The Church Needs Philosophers and Philosophers Need the Church

“Who cares what Aristotle thinks about a severed hand,” retorted an exasperated philosophy student on a wintery night in a Midwestern university. My lecture screeched to a halt. As the class stared at me, enjoying the showdown, the subtext of my student’s comment was not lost on them or me: “Aristotle’s view of substance provides me with no ‘real world’ benefit, so it is useless knowledge.”

socratesI wish I could tell you my student’s comment that night was an exception to the rule. It is not. Her comment highlights a widely held misconception about the discipline of philosophy and those of us who like to think of ourselves as philosophers: philosophy provides no worldly good, no non-cognitive benefit, and is of limited value. Those of us who have committed the double sin of being a Christian and a philosopher risk further marginalization, often viewed with suspicion by the church as well. Like Socrates and his uneasy relationship with Athens, Christian philosophers can be seen by the faithful as unwanted “gadflies” that ask annoying questions in Sunday school and instigate doubt in the minds of young believers.

As we navigate an increasingly pragmatic university setting and the suspicious gaze of the church, it is easy to feel—like a severed hand—a bit homeless. But before you pass the hemlock, I plead my case: the church needs philosophers and philosophers need the church.

Why the Church Needs Philosophers

I offer three reasons why the church needs philosophers. First, opposing perspectives to our faith, what we might call defeater beliefs, rear themselves in every day and age. Christian philosophers are well suited to identify, dissect, and rebut the defeater beliefs that set themselves up against Christianity. Granted, every age has its own unique set of defeater beliefs for Christianity. In the fourth century, a defeater belief for the pre-converted Augustine was the idea of an immaterial (divine) substance. (It took the so-called Platonist books to open Augustine’s eyes to the reality of an unseen world of forms and substances.) All these centuries later, that debate seems largely irrelevant. But we face philosophical challenges of a different sort.

Now, in Western culture, prevalent defeater beliefs include the idea that God is a moral monster, that science has disproved God, that evil makes God’s existence unlikely, and that there are many paths to God. Christian philosophers are uniquely qualified to address the logic and philosophical underpinnings of such claims, as well as the structure of arguments erected around such defeater beliefs. Given the rampant anti-intellectualism of our day, the reality is that all too often the layperson is no longer equipped to grapple with the arguments and evidence mounted against Christianity by her adversaries. Neither are the pastors in the pulpit, understandably, given all the directions they are pulled. The solution is not avoidance. Rather it is a disciplined discipleship program that helps the average person in the pew to think carefully about these challenges to orthodox faith—and Christian philosophers can help.

Second, Christian philosophers can lead the way in spiritual formation and discipleship by highlighting the key role of the mind in loving God and man. As a culture, we are no longer guided by right thinking. We have shifted from being attentive to our feelings to being driven by them. But we are, as Aristotle puts it, rational animals, and in this entertainment-driven culture—with many empty selves mindlessly groping from one sensual experience to another—we betray our God-given identity. When Jesus stated that the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37) he was in effect saying, “Love me with all of your being. Love me in all the ways I have created you.” Never—in Jesus’ mind or in Scripture—is there a splitting of head and heart; they are always meant to go together. Similarly, the apostle Paul puts the mind front and center in the process of spiritual formation when he urges believers to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Christian philosophers can help the church understand how to think well, and in thinking well, to live well, under the banner of Christ.

Finally, Christian philosophers play a vital role in the contribution to shalom—human flourishing—of those both within the church and in the broader culture. This last reason might sound odd—how can teaching one to think well really make the world a better place? Isn’t it the engineer who builds bridges, the minister who feeds the poor, the politician who institutes programs to lift the downtrodden, and the lawyer who convicts the sex trafficker who make the world better? Yes! But, the engineer, the minister, the politician, and the lawyer all do so in virtue of their beliefs—their views on human nature, moral obligation, personal responsibility, and vocation—philosophical doctrines, one and all. Justified true belief—knowledge—about God, the world, and self is the beginning of wisdom, and provides the rails for faithful kingdom service in a fallen world. Let us Christian philosophers help the church to awaken her curiosity, strengthen her conviction, inspire her creativity, and bring clarity to her calling to be salt and light to the world.

Philosophers Need the Church

The church needs philosophers. But we Christian philosophers need the church too. We need to be reminded daily that the Western canon of intellectual history is not our “real food.” To paraphrase Jesus, “Man does not live on Descartes and Kant alone, but on the word of God.” We need to be reminded of the Great Commission. Remind us that Jesus, and not a solution to the problem of universals, is the world’s greatest need. Push us to live for Christ and experience his grace; remind us that our life in Christ is more satisfying, more exhilarating than getting a book published, a journal article accepted, or even an important idea coherently articulated. We need to be daily pulled down from the heights of the Areopagus, where philosophical problems lurch around every corner and crag, and be bothered by the mundane problems of relating with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need good biblical exposition and sound theology to remind us of the limits of our discipline and that reason provides us with a tool, but not the only tool, as we wrestle with ideas and their implications. And we need the prayers and encouragement of our fellow believers in Christ. Our temptation is to go it alone; to be disconnected from the broader body of Christ. Lead us to Christ; keep us from intellectual snobbery; remind us of our need for each other.

With the recent passing of Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher par excellence who for more than 40 years faithfully served the university, the church, and the world, it might seem that my entreaty is unnecessary. But if history teaches us anything, it is that we are fickle. We are too easily tossed to and fro by the winds of popular culture, base appetites, and short memories. We need to take the long view, and now, because of the influence of prominent Christian philosophers such as Dallas Willard, Alvin Plantinga, and William Lane Craig it is a good time to remind the church of the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of philosophy in service to Christ.

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  • Chris

    Of course we all use philosophy and it’s practical. If someone says “How is it useful?” They are engaging in philosophy. Philosophy is very practical in manners of things such as ethics and whether God exists. Both determine how you live,

  • Kenton Slaughter

    my only hesitation about Christian philosophy is that it has often relied too heavily on Greek ideas about reality, and used them as the starting basis for biblical truth, with the result being that we have an entire Trinitarian system of theology that depends entirely upon a Greek understanding of matter and substance and being. Instead of freeing our minds to understand the Scriptures, it instead fixes it in a certain view of what is actually true about God and reality.

    A prime example is the Nicene Creed, which speaks of the Son being one essence or substance with the Father. Yet the Bible doesn’t speak this way because it doesn’t carry the same understanding of reality, and while we might think that this helps us to understand God better, the fact is that it creates a different, extra biblical understanding of God that often creates a barrier for those who expectedly do not find these philosophical concepts in the Scriptures. So when someone comes upon John 10:30, that philosophical understanding of reality creates a different meaning than would otherwise be intended.

    That said, Christian philosophy is good and useful and necessary, provided it is Christian philosophy, and not simply a Greek philosophy employed by Christians and applied to the Bible.

  • Philosophybeard

    Great commentary and hopefully it has an effect on its readers. In many evangelical circles you will be vilified and treated as a “less than” by both pastors and lay people. This is incredibly sad and has led many of my fellow philosophers to abandon the evangelical movement completely. As a a brother in Christ let me implore all Christians, we need your support as much as anyone else daily fighting intellectual battles against an enemy who wants to “devour us”.

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  • Eric F

    I agree with Kenton on this. Philosophy is the way a person thinks. And if someone thinks like God says to and not like the Greeks say to then they have a right way of thinking.

    Psalm 119:130 “The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

    Job 37:24 “Therefore men fear Him; He does not regard any who are wise of heart.”

    Pro 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

    According to the Lord there are 2 kinds of wisdom. There is that which is common among men and that which is from God himself and is a knowledge of Him. So we must be making certain what kind it is that we have, and receive the humiliation of the Lord. How hard it is for a proud man to hear anything the Lord says to him. It is hard for a smart man to believe he is not smart.

    What is the motivation behind this letter? Why is there a defense of philosophers of all kinds? Why is there not any scripture used to help me better understand what the Lord’s view is on this subject? As far as I understand so far we should all be very much more concerned about whether our wisdom is from God or not, than making arguments to give ourselves more room to muddle around in our own thinking.

    • Ryan

      The study of philosophy gives us the tools to help understand the source of our wisdom and identify what is from God and what is not. Thinking critically, examining our thought processes, and learning from the endeavours of others can help to reveal how our own biases and preconceptions distort our understanding of God.

    • Melissa

      Eric, please correct me if I’m wrong but it sounds like you’re saying four things here. 1. Philosophy = the way a person thinks. 2. God thinks perfectly, therefore the only philosophy I need is God’s philosophy. 3. Greek philosophy = the way Greeks think and not the way God thinks, therefore Greek philosophy is wrong. 4. Knowledge only comes from God, therefore if it is not directly revealed in the Bible then it is wrong.

      I will respond to each point below:

      1. I agree that on occasion the word philosophy can mean the way a person thinks. For example if someone has a philosophy of technology or philosophy of rain or philosophy of the world. However, it also has other meanings. And after reading Paul Gould’s article it seemed to me that he was using philosophy in the general definition of the term which means, a love of wisdom, the more specific way a person thinks, namely a Christian worldview, and even as he referred to philosophers I think he was implicitly referring to the specific disciplines within philosophy such as epistemology, metaphysics and so forth. Certainly the way a person thinks is very important and I believe that is the point that Paul is making. On the other hand I am curious if what you actually mean here is not the way a person thinks per se but a person’s worldview. Because a person’s worldview is how they see the world and perceive what is true or false. So a person can have a Biblical worldview and still be a philosopher. That would mean that they think about philosophy from a Biblical perspective. But that leads me to wonder how a philosopher would study philosophy without studying any Greek philosophy because you seem to object to that.

      2. Yes, God is all knowing and man is not. God is perfect and man is imperfect.

      3. Your third point confuses me because you talk about the Greek thinking in absolute terms. So it doesn’t seem like you are actually referring to a person’s worldview, but what a person thinks about anything.

      I would say that God’s worldview is perfect and the Greek worldview is imperfect. However, that is very different than saying the Greeks never thought correctly or that they never discovered truth. If you honestly held that belief then you should give up your beliefs about math and science altogether. I can’t imagine math without the Greek philosophy of Pythagoras, Thales and so forth.

      4. Do you think there is wisdom that is both common among men and from God? I do, I think the Bible even talks about it. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:15)

      With all due respect I don’t think you are being very charitable to Paul. Wisdom from above is certainly different than the wisdom of man, but that does not mean that all of man’s knowledge is wrong. What is truly wise only comes from God, but that is also different than saying that no one, but Christians who read their Bible can discover truth. Isn’t all truth God’s truth? Perhaps the most humble man is the one who can accept God’s truth from whosever mouth it comes. And I mean truth, not lies; please don’t take me for confusing the two.

      Truth is God’s truth no matter where it comes. I mean, that truth has even come from a donkey’s mouth, right?

      As for your las two paragraphs:

      Do you think Paul was arguing that we should muddle around in our own thinking? I don’t. I thought he was saying that if we learned how to think more clearly that we would learn to think more like God. That thinking more clearly is like renewing our minds. I also think He was also saying that philosophy isn’t perfect and that is why philosophers need the church. However, some truth does come from Greek philosophers and that is why we need to defend philosophers of all kinds. That is a defense of the discipline, not an endorsement of their heresy. Also, I’m not entirely sure what scripture you’re asking about in regards to this subject because I’m not entirely sure why you’re objecting to it, but I’ll do my best to bolster Paul’s argument:

      And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.

      (Matthew 22:35-38 ESV) – I would say that philosophy serves us in loving God with all of our mind.

      A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.

      (Luke 6:40 ESV) – Philosophy teaches us how to think to the best of our abilities. Since we are created in the image of God, then honing our ability to reason is becoming more like God who reasons perfectly.

      Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

      (Romans 12:2 ESV) – Again a renewal of our mind includes a proper way of thinking. A proper way of thinking is to use logic and reason which are both disciplines of philosophy.

      But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,

      (1 Peter 3:14-15 ESV) Peter uses two important words in this verse logos and apologia. Apologetics is derived from the world apologia which means to give a defense. Logos means reason, evidence or argument. So Peter is telling us that we must be able to defend our beliefs with arguments or evidence. So apologetics is a discipline of philosophy, because it is a rational defense of your beliefs. To learn how to do apologetics is to learn how to do philosophy.

      There’s also when Paul approvingly quotes a Greek philosopher in Acts 17:28, which is probably indicative of him being ready to give a defense to anyone who asks.

      I’m not the author of this article so I can’t speak for his motivation in writing it, but it seems to me that his motivation was to encourage Christians to love God with all their mind. And please if I misunderstood you in any way do correct me.

      • Paul Gould

        Hello Melissa–you are exactly right–my desire was to encourage Christians to love God with all their mind and to encourage philososphers to love of God and man and service to the church….The reality is that all of the great ideas of the western world–love, truth, justice, goodness, love, beauty, etc.–were God’s ideas first, and each of them must be connected to the gospel story to understand them in their richness–and Christian philosophers can help with that. I appreciated your thoughts! warmly, Paul

      • Eric

        Melissa, thank you for your thoughtful response to my points. I will try to concisely respond.

        I. Agreed. Basically I think philosophy is about how we acquire wisdom and live wisely. All I know about this subject is what the scripture speaks about it.

        2.There are ramifications to the fact that God’s way of thinking is perfect and man’s are not. It is not an arbitrary statement. It means perfect thinking does not belong to man because it belongs to God. Therefore, the only way a man can have new and right thinking is by a gift from God and not by his own mental exercise.

        3. I believe the scripture is clear: [1Co 3:20 NASB] 20
        and again, “THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS.”

        [Pro 14:12 NASB] 12 There is a way which seems right to aman, But its end is the way of death.

        So if Greeks have wisdom then that would make men wise without God. So it seems to me it would make God a liar if we say the Greeks had wisdom and truth.

        Let us consider math for a moment. 1+1=2. Yes indeed. But that is not the same thing as wisdom. If a man has $1 and another man has $0, and that man asks the first man for his $1 what should he do? If he uses math he will say “well that will give me $0 so that is unwise,” but God has said [Mat 5:42 NASB] “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” So now God asks men to surrender their idea about math for the sake of His wisdom. So knowing math does not produce wisdom. So is math the basis of all truth? If it is then the wisest is also the greatest at math. Isn’t it more true to say love is the basis of truth. The wisest, therefore, is the greatest at love. God is love.

        4. Have you heard this scripture [Job 32:13 NASB] “Do not say, ‘We have found wisdom; God will rout him, not man.’

        I think we should be careful concerning the matter of where we find our wisdom.

        Also how will you know when you find truth?
        [Psa 116:11 NASB] 11 I said in my alarm, “All men are liars.”

        So if I am a liar then who will I know when I spot truth? Or will the greatest of minds of men be above this problem?

        Are you sure this is how to love the Lord with all your mind? Let us compare it to strength. You should love the Lord your God with all your strength. So does that mean that you should be making yourself into an athlete and that the strongest of our athletes who also happens to be a christian has loved God with all his strength? Does the scripture speak of Jesus as one who did regular exercises to ensure that his muscles where loving to God? I think there is something different to it than that. I would suggest that it is a surrender that He is looking for. I surrender of heart, soul, mind, and body.

        I mean no disrespect to you or the author. In fact, I do not mean any disrespect toward philosophers of any kind. I am simply stating my understanding of what the scripture says. There seems to me to be a way of living that is beyond our best reasoning and philosophy. I do not think it is wise to come to conclusions about life and God without the scripture. So I am glad you brought forth some thoughts with some scripture behind them. If we are going to come to conclusions without the scripture, then we can spin our wheels and get no where.

        • Second Breakfast

          “I believe the scripture is clear: [1Co 3:20 NASB] 20
          and again, “THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS.”

          Then theology is useless. Theology is “theory-laden”, meaning that prior to interpretation it requires an ability to read, an ability to reason, and a theory of proper hermeneutics, as well as a proper theory of general and special revelation. These are all non-biblical truths and are required in order to understand what Scripture teaches. Scripture, without a theory of interpretation, can mean many things. Even the most “obvious” portions of scripture can be interpreted multiple ways by people living in the same context, not to mention those living across two-thousand years and in hundreds of different cultures and societies.

          Second, scripture is not exhaustive. As Melissa said, if wisdom simpliciter is useless, you should put away your laptop, stop folllowing laws, and pull your kids out of schools. Again, I refer you to a proper theory of general and special revelation, which itself must come prior to proper interpretation of scripture.

          The bottom line is that too many evangelicals say things like “philosophy is useless” and don’t even realize they are *doing philosophy* when they say this. Philosophy is just reasoned argument; that’s all it is. If there is a right way to reason, then there is a right way to do philosophy. If there is a right way to do philosophy, then philosophy is not a useless discipline. There is a right way to reason. Therefore we should do philosophy. I suspect that you understand that point, even if you haven’t articulated it. Our disagreement is one of scope. I would submit to you that the scope of philosophy’s usefulness is the scope of activities that require reasoned thinking, and if theology is the queen of sciences, then she cannot be done properly without philosophy her handmaiden.

          • Eric

            You took the scripture that I used that says that the reasonings of the wise are useless, and then you argued against it. Explain then what this scripture means so that I can understand. Doesn’t every person have a foundation for understanding? If a bird tried to understand how to be a dog would he have an easy time of it? So if I am believing that the bible says that it is true that reasoning is useless, then you say reasoning are not useless. It would certainly help me if you would clarify what the Lord means when He says that they are useless rather than just telling me that they aren’t. There will be no common ground for me to agree with you on.

  • T.L.S.E

    Thank you for writing this. In the last few months i have had a growing interest in philosophy after encountering philosophers like Paul Helm, K.Scott Oliphint, Vern Poythress, John Frame etc and do wish to serve the church in this way especially because where i am; Kenya, we have many pastors and few to zero Christian philosophers. The problem for me is that i don’t know where to start. A local university; a very good one at that, is offering a Masters in Philosophy that i am eligible for but it is Catholic and i wonder how this will affect my decidedly protestant/reformed thinking and outcomes. Any help you can offer me on this?

    • Philosophybeard

      When it comes to philosophy the vast majority of issues overlap between Catholics and Protestants. A lot of the greatest Christian philosophers teach at Catholics schools even if they are protestant. For example, Alvin Plantinga probably the most important Christian philosopher of the last hundred years teaches at Notre Dame even though he is a protestant. We might have plenty of battles with the Catholic church in theology, but for the most part we’re very closely related philosophically.

      • T.L.S.E

        Thanks for the advice. I’ll consider it seriously.
        I am familiar with Alvin Plantinga though i have not studied his material yet.

    • Philosophybeard

      Also feel free to contact me if you have any further questions or such. Let me know if you’d like to follow up.

    • Robert D. Falconer

      Dear TLSE,

      I also live in Kenya, Nairobi. I too have an interest in Christian philosophy, in fact I did a PhD which dealt with the Atonement in African Philosophy (Metaphysics) titled, “A Theological and Biblical Examination on the Synthesis of Penal Substitution and Christus Victor Motifs: Implications for African Metaphysics”. Email me and I would be happy to email you a copy or you can check out my book,

      Warmest wishes,


      • T.L.S.E

        Thanks for the help Robert, i’ll email you as soon as i can.

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  • Curt Day

    This an important post because many Christians are prone to reject philosophy simply because of the complexity it deals with. And in American Christianity, we tend to regard complexity as our kryptonite for we all too often rely on personal sincerity to save us. If the world is complex, then sincerity will not be what we hope it to be.

  • Michael

    Hi Paul,

    Do you have any recommendations for good texts on Logic? I remember hearing R.C. Sproul stating, in a Christian seminary, that all seminary students should have to take a mandatory course on logic. I wholeheartedly agree.

    Thank you,


    • Paul Gould

      Hello Michael,
      I’m actually using the following two text books in my critical thinking class for the seminary in the fall: Paul Herrick, Introduction to Logic (OUP) and Vern Poythress Logic (Crossway). The first is just your normal logic text book and as such it will be stale and painful to the students–but, it will do the job of helping folks to learn how to think well. The Poythress book seems interesting because it will ground logic in theology–I haven’t read it yet but look forward to digging into it. I’ll also use an article by Greg Welty and James Anderson called “The Lord of Non-Contradiction” that discusses how logic is God’s thoughts about thinking. I know that Peter Kreft has an introductory logic book that would be an excellent introduction to the topic as well. I hope this helps a bit! warmly, Paul

    • Melissa

      Hi Michael,

      I’m not sure what Paul would recommend, but I really enjoyed Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft. :)


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  • Mike

    Modern Christian philosophers will provide a good grid to think through worldviews. If anyone wants to seriously study the topic, they need to read the first hand writings of people like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Virgil, Dante, Lucretius, Locke, Machiavelli… which is what Knox online is now providing…this is unique. Oh yea, I don’t work for the school, but I did take their intro to Plato and Augustine, which was fantastic!

  • Phil Bowler

    For me, as a new thinking creature, Paul’s take on how his view (singular) of life/living applies is, “For I have determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Cor. 2:2

    • Second Breakfast

      Do you think this means that Paul did not know how to read? Or how to speak? Or how to think? What does it mean to “know Christ crucified” but to understand a whole host of conditional truths because of it that are not explicitly stated in that sentence. In other words, when Paul says he knows only Christ crucified he will also infer a set of beliefs that extend from that knowledge and apply them in Corinth. For instance, Christ is crucified, therefore you are forgiven. You are forgiven, therefore you should live accordingly.

      Paul is not declaring that knowledge outside of Christ crucified is useless. If we lived by a literal interpretation of this verse, then we will be left without a means to actually understand what Paul means; because we won’t have the tools to exegete it. He is certainly not saying that this is literally the only thing he will know!

      “Wisdom of the world” in Paul’s writing is not wisdom simpliciter! It simply means wrong ways of thinking about reality. He will not spend time disentangling their ways of thinking because they are in bondage to them. Rather, He will demonstrate Christ through power/action/love. Why do I think Paul thinks wisdom simpliciter is still useful?

      Because he then goes on to say in verse 6, “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.” (Eg, false wisdom)…he goes on, “7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

      So we see that Paul’s use of knowledge/wisdom “of the world” has nothing to do with philosophy as right reasoning. He uses it to mean specific conclusions of reasoning that are false, and contrasts it with true wisdom. This true wisdom takes facts that God has revealed to be true! The wisdom of the world is false because it does not operate with the data of the mystery of God that has been hidden since before time. What is that mystery? That God’s glory was in his humility and the Cross. This was contrasted not only in Greek philosophy by the “magnanimous man” but also by the Jews who couldn’t understand why Jesus did not overthrow Rome and re-establish the kingdom right now. The “wisdom” of the world seeks its own honor, blosters its own status, and advises us to use our talents to gain power.

      In short, the wisdom of God is humility, and is perfectly demonstrated by Christ crucified. Paul will “know” this wisdom alone, this way of thinking, this manner of living, so as to demonstrate its truth. This reminds me of Tertullian when he said that the pagans are amazed at the way Christians love, being willing to die for each other. This demonstration of “power” is how the early church overcame the Roman Empire.

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