A Quick Story
In 2007, I gave a paper at Oxford University for the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion titled “Why God Might be Poly-present, not Omnipresent.” Though not a gem of an essay, I basically argued that Scripture consistently presents God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in particular spatial location, not ubiquitously present everywhere that there is a where. Whether my argument is correct or not, I’m still debating myself and it’s beside the point I want to make here.
In the question-and-answer session afterward, I realized that I had made a mistake. The first question got straight to the point: “Why are you here?” I sputtered, stunned by the question. The philosopher continued, “I mean: why are you at a philosophy conference making arguments from the Bible?”Christian philosophers are thinking much more about how to comport their work with Scripture in sophisticated ways. Additionally, the biblical literature portrays its own intellectual world that might contend with our own. He meant it as a constructive question and it was a fair enough. After all, it wasn’t a Christian philosophy conference and I was making arguments directly from the Protestant canon.
But still, that one question gathered up many of my conversations with Christian philosophers at various conferences into one particularly pointy objection. In these conversations, Christian philosophers were often perplexed at my repeated attempts to find philosophically rigorous thought in the Scriptures themselves. I was equally perplexed as to why they didn’t seem to see the Bible as a primary source of philosophical thought and guidance.
I now think it’s fair to say that both of our perplexities have come a long way over the last fifteen years. For my part, I’ve learned how to better say what I mean and have written several monographs to demonstrate what a “biblical philosophy” could look like.Dru Johnson, Epistemology and Biblical Theology: From the Pentateuch to Mark’s Gospel (Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Biblical Criticism 4; New York: Routledge, 2018); Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns/Penn State Press, 2016); Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013). I’ve also noticed that Christian philosophers are thinking much more about how to comport their work with Scripture in sophisticated ways. Additionally, the biblical literature portrays its own intellectual world that might contend with our own.
The renowned Egyptologist Henri Frankfort wrote the following words, reflecting back upon hundreds of pages of his colleagues’ summaries of intellectualism in Egypt, Israel, and Mesopotamia: “[Israel was] without peer in the power and scope of their critical intellectualism.”Henri Frankfort, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 234.
When twentieth-century “orientalists” examined the Hebrew Scriptures side by side with the literature of surrounding empires, it was the Hebrew literature that stood out, only rivaled by the later Greek tradition. In their own time, Israel was intellectually “without peer.” Some Christian theologians and philosophers might find Frankfort’s awe to be itself shocking. The fact that scholars knowledgeable in the literature of the Mediterranean and ancient Near East see the Hebrew literature as a rival intellectual tradition with Hellenism should, at the very least, cause us to pause and reflect.
This paper continues that quest to think collaboratively with the good folk in the Evangelical Philosophical Society about methodology: how to do Christian philosophy as a biblically sensitive enterprise. Because I intend to start a conversation here, I will make generic and provocative points at times that will extend beyond what I can demonstrate. These generalizations serve only to root out some methodological clarity. My goal is to sketch out what philosophy from Scripture might look like and how we can confidently discern that biblical philosophy as a scholarly community.
To be blunt, I am arguing that philosophers and theologians ought to fund their research either out of the biblical literature at the most (i.e., starting with the philosophical perspective of Scripture itself), or in tandem with the intellectual world of Scripture at the least. To be honest, the scholarly practice that I am advocating for below happens less than I would like. The reasons for its rarity are manyfold:
- Philosophers have not been taught to see the philosophical arguments in the Bible or how to ascertain them.
- Philosophers might have a basic lack of linguistic/literary training in the complex literature of the Bible.
- Philosophers might not have ever studied comparative philosophy, ancient philosophies prior to and methodologically dissimilar to Hellenistic tropes (e.g., Indian, Chinese, Babylonian).
- The Hellenistic-Rationalist bent of many Anglo-American philosophers may prevent them from thinking more broadly about other styles of ancient philosophy (cf. Joshua Blander’s friendly correction to my pairing of Hellenism and Rationalism).
- A discernible aversion to Continental modes of discourse runs deep amongst Anglo-American philosophers, while much philosophical work in biblical scholarship tends toward Continental modes of discourse (cf. Joshua Blander’s friendly suspicion of this dichotomy).
- Philosophers might not value an ancient Semitic or Jewish philosophical style as a legitimate form of philosophy.
I can imagine a host of other reasons. However, skepticism toward the premise that the Bible contains philosophy has been the most prominent and recurring stumbling block in my conversations with Christian philosophers. And, philosophers are skeptical for good reason. They need to see for themselves the rigorously philosophical content demonstrated from Scripture.
But there might also be some hypocrisy in our fondness for the Hellenistic style of discourse. Though I don’t entirely agree with his revelation/reason dichotomy in its details, Yoram Hazony has argued that only in our intellectual feebleness can we ignore the divine-revelatory aspects of the Hellenistic tradition. Hazony shows with a minimum of examples that divine revelation undergirds the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, even if we look past it. We might tacitly presume that rigorous reasoning pervades Greek philosophy while at the same time rejecting Scripture as a source of philosophical thinking because it is a work of revelation and not reason.Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1–27. The Journal of Analytic Theology dedicated four essays in response to Hazony’s book. The Journal of Analytic Theology vol. 2 (2014): 238–281. That naïve paradigm of reason against revelation has to be repaired, if only in the world of our presumptions.
Enough scholarly monographs now populate the landscape for us to take seriously the claims that the Indians, Chinese, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Hebrews were all civilizations that thought and wrote philosophically.Babylonian literature and practice as philosophy: Marc Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Hebrew literature as philosophy: Jaco Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, Society of Biblical Literature 70 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012); Michael Carasik, Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel (Studies in Biblical Literature 85; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005); Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Dru Johnson, Epistemology and Biblical Theology: From the Pentateuch to Mark’s Gospel (Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Biblical Criticism; New York: Routledge, 2018); etc. Many philosophy departments in the West undervalue or ignore comparative philosophy in favor of identifying themselves in a particular trope, most often analytic or continental. For most of us, in our traditions of thinking and speaking, the name—φιλοσοφια—says it all. Philosophy is Greek!
Richard King opens his book on Indian philosophy feeling that he must defensively attack the neglect of comparative philosophy in Western academia: “The main motivation behind this work then is to challenge the parochialism of ‘Western philosophy’ and to contribute to the growth of a relatively new, and much maligned, field known as ‘comparative philosophy.’”Richard King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1999), xiii. King wrote these words in 1999, and it is now the case that Chinese and Indian philosophy are indeed on the menu of courses taught by philosophy departments, and no longer relegated to religion departments only. Yet, the philosophy of the biblical literature remains non-existent in philosophy departments.
Dismay over such Western parochialism presumably led to a recent New York Times opinion piece titled: “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” which eventually became a book.Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” The Opinion Pages (The New York Times), May 11, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/opinion/if-philosophy-wont- diversify-lets-call-it-what-it-really-is.html. Bryan W. Van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). The authors’ suggestion was to rename most philosophy departments as “Department of European and American Philosophy.”
Beyond a lack of philosophical diversity taught in the universities of the West, the Bible faces a historical and lingering threat to exploring its philosophical content. A long-ago debunked claim persists that ancient Semites were incapable of the kind of objective thinking requisite to do philosophy.James Barr’s unfavorable appraisal of these two-mind critiques was definitive. For Barr, these Hebrew-Greek dichotomy theories were predicated upon the nature of language—the philology of mind in the extant texts of the Hebrew Bible. Barr’s basic rejoinder aims at the faulty claim of two mentalities as expressed by the languages of the people represented. First, if Hebrew represents the “verb” mentality and Greek the “noun,” does that dichotomy reflect their mentality per se or the nature of the texts? Barr argues for the latter, pointing out the phenomenological aspect of the extant texts: “The typical vehicle of Hebrew thinking is the historical narrative or the future prediction, both forms of literature in which the verb is likely to be of great significance.” James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1961), 15. His second major critique points to the vague nature of the comparison itself. Boman et al., have constructed a theory of mind that includes their own European mentality and Indo-European language group as the contrast to the Hebrew mentality and Semitic language group. This creates an ineffectual comparison to which Barr raises one penetrating implication. “If the Greek language can be somehow correlated with certain abstract or static features of Greek thought, how is (say) the Albanian language, which is also Indo-European, related with these features?” Barr, Semantics, 18. Scholars such as Johannes Pedersen and Thorleif Bowman wrote extensively about the perceived progression from the non-abstract writings of ancient Semites to the Greeks, upon the dawn of philosophical light shown.
The Hebrew texts writings themselves testified to this progressivism. According to the early writings in the Bible itself, Hebrews couldn’t do abstract thought. Despite the debate and definitive disapproval of their claims in the scholarly consensus, their progressivist ideas about ancient philosophy took root and occasionally pop up overtly and covertly in academic discourse today.
Hope is on the horizon. A new institute in analytic theology has just opened at the University of St. Andrews (Logos Institute of Analytical and Exegetical Theology) to explore a fruitful analytic form of Christian theology that is exegetically sensitive to the biblical literature. Though promising in its aims, a philosophy that merely values Scripture will not suffice.
Even when a philosopher values the content of Scripture in her work, it can be difficult to discern how well she engages with the texts without seeing her exegesis. I often read a philosopher in whose work I can see the biblical logic nicely demonstrated on a given topic. Then I read the passages that she cites in order to biblically buttress her work and I worry that she might not understand how Scripture actually supports her argument. Unfortunately, I’ve also read Christian philosophers and theologians working in ways I would consider askew from the biblical thinking.
My fundamental question for philosophers and theologians is this: do we want our work to be accidentally confluent with the biblical teaching on a topic or necessarily flowing from it/coordinated with it? If the former, then good luck and you can probably stop reading now. If we want the latter, then there must be some methodological maneuvering that allows Scripture to speak formatively into our philosophy and for us to be confident that we’ve heard it.
There are certainly examples of Christian philosophers who work in ways sensitive to the biblical literature. A few obvious examples would be Eleonore Stump, C. Stephen Evans, Paul Moser, my colleague Joshua Blander, and more of the same kind. Even among these, we find a range of approaches to Scripture as authoritative in forming their philosophical method.For example, Moser’s work demonstrates deference to the epistemological method of the New Testament authors. However, he also assumes Bultmann’s kerygma approach to the gospel, which is a distinctly different view of the nature of the gospel than I am suggesting here. Contra the kerygma view, I have argued through detailed exegesis of the Pentateuch and Gospels that the gospel in its precise literary details is a culmination of Torah and the prophets. Moreover, the literary details of the Gospels are cardinal in understanding the nature of the cosmos scientifically, philosophically, and otherwise. Dru Johnson, Epistemology and Biblical Theology: From the Pentateuch to Mark’s Gospel (Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Biblical Criticism; New York: Routledge, 2018). There is no monolithic exegetical method, as far as I can tell, to their use of Scripture. And this methodological anarchy hints at complicating factors in this kind of scholarship.
The Complicating Factors
First, does Scripture have philosophical content? To put it another way, does the biblical literature have a coherent, sustained, and discernible thread of second-order thinking? By “second-order thinking,” I only mean something like “thinking about thinking”Michael Carasik, Theologies Of The Mind In Biblical Israel (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005), 1. or “thinking about the nature of things as such.”Answers to the question, “What is philosophy,” abound within philosophy with little hope of consensus. Hence, this thesis need not die on the hill of a particular definition of philosophy. To avoid such a death, “philosophical” here just means “demonstrably rigorous second-order thinking.” Philosophy Bites podcast dedicated twenty-seven minutes to an episode where a dozen or more philosophers answered the question, “what is philosophy,” with widely varying responses and no coherent center. David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, “What is Philosophy?” interview, Philosophy Bites, podcast audio, November 14, 2010, http://philosophybites.com/2010/11/what-is-philosophy.html. As Marc Van De Mieroop has recently argued in his book Philosophy before the Greeks, if we construe philosophy to be defined by the stylistically distinct discourses of the Hellenistic period, then only the Greeks and their direct stylistic descendants can do philosophy.Marc Van De Mieroop, Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1–12.
However, if philosophical thinking is that which entails rigorous and sustained second-order thinking, then Scripture certainly contains philosophy.For a brief example of this, see my essay “A Biblical Nota Bene on Philosophical Inquiry,” Philosophia Christi (blog) Evangelical Philosophical Society Symposium (www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=238). A recent research workgroup (Second Order Thinking in the Ancient Fertile Crescent, University of Aarhus)This research unit is sponsored by scholars from Columbia University (New York), Aarhus University (Denmark) and North-West University (South Africa) [http://pure.au.dk/portal/en/projects/the-origins-of-second-order-thinking(4a620d0e-ab46-4659-ab58-38ffb4d63198).html]. has formed to make the case that the Hellenistic tradition of philosophy appears from among more ancient lines of such intellectual traditions, going back a thousand years prior to Socrates and including the Hebraic biblical tradition.
Second, how does one aptly discover what Scripture has to say about the nature of metaphysical relations, epistemological states, meta-ethics, logic, and more? Let me be brutally honest on this point. Some in philosophy and theology fund their ideas primarily from the discourses of their traditions and then secondarily find Scriptures that seem to support them. I have been guilty of this as well. I would like us to consider this particular methodology to be the lowest (i.e., least acceptable) form of philosophy that Christians can do.
In my own research, I have found that resorting to word searches—e.g., “know” for epistemology or “time” for metaphysics—provides shoddy lenses for investigating Scripture and would often distort my understanding of the biblical thinking on such topics. Surprising to me, it turned out that the most obvious epistemological keyword, “know” (Hebrew: ידע; Greek: γινώσκω/εἷδον), was an inadequate term for understanding biblical epistemology. Hence, the methodology is crucial to how such a project should go forward.
Third, how should the philosophical content of Scripture relate to our philosophical method and thinking? This question is difficult because so few people publish works that directly deal with it. Hence, I have had to carve out a tenuous path while simultaneously walking it—learning to assess how Scripture should shape my own philosophy and theology. Certainly, there have been guiding influences, yet sadly, those were almost entirely biblical theologians and rarely philosophers.
Because few scholars work on the philosophical world of the biblical literature itself, my methodology has had to crystalize over the last ten years mainly through a process of stumbling forward. In finding a methodology that gave me confidence in its results as a scholar, I feel ever aware that my method cannot be the method. I am confident that various and mutually enriching methods can help us collectively move toward a shared end.
More biblical scholars and philosophers publishing in this area could certainly create a welcomed methodological pluralism.For instance, myself (evangelical Christian), Yoram Hazony (Orthodox Jewish), Seizo Sekine (A Japanese scholar, unsure of his faith commitment), and Jaco Gericke (atheist) have all worked on philosophical constructs in the Hebrew Bible, but from different methodologies and faith commitments. I do not think all approaches are equally fruitful. For my assessment of these approaches, see my comparative review of Sekine and Gericke in Journal of Analytic Theology 4 (2016). It is currently the case, as far as I know, that Jewish and atheist scholars are taking the biblical literature more seriously, philosophically speaking, than Christian philosophers and theologians.
A (Very) Brief Example
In my research process, my primary goal is to understand how the different biblical authors and genres are broaching and describing a topic. Once I feel that I have grasped what is going on in the intellectual world of the targeted biblical literature, I put it in conversation with contemporary thought. And for my purposes, I will usually put the biblical view in conversation with the philosophy of science.
I want to report ever so briefly what I have discovered: that the Scriptures, like the storied Socratic dialogues, contain rigorous second-order thinking about most philosophical problems with which we currently wrestle. Like some Hellenistic literature, the Scriptures also feel free to employ narrated story, poetry, and legal code to systematically work through the various aspects of a concept in its abstract form and its concrete implications—employing both genus and differentia depictions to clarify the concept.
As a brief example, I start with the broad question: do the Scriptures take seriously the question, “what is knowledge?” I could also ask a related question, “what is truth,” but to understand the role of truth in knowing entails a biblical view of truth that might conceptually diverge from truth-talk found in contemporary philosophy.For an analysis of “truth” in the Bible, see my chapter “The Biblical Idea of Truth and Its Implications for Ritual” in Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology (JTI Supp 13; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2016). 71–89. Back to the question: what is knowledge in the Bible?
This kind of research question might need to be re-framed. An epistemology that shows deference to the biblical literature must itself have its epistemological perspective shaped by the biblical narrative. So it might be the case that doggedly pursuing an answer to my question—what is knowledge?—creates a weak or debilitating epistemic outlook incapable of being reconciled to Scripture. Like asking, “what is a heartbeat,” might be a weak research question when trying to assess the functions of the heart; research questions must be re-formed by their object of study.
Instead of “what is knowledge,” I read forward in the Scriptures with a slightly more open-ended question in order to hear how the prophets talk about epistemological matters from Genesis onward. This question, then, becomes something like: how do biblical authors talk about knowledge? Of course, matters of historical and literary contexts will have to bear upon any answers at which I arrive. So, of consequence, the conceptual and intellectual world of Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia must eventually factor into my analysis.
In my own research, I have found that the biblical epistemology maps onto scientific epistemology in surprisingly sophisticated ways. Readers can assess the merits of that claim independently of what I’m suggesting here.See Dru Johnson, Epistemology and Biblical Theology: From the Pentateuch to Mark’s Gospel (Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Biblical Criticism 4; New York: Routledge, 2018); Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns/Penn State Press, 2016).
For now, I only want to report this case from my own research projects as an example meant to force a single question: If a prescription for epistemological formation discernibly exists in the Scriptures, then what is our obligation in return? I would suggest that, at the least, Christians working in epistemology, and philosophy/theology more generally, must integrate three nodal aspects (N) of biblical epistemology in order to have a biblically sensitive philosophy:
N1 – The role of authoritative social structures in knowing. An epistemological explanation that reduces knowing to merely mental functions of an individual subject regarding a discrete proposition is deficient if the explanation cannot re-contextualize that discrete propositional knowing within the social function of knowing without remainder.
N2 – The role of embodied processes that dispose the subject to apprehend. Embodied processes—be they cognitive/mental or physical—directed by an accredited authority and heeded by a subject, determine the subject’s ability to apprehend that which they previously could not. Hence, the neglect or inability to account for embodied processes in one’s epistemology signals a significant divergence from the epistemological interests of the biblical authors. Such divergence may be methodologically necessary at times, but must also be acknowledged and eventually reconciled.
N3 – The role of skill in knowing. The epistemological impetus of Scripture aims directly at wisdom as the supreme goal of knowing. Wisdom includes not just the bare ability to recognize, as in the manner of Signal Detection/Bayesian analysis, but to be able to discern nuanced and discrete particularities and then lead others to do the same. Of course, the diverse Hebrew and Greek (LXX and NT) terms for wisdom speak to skills of discernment in nautical matters, botany, zoology, meteorology, and divine action. Wisdom is not a mystical or religious term, it speaks of skill, competency, and in some cases, intelligence. To leave out the socially fostered discussion of skill from an epistemological model renders one’s model myopic, blind, or hemianopic (in Eleonore Stump’s language)“Theories of knowledge that ignore or fail to account for whole varieties of knowledge are correspondingly incomplete.” Eleonore Stump, Wandering in the Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 59. to the very pulse of epistemological discourses in Scripture.
Finally, I realize that the above is a controversial example that would need to be meted out in its details before being taken seriously prima facie. I am not outlining here what epistemology must look like in its particulars, but only what should minimally guide our epistemological model if it were found to be biblical significant.For instance, my critique of Reformed Epistemology, in general, is not that it’s wrong, but that RE’s basic model can sometimes be guilty of neglecting N1–3 in a significant way. The details of my critique can be found in Dru Johnson, Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (Eugene: Cascade, 2013), 173–79.
I am suggesting methodological minimalism in philosophy and theology, discerning the central conceptual and methodological structures in Scripture and then translating their prescriptive guidance in terms of contemporary philosophical discussion. There are and will be differing methods for discerning such structures in the biblical literature. However, merely considering the diverse methods biblical scholars have already applied in order to discern epistemological discourse in the Bible, the findings have been remarkably consistent on the basic features of knowing.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The goal is for us to describe philosophical content in a way that is necessarily concordant with Scripture. This means that Christian philosophers, when they work in explicitly Christian modes of philosophy, must be comparative philosophers. Philosophy departments now offer a suite of courses on ancient and living philosophical traditions from Southeast (Taoism, Confucian, Shintoism, etc.) and Central Asia (Hindu, Buddhist, etc.). I’m suggesting that Christian philosophy and theology must share the values of comparative philosophy, with primacy placed on Southwest Semitic philosophical traditions found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which then engages Hellenistic philosophy from a distinctively Hebraic philosophical perspective in the New Testament.
Working in and across biblical texts, we must take care to distinguish among what Thomas McCall explains, “sentences that . . . explicitly assert P,” “sentences that entail P,” and “sentences that are consistent with P and suggest P.”Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 55-56. Scripture, beyond sentences, makes philosophical claims that assert, entail, and are consistent with philosophical claims throughout history. Further, I would hope that this conversation would eventually imbue a particular ethos amongst philosophers/theologians: accidental congruity with Scripture’s philosophical content is not acceptable. If any of this holds true for biblical epistemology, then I assume that responsible Christian scholars can find similar guiding nodes for logic, political philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, science, and more!
These essays were originally presented at an Evangelical Philosophical Society panel at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion.