Read Part 1.
The Importance of a Prolegomena, and the Importance of Having a Christian Philosophy
There are all kinds of philosophies which the Christian should avoid. The Apostle warns,
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. (Col. 2:8)
The reference here is probably generic, referring to the various ideas floating around in Asia Minor in the day: eclecticism, syncretism, idolatry, superstition, and neo-platonic moralism. In the midst of it all there was and is a true Christian philosophy. In fact, anyone who is a lover of real sophia (wisdom), is going to love the philosophy of Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, the one who discloses God par excellence. Mature Christians become such, in part, by thinking biblically.
In one of his earlier books Francis Schaeffer made this pertinent remark about the reticence of Christians to think with their theology:
Christians have tended to despise the concept of philosophy; this has been one of the weaknesses of evangelical orthodox Christianity. We have been proud in despising philosophy and we have been exceedingly proud in despising the intellect. Our theological seminaries hardly ever relate their theology to philosophy and specifically to the current philosophy. Thus, students go out from theological seminaries not knowing how to relate Christianity to the surrounding worldview. (Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent, 297)
Schaeffer was certainly not recommending philosophy above theology. What he was drawing attention to was the serious lack of critical reflection by evangelicals and fundamentalists on a whole host of important intellectual matters to which theology ought to deliver the answers.
The problem, as he saw it, was that theologians—and evangelical theologians more than most—were just not equipped to address these weighty matters, nor in many cases, were they even interested in them. Philosophy needs theology for its basic justification and proper direction. And theology depends upon revelation.
Theology also needs a collaborative philosophy to unearth the kinds of questions that theology should meet. Otherwise theology becomes an exclusive discipline cordoned off from the rest of intellectual life, when it should in fact be guiding it. Theology needs a philosophy; therefore, theology needs to study first principles (prolegomena).
Schaeffer also mentions that in many seminaries the current philosophies of the day are not studied, or not related to theology. But we have to relate the truths that we are espousing in our statements of faith to the real world. We have to use revelation to its full extent to cover all truths.
If Jesus Christ has indeed come into this world and died on the Cross in real time for fallen man, and if the Cross of Christ and the Resurrection of Christ indicate that Christ is coming back to rule the world, then there is a big story to be embraced. It leaves nothing untouched. This world will be transformed, and God’s people will be transformed and glorified to live in it. So Cross and Crown impact a Christian view of history, the meaning of history, and therefore the meaning of human life. And the content is revealed.
If God has created this world then we’re not here by cosmic accident, we’re here by divine purpose, and there is a teleology, a purpose or an aim, that is built into this world and into its forward trajectory.
Therefore, as saved human beings we need to find out what that purpose is and we need to be pursuing it in this fallen world. We can hardly shine like lights in this world if we do not think in a different way than this world, and our lives do not even slightly remind the world to a different way of thinking.
When New Testament Christianity met the non-Christian world, whether Jewish or Gentile, its characteristic response was not to collaborate but to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord and thereby to see a change in its hearer’s allegiance. (Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God, 33)
Revelation, Theology and the Christian Mind
This really is what theology and the theological mind enables us to do. It doesn’t do to just preach the gospel as an independent truth, just some other piece of information that we’re to add on to what we already know. If we do that then the gospel just doesn’t fit. Because the gospel demands the transformation of our thinking about the world and our thinking about ourselves, and our thinking about our dependence upon the Sovereign God. For most of the thinking of the people in the world it’s been built on an independent foundation, not one that depends on Scripture. Therefore, this whole message, which demands humility and repentance and dependence … just doesn’t fit in with that framework.
So, there needs to be a theological setting, a theological framework or explanation, in which the gospel is set, as a painting is set in a good frame, enhancing and deepening the encounter.
Now, from one point of view that is systematic theology come to its own, but using other language—but sticking to the truths of theology, it is really a Christian philosophy or worldview. Therefore we have to be aware of the fact that the revelation of God demands that kind of treatment.
Unless Christian education publicly expounds its way of knowing God, strenuously proclaims universally valid truths, and clearly identifies the criteria for testing and verifying the knowledge claims we make, then the Christian view of God and the world will survive as but a fading oddity in an academic world that questions its legitimacy and appropriateness. (Carl F. H. Henry, Gods of this Age or God of the Ages, 93)
When Henry talks about testing and verifying the knowledge claims that we make, he’s using language that goes back to a kind of verifiability criterion of his mentor Gordon Clark and people like E.J. Carnell. I would disagree with that approach because it tends to be too rationalistic.
But from another point of view there are proper ways of testing and verifying our knowledge claims as long as the appeal is to our ultimate authority (the Bible), and that ultimate authority is demonstrated to be the only public authority that can actually make sense of any universally valid truth claim; this is where the great work of Cornelius Van Til and others comes in.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.