..... continued .....

by Theodore Plantinga

Return to the table of contents

[PAGE 41]

Chapter 6
Philosophy and Metaphysics

There is another understanding of philosophy that can well be taken up at this point because it is similar to the worldview conception, namely, that philosophy is essentially metaphysics. Indeed, in the minds of certain people, metaphysics corresponds to what some others nowadays call worldview. Just as everyone might be said to have a philosophy of one sort or another in the sense of a worldview, it is sometimes maintained that every human being has metaphysical beliefs, even if he cannot give a very precise or sophisticated statement of them.

Many philosophical terms can best be understood in terms of their etymology, but the original meaning of "metaphysics" (i.e. that which is beyond or after physics) does not help us much. The best way to understand metaphysics is to contrast it with its main rival in the philosophical tradition, namely, the effort epistemological to define limits to human knowledge.

It is sometimes said that there are basically two kinds of philosophers: those who wish to develop an all-embracing theory of what is, and those who are trying to discover the scope and limits of knowledge. Now, there are some philosophers who pitch their tent somewhere between these two camps, or have sympathies for both endeavors, and there are also some who cannot easily be understood in terms of such categories at all, but on the whole this observation does serve to shed considerable light on Western philosophy.

The metaphysical understanding of philosophy is important to our consideration of Christian philosophy since there has

[PAGE 42]

long been a loose alliance between the metaphysical tradition and Christian philosophy. In other words, some have supposed that it is the Christian philosopher's task to come up with a metaphysical system that fits in with Christian theology. In the course of developing that system, such a philosopher may even make an appeal to Biblical teachings about God and creation which he accepts as authoritative. Christian philosophy is then Christian metaphysics. But there are various reasons why such an account is not adequate.

To explore the inadequacy of the metaphysical understanding of (Christian) philosophy, we must first recognize that metaphysics represents what is nowadays called a "totalizing discourse." In other words, when metaphysics has spoken its word about the nature of reality and our human situation, there is no room for further input from other traditions and sectors of human culture. Metaphysics claims a monopoly on what there is to be said, or perhaps on certainty, for in its totalizing impulse, it leaves no area of reality or experience unexplored -- or so it says. Its alleged completeness somehow guarantees its truth.

Underlying the metaphysical impulse is the need to engage in what we might call projection, which is simply the effort, in thought, to extrapolate beyond what is strictly given in experience. Because physical objects are never given to us totally in experience (the same could be said of entities with extra-physical dimensions), we fill them out in thought, supplementing what experience has provided. We only see and feel the outside of the orange, and on the basis of past experience we imagine what is inside.

Metaphysics as a mode of thought carries this impulse further and winds up producing a rational conception of reality that is essentially closed, a conception in which there are, in principle, no secrets and surprises left. Rationality triumphs over experience here, supplying what is lacking in experience and then refusing to listen to anything further that experience might wish to tell us.

[PAGE 43]

When we oppose metaphysics we should not oppose all projection, for we could not get along in life if we did not engage in projection. The entities we encounter in reality are of such a nature that they can be given to us only in profile, as it were; we see the surface and infer the interior. Take the example of a golf ball, with its hard exterior and many small indentations. You may have some idea of what underlies that exterior, but you cannot see the innards of the golf ball you hold in your hand. If you insist on looking inside, you destroy the ball in the process and cannot claim to be viewing the inside and outside of the ball all at once. At no point in our experience is the ball given in all its aspects as one intact whole.

You might also come to a knowledge of what underlies the surface of things though some other method. If you study the architectural drawings for a building, you will get some idea of what is contained within the walls and ceilings that are presented in experience only as surfaces. You may then, in thought, possess a fuller and more adequate conception of the building and the materials of which it is made, but that knowledge (conception) is not directly grounded in an experience (perception) of the building; rather, it is grounded in thought processes that involve a synthesis of knowledge acquired in a variety of ways. And a significant portion of that knowledge is grounded in a study not of reality itself but of representations of reality, i.e. the architect's drawings. Once again, we see that certain dimensions of the object of our knowledge are not directly given to us.

Suppose you tap on a wall because you wish to attach something to it by means of a screw assembly. From what you hear, you may be able to determine whether there is anything behind a certain segment of wall. In this case the interior is given to you in experience, but there is a process of assessment and calculation involved. It is not a case of just "seeing what is there" -- or not there, in this case. Some of our knowledge does have the character of "just seeing," but a great deal of it involves construction, calculation, projection, interpretation, judgment

[PAGE 44]

-- the whole series of mental operations in which metaphysics is rooted.

Now, there are also entities that can be taken apart and reassembled without suffering any damage or diminution, e.g. a ball-point pen, but the same point made about the golf ball applies to them: at no temporal instant are they given to us in their totality. To recognize this is to face up to a certain inadequacy, or perhaps limitation, in experience itself.

The metaphysical philosopher is essentially dissatisfied with experience and believes in the superiority of (pure) rationality or thought over experience. Human rationality, he believes, is the key to a proper knowledge of reality. While experience may supply us with some material for reflection, it is only in thought that we are able to grasp the totality and coherence and interrelatedness of reality, according to the metaphysical philosopher. Yet such an argument leaves those who are skeptical of metaphysics wondering how we could ever be sure that ideas which are said to be "within" the mind can correspond to things outside the mind.

Although metaphysics has traditionally been considered potentially friendly toward Christianity insofar as it leaves some room for the existence of God, it is today being recognized by various thinkers that the dogmatism of metaphysical thought, i.e. the effort to totalize and to exclude all other claims to truth and significant insight, stands in the way of the Christian concern to make a statement about the human situation on the basis of what God has first revealed. The metaphysicians throughout history have tended to disqualify themselves and each other by their dogmatic pronouncements that leave no room for input from others. If one metaphysical system is true, the others must be false. How, then, can metaphysics be genuinely open to a non-philosophical revelation?

Individual metaphysical systems can best be understood as grounded in a single intuition -- a germinal idea which, though perhaps brilliant in itself, is not the key to all of reality. The complaint about particular systems is then that they

[PAGE 45]

absolutize a certain dimension of human experience and draw our attention away from much of the rest of it. They may open our eyes to something in experience which we never noticed before, but they also close us off from other dimensions and features. Today people who are interested in philosophy are less sympathetic to such one-sidedness: old-fashioned metaphysics is in decline.

The anti-metaphysical philosophers, of which there have been a great many throughout history, concern themselves with man's capacity to attain a full and final knowledge of the nature of reality and of our human situation. The conclusion that has been drawn in one form or another by many such philosophers is that human knowledge can never escape the consequences of our finitude, and that it can therefore never proclaim itself definitive and final. True (in the sense of adequate) statements about states of affairs are always capable, in principle, of being supplemented by other statements. Some philosophers think in terms of various levels on which we can speak of one and the same entity or process or phenomenon.

If they are correct, we should not look to the philosophical tradition for ultimate certainty and orientation in life. Some philosophers who stress limits to knowledge nevertheless argue that we have nothing higher or better to go by than philosophy and science, which they sometimes sum up in the word "rationality": they tell us that "rationality" is still our best bet.

The implication seems to be that claims to ultimate truth grounded in religious traditions, such as the founding revelations of Christianity, Islam and Mormonism, have some valid claim to consideration -- there is no way to refute or overthrow them from within philosophy or science. The decision whether or not to accept them and live by them is not ultimately scientific or philosophical in nature.

Many Christian philosophers today engage in argumentation of this sort. In making such claims they are not presenting Christian doctrine in any strict sense; in other words, the

[PAGE 46]

points they make are not of the sort that we find affirmed in the historic creeds of the Christian churches. Rather, they are drawing the Christian community's attention to certain philosophical notions which may enable that community to defend itself against unwarranted claims to truth and ultimacy that would have the effect of undermining or disqualifying basic Christian teachings. Of course there is more to Christian philosophy than just this set of claims about the nature and limits to human knowledge, but one facet of Christian philosophy is surely the battle against metaphysics.

Return to the table of contents

[PAGE 47]

Chapter 7
Philosophy and Language

Another conception of philosophy we need to consider is the suggestion that it is the study of language. At first this seems a simple error: are there not other academic disciples (or "subjects" in school) that devote themselves to language? Do we not learn about language (and especially our own language) in English class? Indeed we do, and philosophy does not propose to take over from other subject-matters the responsibility for explaining elementary grammatical rules or enforcing uniformity in spelling. Philosophy is not interested in language understood as a set of rules for speaking and writing; rather, it is interested in language as a way of representing reality or the world.

The overall importance of language will quickly become clear to us when we consider how much people have fought over language throughout human history -- and still do today, especially in such officially bilingual countries as Canada and Belgium. Clever dictators and totalitarian governments are quite methodical about enforcing certain patterns of language usage, including some new ones of their own devising; they realize that to control the language spoken by people is in some measure to control their minds. George Orwell has made this clear in his fine novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Social and political pressure groups in democratic countries are also keenly aware of the importance of language. While they have no power to dictate or legislate changes in language use, they do lobby and plead with all of us to make alterations in our daily speech patterns. (Think of the reforms proposed

[PAGE 48]

by feminists, and all the fuss made over a term like "chairman"; such changes even make their way into some hymns, liturgical forms and Bible translations.) Clearly, language plays a very significant role in shaping our consciousness and our conception of reality.

Philosophy's preoccupation with language is best understood in relation to what we might call the "idealist thesis." Idealism, generally speaking, is the view that the mind does not apprehend the world directly but cognizes only ideas; perhaps we could better speak of representations of reality. (The opposite of idealism is realism, which is grounded in a Latin word for thing and maintains that we are directly aware of things.) I do not mean to defend old-fashioned idealism; rather, in speaking here of the idealist thesis in its relation to thought and research, I only want to point out how dependent we are on representations of reality in everyday life and consciousness.

Now, no one needs a philosophical training to realize that representations function in a very important way in everyday thinking and consciousness; it takes no more than a bit of reflection to see this. We all make a distinction between real things and their representations; moreover, we are able to do so with ease. Even a very young child does not confuse a dog with a picture of a dog, even though it uses the same word for each: if the child is shown a picture of a dog and asked, "What's that?" it will probably answer, "A dog." The point we often overlook is that when we seek knowledge (which we may then call knowledge of reality), we are quick to turn to representations -- not because the real things are cognitively unavailable -- although in certain instances they may be -- but because it is generally more convenient to work with representations. Let's look at a few examples.

Suppose a grade six class is assigned a research project involving dogs. One child may start by spending time with the family dog: thus she is inspecting a real dog and making that dog her starting point. We might say that she is taking a "realist" approach to the assignment. Let's suppose that another

[PAGE 49]

child in the same class lives in a high-rise apartment building and has no access to a pet dog. He will probably visit a library and check out a couple of books on dogs -- and in the end produce a fine report. The point to note is that such "research" can be done entirely through contact with representations. One would think that "research" involves inspecting the things themselves, but a careful consideration of how we actually function in daily life makes it clear that we often choose to base our knowledge and certainty on representations alone.

Another example: suppose the grade eight topic for a research project is New Zealand. Again, it is possible to inspect New Zealand first-hand. But it is not likely that children enrolled in a school in Canada would actually do so; furthermore the chances are that not one member of the class has ever been to New Zealand. Yet this is not an obstacle to the research, for here in Canada we have many representations of New Zealand to work with, which we can incorporate into our report. We find those representations, again, in the local public library. In the case of this assignment, it appears that an "idealist approach" (drawing on representations) is expected by the teacher.

Suppose the father of a family is planning a summer vacation he hopes to take with his wife and children in British Columbia, a large and varied province of Canada. Let us also suppose that he has spent a good deal of time there himself. Does he plan on the basis of his own direct acquaintance and recollections? Probably in part, but he also consults maps (which are representations). Although he realizes that some maps are unreliable and out of date, he still regards the study of maps as normal in planning a vacation trip.

Even on higher educational levels, e.g. the research undertaken by graduate students working for Ph.D. degrees, representations are used extensively. Such researchers do make trips to view first-hand the objects of their interest. (A dissertation about New Zealand, for example, would surely require a trip to that country.) But doctoral students also spend a great deal

[PAGE 50]

of time in libraries reading about those objects and studying representations of them, of both the linguistic and the pictorial variety. Indeed, without considerable reference to those representations in a lengthy bibliography, their research reports and dissertations would probably not even be accepted.

In at least one academic discipline, we are very heavily dependent on representations -- history. Insofar as history claims to study the past, it is focusing on something that no longer exists. It can therefore be said to exemplify the idealist thesis better than any other form of inquiry.

We can conceive of the distant past in our minds and reconstruct what must have happened, including what people must have been thinking at the time, but when we do so, it is on the basis of representations and perhaps also of traces of the past. Yet it should be noted that those traces have themselves undergone change over time and cannot simply be regarded as "the way things were": a famous battlefield, as we see it today, can hardly be equated with the noisy, frightening place it was when the battle was actually underway.

Philosophy enters the picture here insofar as it takes a special interest in the adequacy of representations. And one of the points it makes is that there are disparities between maps (as representations) and the territories about which they inform us. Geography is well aware of these disparities: one of the lessons it teaches students is that there are many different types of maps.

Maps differ from one another in scale, and also in terms of the features they bring to our attention. No one map can be said to replicate the territory just as it is; rather, the type of map you study has to do with your reason for taking an interest in the territory. Do you propose to drive through it? Are you looking for oil? Or are you perhaps thinking of opening a ski resort?

Philosophers point out that the relationships between words and the realities they stand for are somewhat problematic and open to question. An utterly unique name standing for one

[PAGE 51]

person only should not cause us much philosophical perplexity and could hardly be said to be ambiguous, but many of the words in common use every day can well be disputed in terms of their proper application. In some cases, certain philosophers deny that there is a real entity corresponding to a given word or phrase, e.g. the gross national product, the German mind, the divorce rate.

In a great many of these cases, the questionable term can best be regarded as "shorthand," as a way of talking that would have to be explained or spelled out in greater detail if it were challenged. We all use the term "sunset" on occasion, even though we are aware that the sun does not really set. If we were challenged, we could probably come up with a more adequate description of the phenomenon we were referring to. The same exercise could be attempted with disputed terms like the ones in the paragraph above. Yet some thinkers would discard certain terms of that sort as ultimately useless and misleading, whereas others would continue to defend and use them.

Christian philosophy has two related tasks in this area. First of all, it joins with philosophy in general insofar as it subjects the language we use to critical analysis. The criticism extends to both everyday discourse and the jargon of the various sciences and intellectual traditions. Any philosopher worth his salt has a list of terms he objects to, and one of his goals in teaching philosophy is to challenge students to give up certain terms as misleading, or perhaps as embodying a commitment to some objectionable philosophical thesis. To overcome secularism in one's own thinking is, among other things, to root out the secular vocabulary. It is one thing to understand terms and concepts (representations) that are in wide use in our society; it is another thing to make them part of our most intimate thought processes. For example, I can explain briefly what is meant by the Marxist term "class struggle"; yet I do not believe that such a process is the driving force in human history, for I am not a Marxist myself. We must distinguish between knowing about Marxism and being committed to Marxism, which

[PAGE 52]

involves thinking and talking in Marxist terms.

The second contribution to be made here by Christian philosophy is to defend and explain terms, concepts and representations that are used especially by Christians, in both their theology and their everyday thinking and talking. What is meant, for example, by speaking of the "providence" of God? Or when we say that God has brought this or that about in our lives (e.g. a seemingly miraculous restoration to health), do we mean to deny that human beings or other creaturely entities had anything to do with it? To recognize the validity and importance of such questions is to realize that our own faith community also has many concepts and representations that we should not simply take for granted. It is the task of philosophy of religion, in particular, to explain and comment on these concepts.

I find it helpful to distinguish between the public discourse, as used within an ideologically diverse or pluralistic society like our own, and various private discourses. The public discourse is the set of terms and concepts to which we can appeal as we join our fellow citizens in discussing and debating political issues and matters of concern to the whole community. In brief, the public discourse is the vocabulary we share with our society, and to some extent with wider Western community of nations.

The public discourse includes various concepts that have strict equivalents in other languages; in some cases, a word (and concept) that has proven useful moves from language to language, e.g. feminism. English words, in particular, often get incorporated into other languages today, but a study of a good English dictionary will indicate that our language has also borrowed many words and concepts from its European neighbors.

We as Christians also have our private discourse, which includes terms like "providence," terms that are either not understood or not accepted by many members of our society who pride themselves on being secular in their thinking. What do

[PAGE 53]

we mean by the "grace" of God? Unless we reflect on -- and even refine -- our private discourse and nourish our awareness of the Biblical roots of many Christian terms, our the Christian life of prayer and confession and worship will eventually become impoverished.

In summary, language is a disputed domain in any society. Christian philosophy aims to make us aware of the nature of the battle when it comes to language. It takes issue with various terms and representations in circulation and shows us what is wrong with them. And it assists the Christian community in its effort to come to a fuller awareness of the meaning and roots of its own body of representations and unique terms. It may even succeed in injecting some terms of Christian origin into the public discourse.

Return to the table of contents

[PAGE 54]

Chapter 8
The Use of the Bible
in Philosophy

Many Christians who take Biblical authority very seriously are of the opinion that no direct appeals should be made to the Bible when we are engaged in philosophical reflection and argumentation. It is almost as though they view the Bible and philosophy as two separate domains which do not -- and perhaps cannot -- intersect. Although their fear of bringing statements from the Bible into philosophical discussion needs to be overcome, there is some valid reasoning behind their concern. Their position, in the simplest of terms, is that the application of the Bible to contemporary thought and intellectual issues is problematic in at least one important respect: the Bible is an ancient book. Perhaps it is not so (directly) relevant for certain issues we face today.

Those who keep the Bible at a distance from philosophy would be quick to point to "hermeneutics" in their own defense. Now, this term, which comes to us from Greek, sometimes gives rise to fear and perplexity, but all it really means is interpretation theory. Biblical hermeneutics is the art and theory of interpreting the Bible, and it is usually understood that the process of interpretation includes applying the Bible to our lives today. By pointing to the existence of what we call hermeneutics, people are telling us that it's not a simple matter to base philosophical conclusions on the Bible. And they are right.

Other Christians respond to such hesitation about the Bible by shunning hermeneutics, or even denouncing it. They go too far in the opposite direction. The discipline known as

[PAGE 55]

philosophical hermeneutics has demonstrated that hermeneutical considerations are a factor in everyday life and conversation, even for people who have no idea what the term hermeneutics means.

The basic idea behind hermeneutics is that when we encounter language, in the context of an effort to understand what people have said or written, there is an interaction or interplay between our apprehension of particulars or parts, on the one hand, and our understanding of the whole, on the other. As we read a page of English prose (made up, let us suppose, of ten sentences), our understanding of the whole page is built on our understanding of each of the individual sentences: each one (if it is a good piece of writing) contributes to our grasp of the whole. Yet there may well be sentences, or parts of sentences, that puzzle us. If we read the whole page a second time, those sentences may become more comprehensible. We are then understanding individual parts on the basis of the sense of the whole as we have ascertained it from our first reading.

An interesting philosophical question presents itself at this point: which is (logically) prior and more important -- the meaning of the individual parts or the sense of the whole? To this question, unfortunately, no simple answer can be given. It seems that we are confronted here with a chicken-and-egg situation: which comes first -- the chicken or the egg?

The relationship between the part and the whole could also be illustrated from the way we read the Bible. Since the Bible is not absolutely new to any Christian adult (he has been reading it and hearing about it for a long time, and has all sorts of preconceptions about its overall message and meaning), the sense of the whole he already possesses influences his reading of particular passages and sentences. Some theologians fear that Christians lean too heavily on their grasp of the Bible's whole message and do not pay sufficient attention to the details they encounter in specific Bible texts. Such Christians wind up with a general understanding of the Bible and claim to know the Bible well but often cannot account for or explain

[PAGE 56]

or interpret its details and parts. That's why Bible study can continue to be meaningful for them -- if only they will put in the hard work it demands.

Now, there are also scholars studying the Bible who are so intrigued by the details, especially in one or a few favorite sections of the Bible, that they seem to lose their sense of the Bible as a whole. (Most of them hold a liberal position in theology.) Clearly, it is possible to err in either direction. To strike a proper balance between part and whole in Bible reading and study, one needs some awareness of the issues usually summed up under the label "hermeneutics."

People who object to hermeneutics as a dangerous -- and perhaps even relativistic -- intellectual trend often point to instances of unproblematic or immediate understanding. Although they may not say so explicitly, they seem to think that there is no need for a sense of the whole to influence our understanding of particular statements in the Bible. And there are indeed many cases in everyday conversation in which we do not find ourselves groping for a sense of the whole: someone addresses us, and we know immediately what he wants to get across.

When this happens, we should not assume that there is no larger whole or context in the background which the speaker and hearer have in common; the point is rather that because it is shared, there is no need for either the speaker or the hearer to appeal to it or question it. It can be presupposed. Where there is misunderstanding, however, the larger context and purpose of the discussion usually needs to be looked at. Sometimes a statement that looks fairly simple in and of itself puzzles us because we are trying to understand it in a context completely different from the one the speaker (or writer) had in mind. A grammatically simple sentence in a foreign language you are learning may baffle you for just such reasons.

There are Christians who claim that no sense of the whole is needed or presupposed when they read particular Bible texts. Now, what actually goes on in their Bible reading is that a

[PAGE 57]

sense of the Bible's entire message is so deeply embedded in their consciousness that they are not aware of its operation as they read particular passages. And if they discuss the Bible only with people who think as they do, they will never develop any awareness of other possibilities for interpreting particular passages. It is an enlightening exercise to study commentaries stemming from Christian traditions other than one's own to see how those commentaries handle a particular passage; people who deny that "hermeneutics" has anything to contribute to our study of the Bible usually have not taken the trouble to do so.

Opponents of the claim that hermeneutics has a valid place in Bible study needs to be reminded of the "ears to hear" theme in the Bible. At various points in the New Testament we are told about people who have ears but somehow cannot hear (see Matthew 11:15; 13:10ff; Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35; and Revelation 2). Their difficulty is not physical; rather, because a sense of the whole is lacking, because they are not attuned to the basic gospel message of the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of our sins, because their hearts are cold, they are not able to bring a sense of the whole to a particular utterance or passage. As a result they cannot discern what the person addressing them is driving at, even if that person is the Lord Jesus.

That larger context or overall message should not be regarded as mere information. The close connection between hearing and obeying (which comes through so nicely in the German and Dutch languages, and is also reflected to some extent in the way we use the English word "listen," as when we tell a child to listen to his mother) indicates that understanding the Bible requires a prior heart commitment, a posture of submission. In Biblical language and thinking, hearing cannot be separated from doing and obeying. When the Lord speaks, we are not to reflect academically on what he says, examining it from all angles and judging for ourselves whether it is worthy of acceptance. We are not only to be hearers of the Word

[PAGE 58]

but doers (see James 1:22). If we have truly heard the gospel and understood it, we will take our place in the ranks of God's army.

When this point sinks in, we understand more clearly why Christian philosophy must always be the philosophy of a committed Christian, even though his personal commitment is not enough to make his philosophy count as Christian in the fullest and highest sense (see Chapter 1). And his personal commitment, which opens the Bible for him, should then also remove needless fears and barriers to the use of the Bible in philosophy. That we draw on the Bible when we engage in theological reflection has never been a problem; indeed orthodox theology would be inconceivable without numerous direct appeals to the Bible. Orthodox Christian philosophy may also use the Bible directly; it differs from theology mainly in that it finds in the Bible less direct commentary on the issues it deals with.

The most important Biblical teaching for Christian philosophy is the doctrine of creation. Since philosophy wishes to say something about the nature and status of reality as such, one of its main emphases ought to be that this world is not eternal (as various philosophers have supposed) but enjoys a derived status and is dependent for its origin and continued existence on God. This emphasis must also permeate Christian philosophy's understanding of man. Although much secular philosophy stresses similarities and continuities between man and the animal kingdom, in part because it presupposes the picture of man that has grown out of evolutionary thinking in biology, Christian philosophy insists on a separate divine origin for man and makes much of the link between man and God. Man was created in God's image (the animals were not) and enjoys the privilege of fellowship with God (the animals do not).

From here Christian philosophy goes on to speak of man's fallen, sinful state and thereby takes up what is usually called the problem of evil. Many philosophers have asked why there is so much misery and unhappiness in the world. Christian

[PAGE 59]

philosophy does not pretend to offer a startling or new answer to this question: it simply affirms and elaborates on the Biblical testimony that man's original rebellion against God is the key to understanding the misery of man's state. It then goes on to an important implication of the Biblical doctrine of the fall into sin: human rationality and knowledge are also, in principle, corrupt and therefore are not to be trusted in an unquestioning manner. Yet it does not forget to declare that God has initiated a process of redemption and sanctification, which gives us reason for good hope as we go about our work (including intellectual activity).

The doctrine of creation is also the key to Christian philosophy's understanding of order and regularity. From the psalmist's affirmation that God made day and night, summer and winter (see Psalm 74:16-17), we may take it that creation was not just the production of many entities which, once made, were left free to seek relationships with one another, until there emerged some sort of autonomous order within "nature." We speak of day and night, summer and winter, and so forth only because of regular, constant patterns and relationships, which Christian philosophy identifies as part of what God has wrought in creation. Processes are not autonomous (laws unto themselves) any more than entities are.

In affirming these Biblical teachings, Christian philosophy is free to appeal directly to the Bible. It does not need the permission of theology or creeds or confessions to proceed with its work, however helpful a knowledge of these resources may be. Thus the Bible does have a direct place and use in philosophy, even if it should turn out that various philosophical issues are of such a nature that Biblical appeals cannot be made because the Bible says nothing of direct or specific relevance. When it comes to such questions, of course, Christian philosophers will tend to disagree with one another more than on matters which the Bible does address directly. Such disagreements should not lead us to despair of the possibility of genuinely Christian philosophizing.

[PAGE 60]

The great medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) offered historically important characterizations of philosophy and theology which we must pause to consider. His view left theology deeply dependent on Biblical revelation, but philosophy, as he understood it, was essentially on its own: it could get by with the deliverances of reason along with the sorts of realizations and insights that experience makes available to all human beings. I believe his view is deeply mistaken, and so I offer my own definition of (Christian) philosophy, especially to make it clear that there is a direct role for the Bible in philosophical reflection. I define philosophy as general reflection on knowing and being in the light of God's revelation and of the insights assembled by people throughout the ages.

In offering this definition, I do not mean to overlook the fact that there are Christians in philosophy who are determined to make no appeals whatever to the Bible as they go about their work. My point is rather that we should regard such philosophers as methodologically mistaken. Christian philosophy of the highest and best sort will not neglect what God has given us in His revelation.

Return to the table of contents

[PAGE 61]

Chapter 9
Constructive Philosophy

People who look upon philosophy with a measure of apprehension and suspicion fear that it is essentially a negative force in human life. That philosophy does have a critical -- and even destructive -- side cannot be denied. Nor should we shrink from admitting that philosophical reflection underlies much of the nihilism and despair in our world. But throughout its history, philosophy has prided itself on its constructive function as well. That function can be understood as a combination of two tasks.

First of all, the constructive philosopher presents himself to us in the role of teacher. In Christian circles especially, the teaching function of philosophy is emphasized because education is held in high esteem and is still regarded as deeply meaningful. In secular circles, by contrast, one encounters considerable cynicism about education, and a tendency to restrict its scope to matters of short-term utility: a student is advised to learn only what he "needs."

There are a great many Christian institutions of higher education with general education requirements in philosophy. Clearly, those institutions believe that the study of philosophy is good for people in general, regardless of their prior interest in the subject. (For students unacquainted with philosophy, one cannot normally speak of a prior interest.) Thus, one way to respond to the charge that philosophy is essentially a negative force serving to undermine society and people's convictions is to point to the philosopher's role as a teacher and as a person (at least in the case of a Christian philosopher) who is

[PAGE 62]

animated by deep moral and spiritual concerns.

The second constructive task taken on by philosophy is its effort to provide general theories about various matters. Since the sciences also offer theories, we must pause for a moment to ask how philosophy relates to them. More specifically, we might ask how scientific theories are to be distinguished from philosophical ones.

This is not an easy question to answer. Obviously, we would expect the former to be somewhat particular in character, and the latter more general. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that scientists are restricted to filling in details in areas left open by philosophers after they have sketched out an overall framework. It often happens that scientists do some of the "philosophical" work themselves in terms of establishing a general theoretical framework. Moreover, much scientific theorizing is piecemeal in nature: the overall structure within a body or collection of theories sometimes comes to light only after those theories are developed and have been used for some time. It is simply not the case that theorizing always works in top-down fashion and begins with the most general or universal considerations possible.

The high degree of generality we find in philosophical theorizing is also one of its weaknesses. Since there is no clear border between philosophy and scientific thinking, it turns out that there is considerable overlap between philosophical conceptions of man and scientific ones, to take one example. The philosophical ones have less basis in empirical or first-hand observation and research than the scientific ones. This is not to say that philosophers disdain first-hand acquaintance with the actual things about which they form theories, but because they operate on a more general level and cover a broad theoretical territory, they have no choice but to rely heavily on the reports of others. In Chapter 7, where we discussed the "idealist thesis," we saw that much research fixes its attention not on the things themselves but on representations of the things. Philosophers, in particular, are forced to follow such a strategy. Thus

[PAGE 63]

they read widely and are sometimes able to produce syntheses of work done by scientists in separate but related fields, spotting connections and patterns that the scientists themselves, in their preoccupation with their own immediate material, were not aware of.

Just as there is interaction between part and whole in the apprehension of meaning (see Chapter 8 above), so there is a dialectic that moves from particular to general, and back again, in the world of theorizing. Therefore it is a mistake to award a logical or methodological priority to philosophy over science, or vice versa. Theorizing is an untidy business, and it is best that different styles and strategies be pursued at once. Christian liberal arts education recognizes this when it asks students to be busy in both general studies (such as philosophy) and the more focused disciplines (the special sciences) at the same time.

Although the philosopher is a critic of science (and of virtually every other cultural and intellectual tradition as well), he should freely confess his dependence on the work of scientists and so-called empirical investigators. In this regard he is clearly a constructive and positive member of the human community; moreover, he has a greater interest in a wide range of questions and types of inquiry than anyone else in the academic community. The conclusion we could draw from this realization is that philosophy is about everything in general and nothing in particular. There is nothing that falls completely outside a philosopher's scope of interest.

The philosopher's constructive commitments also manifest themselves in other ways. For one thing, a philosopher needs to be a moralist (in the broad, old-fashioned sense). This is to say first of all that he is deeply convinced of the meaningfulness of moral and normative discussion, and secondly that he is committed to the project of making people and society better through teaching and the use of moral and normative language. Many classical philosophers -- even if they were not Christians -- fit this pattern nicely; many recent philosophers, however, reject it. On the basis of the dangerous philosophical

[PAGE 64]

thesis that "facts" and "values" have nothing to do with one another but form separate universes of discourse, they maintain that philosophy may give us insight of some sort but has nothing to do with right and wrong. Such philosophers believe that all human claims about right and wrong are ultimately grounded in feeling -- nothing more. They then go on to draw what seems to them an obvious conclusion, namely, that we should not try to impose conceptions of right and wrong on one another. This tradition is part of the reason for philosophy's somewhat negative reputation today. But the Christian philosopher will have nothing to do with such an understanding of morality and its language.

The Christian philosopher, then, takes a positive and constructive role in affirming the significance of the moral life. To this extent, Christian philosophy should be judged a positive and constructive force within society, even if much secular philosophy is morally debilitating. The Christian philosopher also has a constructive role in relation to the arts. The issues in this area are a little harder to sort out, in part because art is sometimes understood to be more peripheral to human life than morality. It is not unusual to find people maintaining that they can get along without any involvement in the arts at all.

The second commandment's prohibition of images depicting God is relevant to this discussion, for some Christians have interpreted it as calling for a partial repudiation of the arts. Christian educational institutions, by and large, have sought to promote the significance and dignity of the arts, often meeting with resistance from parents and supporters. The philosopher, especially when teaching in the area known as aesthetics (philosophy of art), should try to demonstrate the centrality and importance for human life as a whole of those dimensions of our personhood on which the arts draw and which they in turn enhance. Life is not complete, not all that it can and should be, if the arts are not developed. Of course there is also criticism needed in this area, especially when one considers some of the

[PAGE 65]

strange trends in various arts, but on the whole the Christian philosopher's job is a constructive one. (Detailed art criticism must be left to people with more specialized competence in the various specific art forms.)

A final area to be singled out for comment is spirituality and worship. Not only should the Christian philosopher hold high the possibilities of a genuinely spiritual existence by the way he conducts himself and lives his own life, he should also reflect on and point out how spiritual awareness enriches human life. This is done especially in the discipline known as philosophy of religion, which cannot help but overlap somewhat with religious studies and theology. What does it mean to live one's life before the face of God, to use an old Calvinistic phrase? Philosophy should play a role in answering this question.

Here we touch on the intersection between philosophy and wisdom. Because philosophy, as we know it today, is an academic discipline and tradition which draws, in principle, on all of human scholarship and science, we cannot equate it with the wisdom which (sometimes) comes to the old. Yet philosophy at its best does contribute toward wisdom -- the kind of wisdom of which the Bible speaks. Philosophy as we find it among the Greeks was something to be lived, as Socrates emphasized on the day of his death (see Plato's account in the Phaedo).

In Christian circles philosophy does not set itself apart from other sectors of the community; that is to say, it does not try to establish itself as a life ideal that draws people away from other possibilities, such as the service of Christ within the context of the fellowship of believers. On the contrary, it inserts itself into the midst of the community of faith and worship. But it intends that what it teaches be put into practice; we should not say of it that the questions it raises are "merely academic." Paul writes: "Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who

[PAGE 66]

contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness" (Romans 12:6-8). In the spirit of this list, we could well go on to say: and let those who are gifted in philosophy serve the Lord in their philosophizing.

Return to the table of contents

[PAGE 67]

Chapter 10
Critical Philosophy

The term "criticism" makes many people uneasy. Part of the challenge in developing the theme of Christian philosophy as critical philosophy is to place the idea of criticism in a more positive light.

We might begin by noting its roots in a Greek word whose meaning includes such notions as judgment and evaluation. When we approach criticism on the basis of this understanding of the original term, we are leaving open the possibility that our overall assessment of the object of our critical attention will be positive.

The way the term criticism is used in connection with literature nicely illustrates such a possibility. The object of literary criticism is usually a literary work of the highest order: a critical analysis helps enhance our appreciation of it. Conversely, a truly wretched piece of literature is not a fit object of critical analysis; we find that we are not able to talk about it at any length, for there seems to be nothing we can take hold of and analyze. The superior work can be enjoyed to some extent on a naive level, but we get more out of it if we are aware of the structure it embodies. Criticism of this sort has to do with structure -- especially such structure as is not readily evident to those who are untutored.

Now, a critic can indeed reach essentially negative conclusions regarding a work or a performance, as we see from concert and theater reviews. Often such a conclusion amounts to arguing that the structure was not faithfully carried through: the idea inherent in the work -- a critic might even speak of the

[PAGE 68]

work's genius -- was not properly brought out. In some cases the artist(s) or author(s) were not properly conscious of the underlying structure or idea; in other cases there may have been interference, especially if the work required the cooperation of many people for its realization. Just as many cooks tend to spoil a broth, the input of many persons in artistic creation does not always enhance artistic quality. This difficulty manifests itself especially in films.

Such points can be made with reference to the arts and be readily understood; their application to sets of ideas and to intellectual frameworks is less familiar to most of us. The major traditions within Christianity also have their own characteristic spirit, genius and structure. Criticism in the sense of critical analysis, which may well be undertaken by "outsiders," might involve checking whether that structure is honored and allowed to come to fruition. If a college claims to be Calvinistic, for example, it is fair to ask whether Calvinist principles can be seen shaping and guiding the various aspects of the curriculum. Or do some of the subjects and courses taught within the college look more like wholesale imports from other traditions? This is the kind of critical question a philosopher may find himself asking of his own tradition.

The type of critical analysis of which I have spoken so far tends to draw on internal factors: it judges works in terms of something lying deep within them. There is another kind of criticism requiring our attention here the kind that appeals to norms of a more universal sort, norms that apply to our cultural activities in general, whether we care to acknowledge their existence and validity or not. Many secular philosophers deny the existence of any such norms, but Christian philosophy makes much of them, for it seeks an ultimate ground for normativity not in the human will or in conscience but ultimately in God, who has not only created the world we live in but has also established regularities and patterns which are to be honored within it.

This second type of criticism seems harsher than the first

[PAGE 69]

insofar as it does not necessarily honor the "spirit" or "genius" resident within a work but holds the work up to what its creator might well regard as external standards. It is especially the existence of this second kind of criticism that makes people uneasy about the critical enterprise as such. Insofar as the philosopher believes in the validity and fruitfulness of criticism in human life, including criticism of the second sort, he sparks hostility. Enduring that hostility is an occupational hazard for a Christian philosopher: there is a price to be paid for engaging in certain types of work. The philosopher may have to take his lumps on occasion.

The sheer nastiness of some responses to criticism, however, calls for a comment. At bottom the nastiness springs from the spirit of Humanism, with its fundamental affirmation that I am all right just as I am: "I have to be me!" Yet this is not to say that everyone who reacts sharply or emotionally when criticized is therefore a Humanist, for it is possible to be influenced by an alien spirit without surrendering wholly to it.

At the heart of the Humanist mentality and ethos is a commitment to human autonomy. The Greek roots of this word effectively lay bare its meaning, namely, that man is a law unto himself. A person who claims autonomy, then, does not propose to submit to any standard outside himself. (The opposite of autonomy is heteronomy, which is the recognition that ultimate norms come from without.) Humanist philosophy, to the extent that it is consistent and banishes God from human discourse and consideration, promotes the spirit of autonomy. And the claim to autonomy, in turn, brings an end to criticism in the traditional, wholesome sense.

One of the most famous statements in the entire history of philosophy is the claim made by Socrates in Plato's Phaedo to the effect that the "unexamined life" is not worth living. This much-quoted remark is then taken as an appeal for self-consciousness, for rational self-justification in all of life. As stated by Socrates and echoed by many other philosophers, this statement amounts to a form of rationalism. And it is an

[PAGE 70]

extreme statement and ideal: it is unrealistic to suppose that we can ground absolutely everything we do (including, then, the way we do it) in critical decisions of reason. Much of our life consists of following habits and traditions.

But it may well be possible to soften the statement so that it becomes helpful and applicable within a Christian framework. A Christian with a proper awareness of the existential value of philosophy may commit himself to a life of self-criticism. Just as Socrates was convinced that the philosopher's critical attention must be turned first of all toward his own life and conduct, so the Christian philosopher, holding high the ideal of self-awareness, can maintain that the believer, especially the mature, educated believer who prides himself on being philosophically and theologically aware, must be able to justify his life and conduct by reference to Scripture and Christian traditions. When we make much of criticism, it should not be forgotten that it begins at home. "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!" (Psalm 139:23-24) The Reformed way of celebrating communion even includes the element of self-criticism as part of the preparation for the service.

The critical emphasis in philosophy can help us, then, in putting into practice the ideal held before us by Peter: "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (I Peter 3:15).

Read the next chapter

Return to the table of contents

Click here to read Contending for the Faith: Heresy and Apologetics, another book by the same author.

Internet address: