The history of ideas can be a rich resource for learning Christ.

The Disciplines of Knowing: The Humanities (6)

Understand the ideas, or get sideswiped by the consequences.

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. Colossians 2.8-10

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ… 2 Corinthians 10.3-5

A tapestry of ideas
History is comprised, in many ways, of a tapestry of ideas. As people in every age have considered their world, themselves, and the challenges facing them, they have developed philosophies, schemes of history, narratives about themselves and their needs, values, and priorities, and cultural projects that flourish for a season, exert influence, and then are replaced by other philosophies, schemes, and projects.

One of the most interesting and fruitful approaches to gaining an understanding of history, and to following the unfolding of the divine economy, is by studying the history of ideas. The ideas and systems that people have evolved to explain themselves and their world are the result of reflection, discussion, debate, and careful thinking. Because people are made in the image of God, and because the world refracts the glory of God on every hand, it is inevitable that every philosophy ever developed will contain some germ of truth. C. S. Lewis argued this point in his book, The Abolition of Man, and he illustrated his position in the samples of the Tao which he provided at the end of that book.

But no philosophy or system of thought developed apart from Jesus Christ, or not leading us to Him, will be reliable in its entirety. Winds of doctrine in every age seek to blow the followers of Christ off course as they sail on their journey with Him (Eph. 4.14). We can sift the true elements from the various philosophies of history – as we see Paul doing in Acts 17.22-34 – but not unless we are aware of how the treacherous winds blow, and what may be gained from any of them.

And for that, we’re going to have to study the tapestry of ideas from throughout the course of human history, acknowledging the work of God’s common grace where we can, and steering clear of the half-truths and lies that might drive us onto the rocks of a shipwrecked faith (cf. 1 Tim. 1.18-20). 

The broad scope of philosophy
Philosophy is that discipline of the humanities that seeks to explain the world, to identify humankind’s place in it, and to prescribe the best ways to thrive and be happy. Philosophy is comprised of many different sub-disciplines, including cosmology, anthropology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. Philosophers from before the time of Christ have developed expansive systems of thought to summarize, collate, declare, and defend their views about the world. They have used a wide variety of literary genre, including poetry, drama, fiction, scientific reportage, dialectic, and straight philosophical discourse.

The pool of philosophy is filled with murky water; not all of it is safe. You might want to locate a reliable Christian guide to help you know where to drop your hook in that pool, and how to keep from falling in over your head. Christian thinkers such as Alvin Plantiga, Nicholas Wolstertorff, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, David Naugle, Esther Lightcap Meek, David Wolfe, Arthur Holmes, Charles Taylor, James K. A. Smith, and J. P. Moreland are reliable guides to the study of philosophy, offering a clear and Biblical Christian lens through which to study the entire field. While their works can be challenging, reflections by such thinkers are available for all levels of reading and study. Under the guidance of such trusted thinkers, you can fish the waters of philosophy to gather a catch you can keep from nearly every philosophical system “under the sun”.

Don’t launch out into the pool of philosophy without making sure you are firmly tethered to the Word of God. There is light to be discovered in the world’s various philosophical systems, but you will not be able to discern it apart from the constant, steady, unfailing light of Scripture (Ps. 36.9). In whatever subject or field of philosophy you choose to venture, be sure that you are reading the Scriptures for what they teach about the subject as you go.

Start your reading and study of philosophy with an accessible and reliable Christian book. I recommend David Naugle’s Philosophy: A Student’s Guide, David L. Wolfe’s Epistemology: The Justification of Belief, or Arthur Holmes’ All Truth is God’s Truth. For a fun romp through the history of philosophy, try Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and Paulette Moller. These will help you understand the parameters and importance of philosophy as a way of increasing in the knowledge of Christ. They will also show you how to connect your reading in this area with relevant sections of the Word of God.

Lessons from the history of ideas
Studying the ideas of philosophy is important for several reasons. First, it shows us that human beings have an unquenchable desire for truth – even if they often head off in wrong directions. If we can understand the truth as it appears to people “under the sun”, we’ll be better able to lead them to consider the truth of Jesus and life “under heaven”.

Second, by reading and studying philosophy we learn how, by separating truth from God, truth becomes mired in human conjecture, typically leading to philosophical and moral confusion, cultural decay, and social unraveling. We can avoid stepping into the snares of the vain philosophies of men if we can learn to recognize them in the path ahead (Prov. 1.17).

Third, reading philosophy – especially in the light of God’s Word – reminds us that redemption is always possible when people will repent of their folly and turn to God in faith, seeking through Jesus the true Way to life and happiness. When we see thinkers and saints like Justin Martyr, Augustine, C. S. Lewis, and others, turning from the world’s philosophy to the cross of Jesus, we encounter living embodiments of how philosophy can provide a road to knowing the Lord.

We are barraged by thoughts and ideas all day long. They come at us from pop culture, advertising, office chatter, politics, the media, and conversations with friends. All those thoughts and ideas emerge from a philosophical context, even if that context is unknown to those who are issuing the ideas. The Christian is called to take every thought and every idea captive for obedience to Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 10.3-5). The better we understand those ideas, the easier it will be for us to bring them into the presence of Christ and His Word, to evaluate their merit, benefit from whatever grace of God may be found in them, and guard ourselves against being sideswiped by unfamiliar ideas that creep into our own thinking unrecognized (Schaeffer).

Philosophy can provide some spice for your Christian growth diet. Just be sure you know what you’re dipping into, and that you use it sparingly.

For Reflection
1. Why is it important that Christians have some understanding about philosophy? How does Proverbs 1.17 relate to this question?

2. You don’t have to be a philosopher to be influenced by philosophy. Explain.

3. How would you counsel a Christian, going off to college, to prepare to stand firm for Christ against the worldly philosophies he will encounter there?

Next Steps – Preparation: Today, try to observe how many different ways an idea or thought comes at you. Jot them down. Summarize the thought. What does it seem to be teaching? Can you see a philosophy behind this?

T. M. Moore

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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