Sundoulos - Spring 2009

Dean's Column

Athens and Jerusalem?

by Dr. Dennis Dirks

What place does philosophy (Athens) have in theological education (Jerusalem)? Doesn’t the Apostle Paul deliver strong warning when he writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col 2:8, italics mine). Why then would a seminary committed to the inerrant Scriptures dabble in philosophy? What is Talbot thinking?

The study and use of philosophical principles has had a long though discontinuous presence at Talbot. In Talbot’s formative years in the early 1960’s, under the leadership of Talbot’s founding Dean, Charles L. Feinberg, William W. Bass was appointed Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics. Bass’s theological, philosophical, and integrative insights profoundly influenced a generation of students. Though other faculty succeeded Bass at various times, it was not until the early 1990’s when J. P. Moreland joined Talbot’s faculty and together with Scott Rae began an emphasis in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics in Talbot’s Master of Arts program, that philosophy once again began to receive rigorous attention. It quickly became the fastest growing program in Talbot’s history. Now, with 95 students and 6 faculty members, it is the largest Master’s-level philosophy program in the world, religious or secular.

Since its inception, one of the program’s goals has been to have 100 graduates complete top-rated Ph.D. programs around the world, leading to placement as faculty members in universities. The purpose is to reclaim for Christ territory taken by secularists and relativists through the centuries. One rationale is that as universities go, so goes the culture. Since the program’s inception, over ninety-five students have been placed in Ph.D. programs, and at least fourteen have completed their doctorates and have been appointed to faculty positions in both Christian and secular universities. In addition, graduates serve as adjunct faculty of community colleges, as faculty in public and Christian high schools around the country, and as missionaries, in church staff positions, with para-church organizations, and in other forms of disciple-making in strategic locations.

The study of philosophy at Talbot is grounded thoroughly in Scripture and the theological disciplines. Philosophy students must take the same core Bible and theology as all master’s level theological students. The program supports Talbot’s mission to develop “disciples of Jesus Christ whose thought processes, character, and lifestyles reflect those of our Lord, and who are dedicated to disciple making throughout the world.” Philosophy can be a significant aspect of being salt and light in our desperately needy culture and throughout the world. Its importance lies in the entrée it provides into intellectual communities that need the light of the gospel message. For believers, it can be an important tool for recapturing1 and discipling the mind for the purpose of “learning to love God in the ways we think,”2 and for “taking every thought captive to Christ.”3 Philosophy provides insights that can assist believers to love God with all their minds.4 Local church pastors in the early days of our country were knowledgeable in theology and in philosophy.

Theology and philosophy have not always been mutually supportive in the history of the church; at times each has viewed the other as illegitimate. On the other hand, while Augustine, Luther, and Calvin gave priority to faith, it was faith informed and in some measure explicated by reason. The tools of the philosopher may be unavoidable—and indeed may be essential—in theological methodologies dealing with revelation. Rationality and logic are not only contained in the nature of revelation, they are indispensable in its study. Philosophy aids precision.5 Revelation supplies the content of theology, but philosophy can be instrumental in guiding reasoning in working out theology.6 Philosophy serves the cause of theology appropriately when it provides tools, not opinions.

So what about Paul’s warning to the Colossians? Paul’s strong caution was to prevent believers from being carried off like so much booty or spoil into a slavery to error by the opinions or traditions of philosophies that were seductive, misleading, and deceitful. When philosophy serves theological orthodoxy rather than reversing this order, the cause of Christ is well-served.

Note:

1 Harry Blamires, Recovering the Christian Mind: Meeting the Challenges of Secularism (InterVarsity Press, 1988).

2 James W. Sire, Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think (InterVarsity Press, 1990).

3 David W. Gill, The Opening of the Christian Mind: Taking Every Thought Captive to Christ (InterVarsity Press, 1989).

4 J. P. Moreland, Love God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (NavPress, 1997).

5 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (1976- 1983; reprint, Crossway Books, 1999).

6 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Book House, 1998).


Dr. Dennis Dirks is Dean of Talbot School of Theology and Professor Christian Education. He has been with Talbot for more than 27 years as a faculty member and administrator after serving on the staff of two churches.

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