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Dictionary definition of the word

Throughout this series on Christian philosophy, it has been my argument that Christianity is a system of ideas thought out together. Christianity is not the only system of thought, it is not the only worldview. Marxism, for example, is a systematic attempt to provide a comprehensive worldview. On the other hand, Christianity is unique in that it is God’s revealed system of thought. it is truth itself. Paul’s statement, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, not have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9), is a denial that man can discover truth on his own.

Throughout the course of history, men, brilliant men such as Plato and Aristotle, have argued that man can too discover truth by his own efforts. Secular epistemology – epistemology is logically the first discipline of philosophy, it is the theory of knowledge answering the question “How do you know?” – comes in one of two forms. Rationalism (Plato) tells us that men can know truth from ideas they come up with in their own minds. Empiricism (Aristotle) argues that man can know truth by observing things. Our senses, say the empiricists, furnish us with knowledge. Christianity, on the other hand, argues that truth, all truth, is graciously revealed by God to men, that men do not discover truth on their own, that the so-called wisdom men claim to have found by their own efforts is, in reality, foolishness.

One’s view of metaphysics – metaphysics is the theory of reality – depends upon his epistemology. Since we live in an age in which empirical epistemology is dominant, it is not surprising that people believe that matter, physical stuff, is the ultimate reality. Carl Sagan gave voice to this idea when he wrote, “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” But as John Robbins wrote in his tract What is Christian Philosophy?, Christian metaphysics, which is based upon a Christian theory of knowledge, speaks in this way, “in God, not matter, we live and move and have our being.” The universe is not eternal, but created Not independent, but upheld by God. Not evolving to perfection, but advancing in its decay.

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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771.

My earlier post In Praise of Karl Marx makes the point that Christians can take one positive lesson from Marx’ work: the power of systematic thought. Marx was a thoroughgoing atheist, and both he and his followers consistently applied atheism to all fields of study, creating a well-developed all-around view of the world. Systematic thought is powerful and impressive. One idea is related to and supports another, in much the same way the flying buttresses support a majestic gothic cathedral. This is true, even if the system itself is badly flawed.

Of all people, Christians should be the most systematic thinkers, for we have the systematic, non contradictory truth of God’s Word revealed to us in the 66 books of the Bible. From the express statements and necessary implications of Scripture, we are able to develop a coherent, complete, systematic worldview. The apostle Paul tells us that the Scriptures make the man of God complete, thoroughly equipping him for every good work. This includes the good work of developing a systematic, Christian view of the world.

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Raphael's The School of Athens, depicting Plato and Aristotle.

Raphael’s The School of Athens, depicting Plato and Aristotle.

Last week I mentioned one positive lesson Christians can take from Karl Marx. That may seem like a strange statement at first blush. After all, Marx was an atheist, a collectivist, and a violent revolutionary. Hardly the sort of fellow a Christian should look to for philosophical guidance. And yet, there is one aspect of his program that does recommend itself to the Christian: he was a systematic thinker. He didn’t randomly throw ideas together, but sought to develop a unified worldview based on certain philosophic principles. Systematic thinking, systematic philosophy, has tremendous power. So much so, that even an evil system of thought such as Marxism can take the world by storm.

Christianity also is a system of thought. But unlike Marxism, or Kantianism, or Objectivism, or any other system developed by man – what the apostle Paul deemed “the wisdom of this world” – Christianity is a revealed system of thought. One could even call it a revealed system of truth. For Christianity reveals the mind of God, the truth that comes from God, in every area of intellectual inquiry.

But even though Bible-believing Christians would be the first to defend the Word of God as inspired, inerrant and infallible, too often their thinking, and thus their practice, betrays a certain amount of inconsistency. The Bible, in the view of many Christians, is good for learning about God, sin, and salvation in Christ. But when it comes to questions of philosophy, well, the Christian will have to go to the experts. This always means the secular philosophers.

Thomas Aquinas is the ultimate example of this approach. In his case, he attempted to combine revealed ideas from the Bible with the empirical philosophy of the pagan philosopher Aristotle. The resulting system called Thomism is now the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church-State. It is also, unfortunately, the philosophical system of many Evangelicals. Well known evangelicals such as R.C. Sproul and Norman Giesler both espouse Thomism. And while Aristotle and Aquinas were brilliant men, neither one’s system of thought was Christian. By following Aquinas, these Evangelicals unknowingly undercut their Christian witness.

In one of his lectures on philosophy, John Robbins made the point that a major weakness of the Reformation was the fact that it never produced a systematic philosopher. That is, no one, at least in any coherent way, ever attempted to apply Scripture to the problems of philosophy. That is, no one until Gordon Clark. With Clark’s work, Christians for the first time were furnished with a Biblical system of thought capable of meeting and defeating all rivals in all fields of intellectual endeavor. In some ways, it is hard to believe that it took so long for this to happen. Yet happen it finally did. And as Christians we can take great delight in this. My goal in this and in the next few posts will be to summarize the basic ideas of Christian philosophy using John Robbins tract What is Christian Philosophy? as my guide.

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Christians can lean lessons in the oddest places, even from the likes of Karl Marx. Marx, of course, was the 19th communist radical whose ideas have proven to be one of the dominant forces in the world over the past 100 years. Now before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I can assure you I’m not sporting a Che Guevara T-shirt or making plans to visit to Fidel Castro. No, my praise for Marx has nothing to do with his ideology, with which I vehemently disagree. But if not for his ideology, why would I praise him? What would a Christian writer find praiseworthy about a militant atheist whose considerable body of work was radically opposed to Christianity and has proven to be the cause so much misery in the world? The short answer to that question is this, Marx was a systematic thinker.

It was a Christian video series on worldviews that started me thinking about this. Marx was an atheist, and his atheism imbued every aspect of this thinking. Marxist views in the fields of politics, history, economics, sociology, psychology, ethics, etc. all can be traced back to atheist assumptions. Marxist ideas about a particular subject, economics for example, are not divorced from Marxist ideas on other subjects. Marxism is not a random collection of ideas, but a system of things thought out together. This is what gives Marxism much of its appeal. It provides, or at least seems to provide, people with a unified worldview. And this unified worldview is a powerful motivating force.

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“What practical difference,” asked my friend across the breakfast table, “does Calvinism make in your life?” In truth that really wasn’t the question that I wanted to hear that morning. The fellow I was sitting with was an Arminian and tended to be a bit of argumentative. What was more, it was Saturday morning after a long work week. I would have preferred to talk about baseball, or even yard work for that matter, rather than get involved in a heavy theological discussion. On the other hand, it was a good question. And we don’t always get to pick and choose our opportunities to witness, so I made my case. And as I’ve thought more about our discussion over the past week, it seemed good to me to set down in writing some of what I said.

Clarity of Thought

I was raised as an Arminian. More specifically, I grew up attending the Church of Christ, which had its roots in the Campbellite Restoration movement of the 19th century. For those who aren’t familiar with the Campbellite movement, its most notable founders were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, father and son preachers from Ireland. Although both had been Presbyterians, the church they founded practiced credo-baptism, was congregational in its government, and Arminian in its teaching.

It’s been pointed out by others that Arminians don’t sing like Arminians, they sing like Calvinists. This was certainly true in my church. We’d sing all the standard Calvinist hymns, but the preaching was all Arminian. It always seemed to me that I met two different Gods on Sunday morning. There was the sovereign God of the hymnal, whose counsel stood and who did whatever he pleased. And then there was the weak god of the pulpit, who had to respect human will. Jesus was knocking, but you had to open the door.

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He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.

Proverbs 17:15

Protestors in Indiana march against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Protestors in Indiana march against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

It has been an eventful past week and a half for the Hoosier state and Governor Mike Pence. His signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) on March 25 kicked off a two minutes hate of the sort we have come to expect from the nation’s self-appointed guardians of righteousness. In their eyes, toleration – at least toleration of homosexuality – is the most noble of virtues, and its lack the most heinous of sins. But it’s more than that. The lack of tolerance, in their view, should be a crime punishable by the state. When a business owner refuses his talents in the service of a homosexual wedding, it is the businessman, not the homosexual, who is in the wrong and deserving of punishment.

Those who believe this are increasingly in control of civil government in the US. According to the apostle Paul in Romans 13, the two functions of the civil government are to punish those who practice evil and praise the good. But more and more, this is being stood on its head. Instead of seeing to its God given responsibilities, civil government has increasingly become an instrument for justifying the wicked and condemning the just.

There have been numerous cases in recent years in which Christian business owners have been dragged before courts and civil rights commissions on account of their refusal to take part in homosexual weddings. And not only that, but they have been found guilty of civil rights violations and incurred heavy fines for nothing more than following the teachings of Scripture. Consider the following cases.

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The comments came fast. The comments came loud. The comments, to no one’s surprise, came in overwhelmingly

Mike Pence, Indiana Governor

Mike Pence, Indiana Governor

negative. I’m speaking of the reaction among the movers and shakers to Indiana governor Mike Pence’s signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a piece of legislation widely understood as providing legal protection for business owners who refuse to service to homosexuals on religious grounds. Below is a sampling of comments from around the internet.

  • “Apple is open for everyone. We are deeply disappointed in Indiana’s new law and calling on Arkansas Gov. to veto the similar #HB1228.” – Tim Cook, Apple CEO
  • Some in my band are gay & we have 2 gigs in your state next month. Should we call ahead to make sure the hotel accepts us all?” – Broadway star Audra McDonald
  • “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love” – Hillary Clinton
  • “Cummins believes it’s bad for business and bad for Indiana and sends the message that the state is unwelcoming. We are a global company in a competitive environment and it could hinder our ability to attract and retain top talent.” – Spokesman for Indiana-based Cummins Engine
  • “Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” – Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com CEO
  • “As a Hoosier, I’m deeply saddened and embarrassed. A government exists to protect its citizens; instead, it is legalizing their oppression.” – John Green, Children’s author
  • “Outraged over Indiana Freedom to Discriminate law, signed today. LGBTs [Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender] aren’t 2nd class citizens.” -George Takei, Actor
  • “Indiana’s anti-gay ‘Religious Freedom’ bill signed by Gov. Pence is absurd & insulting. This is 2015. Ridiculous.” – Talk show host Larry King
  • “Indiana? Seriously? Really? Bravo Salesforce for taking a stand….Hope more companies follow.” Ashton Kutcher, actor
  • “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.” – NCAA President Mark Emmet
  • “Discrimination is any form is unacceptable to me. As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super bowl should not be held in those states’ cities.” Retired NBA star Charles Barkley
  • “Let’s be 100-percent clear: Indiana’s brand new Religious Freedom Law is a measure that fell off the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down.” – CNBC columnist Jake Novak

What is the Christian to make of all this? Elite opinion obviously has come out against Pence and the legislation he signed into law. But for the Christian, it is not elite opinion, but what Scripture teaches, that is normative. And when we examine Governor Pence’s act of signing the religious freedom bill, it becomes clear that he is in the right and his critics in the wrong.

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