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A Critical evaluation of the relationship that exists between Theology and Philosophy

Theologians (and philosophers) are at variance as to whether there should be a relationship at all between theology and philosophy. But one cannot deny the close relationship between the two disciplines.

A Critical evaluation of  the relationship that exists between Theology and Philosophy

To start with, the relationship between Jerusalem (as centre of Christianity) and Athens (as the centre of philosophy) has not been without its fiercest critics. Chief among these is Tertullian (c. 160-230) and his famous statement rings overtones of suspicion of Philosophy: “what is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?

 What between the Academy and the Church: What between heretics and Christians” (as quoted by Erickson 1985:41). Tertullian was not alone in this criticism. Luther, the icon of the 16th century reformation, lent weight to this side of the divide: 

“Let philosophy remain within her bounds, as God has appointed, and let us make use of her as a character in a comedy” (as quoted by Erickson: 40). It is very easy to rubbish the concerns of these well-meaning theologians as we have the benefit of the hindsight that 21st century affords us today.

 They had genuine concerns and some of them well proven concerns. One of them was the over-reliance or over-appeal by Philosophy (and those who employed it) to reason in such a way that reason (human for that matter) was seen to be placing limits on revelation (Ferguson & Sinclair 1996).

Further, most philosophers were heretics and most heresies were an outcome of forced superimposition of Greek philosophy and mythology on Christian teachings. Tertullian would further be heard arguing that: “For philosophy provides the material of worldly wisdom, in boldly asserting itself to be the interpreter of the divine nature and dispensation. The heresies themselves receive their weapon from philosophy… We have no need for curiosity after Jesus Christ, nor for inquiry (inquisitio) after the gospel,” (McGrath 2001:7-8).

 An example is Docetism. This was an attempt to try to explain the person of Christ from the Greek philosophical standpoint of dualism. What Docetism ended up achieving was not the clarification of the Christian message but its distortion and corruption of the proclamation of the message of salvation to the pagan world. So these concerns were very genuine and need not to be discarded without being given due consideration.

Such was the attitude of some great Christian thinkers who saw no reason at all as to why these two disciplines could possibly co-operate on any matter at all. While some of the concerns are valid, this paper will posit that a blanket dismissal of or insulating Christian theology from interactions with other disciplines of knowledge, especially Philosophy is not to enrich theological discourse but to starve it in many ways as would be demonstrated below.

Despite the foregoing resistance of the usage of philosophy in the theological task, the benefits for theology offered by philosophy are so clear for everyone to see. “Even those who inveigh against philosophy may be found, in their systematic theology, to be making unwitting use of some of its concepts.” (Ferguson & Sinclair 1996:512). 

Thus some theological thinkers like Augustine were vocal in support of the use of philosophy in aiding the theological task. As pointed out by Erickson (1985:41) he felt philosophy could help “elucidate” theology.

 Augustine is also credited with the following quotation: “If those who are called philosophers, particularly the Platonists, have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use, in the knowledge that they possess it unlawfully” (McGrath 2001:9).

Augustine goes on to give the analogy of Egyptians and the Israelites. They (the Egyptians) had idols and other artefacts of idolatry which the Israelites loathed and rightly so because of the call to uncompromised monotheism. But the same Egyptians, as Augustine would argue “… also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forbearers, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner (Exodus 3: 21-2; 35-6)…”(McGrath 2001:9).

 Such is the strength of conviction of Augustine in the utilisation of Philosophy in developing and clarifying Christian theology. While this paper may not fully agree with everything Augustine says, it shares a common sympathy for the responsible nurturance of a positive relationship between philosophy and theology.

Before looking at the positives that theology can derive from philosophy, it will be very helpful to consider one of the errors committed by those who opposed its usage. According to Erickson (1985) they erred in that they viewed philosophy as a body of truth instead of viewing it as an “activity” or process. Erickson further advises that philosophy “…is potentially capable of functioning from any perspective and with any set of data. Hence it is a tool which can be used by theology” (:56).  This understanding of philosophy should then help us use it responsibly fully aware of its limitations, what it can and cannot do for Christian Theology. Thus philosophy gives theologians, the methodology of utilising the theological “data”. It does not replace the theological data per se.

Many scholars (Bartholomew 2013; Erickson 1985; Ferguson & Sinclair 1996; Macquarrie 1966; McGrath 2001; and others) support a healthy alliance between theology and philosophy but such a relationship should be kept under ‘scrutiny’ so as to avoid ‘injurious’ relational outcomes for both theology and philosophy (Macquarrie :19). There is a real possibility of philosophy overshadowing theology and hence deny it of its autonomy. There was time in history when theology dominated philosophy to the detriment of philosophy as a discipline and vice-versa. It is important that practitioners from either side of the divide need to be circumspect in ensuring the autonomy and mutually enriching interdependence of both disciplines. We now outline some of the usages of philosophy in theology below.

To start with, the historical role of philosophy in helping Christianity become an established religion beyond the physical and spiritual borders of Judaism cannot be contested. One cannot help but agree with Erickson (1985:41) that “Theology is sometimes established by philosophy”. Erickson rightly notes (as do other scholars who look at philosophy favourably) that when Christianity began to spread its tentacles and thus invaded other cultures and religions and various forms of paganism “it became necessary to find some neutral basis on which to establish the truth of the authoritative message… Thomas found such basis in Aristotle’s arguments for the existence of God” (:41) one can therefore not dispute the positive relationship between philosophy and religion.

Secondly, Apologetics is one area where philosophy lends a helping hand to theology. Apologetics is “the task of giving reasoned defence of Christian theism in light of objections raised against it and of offering positive evidence on its behalf” (Moreland and Craig 2003:14). Bartholomew (2013:6) adds that “…there will be various levels of apologetics, ranging from a neighbor’s queries, to academic defense of the Christian faith at the most rigorous level”. This therefore requires theological preparation for those who will be deployed in apologetics.

As a matter of fact, Christianity was (and is still) subjected to several of forms of attack that questioned (and continue to question) the credibility of its claims. Skeptics and Gentiles took turns to punch the claims of Christianity. Men and women had to rise to the occasion in defending the truthfulness and the integrity of the Christian claims. Moreland and Craig (2003) are right to postulates that the New Testament preachers used philosophical arguments in engaging the non-believers and sceptics in an attempt to win them for Christ. Examples of such passages include Acts 17v2-4 picturing Paul at Athens the centre of Greek philosophy and mythology. Such is the value of philosophy as it supplies the systematic methodology of argumentation from the known to the unknown and the results for Paul were amplified. This is an example of the shows the efficient use of philosophy as a handmaid to theology.

Further, Ferguson & Sinclair (1956) do highlight reasoning out one’s faith or hope is a primary requirement of those who belong to the Christian faith. What more those doing theology. They cite examples like 1 Peter 3v15 and Acts 17 where philosophical arguments are presented in trying to convenience hearers of the credibility of the Christian faith. Some level of philosophical appreciation and “philosophising” will come handy in instances where one has to give such reasoned explanation or clarification of their beliefs. Philosophy helps “sharpen one’s understanding of the concepts” (Erickson 1985:56) as its chief goal is clarification of ideas (Geisler and Feinberg 1980:18). Or as Edwards (1972:68) puts it: clarification of meaning is the only legitimate activity that philosophy deals with.

Polemics was another enterprise that the early church and the contemporary church have to engage in. Moreland and Craig (2003:15) define polemics as “… the task of criticizing and refuting alternative views of the world”. The early church was confronted with many alternative views that were a product of syncretism and some were outright pagan and completely foreign to the teaching of Christianity. These views e.g. Arianism (a distortion of the person and hence the work of Christ) competed for attention with those of Christianity. Judaism is one such view or alternative that sought to put burdens on the gentile Christians and made them depart from the apostolic faith. Paul devotes the whole book of Galatians in a polemic drive to refute such claims of the “preachers of another Gospel” which in fact was no Gospel at all. While theology provides the content for such a task of polemics, Philosophy provides the methodology and tools for the enterprise as is asserted by Geisler and Feinberg (1980:18) that “philosophy is often more concerned with method than with theoretical content”.

The early history of the church was spent trying to clarify its doctrines so that they could not be easily misunderstood by its hearers. Trinitarian and Christological controversies dogged the history of the church for a fairly long time resulting in many Ecumenical Council seeking to resolve this. Incidentally, such controversies were mainly in the Easter part of the empire than the West because of the prevalence of philosophy and Greek mythology in the former. Church fathers needed the aid of relevant tools to clarify those complex doctrines. Philosophy, as supported by Moreland and Craig (2003:15), “helps to add clarity to the concepts of systematic theology. For example, philosophers help to clarify the different attributes of God; they can show the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are not contradictory...” Geisler and Feinberg (1980:20) lend credence to this argument when they postulate that “… history shows that philosophical arguments and concepts played a large and important role in the development of Christian theology”. Thus this is yet another example in which Philosophy aids theology.

Further, the enterprise of intellectually engaging the context in which theology operates is a vital one. That context has lots of inquisitive minds wanting to integrate faith and reason especially in the post-modernity culture. In handling contemporary issues and trends (and in many cases these are of a philosophical nature), theology definitely needs the helping hand of philosophy. Moreland and Craig make the following assertion:

“Again and again, we have seen the practical value of philosophical studies in reaching students for Christ. From questions dealing with the meaning of life or the basis of moral values to the problem of suffering and evil and the challenge of religious pluralism, students are asking profound philosophical questions that are much more difficult to answer than to pose” (2003:4).

The above assertion is very revealing in many ways. It therefore becomes imperative that theology partners with philosophy in handling these questions. If theology completely divorces itself from philosophy there will be a large constituency of Christians or would-be Christians who will remain unattended to.

Relating to the preceding argument is the inescapable necessity of contemporaneity in Christian theology as an enterprise. Theology needs to be relevant to the context that it addresses. One notes that “while it (theology) treats timeless issues, it must use the language, concepts, and thought forms that make some sense in the context of the present time” (Erickson 1985:21). Thus underpinning contemporaneity is one’s understanding of the society. One cannot be relevant to a society they do not understand. This paper agrees with Geisler and Feinberg (1980:20) that “an understanding and appreciation of philosophy will help one understand his society… the ideas shaping the society”. This is very key for the theological task if the Christian message is to remain contemporary and relevant, without necessarily being compromised.

In conclusion, this paper has argued in favour of embracing philosophy and underlined its vital contributions to Christian Theology, together with other disciplines of knowledge. It should however be noted without apology, as presented above, that the role of Scripture or the Bible remains fundamentally primary in informing the content of theology. Philosophy does not invent the message but helps those with the theological task to clarify the message and present it in a very systematic and compelling manner (Bartholomew 2013). Such a message is ultimately relevant to the needs of the day and age, it is contemporary and relevant to context in which it is proclaimed.

Reference List

Bartholomew, C G & Goheen, M W. 2013. Christian Philosophy- A Systematic and Narrative Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academy.
Edwards R B. 1972. Reason and Religion- An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich , Inc.
Erickson, M J. 1985. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Geisler, NL and Feinberg, PD. 1980. Introduction to Philosophy- A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
McGrath, A E (ed). 2001. The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd Edition. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.
Moreland, J P and Craig, W L. 2003. Philosophical Foundations For a Christian Worldview. Downers Groove: IVP
Sinclair Ferguson, S and Wright D F (Eds). 1996. New Dictionary of Theology- Student Edition. London: SC Press Ltd.

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