Philosophy: Unavoidable in Theology

In my systematic reading seminar last fall, we read through several systems of theology: Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, liberal, etc.  A common theme tended to pop up among the conservative Protestant authors, and that is to denigrate philosophy while upholding some supposed pure theology of Scripture.  In fact, virtually every conservative Protestant author would take potshots at other systems, seeing them poisoned by philosophy, while claiming that his system was the one that was based purely on Scripture.  This sentiment is very common today, even among (or especially among) professional theologians.  Philosophy bad!  Scripture good!

On a certain level, this conservative Protestant suspicion of philosophy is understandable, given the downright nonsensical roads that liberal theology has taken.  However, as pious as this sounds, it shows a lack of self-awareness and a lot of presumption.  Though all of those authors claimed to jettison philosophy for the sake of Scripture, every single one of them would then sneak his own philosophy through the back door, seemingly without realization.  This remains true today, and it is both aggravating and amusing.  Christians need to realize this: Philosophy and reason are unavoidable when interpreting Scripture and developing theology.  That does not mean that they displace Scripture as the lead, but it does mean that pretending that one does not engage in philosophy at all is a quick way to adopt underlying philosophical ideas without awareness or critical thought.

To be fair, this is not a problem unique to Christians or professional theologians; the general population is mostly unaware of their own philosophy, and it gets even worse when professional scientists, doctors, psychologists, historians, etc. are blissfully ignorant of the philosophical assumptions they bring to their disciplines, pretending that they are somehow perfectly objective in all that they do (they may even get angry when their unjustified presumptions and biases are pointed out to them).  However, I will focus on my fellow Christian theologians in this post because, given the rich tradition of Christian philosophy, it is simply inexcusable for Christians to have such a lazy view on philosophy.

Philosophy: “I can use it and you can’t,” apparently.

If you want to see how this “philosophy vs. theology” attitude often plays out, you can always turn to the endless debate regarding Calvinism.  Both sides are often guilty of accusing the other of injecting big bad philosophy into their thoughts but then bringing in their own philosophy.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, Calvin blasts both the Catholic Church as well as classical philosophy (in which he was trained) while claiming to hold purely to Scripture.  However, one cannot help but see how much of his classical training (and frankly, Catholic theology) remained influential on him as he explained things like God’s immutability.  Modern Reformed Christians often try to duck hard questions by chastising other Christians for relying on philosophy but then also utilize philosophy for their own ends.  One Calvinist author, Paul Helseth, tried to bypass difficult questions regarding the problem of evil by accusing his co-authors of relying on philosophy; in that same book, he also argued that libertarian free will is logically incoherent, which is a strictly philosophical argument.  Which is it?  Can you use philosophical thinking or not?

Reformed Christians are not alone in this error.  To be fair, many non-Calvinist theologians have thrown the accusation of philosophy right back at Calvinists; while it is true that Reformed Christians utilize philosophy, this silly attitude that somehow someone is immune from philosophical reflection isn’t helpful at all.  One systematic theology professor that I respect criticized both Calvinists and non-Calvinists for using too much philosophy regarding free will, but then he conceded that if he had to choose a theory of free will, he’d go with compatibilism… a very philosophical idea.  As someone who isn’t Reformed, he did not seem to realize how problematic such a concession would be to his theology.

Aim for good philosophy, not no philosophy

In fairness, the relationships between philosophy and theology as well as reason and faith are still discussed, and one can accuse the famous Thomistic idea that philosophy is the “handmaid” of theology of perhaps being a bit too simplistic.  Still, despite it being simplistic, I think it is a good starting point for Christians to realize that philosophy is unavoidable when doing theology.  Every position adopts certain philosophical principles and uses reason to try to interpret Scripture as well as systematize it coherently.  Denying this merely blinds oneself of his own philosophical biases, as opposed to having them open for discussion.

One proof-text that’s often thrown around to combat big bad philosophy is Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (NASB).  However, most commentaters agree that the adjective of “empty” or “deceitful” applies to both nouns, so a better translation is actually provided by the NIV over the NASB and ESV: “See to it that no one takes your captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy…,” though perhaps an even better translation would be “empty philosophy and empty deceit,” though that’s a bit wordy.  Regardless, Paul is not instructing Christians to avoid philosophy altogether but to not become captive by bad philosophy.  Thus, what Christians should be aiming for is not an absence of philosophy, which is not possible and will simply lead to empty, unaware philosophy, but to engage in good philosophy through sound thinking, self-awareness, and scriptural knowledge.

Conclusion

Obviously, there is much more that can be said about the relationship between philosophy and theology, but the main point I’m trying to make here is that the answer is not this fantasy that we can or should remove philosophy completely.  That is not only lazy, it is misguided and unbiblical.  Christians should not duck from structured and careful thinking, especially as cheap ways to avoid criticism.  The fact of the matter is, everyone is a theologian and philosopher in some sense.  The real question is whether or not you are a good one.

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2 thoughts on “Philosophy: Unavoidable in Theology

  1. This was totally wonderful!!! I’m reminded of the saying “Show me a man without a philosophy, and I’ll show you a man who doesn’t think”. Another dishonest argument is: “we don’t interpret scripture, we just read what it says and obey it”.

    Perhaps what is often an underlying motivation behind the argument against philosophy is that what is really being asserted, yet superstitiously, is the “My party is Kata-pneumatos (of the spirit) and you’re party is Kata-Sarka (of the flesh). Every religious group wants to claim that what they have is the real thing, and everyone else’s is false. And they play the philosophy card as a way of camouflaging that underlying assertion.

    Jesus said “And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.” A classic IF-THEN statement! I certainly don’t think Jesus was lacking in honest philosophical, rational thinking. Let us follow his lead!
    Very sincere thanks for your good works!

    • Thanks for coming by, br.d. I like how you described the attitude of some who implicitly think that their position is according to the Spirit while those Christians who disagree with them are according to the flesh. I may use those Greek phrases in the future to describe this attitude.

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