Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Seminary Notes on Philosophy

The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Historically, philosophy has been characterized by a relentless search for wisdom, a single-minded and insatiable desire to set forth the fundamental aspects of human existence in order to guide human activity. In the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, “Wisdom is to speak the truth and act in keeping with its nature.” Philosophy is concerned with the truth and with actions that are in accordance with the way things are. This requires some notion of just what “truth” is, and it requires that we know something of “the way things are.”

So what exactly is philosophy? Generally speaking, it is a theoretical activity that seeks to make sense out of the world in order to make sense of our place in it. In its activity, historically, philosophy has concerned itself with three broad categories: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Metaphysics asks and attempts to answer the question: “What is the nature of things in reality, and especially of ultimate reality?”  Metaphysics concerned with the nature and structure of reality and is often called “ontology”. 

Epistemology means “study of knowledge.”  Philosophy’s task here is to study why, how, or whether we know something. Aristotle began his work on metaphysics with this statement: “All men by nature desire to know.” Here we see the interweaving of metaphysics and epistemology. Aristotle is saying something about the nature of man, which would have something to do with metaphysics. He is also asserting that it is a part of man’s nature to want to know, which touches on the area of epistemology. This discussion of epistemology together with metaphysics was typical of philosophy for most of its history.  Epistemology seeks to answer questions such as, “What is the origin and exten of human knowledge?”  What is the nature of human knowledge?  Can we know anything at all? 

Ethics—sometimes called moral philosophy—concerns itself with either of two primary categories. It may concern itself with so-called judgments of value, in which philosophers look at judgments of approval/disapproval, rightness/wrongness of an action, and so on. Or it may focus on so-called judgments of obligation, in which philosophers attempt to determine what it is we are obligated to do or not obligated to do in given situations or circumstances.

These three categories have constituted the bulk of philosophical activity since its inception and they are interrelated. 

The simplest way for me to keep these sorted is to look at the key question each discipline seeks to answer.
Metaphysics-What is the nature of ultimate reality?
Epistemology-How do I know that?
Ethics-How does this truth affect how I live and how others live?

Philosopy, like so many other things, is a great discipline when held in its proper perspective.  When seen as a tool of common grace, given to men by God to lead to greater honor and worship of God, philosophy is a great thing.  When divorced from God and seen as a substitute to Him, it is a tool of destruction.  Not only that, it is a futile effort because apart from God as starting point, philosophy cannot answer the questions that it seeks to answer.

Philosophy apart from revelation is like a road map……
Revelation is a GPS—a view from above.

So what is the proper placement of philosophy in regards to study of Scripture, Theology. 
There are 4 options to this question.
1.       Philosophy governs theology--
This view holds that because philosophy deals with the totality of reality, part of its task is to delineate the boundaries and activities of every other discipline.

2.      Philosophy is to be integrated w/ Theology--  This view is more ambiguous than 1, since the notion of integration is not always clear. Does philosophy “integrate” with theology when theology uses philosophical vocabulary? Historically, the answer to this question has been no. But the notion of integration in this category should be seen as on a continuum; it can be “more or less.” In terms of his method of doing philosophy, Thomas Aquinas argued that the knowledge of God could be had by using certain tools of philosophy. This knowledge of God could be acquired by reason alone.
This is most likely the majority view in the history of the church and of Christians doing philosophy. Such a view depends on a particular view of the relationship of natural theology to special revelation. Natural theology is something that anyone can do as long as the right tools of reason are employed. Special revelation, though, is also necessary to fill out or supplement the proper conclusions of natural theology.

3.      Philosophy is theology--The is here is not is in terms of identity but rather in terms of subject matter. This view can be seen, for example, in John Scotus Erigena in the Middle Ages, in some forms of Deism, and in certain forms of modern theology (e.g., Paul Tillich’s “ground of being”). The main tenet of this position is that the way to God is through reason alone. Revelation either is not appealed to or is denied altogether as an authority, as in Tillich. The subject matter discussed deals very little with biblical revelation and almost exclusively with abstract ideas or systems of thought.

4.      Theology governs philosophy
Gen 1:1; Ps 104, 139; Eph 1:11; Heb 1:3
The role of philosophy, therefore, must be as subservient to theology. If philosophy seeks to maintain its principium of reason, then reason itself must be understood, defined, delineated, and used within the boundaries and context set forth by God and his revelation. To put it negatively, reason does not have the prerogative to act independently of what God has determined. If it does so, it will inevitably end in failure. This takes us back to the illustration above. Reason acting of its own accord is analogous to the man with a map. He does not know where he is, even if he has some idea of where he would like to go. In order to get to where he wants to go, he can only work through a seemingly endless array of “maps,” hoping that at some point one map will bring him to his destination. Since he has no idea where he is, he can never argue cogently for his own starting point; he is in the dark.

If, however, reason is properly guided and directed, it is analogous to the man with the GPS. The GPS is a view from above. It tells the man where he is. It shows him how he can move from where he is to make real progress toward his destination. It allows him to choose the proper map. He may have more than one way to move to his desired destination. But he cannot move, even an inch, in the proper direction unless he stays within the map that has been set by the GPS. In other words, philosophy can be properly pursued only when it is pursued within the context and confines of God’s own revelation. Philosophy’s role is as a handmaid to theology. Its use is ministerial, not magisterial. It seeks to serve, not to rule over, theology. It takes its cue from theological truths; it sets its tasks according to principles and ideas that conform to, and are perhaps directed by, God’s own Word.

This means, to use just one example, that philosophy has to let the Word of God determine and define reason’s own status. Since philosophy is (rightly) concerned with principles and uses of reason, it should first consult theology to ascertain just what reason is meant to do and be. When we read, for example, that the mind of man is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7), and that the natural man cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), and that we, while remaining in our sins, are dead (Eph. 2:1), we should see that philosophy’s tasks cannot begin to be accomplished until and unless reason itself is redeemed in Christ.

            Philosophy that seeks to undertake its task apart from this redemption winds up in foolishness and empty deceit. This is, in part, why the apostle Paul contrasts the sinful pursuit of wisdom (i.e., philosophy apart from Christ) with God’s wisdom:

For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:19–21)

Notice that “the world did not know God through wisdom.” Why not? Because the wisdom of the world is in direct opposition to the wisdom of God. The folly of the cross (which is wiser than the wisdom of the world—1 Cor. 1:25) is the beginning of true wisdom. Unless philosophy begins its task with that folly, which is God’s wisdom, it will be destroyed; it will destroy itself.

*The majority of these notes are taken directly from K. Scott Oliphint's book, "Christianity and the Role of Philosophy".  It is a GREAT book.