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What is philosophical theology?

This post is excerpted from Stephen T. Davis and Eric T. Yang’s An Introduction to Christian Philosophical Theology: Faith Seeking Understanding.

Theology involves thinking and speaking about God, which is a task that should be approached with some measure of fear and trembling. Theology matters not just in academia or in the classroom but also in the everyday lives of Christians who worship God and believe in him.

But what does theology have to do with philosophy? How should we employ philosophical tools in studying Christian theology? How do we examine the logical consistency or intelligibility of the key doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the incarnation. Is it okay to ask these questions?

When faced with these difficult issues, one may be tempted to say that they are so mysterious that we are unable to have any coherent understanding of them at all. Usually this becomes a conversation stopper, which is quite unfortunate. After all, what Scripture and theologians have typically meant by “mystery” is the revealing of something not previously known and something that could not have been known without divine revelation. Saying “we can’t ever understand” in response to difficult doctrines may lead to intellectual laziness or sloppy thinking. Of course, no sensible Christian would claim that we could ever completely understand these Christian doctrines. But Christians have a responsibility to present a logically consistent account of Christian doctrines; for we reject certain religions or certain claims from other religions on the grounds that they are logically inconsistent or unintelligible. So, at a bare minimum, Christian doctrines should not contain logical contradictions or be utterly incomprehensible.

This is the realm of philosophical theology: the sort of contribution philosophical reasoning can bring while studying and reflecting on some of the core Christian doctrines. The goal is not to solve these theological quandaries the way we solve puzzles and riddles. Rather, the goal is to deepen our understanding and appreciation of doctrines we believe because God has revealed them to us.

Before we can understand what philosophical theology is, we need to clarify some terms. We will look first at theology, then philosophy, and finally philosophical theology.

What is theology?

Theology can be characterized as the attempt to think clearly and methodically about the doctrines that Christians believe were revealed to us by God. Many of those doctrines are obviously essential to Christianity. They include beliefs about God, Christ, the world, human beings, the future, and many other things. Theology is an attempt to clarify and explain what those doctrines are. We would argue that theology is something every Christian practices, but there are also many recognized theologians in the church, both past and present. Obviously, Christians do not always agree on doctrine; theology is often argumentative. But we would also claim that there are certain core beliefs that are essential to Christianity and that all Christians should hold.

There are many branches of theology:

  • Systematic theology attempts to say what Christian doctrines are and how they hang together to form a coherent whole.
  • Biblical theology endeavors to clarify and explain the beliefs, practices, and concepts taught in the Bible.
  • Historical theology investigates and explains the work of past theologians and the teachings of the classic creeds.
  • Natural theology is the attempt to prove particular Christian beliefs by the use of human reason alone, apart from special revelation, such as the existence of God or God’s attributes.
  • Moral theology seeks to express biblical and Christian teachings about what is right and wrong, about what duties and obligations there are—both for individuals and societies.
  • Pastoral theology applies Christian teaching to the practical tasks of helping people live, especially in their everyday experiences, which includes dealing with suffering.
  • Apologetics is the task of defending Christian beliefs, both by presenting arguments in favor of them and by defending them against criticisms.

What is philosophy?

Philosophers notoriously disagree about how to define the word philosophy. As we understand it, philosophy involves the attempt to answer ultimate questions. An ultimate question is a question that:

  1. people are deeply interested in and desperately long to answer, and that
  2. cannot be answered by the methods of science.

Here are a few examples of the ultimate questions we’re talking about:

  • Will I live on after I die?
  • What makes me the same person over time?
  • What is knowledge, and how does it differ from other cognitive states like belief or opinion?
  • Can I know I am not dreaming or in a computer simulation?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Who is living the good life?
  • What makes an action right or wrong?
  • Does God exist?
  • Can my actions be both free and determined?

These are questions that keep reappearing in the history of human thought (and keep some people up at night!), and they do not seem to be answerable by the methods of science. We cannot conduct an experiment, crunch numbers, or take a poll to find the answers. They are, then, ultimate questions.

Philosophy seems to some people to be vague, speculative, and irrelevant to real life. But it should not be so. Philosophy tries to help people in a concrete way: it tries to answer questions like these that fascinate many of us. Philosophy is not just for professional philosophers. Anyone who asks an ultimate question is a philosopher. We encounter philosophical questions in unexpected places—not just in the classroom but also in the marketplace, not just in dusty textbooks but also in movies, songs, novels, and poems.

Philosophy can be both fascinating and frustrating. The fascination emerges from the intrinsically interesting questions it considers. The frustration emerges from the fact that philosophical investigations do not always yield clear or easy answers. Often the end result of philosophical inquiry is more questions. This was the case for the Greek philosopher Socrates, and it made his interlocutors quite upset! Even if we cannot satisfactorily answer every philosophical question, we think progress is made when the questions we care about are further clarified, when certain positions are ruled out, and when we get a better handle on what approach or which method would be useful in addressing certain questions.

The limitation of philosophical inquiry is not necessarily a defect—and why there is such an intellectual limitation is even a philosophical question. But we think that recognition of such limitations can produce intellectual humility, and we believe that the practice of philosophy can help inculcate other intellectual virtues as well, such as open[1]mindedness, intellectual autonomy, intellectual carefulness, and the like. So even if you do not walk away with answers to some of the ultimate questions, practicing philosophy or engaging in philosophical inquiry can help you become a more intellectually virtuous person.

That said, we do think that we can answer some ultimate questions, even if we aren’t certain of our answers or even if disagreement with other philosophers remains. We even think that we have found some answers to some of the ultimate questions, though we recognize our fallibility, which is why we want to continue engaging in discussion. Being certain about anything is hard, and so philosophers typically welcome objections and criticisms to their views and arguments, since being shown where we went wrong would be an intellectual improvement. The goal of argumentation, as we see it, is not to be combative; rather, it is a way of offering reasons for one’s views or of raising concerns with various attempts to answer ultimate questions.

Philosophy and Christian theology

Before we move on to explaining what philosophical theology is, we should ask what the relationship is between philosophy and Christian theology. This is a complicated question. On the one hand, it is clear that there are similarities between the two. Many of the questions asked by philosophers are similar to those that theologians attempt to answer: Does God exist? What will happen to me when I die? What is the meaning of life? Also, philosophers and theologians share certain methodological preferences: both strive for connected, systematic thinking. Moreover, both disciplines are to an extent backward-looking disciplines. Both philosophers and theologians carefully study the works of previous practitioners. In fact, much of the impetus for their work is provided by the study of the past.

But there are also important differences. The most important one is that Christian theology is based on the assumption that certain propositions are to be accepted because they are revealed truths. In theology, that is, certain claims can be and commonly are accepted on authority, for example, because the Bible says so. Thus, in the pages of Christian theological works, it is quite common to find biblical references appended to arguments, references that are obviously designed to lend credence and authority to the points being made. Typical philosophers, on the other hand, require arguments, reasons, or evidence in order for some point to be acceptable. They will rarely, if ever, appeal to an authority as a reason for accepting a view. Instead, they will typically appeal to the reason or argument given for that view.

Because of this difference, some people think that philosophy and theology are enemies. Many philosophers have apparently believed this, and so have some great figures in Christian theology, from Tertullian to Karl Barth. Some even think that the apostle Paul asserted passionately that philosophy and the Christian gospel are at odds with each other: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8). Paul’s words can easily be misinterpreted. Of course many philosophies are inimical to Christian faith, but we believe that philosophy itself—the search for answers to ultimate questions—is neutral. Some philosophers attack religion and some defend it, but philosophy itself is neither an enemy nor a friend of Christian faith.

The brief passage from Colossians should not be taken as a condemnation by Paul of all philosophy. Paul’s speech at Athens recorded in Acts 17 shows how he could appreciate and even utilize the current philosophy of his day. He even appears to have quoted Stoic philosophers and poets! What Paul was criticizing were the fantastic and mythological speculations that were being perpetrated among the Colossian Christians. In effect, he was saying, “Do not allow yourselves to be deluded by empty, superstitious thought masquerading as wisdom or philosophy.”

And following 1 Corinthians 1:17–25 and 2:1–14, we agree that

  1. Christian faith does not rest on philosophical wisdom but on revealed truth;
  2. the truth revealed to the eyes of Christians can seem foolish to nonbelievers;
  3. no rational system devised by humans, no matter how eloquently it is expressed, has the power to save souls; and
  4. the true wisdom concerning God is attained not by reasoning but by faith.

But we do not hold that reasoning is divorced from faith. Although reasoning does not exhaust faith, we believe that it is a vital element in faith. Moreover, as Thomas Aquinas argued, philosophy can do some things for faith. It can help to systematically order the propositions that are accepted on faith. And it can help defend them against criticisms. Accordingly, philosophy can helpfully relate to both systematic theology and apologetics.

Not all Christians see themselves as philosophers, although, as we stated above, all Christians are philosophers to the extent that they ask ultimate questions. But some believers should try to systematize and defend the faith. Indeed, some Christians must do philosophy. For philosophically inclined persons who are also Christians, doing philosophy may be a spiritual necessity because they are incapable of believing unless their rational scruples allow it. This does not mean that the faith of such people is merely intellectual—cold, theoretical, and dispassionate. Philosophically inclined believers can be deeply and passionately committed to the faith.

What is philosophical theology?

Philosophical theology attempts to use the methodologies and conceptual resources of philosophers and apply them to theological issues.Now, there are certainly some theologians who approach theological issues philosophically, and we deeply admire them. But not all theologians approach theological issues armed with the assumptions, conceptual resources, or the methodologies of philosophy. Indeed, some recent and contemporary theologians have been quite resistant to philosophy and its tools.

The crucial point is that philosophical theologians, unlike those who are doing philosophy of religion, are prepared to accept the truth of crucial Christian beliefs at the outset. Some of these truths are often argued for, of course, but they are also sometimes taken as assumed premises in arguments. Philosophical theologians bring their faith commitments with them.

Philosophical theology, then, allows propositions concerning doctrines such as the Trinity or the incarnation to run through the rigor of philosophical scrutiny with tests of intelligibility and logical consistency. Moreover, the goal is to attain deeper understanding of Christian teaching. No sensible philosopher or theologian will deny the shroud of mystery that overhangs our thinking about God, and hence no sensible philosopher or theologian will strive for total comprehension or strive to remove all the mysteries. But the desire is to have faith seeking understanding.

What good is philosophical theology? Why is it important? When we speak of the value of philosophical theology, we are not necessarily talking about overt use of logic (syllogisms, symbols, etc.), which some philosophers use as handy tools in their own purely philosophical work. What we have in mind are the following:

  1. Avoiding obfuscation: we should write and speak clearly, so that our meaning is comprehensible (we admit that even some philosophers fail to achieve that result; nevertheless, philosophers strive for it).
  2. Making careful distinctions: we should avoid caricatures, conflation, or oversimplification of views or claims.
  3. Providing a logically consistent view: we should avoid any view that would entail a logical contradiction.
  4. Providing an intelligible view: we should be able to have some grasp of the concepts or terms being employed.
  5. Being biblically faithful: we should ensure that our views or claims do not contradict clear teaching in Scripture, and philosophical examination can help us better detect whether there are such conflicts.

In our opinion there is far too much ignorance and intellectual sloppiness among some Christians and, unfortunately, among some church leaders. For example, in our experience we have encounteredsome Christians who hold to the following beliefs:

  • As long as you are sincere and don’t hurt anybody, God won’t mind what you believe.
  • The Trinity commits us to believing that 3 = 1.
  • Any Christian who is suffering from disease or illness isn’t praying hard enough or doesn’t really trust God.
  • We will live forever with God without our bodies.

Christian leaders have a responsibility to correct these sorts of errors, to instruct people as to what true Christian beliefs and practices are. We believe that philosophical theology can greatly assist in that task.

There is, of course, much more to doing theology than what logic and philosophy can contribute. But to us, it is not surprising that there is an array of sloppy thinking about theological matters by those who neglect to learn basic logic and philosophy.

We hope that as you go through this book and this series, you will see what philosophical theology can contribute as we labor together in thinking and speaking about the God who has revealed himself to us.

Learn more in Introduction to Philosophical Theology. Topics covered include:

  • Revelation and Scripture
  • The Triune God
  • The Incarnation
  • Redemption and Atonement
  • Resurrection and Life after Death
  • Heaven and Hell
  • Additional Theological Issues

Get the book, or stream the video series.

An Introduction to Christian Philosophical Theology Stephen T. Davis
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