The Bethlehem College Education Series
The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that there were some in Ephesus who conducted studies that only, “promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:4). We do not know the exact content of what was being taught in Ephesus, but Paul claims here that these kinds of study promoted only musings and conjectures. At Bethlehem College & Seminary we clearly want to avoid this kind of study. Our goal, as Paul directed Timothy, is to teach students in a way that fosters stewardship and wisdom in relation to our Lord Jesus.
It is unfortunate, then, that the field of philosophy—literally “the love of wisdom”—often better fits Paul’s earlier description of Ephesian teaching. Modern academic philosophy, especially as practiced in the past two to three centuries, has done little more than promote speculations. Rather than primarily being about the business of imparting wisdom, as its name suggests, the study of philosophy has been usually propelled by the unwise, including those hostile to the faith. And it hasn’t helped philosophy’s reputation that it has become a very opaque and highly technical discipline, rarely dealing with anything of a very practical nature.
There is, of course, a place for deep thinking about abstract issues. But here at Bethlehem College & Seminary, we believe that the study of any subject—including philosophy—should seek to promote wise stewardship towards God. We thus believe that there is also a way to teach philosophy that promotes “stewardship from God that is by faith,” a way to teach philosophy that truly imparts wisdom.
Bethlehem College & Seminary’s view of education is grounded in the belief that Jesus is the true wisdom, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Therefore, we view philosophy the way we do all the classic liberal arts: they are servants for guiding students to know and love God more. Thus, theology, or biblical studies, is the unifying discipline. It guides us in how we study and integrate the disciplines of history, literature, math, science, and even philosophy. Christian philosopher David K. Naugle observes that, “Various and sundry controlling stories and control beliefs quietly guide the thoughts and lives of philosophers” and their philosophies (Philosophy: A Student’s Guide, 24). At Bethlehem College & Seminary, we gladly affirm that God’s full revelation, most particularly and especially the Bible, must operate as the controlling story for how we understand and teach philosophy.
But what tasks make up teaching philosophy in the Bethlehem College curriculum? One task is that we believe teaching philosophy can help us to understand ideas better by seeing their connections throughout history. For example, one cannot fully understand some classic orthodox Christian teachings, like Nicene Trinitarianism, apart from understanding how terms like ousia and homoousios have been used within the writings of philosophers. Though Christian theologians have used these terms in unique ways, understanding their original philosophical contexts helps clarify how theology has used them well.
Another task in teaching philosophy at Bethlehem is summed up best by C. S. Lewis: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered” (The Weight of Glory, p. 58). Lewis’s point is that philosophy, at the very least, is useful in doing Christian apologetics, in doing critiques of other worldviews. As Paul wrote, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Studying philosophy is helpful for seeking to carry out this command.
An implicit task of teaching philosophy at Bethlehem is also based on the recognition that it is intellectually helpful for studying all sorts of other disciplines. Philosophy, as stated above, can sometimes be an abstract and difficult subject. However, one of the benefits of studying philosophy is that it can help to stretch minds; for, in some ways, our minds are like muscles. They can weaken or “atrophy” without exercise. Pushing minds to their upper limits helps to strengthen them for all sorts of intellectual tasks. Studying philosophy can contribute to this sort of exercising of the mind.
Another task we set for ourselves in teaching philosophy at Bethlehem is related to our overall task of reading the Great Books. Many of the Great Books are philosophical ones, with well-known authors such as Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, etc. But, as Joe Rigney stated in a previous post, “The Great Books cannot save your soul. Only the Greatest Book (or rather, the Person revealed in the Greatest Book) can do that. Nevertheless, the Great Books still have great value.” This includes Great Philosophical Books. In such books—the ones that can truly be called “Great”—we can find much wisdom.
If philosophy is a discipline that truly loves wisdom, then it must be a discipline that helps us to love Christ more. Paul unequivocally claimed that Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Philosophy is not the only way—indeed not even the primary way!—for Christians to become wise. But it is a way that Christians throughout history have found useful. At Bethlehem College & Seminary, we teach philosophy in order that our students may grow in wisdom, that they may grow in “stewardship from God that is by faith,” and that they may know Christ (the True Wisdom) more.
James McGlothlin, PhD
Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology