In my earliest days of attempting to do apologetics, I was confronted in the church with the objection that relying on philosophy, particularly arguments for the existence of God, was not only unwise, it was unbiblical. Upon inquiring why, they attempted to persuade by pointing me to the Apostle Paul, who seems to discourage the use of philosophy. In I Corinthians, Paul wrote:
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified…and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Hence, well-meaning believers expected me to toss out my human arguments for God’s existence and focus on the truths of Scripture, even if we must just presuppose them to be true. At least then, they reasoned, you will have the confidence that the Holy Spirit’s power is in your teaching and gospel presentation. Furthermore, they thought it wise, like Paul, to avoid the weak human reason relied on by the so-called wise men of his day which are like the philosophers of our day. After all, he wrote in Colossians:
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. (Colossians 2:8)
Rhetorically these well-meaning believers asked, does that not close the case on using philosophy in ministry?
I have since learned, to the contrary, this often-spoken objection fails in three ways.
First, it not only misses the mark of correct biblical interpretation but approaches the kind of sophistry the apostle Paul was trying to avoid in Corinth. Second, it reveals an inadequate understanding of the Apostles’ overall apologetic method found in Scripture, which allows and anticipates the use of good philosophy. Third, it fails to see that while no one in the Bible gives a deductive argument for the existence of God, it does anticipate their use by providing reasons for the existence of God.
To properly understand any text, one must understand the context. For any ancient text that means learning about the history, culture, language, words, and grammar of the text. When it comes to the above passage in First Corinthians, just knowing the historical context fixes the above misinterpretation.
The apostle Paul arrived in Corinth in 49 BC, just after the Isthmian games had concluded. He would have observed a Roman colony steeped in the second sophistry movement (1st Cent. AD). The first sophistry movement (5th Cent. BC) grew out of classic Greek philosophy, relied on rhetoric, arguments of persuasion, effective communication, and regardless of success, at least considered the pursuit of truth a worthy endeavor. This first movement declined over the next three centuries. The second movement never revived what the first movement held dear and instead degenerated to persuasion to win admiration and disciples for their schools in hopes of taking down their competition. The truth, for them, was irrelevant. Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 – c. 115 AD) arrived in Corinth about 40 years after Paul and observed:
So, when the time of the Isthmian games arrived, and everybody was at the Isthmus…That was the time when one could hear crowds of wretched sophists around Poseidon’s temple shouting and reviling one another, and their disciples, as they were called, fighting with one another, many writers reading aloud their stupid works, many poets reciting their poems while others applauded them, many jugglers showing their tricks, many fortunetellers interpreting fortunes, lawyers innumerable perverting judgment, and peddlers not a few peddling whatever they happened to have. (Discourses 8.5-10)
Paul was observant of the culture in which he reasoned and preached the gospel (Acts 17:22). He likely decided to lay aside his rhetorical skills and persuasiveness of speech (all of which he used in his letters) so as not to confuse the messenger and message with the “debaters of this age” (1 Corinthians 1:20). This way, he might be heard, the power of the gospel clear, and the signs of a true apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12) evident. In doing so, Paul in no way discounted or denied the existence of a good philosophy that allows arguments and persuasion to precede the truth of the gospel.
To suggest that Paul would permanently jettison good reason and argument is to approach the stupidity of the sophists of his day.
The passage from Colossians, likewise, has a context of dealing with some “one.” This is a term Paul uses for specific false teachers (Galatians 1:7) even though the false teacher is unnamed. Paul also is using the two parallel substantives “[the] philosophy and empty deception” which most likely suggests some close association between the words. Hence, Paul is not discounting all philosophy, but “philosophy” that is deceitful or runs counter to Christ. Indeed, Paul affirms earlier in this letter that in Christ is “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Paul’s use of the term “philosophy” like others in his day, is broader (then it is used today) and can be applied to any system of thought including religion and division within. Hence, Paul cannot be refereeing to all philosophy, but a philosophy from a false teacher that is according to the tradition of men which is against Christ. In other words, bad philosophy.
As C.S. Lewis persuasively preached in a 1939 sermon on the brink of a second world war: “To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and the betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
The Apostle Paul’s Apologetic Method
Paul was a first-century apostle fixed on the proclamation of the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:3-7). But such, many times was preceded or followed up by intense argumentation, reason, and evidence. Most who Paul met to preach the gospel either believed that there was one and only one God (the Jews) or believed there were many gods (the Greco-Roman Pagans). To the Jews he could appeal to the Hebrew Scripture to argue and reason from fulfilled prophecy that Jesus was the Christ and His appearances that proved the one true God raised him from the dead. Indeed, Acts is replete with descriptions of Paul’s defense (apologetic) of the gospel that involved “reasoning” (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 26:23) and “persuasion” (Acts 17:4; 19:26; 18:24). To the Pagans he could appeal to creation as to why there was only one God and the claim of Christ to be the Son of God, his death, burial, and appearances as evidence and proof for the miracle of the resurrection (Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-34). Paul lays out in Romans his understanding of Pagans: why they know the true God from creation (not Scripture) but because of their sin have exchanged this truth for a lie:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened…Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:18-25)
Even though Paul held that Pagans had exchanged knowledge of the true God for a lie, he still appealed to the reason for the true God from creation (Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-34) before giving the gospel to them.
Biblical Reasons for the Existence of God
I read a book that said nowhere does the Bible give reasons for God’s existence. His existence is just assumed everywhere. While I agreed that there are no deductive arguments for God’s existence to be found in Scripture, I do not agree that the Bible merely assumes His existence everywhere. Indeed, the fact that the Bible and Jesus say creation had a beginning (Genesis 1:1; Mark 10:6), implicitly entails a cosmological reason for there to be a Beginner of Creation. The Psalmist poetically declares a teleological reason for God to be, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1f). And the apostle Paul implies a moral law Writer if every human has a “law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15). Rhetorically I ask, does this not open the case to use reasons for God’s existence?
As shown above, the Apostle Paul does not negate the application of reason in philosophy. Therefore, such can be done in at least two ways. First, to use philosophy for proving the existence and nature of God. Second, to illustrate the consistency of revealed doctrines in Scripture and argue against false doctrine. Hence, human reason and evidence can support faith and the preaching of the gospel. No passage illustrates this better than First Peter 3:15:
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [apologetic] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.
Luke explains to the faithful his method and reason for writing his Gospel,
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:2-4)
Indeed, we must acknowledge that faith is more certain than human reason when the authority is God himself since there is no higher authority. Hence, faith can be supported by reason and evidence, but it is never based on reason and evidence. As the professor, Norman Geisler, often taught, “apologetics can show that Christianity is true, but it can never be the basis for anyone to believe in Jesus Christ.” This must be left to the internal work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life.
Hence, I agree that anywhere the Bible prohibits the use of philosophy, I will be the first to stop and obey. However, I am certain that the Bible nowhere prohibits Christians from using any valid and sound demonstration for God’s existence and any other truth that is evident to us or established apart from Scripture. As God not only inspired the Bible as His word, he also created the world, including rational human beings, who know, judge, and reason, and therefore can be persuaded by the truth. For anyone to limit you or me in ministry to the truth that is only found in the Bible, is to be cut off from all the truth God has revealed in and through and by creation.
 Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth (Eerdmans, 2001), chapter 2.
 Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon (Eerdmans, 2008), 185f.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl (Book)
Fearless Faith by Mike Adams, Frank Turek and J. Warner Wallace (Complete DVD Series)
Stealing From God by Dr. Frank Turek (Book)
Doug Potter is an Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Theology, Director of D.Min. Program, Registrar (B.S., 1991, M.A., 1992; M.A., 1998; D.Min., 2005). A writer, teacher, and speaker on Christian theology and apologetics, Dr. Potter is committed to maximizing every opportunity to prepare the next generation of believers to know what they believe and most importantly, why it is true. He is the author of Developing a Christian Apologetics Educational Program (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and co-author (with Dr. Norman Geisler) of the Teacher’s Guide for Twelve points that Show Christianity is True (NGIM, 2015). He has written and published articles in the Christian Apologetics Journal, The Homeschool Digest, as well as the Christian Research Journal. Currently, Dr. Potter writes popular books on Theology and Christian Apologetics.
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