This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 40, number 06 (2017). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Philosophy suffers from an image problem. In our technologically driven, anti-intellectual culture, it widely is perceived that philosophy offers no “this-wordly” good and is therefore a waste of time, or so the argument goes. Learning needs to be practical and is deemed valuable only if it provides a noncognitive benefit.
This pragmatic “I’m interested in learning only if I can see the benefit” mentality has made its way into the classroom, too. Often, as a philosopher teaching in a seminary, I spend the first few classes trying to convince my students — most of whom are future pastors — of the importance of philosophy.
I think that learning philosophy — the pursuit of truth and wisdom — is an intrinsic good; it is something that is valuable in and of itself. But (tipping my hat to the pragmatist) it also has other benefits. Philosophy is, as Plato puts it, something that is both good in itself and good for what it brings.
I’m passionate to learn and teach philosophy because it moves me. I’m passionate about learning the truth about God, the world, and myself, and philosophy helps me in these pursuits. But why teach philosophy at a seminary? Well, there are strategic reasons — Kingdom benefits — to helping future pastors and church leaders learn a little philosophy. Here are three reasons why I am passionate about teaching philosophy at a seminary.
Philosophy and Evangelism. First, philosophy is strategic for evangelism. As Christians, we are called to be faithful witnesses for Christ. We want every person on the face of the
Earth to ask and answer the question, “What do you make of Jesus Christ?” Unfortunately, in our day and age, it is difficult to get people to consider this question seriously. This is because Christianity often is viewed as implausible, undesirable, or both. It is difficult today for the gospel message to get a fair hearing. Philosophy can help! Philosophy helps us to understand the collective mindset, value system, and emotional response patterns of culture. Christian philosophy can help expose the false ideas that keep people from considering Christianity as a genuine option. Consider the words of the great Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen:
God usually exerts [His regenerative] power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favourable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.1
God has given us minds, and He wants us to use them to help others see the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus and the gospel. He wants us to use philosophy (and theology and more besides) to show that Christianity is both true to the way the world is and true to the way the world ought to be.
For the unconvinced, inviting them to do evangelism with me usually does the trick. In an increasingly post-Christian culture, questions about God’s existence, the exclusivity of Christ, the problem of evil, the trustworthiness of the Bible, and more become pressing. By way of example, one night I ended my philosophy of religion class early in order to do an outreach event at a local university. Several of my students came with me to watch the fireworks. They were amazed at the tight connection between the kinds of things they were learning in class and the kinds of questions that the nonbelieving students were asking. Like a proud father, I watched with joy as many of them engaged with these students after the event, continuing the conversation, pushing and prodding others toward Christ — all with the help of philosophy!
Philosophy and Preparation for Ministry. Second, philosophy is essential for training in Christian ministry. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve had a student — usually a future pastor or even a PhD student in theology or some aspect of Christian ministry — ask me why they should take logic. How would logic help them be a better preacher or church leader or student of the Bible? At first, when I was asked this question, I was dumbfounded. It seemed obvious to me that God wants us to be good thinkers, and logic is one of the tools that will help in that area. Now, when I’m asked to justify logic to a student, I simply invite them to “come and see.” Thankfully, I’ve found these same students become the most ardent defenders of the use and benefit of logic for preaching, ministry, and Bible study.
Contrast this posture of skepticism toward the value of philosophy in general and logic in particular with the preachers and pastors of an earlier age. Here is John Wesley, who in 1765 delivered a talk to first-year seminary students entitled, “Address to the Clergy”:
Am I a tolerable master of the sciences? Have I gone through the very gate of them, logic? If not, I am not likely to go much farther when I stumble at the threshold….Rather, have not my stupid indolence and laziness made me very ready to believe, what the little wits and pretty gentlemen affirm, “that logic is good for nothing”? It is good for this at least,…to make people talk less; by showing them both what is, and what is not, to the point; and how extremely hard to prove anything. Do I understand metaphysics; if not the depths of the Schoolmen, the subtleties of Scotus or Aquinas, yet the first rudiments, the general principles, of that useful science? Have I conquered so much of it, as to clear my apprehension and range my ideas under proper heads; so much as enable me to read with ease and pleasure, as well as profit, Dr. Henry Moore’s Works, Malbranche’s “Search after Truth,” and Dr. Clarke’s “Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God”?2
My passion is to see God raise up a generation of pastor-scholars who take seriously God’s call to train the saints to “guard the good deposit [i.e., the gospel] entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:14 ESV).
Philosophy and Spiritual Formation. Third, philosophy plays a key role in our spiritual formation unto Christ. Modern man is hollow at the core. As a culture, we are largely what psychologists call “empty selves”: people who are passive, sensate, busy, hurried, and incapable of developing an interior life.3 But Christians are commanded to “be transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2 NIV) and to love God with all our mind (Matt. 22:37–39). Part of this process is seeing Jesus for who He is: the fount of all wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). Jesus is beautiful, and we rightly worship Him as such. But He also is brilliant — He is the smartest person ever. As Dallas Willard presses, “Can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart?”4 The obvious answer is no! As followers of Jesus, we too are to cultivate moral and intellectual virtue.
God has given us a mind. He wants us to use it for His glory. He wants us to live life rightly related to reality; to God; and to each other, ourselves, and our purpose. Philosophy can help in all of these areas.
Rightly considered, philosophy moves us to worship. It changes us in dramatic ways. Last semester I taught metaphysics. This is a hard-hitting class probing the depths of reality. We explored the ontology of material and abstract objects, space, time, causation, substance, and more. As the students quickly learned, and as Shakespeare so aptly puts it through the mouth of Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5). The world is enchanted. It is deeply mysterious and God-permeated. It is beautiful in its elegance, simplicity, complexity, diversity, and unity. It reflects a master artist who lovingly creates and sustains all reality. Reflection on that which God has made moves me, and it moves my students. This is as it should be. All truths discovered, all knowledge gained, point to and illuminate the divine.
Philosophy, rightly understood, is a servant, or handmaiden, to theology. It can serve as a guide on the quest for truth: training others to love God with all of their being, helping them understand the truths of the gospel and the love of God, and defending the church, the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) from the false ideas of the age.
Have I convinced you of the value of philosophy? Do you see the benefit of learning philosophy as a Christian? If not, then I invite you to simply “come and see.” Walk the path of reason, meet fellow travelers along the way, and follow the path to its source: Christ, the Eternal Son, the Logos, the perfectly rational Creator and Sustainer of all. —Paul M. Gould
Paul M. Gould teaches philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. He is the author or editor of ten books including the Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, 2019).
- Gresham Machen, What Is Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 162; quoted in J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 2.
- John Wesley, “An Address to Clergy,” delivered February 6, 1756, reprinted in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 6:217–31; quoted in Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 4.
- Philip Cushman, “Why the Self Is Empty,” American Psychologist 45 (May 1990): 599–611.
- Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 94.