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Why Christians Need Philosophy

Boethius (AD 480–524) was among the last of the Romans and the first of the medievals. As the classical world crumbled and barbarism took root, he took it upon himself to preserve as much of the classical tradition as possible. C. S. Lewis explains, “This was no time for stressing whatever divided [Boethius] from Virgil, Seneca, Plato, and the old Republican heroes.” Instead, “he preferred . . . to feel how nearly they had been right, to think of them not as ‘they’ but as ‘we.’”

Lewis saw himself as a “British Boethius,” according to one biographer. He participated in a heritage of ancient ideas while living on the cusp of a modern “dark ages” that discarded the great tradition of the past. With Boethius and Lewis, we must agree it’s not a time to stress what divides us from the classical philosophers. It’s time to resurrect old ideas buried by modernity. Here are four reasons why.

1. Bad philosophy must be answered.

Lewis said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” He was absolutely correct.

Today we’re in a metaphysical crisis (e.g., nominalism, naturalism, materialism), an anthropological crisis (e.g., denial of fetal personhood, LGBT+ movement), an epistemological crisis (e.g., relativism, conspiracy theories, fake news), an ethical crisis (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, puberty blockers, shootings), a political crisis (for examples, turn on the news), and a logical crisis, the fallacious root of our current catastrophes. Bad philosophy isn’t hiding around the corner. It’s heralding its various gospels in the public square, and every person with Twitter or TikTok is a town crier. Will we answer it?

It’s not a time to stress what divides us from the classical philosophers. It’s a time to resurrect old ideas buried by modernity.

Ancient and medieval philosophers asked foundational questions about all these topics as they searched for transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty. These transcendentals weren’t seen as subjective. There was no “your truth” versus “my truth.” No “good for you” versus “good for me.” Beauty wasn’t “in the eye of the beholder.” Rather, the true, the good, and the beautiful were seen as beyond us and unconstrained by the whims of human emotion and experience.

Even the ancient pagans believed this, which is why Lewis wondered if “we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity.” Christian philosophers have found the objective ideals pagan philosophers searched for, recognizing that God is the Transcendent One who’s immutably true, good, and beautiful.

2. Life itself must be answered.

The purpose of philosophy is to answer life’s most inescapable questions—not the theoretical “Would you rather . . . ?” but the most practical and fundamental questions about human existence and flourishing. Consider the questions asked by each division of philosophy:

  • Logic: What are life’s first principles (basic truths)? How do we reason with one another?
  • Metaphysics: What’s the true nature of the universe, and how does it work?
  • Anthropology: What’s human nature, and what are we becoming?
  • Epistemology: How do we know things?
  • Ethics: What’s the basis of morality, and how do we follow it?
  • Politics: How do we structure society and institutions in ways that promote human flourishing?

Our post-Christian world’s answers to these questions aren’t sufficient. Psychologists call Gen Z the most “depressed, anxious, and fragile generation” ever. Social media, COVID, and a hundred other factors may be at play, but it’s also true we can’t spoon-feed young people philosophical mush and expect them to live happy lives. Our culture misunderstands humanity’s nature and destiny, which can only be explained in light of the triune God.

3. Philosophy is for theology.

Theology is the queen of the sciences, and philosophy is her handmaiden. Because all truth is God’s truth, there’s perfect harmony between general and special revelation. John used the Greek concept logos (“Word”) to explain Jesus’s eternal existence (John 1:1), Paul cited pagan philosophers as common ground in evangelism (Acts 17:28), and Peter used categories from Hellenistic virtue ethics for Christian teaching (2 Pet. 1:5–6).

Bad philosophy isn’t hiding around the corner. It’s heralding its various gospels in the public square, and every person with Twitter or TikTok is a town crier.

Throughout church history, Christians have used concepts from Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy to make theological distinctions. This hasn’t occurred on a small scale but on a large scale and within Nicene orthodoxy and the theological traditions of both Augustine and Aquinas. These Christian thinkers didn’t do this without qualification. Rather, they revised and corrected earlier philosophical formulations with God’s Word.

As Herman Bavinck explains, “Theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. . . . But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. What it needs is philosophy in general.”

4. Christianity is the true philosophy.

Christianity is more than philosophy, but it’s certainly not less. Our ancient Christian philosophy is the answer to bad philosophy. As Jonathan Pennington argues, the Bible, contrary to popular belief, is a book of ancient philosophy that provides answers to our most fundamental philosophical questions.

This isn’t a new discovery. It was obvious to many Christians throughout church history, especially some of the earliest church fathers like Justin Martyr. His love for Jesus didn’t contradict his love for wisdom. It was its basis. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin declared, “I found [the Christian] philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.”

Christianity has always been the true philosophy. It alone can bring light to the modern dark ages.

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