Paul Wrote About the Lure and Futility of Philosophy

In preparation for studying the apologist movement in the early church I have been studying philosophy more than I ever have. I am starting to understand the lure that philosophy has. If you don’t have any absolute truth that you believe that has been revealed by God that you are only left with whatever you can determine by investigation. Philosophy is an exhaustive investigation process of everything from the earth and nature to God, the soul, man’s behavior, and the afterlife.

Perhaps more than any other philosopher,  Aristotle set the stage for how knowledge is pursued, at least in the western world.  Aristotle wrote this about his method:

To examine all the opinions that have been held were perhaps somewhat fruitless; enough to examine those that are most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.[i]

This clearly states that Aristotle’s method was to examine many arguments in relationship to any question. So while he states that he’s going to throw out some, he plans to engage any argument that is either prominent, or holds merit. This is the exhaustive investigation of his and other philosopher’s writings.

Paul had experience both with Greek people and the arguments of philosophy. We read in the book of Acts that Paul led Greeks to the faith. For example, in Acts 17 we have this record about new believers in Thessalonica:

Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few.(Acts 17:11-12)

So here we have that, not only were there new Greek believers, there were new Greek believers of “honorable estate”, meaning these were people of distinction and wealth in the community.

It’s only reasonable then that Paul would address some of the Greek influences in his writings.  Paul mentions Greeks numerous times in his writings:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

Paul makes a point that when it comes to the things of God there is no distinction between Jews and Greeks, or barbarians or any other classification of people:

but glory and honor and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek: for there is no respect of persons with God. (Romans 2:10-11)

Paul makes a point to distinguish between the wisdom of God, and the wisdom of this world. He specifically warns against being spoiled through philosophy:

Take heed lest there shall be any one that makes spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: (Colossians 2:8)

One of the traits of the Greeks is the pursuit of learning. Paul warns that it is available to be always learning, yet never learning the truth.   This indicates that Paul is acknowledging some sort of compulsion, or addiction where people are always seeking knowledge:

…ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:7)

In numerous places Paul compares the wisdom of God to the wisdom of men:

Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. (1 Corinthians 2:13-14)

Here Paul says that there is a requirement to be able to learn the wisdom of God. That requirement is that the person seeking the wisdom have the spirit of God in them. Without the spirit of God a person cannot comprehend the wisdom of God because it is spiritually discerned.

It is in the first chapter of the first book of Corinthians that we see Paul specifically addressing a conflict between those seeking the wisdom of this world (philosophy) and those seeking the wisdom of God:

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the discernment of the discerning will I bring to nought. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe. Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For behold your calling, brethren, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: (1 Corinthians 1:19-26)

There are a lot of points here. Paul plainly writes that the Greeks seek after wisdom, a direct reference to the emphasis of philosophy in the Greek culture (philosophy means love of wisdom). He calls this Greek emphasis on philosophy “being wise after the flesh.” He also says that the wisdom of God in sending Christ as the savior is foolishness to the wisdom of the flesh. He says that because of this conflict many of these wise men after the flesh (philosophers and followers of philosophy) don’t believe in Christ and what he has accomplished.

In contrast to what we will see in later Christian writers Paul does not embrace philosophy.  He clearly distinguishes between philosophy, “the wisdom of the flesh “and  “the wisdom of God”.  He states there is a clear conflict between the two.  Paul contends that while the Greeks may seek after wisdom, it is futile because the wisdom of the world is different from the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world considers Christ foolishness.

[i] From the Internet Classics Archive at MIT, this page located at  This is at the beginning of Aristotle’s NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS.

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