Colossians 3:8 leaves many believers hesitant to merge the worlds of philosophy and Christianity:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Did Paul mean Christians should avoid philosophy altogether? Or does the Bible support engaging philosophy to glorify God?
Douglas Groothuis is a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith and Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament. He offers an answer in this excerpt adapted from the September/October 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine.
I am a Christian and a professional philosopher. But sometimes Christians wonder if followers of Jesus should be philosophers or should even reason philosophically. Doesn’t the apostle Paul warn of false philosophies (Col 2:8) and write that the wisdom of God makes foolishness of the world’s wisdom (1 Cor 1:18–25)? Did I choose the wrong career?
I would not be a Christian philosopher if I thought the Bible condemned it. One way to seek an answer to the question of whether or not philosophy is a worthy activity for a Christian is to return to the life of Paul and how he evangelistically engaged a group of philosophers.
Paul and the Greek philosophers
So we turn to Paul’s missionary trip to Athens in Acts 17. Some interpreters have claimed that Paul’s ministry to the philosophers there was a failure. Others argue that it was a success, and even that it should encourage Christians to engage unbelievers philosophically. Let’s look at the passage.
Paul arrived in Athens right after he fled persecution by the Thessalonian Jews in Berea, which meant that he left his colleagues behind for a time (Acts 17:13–15).
Athens was a cultural center famous for its idols, but Paul was not impressed by its religious art. Instead, he was “deeply distressed” (v. 16)*—since idols take people away from the one true God (Isa 45:20). Paul himself, in his letter to the Romans, indicted all the nations because they “worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator” (Rom 1:25). But Paul’s distress at Athenian idolatry did not result in fleshly rage but in compassionate outreach.
As Paul talked with people about Christ, “some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also debated with him” (Acts 17:18). Although they accused him of being an “ignorant show-off” who advocated “foreign deities,” they invited him to speak to the Areopagus (v. 18). The Areopagus was a prestigious group of thinkers who met on Mars Hill to discuss new ideas.
Paul began by finding common ground. He noted that they were “very religious” and had an altar to “an Unknown God” (Acts 17:23).
Paul announces that he would make known to them the God they admit they do not know. He tells them, “The God who made the world and everything in it . . . does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything since he himself gives everyone life and breath and all things” (vv. 17:24–25). Paul challenges the basic beliefs of the philosophers since they did not believe in one personal God. Paul is not succumbing to false philosophy; he is challenging it.
God is not a distant and uncaring deity, Paul explains. “From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live” (v. 26). God is also involved in the details of every life so that people “might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).
Paul finds even more common ground by citing two Greek poets: “In him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring’” (v. 28). God has left his witness in all creation and for all people (Ps 19:1–6; Rom 1:18–21), so it is not surprising that the Greek philosophers knew something about God.
Unlike the worldview of these philosophers, Paul presents “the Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 24), who is personal, transcendent, and relational. He establishes this worldview before uttering a word about Christ.
Paul then uses a philosophical argument against their idolatry. “Since, then, we are God’s offspring, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination” (Acts 17:29). If we are God’s offspring, then God is greater than us. Therefore, it is illogical to think that God is like a dead, human idol. Paul is using good philosophical reasoning against the Greek philosophers.
In the past, God overlooked ignorance about himself, Paul explains, but now God “commands all people everywhere to repent” because he has “set a day when he will judge the world in righteousness by a man he has appointed” (vv. 30–31). God has proven this truth by raising Jesus from the dead.
Luke, the author of Acts, concludes this Grecian narrative by describing the crowd’s three reactions: some sneered at Paul, others wanted to hear more, and some “joined him and believed” (vv. 32–34).
The Bible and philosophy: Acts 17
What does Acts 17 tell us about the Christian’s approach to philosophy? Paul knew that the philosophers had not found God, although they knew something about him. Before speaking of Jesus, Paul gave a (brief) philosophical account of God and his ways. He does not quote the Old Testament but explains the biblical view of God in terms that philosophers would understand. He then argues against their idolatry, not by quoting the Old Testament but by reasoning against them. It is after making this philosophical case that Paul speaks of Jesus and his resurrection. And it is after this case that Paul repeats God’s call for all people to repent and follow Jesus in light of the coming judgment. Paul made good use of philosophy in Athens.
However, Paul did not plant a church in Athens, as he did elsewhere. Only a few people became followers of Paul, although another group at least wanted to learn more. But the narrative says nothing about the cross! How could Paul leave that out? Perhaps he was depending too much on philosophy. Does this mean that Paul was a failure and that his use of philosophy was wrong?
I don’t think so. Philosophers make up a tough crowd. Paul made considerable headway with them, and some even followed him. It is more likely that the account in Acts is a short summary of his speech. Since Paul spoke of the resurrection, he must have spoken about the cross as well. The one practically presumes the other.
A study of Acts 17 shows Paul using philosophical reasoning with the philosophers, although he knows that philosophy is inadequate and that much of it is wrong—that is, “false philosophy” (Col 2:8). The account in Acts says nothing critical about Paul’s preaching in Athens and presents his speech as wise, intelligent, and courageous outreach to pagan philosophers.
As such, our story of Paul in Athens may be a motivating model for Christians who want to engage the world of philosophy for the glory of God.
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- Philosophy and Christianity: Why They Don’t Need to Be Kept Separate
- R. C. Sproul on New Age Philosophy and The Other Worldview
- Who Were the Sophists?
- John Frame Christian Thought Bundle (3 Courses) – 40% off through October 31
- Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat by Peter Jones
- Stoics of the Roman Era Collection (18 vols.)
- Lives of Eminent Philosophers (4 vols.)