I have spent many, many hours reading and studying and listening to and teaching philosophy. I do not really consider myself a philosopher, and I am not particularly good at doing philosophy, but I am interested in it and wanting to get better at it. However, I would not suggest that many others invest as much as I have in the area.
Apologetics and philosophy are distinct disciplines. It is troubling to me that many who desire to develop an apologetics ministry (and by ministry here I do not mean a blog or website or non-profit or book or podcast or anything else like this; I mean a ministry) believe that they should pursue education and even formal education in philosophy. There is nothing in the Bible which suggests that Christians must be well-educated in philosophy. Indeed, there is nothing in the Bible which suggests that Christians must be well-educated in philosophy in order even to focus specifically upon and develop a ministry in apologetics.
In some senses it frustrates me to see believers who are new to covenantal apologetics struggling with its more philosophical features. Great Christian thinkers who have given their lives to developing a Christian philosophy have perhaps in some cases inadvertently performed us a great disservice. The use of strictly philosophical content and terminology has been of no use to those who are not already schooled in these areas and have neither the time nor the desire to learn about them. Those desiring to defend the faith as is their biblical duty have seen the mountain they must climb to even begin to understand what some more philosophically inclined apologists are saying. Typically these well-meaning believers grow weary before they’ve begun.
If I were to have a new believer with me and if I were counseling that new believer I would no more tell that new believer to go study philosophy than I would tell him to go build relationships for evangelism by hanging out in a porn shop. Philosophy can be not only intellectually difficult, but it can be exceedingly dangerous as well. (Yes, that dangerous.) Philosophy can be so dangerous that those enthralled by it – believers or not – will even now be disagreeing with me to the point that they become angry at, mock, or simply dismiss what I am saying. The response is analogous to the kind you will often receive when telling any other sinner that his or her practice is dishonoring to God and harmful to the self.
The advice I would give to a new believer is the same advice I would give to the person who desires to be a better apologist. The advice is not to go read and study philosophy; the advice is to go read and study the Bible. The Christian should first and foremost be deriving his or her philosophy from the Bible and the apologist should first and foremost be a student of the Bible. If you want to be an apologist then become very, very familiar with the Bible. If God’s Word will not convince you and your hearers of the truth then what makes you think that your words or the words of other men will? Here is a good suggestion to make to an unbeliever as well – read the Bible!
What good is philosophy then? Some theologians have been known to stress a disdain for philosophy to the extent of sounding like advocates of anti-intellectualism. (Sometimes this is because these theologians have been advocates of anti-intellectualism!) There is no doubt that the Bible takes much more of a negative approach toward philosophy than a positive one. There are often serious problems with the content of philosophy and methodologically philosophy encourages the questioning of propositions which may often even be explicitly set down in Scripture.
There should be great concern about those wanting to go more into apologetics desiring to jump into philosophy before they have even read the Bible through once (much less studied it). There is great confusion over what an apologist should know and look like. There is even greater confusion over what philosophy should look like. I have noticed a tendency amongst people to parrot top philosophers without giving their positions or arguments much critical thought. Amongst Christians the positions and arguments are not even always checked against what Scripture states (much less derived from it). Hero worship is not philosophy, and philosophy is not strictly speaking theology. Philosophy and theology quite often touch upon the same subject matter. Given that the content of philosophical doctrines can – as I mentioned before – be problematic there should be concern over what will be brought into the faith when one looks first and foremost to philosophy rather than Scripture for answers regarding the ultimate questions that both philosophy and theology address.
All of this is not to say that one should have no desire to learn some philosophy. I have heard it said that everyone is a philosopher, but not everyone is a good philosopher. There is truth in this quip. There is a philosophy of everything – movies, mathematics, language, ethics, family, economics, politics, science, etc. – and there are definite movements within the history of philosophy which both influence and reflect the situations and changes present in any society or culture at any given moment in time. Christians should strive to become knowledgeable of these movements on a very basic level, but not any more than they would take an interest in any other educational subject in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.
Philosophy is an important part of the negative aspect of the apologetic endeavor. If you do not know Mormon theology then you may not make very much progress with the Mormons you just invited in for a Coke. If you do not know Islamic holy books then you may be a little lost when your Muslim friend keeps talking about the Hadith. If you do not know evolutionary biology then you may hear some pretty cruel laughter when you ask why monkeys do not still turn into humans. Any number of similar examples may be provided here, but significant to the discussion is that you may not want to engage with a more philosophically-minded unbeliever if you are unfamiliar with philosophy. If you do not know what sort of things a Fallibilist Realist believes then you may not make a great deal of progress with her in a conversation. At any rate you may not feel very confident or comfortable!
None of this is to deny the importance of knowing Scripture first and foremost. It is not to deny that all of this ultimately comes down to what God does. God may give you those “right” words at just the “right” time. Perhaps you do not have the right words at all and for some reason the unbeliever finds your flawed argumentation to be compelling and truly repents. None of this excuses you from your study either.
It should be kept in mind that philosophy is a tool. It is no doubt a tool that has been used improperly over and over again, but the abuse of something does not necessarily justify its complete rejection. One might argue that the value in studying philosophy is the ability to see first-hand the futility of unbelieving thought and to know how to respond to it to demonstrate it as being such. The apologist who studies philosophy will ideally become a more critical thinker and be able to incorporate the tools of philosophy into his or her apologetic. Indeed systematic theology itself employs philosophy. The trouble begins when learning how to use the tool is considered more important than knowing what Scripture says, or when the content delivered through the tool is found to be in contradiction to the Word of God.
Apologists spend a great deal of time studying false systems of belief in their efforts to refute those systems and to communicate more clearly and persuasively to those who are willingly stuck in them through their sinfulness. Sometimes learning about some given false system or figuring out what exactly is wrong with it or how to communicate what is wrong with it is a daunting task. It is nevertheless one of the tasks of the apologist. We can remain confident that insofar as an individual opposes the Word of God that person opposes God, and God knows better than that person! Thus a knowledge of philosophy and even a deep knowledge of philosophy is not necessarily a bad thing for an apologist to possess.
Many people view philosophy in general and certainly particular false philosophies as a complete waste of time. Similarly many people believe it is a complete waste of time to study the beliefs of other religions or of cults. Not only are these systems all false, but many of them are just plain silly! I wholeheartedly agree about the silliness. If it were not for God placing people in my life to illustrate just how silly such beliefs are then I might not be a contributor to a Christian website writing this even now because I might not have become a Christian. The Bible does not make qualifications concerning whom we are to answer depending upon how absurd we think their false beliefs are. Nothing is below you as an apologist: not wacky Mormonism, not irrational Islam, and not pedantic philosophy. Of course one person may be more interested, gifted, etc. in studying and interacting with one of these false groups than another. One person may also be gifted in one area of very specific ministry more than another. Not everyone is as good of a theologian as others. Not everyone is as good of a text critic as others. Not everyone is as good of a nouthetic counselor as others. Not everyone is as good of a philosopher as others. We have been given different gifts within the body of Christ. Imagine that!
There is such a thing as rolling in the dirt for the glory of God. There is something to joining a philosopher (or pseudo-philosopher!) on his or her own sandy ground for the sake of the argument and showing how utterly foolish his or her position is. We have been given powerful weapons that destroy even sinful intellectual strongholds through the power of God and for the glory of God, but you might not know that if you spend all of your time trying to be a solid philosopher without first being a solid Christian.