SHOULD A CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIAN OR PASTOR USE PHILOSOPHY?
I have already written quite a bit on questions concerning the relationship between faith and reason (see here, ici, here, here, here.). It is a subject that interests me for a number of reasons. This subject interests me primarily because I am a Christian who studies philosophy. My interest in this subject began during my undergraduate studies which were in Theology. Near the end of my studies I interned as a Pastor in an evangelical protestant church for a year, and became extremely interested in Apologetics. After my internship I pastored for another three years in the same church, and during that time read through a number of books by Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas and all of the other well-known Protestant Apologists. During that time one of the things that struck me as extremely interesting is that they all quoted well-known philosophers either using their arguments or refuting their arguments. Furthermore they not only used logic, but some of them, such as Geisler and Craig, wrote books in which they explained some of the basic principles, not only of logic, but of the other domains of philosophy. (see Geisler’s Introduction to Philosophy, and Craig’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview) Almost 50 % of Norman Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics are about philosophies, philosophers, or problems that deal with philosophy. I was introduced, mainly through Norman Geisler’s works, to medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, and Augustine, and ancient greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. During my third year in the pastorate I read through Plato’s Republic, the first part of the Summa Theologiae, and a number of other philosophical works by thomistic philosophers such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. It occurred to me that in order to be a good apologist I needed to begin by being a good philosopher (some domains of apologetics require you to be a good historian, a good scientist, and a good exegete as well). That’s where it all began.
Since then I have completed an M.A. in philosophy, and I am currently doing my PhD in philosophy. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, when, after I had announced to the elder’s board that I would be going to the states to study philosophy, one of the men in the elder’s board came up to me and asked me, “You don’t think that studying philosophy will hurt your relationship with Christ?” This question could be asked, and has been asked, in a number of different ways, “You don’t think that philosophy will draw you away from God?” “Be careful that the mind of the world doesn’t keep (or hinder) you from knowing and seeking out the mind of God.” “What will you do to make sure that you’re not corrupted by the wisdom of man?”
In his own time, the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas was confronted with the same question. There were theologians who were saying, “Secular wisdom is often represented in Scripture by water, divine wisdom by wine. But in Isaiah 1:22, innkeepers are blamed for mixing water with wine. Consequently those teachers should be condemned who mingle philosophical doctrines with sacred teaching.” It is this claim, that it is wrong to mix philosophy and theology, or the stronger claim, that a Christian should have nothing to do with philosophy, that I want to consider today. This problem springs, primarily, from a faulty understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. As I have already addressed this relationship, I will be looking at the more pointed question, what place is there, in Christian Theology and practice, for Philosophy? We will note, first of all, the relationship between faith and theology, reason and philosophy. Secondly we will consider the ways in which it is permissible to use philosophy in theology, and finally, we will look at some errors that we could potentially make when we do apologetics, and when we use philosophy in theology.
Faith and Theology, Reason and Philosophy
Faith and Theology
Faith, as I have defined it elsewhere, and as many of the mediaeval theologians defined it, is voluntary assent to the truth, based upon some trustworthy authority. Faith is not first-hand knowledge. Aquinas notes that “Faith has something in common with opinion and also with science and understanding…With science and understanding it has in common unerring and firm assent…With opinion it shares the fact that it has to do with matters that are not clear to the mind.” The object of faith may be something which is, by nature, knowable by human beings, yet which is unknown to a particular human, who then believes, based on some trustworthy authority that X is the case. However, the object of faith might also be something which is knowable by nature, but not, due to the materiality which is part of human nature, knowable to human beings. If such is the case, then the object in question is only knowable if it is revealed to human beings by a being that is capable, by nature, of knowing such an object.
The Bible claims to be divine revelation from God telling us things that we couldn’t know by ourselves. That is not to say that every statement of scripture is unverifiable; on the contrary, some of it is history, some of it is empirical claims about the physical world, and, therefore, some of it, at least, is verifiable. However, for those parts that are not, due to the weakness of human nature, knowable by us, we must accept them by faith. This is where theology comes in. Theology is reasoning, or thinking, about the objects of faith – those propositions of revealed scriptures that are unknowable by human being due to the limits of our nature. That is, once we have accepted X, Y, and Z as true, based upon the authority of God, we then go on to think about them, and this is doing Theology. Theology is reasoning about sacred scripture. This is one important point to keep in mind as we look at the relationship between philosophy and theology, whenever we read the Bible and explain it we are using our intellect to reason about what God says in Holy Scripture. Every time that we read the Bible, and interpret it, we are using our God-given capacity for reasoning to think about, and understand, what God has revealed to humankind. To put it more bluntly, it is the human capacity for reasoning that is seeking to understand the divine message given by God to mankind. Without reason we cannot understand Gods message. In the Bible we find, quite frequently, verses that are written in a format that can be transformed into symbolic logic. If we know logic, then we will be better able to understand these sections of scripture. A great example is 2 Peter 2: 4-9 where Peter says the following:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly, and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…
Note, in the above verses the logical formula if → then. In an if → then statement, if the first part of the statement, the part normally preceded by the “if”, happens, or is true, then the second part of the statement, the part normally preceded by the “then” happens, or is true. The six verses that I quoted above can be put into the language of symbolic logic as follows:
Each part of the verses above will be represented by a letter, as follows:
A = God did not spare angels when they sinned
B = cast the angels that sinned into hell
C = committed the angels that sinned to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.
D = God did not spare the ancient world
E = God preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly
F = God rescued righteous Lot
G = the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials
H = the Lord knows how to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.
The verses above contain key words that help us to understand the logical form of the claims. The words “and”, and “but” will be represented by the symbol &. The various sections of the above claims will be enclosed in parentheses. The entire formula creates an “if → then” statement, and looks like this:
(A & B & C) & (D & E) & F → G & H
The whole point of these 6 verses is that Peter is giving an assurance to the receivers of the letter. If God did A, B, C, D, E, & F, (and the implicit assumption in the text is that God did all of these things), then God will do G & H. It is a logically necessary conclusion. Therefore, Christians should be encouraged that regardless of the suffering that they may be enduring, the fact that God did A-F is the proof that God knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and that God knows how to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment. The Bible contains many more logical structures like this. Sometimes they are well hidden in a text and may be chapters apart. The person who is reading scripture needs to put all of their reasoning capacities to work in order to properly understand and interpret the word of God; this is the only way to know the mind of God while on this earth. So, reasoning about the objects of faith is what makes us Christian, reasoning about the objects of faith is how we learn about God, how we learn about his plan of salvation, how we learn about His will for our lives. Reasoning about the objects of faith – divinely inspired and revealed scripture – is theology. Aquinas says that, “The purpose of our believing, however, is to arrive at an understanding of what we believe.”
Reason and Philosophy
Having already seen the relationship between faith and Theology, let us look at the relationship between reason and Philosophy. We noted in the previous section that Theology was the application of the human capacity for reasoning to the articles of faith as given in scripture. Philosophy, on the other hand, is the application of the human capacity for reasoning in considering, and thinking about, the world in which we live, move, and have our being. Philosophy is not, as some people seem to think, man’s attempt to reach God, to replace God, or to replace God’s wisdom. It is, quite simply, man’s observations, and reasoning, about the world in which we live.
The term reason has many different meanings, and, therefore, it is very easy to equivocate accidentally in our usage of the term. We can use this term to talk about the reasoning process, for example, “I reason through a difficult question.” Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between two types of reasoning that fit under this meaning. “One is demonstrative, compelling the mind’s assent. There can be no place in matters of faith for this kind of reasoning, but there can be in disproving claims that faith is impossible. For although matters of faith cannot be demonstratively proved, neither can they be demonstratively disproved.” The second type of reasoning is “persuasive reasoning, drawn from analogies to the truths of faith”. This type of reasoning “does not take away from the nature of faith because it does not render them [the truths of faith] evident, for there is no reduction to first principles intuited by the mind. Neither does it deprive faith of its merit, because it does not compel the mind’s assent but leaves the assent voluntary.” An example of persuasive reasoning would be any argument that attempts to prove that Jesus is God, that the Bible is the word of God, etc. These things must be accepted by faith, yet, persuasive reasons can be given that cause one to lean towards accepting these truths of faith. It should be noted that in the natural sciences, the majority of their results are only cases of this second type of reasoning. The natural sciences depend, quite a bit, on faith, and, for the most part, only give persuasive reasons for believing their conclusions.
The word reason seems to refer, primarily, to the power, or faculty, by which the human being is able to think through questions of all types. It is man’s natural capacity to think. Thomas Aquinas refers to the possible intellect as that which receives the forms of the things that act on the senses, and the agent intellect as that which abstracts the form from the thing received in the possible intellect in order to consider the thing in its essence. The reason, or agent intellect, according to Aquinas, extends, naturally, to certain truths which are within its grasp, “like the principles we naturally know and the conclusions we deduce from them.” With this natural light, as Aquinas calls it, we investigate all of creation, and deduce certain conclusions from it, etc.
A third meaning of the term reason is seen when it is used to refer to an argument that is used to back up a conclusion. We give reasons to believe something that is not evident or deducible from that which is.
Having looked at the three main meanings of the term reason we can see how each of them has its place, not only in philosophy, but also in theology. However, we have already looked at theology, so we will now look at Philosophy. Aquinas says that “philosophy is based on the natural light of reason.” He could be referring either to the faculty or the process, but based upon the context he is most likely referring to the process of rational inquiry.
We say that, technically speaking, Philosophy began with Thales, a Greek thinker, because, until his time, most of man’s thoughts were turned towards practical ends (i.e. – building, living, farming, etc.). Thales, however, was, to our knowledge, the first thinker to try to explain where all things came from. He tried to answer the question: What is the ultimate cause of all that exists? This is one of the most important questions that philosophers ask. The term Philosophy was apparently coined by Pythagoras. People were calling men like Thales (those who were theorizing about first causes) “Wise Men”. Pythagoras, however, not wishing to be given more credit then he thought he deserved, asked to be called a Philosopher, that is, a lover of, or a friend of, wisdom. He didn’t think that he possessed it yet, but he was constantly seeking after her. The philosopher, for the Greek and mediaeval thinker, was responding to the call, that the Proverbs speaks of, of wisdom, “Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?” Philosophy, therefore, is that rational inquiry into the causes, purpose and meaning of everything that presents itself to the human knower. Reason, however, can only go so far, and philosophy is, therefore, limited in its reach. The main areas covered by Philosophy include: Metaphysics (questions about existence), Epistemology (questions about knowledge), Philosophy of Human Nature, or of Mind (questions about what man is by nature), Moral Philosophy (questions about what is morally right or wrong for man), Political Philosophy (questions about humans in society), Aesthetics (questions about the good, and the beautiful), etc.
As we can now see, though theology deals primarily with truths of faith, and though philosophy deals primarily with truths based on reason, we cannot draw a clear line between matters of faith and matters of reason. Reason is as necessary for properly understanding divine revelation as it is for working through philosophical matters, and faith is as necessary for the natural sciences as it is for theology. Faith and reason, Philosophy and Theology, do not enter into conflict in any way; rather, if Theology and Philosophy seem to be in conflict, then there is an error in the reasoning used, either in Philosophy or in Theology. Aquinas notes that “it is impossible that the contents of philosophy should be contrary to the contents of faith, but they fall short of them…If anything, however, is found in the sayings of the philosophers contrary to faith, this is not philosophy but rather an abuse of philosophy arising from faulty reasoning.”
Using Philosophy in Theology
In the introduction I noted one opinion that was common in the thirteenth century concerning the use of philosophy in Theology. Namely, that to mix the two was like mixing water into the wine, thus diminishing the quality of the wine, and losing the flavor. Aquinas responded to that claim as follows. “So those who use the works of the philosophers in sacred doctrine, by bringing them into the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but rather change water into wine.” We noted, above, that far from there being an intrinsic conflict between reason and faith, the two are complimentary and essential aspects of human life. Reason, in all of the definitions given above, is essential to theology. Faith, according to the traditional definition, is a necessary part of human life in general, and a necessity for salvation in particular. Without faith it is impossible to function in day to day life because 80 % of the things that we think we know are articles of faith for us. Faith, as we noted above, is essential for anything resembling a true Christian theology. It is possible to articulate, and systematize, the teachings of scripture, however, unless one believes that the Bible is the word of a truly existing God, one has no reason to believe that anything the Bible affirms about God, God’s plan, the deity of Jesus, etc., is true. If the theologian does not believe that what he is thinking about and reading about, and seeking to understand, is true, then the theologian is essentially, as far as he is concerned, thinking, reading and writing about a fairy tale, or, at best, good literature. Christian Theology, therefore, starts with faith - the belief that the Bible is the word of a truly existing God who is revealing himself to humanity. Philosophy, as we noted above, is man’s pursuit of wisdom, using his God-given capacity for knowledge and “reasoning”, to understand the world in which God placed him. So how could we possibly use philosophy in theology?
Before we explore the ways in which philosophy can be used in theology, we should note, first of all, two ways in which we can understand the question, and, secondly, the fact that the authors of Sacred Scripture used the writings of secular authors.
There are, first of all, two ways of understanding the question of whether or not it is permissible to use philosophy in theology. The first way is by the formal definition of philosophy. Philosophy, as the pursuit of wisdom by seeking to understand creation, includes observations about the nature of reality, knowledge and logic. These observations are absolutely essential to theology, so that, for example, our theological claims about God are logical and coherent. The second way in which we can understand this question is as referring to the writings of individual philosophers. Is it permissible to use the writings of different philosophers in theology? There is at least one way, which seems to come immediately to mind, in which it is permissible to use the writings of the philosophers in theology, and that is in refuting their errors. The other way in which it seems to be permissible is when they tell the truth. Theologians, like most other human beings, are interested in the truth, so when a philosopher speaks the truth, it seems to be permissible to use what they have said, in so much as it is applicable to the theological question that is being considered, in theology. This last point is backed up by the fact that many of the authors of the God-breathed books of the Bible used the writings of secular authors. For example, Paul, “in Titus 1:12 uses a line of the poet Epimenides: ‘The Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’; in 1 Corinthians 15:33 he refers to the words of Menander: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’; and in Acts 17:28 to the Athenians he quotes the words of Aratus: ‘For we are indeed his (that is, God’s) offspring.’” It seems that if God saw fit to include in Sacred Scripture quotes from secular authors, then it is more than simply permissible for us to use the writings of particular philosophers in theology. It is a well-known doctrine of the church, since the time of the apostles, that all truth is God’s truth and finds its source, ultimately, in He who is Truth. As such, truth, wherever we find it, should be appropriated and used by the Christian theologian. St. Augustine said, “Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.”
With these preliminaries out of the way we can now ask in what ways philosophy, conceived either as the science and intellectual endeavor, or as the writings of individual philosophers, can be used in theology – reasoning and thinking about divine written revelation. There are a number of ways in which philosophy can be used in theology.
First of all, philosophy supplies theology with a number of important definitions for words such as essence, existence, being, faith, hope, love, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity, and salvation. Sacred scriptures do not define these terms but assume that we already know what they mean. We are sometimes obligated to make distinctions between the applicability of certain terms as used in their application to creatures and in their application to divine realities, but, even here we are starting with the definition as used in Philosophy and explaining how it can, and how it can’t, be used in Theology.
Secondly, Philosophy can be used to demonstrate the presuppositions of Theology. For example, in order to talk meaningfully about theological questions such as the divine inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth and the trinity, we must presuppose the existence of God. The existence of God is something that Philosophy is able to discuss meaningfully, without venturing into theological ponderings. In Philosophy we discuss God as the cause of all things that exist, and we can learn certain things about the cause by looking at the effect – creation. Aquinas notes that these presuppositions are “the truths about God that are proved by natural reason, for example, that God exists, that he is one, and other truths of this sort about God or creatures proved in philosophy and presupposed by faith.”
Thirdly, Philosophy can be used in Theology, “by throwing light on the contents of faith by analogies,” that help us to understand important doctrines such as the unity of two natures (human and divine) in the person of Jesus, and the Trinity.
Philosophy is used, in a fourth way, as I mentioned above, to refute false theological doctrines, and heresies, “either by showing them to be false or lacking in necessity.” This is commonly called Apologetics – the defense of the Christian faith. Theologians, in refuting the errors of heretics or secular thinkers, should use the principles of philosophy, the rules of logic, and appropriate rhetoric to demonstrate the falsity of the false teachings. Philosophy is useful for showing that God exists, but also for showing that the Trinity and the hypostatic union are not contradictory. These later doctrines, though we cannot prove them positively through philosophy, as they must be accepted by faith, can be defended through philosophical argumentation.
Philosophy, fifthly, also gives us the principles of interpretation by which we are able to properly interpret God’s word. The Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God, but in order to understand it and apply it to our lives we must read and interpret it. Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. Only when we have properly interpreted scripture can we claim to know what God is telling us. It is important to note, here, that when the Bible is properly interpreted it will never contradict true philosophy because just as theology is the human interpretation of divinely inspired scriptures, Philosophy is the human interpretation of this divinely created universe. Any contradictions between Philosophy and Theology are due to our faulty interpretations and faulty reasoning, not due to the Bible or to Creation.
The writings of different philosophers can be used in theology, when they support the truth of the, properly interpreted, inspired scriptures. On this point, Aquinas notes that “Insofar as sacred doctrine uses philosophical teachings in its own interest, it does not welcome them because of the authority of their authors but on account of the reasonableness of what they say. What is well said it takes; the rest it rejects. But when it uses them to refute other writers, it does so because they are accepted as authorities by those who are refuted, for the witness of opponents carries greater weight.”
Christian Thinker Beware: Common Errors made when using Philosophy in Theology
I’m hoping that by now the reader has become convinced that philosophy has an important role to play in theological thinking. The unconvinced reader might reply that the using philosophy in theology simply is the greatest error that we can make as Christian thinkers. I would like, however, to assume that we are, at this point, all convinced that philosophy is useful for theology and apologetics. Though it is useful, there are some common errors that Christian thinkers make when they think about the Bible.
There are two errors that commonly go together. The first is dogmatic assertion, and the second is jumping to conclusions. It is important for the Christian thinkers to keep in mind that there are, quite frequently, many differing views on any given subject. More often than not they are reconcilable, but sometimes it is necessary to makes some important distinctions so as to arrive at this reconciliation of views.
A third error that is common to many Christian Apologists is the tendency to attempt to achieve encyclopedic knowledge. Instead of helping the Apologist to properly defend the faith; such a tendency hinders the Apologist from defending, excellently, any one area. The problem is that we simply cannot, due to time and human limitation, know everything about everything. What happens when someone attempts to excel in every area that is necessary for the complete defense of the Christian faith is that that person inevitably excels in no one area. They will, therefore, be incapable of defending the faith against a person who excels in one of these domains. For example: In order to completely defend the Christian faith against all attacks, one must be knowledgeable about the biblical manuscripts, the historical background of the Old and New Testaments (both Jewish and pagan histories), the biblical languages (Hebrew, Koine Greek, and Aramaic), Philosophy (including each domain of philosophy, as well as the history of philosophy), Theology (including the writings of the church fathers, medieval and modern theologians, reformation theologians, etc.), etc. However, to excel (to become an authority) in just one small subject, for example, the philosophical arguments for the existence of God is no small task. An apologist who is a generalist (seeking knowledge about all the domains of knowledge necessary for the defense of the Christian faith) will have a hard time dealing with a trained philosopher, historian, psychologist, or higher critic, etc., who has spent their entire life-time studying in one subject. It seems that most people are only able to truly excel in about three particular subjects; a cursory knowledge of other areas will evidently be necessary. What we need is not a bunch of people who are unable to truly defend the faith because they are generalists, but a horde of people, each one excelling in two or three different subjects, and depending on the others for knowledge about the subjects that they don’t have time to study. One way of glorifying God, is not to learn philosophy, or theology (insert the subject that you enjoy), for some other purpose, but to learn philosophy for the sake of philosophy; that is, to excel in one or two subjects (rather than being mediocre in many) is a way of glorifying the God who told us to do everything that we do as if we were doing it for Him.
Aquinas notes a number of errors that the Apologist is prone to make in defending the faith. First of all, it is all too easy for the Apologist, in his/her zeal to defend the faith, to attempt to explain everything, even the unexplainable. There are a lot of things that we simply cannot, due to our human nature, understand about God. Apologists and Christian philosophers need to accept and appreciate our limits. Aquinas describes this error as “Presumption, delving into the divine in such a way that one tries to grasp it fully. This presumption is denounced in Job 11:7: ‘Can you search out the footprints of God and perfectly discover the Almighty?’” We need to be aware of our limits, accept them, and not attempt to push past them. It is when we attempt to explain things that we cannot know that we fall into grave error, and, possibly, even heresy.
A second error which is common to Apologists, Theologians and Christian Philosophers alike is that we put more weight on reason than on faith. “One may err because in matters of faith he makes reason precede faith, instead of faith precede reason, as when someone is willing to believe only what he can discover by reason.” In a later section Aquinas says that we commit another error “by including the contents of faith within the bounds of philosophy, as would happen should somebody decide to believe nothing but what could be established by philosophy. On the contrary, philosophy should be brought within the bounds of faith, as the Apostle says in 2 Corinthians 10:5: ‘We…take every thought captive to obey Christ.’” The modern rationalistic philosophers, such as Descartes, thought that they could prove everything (including the existence and attributes of God, the existence and eternality of the Soul, and other Christian doctrines) through deductive arguments based upon a few self-evident first principles. This is the error that many of the modern rationalistic philosophers fell into. There are many things that we simply cannot know by reason alone, such as the virgin birth, the incarnation, the tri-unity of God, etc. In these areas, though we can demonstrate by reason that they are not incoherent, we are forced to proceed by faith. We must believe, as Augustine has said, in order to understand.
A third error that is common, not only to Apologists, Theologians and Christian Philosophers, but also to all Christians, is to push one’s reflections, in these subjects, beyond the limits of one’s own abilities. Aquinas says that one may err “by pursuing his speculation into the divine beyond the measure of his ability…For everyone has not been endowed in equal measure, so that what is beyond the ability of one is not beyond the ability of another.” In our contemporary, post-modern, society, so heavily influenced by Cartesian individualism, the notion that not all human beings are equally endowed with the ability to do X is a fact that is scorned and rejected. It is, therefore, worth our while to point out that this truth is based in reality. The basic idea is that though all of human-kind is created equally human (one of the main notions behind the Declaration of Independence), they are not equal in all abilities, or capacities, that human-beings can possess. For example, some human-beings, a good example would be Michael Jordan, are physically built to be able to jump really high or far; others are not. Some human-beings, a good example would be Einstein, are mentally capable of performing, inventing and/or discovering complex formula’s that are able to explain certain phenomenon in our universe; other’s are not, even with years of study. Each individual human-being is able to develop certain potencies that are intrinsic to human nature (though limited by one’s particular matter - body). By putting the time into developing potential ability A, one does not develop potential ability B at all, or as much. A human being who develops potential ability B instead of A, will be better at B than A, and vice versa. Some potential abilities are limited by the matter of any given individual human being, others are increased. We need to recognize our limits, and concentrate on that in which we excel.
There is at least one more error that we are prone to commit when using philosophy in theology. According to Aquinas, it is to use or integrate notions that contradict the teachings of faith. This can happen if a person who studies philosophy finds certain doctrines that seem to fit well with what the Bible teaches, but which, in reality, are contradictory to the teachings of Scripture. For example, certain Neo-Platonic teachings influence the Arian doctrine which claimed that Christ was the first creation of God.
Should a Christian theologian, pastor, apologist or layman study philosophy? There is a growing tendency in mainstream evangelicalism, and in Catholicism, to turn away from so-called “intellectual” matters, to so-called “matters of the heart”; thus concentrating more on whether or not I feel close to God, or experience Him, than on my knowledge of God, his world and his divinely inspired scriptures. Many people see the so called “intellectual matters” as being cold and lifeless, whereas contemporary worship services are seen as the apex of true spirituality. In such a climate it is hard to teach theological and apologetic subjects, so philosophy isn’t even given a chance. It is, after all, the mind of the world, the thoughts of fallen humans attempting to rebuild the tower of babel; isn’t it?
We noted above that not only is philosophy important for doing theology, but that it is, in fact, necessary for theology and a proper understanding of the Bible. All theologians and apologists should be able to use logic, both in writing their own thoughts and for destroying heresy and false ideas. Heresy, as Aquinas notes, is produced by thinking wrongly either about God or about God’s creation.
We noted the relationships between faith and theology, reason and philosophy, faith and reason, and theology and philosophy. We then went on to explain how philosophy can, and indeed should, be used in theology. We finished by noting a number of errors that we can fall into when we use philosophy in theology, or when we attempt to defend the faith by reasoning. Due to our human nature, any time we set out to think about revelation, be it written or created, we are bound to make mistakes. What is important is not that we make errors, but that we correct them and learn from them. Christian theologians, pastors, apologists and layman should all seek knowledge, at least cursory knowledge, of the basic philosophical notions. Rather than forbid the use of philosophy we should welcome it with open arms.
Thomas Aquinas, Faith, Reason and Theology, trans. Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1987), 46.
2 Pet. 2:4-9. All Bible quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted. Italics mine.
Aquinas, Faith, Reason and Theology, 44.
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, trans. Kenelm Foster and Silvester Humphries (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1994), 219-22. I won’t be taking the time to get into Aquinas’s view of the Agent Intellect, or the views of other mediaeval philosophers, as it is an enormous subject with many differing opinions.
Aquinas, Faith, Reason and Theology, 17.
In the mediaeval mindset, a philosopher was a pagan thinker who did not know God. However, all Christian theologians, prior to studying theology, were required to do something that would be similar to the modern Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. When a Christian thinker did philosophy they were not called philosophers, but theologians philosophizing. Cf. Etienne Gilson, The Elements of Christian Philosophy, 12.
Aquinas, Faith, Reason and Theology, 49.
For example, I take my car to the garage and I trust that when I pick up my car the mechanic has not only gotten rid of the noises my car was making, but has actually fixed the problem causing the noises. When I go to the hardware store and ask for advice about what type of tool I need to do a certain job, I trust the seller that they are telling the truth about the tool in question, and that they are giving me good advice about how to perform the repairs or construction that I am working on. When I read the ingredients on a loaf of bread, or a box of cereal, I am putting my faith in the company that made the bread, or cereal, that what they say is in it, is in it; and that nothing else is in it.
Aquinas, Faith, Reason and Theology, 46-7.
Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 2. 40. 60.
Cf. Aquinas, Faith, Reason and Theology, 49.
Cf. Rom. 1 :19-20.
 Aquinas, Faith, Reason and Theology, 49.
The term modern refers to a certain period of time in philosophical thought essentially spanning from Descartes to Kant.
Aquinas refers to Romans 12:3 in reference to the fact that not everyone has the same gift, but we should each use the gift that we have been given to the best of our ability. (Ibid.)