Answer to a Question: Philosophy and Theology

Answer to a Question: Philosophy and Theology October 16, 2021

Answer to a Question: Philosophy and Theology

In my considered opinion, there can be no more important question for Christian theologians, than this one: What should be the relationship between philosophy and Christian theology? When I invited questions, this one popped up and that didn’t surprise me. Even “ordinary Christians” who think about Christian beliefs must touch on something like this issue—even if not in a technical or scholarly way.

The Christian debate about the relationship between philosophy and theology began at least in the early third century in North Africa. I have written about this in The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (InterVarsity Press)—one of my best-selling and most influential books. (But not my magnum opus which is its sequel entitled The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction also published by InterVarsity Press.)

Egyptian Christian philosopher-theologian Origen of Alexandria (but who lived and taught and worked mostly in Palestine in the Roman city of Caesarea) promoted an integration of Platonic philosophy and Christianity in books like On First Principles (his magnum opus). In this he stood on the shoulders of second century Christian philosopher-theologian Justin Martyr and Alexandrian Christian philosopher-theologian Clement of Alexandria. All three of them believed that all truth is God’s truth wherever it is found and believed that Platonic philosophy had much to contribute to Christian theology.

North African Christian theologian Tertullian responded harshly and negatively in Carthage in the early third century. According to him, philosophy was the source of all heresies and to his own question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he answered “nothing.” He discouraged Christians from reading philosophy and argued that all pagan philosophy was dangerous to the good spiritual health and well-being of Christians. Ironically, however, most scholars Tertullian think he was deeply influenced by Stoicism—perhaps without being aware of that.

I must keep my answer brief, so please read on….

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

It is my considered opinion, after many years of studying both philosophy and theology, that philosophy—as a basic set of questions and answers about knowledge and being—has real value for Christian theology. But I stand somewhere between Tertullian and Origen.

Non-Christian philosophy (and I believe there is a Christian philosophy embedded in the Bible about which I wrote in Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story [Zondervan]) contributes two main things to Christian theology: Questions about knowing and being and logic or basic rules of thought. I do not think there is any philosophical system that is necessary for Christian theology, but I think there are some that offer views that are helpful for Christian theology when the Bible is silent about an important topic. So that is a possible third “thing” non-Christian philosophy might helpfully contribute to Christian theology.

However, I do not think Thomas Aquinas should have relied so heavily on Aristotle for answering questions about Christianity. I think he went beyond helpful integration into elevating a pagan system of thought to an authority equal with scripture itself. Of course he did not think so. But, to me, he stands out as a Christian with good intentions who simply went too far in linking a particular philosophical system with Christian theology. And this has happened many times throughout Christian history. Tertullian was right to warn against that.

However, Origen was right to use a philosophical system (Middle Platonism) to answer some questions the Bible does not answer. Perhaps a better example of this is Augustine who used Neo-Platonism to explain to Christians and non-Christians that evil is not a “something” but the absence of the good. About this he was right (like Gregory of Nyssa before him).

Modern liberal theologian Paul Tillich was right with his concept of “the method of correlation” but he carried it out wrongly. The method of correction simply, most basically, says that philosophy raises the questions theology ought to answer. (However, I disagree insofar as Tillich meant that theology only answers philosophy’s questions.) According to the method of correlation, theology answers philosophy’s questions from revelation.

Much more could be said about that, but I will leave it there for now.

Most basically, I think philosophy raises questions theology answers from revelation and it contributes basic rules of logic that even theology must adhere to. I do not believe good theology ever affirms sheer logical contradictions. A paradox is always a task for further thought even if some of them will never be relieved in this world before heaven.

This is a totally inadequate answer to the excellent question and one that continues to bedevil theology and will do so until the eschaton. But I hope it sheds some light on one possible approach to relating philosophy to theology.

I will end by saying that I do think philosophy helps theology “fill in the gaps” when revelation is silent or obscure and the question is important. However, theology ought always then to make clear that purely philosophy-based answers are speculative and not essential to Christianity itself.

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