A colleague of mine once said, “Stay away from philosophy. The Bible says that philosophy is bad and that we should avoid it.” But does the Bible really say that? What exactly is philosophy, and what does the Bible really say about it?
The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word meaning “love of knowledge” or “love of wisdom.” In this sense, the Bible is very pro-philosophy. The Bible commends obtaining both knowledge and wisdom. Proverbs 2:6 states, “For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Proverbs 3:13 states, “How blessed is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding.” But what is meant by the English word ‘philosophy’ and does the Bible really condemn it?
The modern term ‘philosophy’ has multiple lexical definitions, including, “all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts,” “a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology,” and “an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs.” These are compatible definitions, and express the modern conception of the word ‘philosophy,’ that it is a discipline in which we analyze the logical grounds of fundamental beliefs, particularly in one of three sub-branches: ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
The study of the nature of reality is called metaphysics. Questions in this field are, “What is the nature of the universe? Is it one or many? Does God exist, and if so, what is His nature? What is the nature of man? What is the relationship between physical objects and conceptual ideas?” If you have ever asked or attempted to answer any of these questions, you have done metaphysics.
The study of the nature of truth/knowledge is called epistemology. The main question this field of study attempts to answer is: “how do we know what we know?” Other specific questions are “What is truth? How do we define ‘truth?’ What is the relationship of truth to knowledge? What kinds of questions can be answered by the field of science? What kinds of questions can be answered by the discipline of logic?” If you have ever asked or attempted to answer any of these types of questions, you have done epistemology.
The study of the nature of morality is called ethics. A person with ethical questions might ask, “what activities are morally right? What activities are morally wrong? What do ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean?” Most people have given more thought to this branch of philosophy than the other two. We have been taught from our youth that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that punishment is the right reaction when we violate certain moral standards. In any case, if you have ever reflected on then nature of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or have had any opinions on which behaviors fall into which category, then you have participated in ethics.
We must admit that nearly everyone has given some thought to at least some of the above questions. People have beliefs about the nature of the universe, God, truth, ethics, and so on. Hence, everyone has done philosophy. Is this a sin? Does the Bible really condemn us in asking or attempting to answer such questions?
Philosophy in the Bible
On the contrary. The Bible itself encourages us to reason, and gives us the foundational information necessary to answer all the above questions. “What is the nature of the universe?” The Bible gives the answer: the universe is the creation of God (Genesis 1:1). This verse also answers the question “Does God exist?” Consider the question, “What is the nature of God?” The Bible gives the answer: God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, omni-present, triune spirit (Genesis 17:1, Jeremiah 32:17, Job 42:2, Psalm 147:5, John 16:30, Jeremiah 23:24, Psalm 139:7-10, Hebrews 1:8, Genesis 1:1-2, John 4:24). “What is the nature of man?” The answer: man is a creation of God, and has been made in God’s image (both male and female) but has rebelled against God and is now sinful by nature (Genesis 1:26-27, 3:6-7, Romans 5:12).
The Bible also gives us the foundation for answering epistemological claims. “What is the nature of truth?” The answer is: truth is that which corresponds to the mind of God. When Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life,” he was making a philosophical (epistemological) claim (John 14:6). Jesus is truth because He corresponds perfectly to the mind of God since He is God in the flesh (Colossians 2:9).
And of course, the Bible makes numerous ethical claims. It implicitly defines ‘right’ as that which corresponds to God’s approval (Ezekiel 18:25,29, 1 Kings 11:33). God’s ways are necessarily right, and anyone who deviates from God’s ways is morally wrong (Isaiah 55:7-8). The commandments of Scripture give specific instances of those things of which God approves or does not approve.
The Bible encourages us to defend the faith (Jude 3, 1 Peter 3:15), to reason with unbelievers (Acts 17:17), and to preach the Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20). When we defend the faith, we are proclaiming the nature of reality (metaphysics), helping unbelievers to distinguish truth from error (epistemology), and encouraging them to repent of sin (ethics). To defend the faith and preach the Gospel, we must of necessity do some philosophy.
We must also note that the claim, “we should not do philosophy” is an ethical claim, which is a branch of philosophy. So anyone claiming we should not do philosophy is necessarily doing philosophy. The claim is self-refuting.
God created us to be rational creatures – to think about the nature of the universe, truth, and morality. These are philosophical issues, and we should consider them. And people do consider these issues. So everyone does philosophy. Not everyone does it well. Not everyone reflects on these issues in a fully self-conscious way. But we all have a philosophy – a view of the universe, truth, and ethics. 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).
The Bible on the Term ‘Philosophy’
So why then do some well-intentioned Christians have the impression that the Bible is anti-philosophy? The issue may stem from a misunderstanding of Colossians 2:8. This verse is the only passage in Scripture to use the Greek term for ‘philosophy,’ and it is used in the context of a warning. But does it warn us not to do philosophy? Are we commanded here to abstain from thinking about the nature of reality, truth, or ethics? A careful reading reveals the reverse.
Colossians 2:8 states, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” Notice that the Apostle Paul does not say that we should abstain from studying philosophy. Nor does he warn us about philosophy in the general sense of the term. Rather, he warns us not to be taken captive by a particular kind of philosophy.
Obviously, Paul is not against philosophy in the general sense of answering questions about the nature of reality, truth, and ethics. When he defended the faith, he did so by answering these very questions (Acts 17:22-31). Rather, Paul is warning us not to be carried away by a particular kind of philosophy. And what kind of philosophy does he warn us about? It is a philosophy that is “according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world.” Yes, Paul is warning us about secular, anti-biblical philosophy.
Those who have rejected the Living God will necessarily have a false view of reality, truth, and ethics. Their philosophy is “empty deception” – they deceive not only others but also, to some extent, themselves. The unbeliever tries to convince himself that God does not exist, that the universe is eternal and needs no cause, that man is inherently good. His view of metaphysics is wrong. The unbeliever has various methods he uses to determine what is true, but he deems the Bible to be false. His view of epistemology is wrong. And he does what is right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6). His view of ethics is wrong. Philosophies invented by men (rather than the philosophy promoted in Scripture) may seem good on the surface; but they are false and therefore do not end well. Proverbs 16:25 states, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
The philosophy Paul warns us about is one based on the “elementary principles” of the world. 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.
So Paul is not against having presuppositions. We cannot avoid that. Rather, he is against holding to worldly, secular presuppositions. 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 other thing we must note is that Paul is not commanding us to avoid secular philosophies completely or to abstain from studying them. Rather, his warning is quite specific: we are not to be taken captive by such philosophies. We may study them. But we should not think that there is any merit to philosophical ideas that are contrary to Scripture. Paul knew that secular ideas can be seductive. They can seem logical on the surface. But they are devoid of truth and hence they can only lead to futility (1 Corinthians 3:19-20).
But this doesn’t mean that we cannot study them. Sometimes the best way to reveal the absurdity of non-biblical ways of thinking is to carefully study them, to see how they are ultimately self-refuting. Indeed, a Christian should have at least a cursory understanding of the most common non-biblical philosophies so that he or she can expose the absurdity to an unbeliever who has been “taken captive” by such views.
The last part of this verse reveals something very profound that many Christians miss: the Apostle Paul is actually very pro-philosophy. But the philosophy that he follows, the one he encourages us to follow, is the philosophy that is “according to Christ.” The view of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics given in the Bible is the philosophy that we should embrace. This is the full meaning of the verse. Consider the following.
In Colossians 2:8, Paul is contrasting secular philosophy with Christian philosophy. We are not to follow the philosophy of the world which is empty deception, “rather than [a philosophy that is] according to Christ.” He doesn’t repeat the word ‘philosophy’ as shown in the brackets because it is grammatically unnecessary – but that is the meaning of the verse. It is just as if I said, “Bruce is not my best friend, rather Jim is.” I don’t need to add “my best friend” to the end of the sentence because it is understood from context. In the same verse where Paul warns us not to follow secular philosophy, he encourages us to follow Christian philosophy.
This is the main goal of the Christian life: to pattern our thinking and our actions after Christ. We are to emulate God’s character (Ephesians 5:1), which means we emulate both His thoughts and His ways (Isaiah 55:7-8). We are to develop a philosophy, a way of thinking, that is according to Christ by taking captive every thought so that it is obedient to the Lord (2 Corinthians 10:5). We don’t do this in an attempt to gain favor with God or to earn salvation. We do it out of love and gratitude to the Lord who saved us by His grace and mercy.