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Is Christianity Philosophical?

Is the philosophy articulated (and practiced) by Christian philosophers inherently Christian? And if so, in what sense?

Philosophy: A Student's Guide by David K. Naugle. Crossway, 2012. 128pp.

Is Christianity philosophical? Many responses to this question—tacit or explicit, within or outside Christian belief, both past and present—are most emphatically negative. Skeptics and atheists typically reject any body of thought which occasions belief in invisible or non-material reality. Some of those philosophies which do accept a spiritual dimension, such as neo-platonism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, reject Christian views of the cosmos, creation, and incarnation as implausible or at the very least indecorous in their presupposition that the one eternal God who made the world as a finite expression of his nature distinct from himself, would then enter into that world in the vulnerable finitude of frail human flesh, then suffer himself to die a criminal's death. From such perspectives, Christianity is viewed as inherently "unphilosophical."

Those from within Christian faith who have thought of Christianity and philosophy as antithetical to each other have typically generalized from Saint Paul's opposition of Christianity to the prevalent philosophies of the Greco-Roman world, whether polytheistic (as in Acts 17) or atheistic, as in the case of the Epicureans he seems to have had in mind in his letters to the Corinthians and possibly the Colossians. In more simplistic doctrines that construe these passages as warranted, Christian faith becomes associated with a general anti-intellectualism. Accordingly, among modern North American Christian liberal arts colleges and seminaries, from their beginnings to the end of the twentieth century, departments of philosophy often simply didn't develop. In the last fifty years there has been a sea change in this regard; departments of philosophy are to be found in almost all such institutions, and the presence of Christian philosophers in the secular universities has become a significant factor in the debates and development of the discipline. But this recent flourishing has raised questions; namely, is the philosophy articulated (and practiced) by these Christian philosophers inherently Christian? And if so, in what sense?

Such are the questions pursued by David K. Naugle in Philosophy: A Student's Guide. Part of a series edited by David S. Dockery under the rubric "Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition," this little volume (125 pages), the fifth in the series, Naugle's Guide goes a long way toward answering these questions cogently and coherently, within a framework of biblical and historical thinking and practice. As such, it is a welcome addition to the resources available to instructors who wish to provide an introduction to philosophy, considered not as a discipline inherently adversarial to Christianity, but as a discipline of Christian thought intrinsic both to Scripture and to apostolic tradition from the first century onward. Further, Naugle has written accessibly enough that this book should serve well a more general readership, both of lay Christians and those in pastoral care of church-related teaching and mentoring. Because he has provided an excellent glossary of terms and made apt use of vernacular examples, I would warmly recommend this book also to parents and other relatives of college students who may be taking courses in philosophy or related humanities disciplines such as political science, literature, history, or theology.

Naugle presents himself as a presuppositional Augustinian, which is to say that not only is he a Christian philosopher grounded in Scripture and its normative traditions of interpretation, but that he accepts Augustine's dictum that without belief, a commitment in trust or faith, there can be no understanding. For him, Christian philosophy is thus fides quarens intellectam, "faith seeking [philosophical] understanding."

It is an admirable feature of the Guide that it proceeds in a clearly marked path from presuppositions through contextual worldview and biblical theology to the possibility of dialogue between Christian and other philosophies and thus of the character of Christian philosophical vocation. Naugle draws freely on Catholic, Reformed, and Orthodox writers, and after delineating the central questions posed by metaphysics, philosophical anthropology, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics in the light of these rich traditions of Christian reflection, he concludes with an account of what he takes to be the proper traits or characteristics of life-practice in an authentically Christian philosopher. The Christocentric character of this final section points the reader firmly toward Christian philosophy as necessarily a matter of practice, not just of theory.

Anyone who has read St. Paul's letter to the Colossians closely enough to appreciate its argument will recall that the Apostle there argues for an imitation of Christ, in whom "are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3) as a wisdom superior to its competitors in the world, which summarily he calls "philosophy and empty deceit, according to the elemental spirits of the universe" (2:8). He does not suggest that Christianity is not philosophical; rather he states plainly that to follow Christ is to love wisdom (philosophia) of a much higher order, since it is Christ who "God made our wisdom" (1:30). This is why leaders in the early Church presented Christianity as the "true philosophy" (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine) and why St. Athanasius in his seminal work, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, sets his strong argument about the eternal Logos made flesh over and against the comparatively weak arguments of Stoic, Epicurean, Gnostic, and neo-Platonist philosophies. In a world like theirs (and now ours)—that is to say, in a context in which pagan, agnostic, and atheist perspectives make less plausible but nonetheless imperious claims to be "properly philosophical"—it is essential that maturing Christians understand and embody the philosophy of Christ. In the service of that objective, David Naugle's book is a worthy contribution.

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David Lyle Jeffrey David Lyle Jeffrey
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities at Baylor University. ... read more »

Posted in Philosophy, Religion.

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