Why Philosophy Is A Worthwhile Study For Christians
“What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” this famous quote by Tertullian, followed by his clear answer “Nothing!” is intended to communicate that philosophy is of no worth to Christians, and oftentimes dangerous. It’s certainly true that philosophy done wrongly will lead to bad results, but this is true of anything done poorly. On the other hand, St. John of Damascus held that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. This position is ultimately the more sound, healthy, and helpful stance to take, though theology is still the queen of the sciences, philosophy serves as a helper to it, and dependent on the subspecies of philosophy, it can be either good or bad in its function as handmaiden.
In his book A Curmudgeon’s Guide To Getting Ahead, Charles Murray writes that many people who did not grow up religious tend to go along with the zeitgeist, and treat religion dismissively or as a subject of humor. This is a common behavior in regards to philosophy among Christians, however, it ought to change. Murray suggests that though one does not have to accept every premise they read (in regards to religion, he describes himself as agnostic), it is worthwhile to read the major works anyways, firstly for the sake of understanding the larger conversation, and secondly for the purpose of gleaning worthwhile and helpful insight from places where we would be likely to avoid it.
The first point is a huge aspect of why this study is so important to Christians. Christianity does not exist in a vacuum, nor has it ever. Context informs every word ever written or spoken, and grasping philosophic context of any given time will allow one to understand the theological issues of the time. Paul’s apology at the Areopagus in Acts 17 shows this. The teaching of Thomas Aquinas regarding the presence of Christ in the supper is based entirely off of a misappropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics. The rise of biblical criticism is due in large part to the philosophy of the enlightenment. There are more examples, but these will suffice for the time being. In order to understand the theological issues of a given time, it is crucial to understand the larger philosophical context of that same period.
The second point is of nearly equal importance to the first. Attempting to glean helpful information from primary sources can be difficult in philosophy (especially from Hegel), but it's still a worthwhile practice. On the one hand, if one is unsuccessful in finding any worthwhile information in the primary source, they have at least had an opportunity to get a better grasp of the larger conversation. On the other, if one finds something like Plato’s metaphysics in his allegory of the cave or Aristotle’s laws of logic, then the study becomes worthwhile. This analogy and these laws of logic carry over to the study of theology, and in so doing serve as the handmaiden which St. John describes. If one understands Aristotle’s four causes, one gains a new tool in their apologetic kit, as well as a broader understanding of the working and the sovereignty of God.
Philosophy serves as a handmaiden to the queen of the sciences, theology, it is necessarily a smaller division of the study of theology. While not all philosophy bears much weight in an orthodox Christian worldview (one will not find much substance in reading about a person turning into an enormous bug overnight), there is still a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned. Though every non-Christian philosopher may have stolen the good stuff that they have found, at bare minimum they’ve provided more opportunities to learn about God, his nature, and his creation. Athens has a great deal to do with Jerusalem, and followers of Christ would do well to become familiar with it, though they ought not become citizens of it.