The early church was born into a fertile garden of philosophy. Platonists, Epicureans, Stoics and Cynics were active far beyond the area that we think of today as Greece.
But what is the relationship between Christianity and philosophy? Specifically, did Paul, who was so influential in the development of Christian theology, reject philosophy? Some Christians think so.
Paul writes in one place: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, NIV)
This is not a criticism of all philosophy but “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” Such a criticism would be agreed upon by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Paul was not arguing that all philosophy is hollow and deceptive, but that which is, is dangerous.
Elsewhere we read:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Could Paul be saying here that the wisdom of the philosophers was meaningless and that he only proclaimed the gospel through signs and wonders?
The problem is that Paul uses philosophical arguments on a regular basis. For example, Paul attempts to demonstrate in 1 Corinthians 15 that there will be a final resurrection of the dead. He uses a basic logical argument:
- If there is no resurrection, then Jesus never rose from the dead.
- Jesus did rise from the dead.
- Therefore, there will be a resurrection of the dead.
We can debate as to whether we think Paul’s argument is convincing, but he was doing philosophy.
So what kind of philosophy was Paul critical of?
I suspect that Paul was critical of the same kind of philosophy that Socrates and Plato were critical of. I speak of Sophistry. What is Sophistry? In a helpful article in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy we find these concerns:
[T]hey were regarded as socially and morally subversive, especially by those of conservative views. Suspicion focused both on their naturalistic outlook, especially in its application to morality and theology, and on their teaching of techniques of argument, which could be seen as encouraging those who acquired them, especially the young, to subvert sound morality and hallowed tradition by clever cavilling. (p. 884)
The Sophists were known to be more interested in persuasion than truth. They argued not from a place of moral conviction but boasted of being able to convince a person of anything, true or not. It is likely something like this that Paul is arguing against in 1 Corinthians.
Paul lived and operated in a philosophical world and he used those tools as he deemed suitable.