Does Philosophy Have a Place in the Pulpit?

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis
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You don't need a degree in philosophy to incorporate apologetics into sermons. A solid study of basic logic, worldviews and arguments for Christianity and against other viewpoints can fortify those in the church to have a winsome reason for their hope in Christ

Oddly, I am a philosopher and a preacher. A full-time philosopher (my day job) and a pulpit-supply preacher. I started preaching before I received a Ph.D. in philosophy and before I began to teach the discipline of philosophy full time in 1993. All my academic degrees are in philosophy.

Why this autobiography? I have never found my knowledge of philosophy to be a hindrance to my preaching from the Bible. In fact, the skills I have learned have, in some ways, contributed to my preaching for over forty years. So, let me explain.

Philosophy, at its best, is the study of rational arguments about what matters most—the nature of reality and how to live wisely in light of that reality. However, philosophy has a bad name for many Christians, and many shun it. Part of this aversion is due to a misunderstanding of what the Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians. In the course of warning about and exposing false teaching, Paul writes:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8).

Notice that Paul is writing of a “false and deceptive philosophy.” Paul targets a particular philosophy that denied the Gospel. There is still plenty of false philosophy about, whether it be atheism, polytheism, Gnosticism (which is like what Paul warned about), pantheism, agnosticism, or something else. Paul was not downgrading the use of the intellect in understanding truth, defending the gospel, or evaluating doctrinal positions.

When Paul spoke to the philosophers at Athens, he displayed a knowledge of their philosophy, its rational weaknesses, and the superiority of the Christian philosophy of life (Acts 17:16-34). An audience of philosophers is a tough crowd, but Paul won over several significant listeners. It was by no means a failed event.

Furthermore, Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:37-39). He demonstrated His philosophical abilities in His many rational disputes with the religious leaders of His day, as I have discussed in my book, On Jesus. I will cite just one example from Matthew 22.

Politics crackled in the air in Jesus’ day, because the Jews were under the sword of Roman rule. How should a Jew, who worshiped God and believed God had favored the Jews, respond to pagan Caesar? Some asked Him, “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Jesus faced a dilemma. If He denounced tax-paying, he might be seen as a dangerous insurrectionist. If Jesus affirmed paying taxes, He would be viewed as selling out to an ungodly power instead of honoring God.

Jesus asked for the coin used to pay the tax. He asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” His questioners replied that it was Caesar’s. Jesus then said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

He found a smart way to escape a moral dilemma. He gives place to the rule of Caesar under God without making Caesar God. When Jesus differentiates Caesar from God, He strips Caesar of his supposed deity without issuing a call to anarchy. The man was brilliant, and we should walk in his steps.

But how does this relate to preaching? How can philosophy make you a better preacher of God’s holy Word?

First, we should heed Paul’s warnings to not be deceived by hollow and deceptive philosophy, by worldviews that undermine what the Bible teaches.

For example, consider materialism, in both senses of that word. Consumerism and hedonism are in the air—the idea that the enjoyment of material possessions should be at the center of our lives. That is not the way of Jesus, who said we must die to self and live for him. Materialism can also mean the belief that nothing except the material world exists. Christians believe in God but may revert to a materialistic view of life when illness strikes or when plans are made. God can and does supernaturally intervene in our fallen world. Miracles still happen, and we should ask for them.

Second, the discipline of philosophical thinking equips preachers to understand the logic of the biblical text or doctrine about which they are preaching.

Philosophy at its best teaches us to make distinctions between ideas and to discover and discern the relationship of one idea to another. Thus, if someone is preaching on the identity of Jesus, he or she needs to know something about the hypostatic union of deity and humanity in Jesus.  God is both truly a man and truly divine. The church’s articulation of this doctrine at Chalcedon in 451 is highly philosophical, but also biblical and necessary to defend Jesus from heretical interpretations of his life and work. Jesus is one person with two natures: divine and human. They do not overlap or melt into each other, but He is not two people. Explaining this adequately takes some logical work. But God’s people need to be transformed through the renewing of their minds in all areas of life (Romans 12:1-2).

Third, some training in philosophy is necessary to fruitfully engage apologetics—the defense of the faith as true, rational and pertinent to the whole of life.

Preachers are called to defend the faith as well as explain it. As Paul wrote Timothy:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Opponents of the Gospel need to be out-argued, but always in love. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), the greatest defender of Christianity in the twentieth century, was highly skilled in philosophy, although he was a professor of literature. His arguments for Christianity in Mere Christianity and elsewhere continue to draw people to Christ. Some of the best apologists today are professional philosophers, such a William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland. I am not saying you need a degree in philosophy to incorporate apologetics into sermons. However, a solid study of basic logic, worldviews and arguments for Christianity and against other viewpoints can fortify those in the church to have a winsome reason for their hope in Christ (1 Peter 3:15-16).

© 2019 Douglas Groothuis.

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