If your first reaction to this question is, “They shouldn’t use philosophy at all!” you’ve just answered a philosophical question and have performed the work of a philosopher! That said, philosophy is and will be used by the Christian. It is inevitable that we use it. When we think about things like the law of God and how that applies to society; when we think about creation, God’s existence, etc. we are thinking of ethical and metaphysical topics.
The Bible engages in heavy philosophy, if by philosophy we mean the dealing with divine and human knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics. The question, therefore, is not whether or not we use philosophy. Philosophy is inherent in the Christian worldview. The question, rather, is how we use or incorporate philosophy.
Do not let the nomenclature fool you.
Theology is philosophical in nature. It deals with godly knowledge, and this knowledge is that which believers ought to love. Natural theology is the greatest field of metaphysics (study of being). Indeed it answers metaphysical questions that the natural sciences cannot answer. The natural sciences cannot answer the question of teleology. Teleology seeks to answer the question, “What is this for?” Likewise the natural sciences, I contend, cannot objectively answer the question of ontology: “What is this?”
Both teleology and ontology must be answered by theology in relationship to philosophy. Science can’t tell us what an object is. We discover objects (using the tools respective of any particular science), arbitrarily assign a title or name to those objects, describe them by their observable function, and then assign an observed teleology or purpose to that thing (i.e. orange trees bear oranges, nostrils allow air intake, etc). Science doesn’t do this, we do this after we use the tools of science to make discoveries.
Science tells us what things do not what things are essentially, nor what their essentially intended to do. In fact, if we were blind to metaphysics altogether and could only engage the universe with our five senses (like a dog or cat), we’d have absolutely no way to discern purpose in anything. We could make observatory mental notes, perhaps for a brief time, of what things appear to be doing, but we would be far from discovering purpose or essential is-ness.
Some atheists actually admit that, according to their position, there is no essential purpose (teleology) or what-ness (ontology) of anything! We subjectively make all of this up. But, those same atheists have a rescuing device. Humans protect one another, uphold moral standards, and seek knowledge for the sake of prolonging or improving the human condition. Notice the stealth-ninja purpose that snuck in there. The purpose of our endeavors is to improve the human condition. But, on naturalism, there really shouldn’t be purpose. There is a desire of some humans for all humans to protect themselves, others, and improve the human condition, but this is not purpose, it’s desire.
We have called our natural human context the universe or world. We do not know if that’s really what it is, according to naturalism. We have merely designated our context the universe for various reasons. According to naturalism, the self-proclaimed king of the universe, who lives inside some quasi-star 240 billion light-years away, could show up tomorrow and tell us what the universe really is. But even then, who is he to designate the universe as being whatever he thinks it is? There’s simply no ultimate authority to derive a real telos or ontology from a naturalistic perspective.
Natural theology, on the other hand, is the work of apprehending knowledge of God through natural revelation. The Cosmological Argument is a deductive argument for God’s existence based purely on human reason (and sometimes empirical evidence depending on the formulation). We do not need fossils, manuscripts, stars, etc. to tell us whether or not God exists. Natural theology ensures the positive conclusion of the existence of God based on man’s finite and imperfect reason. If we have knowledge of anything at all (e.g. ourselves), yet deny God’s existence, we have become inconsistent in our reasoning and commit cosmic treason. One example of how the existence of God is deduced through nature is found here.
All people know God through nature (Rom. 1:18-20). God has instilled purpose and concreteness in creation. We can know the purpose of things and the what-ness of things because; (1) to some extent, God has given man the prerogative of determining the what-ness (Gen. 2:19). So, in this respect, our seemingly arbitrary naming of things, according the genus, specie, etc., is justified objectively by God. (2) Man knows he ought to serve God through nature alone. The problem is that he suppresses this truth in unrighteousness (cf. Rom. 1). If, through nature, we can discern that God is that which nothing greater can be conceived, it is obvious we ought to serve Him. He is our Creator, our Father, our Lord. John Owen writes:
Human nature suffered an indescribable disaster in the fall, so much that we might rather say that what we call “human nature” is really all that we know of the remnants of human nature as it was intended to be. Yet still our minds are equipped with the rudiments of the first theology, and they cannot escape from the knowledge that God is, and also that He is of such a nature which even basic logic declares that He must be, that is, virtuous, kind, and just to the utmost degree (Biblical Theology, p. 31).
Thus, natural theology is a philosophical endeavor every person can engage in, yet it is a task not every person will engage in (properly) precisely because of their fallen nature. In Adam, all men die, and because of this men not born again in Christ will refuse to follow the logic where it leads, to a God whose perfections align only with the God revealed in the Bible.
I would like to write more on natural theology, but for our purposes, the above discussion works. The point is: (1) the Christian (and even the Bible) makes use of philosophy; and (2) philosophy is to be used in relation to natural theology. There is another way philosophy may be used by the Christian. Systematic theology is the science of organizing and extrapolating Scriptural data based on explicit references and good and necessary consequence, taking, of course, the text of Scripture in its fullness. The way we do systematics is a philosophical question in nature.
What method do we use in order to engage scriptural data systematically?
Up until the 18th century, the answers to this question were much less diverse. The medieval church and the Reformers utilized various forms of Scholastic methodology. Scholasticism was prominent in the Middle Ages (and prior to) in both method and content. Now, much of the Roman Scholastic content came to be indicted by the Reformers, but much of the methodology remained. Examples are most helpful here: the disputatio method, used by Martin Luther, involves disputing a position or positions point by point. This method looks much like the 95 Theses. One disputes theses or constructs counter-theses to rebut disputed theses formed by the antecedent party. Luther, for example, formed 95 counter-theses to Roman Catholic dogmatics.
Another method would be the quaestio method utilized by both John Calvin and Francis Turretin (cf. Willem J. Van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism). This method involves the asking of a question and the answer to that question. This method is also used by Geerhardus Vos in his Reformed Dogamtics.
There are different methods which may be used to organize data from the Scriptures, but these methods are Scholastic in nature.
Philosophy in the Bible
We’ve all heard the classical refutation of the prospect of philosophy. Paul writes: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception… (Col. 2:8)” Yet, this verse doesn’t stop here. Those who want to use this verse to cast out the use of philosophy by Christians should read a bit further! Paul continues, “… according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”
What kind of philosophy ought the Christian reject?
Is it all kinds? Of course not! If Paul here meant that all philosophy ought to be banished by the Christian, he’s be shooting himself in the foot. Surely Paul, being a master of both Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew (and probably Latin), wouldn’t reject the fact that there are different uses of language, etymologies, etc., which are all philosophical in nature. What about his rational argument in 1 Corinthians 15:12-14?
So, Paul is necessarily making use of some type of philosophy of language in his very own writings, which were inspired by God! He also engages in philosophy when it comes to method and presentation (cf. Acts 17). Philosophy means “love of knowledge.” Does the Christian have access to any sort of knowledge they ought to love? Of course! Paul writes:
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:1-3).
If all true wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ, ought I love that wisdom and knowledge? Of course! The believer is to love the things of God. Christians, if they be born again, are theologians and philosophers in virtue of being a child of God.
The Priority of Philosophy
There have been many statements concerning the use of philosophy in the life of the Christian. It has been designated as a handmaiden to theology (cf. Aquinas). But this, in my personal opinion, separates theology and philosophy a little too much. It may be more precise to say that natural theology is the handmaiden to systematic or dogmatic theology. Philosophy and natural theology are almost inseparable terms when taken in a broad sense. If, by philosophy, we mean the writings of men like Aristotle, Duns Scotus, and Aquinas, sure, those sources are handmaidens because they are not authoritative in the sense that God’s revelation is.
But what about systematics?
Systematic theology works upon a philosophical methodology of one type or another. This philosophy of method is applied to the study of divine revelation whether we like to think of it that way or not. Thus, if we are “doing theology,” we are “doing philosophy,” to one extent or another. While some philosophies may be orchestrated by men, though useful, they must be seen as subservient to God’s authoritative revelation. However, in the interpretation of God’s special revelation, humans employ a philosophical method inevitably. Moreover, God gives us the Christian philosophy of the world in His Scriptures and this is to be applied in our lives. God gives us, through nature and His Word a philosophy of origins, a philosophy of anthropology, a philosophy of morals (ethics), and a philosophy of purpose.
There then seems to be a give-and-take relationship between theology and philosophy. It is tempting to make them into one, based on the Christian system. Yet, it is important to keep them distinct for several reasons.
The Distinction of Theology and Philosophy
While perhaps not separate, theology and philosophy are nevertheless distinct.
Because theology deals with the objective subject matter of God’s revelation while philosophy deals with the method of interpreting that revelation as well as the methodology and order of systematics. Moreover, theology may consist in natural theology, which is objective, while philosophy consists in the methodology used in interpreting that theology. But philosophy is not method alone. There is content.
The content of natural theology, for example, is that which we can know about God through nature. But, perhaps, the laws of logic are the tools we use to get there. Are the laws of logic philosophical or theological? Well, they must be both. First, they are laws revealed by God (revelation), consistent with His own character. Second, they are philosophical because they are metaphysical propositions, expressed by language, about the universe in which we live (e.g. something cannot be both (A) and (~A, or not-A) at the same time and in the same relationship).
The easiest way to render the relationship between theology and philosophy, in at least one respect, is to say that theology populates philosophy. In other words, the content of theology, apprehended through natural (nature) and supernatural (God’s direct communication to man) revelation, informs our philosophy. For example, we could ask: What is a metaphysical distinctive of Christianity? Our answer would be: Creation ex nihilo simpliciter, or creation simply out of nothing (Gen. 1-3).
Another answer could be lex naturalis or natural law. Both of these distinctives are affirmed in Scripture, but they are not derived from Scripture alone. In fact, natural law is apparent in human moral interactions. Morals come naturally to humanity, for both the wicked and the righteous. This natural law is revealed as part of God’s natural revelation. Creation out of nothing is another dogma of the church which is found to be true through nature, through to process of deductive reasoning to be more precise. Every effect requires a cause; the universe is an effect (because contingent); therefore, the universe requires a cause. This cause, of course, must be necessary, timeless, divinely simple, omnipotent, and omniscient. Change is a result of contingency; the universe changes; therefore, the universe is contingent. If the universe is contingent it had to have had a beginning, and the ultimate beginning of contingency had to have been the event of creation ex nihilo by this omnipotent, omniscient, simple, necessary Being.
The relationship of theology to philosophy has been disputed. The two extremes would be to either identify theology with philosophy and risk placing reason over God’s revelation so as to usurp its authority or to separate theology and philosophy so far apart that philosophy is demonized and all efforts to reason about the faith are looked down upon. However you think of the relationship between theology and philosophy, one axiomatic principle must be affirmed: philosophy is populated, driven, controlled, etc., by theology. But let us also not forget that the effort of deriving knowledge from revelation is philosophical in nature, yet not abstracted from the context of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit.