“Does philosophical thinking matter for interpreting the Bible and why/ or why not?”
Many tools and methods are used in the interpretation of any piece of literature, and the Bible is no exception. Of these tools and methods, philosophical thinking is one that is not uncommon. To decide whether it matters for interpreting the Bible, we should get a proper understanding of what philosophy aims to accomplish. The best way to understand philosophy is to read Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Descartes, and others, but a brief definition would be, “a critical study of fundamental beliefs and the grounds for them.”1 Themes most commonly studied include, “existence, knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, validity, mind, and language.”2
Philosophy has to do with reason, logic, and rationality. It explains things that natural sciences cannot explain because natural sciences only test the natural world, as opposed to the things listed previously. Therefore, by defining philosophy and understanding the goals it aims to tackle, it appears that philosophy has a legitimate place in interpretation. To throw away philosophy would lead to the dismissal of reason, logic, and rationality, which I am not ready to do. However, we will proceed to look into philosophical thinking to find out how important it really is.
If philosophy succeeds in its goals of understanding knowledge, truth, and mind, it would seem that it is quite important for interpretation of the Bible. We must understand that thoughts, ideas, and preferences do not change what truth is, philosophy merely digs to more deeply understand them, which in turn, gives more credence to trusting these things. It is not in competition with truth, its goal is to understand the truth and show that things are reasonable to believe. Truth is not modified or changed by the preferences of individuals or by the masses. For example, even if everyone on earth thought that I could fly if I jumped off a cliff; this does not change the fact that I cannot fly.
Thoughts, ideas, and preferences should be based on truth, instead of people making their own truth to fit their own thoughts and preferences. This is a great tragedy today in the West even among Christians. We have forsaken our brilliant heritage of Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans by tossing knowledge and truth in the garbage and seeking our own gratifications and pleasures instead.
American Christians used to be the leading intellectuals in this country and founded most of the great academic Universities in the United States. However, we have gradually handed over the torch of knowledge and academia to the secular scholars by lazily walking away from deep thinking. Philosophy is one of these methods. We even get the word ‘sophisticated’ from the Greek word ‘sophist’ which was the term for the traveling academic teachers of the Greeks in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. (Philosophers).
Another approach to finding out if philosophical thinking matters for interpreting the Bible, is to look directly to the Scriptures to see if there is anything said to sway us one way or the other. The book of John uses the words ‘truth,’ ‘true,’ and ‘truly’ on over 50 occasions, while John’s first epistle says ‘know’ over 40 times. Also, three of the Gospels say that when Jesus was tested by the Pharisees, he told them the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.3 The greatest commandment according to Jesus included loving God with our minds. There is no question that the Bible puts a huge emphasis on knowledge, truth, and learning. If philosophy can contribute to these things then we should not overlook it.
I have found that the people that dislike philosophy fit into one of two groups: people that are confused by philosophy and abandon it in frustration, or people that are anti-intellectuals who have no value for truth and knowledge. In either case, there is no logical reason to follow either of these sects because both of them lead us down the road of stupidity where the followers sometimes take pride in being moronic. Since we have already established that the Bible encourages and even demands for us to be intellectuals and to pursue truth, we must abandon these two sects and wholeheartedly embrace philosophy as a helpful guide for interpretation.
It is important to understand that knowledge does not require certainty. “Something is certain if it is utterly impossible that one be mistaken about it.”4 This shows that few things can be known with certainty. J.P. Moreland paraphrases Ephesians 5:5 by saying: “For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ in God.”4 If knowledge is a form of certainty, then saying ‘to know with certainty’ would be quite redundant.
Philosophy is also a helpful tool in evangelism as well. Philosophy begins with what we know and how we know it. Many times this is the only way to evangelize to certain people because you often need to start out with truths that are agreed upon. We don’t always have to know how we know something to know that it is a truth. For example, I know that torturing and killing my neighbors is wrong, I know that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, I know a tree is in my front yard, and that 2+2=4. I do not need criteria for how I know these things in order to know them.
Once this is established in one’s mind it is a helpful tool for evangelism because many moral truths can be agreed upon with exception to a few radical extremists. Most people, however, will agree that torturing and murdering your neighbor is wrong and that there is such a thing as morality. This can lead to the discussion of how morals were wired into humans which more times than not will lead to intelligent design or a creationist conversation.
I have heard people make statements about how they don’t believe that philosophy is important in knowing something. For people who dismiss philosophy as being important, there is one obvious flaw. The problem is that this thought/statement is a philosophical statement in itself, aiming to destroy philosophy from being valid. It is a self-contradiction that anyone faces if they are against the use of philosophy. Any statement against philosophy being helpful for knowledge will be a philosophical statement in itself.
Ultimately, our goal is to use philosophy to help understand the Bible, just as we use any other forms of hermeneutics. Slamming the door on a type of study that can help us understand the Scriptures would be a horrible tragedy to the church today. As long as we understand that the Bible is the Word of God and is second to none in importance, we can then use other kinds of literature and methods of learning, not to add to the Bible, but to help us understand the Bible more completely.
1 Merriam-Webster Dictionary
2 Blackburn, Simon (1999). Think. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
3 Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27
4 Moreland, J.P. (2007). Kingdom Triangle. Grand Rapids, Zondervan.