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Biblical foundations for philosophy

`Adapt yourselves', says the Apostle Paul, `no longer to the pattern of the present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good acceptable and perfect' (The Bible,Romanschapter 12 verse 2). The `present world' of which the Apostle speaks, continually seeks to repress and replace the inescapable revelation of the Triune God. It substitutes godless myths concerning the origin of all things, man's being and the coherence of reality. Consequently, Paul sets himself against all myth-directed theorising which seeks to obscure the true knowledge of God, self and world-order by compelling `every human thought to surrender in obedience to Christ' (2 Corinthianschapter 10 verse 5), who alone is the way to truth and life.

All people, therefore, live by the light of revelation or by the light of a myth, as children of God or of the Evil One. Not even the Philosopher lives above this situation, or beyond it. As the Light daily shines in the darkness, he may seek to flee into a realm of pure, pure research - yet there is no beyond, for the richly diversified fulness of reality is the Lord's. There is no exit from the creatureliness of human existence, from God's all-embracing call for us to live harmoniously within His creation-order, seeking His Kingdom first.

The philosopher as a disciple of Christ

Let us examine the meaning of commitment to Christ; what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord; and what it means to be a disciple. We must begin with the Biblical revelation: that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, that He is not only the absolute origin of all things including man, but also that everything consists in Him, who is Christ. The Lord has revealed Himself as the Creator, Preserver and Redeemer of the entire cosmos. The Scriptures further reveal that God set man in covenantal relationship with Himself - man needs to know this in order to know himself and to develop a proper understanding of the rest of the creation.

Yet man was not content to be the creaturely image of God. He tried to usurp God's authority and to be like God - not dependent but self-sufficient, and not constituted by his relationship to God. Because God always views the non-human creation in relation to man, the Fall involved not only a darkening of the human heart and the impairing of every human function, but also the whole cosmos was cursed because of man. Only against the background of this radical and comprehensive Fall can we grasp that the redemptive goal is no less than human life totally renewed, a new humanity, a new heaven and a new earth, the re-creation of God's creation. Through Christ, God created all things and `through Him, God chose to reconcile the whole universe to Himself, making peace through the shedding of His blood on the cross - to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Him alone' (Colossians chapter 1 verse 20).

As a renewed creature in Christ, the believer is called to perfection, to total and comprehensive obedience which allows no exception. What is not the fruit of a living faithful dependence upon and surrender to God is sin, lawlessness and rebellion - the root of which is always idolatry. There is no neutral ground because not a single part of human life or of the world that surrounds it exists on its own or functions autonomously or is explicable in terms of itself.

One final point to be made here is that the philosopher as lover of wisdom must begin in the fear of the Lord (Proverbs verse 9 verse 10), must be rooted in Christ, if he or she is to become wise by means of philosophy. The scholar must begin wise in order to become wise. Such a person will enjoy covenant blessings in God's time - although it will be with persecution.

Challenging the autonomy of theoretical thought

There is strong opposition to Christ's Lordship in matters of philosophy. There are insistent demands made in the name of science, philosophy and scholarship that `knowledge' be completely isolated from `matters of faith'. This is considered to be a necessary condition of objectivity and integrity. Let me introduce this view by means of a short quotation from a professor of philosophy who has been deeply influenced by British Linguistic Philosophy. He puts his position as follows:- 

In other words, the philosophical analysis and interpretation of reality must be freed from the direction of religion. The word `intrude' is most significant. The clear implication is that if our philosophical analysis surrenders its autonomous pretensions and bows to the lordship of Christ then it will become unphilosophical, prejudiced and lose contact with reality. The Christian is urged to leave the field of philosophy to non-Christians or follow their good example. Here we are encountering an expression of the dogma of the autonomy of philosophical (and scientific) thought with respect of faith and religion. This dogma has enjoyed the status of an almost unquestionable axiom throughout Western Philosophy, whether as Greek theoria, Medieval ratio-naturalis or Modern reason. Consequently, as Christians we know that we must oppose this powerful and ancient human tradition by which we ourselves have doubtless been contaminated in some measure.

Let us now turn to the sort of opposition we are liable to encounter if we begin to question the dogma of the autonomy of theoretical thought. Here are a few lines from a review of Professor Herman Dooyeweerd's Transcendental Problems of Philosophic Thought. (Dooyeweerd is a very influential Christian philosopher). 

This quotation contains most of the familiar elements of opposition. We must note in the first place the refusal to view the history of human thought in the light of the Biblical central theme of Creation, Fall and Redemption in Jesus Christ (Romans chapter 1 verses 16 to 23). Secondly, it is interesting to see how the reviewer accounts for the diversity of metaphysical systems and contemporary `isms'. The deepest root is seen (by faith!) in misconceptions concerning logic, language and mathematics. Any other diagnosis is held to be not acceptable and may be stigmatised as unphilosophical. Incidentally, this is to also rule out other schools of philosophy (e.g. Materialism, Evolutionism, Empiricism, Existentialism, Historicism, Marxism, etc.) which would maintain that the deepest roots lay in other (absolutised!) aspects of the creation.

The consequences of autonomy

An inevitable consequence of such an analysis is the existence of conflicting schools of thought. This is found not only in philosophy but also in every special science. For whether we work in mathematics, in psychology, in logic, in the language sciences, social sciences or any other special area, we are confronted with this diversity of schools of interpretation of the field of investigation. It is the question of the point of view: where must one stand to oversee the entire field aright?

But how are we as Christians to interpret this crisis of Western knowledge with which the scholars of our day are desperately struggling? We must grasp the rich biblical insight that the `unbeliever' is also a believer - but one with a different creed. Whatever it be, his or her creed always remains a confession of faith in an idol. It is inevitable that knowledge as well as faith reflects one's relation to God or an idol.

Is it any wonder that having no access to the Truth any more, the truth of one aspect of creation needs to be proved with the help of some other aspect, which in turn cannot claim to have access to the Truth itself. Therefore in every discipline the basic questions are continually discarded as not belonging to the competence of the scholar or to the structure of the field. In this way, modern knowledge and research is broken up into unrelated studies of details which can only be offered to mankind with the confession of a basic underlying agnosticism. `Here are the facts - but we do not know what they mean!' Previous certitude concerning the unity of truth and knowledge has been dissolved, leaving a meaningless choice between arbitrary dogmatism and relativistic nihilism.

Is it surprising that so many of our contemporaries are convinced that Western culture has reached its twilight? They are now dropping out via drugs, eastern mysticism and/or modern-day mythologies. The tragedy is that along with post-Renaissance Humanism which has reached near exhaustion in atheistic existentialism and naturalistic positivism, people are also rejecting, consciously or not so consciously, the only way to freedom, life and truth. Nor are we blameless, for we have in many ways accommodated the gospel of grace to the demands of earlier Humanism and we also are sharing in its judgment - its impotence, its unreality and irrelevance.

The challenge of living an integrated life

Before us - as ever! - there stand two and only two ways. These two ways are two faiths. All faith by its nature is totalitarian: it calls the whole man into its service. For a while we may be able to hang on to a life divided into an area of grace (evangelism, faith, personal witness, theology, religious experience, etc.) and an area of nature (logic, mathematics, art, linguistics, law, philosophy, politics, physics, economics, psychology, education, etc.). But life is integral: it's all of one piece. And sooner or later we shall have to face up to the imperatives of Christ's Kingdom. Our Christian calling affects the totality of our lives. If we do not respond appropriately, we are left with a bleak picture of humankind having evolved out of a cosmos that is just there and who must build their own Kingdom directed by the light of reason - which is also just there. We cannot live in two ways; we cannot serve and love two masters. Today is the day of our decision.

Yet by our God-given faith we shall overcome the worldly spirit of unbelief and the might of the Evil One if we confess from our hearts the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every sphere of our existence. In other words the creation-order is seamlessly one and there is not one square inch about which Jesus Christ does not say `It is mine'. How dare we, as His ambassadors, seek to give away what belongs to our Sovereign to His enemy. The selfsame spirit led to the fall of humanity in Adam. The same spirit led the man who sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. What is our price ? Or shall we like Peter protest our faithfulness to death and then deny Him three times?

The Lordship of Christ

Many people think that Humanists and Christians share a common interpretation of all non-religious facts. (This is, of course, the nature-grace scheme on which we commented earlier). The real conflict however is a foundational one. It is the deepest possible kind of conflict which touches upon the question of the proper framework for the interpretation of each and every fact. Here again we meet the conflict of two comprehensive all-embracing perspectives over against each other. A partial realisation of this situation may lead to a shifting of a few more items from the category of `nature' to that of `grace', but while this scheme (with no matter what is pigeonholed as `nature') continues to dominate, there remains the seeds of destruction within that way of thinking. This is because nothing is or can be isolated from the central theme of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ.

Let me briefly try to illustrate this. Let us consider a (hypothetical) list of special `sciences' which investigate different aspects of the creation-order; arithmetic, geometry, kinematics, physics, biology, psychology, logic, history, linguistics, semantics, sociology, economics, aesthetics, jurisprudence, ethics, 

and theology. Now which of these disciplines can be developed in an integrally Christian manner and which cannot? Which belong to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and which belong to the `Kingdom of Reason'?

If we surrender mathematics then by the same token must we not give away physics also, and can one put a significant end to this process? Does not one concession lead to and demand another, and then how long will it be before we shall have to concede that God is simply `irrelevant' (that means dead!) with respect to the whole broad field of human knowledge? In this process our religion will necessarily become mystical, moralistic and other-worldly, in order to `make peace' with the imperious demands of `autonomous' scientific knowledge. The Biblical idea of cosmic redemption through Christ the Mediator will be reduced to a matter of `pie in the sky when you die', and thus only really relevant to the elderly and dying.

This degeneration of Biblical religion is not too hard to diagnose in the revealing light of God's Word. The apostle Paul refused to rely on the certainties of worldly wisdom `so that the fact of Christ on His cross might have its full weight' (1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 17). The offence of the cross is that it reveals man's complete dependence upon God and demands the acknowledgement of this. `You are in Christ Jesus by God's act, for God has made Him our wisdom; He is our righteousness; in Him we are consecrated and set free' ( verse 30). The Greeks rejected the doctrine of the cross as folly, as irrational nonsense, because they were seeking for a Christ-less wisdom and truth, and would even rather say there is no truth than bow to the Lordship of Christ. Yet God has condemned to vanity, darkness and frustration all attempts to break free from Him: in our mathematical theory as much as in our theological theorising.

And so I must end my comments, questions and reflections on the ups and downs of being a Christian engaged in scholarly endeavour. There are biblical principles to guide our thinking - highlighted by the section headings in this article. In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul warns us against making unholy peace with (neutral-looking) interpretations and elucidations of reality which have their real roots in apostate religions. The way of our liberty in Christ is not accommodating synthesis but a re-formationally seeking to bring everything subject to Christ's footstool. Listen to the words of the apostle: 

This article is an abridged revision of a 1967 paper by Richard Russell, who leads the Christian Studies Unit. Recommended follow-up reading includes Contours of a Christian Philosophy by L. Kalsbeek and The Myth of Religious Neutrality by R.A. Clausen. These, and an extended booklist, can be obtained from the CSU, Widcombe Vicarage, 65 Prior Park Road, Bath, BA2 4NL. 

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