Contemporary Christians concerned about authentic Christianity usually see philosophy and Christianity as incompatible. They usually cite the following as their authority:
Βλέπετε μή τις ὑμᾶς ἔσται ὁ συλαγωγῶν διὰ τῆς φιλοσοφίας καὶ κενῆς ἀπάτης, κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου καὶ οὐ κατὰ Χριστόν· ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ κατοικεῖ πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα τῆς θεότητος σωματικῶς, καὶ ἐστὲ ἐν αὐτῷ πεπληρωμένοι, ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας.
Be wary lest there shall be anyone who leadeth you captive through philosophy and vain deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the elements of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the divinity bodily, and ye are made full in Him, Who is the head of all principality and authority. (Colossians 2:8-10; Orthodox New Testament)
It is true that some philosophy is, or rather that certain philosophiai are, indeed, incompatible with Christianty: those “according to the tradition of men” and “the elements of the world” and not “according to Christ.” In other words, if Christianity itself is a philosophy, a philosophia, then philosophy per se is not hostile to Christianity, but certain philosophiai cannot be reconciled to the philosophia that is Christianity.
This is an important, though often overlooked, distinction. Philosophia is a quintessentially human activity: the attempt to search out that which is “really real,” to speak meaningfully about it, and to live a life that conforms to that reality. We are exhorted by Solomon: “ראשׁית חכמה קנה חכמה ובכל־קנינך קנה בינה׃ Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7). Clearly, if that which is really real for the Christian is none other than the Holy Trinity, then all our attempts to search out this reality, to speak meaningfully of Him, and to live our life in conformity to Him is the most sacred of philosophia. Each Christian is a philosophos or philosophe, a “friend of Wisdom.” Of course, the caveat is that no human can seek out the things of God apart from His divine revelation of Himself to us, and most especially His true being, so far as we can but barely speak in ways that approximate the truth, as Holy Trinity.
But there are rival philosphiai that compete for the allegiances of all persons. And in this sense, then, St. Paul warns us to beware those who “[know] not God through [their] wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:21) and have “a form of piety, but [deny] the power of it” and are “always learning and never able to come to a full knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:5,7). Plato himself has said, “τὸν μὲν οὖν ποιητὴν καὶ πατέρα τοῦδε τοῦ παντὸς εὑρεῖν τε ἔργον καὶ εὑρόντα εἰς πάντας ἀδύνατον λέγειν Now to discover the Creator and Father of all is indeed a hard task, and having discovered him, to declare him to all men is quite impossible” (Timaeus 28c). So only that philosophy is sure with regard to the knowledge of God that comes from divine revelation and not simply human reason.
Indeed, this is offensive to those who wish to speak of God apart from His revelation of Himself. For
ποῦ σοφός; ποῦ γραμματεύς; ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου; οὐχὶ ἐμώρανεν ὁ Θεὸς τὴν σοφίαν τοῦ κόσμου τούτου; ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ τοῦ Θεοῦ οὐκ ἔγνω ὁ κόσμος διὰ τῆς σοφίας τὸν Θεόν, εὐδόκησεν ὁ Θεὸς διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος σῶσαι τοὺς πιστεύοντας.
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Did not God make foolish the wisdom of this world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world knew not God through its wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:20-21)
The wisest of the wise cannot know God precisely because God is not known outside His divine self-revelation, but further because “without [sanctification] no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). This is why St. Paul, in another context, sets up the struggle not just as a battle of mere ideas, but one that results in opposite ways of living, between that of obedience to God and disobedience.
Εν σαρκὶ γὰρ περιπατοῦντες οὐ κατὰ σάρκα στρατευόμεθα· τὰ γὰρ ὅπλα τῆς στρατείας ἡμῶν οὐ σαρκικὰ, ἀλλὰ δυνατὰ τῷ Θεῷ πρὸς καθαίρεσιν ὀχυρωμάτων· λογισμοὺς καθαιροῦντες καὶ πᾶν ὕψωμα ἐπαιρόμενον κατὰ τῆς γνώσεως τοῦ Θεοῦ, καὶ αἰχμαλωτίζοντες πᾶν νόημα εἰς τὴν ὑπακοὴν τοῦ Χριστοῦ, καὶ ἐν ἑτοίμῳ ἔχοντες ἐκδικῆσαι πᾶσαν παρακοήν, ὅταν πληρωθῇ ὑμῶν ἡ ὑπακοή.
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds, overthrowing reasonings and every high thing which lifteth itself up against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ, and holding fast in a readiness to avenge all disobedience, whenever your obedience should be fulfilled. (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
This is why, in part, St. Paul warns of being taken captive by philosophy: it is not merely that Christians do well to avoid heretical and false understandings, but that attendent on these false notions are ways of living incompatible with the Christian Faith. In the case of the Colossians above, those inimical ways of life involved:
Μὴ οὖν τις ὑμᾶς κρινέτω ἐν βρώσει ἢ ἐν πόσει ἢ ἐν μέρει ἑορτῆς ἢ νεομηνίας ἢ σαββάτων, ἅ ἐστι σκιὰ τῶν μελλόντων, τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ. μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς καταβραβευέτω θέλων ἐν ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ἃ μὴ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων, εἰκῇ φυσιούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοὸς τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ οὐ κρατῶν τὴν κεφαλήν, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα διὰ τῶν ἁφῶν καὶ συνδέσμων ἐπιχορηγούμενον καὶ συμβιβαζόμενον αὔξει τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ Θεοῦ. Εἰ οὖν ἀπεθάνετε σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ ἀπὸ τῶν στοιχείων τοῦ κόσμου, τί ὡς ζῶντες ἐν κόσμῳ δογματίζεσθε, μὴ ἅψῃ μηδὲ γεύσῃ μηδὲ θίγῃς, ἅ ἐστι πάντα εἰς φθορὰν τῇ ἀποχρήσει, κατὰ τὰ ἐντάλματα καὶ διδασκαλίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων; ἅτινά ἐστι λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος, οὐκ ἐν τιμῇ τινι πρὸς πλησμονὴν τῆς σαρκός.
Let no one therefore judge you in food, or in drink, or in part of a feast, or a new moon, or sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ. Let no one deprive you of the prize, delighting in humility of mind and religious worship of the angels, intruding into things which he hath not seen, in vain being puffed up by the mind of his flesh, and not holding the head, from Whom all the body, by the joins and ligaments being supplied and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. If then ye died with the Christ from the elements of the world, why, as if living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to regulations–“Do not touch, neither taste, nor handle,” which things are all for corruption in the using–according to the injunctions and teachings of men, which things indeed are having a reputation of wisdom and self-devised worship, and humility of mind, and unsparing treatment of the body, not showing any honor for gratification of the flesh? (Colossians 2:16-23)
Note here: These rival philosophies were not obvious demonic practices. No, they masqueraded as light. After all, isn’t humility a quintessential Christian character trait? Isn’t self-denial (fasting and asceticism) also thoroughly Christian? Aren’t there festivals and sabbaths the Christians do well to observe (or, conversely, refrain from observing)?
But the point is that these things were rooted not in Christian discourse or living, but in ways of life and specific discourses that were inherently opposed to Christianity.
And this is precisely the point of Christianity’s offense to the world: It calls its wisdom foolish, its holiness corruption and its religion false. Christianity’s claims is that only the Church has the true philosophia. The understandings of St. Justin the Philosopher and St. Clement are still valid: Hellenic philosophiai were and are precursors to the Gospel. But, and here is the point both St. Justin and St. Clement strongly affirmed, these philosophiai are not THE philosophia of Christ. Each needs fulfillment in the Wisdom who is Jesus. This does not sit well with the secularist who places all his trust in human wisdom, nor with the consumerist materialist who gives thought only to the god of the belly, nor with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or neopagans who all claim their own paths to God.
But offensive or no, it is Christianity’s claim, her unequivocal claim to exclusive participation in the divinely revealed God.
[The remainder of the posts in this series can be found here.]