John Owen and a Warning Against Pagan Philosophy in Apologetics

Jacob Tanner

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Man is fallen in his mind. John Owen knew this. But Owen also recognized that there is a tendency within man to think more highly of himself than he ought to. While the Christian fundamentally recognizes that man is fallen in his reasoning, there is sometimes a disconnect in practice. Occasionally, Christians, who truly do mean well, introduce concepts into the Christian faith that are not found in Scripture. Owen, quoting first from the The Church’s Burden, warns that:

“Pagans . . . still seek to overthrow the evangelical rule of the gospel, and to this end the devil will sponsor new doctrines, and encourage professing Christians to discover them in the pagan philosophers of old, so that the dogmas of the gentiles are married to the pure principles of the faith, and at length the entire evangelical truth is exploded by these sophistic devices.” And, with this, agrees Erasmus, “All of the signs seem to indicate a new and most prosperous phase of the Church. One thing alone grips my soul, which is this, that pagan literature, under the guise of ancient wisdom, may again raise its head in the Church.”

And thus it has been since the beginning of the Reformation. A philosophical method of teaching spiritual matters is alien to the gospel! Christians were quite strangers to philosophy in the days of the Apostles. Let the surviving writings of the earliest Christians be consulted and they will be seen to have handled their theology in a quite different manner to our recent theologians. In this the ancient way is far better.1John Owen, Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Soli Deo Gloria Publishing, 1994), 679.

The reader will note that Owen was not an enemy of theology or philosophy, often employing philosophy in his own writings. But Owen clearly understood the great danger of taking extra-biblical concepts, like those found in pagan philosophy, and attempting to join them to sacred Scripture. While many are aware that the Roman Catholic church had most heinously done this throughout the Medieval ages, it is a danger still pertinent to Christians today. While many examples of this danger may be given, perhaps the most contested battleground of the day is in the arena of apologetics.

Apologetics and Owen’s Understanding of the Inward Light

Apologetics is that branch of theology that deals explicitly with the defense of the Christian faith. Though there have been various apologetic approaches over the centuries, with figures as varied as Anselm of Canterbury and Cornelius Van Til making their own contributions to the field, there are two main categories under which the various approaches to apologetics fall today: Classical Apologetics and Presuppositional Apologetics.

Classical Apologetics typically aims to first prove the existence of God through philosophical and natural arguments, explaining the need for the existence of God as the prerequisite for meaningful discourse and logic, before moving on to the Scriptures. Presuppositional Apologetics holds that the existence of God and the authority of the Scriptures must be presupposed as the basis for all meaningful discourse and logic, and so typically begins with the Scriptures, though it is no stranger to employing some philosophical and natural arguments as well.

Before deciding between the two, a question must be answered: What is the end-goal of apologetics? The answer is, of course, the salvation of sinners and the edification of the saints. Apologetics is really designed to serve evangelistic purposes and increase faith in the saints. If at the heart of the apologist there is no desire to see sinners saved, or the saints edified, then the apparent “apologist” is really a glorified debater who enjoys arguing. There is certainly a place for debating, but even those debates ought to be centered around the desire to see sinners drawn to salvation in Christ and the faith of the saints strengthened.

If the salvation of sinners is at the heart of the apologist’s desire, then one must consider what Scripture has to say about the means by which a sinner is saved. Thankfully, the Apostle Paul is quite clear on this matter when, in Romans 10:13–15, he writes:

For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

We rightly conclude that sinners are saved through the preaching and proclamation of the Word of God, and no sinner has ever been saved apart from the Word of God. That is why it is essential for ministers of the Word of God to go forth and preach the gospel, and for all saints to proclaim the gospel. Apart from hearing God’s Word, no sinner can be saved. 

Philosophical arguments ought not to become the basis for our evangelism. While something like the cosmological argument is essentially true (there must be an unmoved mover who moves the universe into existence), the argument is powerless to convert a sinner to Christ. Philosophical arguments have their place but typically serve to merely prove that some sort of ‘god’ must exist. This is not to suggest that philosophical arguments can never be used by Christians, or that philosophy must be avoided. It is to say that the philosophers’ words, writings, and arguments cannot save sinners. What the sinner needs is the true and unveiled Triune God, who is revealed through the gospel. As Owen himself wrote:

How marvelously is the inner voice of conscience quieted, and the spiritual sharpness which is part of evangelical truth blunted, as all should easily observe and confess, when minds are bolstered up with insuperable philosophical prejudices. In the place of spiritual wisdom is substituted I know not what varieties of barren and arid opinion, and so countless wicked, faithless, carnal, worldly men are held back from any saving knowledge of God in Christ. This we see happening all about us daily. The spiritual nature of the gospel is most wickedly eclipsed while multitudes of petty “scholars” fret themselves how they might best teach the faith within a rigidly structured, accurate, methodical-philosophical form!

What is more, a great multitude of errors have swarmed into the Church through the reception of philosophy . . . the clear fact is that the common, Aristotelian philosophy supplied sufficient material for an infinity of quarrels and useless disputes. The facts shout out to heaven that our little, witty, chattering sophists, in their endless wranglings over the “articles of faith,” are simply raking over the embers of Aristotle’s philosophy, and in so doing they “Irritate the throne of almighty God with legal quarrels and cheap tricks. They dissect the faith with a scalpel of ambiguity, and with words having no more substance than their own breath they tie and unite the chains of their complicated syllogisms!” as Prudentius once sang of the ancient philosophers.2 Ibid., 680.

The problem is not the use of truth, but when pagan philosophy is elevated to equal footing with holy Scripture. Either the Scriptures are sufficient for salvation, or something else must be elevated to a place of power above them.3The Second London Baptist Confession agrees that Scripture alone is sufficient for salvation. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things9 necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, … Continue reading

A Fallen Man Needs the Perfect Word of God

Despite the arguments some make, man is fallen in his faculty and incapable of coming to a true knowledge of God on his own. Man, of course, knows that God exists apart from the Word of God—Romans 1 makes this abundantly clear. The problem is that, in his sinfulness, man rejects God and His Word. This is because man is spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). Just as dead men are incapable of doing anything, the spiritually dead man is incapable of coming to life on his own. What he needs is rebirth. What he needs is life breathed into him so that his dry bones will come to life (Ezek 37). What he needs is the grace of a sovereign God to draw him to salvation (John 6:44). What he needs, ultimately, is a merciful God who has elected him unto salvation.

The doctrine of election necessitates evangelism. Amongst the Reformed, there is little denial of this. While it is certainly true that God could, theoretically, save sinners apart from evangelism, God chooses to operate and accomplish his extraordinary purposes by ordinary means. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:17, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Apart from the preaching and proclaiming of the Word of God to the elect, there would be no avenue for true saving faith to be expressed.

Again, Owen warns against the use of fallen man’s philosophical systems:

From this source are theological disputes generated and, once generated, perpetuated. How would all be silenced if Christian men would once but surrender themselves to the faith and direction of the divine Word, and of the Holy Spirit speaking powerfully in it! I Say “Christian man” because of their profession, although I am quite ashamed to use the word of many today. While the minds of most men who would concern themselves seriously with the subject of religion are still deeply embued with philosophy, even if that leaven stands not at the center of their thinking, disputes between believers will continue, and reconciliation between those who are really only kept apart by the most ridiculously small matters will be impossible. It is a result of this that our theological libraries are packed full of weighty tomes, and our disputes are without end, and the most about matters, assertions, and terms which the Christian world would have done far better never to have heard of—and would not have heard of it they had not happened to enter the fertile brain of Aristotle so long ago!4Ibid., 681.

Owen, of course, was right. The philosophy of Aristotle—though extremely helpful at certain points—has also become the source of much arguing among Christians. It is a sad reality that as long as pagan philosophy is elevated to the place of Scripture, “reconciliation between those who are really only kept apart by the most ridiculously small matters will be impossible.” 

Theologians and apologists alike must conclude, then, that the philosophy of fallen men—no matter how often it happens upon the truth—is sometimes helpful, but ultimately insufficient to save. Only God’s Word, preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, can accomplish this incredible task.

We would do well to remember that Scripture alone is sufficient for salvation, and God has revealed all that we need to know within his Word. It is divinely inspired, inerrant, and infallible. It is perspicuous—that is to say, clearly expressed and easy to understand, for old and young alike. Can these same things be said about the syllogisms of philosophers? 

Much of today’s fascination with pagan philosophy and classical argumentation is in danger of hindering the true work of apologetics, and what’s more, it can derail evangelistic efforts by seemingly offering argumentation as a competing force against the Scriptures. It is the duty of the apologist, the evangelist, and the Christian in general to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is the gospel, as revealed in Scripture.

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1 John Owen, Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Soli Deo Gloria Publishing, 1994), 679.
2  Ibid., 680.
3 The Second London Baptist Confession agrees that Scripture alone is sufficient for salvation. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things9 necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the11 inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be12 ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (Timothy 3:15–17; Galatians 1:8,9; 11John 6:45; 1 Corinthians 2:9–12; 121 Corinthians 11:13, 14; 1 Corinthians 14:26,40),” 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1.6.
4 Ibid., 681.
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Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.