The Old Testament. Biblical philosophy is not an abstract monologue but a dialogue with God. The Bible never attempts to prove the existence of God, bur starts from the premise that God exists (i.e., Gen 1:1 ); philosophy, in contrast, takes up questions concerning the nature of the universe and existence that do not necessarily presume the verity of God. Therefore, philosophy can be an effective tool if properly used as a means of understanding pretheological questions, but not as a method of supplanting the revelation already made available by faith through God's Scriptures. The limitations of human reason, especially in light of the moral degeneracy in humans, requires God's help in resolving philosophical questions.
The sacrificial structure of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals a simple, nonesoteric approach to the questions concerning solidarity with God and oneself. Faith was a prerequisite for abiding in the covenant. There is rarely a philosophical concern, although in the psalms occasionally deeper questions concerning the afterlife are considered in the light of theodicy.
The New Testament. It is not surprising that Paul, "the apostle to the Gentiles, " is more philosophical and deals with the problem of onerous philosophy more than any other writer in the New Testament because of the pragmatic issues of polytheism and atheism he confronted. The only time the world "philosophy" is used in the Bible is in Colossians 2:8. The problem addressed by Paul is probably an incipient form of gnosticism. One fascinating aspect of this passage is the idea that one can be taken "captive" through philosophy. Paul is not anti-intellectual, as is evidenced by the fact that he quotes Greek poets in Acts 17:28; also, in Acts 17 he directs his teachings toward Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, which shows that he was knowledgeable of their philosophy. He even agreed with it where he could. But, when the apocalyptic element is understood, it becomes clearer the philosophical deficiency that Paul was pointing out. The recipients of the second-person plural pronoun in Colossians 2:8 are Gentiles (e.f., 1:27 ). The philosophy is more clearly spelled out in 2:16: "Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths" (NRSV). Food laws and calendar observance were not required for the Gentiles' newfound faith. The observance of these nationalistic requirements was synonymous with being under the influence of "elemental spirits of the universe, " that is, the evil spirits that swarmed the cosmos. To be under this demonic influence was not necessary because Christ "disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it" ( Col 2:15 ).
Another aspect of the philosophy was esoteric speculation. Two examples are given: "worship of angels" and "dwelling on visions." Hebrews 1 also addresses the problem of the worship of angels (Christ was erroneously thought to be an angel). In Colossians, Paul contrasts arrogant, earthly, speculative philosophy with humble, transcendental, and righteous philosophy derived from God.
The problem of exploitative philosophy in Colossians 2:8 is not simply an aversion toward a theory of analysis underlying deportment, thought, knowledge, and the constitution of the universe. Rather, it is unwarranted speculation that encroaches on the freedom of another. The regulations "do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" (v. 21) reveal that a personal, introspective analysis concerning one's desire for meaning is not in view, but a philosophy that requires a change in behavior in another. It is the type of conjecture that places cultural, not moral demands on one and begins with the supposition of ethnic and religious superiority. This predicament was precisely the quandary of gnosticism. The elitism that proliferated gnosticism was largely based on the philosophical premise that gnostics were superior and held a secret knowledge.
The term "philosopher" (literally "lover of wisdom") appears in Acts 17:18. It is clear that the first time Christianity was taught in Athens, an intellectual hub of the ancient world, the message of monotheism was equated with obtuseness. Ironically, much of their philosophy was derived from superstition.
Epicurean philosophy originated from its founder Epicurus, who died in 270 b.c. Epicureans did not believe in an afterlife; therefore, one should neither fear death nor believe in supernatural beings. There was no jurisdiction over the state of affairs of humans. That which brought the most felicity now was the highest aim in life. Unlike the Stoics, the Epicureans rejected fate because there were no governing principles or beings that controlled one's destiny. The body was an indispensable part of human nature. Eventually, against the concept envisaged by Epicurus, this philosophy became associated with hedonistic practices because there was no infinite reference point to dictate morality.
Stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno around 300 b.c. In contrast to Epicurean philosophy, individuals achieve well-being and peace through their consonance with nature (which was in a constant state of change) by having the qualities of bravery, justice, self-control, and a competent intellect. All people have the divine spark of godhood (i.e., the logos) within them. Stoicism was monistic or even pantheistic because of the belief that divinity was so immanent that nature itself was part of the divine spark.
Therefore, providence governed the affairs of humans. The form of Stoic philosophy found in the New Testament was amalgamated with Roman polytheism. Paul was "deeply distressed" because the city was "full of idols." Undoubtedly, some of these idols were worshiped by the Stoics (not the Epicurean atheists).
Paul's sermon is directed toward Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Addressing Stoic fatalism, he points out that God created the world and does not dwell in idols ( 17:24 ). Unlike Stoic pantheism, God "gives to all mortals life and breath and all things" (v. 25). God is not so immanent that he is the creation itself.
Unlike the Epicureans, Paul announces that God requires repentance by all (v. 30) "because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness" (v. 31). The resurrection of Christ is the "assurance" that all will raise from the dead and stand before God (v. 31). The resurrection of Christ, with the subsequent philosophical and logical argument that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15, stands in sharp contrast to hedonistic Epicureanism. Like Colossians 2, Acts 17 demonstrates how philosophy, erroneously applied, can lead to "captivity" (e.g., Epicurean hedonism) and the control of "elemental spirits of the universe" (e.g., Stoic idolatry).
Even though Paul's philosophy in Acts 17 is logical, it is not acrimonious. Paul practices the principle he sets forth in 1 Corinthians 9:22: "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some." The fact that Paul quotes some of their poets (17:28) corroborates the notion that he was not anti-intellectual; instead, he gives a reasonable, philosophical deposition when challenging the intellectuals of Athens.
Another example of Paul's cultural sensitivity can be found in Acts 19:9. Paul argued in the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus for two years. Tyrannus was probably a school named after a Greek philosopher. The Jewish apostle to the Gentiles was undoubtedly skilled in Greek rhetoric and philosophy.
In Romans 1:18-23 Paul's philosophical logic is essential a "teleological" argument, that is, a testimony of the existence of God based on the order and purpose of the universe. Paul uses philosophical reasoning to discredit pagan superstition.
Eric W. Adams
Bibliography. J. Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism: The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig; J. Hick, ed., Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion; C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain; G. Vesey, ed., The Philosophy in Christianity; H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Philosophy'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".