Answer to a question: Philosophy and theology

Answer to a question: Philosophy and theology

In my opinion, there cannot be a more important question for Christian theologians, that this one : What should be the relationship between philosophy and Christian theology? When I invited questions, this one popped up and it didn’t surprise me. Even “ordinary Christians” who reflect on Christian beliefs must approach something like this question, even if it is not in a technical or scholarly manner.

The Christian debate on the relationship between philosophy and theology has begun at least at the beginning of the 3rd century in North Africa. I wrote about it in The History 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, taught, and worked primarily 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 the second century Christian philosopher-theologian Justin Martyr and the Alexandrian Christian philosopher-theologian Clement of Alexandria. All three believed that all truth is the truth of God wherever it is found and believed that Platonic philosophy had much to contribute to Christian theology.

The North African Christian theologian Tertullian responded harshly and negatively to Carthage in the early third century. According to him, philosophy was the source of all heresies and of his own question “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” he replied “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 Tertullian scholars believe he was deeply influenced by Stoicism, perhaps without realizing it.

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

* Box: The opinions expressed here are mine (or those of the guest author); I am not speaking on behalf of any other person, group or organization; I also do not imply that the views expressed herein reflect those of any other person, group or organization, unless I specifically say so. Before commenting, read the entire post and the “Note to Commentators” at the end. *

It is my carefully considered opinion, after many years of study in both philosophy and theology, that philosophy, as the basic set of questions and answers about knowledge and being, has value. real for Christian theology. But I am somewhere between Tertullian and Origen.

Non-Christian philosophy (and I believe there is a Christian philosophy rooted in the Bible that I wrote about in The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality Through Biblical History [Zondervan]) brings two main things to Christian theology: questions about knowing and being and logic or the basic rules of thought. I do not think there is a philosophical system that is necessary for Christian theology, but I think there are some that offer views that are useful for Christian theology when the Bible is silent on an important subject. It is therefore a third possible “thing” that non-Christian philosophy could usefully contribute to Christian theology.

However, I don’t think Thomas Aquinas should have relied so much on Aristotle to answer questions about Christianity. I think he went beyond useful integration in elevating a pagan thought system to an authority equal to Scripture itself. Of course, he didn’t think so. But, to me, he stands out as a Christian with good intentions who simply went too far in tying a particular philosophical system to Christian theology. And this has happened many times in Christian history. Tertullian was right to warn against this.

Now, Origen was right about use a philosophical system (Middle Platonism) to answer certain questions that 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 good. On this point, he was right (like Gregory of Nyssa before him).

Modern liberal theologian Paul Tillich was correct with his concept of the “correlation method”, but he misinterpreted it. The method of correction simply says, more fundamentally, that philosophy raises the questions which theology must answer. (However, I disagree insofar as Tillich meant that theology alone answers questions of philosophy.) According to the correlation method, theology answers questions of philosophy from revelation.

Much more could be said about this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

More fundamentally, I think philosophy raises questions that theology answers from revelation and contributes to the ground rules of logic that even theology must adhere to. I don’t believe that good theology ever asserts pure logical contradictions. A paradox is always a task to be deepened even if some of them will never be relieved in this world before the sky.

This is a totally inadequate answer to the excellent question and which continues to torment theology and will do so to the point of eschaton. But I hope this will inform a possible approach to relating philosophy to theology.

I will close by saying that I think philosophy helps theology “fill in the gaps” when the revelation is silent or obscure and the question is important. However, theology should always make it clear that purely philosophical answers are speculative and not essential to Christianity itself.

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