To adequately define Reformed Philosophy one should define both terms independently, “Reformed” and “Philosophy” and then show how they work together. We’ll begin first by attempting to define Philosophy.
A Brief Definition of Philosophy
Etymologically (that is, pertaining to the study of words), the word “Philosophy” is composed of two Greek words: Phileo, which means love, and Sophia, which means wisdom. Together the word philosophy literally means “The love of wisdom.” One aspect of Philosophy is, therefore, the love of knowledge and the love of wisdom.
Academically, Philosophy can be understood by looking at the constituent parts which make it up as a form. Academic Philosophers distinguish between three sub-categories of Philosophy: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics.
Metaphysics is the study of being as such. It is the study of the necessary aspects of reality, the most fundamental aspects of reality, and the transcendent aspects of reality. Ask yourself the question, “What particular aspects of reality pertain to the whole?” In pondering that question, you’re pondering Metaphysics. Metaphysical questions Philosophers ponder are “Is reality created by God?” “What is substance?” “Is all reality ultimately unified, a plurality, or a mixture of the two?” This is Metaphysics proper. Metaphysics also deals, on a less broad level, with particular species of being. Philosophers talk of the Metaphysics of “man” for example (what is referred to as the study of Ontology). Ontology wouldn’t study “this” particular man, but “man” as such. “Man is, essentially, made in the image of God” is an Ontological assertion. “This man is made in the image and likeness of God” is a particular assertion.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It refers both to the definition of knowledge, the mechanism of knowledge in human subjects, and the extent of possible knowledge attainable for men. In question form, Epistemology asks, “What is knowledge?” “How can we come to knowledge? And, “How much knowledge can we come to?” Some of the most intricate Philosophical theories and works are developed under this category. Plato’s theory of the forms, Aristotle’s doctrine of abstraction, and Descartes doctrine of certainty (cogito) are all instances of Epistemology in the History of Philosophy.
Ethics is the study of right living. Ethicists consider the best or most righteous way for human subjects to conduct their lives. Questions Ethicists ponder are, “Are there moral duties at all?” “What is the righteous response to immorality of subjects?” “How can man achieve happiness (eudemonia)?” and “Do the ends justify the means?” The Christian book of Proverbs is, at-least in part, a work of Ethics (though this connection is a bit anachronistic and narrow). Solomon, the greatest Philosophers next to Christ, begins the Proverbs by stating:
“The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young…” (Proverbs 1:1-4)
In seeking a definition of Philosophy, it is also helpful to note what those who are called “Philosophers” are actually doing. Philosophers, at base and root, are essentially thinkers. They analyze things. They analyze ideas. They analyze worldviews. They ponder the deepest questions of existence. They are generally big-picture type thinkers who are focused on the abstract. They are generally inter-disciplinarian thinkers (like Aristotle and the author of Ecclesiastes) who prefer to look at the edifice of knowledge as an interconnected system.
Taking these facets together, one may define Philosophy as: The pursuit of human wisdom considering questions primarily of Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics, from an analytical, meta-perspective, integrating all forms of human knowledge into a coherent whole for the sake of happiness.
What is “Reformed”
Reformed Theology is less difficult to define. For most, Reformed Theology has become a short-hand reference to the salvation-system they connect to John Calvin. The Reformed, according to this definition, are the predestinarians who believe that God is ultimately controlling everything. This is a crass and unhelpful definition.
Though Reformed Theology is intent on the absolute sovereignty of God and the predestination of the elect to salvation for His glory, “Reformed Theology” as a category refers to that Protestant strand of the Reformation most consistently applying the sovereignty of God to all aspects of human experience: mental, emotional, physical, cultural, political and ext. The sovereignty of God is its systemic principle. Reformed Theology begins and ends with the sovereign reign of God over all things.
Its historical principle is contained in those writers, creeds, and confessions which, in an analogous manner, seek to carry out this principle of the sovereignty of God to its logical conclusion doctrinally, pastorally, and practically. Though amorphous, the Reformed tradition, as a tradition, is best defined not by one thinker (such as John Calvin), but by its confessions of faith: The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Scots Confession, the Synod of Dort, &c. Though differing, and sometimes differing in substantial ways, the Reformed are connected by their adherence to the system of doctrine contained in these confessions (though they may differ on particulars).
What is a Reformed Philosopher?
A Reformed Philosopher is, therefore, someone who seeks to consistently integrate all facets of human knowledge into a coherent, rational whole under the sovereign authority of the God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He begins his Philosophy from the sure foundation of God’s Word and the Reformed system of doctrine; He realizes the latter based on his subscription to the former. He realizes them both because of His commitment, inwardly, to God the author of His regenerate life. In all of this, he seeks the practical realization of the sovereignty of God and kingdom of Christ in all facets of human experience both for himself, others, and the world, proclaiming with Kuyper:
“There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human experience over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!'”