Over the past two years I’ve really caught the philosophy bug. I love this stuff. Philosophy means the love of wisdom, who doesn’t love wisdom? C’mon. Studying the history of philosophy scratches several itches all at once, I get to learn about different worldviews, see the ripple effect of ideas, study history and even grow in my own wisdom and logical consistency. But as one studys the history of philosophy it’s easy to lose hope that anyone will ever find the real answers to life’s biggest questions. Francis Schaeffer describes the history of philosophy by drawing circles on the beach as he walks along. He draws a circle and says this is a philosophers worldview, then someone else, sometimes their own student, comes along and crosses it out and draws a new one. Problem solved. But not really because then his student comes along and crosses the new circle out and draws an even newer one and on and on we go ad nauseam. As you study, it becomes clear that these guys are recycling old tired arguments that were refuted once in their own time but rise again as zombies to frighten the uninitiated.
Charles Spurgeon, The Prince of Preachers, describes philosophy exceptionally well in his sermon on Sovereignty and Salvation:
“Professing themselves to be wise, wise men have become fools. But have ye not noticed, in reading history, how God has abased the pride of wisdom? In ages long gone by, he sent mighty minds into the world, who devised systems of philosophy. “These systems” they said, “will last forever”. Their pupils thought them infallible, and therefore wrote their sayings on enduring parchment, saying “This book will last forever; succeeding generations of men will read it, and to the last man that book shall be handed down, as the epitome of wisdom.” “Ah! But,” said God, “that book of yours shall be seen to be folly, ere another hundred years have rolled away.” And so the mighty thoughts of Socrates, and the wisdom of Solon, are utterly forgotten now; and could we hear them speak, the veriest child in our schools would laugh to think that he understandeth more of philosophy than they. But when man has found the vanity of one system, his eyes have sparkled at another; if Aristotle will not suffice, here is Bacon; now I shall know everything; and he sets out to work, and says that this new philosophy is to last forever. He lays his stones with fair colors, and he thinks that every truth he piles up is a precious imperishable. But, alas! Another century comes, and it is found to be “wooed hay, and stubble.” A new sect of philosophers rise up, who refute their predecessors. So too, we have wise men in this day- wise secularists, and so on, who fancy they have obtained the truth; but within another fifty years- and mark that word- this hair shall not be silvered over with gray, until the last of that race shall have perished, and that man shall be thought a fool that was ever connected with such a race.” Classic Spurge for the win.
God continually turns philosophers’ swords on themselves and their systems are broken. The history of philosophy is a monument testifying to the validity of Ecclesiastes 1:9 “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun”. Although there is a vast gulf of time between the sophists of Plato’s era and the Relativists of the 20th century, even a quick glance will show you they are saying the same thing. Philosophy is bound to repeat itself. The Pre-socratics, The Rationalists, The Empiricists, the Sophists, The Monists, the Idealists, The irrationalists, the Romantics, and just about all the other “ists” have many serious differences yet all of them share the same authority in their systems, themselves. Autonomous reasoning is the main link between the various systems of western philosophy. Auto meaning self and nomus meaning law, autonomous reasoning Is making yourself the ultimate standard by which to judge truth, even elevating yourself above God. This is the trap that most philosophers fall into. As John Frame says in the introduction to his History of Western Philosophy and Theology: “my whole idea is to expose the fact that the history of philosophy and theology is nothing less than spiritual warfare in the life of the mind”. I think he’s absolutely right, all these brilliant men ran into serious problems since they didn’t start with God. Proverbs tells us that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge and Colossians tells us that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. So according to the Bible in order to have truth we have to start by acknowledging The God who created us, the Truth Himself. So it makes sense that if you make yourself God in your philosophical system you’re gonna run into a few problems. This is precisely what Eve did in the Garden when she weighed God’s word against Satan’s. By elevating her own rational faculties above God’s she became the first autonomous philosopher and set in motion the first human sin. Yikes.
Over these past two years of studying philosophy in my spare time the same scenario has popped up in my head again and again. I think of judgement day and I imagine all the great philosophers from Thales to Foucault all lined up in front of God. God gives the epic line from the book of Job as he begins to reason with them one by one: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.
God begins his questioning with the Milesian Philosopher Thales (620-546 BC):
“Thales, who is God is your system?” “Well, you see, all is water. I choose to give answers without reference to silly mythology. There are gods in everything but ultimately all is water, and I’ve discovered that, so functionally I am God.” “What do you have knowledge of according to your system?” “Well, everything! If I know water I know all, but then again I don’t know how I’d be able to make distinctions between substances if all is water, and then again my thoughts must be water so how can I trust my own reasoning over a babbling brook or a stirred glass of water. I guess I can’t know anything in my system.” ” Now put it all together.” “Ok, I am God… of nothing”.
We’ll skip a bunch of important Greeks and move right to Plato (427-347 BC). “Plato who is the God in your system” “Well there’s the demiurge which is like a god in my system of thought, but it can’t give us revelation of it’s will. I use my own reason to give answers to life’s questions, so functionally I am God as well.” “And what does your system allow you to have knowledge of?” “Well not the ever changing world of experience, that’s for sure. Our sense organs tell us very little, however, we can remember the world of the forms and through our reason we can know this form world and try to make sense of the world of experience through our memories of the perfect. Except now that I think about it, I’m not sure that changeless forms can be a model for ever changing particulars… I guess we can’t know the world of sense experience and any a priori memories of the form world would be useless and special pleading.” “Put that all together” “I am god… Of nothing”.
Big jump on down to Augustine (354-430 AD). “Augustine, who is God in your philosophical system?” “Well, you are God, God.” “Augustine, what’re you doing in this line?” “Well this is the line of great philosophers. I wanted to give my answers as well.” “Ok so what knowledge does your system give you?” “Well my system is based on the Bible, so I have your truth, crude ut intelligas, believe that you may understand. I believe that faith is not the conclusion of a neutral rational process, but the foundation of understanding. In order to know anything you must first believe something, I don’t know everything, but I do know the One who does. I know I have to exist because even if I doubt my own existence I am the one doubting so I must exist. In short I know the Living Truth, the sole Truth by which all else is true. You are God, of everything.”
We jump now further down the line to David Hume (1711-76). “Hume, who is God in your system?” “Well we humans do not have impressions of God, but I will be the first to admit that my system is nothing more than an expression of my own subjective feelings, my empiricism has collapsed into a radical form of skepticism. I have made myself God and I can’t really know anything because causality, morality, and freedom are all out the window based on the presuppositions of my skeptical empiricism. I won’t fight you, I am god of nothing!”
Again skipping past many prominent Philosophers, let’s look at God’s interaction with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). “Kant, who is God in your system?” “Well I have lots of thoughts on God, but ultimately I replace the grace of God with man’s autonomy. Man’s freedom is my great concern. And as you know my system is very complex and well thought out, but it still depends on me, I’m the arbiter of truth and I am the god of my system.” “And what knowledge does your system give you?” “Well the world, which I call the noumena, is actually unknowable and unstructured but using our own autonomous thought structure we can force the raw data into our own categories, the phenomena. Do we have any real knowledge of reality itself.. Well no. All we can really know is our own phenomenal thought structures which doesn’t really mean much. I set out to save science and mathematics from Hume’s skepticism by going inward instead of trying to study the external world and what I’m left with is ultimately no knowledge. I made myself God in my system so I could recreate the external world in my own head and ultimately I’ve become the God of nothing.
Small hop to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). “Nietzsche, who is God in your system?” “Well, in my system you are dead, and supermen or overmen will rise up and seek their own greatness. Since I declared the death of God, I have in turn, whether I admit it or not, assumed the position of God and have given my decree to the world. Sure, the logical outcome I of my thoughts and works led to Nazi Germany but I didn’t mean for that. I even ended my friendship with Wagner since he was such an anti-Semite.” “What knowledge does your system yield?” “Well the problem with everyone else is that they weren’t skeptical enough when it comes to language and logic. The truth is that no datum given to us enables us to determine the nature of everything, the world is in a state of flux, chaos that is. We can impose our will so that we can achieve our purposes but we don’t know the nature of everything because it’s constantly changing. There is no purpose to life and we should embraces nihilism. God is dead, but I am the only thing left, I believe that we should believe in nothing… I am God of nihilism.
Jump with me again, this time we’ll look at a group of philosophers called the Logical Positivists (starting in the late 1920s). “Ok Logical Positivists, who is God in your system?” “Well, there cannot be a non-empirical source of knowledge or information about reality. So if God exists He must be proven by our empirical standards, I guess you could say our standards are our highest authority and since we made them, we are the gods in our system, autonomous men.” “And what knowledge does your system give you?” “We have an empirical basis for all significant knowledge about the objective world, well except for our own starting point. Our system can’t account for it’s own starting point, thus our philosophy becomes an arbitrary leap of blind faith from obscurity to our highest dogmatic law. That everything needs to have an empirical basis isn’t supported by our empirical basis. Another flaw, if we’re being honest, is that if all knowledge must be empirical in nature, then the uniformity of nature cannot be known to be true and without the knowledge and assurance that the future will be like the past we could not draw empirical generalizations and projections- in which case the whole enterprise of natural science would immediately be undermined. So in short, we are the gods of nothing. (This answer has relied heavily on Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s critique in Always Ready, pg 185-189)
And lastly we look at Michel Foucault (1926-1984). “Michel, who is God in your project?” “Well, we create ourselves as a work of art, and since there is no absolute, the individual assumes the role of God in their own micro-narrative, in short we become gods, and even though I say all truth claims are mere power plays I continue to make truth claims and tell people not to believe in an ultimate truth. Technically, since philosophy is the love of wisdom, and wisdom is the proper application of knowledge, and since I don’t believe in truth, I’d be more of an anti-philosopher than anything else, if we’re being honest. But I digress. In short, the subject of his own freedom, conscious of his own freedom, is at bottom a sort of image correlative to God… I am God. And since my whole philosophical project is the rejection of truth, I would have to say that I know nothing. I am God of nothing.
As I think through many of these positions I can’t help but be reminded of a few Bible verses.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Romans 1:18-25)
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:18-20)
“If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5)
The more I study the history of philosophy the more I realize how important it is to acknowledge God in all you do, even in your thinking and reasoning. Truly the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. I will leave you guys and gals with the end of the Spurgeon quote from earlier:
“Systems of infidelity pass away like a dew-drop before the sun, for God says “I am God, and besides me there is none else.” The Bible is the stone that shall break in powder philosophy; this is the mighty battering-ram that shall dash all systems of philosophy in pieces; this is the stone that a woman may yet hurl upon the head of every Abimelech, and he shall utterly be destroyed. O Church of God! Fear not; thou shalt know, and they too, that he is God, and that besides him there is none else.”
(Most of my answers have come from John Frame’s History of Philosophy and Theology, as well as Telling the Truth, edited by D.A. Carson, Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen, Thales to Dewy by Gordon H. Clark, and Baker’s Spurgerons Sermons Volume 1 Sermon 1.)