Ben Holloway

What is Christian Philosophy?

What is Philosophy? 

The word, philosophy, simply means ‘love of wisdom.’ In some sense, anyone who seeks out wisdom for its own sake is a ‘philosopher’. However, philosophy often asks questions for which other disciplines have no immediate answer. As Graham Oppy writes,

“philosophy is the discipline that addresses questions for which we do not yet know how to produce…agreed answers using the methods of other established disciplines.”  (Graham Oppy in Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy, 23).

Consider an example. Perhaps you hear a sentence and wonder what it means but then go on to wonder how sentences get their meaning. The question, ‘how do sentences get their meanings?’, does not find any obvious answers from other disciplines like physics, English literature, or history. It is a philosophical question. Yet the question is relevant to many other disciplines including theology. If you think sentences get their meanings from the mind of the reader, you are going to treat scripture accordingly. 

Take another example. Perhaps you are confronted with an ethical dilemma. You make a list of the pros and cons of the action, and then begin to wonder what makes any action right or wrong and from what source one would derive such knowledge. Is an action wrong based on the consequences of an action? Is it wrong in some situations and not others? Answers to those kind of questions require some philosophical reflection. 

What do Philosophers do? 

Many imagine philosophers are obsessed with all sorts of abstract and rather irrelevant subjects. What are philosophers doing? Just like any other discipline, philosophy is an activity demarcated by a specific set of skills. A philosopher’s skills include logical reasoning, clarification of concepts, systemization of bodies of beliefs, and deep reflection on assumptions that are logically fundamental. 

Logic can help clarify the content of what people say and think. Most people don’t express themselves in logical form (nor should they!), but logical form helps us to understand what is being said and why. 

Clarifying concepts is also vital to discourse. When a philosophers asks, “what do you mean by that?” he/she is not necessarily attempting to be annoying. Rather, the philosopher is seeking clarity. Once one is clear about a concept or an idea, then one will be able to discuss it. Without clarity, people tend to speak past each other.

Philosophers also test assumptions. Everyone makes assumptions and they play a large part in what we think about everything else. However, assumptions are often not expressed. They live just under the surface. Philosophers learn how to spot an assumption and draw it to the surface. After doing so, they test the assumption: is it true? What follows from the assumption? Is it consistent with everything else? 

So, philosophers have a domain of inquiry composed of questions and answers not readily asked or answered in other disciplines, and they have a methodology comprising at least logical reasoning, conceptual analysis, and the testing of assumptions. 

What is Christian Philosophy? 

There is an apparent tension between what is necessary for the Christian to be a Christian and a philosopher to be a philosopher. The one thing necessary to be a philosopher is a kind of independent reasoning, and the one thing necessary to be a Christian is obedience to ChristThis creates a tension. Some people call it the tension between Athens and Jerusalem.

There are two things to say in response to the apparent tension. First, there really is no such thing as truly ‘independent reasoning’. No one reasons outside God’s world and no one does any thinking without God’s say so. While an unbeliever recognizes no ruler over what he or she thinks, a Christian philosopher recognizes that every thought is dependent on the Lord. While reason can be used either to ‘think God’s thoughts after him’ or to ‘suppress the truth in unrighteousness,’ it is only possible under God’s gracious rule.

Second, the autonomy a Christian philosopher has is from the world’s system of supposed autonomous reasoning. If so, then what drives the engine of Christian philosophy is not what drives the engine of its naturalistic counterpart. Thus, Christian Philosophers approach their task with somewhat different goals in mind. Alvin Plantinga suggests three demarcating factors for Christian philosophers: 

“My counsel can be summed up on two connected suggestions, along with a codicil. First, Christian philosophers and Christian intellectuals generally must display more autonomy-more independence of the rest of philosophical world. Second, Christian philosophers must display more integrity-integrity in the sense of integral wholeness, or oneness, or unity, being all of one piece. Perhaps ‘integrality’ would be the better word here. And necessary to these two is a third: Christian courage, or boldness, or strength, or perhaps Christian self-confidence.We Christian philosophers must display more faith, more trust in the Lord; we must put on the whole armor of God.” (Alvin Plantinga, “Advice for Christian Philosophers”).

First, the domain of inquiry is set by the needs of the Christian community. As Plantinga suggests, “Christian philosophers…are the philosophers of the Christian community; and it is part of their task as Christian philosophers to serve the Christian community.” Though Plato thought philosophers should be kings, Christian philosophers don’t rule anything; we are supposed to be the humblest of servants. 

Plantinga’s second piece of advice for Christian philosophers is to allow one’s pre-philosophical assumptions are set by what has been revealed in scripture: 

“The Christian philosopher quite properly starts from the existence of God, and presupposes it in philosophical work…Christian philosophers must be wary about assimilating or accepting presently popular philosophical ideas and procedures; for many of these have roots that are deeply anti-Christian…the Christian philosophical community has a right to its perspectives; it is under no obligation first to show that this perspective is plausible with respect to what is taken for granted by all philosophers, or most philosophers, or the leading philosophers of our day.” (Alvin Plantinga, “Advice for Christian Philosophers”).

In his history of philosophy, Anthony Gottlieb criticizes Augustine for rejecting skepticism on the grounds that God knows everything, and he has given human beings some things that we can know and some we cannot. Gottlieb finds this frustrating, as if Augustine should give up his assumptions for the sake of philosophical rigor: 

“Once he had satisfied himself that there were some things which sceptics were definitely wrong to doubt, Augustine jumped to the conclusion that skepticism was not worth worrying about at all. He simply assumed that God had somehow enabled us to know about the world and its contents” (Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason,396).

Gottlieb complains that Augustine’s ‘engine of doubt’ has ceased to run. Instead, Augustine places his trust in his God. But does Augustine cease to be a philosopher? It is not clear that it does. The fact that Christians can reach a point at which we trust God and not ourselves is no criticism of a philosopher’s rigor; it is a sign that naturalism fails to answer the deepest questions. Christians can carry out philosophical inquiry without having to worry that their whole house of cards will come tumbling down. Not so for the naturalist! At any moment he may discover that all of his beliefs are ungrounded!

Finally, Christian philosophers cultivate confidence in the Christian community. Confidence comes not from bravado, but from a deep desire to tell the truth. Consequently, Christian philosophers seek to give our beliefs a thorough workout, a process ending in greater confidence and courageous witness. As David Lewis puts it: 

“It is the profession of philosophers to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice. A dangerous profession, since philosophers are more easily discredited than platitudes, but a useful one. For when a good philosopher challenges a platitude, it usually turns out that the platitude was essentially right; but the philosopher has noticed trouble that one who did not think twice could not have met. In the end the challenge is answered and the platitude survives, more often than not. But the philosopher has done the adherents of the platitude a service: he has made them think twice.” (David Lewis, Convention, 1).

Try telling a philosopher something you think is obvious. He will ask a whole load of annoying questions and then return you to your assumptions. If he has done his job well, you will hold to that obvious truth more deeply and with a greater appreciation than before.

You can only defend something thoroughly if you have been forced to understand it thoroughly. 

So, a Christian philosopher seeks to use philosophy to serve the mission of the Lord, submitting to the revealed word of God, and instilling confidence in the people of faith.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.