A REVIEW OF PHILOSOPHY FOR UNDERSTANDING THEOLOGY
Philosophy for Understanding Theology, 2nd edition. By Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 267 pp. $30.00. ISBN 978-0-664-23180-4.
“Everyone needs to know some philosophy in order to understand the major doctrines of Christianity or to read a great theologian intelligently.” This is how this classic guide to the philosophical ideas that undergird Christian theology begins. Some might contest the truth of this statement, however, once one has read this book, it would be difficult to, at the same time, maintain intellectual honesty and contest the truth of this statement. I have read quite a few introductions to philosophy, but this book is unique. As usual, I will begin by explaining the purpose of this book, followed by a brief overview of how the author accomplishes his purposes. This will be followed by an assessment of the relative worth of this book.
The purpose of this book, as is stated quite frequently by the author, is “to give a person the philosophy needed to understand Christian theology better, for often the lack of knowledge of some key philosophic term or concept impedes significant understanding of a vital issue.” What many theology students don’t realise (possibly due to a schism that was created between the domains of philosophy and theology, especially evident in protestant theology) is that all of the great theologians were influenced by the predominant philosophical thoughts of their day. The purpose of this book is to explain those predominant philosophical thoughts so that the student of theology will be better able to understand the claims of the theologians that they are studying. The author explains that he selected the material that is used in this book based upon the theologians’ use of philosophy. That is, he “determined from a study of their works what philosophy influenced them and what philosophical concepts and terms they use.” He then seeks to explain the philosophy in question. He concentrated primarily on three important domains of theology: Theology proper, Christology and Anthropology.
This book, the second edition, is divided into thirteen chapters. The two new chapters, not found in the first edition, are written by Eric O. Springsted. A book of this nature could easily become quite large, as for every era of theological speculation there have been philosophers that influenced the theologians who were writing, teaching and defending Christian theology. However, the most important period of philosophical research, for the early Christian and medieval Christian theology, is that of ancient philosophy. As such, the author is certainly justified in devoting the first five chapters of this book to giving an overview and explanation of the philosophical thoughts of Plato (and Platonism) and of Aristotle (and Aristotelianism). The reality is that these two schools of philosophical thought have been behind almost every single explanation of Christian theology, in some way, shape or form, starting with the early church, and continuing through the many church divisions and up to contemporary Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox thought. In chapter 1 the author explains Plato’s views concerning the existence, source and purpose of this world. In chapter 2 the author looks at Plato’s views concerning the nature and purpose of man, and the reality of an afterlife. In chapter 3 the author considers the many different neoplatonic schools of thought that influenced early Christian thinkers (and, with almost no exceptions, every one of the early church fathers). In chapter 4 the author gives an overview of the main tenets of Aristotelian thought that were known to the early church fathers up to the beginning of the medieval age. In chapter 5 he considers the influence of Aristotle on the formation of medieval theology and the development of scholasticism. In each of these chapters the author takes time to note some of the major church theologians who were influenced by the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and how it impacted their theology.
The author devotes one chapter, chapter 6, to the views of Thomas Aquinas (considering primarily his views concerning Natural Theology), and presents the reactions of Karl Barth and A. N. Whitehead to Aquinas. In chapter 7 the author explains some of the main shifts in philosophy and science that influenced the shifts that occurred in theology around the same time. He concentrates primarily on the impact of nominalism, humanism and the scientific revolution. His comments on humanism are most interesting, and should temper some of the false ideas that many people have concerning what humanism is. John Calvin, for example, was technically a humanist. In chapter 8 the author considers the effect of the debate between Rationalism and Empiricism, stimulated primarily by the philosophical and theological musings of Rene Descartes, as well as the effect of the Enlightenment attitude on theology. In chapter 9 the author gives an overview of the philosophy of Kant (as well as some of those who influenced his thought), and how Kant’s philosophy affected, and continues to affect, contemporary theology. Chapter 10 looks at Hegel, and chapter 11 considers the impact of Existentialism, phenomenology and Hermeneutical philosophy on Theology. In chapter 11 the author looks at the influence of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, and Husserl on theology, and biblical hermeneutics. The final chapters consider the effect of Post-modern thought on Christian theology. These chapters emphasize the works of Foucault, Wittgenstein, Derrida, MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor, and consider how these great thinkers have been creating waves in Christian theology.
The purpose of this book is to provide an overview of the main philosophical views that have affected the works of Christian theologians. This book accomplishes this purpose wonderfully and will be a great resource for theologians and students of theology, as well as Christian apologists. The primary lacuna of the book is that there is almost no mention of how philosophy affected the theologians of the reform, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, et al. The authors explain the philosophy that was prevalent in their day, but fail to note how it affected the way in which they approached theology. Another difficulty that I note in this book is that the author does not seem to think that the progressive changes in philosophical thought, some of which may have been direct causes of contemporary post-modernism, were avoidable. As you read his book, the author takes you through the history of philosophy, and at each step he gives you the impression that the philosophers in question have made real advances on the thought of the preceding thinkers. He notes some of the errors of these thinkers (or difficulties that their theories entail), how these errors affected other thinkers and theologians, but he never once seems to consider the possibility that maybe the "advances" made by some thinker, were actually moves in the wrong direction. (For example, the modern philosophers rejected some important notions of causality, and other ontological categories. The author does not necessarily portray this as either an advancement or a regression, it is presented as a historical fact. A historical fact that changed the face of philosophy and theology forever and seriously influenced such thinkers as Hume, Kant, and the philosophers engaged in the rationalist-empiricist debate. Was this rejection an advancement or a regression? If it was a regression then all the thoughts of those thinkers, philosophers and theologians, that based themselves in this rejection, though not necessarily false, should certainly be treated with suspicion. If the foundations are cracked, then the stability of the entire building is compromised.) If modern and contemporary philosophy has taken a false route somewhere, and if contemporary theology is inspired by modern and contemporary philosophy, then, it seems, contemporary theology may have also taken off on the wrong road. Aside from these points, this book is exceptional and, I would suggest, is a necessary addition to the library of anybody who is truly interested in understanding Christian theology. Also, it would be great to see this book used as a textbook in a course on this subject in undergrad theology programs.