3 Reasons the Church Needs Philosophers
Paul Gould is a philosophy professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s also an author of several books, and the kind of guy who starts his ministry's website off with
“God is on a mission to redeem and restore humanity, indeed, all of creation. This mission finds its climax in the coming of Jesus Christ—the great hope of the world. Jesus is man’s greatest need and highest good.”
Gould also recently published an article with the Gospel Coalition titled, “The church needs philosophers and philosophers need the church.” I think it makes some important points that should be highlighted. Focusing on the first conjunct of the title, I’d like to share the link so you can read it, share Gould’s basic points, and add in some additional thoughts.
Reason 1: Philosophers help sustain the intellectual viability of Christianity
Apologetics is that branch of theology concerned with intellectually defending the truth-claims Christianity. Philosophers in particular specialize as apologists poised to address some of the most common objections to the faith. Gould writes:
“opposing perspectives to our faith, what we might call defeater beliefs, rear themselves in every day and age. … Christian philosophers are uniquely qualified to address the logic and philosophical underpinnings of such claims….”
It’s not just that they are uniquely qualified, it’s that throughout history they have been the ones to address these claims. For example, a popular defeater belief today set up against Christian theism is that the suffering we see in the world is incompatible with a good God's existence. The best recent material on this is almost entirely produced by philosophers. Consider three game-changing books on the issue published recently by prominent philosophers, and with Oxford University Press:
- “Providence and the Problem of Evil” (1998), by Richard Swinburne
- “The Problem of Evil” (2008), by Peter van Inwagen
- “Wandering in Darkness” (2012), by Eleanore Stump
The best material on the subject in the past had also been produced by philosophers. Testimonies overflow from the world’s biggest influencers who testify that reading the philosophical writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, and Aquinas, saved their faith. C.S. Lewis is right:
“…to not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground -- would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”1
Reason 2: Philosophers remind believers to “love God with all your mind”
The quote comes from Matthew 22:37; see also Romans 12:2. Gould writes,
“As a culture, we are no longer guided by right thinking. We have shifted from being attentive to our feelings to being driven by them.”
In Christianity today, perhaps like never before, our mind is a relatively neglected area of spiritual development. Let me tell you, some of the most compelling insights into this God who we worship can come from philosophy. For my favorite example, consider Euthyphro’s dilemma. This is this question of whether
(1) X is good/valuable as a result of God saying or deeming it so (i.e. God causes it to be good),
(2) X is already good/valuable, and that is why God says it is.
Which do you choose? If you choose to say something valuable in virtue of God deeming it so, then what if God suddenly says molesting a child is good? Yikes. On the other hand, if something is already good with or without God, then whence the widespread intuition that God is necessary for morality? Think about it before moving on.
The first stage in thinking about this is to distinguish moral duties (right vs. wrong) from moral values (good vs. evil), a distiction individuals without training in philosophy might not immediately notice. Focusing on the moral values (good vs. evil), a very popular model today (and proposed solution to the dilemma) came recently from Robert Adams, published in Finite and Infinite goods (2002), which is also published by Oxford University Press. Adams suggests that God constitutionally is what Plato called “The Good.” That is to say, while “good” does not mean “resemblance to God,” nevertheless the property of being good consists in being the property of resembling God. If this confuses you, consider an example: water constitutionally is H2O, but water does not mean H2O, right? People were talking coherently about water long before knowing what it is at a deeper level. So we can then say that "to resemble God is to be loving, honest, creative, desirable, just," and so forth. We also add that God has these properties essentially, meaning that if an entity does not bear these properties, it by definition is not God. The model has several advantages and averts several philosophical objections that are not even on most people's radar. If Adams is right, then―holy smokes―God IS the very standard of goodness and value! Wow!
I realize the explanation went fast, but dwell on it a bit and check out the book. If you successfully manage to comprehend the model, let it soak in and see what it does for your worship.
Examples such as this, and other exciting insights into the Trinity and God’s properties abound in philosophy. Each help us dwell on, understand, and love God with all our mind. See my discussion with UTD's Reasonable Faith group
Reason 3: Philosophers promote human flourishing in general
Gould notes that,
“the engineer, the minister, the politician, and the lawyer all [influence things the way they do] in virtue of their beliefs—their views on human nature, moral obligation, personal responsibility, and vocation—philosophical doctrines, one and all.”
Philosophy has directed human history in a way that is hard to communicate well in a short blog post. Advancing Christian values is truly an area where the church can be salt and light to the world, to help direct it in good ways. Humans were all created in “God’s image,” and as I recall Gould noting in a lecture of his I attended, this almost certainly refers to our capacity of being God’s stewards on Earth. Part of being a good steward is not just aiming to promote the good, but engaging in the good of reasoning (doing philosophy) and altering our courses of action and those around us accordingly. It also means defending values that match up with God’s values, in environments that would otherwise be far more hostile to them. The case against the moral permissibility of abortion and homosexuality is strong indeed, but the church in general has done a very poor job at promoting even the basic philosophical case for the Christian view of these things. Today, the church's having “out of date” values is listed by Barna research as one of the six reasons why Millennials are abandoning her, and not coming back.2 Incidentally, three more of the six are that:
- “They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense.”
- “They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity” (this idea that only Christianity is true).
- “Churches come across as antagonistic to science”
This church needs to focus more on loving God, not just with her heart, but with her mind. She needs to promote philosophy, and with the encroaching secularism and secular values at her doorstep, she needs philosophers like never before.
- The Weight of Glory (Eerdmans, 1949), 50.