by Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions.
Answering the Big Questions
To many people, the mention of "philosophy" brings up an image of gray-haired intellectuals endlessly debating irrelevancies. There is some truth in this image, especially the part about the endless debate.
But philosophy matters for Christians because many of the debates are about the "big questions" of human existence.
- Does God exist?
- If he does, what kind of God is he?
- What kind of world do we live in? Is the universe nothing but matter and motion?
- Who are we? Are human beings unique?
- Is there a purpose to life?
- Are there absolute standards for morality?
- If there are, what are they?
- If absolute standards do not exist, how do we avoid being oppressed by whoever has the most power?
- Is beauty real?
- Are minds real?
- Is there an afterlife?
- How do we know anything? What does it mean to know something?
- Is science the only way to knowledge?
The difference with Christians is that we know that God has spoken. He has spoken climactically in Christ (Heb. 1:1-3). He speaks in the Bible, which is his word. He knows everything. He has provided answers to many of the big questions.
Why Non-Christian Philosophy Is Broken
In the Western world, philosophy has spawned endless debate about the big questions. Why? Partly because most philosophy has been conducted with one fundamental rule: you must not appeal to any outside authority. You must only appeal to reason. But it turns out that reason alone has not proved adequate to lead people to wide-spread agreement.
For one thing, reason must have something to reason about. You cannot generate substantial truths by mere logic, unless you already have some truths at the start of the reasoning process.
Second, people are biased.
Third, they may have subtly different conceptions of reason, based on what they think are the most likely answers to the big questions. If God exists and created us, human reason is his gift. It imitates on a creational level his own original rationality. So it is fundamentally subject to God. On the other hand, if reason exists in a vacuum, maybe it is not trustworthy at all. Or maybe it can virtually legislate for reality.
When we read the Bible, we can see that God never intended human beings to search for answers to the big questions simply on their own. He communicated verbally to Adam and Eve. He communicated to Noah and to Abraham. He gave detailed instructions to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai and through Moses. He spoke through the prophets. He spoke climactically in Christ. A spiritually healthy human being should be willing to submit to his instruction. That is the route of sound philosophy. To ignore God's instruction and just to try to puzzle out the nature of the world is already a rebellious move, because it despises the route that God has designed for human growth.
Christians need to be different in their thinking from most of what passes as philosophy. We need to grow in understanding biblically based answers to those big questions. And then we need to prepare to engage with others who are searching for answers, or who think that they already have answers. We should care, because rotten answers can be disastrous both in this life and the next. We may engage with philosophical discussions—but we come as people with radically different commitments, because God has brought us to salvation in Christ.
Vern S. Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for over three decades. He has six earned degrees, including a PhD from Harvard University and a ThD from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of numerous books on a variety of topics, including biblical interpretation, language, and science.