Beware of Philosophy: A Warning to Biblical Scholars

By Geisler, Norman L. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Beware of Philosophy: A Warning to Biblical Scholars


Geisler, Norman L., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The exhortation of the apostle Paul to "beware of philosophy" (Col 2:8) is as urgent today as it was in the first century, if not more so. And this is not only true for Christians who call themselves philosophers but for those who do not, especially for biblical exegetes.

I. PHILOSOPHIES OF WHICH TO BEWARE AND WHY

Although the context of Col 2:8 probably has reference to a proto-gnostic type of philosophy at Colosse that had a disastrous mix of legalism, asceticism, and mysticism with Christianity,1 the implications of Paul's exhortation to "beware of philosophy" are appropriately applied to other alien systems of thought that have invaded Christianity down through the centuries since then.

There are many current philosophies of which we should beware. But first I will touch on some of the more damaging ideologies in the past few centuries. Among them few have been more destructive than naturalism, both of the metaphysical and methodological varieties.

1. Naturalism. Naturalism is the philosophy that denies that there are supernatural interventions in the world. It is at the root of modern negative biblical criticism which began in earnest with the publication of Benedict Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1670.

Spinoza argued that "nothing then, comes to pass in nature in contravention to her universal laws, nay, everything agrees with them and follows from them, for . . . she keeps a fixed and immutable order." In fact, "a miracle, whether in contravention to, or beyond, nature, is a mere absurdity." The noted Dutch-Jewish pantheist was nothing short of dogmatic about the impossibility of miracles. He emphatically proclaimed, "We may, then, be absolutely certain that every event which is truly described in Scripture necessarily happened, like everything else, according to natural laws."2 His naturalistic rationalism led him to conclude that since "there are many passages in the Pentateuch which Moses could not have written, it follows that the belief that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch is ungrounded and even irrational."3 Rather, Spinoza insisted that it was written by the same person, who wrote the rest of the Old Testament-Ezra the scribe.4

Spinoza also rejected the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. Concerning Christianity, he said that "the Apostles who came after Christ, preached it to all men as a universal religion solely in virtue of Christ's Passion."5 There was no resurrection. Since orthodox Christianity has held from earliest times, both from Scripture (1 Cor 15:1-14) and creeds, that apart from the truth of the resurrection of Christ, Christianity would be a false religion without hope, it follows that Spinoza's view is diametrically opposed to orthodoxy.6

Indeed, Spinoza categorically denied all miracles in the Bible. He commends "anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being. . . "7 Not only did he conclude that "every event . . . in Scripture necessarily happened, like everything else, according to natural laws,"8 but that Scripture itself "makes the general assertion in several passages that nature's course is fixed and unchangeable."9 In short, miracles are impossible.

Finally, Spinoza contended that the fact that prophets did not speak from supernatural "revelation" and "the modes of expression and discourse adopted by the Apostles in the Epistles, shows very clearly that the latter were not written by revelation and Divine command, but merely by the natural powers and judgment of the authors."10

Spinoza's naturalism led directly to the first modern systematic negative criticism of the Bible. It has had a devastating effect on biblical interpretation. His work was the inspiration for Richard Simon who became known as the "Father of Modern Biblical Criticism." Adopting Spinoza's naturalism is a clear and evident example of failing to heed the apostle's warning to "beware of philosophy.

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