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Philosophy & Christian Theology 1.0: Can They Be Reconciled?

Updated on August 16, 2021
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Robert "Robbie" Walker is a preacher and PhD candidate at the Toronto School of Theology who enjoys writing accessible systematic theology.

On Inverting the Usual Question

The attempt to reconcile Christianity to philosophy may not come as a shock in today's context. Philosophy students debate the merits (or not) of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.There are books by the score about Platonism's influence on Christianity--and many specifically Christian authors seem grateful for the clarity that certain Platonic and Aristotelian concepts bring to explications of Christian doctrines.

But I wonder if Christians need to consider something radical. Perhaps the question is not, Can Christianity be reconciled with philosophy? but rather, Can philosophy be reconciled with Christ? The answer may be more simple--and yet more fruitful--than we might expect.

For the past hundred years or so, Christianity in North America has increasingly reconciled itself, in two roughly opposite ways, to the philosophical worldview represented by the European Enlightenment. This modern world-view emphasizes science, rational thought, empirical proof, and materialism--and it relegates all other purported truth-claims to unreality (or to the "private sphere," which may amount to the same thing).

Christian liberals, to this day, favour the intelligibility of Christian tradition and preaching in the contemporary context. Many liberal theologians in the early part of the 20th Century attempted to recast Christian orthodoxy using the allegedly objective standards of rigourously applied empirical science. Unfortunately, because Christian claims of God's deeds of power, like Jesus' bodily resurrection, cannot be "double-checked" and appear to violate the laws of physics, some Christians construed them as stories meant to convey theological truths, without the embarrassment of insisting on their literal, historical, and factual nature. Literal, historical, and factual as defined by the standards of Enlightenment science.

Those who became known as Fundamentalists (thanks to a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals) responded differently than their liberal siblings. They hoped to resist modernity by vigourously defending the historicity of all of the events of the Bible, including the miracles and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

A mid-century moderate offshoot of the Fundamentalist camp, called neo-Evangelicalism, developed a middle way position of engagement with non-Christian society while still maintaining belief in the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. These two words amount to a comprehensive epistemological claim: since God is perfect and has transmitted his written word perfectly, when we understand all the relevant factors (spiritual, theological, scientific, historical, and so on) the Bible contains no errors at all. Ironically, the attempt to resist the Enlightenment milieu resulted in a spirituality that was beholden to the empirical standards of (allegedly unbiased) scientific and historical research.

We could add many nuances to the above characterizations, and no doubt there are many flaws in their broad strokes, but scholars from many different disciplines seem to agree that something like the above characterizes much of Christianity in North America. And this is completely understandable! After all, Christians are people who live in particular times and places who try to offer their understanding of Christ (who was a particular person in a particular place and time) to their own situations, hopefully in language that many people will be able to grapple with and perhaps find persuasive. Characterizing many strands of Christian life and thought as modern is not pejorative--it's not as though the Christian writing this article is objective with no biases of his own!

The earliest Christian writers, from those in the New Testament to the end of the Patristic period, also articulate their understandings of Christ Jesus and his good news or Gospel in ways that bring it into intelligible and transforming contact with their cultures. Problems arise when the thought-forms of our culture which (seem to) clash with the Gospel begin to unduly influence what Christians say and do; in this kind of situation, say many Christians, we risk bowing down to the gods of our cultures rather than to Jesus Christ, who claims the allegiance of the Church in every age and place. Therefore, Christians' relationship to philosophy has always been an uneasy one. It makes our exploration of potential reconciliation between Christianity and philosophy an important one, indeed.

The Death of Socrates.
The Death of Socrates.

On Resisting the Elements

The Church Father Tertullian has quite a reputation for anti-intellectualism. Many people take him as totally rejecting philosophy as we might understand it today. He says:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians?...Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after receiving the gospel! When we believe, we desire no further belief.1

Despite many protestations to the contrary, I do not believe that Tertullian (trained as a lawyer!) meant that Christians must disengage from culture into some kind of head-in-the-sand separatist denial. (Shades of Monty Python: "This is a semi-autonomous commune; we do not do philosophy!") Rather, he articulates a principle that inverts the question most modern people (including Christians) want to ask: "Can Christianity be reconciled with philosophy?" For Tertullian, the question is, "Can philosophy be reconciled with Christ?"

The late systematic theologian Dr Stephen Reynolds, who taught at Trinity College, University of Toronto for many years, explains heresy as "a belief or teaching that will deflect one's journey away from deeper entry into the mystery of God." I believe that something like this is why Tertullian can ask about the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, the Church and the Academy, heretics and Christians. Anything that will cause a Christian, or the Church as a whole, to move away from the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ must be resisted.

As important as doctrine is for Christians, if it is healthy it points to a Person and increases our trust in him, namely, Messiah Jesus, raised to bodily life and made Lord of the cosmos. When we are given God's very self in, through, and as Christ to possess, it is inconceivable that we would need to supplement such a complete personal gift with contrary and incomplete systems.2

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tertullian is drawing heavily on the thought of the New Testament letter of Colossians. The letter makes some key statements about the philosophy facing the earliest Church. Paul (the ongoing scholarly debates aside for now) says in chapter two, "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" (v. 8).3 In context, Paul warns his brothers and sisters to reject and resist ideas that, though they sound wise, are not in accordance with what they know (and have been taught) about Christ. They must, rather than following the theological speculations of others, make their own decisions about their beliefs and practices, knowing that they belong to Christ. Jesus himself is the mystery of God, and not any esoteric proposition.4 The philosophy of which Paul speaks seems to have more in common with what we now call theology.

Paul was not one to disparage clear thought (after all, he too was a trained lawyer and teacher), but he was absolutely unwilling, like the later Church Fathers, to subordinate Christians' understanding of Christ to the systems and esoterica of the day. I submit that contemporary Christianity must take up the same challenge. When the proclamation of the Good News by the People of God must use a particular philosophical paradigm (Platonism, Stoicism, Enlightenment rationalism...) to remain coherent, it's possible that we will miss the Gospel's ongoing critique of human systems, which operate "according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."

Scholars now tell us--and media is fast catching up--that we live in a "post-modern" world. Our trust in science and rationality as objective is breaking down. At its extreme, postmodern thought says that there is no fundamental meaning intrinsic to the universe or human life or given by provable over-arching explanations. (Scholars call these stories metanarratives.) As uncomfortable as disbelief in objectivity or comprehensive explanations may be for Christians, it is the milieu in which we operate. (For people who struggle with the shift from a modern to postmodern view, or who wonder if Christianity can really use postmodern philosophy "according to Christ," I invite you to consult the resource listed below.)

Post-modernity, too, cannot become for Christians the "system" to which Christianity must reconcile, if we mean, "Adhere to all of postmodern philosophies' axioms and assumptions." But since Christians attempt to faithfully tell the story of Jesus to their neighbours and their enemies in their particular times and places, we can (and should) use the tools of our culture to speak in ways that people can grapple with, and perhaps find persuasive.

Can Christianity ultimately reconcile with (serve the purposes of) philosophy "according to the world"? No. But can philosophy find a use and place in Christians' preaching of the Gospel? Can philosophy serve Jesus Christ? Yes! Philosophy is, in its simplest terms, the love of wisdom. Christians know in our hearts and at the core of our faith that the Wisdom we want to love is not a system of ideas, but a person. In the Divine foolishness, humans can walk in the Wisdom of the Creator, who is none other than Messiah Christ.

Thanks be to God!

If you're curious...

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey
A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey
This is theological fiction meant to introduce post-modernity for Evangelical Christians, framed as an often-witty dialogue between a burned out pastor and his science teacher friend, Neo (bad Matrix pun intended, I suspect!). If you're looking for a fresh presentation of the Christian story (whether or not you're a Christian) you may find it here!


1Tertullian, Heretics 7.

2Belief does not primarily have to do with assent to an idea. See my Hub, "I believe" for a fuller explanation.

3English Standard Version. Available free online.

4I plan to write a Hub that explores the summary I am making here much more fully. Stay tuned!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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