I spent a portion of this evening hammering out some of my thesis and consequently interacting with some sources that I will have to deal with in order to do well on it. This particular evening it was Tertullian and the age old question, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’
After reading the passage that houses the infamous phrase, I was actually surprised at my reaction. Going into it, I expected that I would have to read it simply well enough to formulate a tidy refutation and move on. However, in the end I realized that I had been refuting a sound byte and not what Tertullian had actually said. (I despise mischaracterization due to sound bytes so this discovery meant that much more to me.) Tertullian actually makes a rather solid case by simply citing Paul in Colossians 2:8-9:
‘Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.’
Tertullian does come off as shrill and a little over the top, but the fact that Paul backs him up rather simply seems to balance the passage. All this said, I still don’t buy the statement that we ought to avoid philosophy out of hand. I don’t think that is what Paul is saying here and I don’t think that is what Tertullian was saying either. Paul was very familiar with much of his contemporary philosophy and consequently used it very well to his advantage when on his missionary journeys (Mars Hill for example). However, as familiar as he was with the many philosophies, he was no doubt just as familiar with their failures, their false answers, and their general weakness falsely understood as strength. Fundamentally, his approach to the gospel used his knowledge of philosophy simply as avenue for his apologetic for the Gospel to take it’s course.
If we (those in the Classical Christian Schooling & Humanities world) continue to reference Tertullian’s statement, we need to take the entirety of it. I think we have unfairly clipped a convenient sound byte that we can handily refute. This has happened only too often not only in the Classical Christian schooling world, but in the Christian world as a whole. A good deal of the heresy accusations leveled at Doug Wilson (for example) have come as a result of people just not doing their homework (and actually reading what he has said).
We also (finally) need to think more about the basic purpose of our education. If we use our education to simply answer the questions asked by philosophers of old and use that same education to answer them we may be falling into the trap of the ‘wisdom of men’. We need to constantly be asking ourselves how our education can be used at the service of the Gospel. Paul used his philosophical background to reach those at Mars Hill, and we also ought to use our education (formal or otherwise) to further the Gospel. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, after all.