As the only philosopher in a symposium on “Biblically Sensitive Philosophy,” I feel considerable pressure to represent my people well. But I feel a competing interest to defend the value of biblical texts as data for philosophical consideration and analysis. Indeed, the latter claim needs defense. Some of the challenges that Dru discusses in his paper are related to the fact that it is difficult to find many philosophers who take cues from Scripture, let alone permit the text and its world to inform the way they think about and engage in the practice of philosophy.
In what follows, I respond to parts of Dru’s paper, and then offer suggestions for how I think, as a philosopher, the interface between philosophy, theology, and biblical studies should develop in years to come. I point to a couple of philosophical topics that I have explored and that have engendered development in my own thinking about how my philosophical work should be informed by the biblical texts.
Dru’s Diagnoses (Or Neuroses)
One of Dru’s central claims is that “philosophers and theologians ought to fund their research either out of the biblical literature . . . or at least in tandem with the intellectual world of Scripture.” I fully agree; and concur that at least part of the reason why philosophers have failed to engage well with either task is that they “have not been taught to see the philosophical arguments in the Bible or how to ascertain them,” and that philosophers tend to be skeptical about the claim “that the Bible contains philosophy.”
However, I want to challenge some of the other explanations that Dru offers for the failure of philosophers to work properly (if at all) with the biblical texts. He suggests that too many philosophers lack an understanding of non-Hellenistic ancient philosophical traditions, such as Indian, Chinese, or Babylonian philosophy, and that this stems, at least in part, from a “Hellenistic-Rationalist bent of many Anglo-American philosophers.” Furthermore, he claims that resistance to “Continental modes of discourse” makes these same philosophers unwilling to consider the philosophical thinking within biblical literature, since it seems more amenable to those modes than the Anglo-American approaches. I refer to philosophical thinking within biblical literature, because I assume that Dru has in mind the claim that theUnless we are prepared to claim that Socrates is acting in a non-philosophical manner, we seem to have some motivation for thinking that religious conviction can be permitted to inform philosophical investigation. philosophical convictions and methods of Scripture itself more closely resemble continental modes of discourse; but I think my concerns can apply equally well if he meant “philosophical thinking about biblical literature.”
Though I think more discussion is required to understand precisely what distinguishes “Anglo-American” and “Continental” modes of discourse, and how helpful the distinction is, my greater concern is with the language of “Hellenistic-Rationalist” approaches that arguably fuse ways of thinking and theorizing that seem to me unequally yoked. By wedding these two notions, Dru limits the available alternative methods for approaching the union of philosophy and biblical studies to examples of the somewhat recent phenomenon of “comparative philosophy.”
Whatever we mean by Hellenistic and whatever we mean by Rationalist, it is ill-advised to treat them as one, especially if our aim is to engage theoretical questions in careful ways, since each of these terms includes variety in method and content. Furthermore, we would be mistaken if we assume that “Hellenistic” thinking conflicts with the Bible’s own philosophical methods (or the philosophical methods within the fields of biblical studies). The Hellenistic picture, whatever its merits or demerits, does not attempt, in a systematic or principled way, to avoid religious conviction or empirical investigation. Pre-Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophers are preoccupied with the notion of archai. Some of their proposals involve matter, while many involve abstract notions such as love and strife, the logos, and other principles that do not conform in any obvious way to modern notions of the rational. To understand the structure of the universe, for many Greek philosophers, is to understand the divine. Discussion of the god(s) rather consistently focuses on nous and logos in ways that indicate that human beings can rationally discover the order and structure of the world; but that rational order is merely grasped by us—we are not the source of it. Divine beings are the source of that order and structure, and in many accounts, they produce and interact with the world. This suggests that investigation into the way the divine interacts with creation is not systemically unphilosophical. Even more poignantly, everyone’s favorite representative of Hellenistic philosophy, Socrates, relies on the deliverances of an oracle for truth claims that he deems worthy of sincere investigation, believing them to have authority just in virtue of having been issued forth from a divine source. Unless we are prepared to claim that Socrates is acting in a non-philosophical manner, we seem to have some motivation for thinking that religious conviction can be permitted to inform philosophical investigation.
A Different Path
The infection that damages much of contemporary philosophy of religion and philosophical theology, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, is not that it is too Hellenistic, but that it is decidedly too modern. More generally, contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, including its practice among most Christian philosophers, is deeply ahistorical, and we repeatedly select starting points that fail to engage with the long tradition of careful reflection on the same or similar topics. If we hope to understand the philosophical content of ancient Hebraic and Christian texts or engage philosophically with those texts even when the content itself is not philosophical,In order to engage with this task seriously, biblical scholars and philosophers must wrestle with primary texts, or find colleagues who can collaborate in doing so. we should encourage broader and more careful examination of the philosophical world of the past. We should emphasize the traditions that have been heavily influenced by biblical culture and texts, as well as those that offered competing worldviews in the ancient Western and Near Eastern world. In philosophy, the focus should be on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, as well as medieval Christian, Jewish, and Arabic philosophy.
In order to engage with this task seriously, biblical scholars and philosophers must wrestle with primary texts, or find colleagues who can collaborate in doing so. We cannot rely on mediocre secondary sources or engage in practices that we would eschew in our own fields of inquiry. We should encourage careful reading of historical source materials, recognize who the clear experts are on these historical subjects, and so on. Developing these habits and practices will prepare us to see features of ancient discourse, including biblical discourse, that otherwise might be opaque to us. We can also begin to recognize our own prejudices for peculiarly modern ethical or epistemological norms. Those of us who are convinced of the value of Anglo-American philosophy generally should be able to see how we can maintain our basic philosophical methods, but better position ourselves to engage with the intersection of philosophy and biblical studies.
By becoming more thoroughly acquainted with Western historical philosophy, we can better understand how to engage in historically informed intellectual practices, and also begin to see important connections between the philosophical discussions we have today and how similar topics were discussed in the ancient or medieval worlds. Though studying non-Western forms of thought may offer fruitful results on these fronts, there is ample evidence that the Western tradition provides invaluable resources for understanding our own tradition, including the biblical tradition, which allows us to tie together many ideas that otherwise might not seem consonant if our exposure were primarily to other traditions. While I recognize that the ancient Hebraic tradition is not thoroughly Western, it has had a significant and rather obvious imprint on how Western thought developed (even if sometimes misunderstood).
Thoughts on Philosophical Method
Much of Dru’s concern is to ascertain what philosophical content or methods can be discovered within Scripture; that is, he views “Scripture as a source of philosophical thinking.” This is an incredibly important venture, and one for which I have wholehearted enthusiasm. As a philosopher, I must admit that I am not presently capable of this task. Nor does my position within the academy allow me to fully devote myself to new directions and projects that require so much background and training. So let me offer a more modest proposal that is aimed especially at philosophers, but also analytic theologians and Bible scholars: let us view Scripture as a source for philosophical thinking.
What is involved in this task? First, such sourcing must be textually sensitive, and take account of proper exegetical method. We must account for broad narrative structure, thematic emphases, and so on. Second, Scripture must play a fundamental role in philosophical reflection and theorizing. If one wants to think about justice, for example, philosophers who take Scripture seriously should not begin with our modern presuppositions about the nature of justice. Instead, we should begin with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, examine the usage and description of language for justice (and righteousness), explore the various modes in which it is employed, and recognize the resultant variations in usage. Third, we must be prepared to have our current philosophical notions upended, transformed, or radically revised by the text of Scripture, and allow that to have a normative force on our philosophical reflection, even if (or especially when) our views are part of the philosophical mainstream.
Humble but Radical Proposals
There is no shortage of examples in which this transformation is needed. One that connects with my own research is the topic of humility. When I began to explore the literature on humility, I believed that the presence of discussions of humility in Scripture made it a prime candidate for Christian philosophical discussion. I was surprised, however, to discover that the philosophical accounts of humility that are most prominent, even in philosophy of religion, do not regularly make reference to the biblical text. By itself, that might not seem surprising. The greater puzzle was the divergence of these characterizations of humility from the main thematic discussions of humility in the biblical texts.
The three most common views in the philosophical literature suggest that humility is (a) accurate self-assessment; (b) owning one’s limitations; or (c) recognition of one’s dependence. Regarding (a), I suggest that this now-standard model for humility (i) fails to capture the broadly intuitive sense of humility most people have; and (ii) seems unable to explain why the shift of humility from a vice within ancient Greek and Roman cultures to a virtue within the early Christian tradition would have been such a radical change.Though these texts underdetermine the full content of humility (both human and divine), I argue that these considerations provide relevant desiderata for, and perhaps even constraints on, any properly Hebraic or Christian account of humility. Regarding (b) and (c), I argue that these views cannot satisfy crucial theological concerns. In particular, I claim that they cannot account for divine humility.
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul enjoins that congregation to act in accordance with the humility he describes Jesus as possessing. Paul’s discussion of humility focuses on the activities of the pre-incarnate second Person of the Trinity. Thus, I argue, Paul claims that this humility is the humility of Jesus qua God. Additionally, there is compelling evidence for divine humility in Hebrew Scripture; God reveals himself as humble. The language of humility, humiliation, and meekness appear in the Hebrew Bible not infrequently, both in relation to God and to creatures; the apostle Paul seems to rely on the Jewish tradition in his own discussion of humility; and the rabbinic tradition regularly engages in discussion of the role of humility in religious life. Though these texts underdetermine the full content of humility (both human and divine), I argue that these considerations provide relevant desiderata for, and perhaps even constraints on, any properly Hebraic or Christian account of humility. If correct, this view suggests that in imitating Jesus’ humility, we would imitate a particular trait of the divine character—God’s humility.
My point is not to claim that I have settled the relevant interpretive questions. I am, instead, drawing attention to important methodological matters. When Scripture speaks on a topic, we philosophers must rely on Scripture to inform the way we think about it (and this is not confined to moral questions). We must allow Scripture to inform and reorient our accounts in sometimes radical ways. This requires that we often develop key concepts and themes through long narrative texts. I must look, for example, for paradigmatic cases of humility in the biblical text, as well as consistent terminological usage. Here is at least one place where Anglo-American philosophers’ emphasis on a type of conceptual analysis provides great value, for it can remind us how widely we must venture in our conceptual development—both through the text and in our rational engagement with it. Because we are prone to bringing our own concepts of humility to the text, we must also rely to some extent on word usage to direct us to compelling passages. Otherwise, we may presume to discover our concepts in the text, rather than allowing the text to set the agenda for developing our framework.
Similar methodological proposals can be offered for analytic theology and biblical studies, though I cannot properly explore them here. My general suggestion emphasizes the value of thinking philosophically about topics relevant to Scripture, and avoiding the assumption that current philosophical discussion is sufficient for comparison with Scriptural and theological matters. For example, analytic theologians would do well to examine carefully their adoption of possible worlds semantics to inform their accounts of logical and metaphysical modality. Perhaps they should examine ancient and medieval theories of powers, which are especially well-suited to explain modal and cosmological discussions of divine activity. Since Scripture has more to say about divine power than it does about possible worlds, one might suspect that this could lead in fruitful directions for the investigation of modality in Scripture.
Similarly, the biblical scholar should study themes of justice and righteousness via thorough examination of Plato’s account of dikaiosune and ask how usage varies or overlaps in Koine and Classical Greek, or in biblical or philosophical texts. Furthermore, there would be great benefit in knowing how ancient and biblical notions of flourishing relate to one another. The work of some scholars, such as Jonathan PenningtonJonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017). and Nicholas Wolterstorff,Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). has drawn at least limited attention to these questions, but there is a tremendous amount of exploration needed of the historical and philosophical development of dikaiosune as a moral notion, which can contrast with typical emphasis on political notions of justice. If we want to think about justice, then we should begin with the biblical text, not with our modern presuppositions about the nature of justice.
In all of these tasks, we must be mindful of the demand that Scripture play a fundamental role in philosophical reflection and theorizing. I believe that this is the point we philosophers will most readily forget, and is the concern that animates Dru’s project most emphatically; indeed, his challenge to philosophers is desperately needed.
These essays were originally presented at an Evangelical Philosophical Society panel at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
Scripture and Philosophy: Source, Supplement, or Stumbling Block?