What is the Task of Christian philosophy?
Football doesn’t happen by accident. Teams must be formed, rules established, and goals set up. I can’t accidentally kick my son’s ball across the room and call it football. Analogously, Christian philosophy doesn’t just happen by accident. It is a task with rules, goals, and quality players.
Every task has its rules. For Christian philosophy, those rules are set by the Bible. The Bible provides us with mental starting places, assumptions about the existence of God, his world, works, will, and nature. Starting points like these are called pre-theoretical or pre-philosophical assumptions. Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, writes,
The Christian philosopher quite properly starts from the existence of God, and presupposes it in philosophical work, whether or not he can show it to be probable or plausible with respect to premises accepted by all philosophers, or most philosophers at the great contemporary centers of philosophy (Plantinga 1984, 261).
As Plantinga suggests, we find ourselves at odds with those whose pre-theoretical assumptions differ from ours. Plantinga notes that practicing a Christian approach to philosophy will not always gain friends in high and secular places. Christian philosophers may have to go off-piste. They “may have to reject certain currently fashionable assumptions about the philosophic enterprise.”
For example, in his history of philosophy, Anthony Gottlieb criticises Augustine for rejecting skepticism on the grounds that God exists and knows everything. Gottlieb finds this frustrating. According to Gottlieb, Augustine should give up his assumptions for the sake of philosophical rigour:
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 2016, 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? Clearly not. 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 atheism fails to answer the deepest questions.
Second, just as a game of football cannot occur without goals being set, Christian philosophy can’t be of any use unless it has clear aims. But who gets to set them? Of course, the Lord is the final authority on the matter. However, providentially, the Lord has told us to whose interests we should attend. As Paul tells in his letter to the Philippians, we should act in the interests of each other, the Lord’s people. This is no less true for Christian philosophy. As Plantinga writes,
Christian philosophers…are the philosophers of the Christian community; and it is part of their task as Christian philosophers to serve the Christian community. But the Christian community has its own questions, its own topics for investigation, its own agenda and its own research program (Plantinga 1984, 255).
Much of the wider philosophical world is moved by its fashionable questions. It is difficult not to be carried away by them. Those questions might be interesting but, to the Christian, they aren’t as important as questions that might be raised at a missions conference or a breakfast with pastors. Consequently, Christian philosophy must sometimes be out of step with the wider philosophical world. No matter. We aren’t primarily interested in serving its goals. Philosophical fashion doesn’t drive our engine.
The questions raised by the Christian community are diverse, ranging from questions about how best to defend one’s beliefs in public to constructing coherent doctrines of Scripture, the Trinity, or the atonement. Philosophy can help with all these doctrines, but it can only genuinely help if that’s its purpose. Hence, the motives and other qualities of the thinker are critical, which leads me to my next point.
Just as a certain quality of physique and skill is required to play a football, Christian philosophy requires a certain quality of mind. We could call these qualities intellectual virtues, praise-worthy characteristics most conducive to good work. In his introduction to philosophy, William Halverson suggests four qualities of the mind for doing intellectual work. Although not a Christian introduction to philosophy, his ideas enjoy significant biblical support.
First, one must be curious. As Halverson points out, “without [curiosity] there can be no science, no learning, no philosophy” (Halverson 1980, 16). The word philosophy (love of wisdom) originates with the Greeks during the fifth century BC. During this time, the Greeks gave us the theater, comedy, sport, democracy, history, and science. They loved to learn. If you love learning, you are sufficiently curious. But learning is impossible if we think we know it all. Hence, a good deal of humility is required. Pride is perhaps the greatest of learning-blockers.
Second, good thinking requires openness, described by Halverson as “a willingness to adopt a view different from the one currently held if the weight of evidence appears to be on the side of the new view” (Halverson 1980, 17). Openness is the mean between close-mindedness and gullibility. The close-minded refuse to change their minds no matter how good the evidence might be. The gullible refuse to resist anything no matter how poor the evidence.
Jesus criticised both. He told his intransigent opposition that they had been given more than enough evidence for his Messiahship and would be held accountable for their disbelief (Matt 11:20-24). Jesus also speaks poorly of those who are swayed by popular opinion (Luke 7:24; Matt 11:7).
Steering between the two extremes might be difficult, but there is a way, and learning to stay the course will make us worth listening to.
Third, intellectual tasks require us to be honest about our level of understanding, knowledge, and skill. Halverson writes,
Be perfectly candid—with ourselves and with others—about what we do and do not understand, what we do and do not believe, what we have and have not investigated with respect to whatever issue may be under discussion (Halverson 1980, 17).
One can’t be a know-it-all and a learner at the same time. Knowing one’s limits is vital for good work in general, no less, for mental work. It’s no bad thing to confess ignorance. My students know when I don’t understand something. I tell them. I have friends who have mastered concepts that are presently beyond my reach. There is no use in pretending that I know what they are talking about. Like everyone else, I’m still learning.
On the other hand, we ought not hedge our bets on every matter. There are things worth defending and even worth dying for. Intellectual tasks require courage. We must have “the willingness to take a stand, to affirm a view on the basis of our best understanding of the relevant evidence” (Halverson 1980, 17). Courage is most valuable when speaking up is costly. In our era, this virtue is in short supply and high demand. If you’ve got it, people are desperate to hear you.
This is especially important for Christians. We must pluck up courage to defend what we have good reason to think is true. Jesus insisted on it when he said, “everyone who will acknowledge me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before my Father in heaven” (Matt 10:32-33).
I don’t have courage by nature. I can’t bear a fight. Hence, like many people, courage is something I need from somewhere. But God is gracious and keen to supply our need (Phil 4:19). As Plantinga tells us, Christians require God-given kind of courage, a “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 armour of God” (Plantinga 1984, 254).
All this work must be for some effect. But what is it? What use is Christian philosophy to the life and ministry of the church? In the next post, I will attempt to answer this question.
Plantinga, Alvin. 1984. Advice to Christian Philosophers. Faith and Philosophy 1: 253–271.
Halverson, William. 1980. A Concise Introduction to Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Gottlieb, Anthony. 2016. The Dream of Reason. New York: W. W. Norton.
Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary