Reconciling Philosophy

by Peter Wierenga


People frequently express a particular sentiment about the folks associated with Gutenberg College and its affiliated organizations. I heard it again a few weeks ago when I was with some people who were learning about Gutenberg for the first time. We showed them a video about Gutenberg and talked a little about the goals of the college and its teaching methodology, which the following excerpt from the introduction to the Gutenberg catalog summarizes:

Great-Books colleges offer a broad-based liberal arts education with a curriculum centered around reading and discussing those writings that have been most significant in the formation of Western culture…. Studying the writings of the foremost thinkers of our culture gives students the opportunity to examine different perspectives on…important questions. In a sense, students learn at the feet of great thinkers.

As we discussed this approach, our new friend had one basic question: “Why would anyone care about those things that aren’t in the Bible?” In essence, she was wondering why anyone would study Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Darwin, Marx, and a whole host of other non-Christian—perhaps even anti-Christian—thinkers. Clearly, some people think Gutenberg folks are too “intellectual,” and they mean “intellectual” in contrast to being “spiritual,” “biblical,” or even “Christian.” This is a common reputation with which those associated with Gutenberg College must contend.

I understand this sentiment because for most of my adult life I shared some of these concerns. Although I tried to keep my perspective balanced, looking back, I would have to say that I was somewhat anti-intellectual myself. Perhaps I was a “thinking anti-intellectual,” but nevertheless I shared many of the anti-intellectual traits that much of the evangelical church in North America holds today. To elucidate what I thought, let me recount something of my life’s journey.

During the first quarter of my freshman year at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), I took Philosophy 1A. My professor was a flaming homosexual, at a time when the gay-rights movement was in its nascent stages. All I remember about the class was that the professor spent the entire quarter trying to convince us that Plato’s dialogues were actually an apology for homosexual practices and orientation. That experience thoroughly quashed any interest I might have had in philosophy, and I became convinced that philosophers in general had only a tenuous hold on reality.

I did study history, though, both as an undergraduate and graduate student at UCSB. My emphasis on the Renaissance and Reformation only deepened my “thinking anti-intellectualism,” however. One of the great cries of the Renaissance echoed the words of the fifth-century-BC Greek philosopher Protagoras, who stated categorically, “Man is the measure of all things.” (For extra credit, study how da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” pictured that concept.) I saw that the Enlightenment philosophers further developed this idea, rhetorically and, in some cases, literally replacing God with the “Goddess Reason” in the churches and cathedrals of France. And in more recent times, philosophers have told us, “God is dead.” Having seen these philosophical movements play out in history, I concluded that a virtually unbridgeable gulf exists between man’s reason and God’s revelation and that anyone who tries to subject truth to man’s reason alone would get off track. In my way of thinking, revelation—that is, the Bible—was absolutely the only sure source of truth. (I should note that I was really annoyed with Martin Luther when, in his ringing declaration of Reformation principles at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he said, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason….” I kept thinking: Martin, old buddy, don’t you see that the end of plain reason is confusion and falsehood?)

Here, then, is the problem I saw with philosophy: Man’s thinking and reason is corrupted, so why bother with it? The only truth anyone needs is found in the Bible, so why bother with anything else? Philosophy is man’s reasoning, and the Bible is God’s revelation, so I’ll choose the Bible. End of discussion.

But the last several years have faced me with a dilemma.

It is true that man’s thinking is both corrupted and limited. Grappling with I Corinthians 1:18_2:13 helps us understand the relationship between “man’s wisdom” and “God’s wisdom.” And I could make the point more explicit by yanking Colossians 2:8 right out of context and emphasizing that we should “[see] to it that no one takes [us] 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.” I love it. The verse even uses the word “philosophy” and identifies it as a bad thing. I rest my anti-intellectual case.

On the other hand, however, the Scriptures themselves make crystal clear that truth is not limited only to the words contained in the Bible. Some things not even remotely addressed in God’s revelation are nonetheless true. Indeed, truth, as a characteristic of God Himself, is much bigger than the written words of Scripture.

I cannot imagine any Christian who when backed into a corner would suggest that nothing is true except that which is clear in Scripture. Yet many talk as though truth is completely unknowable unless Scripture overtly reveals it, as though there is no reason to consider any ideas or thoughts that Scripture does not address.

Romans, chapters one and two, gives us some real insight into this dilemma. Romans 1:18 clearly implies that truth is available to all mankind—because God gets very angry at the way we suppress that truth. Paul goes on to say in 1:19 that God gets angry because “that which is known about God is evident within [men]; for God made it evident to them.” When it comes to responding to the truth that God has made evident, the bottom line is: all humanity is “without excuse” (1:20). Paul does not mention Scripture, the prophets, written revelation, or anything similar; he simply points to a clear expression of truth to which we are supposed to respond positively. If we truly understand and agree with Paul’s message in the first few chapters of Romans, then we understand that we can find truth in many places. We can obviously find truth in the Scriptures, but truth is certainly not limited to the Scriptures.

During the last six years, as I have become more involved with Gutenberg College, I have been learning that the folks there are doing an outstanding job of searching for truth where it can be found. It is no coincidence that many of the tutors consider themselves to be “Bible teachers” first and foremost. But it is also reasonable that they grapple with the streams of thought and philosophies that have shaped Western civilization as we know it. Sometimes seeing truth and sometimes detecting error, they are willing to let God communicate truth wherever and whenever He chooses to do so.

Listening to a brief history of philosophy that Jack Crabtree gave several years ago was very helpful. David Crabtree made similar points in a recent conversation. As David expressed it, philosophy is intended to reflect “rigorous common sense,” asking the question “Is this not the way it is?” Furthermore, David observed that philosophy is “reasoning from common experience.”

Jack’s talk and David’s observations opened my eyes to the fact that the problem is not philosophy or reason. The problem is philosophers who have an ungodly and rebellious agenda and whose reason is darkened both by sin and by their agenda, moral or otherwise. The problem is philosophers who fail to do good philosophy, who fail to exercise intellectual integrity, and who thus descend into literal “non-sense.”

Biblical Christians need not fear philosophy. A philosophical system may or may not express what is true, and God has given Christians two huge advantages with which to evaluate philosophical systems: the ability to reason and a written revelation of truth. Our ability to reason reflects the order found in God Himself and expressed in all of His creation. Although our ability to reason is not completely “right” yet, having come to faith, we are certainly more willing to elevate truth rather than to suppress it. And God’s written revelation of truth, which contains a huge amount of information about many different subjects, gives us a tremendous head start in coming to an understanding of truth: the Scriptures tell us so much that we would otherwise have had to deduce “from scratch.”

Even when Christians do not fear philosophy, however, many are not interested in it because the questions they want answered are matters of spiritual and emotional life and death, and they have a visceral need to be confident that the answers they receive are authoritative and correct. Presupposing that the Bible is the inspired word of God, going to it alone for answers is certainly easier than wading through countless volumes of mere mortals’ ruminations to try to pluck out grains of truth. (That process, by the way, points to the need for developing good interpretive skills—one of Gutenberg’s main teaching goals.) Christians just tend to feel safer dealing only with a small body of material (the Bible and perhaps certain Christian authors) that already has a “seal of approval” for the purpose of study.

The entire Gutenberg organization, starting with McKenzie Study Center and including both Gutenberg College and Art Project, is doing a magnificent job of dealing head-on with the ideas presented in our culture at this stage of Western civilization’s development. Because unbelievers do not grant any authority to the Bible, Christian endeavors to do business in the unbelievers’ market place of ideas is worthwhile. Such endeavors provide opportunities to confront unbelievers with truth in terms and in frameworks that will mean more to them. Anything meaningful we hope to say to our culture must be truthful and reasonable and about the issues with which our culture is concerned. And we should always keep in mind the Bible’s accounts of individuals like Melchizedek and Job, who came to understand and respond positively to truth even though they were not part of the “chosen” line of Abraham.

God has revealed truth to all of mankind, not simply to those who hold Bibles in their hands. He wants truth to be knowable. Something that is true will be reasonable and knowable, whether or not Scripture talks about it overtly. And anything that is true is worthy of our attention, again whether or not Scripture talks about it overtly.

The Scriptures bear witness to the fact that Christians in this day and age have an advantage over unbelievers in knowing what is true. There is something real and significant about Paul’s admonition that believers be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). And there is a reason why Paul prays that God might open believers’ eyes and give to us “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17-18). Paul gave us a worthy example when in Athens he was “reasoning…in the market place every day with those who happened to be present” (Acts 17:17).

I would conclude by encouraging a different way of thinking about evangelism. Let us encounter truth whenever and wherever it can be found; and let us encourage those with whom we have contact and influence to accept, embrace, and respond appropriately to that truth. That is the belief, the faith, that God has called us to have.

Copyright June 2005 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Peter Wierenga