On My Borrowing Philosophy

Other Christians have once again accused me of borrowing philosophy from pagan thought. This argument is tired. It goes something like this: “Your belief about the nature of God, His simplicity, His eternal nature, His ineffability is a Platonic/Ne0-Platonic corruption to Jewish thought and the Bible.” Ironically, this indictment is quite self-refuting, being grounded in an unbiblical philosophy itself. Let me explain . . .

From Jerusalem to Athens: A Christian Pursuit of Philosophy

Before I engage with my compadres who have brought the accusation, we must first understand what philosophy is. Philosophy, at its core, is the love of wisdom and the pursuit of understanding fundamental truths about existence, knowledge, and ethics. After all, that is what it means: “lovers of wisdom.” Therefore, just as we are all theologians, whether we like it or not, we are all philosophers. To say that we should not engage in philosophy is a philosophy itself.

The Origin of Philosophy

Let’s talk about philosophy for a second:

When the Corinthians were cautioned against philosophy (1 Cor. 2:6-8; Col. 2:8; 1 Cor. 1:18-21), it wasn’t an outright dismissal of all philosophical thought. Instead, it was a distinct warning against the contemporary philosophies that veered away from God’s truth.

Romans 1:19-20

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (emphasis mine).

Similarly. . .

Psalm 19:1

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”

These verses tell us that all of humanity, whether knowingly or not, borrows from God’s philosophy. Principles like the law of non-contradiction and the law of excluded middle point to a greater truth, one that’s aligned with God’s nature. We could not even read or understand the Bible without the inherent logic of a subject-verb-object relationship! As R.C. Sproul used to put it, “You don’t bring steel to Pittsburg.” Why? Because it already has it. I have no idea if that makes any sense to you, but it has served as a perpetual reminder of how God has preprogrammed us and the world with so much truth. Christians can mess some things up. And unbelievers can get some things right. Good philosophy is like the rain. God gives it to the just and unjust.

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So, when Christianity mirrors certain elements or doctrines from external philosophies (like Platonic philosophies), we are not borrowing from them. It is just raining on both of us. If they get something correct, they are mirroring God! Again, (and I know I am belaboring this point) all philosophies get some things right because they are, like us, drawing from the wellspring of general revelation. General revelation is a vast ocean of truths that is available to all people, everywhere, at all times.

All Truth is God’s Truth

Look at the Apostle Paul. In Acts 17, he engages with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Mars Hill. He even quotes their poets and thinkers! Not to affirm their entire worldview but to bridge the gap and introduce the gospel. This is a classic example of engaging with philosophy while staying rooted in divine truth. They got some things right. We are not to look at all pagan systems and attempt to alleviate our minds of everything they believe.

In essence (again!), all truth is God’s truth. If philosophy touches on a truth that aligns with God’s revelation, it’s not borrowing; it’s affirming what’s inherently known.

The Bible as Our Guidepost

As buoys in the ocean keep ships from straying too far, the Bible points us in the right direction for our salvation while it sets guideposts for our innate philosophy. It acts as the map of our philosophical pursuits, ensuring we remain pointed in the right direction while exploring the vast oceans of thought.

A Restored Earth Theology

The Restored Earth Theology offers a captivating perspective on our continuous spiritual and philosophical growth. It envisions a future—a restored earth—where our philosophical beliefs perpetually mature within the framework established by God. We are consistently guided and molded by the teachings of God through his word and creation, ensuring a seamless integration of faith and reason. I know what some of you are saying: this is very Thomistic. Saint Thomas Aquinas did well in emphasizing the importance of Natural Theology. I am not Catholic. Aquinas was. Does this mean I run from his way of thinking just because he is Catholic? Of course not. Do you see the pattern?

Pagan Christianity

Let me offer another example that follows the same path. Some argue that modern Christians practices have roots in pagan traditions. They may indict church buildings as pagan practice as they, according to these, have their origins in pagan temples. Another one is that Sunday morning service comes from the Roman sun god. Everything from Halloween to clerical vestments, according to these, come from a pagan culture outside of Christianity, and because of this, they are all wrong.

This argument mirrors the criticism that Christianity borrows from philosophy. The underlying premise is that borrowing from external sources is inherently bad or inauthentic. However, this perspective is dangerously flawed. It assumes that anything outside the Christian tradition is automatically wrong or harmful.

Freedom in Christ

Paul, in his letters, often speaks about freedom in Christ. In Colossians 2:16-17, he writes, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Paul’s point is that believers have freedom in areas that are not explicitly addressed in Scripture.

Just as we have freedom in matters of practice, we also have freedom in engaging with philosophy. To automatically reject anything that originates outside the Christian tradition is to limit our understanding and growth. Society, in its neutral state, allows us the freedom to explore, grow, and change. It’s through this exploration that we can affirm the truths that align with God’s revelation.

Conclusion

As we journey through the intertwined paths of faith and philosophy, it’s imperative to remember our foundational truths. While there might be overlaps and shared insights between Christianity and other philosophies, the core essence of Christian thought is rooted in God’s eternal truths. And these are drawn from the Scripture, reason, and creation. Just as rivers from different sources might converge into a single ocean, various philosophical streams may seem to merge. Yet, the ocean of Christian understanding is unique, vast, and deep, drawing its sustenance from the divine. As believers, our task is not to resist the ebb and flow of thought but to discern, reflect, and draw closer to God’s wisdom. By grounding ourselves in Scripture and being open to God’s natural revelation, we ensure that our beliefs remain pure, steadfast, and ever-evolving toward a deeper understanding of Him.

Tertullian, an ancient father of Christianity who lived around the 2nd century once said, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” as he fought against the divergent philosophies of the day. I answer, “What have both to do with God?”

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    29 replies to "From Jerusalem to Athens: A Christian Pursuit of Philosophy"

    • Rob

      Michael, I liked your riff on philosophy. You didn’t go in the direction I expected. You paraphrased your accusatory compadres as saying your philosophizing is a “corruption to Jewish thought and the Bible.” You countered that their “indictment is quite self-refuting, being grounded in an unbiblical philosophy itself” but you didn’t really get back to that. I thought you might challenge their “prolegomena,” their epistemology.
      Where did they get the idea that Jewish thought or the Bible were useable grounds for anything? Which Jewish thought and which of the many interpretations of the Bible?
      To even begin to unpack all that requires a ship load of steel, becoming aware of “what’s inherently known” (“tacit knowledge”), premises and presuppositions (philosophical, theological, and experiential) and/or satisfactory evidences. It’s just as well you didn’t go there. You already share with your interlocutors the Bible as “starting point” though you have given quite a bit more thought as to “why.”
      (a former RC Sproul groupie and former Pittsburg Steelers fan)

      • C Michael Patton

        Ha ha that’s a great one. I didn’t expect you to go that direction with a comment! I cut my teeth on RC Sproul.

    • Ewan Kerr

      You can say what you want but cannot escape the fact that post-Apostolic theologians/ ‘Church Fathers’ used the language of middle and neo-platonism to express views and take the ‘Christian ‘ faith further away from its biblical roots/

      • Bibliophile

        Question: why should we privilege the Jewish paradigm over the Hellenic one?

        • C Michael Patton

          Are you asking me?

        • Bibliophile

          No, sorry, failed to address the comment: was for Ewan Kerr.

          In your case, I was questioning how it is even possible for you as an evangelical protestant to navigate the terrain between theological and philosophical paradigms, without any objective authority apart from your own subjective interpretations of the Bible and equally subjective interpretations of tradition?

        • C Michael Patton

          Well, I hate to be a broken record, but that is all any of us have, ultimately. It’s the plight of humanity. But it keeps us all in a wrestling match with the truth. Some of us just have to wrestle harder than others. You, your interpretation of a living and the Bible. authority. Me, an interpretation of the same. The only difference is in how much authority we m yield. As such, my wrestling match is a little harder.

          But, mind you, everyone has to interpret ALL information as they are internalized. Two people who get instructions on how to bake a cake have to interpret that into their mind. And each CAN. Interpret it differently, no matter how clear it intended to be by the giver. It is the subjectivity of information transfer. It’s universal.

        • Bibliophile

          Well, no, it isn’t all any of us have – not unless there something in your methodology that prevents you from taking seriously not only your need of, but also the historical, philosophical and Biblical evidence for an objective authority in matters of faith and morals to overcome the challenge of situatedness of knowledge and problem of subjective interpretation. Can you honestly say your approach to Catholicism is aimed at removing whatever theological bias prevents you from seeing that? Or does your system merely reinforce that bias?

        • Bibliophile

          In other words, why wouldn’t you want to move from a position that is “more challenging” (massive understatement) to an alternative that effectively eliminates those problems by providing the authoritative point of view? Why settle for less when more is available?

        • C Michael Patton

          It does not eliminate it! That is my problem with your artitulation of what it does. You have to interpret your own authority. You and I are talking directly to each other, having to write text after text as we misunderstand each other as the information comes in and militates against, with, and for our preconceptions.

          This is exactly why Catholics distagree about a multitude of things, from V2 to how many times the Pope has spoken ex cstherdera.

          Go ahead and correct my misunderstanding and illustrate my point more poignantly. 😉

        • Bibliophile

          I already tried. But for some reason where papal infallibility is concerned, you seem to deliberately take no cognisance of a vital distinction that is made between objective authority and subjective interpretations of the same. You as an evangelical protestant, put all authority on the Bible, because you believe it to be infallible, all the while aware of the fact there are a plurality of interpretations – and yet you still insist the Bible is an infallible authority, despite that fact!
          So, just how inconsistent do you want to be (and by your own standards, no less)??

        • C Michael Patton

          you see, I told you. Let me try to re-interpret once again! You were talking about subjectivity. That’s what I was on. Not infallibility. Infallibility is a side issue right now. You said I subjectively. Interpret while you, somehow, objectively, interpret, I suppose, I said we all are subjective in our interpretation. I said nothing about infallibility with regard to that.

        • C Michael Patton

          I fixed the nestled comments Bibliophile. Sorry, I did not see what others were seeing.

    • Bibliophile

      I think this blog post only serves to highlight how you as a protestant are in the unenviable position of lacking any objective authority to control the relationship between, on the one hand, highly subjective interpretations of selective Bible verses, and on the other hand, the particular philosophies privileged in your (mostly) reflexively absorbed theological paradigm. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, indeed…

    • Rob

      I suffered with RATP (reflexively absorbed theological paradigms) for many years. I consulted with Doctors of Philosophy and they couldn’t cure me. I paid good money to Doctors of Theology and they couldn’t cure me. I have had to learn to live with the recurring symptoms. I used to ask God to heal me and it seems he can only prescribe a question: Do you trust me? My grace is sufficient for you.
      I’ve pretty much had to drop out of church-going as the condition seems to be highly contagious and I don’t want to give it or get it again. I wish you all well.

    • Rob

      Michael, FYI, the “Continue Reading” links in your emails don’t go back to the article but to a long page of code like this (below). And the successive Replies in the blog keep getting narrower until almost unreadable. like this (below, bleow). Or am I the only one who is seeing this? I know, this might be a big hassle to fix, but FYI.

      =0A=0A=0A=09=0A=09=0A@media only screen and=
      (max-width: 800px) {table.body .container{width: 100% !important;}td > h1.=
      email-title{font-size: 28px !important;}.footer-content .footer-content-sec=
      tion,.footer-content .footer-content-section p{font-size: 14px !important;=
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      g about subjectivity. That’s what I was on. Not infallibility. Infallibility is a side issue rig (well, here the formating corrected itself)

    • C Michael Patton

      I got the comments fixed. I just can’t see what you see about the “Continue Reading” links. I checked them all and they are working on my end. Can you email me and tell me what browser you are looking on, give me a screen-shot, and which blog posts in particular (or maybe it is all of them)?

    • Rob

      The email (it happens in more than one) is a donotreply@wordpress, so I can”t reply, but I pasted it below. The link is at the end of your reply to Bibliophile ” Continue reading Untitiled…”

      C Michael Patton just commented on From Jerusalem to Athens: A Christian Pursuit of Philosophy.

      In response to Bibliophile:

      I already tried. But for some reason where papal infallibility is concerned, you seem to deliberately take no cognisance of a vital distinction that is made between objective authority and subjective interpretations of the same. You as an evangelical protestant, put all authority on the Bible, because you believe it to be infallible, all the… Continue reading Untitled

    • Bibliophile

      Michael, so what if we have to interpret our own authority? In what way does this mean the teaching authority is not itself objective (as you hold the Bible to be, despite subjective interpretations)? It seems to me like the only thing that makes you insist that the authority of the magesterium doesn’t eliminate the problem of subjective interpretation – is personal incredulity! And that is hardly a good reason for anyone to take protestantism seriously

      • C Michael Patton

        Brother. I know you better than this. You are an incredibly smart person. You just said it. We both rely on our own subjectivity. The source is not the issue. You accuse me of relying on my own subjective interpretation. You admitted you do to. Your original criticism now applies to yourself as well.

        It does not mean I am right and the magisterium isn’t objective or that the Bible isn’t objective. It has nothing to do with that. I was just pointing out your own incredulity to see that we both, ultimately, rely on our own subjectivity. That is enough for me for now. We are heading in a good direction. I’m sure there will be plenty of time for us to cover other aspects of our views. The entire issue of authority—which is the most central issue in Catholics and Protestants disagreement—is incredibly large.

        Thanks again for the convo, my friend. You are a trooper.

        • Bibliophile

          I never said there was no subjective interpretation of magisterial authority; like you, as a protestant, who makes the distinction between subjective interpretations and the objective authority of the Bibke itself – we, too, as Catholics, make the same distinction between the objective authority of the Magisterium and interpretations thereof. So far, we are in agreement perhaps.
          However, that is not my point. My point is that, as a protestant, you are locked in: all you have is the Bible, and the Bible cannot interpret itself. So you have a major problem when it comes to avoiding subjective interpretations of the Bible. To put it bluntly, you have no way of resolving the issue in any coherent way that doesn’t ultimately reduce to relativism.
          But as Catholics, we do not have this problem, because we have an independent, *extra-Biblical* authority – namely, the Magisterium.
          Protestants who realise their hopelessly subjectivist error of placing authority in a text that cannot interpret itself, try to give some salutary nod to what they think is ‘tradition’, or the teachings of the Fathers of the Church; but, again, they are hopelessly lost, because they have no *authoritative* interpretations of tradition or early church teaching. But Catholics do: an *infallible* Magisterium capable of making objective definitions.
          So, to reiterate: as Catholics, the problem of subjectivity is solved because we have an objective authority capable of interpreting the Bible. Protestants simply do not have any independent authority in this regard, not even in regard to interpretation of the traditions to which they sometimes appeal – they just do not have any independent teaching authority.

          If you can’t understand how that puts protestantism in a very bad light, then, oh, well, better luck next time I suppose.

    • Bibliophile

      Sorry, typo above: Magisterium. Michael, in case you miss my point – again – let me try and put it in question form: as a protestant you accept that all references to the Bible are subjective interpretations thereof; but does that stop you from identifying the Bible as an objective authority in itself?

      • Pastor Wayne

        You said, “My point is that, as a protestant, you are locked in: all you have is the Bible, and the Bible cannot interpret itself.”
        You, sir, are mistaken. I have spent about 6 decades interpreting Scripture. One of the fundamental principles of my hermeneutics is that one must seek for Scripture to interpret Scripture.
        A classic example of this principle can be found in Isaiah 7:14 (NASB) – “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Many newer translations translate the word for “virgin” to be “maiden, young woman.” Yet we find the proper interpretation in Matthew 1:23 (NASB) – “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” The Greek accurately gives us the interpretation of ‘virgin.’
        Granted, not all proper interpretations are so simple or obvious. However, after 60,000+ hours of studying Scripture, I can affirm that Scripture does indeed interpret Scripture – at least for those, who desire it to and are willing to put in the hard work to do so.

        • Bibliophile

          Pastor Wayne.
          “I can affirm that Scripture does indeed interpret Scripture – at least for those, who desire it to and are willing to put in the hard work to do so.”
          Sounds more like conformation bias than a reliable hermeneutical principle.

    • Bibliophile

      Michael. With respect to Plato. Although Plato was a realist, and you are more of a rationalist-empiricist sceptic – don’t you think your denial of certain knowledge of truth puts you fairly close to Plato, who (mistakenly) believed that knowledge derived from sense was not reliable?

    • Ted

      For centuries and centuries, highly educated philosophers and religious men alike have always stood toe-to-toe disagreeing on “spiritual truth”. In this work, author Ted Even shows that the disagreeing skeptics of the past only serve to reinforce Christ’s radical statement about our need to just “become like little children” to discover the spiritual truth and that everyone has the same opportunity to enter the kingdom of heaven on that basis. Find out what this essential quality of heart is so you continue your search for spiritual truth within this simple-to-understand work, which only leaves on the absolute spiritual truth…

    • Bibliophile

      “Scripture interprets Scripture” is just the protestant failed attempt at copying the doctrine of the analogy of faith which, according to classical theism, simply means that any portion of text must be understood and interpreted in the light of the entire deposit of faith – and that includes a heck of a lot more than just the “Bible alone”, which is a contrived farce. And the doctrine of the analogy of faith makes perfect sense: a religious text can only really be properly interpreted and understood within the context of the believing community which values it as sacred (so, really, the question should not be “which interpretation is correct?”, but “which community has the authority to provide the guiding interpretative framework that controls all narrative interpretations?”). But this nonsensical notion that the Bible interprets itself is as absurd as insisting of Shakespeare’s works, for instance, that “Hamlet interprets Hamlet”. A patent absurdity and illogical principle that only a die-hard anti-Catholic fanatic would rely on, just to evade the question of authority.

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