Philosophers “doing” theology: pros and cons

I apologize that I have been unable to use my blog as usual. I’ve been traveling and had limited internet access. And I am still having difficult signing into and using Disqus. But I will persevere and I think you all for your patience.

I recently learned of a new scholarly journal dedicated to Christian philosophers “doing” theology. I welcome that except…it also makes me nervous.

Right now I’m reading Justice: Rights and Wrongs by Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. I’ve always considered him as much a theologian as a philosopher. One person can be both although, in my opinion, it means wearing two hats because theology and philosopher are very distinct, if sometimes overlapping, disciplines.

To the best of my knowledge and way of thinking (as a theologian) theology uses special revelation while philosophy, AS philosophy, does not.

Now, of course, a philosopher like Wolterstorff can use revelation (as he does in many of his writings), but WHEN he uses revelation as a source and norm in an argument he is DOING theology, not philosophy.

My problem with philosophers doing theology, even if they are orthodox Christians, is that many of them are     nnot trained in theology’s main sources–biblical studies, Christian tradition (to say nothing of Wesley’s “experience”).

Not long ago I heard a philosopher lecture on the atonement. It was obvious that he did not know biblical studies or the history of Christian thought about the atonement. After critiquing many atonement theories (rather poorly, I thought), he expressed his own which I recognized as a version of Irenaeus’ recapitulation theory. I asked him about that after his lecture and he seemed completely unaware of it.

In my opinion, philosophers can be a great help to theologians and we theologians should rely on them for many things–primarily critical, logical analysis of concepts. Occasionally they come up with a concept that is extremely helpful to theology (e.g., evil as absence of the good). I just hope the Christian philosophers who plan to write for the new journal turn to orthodox theologians (broadly defined) for help when they write about doctrines such as the atonement.




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  • Rob

    I see the task of Christian philosophers a little differently. Let my try and illustrate it through a comparison to philosophy of mind. Perhaps the most popular and prestigious division in contemporary anglophone philosophy is philosophy of mind. If you find a philosopher making a few hundred thousand a year at an elite university, you have probably found a philosopher of mind.

    Now there is no question but that p of mind is a branch of philosophy; p of mind advances through philosophical reflection. Yet, it is not possible to be a good philosopher of mind without having an understanding of the mind and brain informed by empirical psychology. The best philosophers know as much about the mind/brain via empirical psychologists as many empirical psychologists. But these philosophers have never performed any empirical research themselves, they have only read it. The research in psychology is absolutely necessary for philosophers to reflect upon, but it in itself is insufficient to settle the philosophical disputes.

    So as far as Christian philosophers using revelation, I see no in principle reason why that disqualifies them from doing philosophy. Philosophers require some common stock of understanding about something to begin their reflection with and revelation (just like empirical psychology) can provide the grist for the mill. The only reason to exclude revelation or empirical psychology from being able to provide such a catalyst for reflection is some commitment to the philosophical endeavor as being conducted by pure reason or a requirement that philosophers can only help themselves to information that is equally available to all people. While the latter was certainly a methodological constraint during the enlightenment, philosophers no longer feel the need to so limit their sources. The motto of the Society of Christian Philosophers is fides quarens intellectum.

    • Roger Olson

      Okay, then, in that case, what would be the difference between theology and philosophy? Remember, I am arguing one person can “do” both and even be both a theologian and a philosopher, but I have qualms about philosophers QUA philosophers using revelation. Back to my first point–a question based on your explanation. What, then, is the “in principle” difference between philosophy and theology?

  • Laura Madison

    One of my favorite Christian writers is Dallas Willard (who died last week, so he’s been on my mind a lot lately). He was a professor of philosophy but his writings on spiritual formation drew heavily from Scripture and theology. He was able to express biblical concepts in a way that gave me another perspective on an issue or Bible passage, and I wonder if that was because of his philosophy orientation. I just know that while I may not have agreed with every single thing he taught, his work has been very influential in shaping my walk with Christ.

    • Roger Olson

      Remember, please (!) that I said one person can do both theology and philosophy and even bring them together in creative conversation. I know Willard was a philosopher by profession, but, in my estimation, anyway, he often wrote theology (e.g., in The Divine Conspiracy).

  • Just Sayin’

    Even worse are theologians trying to do philosophy.

    • Roger Olson

      I agree that that can also be a disaster–especially if the theologian is not trained in philosophy.

      • Thought I think the point still holds than many (or most) major theologians have read and studied more philosophy than many philosophers have studied biblical and historical theology.

        • Roger Olson

          That’s for sure!

  • Kenny Pearce

    Dr. Olson – I don’t think it’s true that one is, by definition, not doing philosophy if one appeals to revelation, and in fact I don’t think most Christian philosophers would agree with that claim. Philosophy is a set of tools for clarifying and drawing out the consequences of one’s commitments, which then can lead to revision of those commitments or adoption of new ones, etc. A lot of Christian philosophers (especially those who see themselves as doing ‘analytic theology’ – I assume that’s the new journal you have in mind) see the data of revelation as among the commitments they start from. Of course there is another philosophical question a lot of us are concerned about, namely, under what circumstances is it rational to regard some text (or whatever) as a revelation. When asking THIS question (or other questions, like how belief in God can be rationally justified) one cannot very well start from the data of revelation, but different premises are appropriate for different inquiries.

    Your other point, though, is absolutely correct. Philosophers are generally not trained in Biblical studies or theology, and there are some important special skills there. It’s not uncommon to see Christian philosophers write things like ‘the theologians tell us that…’, in much the same way other philosophers might write, `we know from physics that…’ or `we know from neuroscience that…’, etc. But of course there is danger of misinterpreting the theologians (or physicists, or neuroscientists). And in theology, as opposed to natural science, I suppose there is also a bigger danger of just listening to the wrong theologians. These sorts of dangers are inherent in any interdisciplinary endeavour. The ideal solution would be to have more people who are truly adequately trained in both fields, but that is usually not feasible. The next best thing would be to have more dialogue. As I understand it, efforts like the Journal of Analytic Theology hope to promote this goal. So all this is to say that I think at least some of the people involved in these kinds of efforts are sensitive to your concerns.

    (By the way, I succeeded in posting this without logging into Disquis or Google or anything.)

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks for letting me know that you were able to comment without signing in. That’s a relief. So, if you are correct (and you are in agreement with another commenter in response to my post), what is the difference between philosophy and theology–in principle? Or isn’t there any?

  • Nathan

    Would this be “The Journal of Analytic Theology” starting out of Notre Dame and Baylor?

    • Roger Olson

      I hesitate to name journals, publishers, etc., when offering critiques of their missions. If the shoe fits…

  • Roger, several months ago you wrote about the dearth of globally influential theologians. I think this post begins to answer that question. Theology as a discipline seems to have moved towards philosophical theology rather than doing theology from special revelation. Just my two cents.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, true of many theologians. And it’s a shame. But my concern here is philosophers (mostly Christians) seemingly attempting to replace theologians (who they think have failed as Christian theologians).

  • Bev Mitchell

    Maybe sort of like biologists doing theology. This all seems to come down to the question of our ability to naturally see the Spirit at work, in the sense that science would define “see”. We can either expect to see the Spirit at work in the scientific manner of seeing, or not. Natural theology (eg. William Paley) used to try hard to “see” God in nature naturally, and has fallen on hard times. Intelligent Design Theory is the modern version of natural theology. From the philosophical point of view, it boils down to the question of natural (non spiritual) proof for the existence of God.

    As long as we understand the profound ontological differences between these two manners of seeing and knowing, there should be no confusion. Unfortunately, materialists often think that science can discover all things and thus self-righteously deny the existence of God (because he is naturally unseen). And, believers (perhaps reluctant spiritualists) often think that the work of God can be seen in the materialistic sense (a kind of science envy with roots in modernism). It’s then that the two fields clash irredeemably.

    I’m not saying that the results of God’s work are not clearly visible to all (Romans 1). I am saying that to declare that God is making possible all of what we see requires revelation from God. There is no materialistic (natural) shortcut to revelation, or to the faith it engenders. There is no non-spiritual work-around. When we try to have such a work-around, we end up with religion of the human sort.

    This way of knowing via the Spirit is well articulated by the Christian (Reform and pentecostal) philosopher James K. Smith in his very interesting book “Thinking inTongues”. In a chapter entitled “Pentecostal Epistemology” Smith summarizes Ian W. Scott’s thinking, who, he says, speaks of the Spirit not as the provider of new content but as the one who is “the gracious granter of access.” Or, quoting Scott “The Spirit appears in these verses (1 Cor. 2:6-16) not as one who uncovers hidden content, but as one who allows believers to recognize the (openly presented) message as true.” Or, as Smith puts it, “a kind of Spirit-induced paradigm shift.”

    Smith (who I am currently reading) and Scott (who I should read) appear to be good examples of philosophers who may well take theology in stride. But, I also understand your concern that philosophers can bury us in our heads to the point that even the Spirit has difficulty finding us.

    Didn’t mean to go on so, but you do bring up these questions that can get the synapses firing. It’s also very interesting that many evangelical writers seem to be currently circling around a collection of ideas as if something quite large is brewing. Who knows how long the gestation period will be, but paradigms are being shaken if not yet changed.

    • Roger Olson

      I am getting the impression from some Christian philosophers that they disdain theology and theologians. They seem to want to replace theologians and “do” theology themselves. The problem, as I see it, is that many of them (perhaps most) are not trained in biblical studies or historical theology. I am all for critical and constructive conversations between philosophers and theologians, but I want to keep the disciplines distinct.

  • James Petticrew

    still finding it hard to leave comments with an i pad

    • Roger Olson

      During my recent journey I also found it difficult to work with my blog from my ipad. Not sure what the problem there is. The Patheos folks assure me there should be no problem.

  • It’s better than when scientists try to do theology, or philosophy for that matter.

    • Alister McGrath? John Polkinghorne? Michael Polanyi?

      • Roger Olson

        I don’t think Polanyi was even a Christian. Some Christian theologians have found some of his philosophical ideas helpful. McGrath is a theologian. Polkinghorne is also a theologian (as well as a scientist).

        • McGrath’s first discipline was science (he has a PhD in the physical sciences, can’t remember which – biochem perhaps). Right – polanyi was not a theologian, but his ideas were helpful to people like MacIntyre and Newbigin.

  • KG

    This topic seems very important to me as a believer and layperson. It is a “big picture” issue in the church, in Christian circles and beyond.

    We Christian laypeople are often swayed by Christian philosophies more than by theology, and we don’t even know it. The primary philosophy I see used in Christian circles is logic: if-then logic that takes a revealed premise (e.g., God is good) far beyond where revealed truth leads (e.g., if God is love then what he wants most is my happiness; if God is good then there can be no unpleasant afterlife for anyone). Young people in particular are exalting logic to an extent that they abandon faith. I’ve witnessed this wreckage firsthand. Of course there is nothing new in this; it is age-old.

    In this philosophy, logic steamrolls over Scripture, usually by requiring strict consistency, rationality, pattern or lack of contradiction. The other strict requirement is fairness or equality. Signs of this philosophizing are wordiness, many steps of reasoning and if-then progressions (including rhetorical questions), few Scripture references, and marginalizing or mocking those who respond with Scripture – maybe even going so far as to claim that use of Scripture in response is ignorant, unfair, lazy, off the table or not rational. Any resulting dialogue tends to be Scripture-free. If it is a dialogue among Christians who know and understand one another, perhaps the revealed truths are simply understood and need not be stated; it’s the subtle or outright disdain for ‘Bible verses’ which to me indicates someone who is primarily philosophizing. And certainly a red flag is when someone utilizes Scripture as a jumping off point – maybe in advancing a new theory – but then declares that the obvious Scriptural responses are ‘attacks’ or simply not legitimate responses.

    I like the Catholic concept of “two wings” – faith and reason – but in the end a theologian will rely on revealed truth above all. I realize this statement is a summary which can be applied different ways but I am trying to convey the idea of staking our lives on revealed truth at the increasing risk of being mocked as irrational and foolish or outright rejected. In that case, 1 Corinthians Ch. 1 and 2 Colossians Ch.2 are heartening.

    • Roger Olson

      Without basic logic, rooted in God and God’s image in humanity, we are lost (in our attempts to understand anything). If you throw logic away, as some Calvinists and other religious people do, you can make scripture “mean” anything. But what dismays me is the all too common practice, especially among today’s crop of aggressive Calvinists, of insisting on logic in other people’s theologies, that is, using logic to attempt to shred them, while reveling in “antinomies” in their own theologies.

      • KG

        Yes, logic as a weapon is not a good use of philosophy, and I hate to see it.. But I would sayhave said that a person can live in spiritually revealed truth even without a competent grasp of logic.

  • Matt W

    One good thing about philosophers doing theology is that sometimes they help you to look at an age old doctrine from a whole new perspective. I see C.S. Lewis primarily as a philosopher rather than theologian and I think his great strength and enduring legacy is his ability to open our eyes and see traditional truths from different perspectives.
    When you read a lot of Barth, who seeks to dwell exclusively in special revelation, reading a good Christian philosopher can be a breath of fresh air. I assume the vice versa could also be true.

    • Roger Olson

      Lewis was, by profession, a scholar of English literature. He dabbled in theology and, for the most part, did it very well. However, for example, his chapter on the atonement in Mere Christianity displays no awareness that his offered theory is considered heretical by many, if not most, biblically-committed, orthodox Christian theologians. It’s called the “Perfect Penitent Theory” and was promoted, for a time, anyway, by Edward Irving who was excommunicated from his own faith community in part, at least, for teaching it. Had Lewis been a theologian, he would have at least mentioned that this theory is controversial and widely considered heretical by orthodox Christians.

  • Roger Olson

    I agree with Tillich about theology. And, actually, I have always (since first encountering it) thought his “method of correlation” would be good IF it were possible to carry it out faithfully. The problem is that his method always tends to allow philosophy to predetermine the theological agenda.

  • Roger Olson

    I’m reminded of an article written some years ago by an influential British Christian philosopher with the title “Could There Be Three Gods?” It was a serious attempt to defend the doctrine of the Trinity philosophically, but, as I recall, not only the title but much of the content fell close to heresies.

  • Roger Olson

    And one that would invite invective from many philosophers and theologians! This is a battleground area in academic circles. Unfortunately, there is no consensus about the boundaries or limits of either philosophy or theology as disciplines. So, in predictable fashion, I describe them in terms of “centers” rather than in terms of “boundaries.” Of course a theologian can “do philosophy” and a philosopher can “do theology.” But the disciplines have different centers even if both are valid. Philosophy’s center is human experience; theology’s center is revelation.

  • Just to set the record straight: This is an inaccurate description of the journal. It is not “Philosophers ‘doing’ theology”. It is people from various relevant disciplines doing theology in a certain mode. We discussed this mode at Baylor in a semester long seminar of/on analytic theology to which Prof. Olson was invited. I don’t know where Prof. Olson got his information, but it was not from attending this seminar.

    One purpose fo the journal is to provide a forum of interaction among scholars housed in different departments but interested in many of the same issues. For example, our first issue has a book symposium where theologians and philosophers interact. And of course there is much diversity among both theologians and philosophers in both content and methodology, and so our first issue also has an exchange among theologians on the topic of analytic theology. I invite readers–and the author of this blog–to decide for themselves.

    Trent Dougherty
    Department of Philosophy
    Baylor University

    Executive Editor, Journal of Analytic Theology

    • Roger Olson

      First of all, I did not mention any journal by name. Second, to the best of my knowledge I was never invited to the mentioned seminar.

      • Francis J. Beckwith

        Now, c’mon, Roger. You know that just because you didn’t mention the journal by name doesn’t mean you didn’t mention it. If I said, for example, that I thought the best heavyweight boxer ever was a black man from Louisville, Kentucky who won a light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, it would be sort of silly for me to dismiss the observation that I am advancing the cause of Cassius Clay by claiming that I didn’t mention Cassius Clay by name.

        However, on the question you raise, I do think you are spot on: philosophers and theologians should listen to each other. This means, of course, we are going to run into philosophers who don’t know historical theology, and historical theologians who are not conversant in philosophy. We all have blind spots. (God knows I have more of them than my share them). This is why I think the Journal of Analytic Theology is such a ground-breaking enterprise: it is venue in which philosophers and theologians can interact and learn from one another, setting a public example of what it means for “iron to sharper iron.” This is why I am proud that Baylor University’s philosophy department has a big footprint in this publication. For not only is Trent Doughtery the executive editor, C. Stephen Evans sits on its editorial board, and there others on the board who have spoken at Baylor under the auspices of our department over the past 5 years or so. This is quite a feather in our university’s cap, and for that reason, it should be celebrated.

        • Roger Olson

          Francis, apparently you can’t read my mind because, in fact, I did not know the name of the journal or it’s connection with Baylor! Thanks for informing me. I was simply told about such a journal (the person may have mentioned its name but I didn’t recall it) but did not mention it’s connection with Baylor. So, you’re wrong about that. I did not mention the name of the journal because I did not know it when I wrote the blog post about it. But, actually, my post was not about the journal per se. It was about philosophers treading on theologians’ territory. The two disciplines are distinct and we need to keep them that way while promoting, as you say, dialogue between them. The person who told me about the journal said it was founded because Christian philosophers believe that theologians have virtually abandoned orthodox Christianity while Christian philosophers have moved toward it. The implication clearly was that philosophers will rush in to fill the gap because theologians aren’t successfully doing that.

          • “philosophers treading on theologians’ territory”

            This is an improper understanding of the distinctness of philosophy and theology (if they really are distinct: I’d like to hear an argument for that or at least a first draft of a sketch of an outline of a prototheory of what makes for the distinction).

            Cosmology and astronomy are distinct academic disciplines. Yet they do not have any territory that distinguishes them. Rather, they study the same phenomena in related but non-identical ways.

            I think that is a better way to model a proposed distinction between philosophy and theology than the posting of “No Trespassing” signs.

          • Roger Olson

            I think I did propose one. Theology (except philosophical theology) uses divine revelation as a source and norm (norma normans). Christian theology, per se, also uses Christian tradition as a source and norm (norma normata). Philosophy, as I understand it, anyway, does not use either of those as sources and norms. But I did not say a philosopher cannot “do” theology. I am only arguing for the distinctness of the disciplines.

  • KR

    The distinction between philosophy and theology seemed very important to me when I was an academic. But now that I’ve left the hallowed halls to pursue other interests, I see things differently. Our perspectives on God are all as individual as we are. I have degrees in both theology and philosophy, and they have given me a very unique way of speaking about, and relating to, God, whether through scripture, logic, or otherwise. We need these professional disciplines to keep pushing back the boundaries of knowledge, but at the end of the day they are both interpretations of the human experience with the divine, and bear more similarity to each other as human endeavors, than whatever differences they may have. The most important thing will always be whether the philosopher or theologian is working out her/his own salvation with fear and trembling. Let’s try to avoid being mistrustful of each other’s pursuits, which can only create division, and instead work towards building bridges between the disciplines so that we can accurately reflect the diversity within unity that characterizes Christian hospitality (and God!).