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PHILOSOPHY. The word with its cognate terms is usually found in a derogatory sense in the Bible. It is not a genuine love of wisdom that Paul deprecates in Col.2.8, but “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”

The same thought is expressed in the discussion of “wisdom” in 1 Corinthians (Col.1.18-Col.2.16; Col.3.18-Col.3.21), where Paul not only emphasizes the inadequacy of worldly wisdom, but says, “We...speak a message of wisdom among the mature” (Col.2.6), a wisdom based on revelation. This is similar to the “wisdom” doctrine of Job, Ecclesiastes, certain psalms, and especially Proverbs. The Book of Ecclesiastes, which teaches that “all is vanity under the sun,” may be regarded as an answer to modern philosophical naturalism. For the “philosophers” of Acts.17.18, see Epicureans and Stoics.

PHILOSOPHY (φιλοσοφία, G5814, etymologically, the love of wisdom). Traditionally the study of logic, the basic principles of science, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. In a wider sense, the general principles of any subject can be called its philosophy. Approaching a misuse of the word, the philosophy of education means merely the policy of school administration; and a “philosophy of life” designates any individual’s preferences, no matter how poorly systematized. Inspired though it be, Ecclesiastes (q.v.) is an example of this popular meaning and has little to do with the subject matter of professional technical philosophy.

The reason for these shades of meaning is that philosophizing is generalizing, and no authority can fix the degree of generalizing necessary to merit the name.

The meaning of the word in Colossians 2:8 is hard to determine. It could possibly refer to Gnosticism or, perhaps, mean only ethics, for in the 1st cent., the Gr. schools had sunk to their nadir and discussed little else.

The common element in all generalizations is a claim to knowledge. Therefore the crucial question of philosophy is—How is knowledge possible? Attempts to justify knowledge are called epistemology.

Metaphysics, the theory of being (not the being of plants or botany, not the being of animals or zoology, not even the being of inanimate matter, but of being without qualification—being as such), is sometimes said to be the basic subject; but even Thomism, which makes such a claim, stands or falls with its theory of learning. The answer to the question—What do you know?—provokes the further question—How do you know? Beyond this, no question can be asked. Therefore, epistemology is the basis of philosophy.

There are two very general types of epistemology. First is empiricism, whose thesis is that all knowledge is based on experience. The majority of empiricists equate experience with sensation; others allow for non-sensory aesthetic or religious experience.

The second general type of epistemology has no good single name. Perhaps rationalism is as good as any. Its varieties unite on the principle that not all knowledge is based on experience. In one way or another, knowledge is gained from sources other than sensation, chiefly the mind itself. Thus some of these philosophers assert the existence of innate ideas. For example, it may be said that the law of contradiction or the idea of God is inborn. Kant taught that the mind has a priori forms. Sensation is essentially chaotic; it becomes intelligible only after the mind arranges it by these forms. Augustinians and Platonists rely on intellectual intuitions. Their strong point is that logic, ethics, and aesthetics cannot be derived from experience because experience at best tells us what is, whereas these subjects speak of what must or what ought to be. Furthermore, all experience is limited, but knowledge must include universal judgments.

At the present time, the most active schools of philosophy are Logical Positivism, a strongly scientific school; the philosophy of Analysis, largely confined to semantics; and existentialism, an utter chaos of radically individual decisions. The older schools are more or less in eclipse.

The Scripture does not discuss these subjects explicitly and technically. Various Christian philosophers believe that one can see philosophical principles presupposed by the text. The Thomists, for example, think that Romans 1:20 requires empiricism and justifies the cosmological argument. Calvinists have historically made the knowledge of God—not the knowledge of sensory objects—basic, and hold that Genesis 1:26 and Romans 2:15 presuppose innate ideas, or a priori forms.

See also, Greek Religion and Philosophy; Know, Knowledge; Ethics; etc.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Definition and Scope

(1) Intuitive Philosophy Is Universal

(2) Speculative Philosophy Belongs Mainly to Western Thought

2. Greek Philosophy

3. Philosophy in Old Testament and Judaism

(1) Of Nature

(2) Of History

(3) Post-exilic

(4) Alexandrian

4. Philosophy in the New Testament

(1) The Teaching of Jesus Christ

(2) Apostolic Teaching

(3) Attitude of New Testament Writers toward Philosophy


1. Definition and Scope: Only found in Col 2:8; literally, the love and pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. In its technical sense, the term is now used for the conscious endeavor of thought, by speculative process, to interpret the whole of human experience, as a consistent and systematic unity, which would be the ultimate truth of all that may be known. The term is also used, in a wider sense, of all interpretations of experience, or parts of experience, however obtained, whether by revelation, intuition or unconscious speculation. No hard-and-fast line can be drawn between the two kinds of philosophy. Some of the ruling conceptions of speculation, such as God, spirit, order, causation, true and false, good and evil, were not discovered by reason, but given in experience.

(1) Intuitive Philosophy Is Universal.

The human mind has always and everywhere furnished itself with some kind of explanation of the universe. From the lowest animism and fetishism up to the higher religions, ideas are found which served men as explanations of those features of experience which attracted their attention. They were often regarded as given by vision, intuition or some other method of revelation. In the higher religions, the mind reflected upon these ideas, and elaborated them into systems of thought that bear some resemblance to the speculative theories of western thought. In China, both Confucianism and Taoism developed theories of human life and destiny that bear some resemblance to Stoicism. The religions of Assyria and Babylonia enshrined in their legends theories of the world and of man and his institutions. In India, men’s belief in the Nature-gods gradually developed into pantheistic Brahmanism, which reduced the multiplicity of experience into one ultimate being, Brahma. But the desire for moral salvation and the sense of pain and evil produced a reaction, and led to the pessimistic and nihilistic philosophy of Buddhism. In Persia, the moral consciousness awoke earlier, and the attempt to systematize the multiplicity of polytheism issued in the dualistic philosophy of later Zoroastrianism. The whole realm of being was divided into two kingdoms, created and ruled by two lords: Ahura Mazda, the creator of light and life, law, order and goodness, and Anro Mainyus, the author of darkness, evil and death. Each was surrounded by a court of spiritual beings kindred to himself, his messengers and agents in the world (see PERSIAN RELIGION (ANCIENT)). Of all these religious philosophies, only those of Assyria and Babylonia, and of Persia, are likely to have come into any contact with Biblical thought. The former have some affinity with the accounts of creation and the flood in Genesis; and the influence of the latter may be traced in the dualism and angelology and demonology of later Judaism, and again in the Gnostic systems that grew up in the Christian church, and through both channels it was perpetuated, as a dualistic influence, in the lower strata of Christian thought down through the Middle Ages.

(2) Speculative Philosophy Belongs Mainly to Western Thought.

It arose in Greece about the beginning of the 6th century BC. It began with the problem of the general nature of being, or ontology. But it was soon forced to consider the conditions of knowing anything at all, or to epistemology. These two studies constitute metaphysics, a term often used as synonymous with philosophy in the stricter sense. Speculation about ideal truth again led to inquiries as to the ultimate nature of the kindred ideas of the good (ethics) and the beautiful (aesthetics). And as these ideas were related to society as well as to the individual, the Greeks developed theories of the ideal organization of society on the basis of the true, the good and the beautiful, or politics and pedagogics. The only branch of speculation to which the Greeks made no appreciable contribution was the philosophy of religion, which is a modern development.

The progress of philosophy in history divides itself naturally into three main periods: (a) ancient, from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century AD, when it is almost exclusively Greek, with some practical adaptations of Greek thought by Roman writers; (b) medieval, from the 3rd to the 16th century, where some of the ruling conceptions of Greek thought were utilized for the systematization of Christian dogma, but speculation was mainly confined within the limits of ecclesiastical orthodoxy; there were, however, some independent Arabian and Jewish speculations; (c) modern, from the 16th century to the present time, in which thought becomes free again to speculate upon all the problems presented by experience, though it only realized its liberty fully in the hands of Locke, Hume and Kant.

2. Greek Philosophy:

Greek philosophy was the only speculative system that could have had any influence upon Biblical thought. Its main development was contemporaneous with the later Old Testament writers, but the two peoples were in every way so remote one another that no interchange of ideas was probable.

During the last two centuries BC, Greek thought spread so widely that it came to dominate the cultured thought of the world into which Christianity entered, and it would have been strange if no trace of its influence were found in the New Testament. In the first stage of its development, from Thales to Socrates, it was concerned almost entirely with attempts to explain the nature of reality by reducing the phenomenal world into some one of its elements. Socrates changed its center of gravity, and definitely raised the problems of morality and knowledge to the position of first importance. His principles were developed by Plato into a complex and many-sided system which, more than any other, has influenced all subsequent thought. He united ultimate reality and the highest good into one supreme principle or idea which he called the Good, and also God. It was the essence, archetype and origin of all wisdom, goodness and beauty. It communicated itself as intermediary archerypal ideas to produce all individual things. So that the formative principles of all existence were moral and spiritual. But it had to make all things out of preexisting matter, which is essentially evil, and which therefore was refractory and hostile to the Good. That is why it did not make a perfect world. Plato’s system was therefore rent by an irreconcilable dualism of mind and body, spirit and matter, good and evil. And his mediating ideas could not bridge the gulf, because they belonged only to the side of the ideal. Aristotle was Plato’s disciple, and he started from Plato’s idealistic presuppositions, but endeavored to transcend his dualism. He thus applied himself to a closer and more accurate study of actual experience, and added much to the knowledge of the physical world. He organized and classified the methods and contents of knowledge and created the science of logic, which in the Christian Middle Ages became the chief instrument of the great systematic theologians of the church. He tried to bring Plato’s ideas "down from heaven," and to represent them as the creative and formative principles within the world, which he conceived as a system of development, rising by spiritual gradations from the lower to the higher forms, and culminating in God, who is the uncaused cause of all things. But underneath all the forms still remained matter as an antithetical element, and Aristotle rather concealed than solved the dualism of Plato.

Meanwhile, the moral principles of Socrates were being developed with a more directly ethical interest, by the Cyrenaics and Epicureans, into a system of Hedonism, and, by the Cynics and Stoics, into a doctrine of intuitive right and duty, resting inconsistently upon a pantheistic and materialistic view of the universe. But the spiritual and ethical elements in Stoicism became only second to Platonism in the preparation of the Greek world for Christianity. During the last two and a half centuries BC, Greek philosophy showed signs of rapid decline. On the one hand, Pyrrho and his school propounded a thoroughgoing skepticism which denied the possibility of all knowledge whatsoever. On the other hand, the older schools, no longer served by creative minds, tended to merge their ideas into a common eclecticism which its teachers reduced into an empty and formal dogmatism. The most fruitful and fateful product of Greek thought in this period was its amalgamation with Jewish and oriental ideas in the great cosmopolitan centers of the Greek world. There are evidences that this process was going on in the cities of Asia, Syria and Egypt, but the only extensive account of it remaining is found in the works of Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria (see Judaeus Philo). He tried to graft Plato’s idealism upon Hebrew monotheism.

He starts with Plato’s two principles, pure being or God, and preexisting matter. In his endeavor to bridge the gulf between them, he interposed between God and the world the powers of God, goodness and justice; and to gather these into a final unity, he created his conception of the Loges of God. In the formation of this conception, he merged together the Platonic idea of the good, the Stoic world-reason, and a number of Jewish ideas, the glory, the word, the name, of God, the heavenly man and the great high priest, and personified the whole as the one mediator between God and the world. Christian thought laid hold of this idea, and employed it as its master-category for the interpretation of the person of Christ.

See Logos.

3. Philosophy in Old Testament and Judaism:

There is no speculative philosophy in the Old Testament nor any certain trace of its influence. Its writers and actors never set themselves to pursue knowledge in the abstract and for its own sake. They always wrought for moral purposes. But moral activity proceeds on the intellectual presuppositions and interpretations of the experiences within which it acts. Hence, we find in the Old Testament accounts of the origin and course of nature, a philosophy of history and its institutions, and interpretations of men’s moral and religious experiences. They all center in God, issue from His sovereign will, and express the realization of His purpose of righteousness in the world.

See God.

(1) Of Nature:

All nature originated in God’s creative act (Ge 2) or word (Ge 1). In later literature the whole course and order of Nature, its beauty and bounty, as well as its wonders and terrors, are represented as the acts of God’s will (Isa 40; 41; 42; 43; 44; 45; Ps 8:19; 29; 50; 65; 68; 104, etc.). But His action in Nature is always subordinated to His moral ends.

(2) Of History:

Similarly, the course and events of the history of Israel and her neighbors are the acts of Yahweh’s will (Am 1; 2; Isa 41:2; 43:3; 45:9,10,14) In the historical books of Samuel and Kings, and still more of Chronicles, all the events of history are represented as the acts of God’s moral government. In a more general way, the whole of history is set forth as a series of covenants that God, of His free grace, made with man (see Covenant). The Noachic covenant fixed the order of Nature. The covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob accounted for the origin and choice of Israel. The covenants with Moses and Aaron established the Law and the priesthood, and that with David, the kingship. And the hope of the future lies in the new covenant (Jer 31:31-35). God’s covenants were all acts of His sovereign and gracious will.

(3) Post-exilic:

In post-exilic times, new experiences, and perhaps new intellectual influences, drove the Jews to probe deeper into the problem of existence. They adhered to the cardinal principle of He thought, that God’s sovereign will, working out His purpose of righteousness, was the first cause of all things (see Righteousness). But they found it difficult to coordinate this belief with their other ideas, in two ways. Ethical monotheism tended to become an abstract deism which removed God altogether out of the world. And the catastrophes that befell the nation, in the exile and after, raised the problem of suffering and evil over against God’s goodness and righteousness. Therefore in the Wisdom literature we find some conscious speculation on these subjects.

See Wisdom.

(a) The Book of Job discusses the problem of evil, and repudiates the idea that life and history are the process of God’s rewards and punishments.

(b) Ecclesiastes comes to the conclusion that all phenomenal experience is vanity. Yet its ultimate philosophy is not pessimistic, for it finds an abiding reality and hope in the fear of God and in the moral life (12:13,14). The same type of thought appears in Ecclesiasticus. Both books have been attributed to the circle of the Sadducees. Some would find in them traces of the influence of Epicureanism.

(c) In Proverbs a more optimistic side prevails. Wisdom is gathered up into a conception or personification which is at once God’s friend, His agent in creation, His vicegerent in the world, and man’s instructress and guide (chapter 8).

(d) The teaching of the Pharisees especially reveals the tendency to dualism or deism in later Judaism; they interposed between God and the world various agents of mediation, the law, the word, the name, the glory of God and a host of angels, good and bad. They also fostered a new hope of the future, under the double form of the Messianic kingdom, and of resurrection and immortality. How far these tendencies were due to the influence of Persian dualism cannot here be considered.

(e) Essenism represents another effort to get from the world to God by a crude kind of mysticism and asceticism, combined with an extensive angelology.

(4) Alexandrian:

Among the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria, Aristobulus, the authors of The Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees, and preeminently Philo, all deal with the two chief problems of Judaism, dualism and evil. But they approach them under the direct influence of Greek thought. The Hebrew idea of wisdom was merged into the Greek conception of the Logos, and so it becomes the mediator of God’s thought and activity in the world.

4. Philosophy in the New Testament:

Philosophy appears in the New Testament as intuitive, speculative and eclectic.

(1) The Teaching of Jesus Christ:

Jesus Christ came to fulfill the law and the prophets, and, out of His filial consciousness of God, He propounded answers to the practical demands of His time. His doctrine of God the Father was a philosophy of Nature and life which transcended all dualism. In the kingdom of heaven, the good would ultimately prevail over the evil. The law of love expressed the ideal of conduct for man as individual, and in his relation to society and to God, the supreme and ultimate reality. This teaching was given in the form of revelation, without any trace of speculation.

(2) Apostolic Teaching:

The apostolic writings built upon the teaching and person of Jesus Christ. Their ruling ideas are the doctrines which He taught and embodied. In Paul and John, they are realized as mystical experiences which are expressed in doctrines of universal love. But we may also discover in the apostolic writings at least three strands of speculative philosophy.

(a) Paul employed arguments from natural theology, similar to those of the Stoics (Ac 14:15-17; 17:22-31; Ro 1:19 ), which involved the principles of the cosmological and teleological arguments.

(c) Both in Paul and He appear original speculations designed to interpret individual experience and human history as they culminate in Christ. Paul’s interpretation consists of a series of parallel antitheses, flesh and spirit, sin and righteousness, law and grace, works and faith, Adam and Christ. But the author of He adopts the Platonic view that the world of history and phenomena is but the shadow or suggestion of the spiritual and eternal reality which lies behind it, and which partially expresses itself through it.

(3) Attitude of New Testament Writers toward Philosophy:

In the one place in which the term philosophy appears in the New Testament (Col 2:8), it seems to mean "subtle dialectics and profitless speculation .... combined with a mystic cosmogony and angelology" (Lightfoot, at the place), the first beginnings of Gnosticism in the Christian church. Paul warns his readers against it, as he also does the Corinthians against the "wisdom" of the Greeks (1Co 1:19 ff; 2:5,6). A similar tendency may be in view in the warning to Timothy against false doctrines (1Ti 1:4; 4:3; 2Ti 1:14,16 ). But with the true spirit of philosophy, as the pursuit of truth, and the endeavor to express more fully and clearly the nature of reality, the spirit and work of the New Testament writers were in complete accord.


Introductions to philosophy by Kulpe, Paulsen, Hoffding, Watson and Mackenzie. Histories of Greek philosophy by Ritter and Preller, Burnet, and Zeller, and of general philosophy by Erdmann, Ueberweg, Windelband and Rogers; E. Caird, The Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophies; Hists of the Jews by Schurer, Graetz and Kent; Old Testament Theologies by Schultz and Davidson; New Testament Theologies by Beyschlag and Weinel; Philo’s works and treatises thereon by Dahne, Gfrorer and Drummond; Harnack, What Is Christianity? Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria; Lightfoot, Colossians.