Monday, January 20, 2014

Athens and Jerusalem

What are the uses and misuses of philosophy in Christian theology?

I. Definition

1) To begin with, we need to define philosophy. 

i) Defining philosophy is, itself, a philosophical question, and different philosophers give different answers concerning the scope of philosophy, depending on their view of what exists. For instance, logical positivists try to exclude metaphysics from philosophy. Physicalists like Quine and Alex Rosenberg favor a scientistic definition of philosophy. 

ii) The question itself impinges on the relationship between philosophy and theology. As Christians, we are open to a more expansive definition of philosophy, because our worldview is less restrictive than physicalism. 

iii) We can define philosophy in methodological terms. Among other things, philosophy concerns logic and the rules of argument. What constitutes a valid or invalid argument? What constitutes a sound or unsound argument? 

iv) We can define philosophy according to the content of philosophy, viz. metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, hermeneutics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science.

v) We can define philosophy in terms of the sources of philosophy. On one definition, philosophy relies on unaided reason. Nonrevelatory sources of information, viz., intuition, personal experience, testimonial evidence. 

vi) Then there's philosophical theology. This could take two different forms:

a) Begin with a revealed truth, then explicate or supplement that through nonrevealtory sources. 

b) Develop the theological implications of nonrevealed sources, viz. a priori theistic proofs. 

II. Misuses

i) One misuse of philosophy in theology is to build a theological system on abstract possibilities. On something that's merely conceivable and consistent, even though there's no positive reason to believe it's true. Possibilities greatly outnumber truths. Many things are possible which will never be true. Putting your faith in some appealing, but imaginary theological construct, is foolish.

ii) Another misuse of philosophy in theology is to invoke intuition to discount revelatory truths. 

III. Uses

i) Knowing how to construct sound arguments or detect unsound arguments is important in both exegetical and systematic theology.

ii) Inferring the logical implications of a revealed truth, or the logical relationship between one revealed truth and another, is important in systematic theology.

iii) Hermeneutics is important in exegetical theology. For instance, what is the locus of meaning? Authorial intent? The audience? Which audience? The historical audience? Implied audience?

Is the meaning of a Psalms self-contained, or does the Psalter as a whole contribute to the meaning of each individual Psalm? 

Or the need to distinguish between sense and reference. 

iv) God-talk

Is God-talk literal or figurative? Is God-talk univocal, analogical, or equivocal? 

In principle, two readers could interpret the Bible the same way, but one reader has a noncognitive theory of God-talk. He doesn't think Biblical statements about God convey genuine information about God's nature or activity in the world. 

v) Philosophy can explore the rational grounds for believing revealed truths.

vi) Philosophy can explicate or fill in revealed truths by using analogies, viz. what does it mean for God to be timeless or spaceless? Abstract objects can supply analogies. 

vii) Philosophy can be deployed to give positive reasons for believing in theology, viz., theistic proofs. 

viii) Philosophy can be of aid in formulating doctrines. Using precise terminology. Avoiding inaccurate or heretical formulations. 

ix) Philosophy can be deployed to rebut objections to theology. There are many examples:

a) If an atheist objects to the possibility of a timeless or spaceless Creator making the physical world, he is making assumptions about the nature of causality. And there are different philosophical theories of causality. Likewise, how a timeless, spaceless God can know the physical world. 

b) If an atheist objects to the possibility of the intermediate state, philosophical arguments for substance dualism can support the possibility of postmortem survival. 

c) If an atheist objects to miracles, because they "violate" the laws of nature, that raises questions about the ontological status of physical laws. 

d) If an atheist deploys the argument from evil, that raises metaethical questions about secular ethics. Likewise, it raises questions about whether there's a best possible world. That involves thought-experiments. 

e) If an atheist assures us that science has disproven the Bible, that figures in the philosophy of science. Theories of time. Theories of perception. Methodological naturalism. The uniformity of nature. The problem of induction. 

He might also argue that science tacitly relies on theological underpinnings. 

f) If an atheist objects to the possibility of a resurrection, that involves theories of personal identity. 

g) If an atheist alleges that Christian doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, divine omniscience, or divine omnipotence, are incoherent, Christians philosophers may be able to show the coherence of these doctrines.

h) But suppose Christian philosophers can't demonstrate their coherence. Yet Christian philosophers might point out that there are many intractable paradoxes in math, science, and philosophy, so the mere fact that some Christian doctrines seem to be incoherent is not an undercutter or defeater so long as we have some independent reason to believe them.

i) An atheist might alleged that Scripture is self-contradictory. A Christian philosopher might respond by critiquing crude notions of what constitutes a contradiction. 

j) An atheist might object that Christians believe in things they can't prove. A Christian philosopher might respond between distinguishing between proof and knowledge. 


  1. Steve this is very helpful.

  2. May I post this or a link to this on my own blog?
    I'd give you full credit but I found this interesting and helpful for several reasons....

    1. Feel free to use it however you like.

  3. This is very good Steve, many disjointed thoughts I've had in my head concerning the role of philosophy for the Christian has gone through my head and you've been able to put this here in summary form rather systematically with other points I've not thought of before. Again thank you Steve.