I’ve often thought about the continued role of philosophy for the Christian. What should be the relation between the gospel and philosophy?
A Bad Name
Philosophy seems to have been given a bad name in the scriptures, specifically for the way it leads us away from God. In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul warns,
“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
In this dispensation, the Lord explains that it is because of the creeds of men that many have been unable to find the truth. Through Joseph Smith, he says,
“For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men“ (Doctrine and Covenants 123:12).
What Good – The Scriptures
But philosophy is not inherently evil. In fact, it can be beneficial if we exercise wisdom and prudence. There are a few scriptures which speak of the benefit of philosophy and learning. Jacob tells us,
“When [men] are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God…. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:28-29).
In the Book of Mormon, Mosiah made sure that his sons were
“taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers, which were delivered them by the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 1:2).
In the Old Testament, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-nego, and Daniel were honored for their “knowledge and skill in all learning,” and Daniel specifically for his understanding of visions (Daniel 1:17, emphasis added).
In these and other situations, individuals were able to deepen their spirituality and understanding of spiritual things because of their philosophical preparation.
What Good – The Philosophers
Scholars and church leaders have had varied opinions on the value of philosophy. As Tertullian asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” or “the Academy with the Church?” It’s a valid question, and one that has garnered many answers since its inception. Some believe that it is useless, others essential, and still others that it serves a purpose only until we find the gospel.
In teaching the Galatians, Paul described the law as a pedagogue that would bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Clement expanded on this idea when he said that philosophy was actually inspired of God, and also a pedagogue that could bring men to Christ. A pedagogue, rather than a schoolmaster (as its translated in the KJV), was a servant who would lead children to school. Clement argued that philosophy, in that same way, can lead us to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Philosophy has always been used to answer man’s questions about how they should live their lives – how they might best act so as to be happiest, or most well, or most just. The gospel, coming from a divine source, meets these same needs, so we can see how one might lead to the other.
Others thought Clement’s position does not go far enough, arguing that while valuable for leading us to Christ, philosophy can also enrich our experience with Christ once we have found him. This position mirrors that of Augustine, who said in prayer, “I now believe that it was thy pleasure that I should fall upon these books [of Plato] before I studied thy Scriptures, that it might be impressed on my memory how I was affected by them…. For had I first been molded in thy Holy Scriptures… they might have pushed me off the solid ground of godliness.” Augustine was able to, using the tools given him by his study of philosophy, remain on the ‘solid ground of godliness.’ Origen’s position is similar, believing that we can understand who God is through reading Plato‘s writings on the “good.” In either case, using the teachings of the great philosophers allowed these men to better understand the gospel.
The analytical tools of philosophy also allow men to explore belief. Epicurus, an ancient philosopher, used philosophy to outline the problem of evil and a belief that led some to charge him as an atheist. Since his time, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and BYU’s David Paulsen have used philosophical logic to refute this problem of evil (see the Free Will Defense and Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil) . Others can now study their arguments and have more than a superficial experience with their religion. Instead, they can understand both what they believe and why they believe it.
Certainly balance, as it often is, is the key in this situation; being extreme in either direction will ultimately end with some sort of loss. And clearly, priority should be given to divine counsel – the scriptures and the words of living prophets.
I personally think that people like Augustine and Origen go a little too far, but I still value the tools that philosophy gives us to help us reason through important questions. What are your thoughts on balance? Or on the original question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”