Philosophy in the Bible
Earlier this year I submitted the following entry for The Lexham Bible Dictionary. This will be the entry for “Philosophy”. It’s obviously too late to change it for the dictionary, but let me know what you think anyways! (I like it alright, but the quote from Kierkegaard and the use of Kelsey make it a bit eccentric. Not sure what I was thinking!)
“Philosophy” (φιλοσοφία) literally means “love of wisdom.” The term takes on a very broad range of meanings and connotations throughout history and in various traditions. In modern parlance the noun may refer to one’s worldview, while verbal forms (e.g., “philosophize”) refer to lay discourse about life’s biggest questions. Most often “philosophy” is used in a more technical sense to refer to one of a number of interrelated disciplines. Philosophy is not a main theme of either the Old or New Testaments, but it is always a fresh and controversial topic as God’s people try to be faithful to His Word in their particular context.
Philosophy in the Ancient Graeco-Roman World
In the ancient world, “philosophy was divided into three sciences: physics, ethics, and logic” (Kierkegaard). Taken in this broad sense, philosophy encompassed nearly every endeavor of human enquiry. Indeed, Plato (428 BC-348 BC), the father of the Western philosophical tradition, covered subjects as diverse as cosmology (Timaeus), politics (Republic), rhetoric (Phaedrus), and the afterlife (Phaedo). Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) similarly applied his efforts across a broad spectrum, contributing to biological classification (History of Animals, Parts of Animals), physics (Physics), and logic (Organon), among other things. Nearly all ancient philosophical traditions were somehow in dialogue with Plato and Aristotle.
- The Neoplatonists, like Plotinus (204 AD-270 AD), had a quasi-religious bent that was based on Platonic metaphysics. The goal of their philosophy was to ascend from the lowly realm of earth to mystical union with “the One.” This ascent is exemplified in Plotinus’ The Six Enneads.
- The Stoics rejected the other-worldliness of Platonism and argued instead that the universe was a closed system governed by fate. This led them to conclude that the good life was found, not in achievement or in mysticism, but in recognizing what fate had allotted to them. Key thinkers in Stoicism were Zeno of Citium (334 BC-262 BC), Cleanthes (330 BC-230 BC), and Chrysippus (279 BC-206 BC).
- The Cynic tradition dates back to the same time as the Platonic tradition, and perhaps even beyond. Whereas Socrates (469 BC-399 BC), the teacher of Plato, was known to question conventional wisdom based on a search for “the good,” the Cynics made flouting conventional wisdom an end in itself. The Cynics were itinerant, decidedly antinomian, and spurned metaphysical reflection. Central figures of the Cynic tradition are Antisthenes (445 BC-365 BC), Diogenes, and Crates of Thebes (365 BC-285 BC).
Philosophy in the Old Testament
Since the OT is primarily concerned with God’s works of creation, providence, and redemption, it does not traffic mainly in philosophical thought. Whereas philosophy generally deals with discursive reasoning on issues of ethics, metaphysics, and cosmology, the biblical witness provides us instead with declarations from God and historical accounts of God’s actions. Nonetheless, there is a strand of philosophical thought found in the canonical Wisdom Literature of the OT (i.e., Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon). The philosophical tradition found here is rather ad hoc, focusing, not on the structure of the universe or ethical absolutes, but on how one might live fruitfully in God’s world. For example, in the book of Proverbs, “what makes an action wise is insight into how to act in the particularities of a given concrete situation so as to establish and maintain there that socially teleological order that makes for the well-being of human lives” (Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, 240). This decisively practical approach sets the Hebrew tradition apart from later Graeco-Roman understandings of wisdom. The biblical authors find it untenable that one could come to a comprehensive knowledge of how reality works; God is far too mysterious and free in relation to the world for this to be a possibility. This mysteriousness of God is one of the central messages of Ecclesiastes and Job. In sum, philosophy in the OT is a decidedly God-centered endeavor. One sees the world under the free, personal providence of God, and attempts to act wisely for the well-being of that world. Wisdom literature provides us with examples of wisdom that we are to appropriate in an ad hoc manner.
Philosophy in the New Testament
Perhaps the most conspicuous reference to philosophy in the NT comes from Col 2:8. Paul uses the term pejoratively here to refer to something which has the potential to harm the progress of the Christians in Colossae. Although Paul himself clearly uses philosophical language in his letters, “his source of knowledge is God’s revelation in Christ…not the finite human reasonings of philosophers” (Keener, The Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 575). Another example of this tendency to pit human wisdom against divine revelation comes from 1 Cor 1:18-25. Here “wisdom” is put in contrast with “power” and both are declared insufficient to provide salvation. In light of this, Paul redefines wisdom, saying that Jesus Christ has become wisdom for us. Further references in 1 Cor 2 make it clear that true wisdom is inaccessible to purely human reasoning and must be received through divine revelation (2:6-16). The other locus classicus that must be taken into account is Acts 17:16-34. The tension between human reasoning and divine revelation is present here as well. On the one hand, Paul does engage philosophers with arguments and he even quotes from philosophical texts. Conversely, however, he declares the philosophers to be in fundamental error over the nature of God, urging them to repent and embrace Jesus as Lord. These texts do point up a tension in the NT, but they ought not to be taken as a blanket condemnation of rational thinking since the biblical authors clearly make arguments, appeal to reason, and dialogue with non-Christian traditions.
Philosophy in Church History
Philosophy first became a major factor for the church as it embraced its centrifugal mission. As the account of God’s actions in Jesus Christ went out into the world, the church had to decide how to respond to the various thought-systems present in the Graeco-Roman world. Early Christian theologians came up with different ways of relating the gospel to the philosophies of the surrounding culture(s). Justin Martyr (103 AD-165 AD) argued that the “Word” (Λόγος) of John’s gospel (i.e., Christ) was present to all people as the “rational principle of the universe” (which the philosophers also called Λόγος). Thus, by virtue of their being obedient to this rational principle, pre-Christian philosophers may be counted as Christians (First Apology. 46.2-3; Second Apology, 10.2-3; 13.4-6). Clement of Alexandria (150 AD-215 AD) went so far as to draw a direct parallel between the OT revelation given to the Jews and the philosophy given to the Greeks. Both were adequate, if different, preparations for the coming of Christ (The Miscellanies, I.5.28). Tertullian (160 AD-220 AD) represents a stark contrast from these approaches, insisting that philosophy and Christian truth are diametrically opposed. As far as Tertullian was concerned the philosophers were the origin of all heresies, while the Bible calls Christians to a simple faith (The Prescription Against Heretics, 7). Augustine (354 AD-430 AD) represents a mediating approach between these other positions. He used a trope from the history of the Israelites to explain the relation between philosophy and Christian revelation. Just as the Israelites plundered the Egyptians by taking their treasures, so too may Christian thinkers take what is good from philosophical systems while discarding what is useless (On Christian Doctrine, 2.40). While all four understandings of the relation between biblical revelation and philosophy are still present throughout various Christian traditions, it is safe to say that Augustine’s approach has been the most influential throughout history.
Aristotle, The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, vols. 1-2. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine.
Clement of Alexandria. The Miscellanies.
Justin Martyr. First Apology.
Justin Martyr. Second Apology.
Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Kelsey, David H. Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited by Mary Gregor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
McGrath, Alister E, ed. The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.
Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1997.
Plotinus. The Six Enneads.
Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics.