, reason with each other, understand even how to make sense of what it is their senses sense.
All we need is Scripture for every good work, including philosophy, apologetics, mathematics and every single other human endeavour.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
Only Scripture can give us the correct view on metaphysics, epistemology and ethics.