Covenant: Christianity Trumps Philosophy

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, PhD

Learn more about the Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy (Zondervan, 2016) by going to the EPS book page.

Historically, philosophy has occupied itself with large and daunting questions — What is the nature of ultimate reality? How can we know anything? How do we determine what is right and what is wrong? Along with these large questions comes a host of other, related questions.

The question that philosophy rarely asks is whether or not people are equipped to answer such questions. The standard approach to philosophy is to study hard, to immerse oneself in philosophical texts, to learn the languages of logic and analysis, and then to proceed ahead to address these questions.

But philosophy has not fared well with this approach. We notice in its history that schools of philosophy will emerge that seeks, in more or less the same way, to address these questions. It won’t take long before that school closes, due to its inadequacies, and another school opens its philosophical doors. That one, too, will eventually close and another will rise up in response. And on and on it goes.

This may be what lay behind Peter van Inwagen’s honest confession with respect to the history of metaphysics. His frustration in writing a book on metaphysics is that there is no established body of literature with which he can begin and to which he can appeal. He contrasts metaphysical theories with the body of knowledge presently available in geology, and he notes:

In the end we must confess that we have no idea why there is no established body of metaphysical results. It cannot be denied that this is a fact, however, and the beginning student of metaphysics should keep this fact and its implications in mind. One of its implications is that the author of this book …is [not] in a position in relation to you that is like the position of the author of [a] text…in geology… All of these people will be the masters of a certain body of knowledge, and, on many matters, if you disagree with them you will simply be wrong. In metaphysics, however, you are perfectly free to disagree with anything the acknowledged experts say – other than their assertions about what philosophers have said in the past or are saying at present.

The reason “there is no established body of metaphysical results” is that the questions asked by philosophers cannot adequately be answered until and unless one is able to move beyond the mundane to that which transcends it. And that can only be accomplished within a Christian context.

If we ask about the nature of ultimate reality, on what basis could we answer such a question? If there is no Christianity, then all we have is “the natural” and we are left to ourselves to try to give a “naturalistic” answer to that question. But such an answer will quickly show itself to be wholly defective and utterly speculative. It can be no better than a conjecture, a guess, a mere wish.

Or maybe we want to try to merge philosophy and Christianity. Maybe we think that philosophy can offer truth that Christianity can’t. If the two are merged, we have a more robust system of truth than if either of the two is left to itself.

The problem with this proposed corporate merger is that the two “companies” produce contrary products, and they’re run by Boards that could never work together. Philosophy stakes its claim on the ground of human autonomy. Attempting to stand on that ground, philosophy may ask some “religious” questions. It may ask about proofs for God’s existence, or about the rationality of God’s attributes, or the relationship of faith and reason.

But if autonomy is assumed, these questions cannot produce Christian answers. The god who is purported to be the “first cause,” for example, must be a god who is subject to the temporal, even as we are. Or, the god who is purported to be “necessary” is no more necessary than the proposition “Everything red is colored.” At best, he shares his necessity with a pantheon of other necessities. This kind of god cannot come together with the Christian, Triune God of Christianity. No merger between the two is possible, in this case. 

Is it possible, perhaps, to conform philosophy to Christianity? Indeed it is, but that conforming will have to be according to one ground or foundation, not two. Where might we begin, theoretically, if we want to conform philosophy to Christianity? We have to begin somewhere, and the “place” where we begin will have to be strong enough to support both disciplines.

Suppose we begin with human experience. The first question we ought to ask is just what this experience is. Is it experience of brute facts that mean nothing until and unless interpreted by us? Is it experience of “common sense” that allows for some kind of (relatively) communal agreement?

Unless we begin with God’s interpretation of facts, and of human experience, we will be lost in an ocean of relative data. It is not possible for human beings to transcend themselves in order properly to understand and interpret their experiences, or the facts around them. This point, we should think, is itself evident in the history of philosophy.

The best way to understand the role of these two disciplines is to recognize that Christianity alone provides the transcendent perspective needed for philosophy properly to accomplish its tasks. Thus, the relationship between the two disciplines is covenantal. That is, what is presupposed in philosophy is that God has spoken and that his speech brings with it personal, and eternal, obligations. His speech in creation (see, for example, Psalm 19:1-4; John 1:1-4, 9; Rom. 1:18-32), because it is understood by every person, and because it instills knowledge of God in us all, requires us all to honor him and give him thanks. If nothing else is known of God than what is known by and through creation, we must, at minimum, give God honor in all that we do in philosophy; it must be done in conformity to his character and requirements.

But God has spoken, not just in his world, but in his Word as well. Only by receiving that Word, including preeminently the Word, who is Christ himself (John. 1:1-4, 14), can we properly honor him in our philosophizing. Apart from that Word, all philosophy will drown in futility; it can never reach its proper goal. In other words, a true love (philo) of wisdom (sophia) is only possible when the one who is Wisdom itself is truly loved. This is covenantal philosophy; it is the only philosophy that begins with the proper fear of the Lord, and so produces proper wisdom (Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10, 15:33).