Research Fellowship - Philosophy & Apologetics

Philosophy and Theological Method

This essay is part of an ongoing series considering various aspects of the relationship between theology and philosophy. Shawn Langley is a Research Fellow with the BibleMesh Institute.

Our last discussion looked at one question and two traditions that help us better understand the way theological tools have been and continue to be applied within a distinctively philosophical environment. We saw how the history of philosophy has ultimately been concerned with overcoming the fear of death through the power of human reason. And we introduced two primary traditions that have informed this pursuit, seeing the concern for systems in the continental method and the meticulous attention to detail in the analytic method.

Now we will turn to consider the related question of how we can begin to understand the way philosophical tools have been applied in a distinctively theological context. What discussions has theology taken from philosophy its own attempt to face the fear of death? The best way to answer this is by introducing three overarching themes of philosophy and looking at how they have been appropriated in the service of theology’s search for truth and hope.

The Themes of Philosophy

Just as it can help us to divide philosophy into different traditions to evaluate the nuances or intentions of a certain discussion, it can also be helpful to separate the discussions themselves into distinct categories. This allows us to specify as carefully as possible what exactly it is we are trying to figure out. Before we can attempt to give a satisfactory answer to the questions of life and death, we first need to have a clear sense of what it is we are even talking about.

Philosophy is concerned with three main themes: how we understand reality, what it means for something to be real, and how we should live in response.

For this reason, philosophy has tended to classify its efforts into three main themes. The first of these is concerned with how we understand reality, including what it means for something to be “real” or to have existence of some sort. The second theme deals with our knowledge of this reality, such as what types of requirements or processes are involved in claiming to know something. And the last theme deals with how we ought to live or what we ought to do, especially in light of what is discovered to be the case by the other two themes.

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?

The essence of reality, sometimes labeled metaphysics or ontology, revolves around one central problem. To understand the world we live in, we must balance the apparent relatedness of things on the one hand, and their apparent unrelatedness on the other. For example, when we see an apple on the table, there’s something about the apple that is common to all apples: we might call this apple-ness. And yet, even though this apple shares an apple-ness with all apples, whether real or imagined, this apple is clearly not any of those other apples but its own distinct apple.

This is sometimes called the problem of the one and the many by philosophers. In our example, there seems to be one single concept that represents what it means to be an apple, but we cannot see or touch or (most importantly!) taste this concept; rather, we can only see and touch and taste individual apples. With metaphysics, we are asking how it is possible that we can rightly recognize an individual entity both by connecting it to some inaccessible conceptual commonality and by distinguishing it from all other entities connected in the same way.

But are we really saying that philosophy has been spending thousands of years trying to figure out what an apple is? Although these basic questions about the essence of reality are central to the study of metaphysics, their primary significance is far deeper. If we say that all reality is composed of some mysterious principles of continuity, such as apple-ness, where are these principles and what do they tell us about the underlying nature of things?

For example, is there an invisible world of perfect concepts that our visible world is dependent on for its imperfect structure? If so, who or what is responsible for constructing our present reality, and are they to be commended or criticized for how it turned out? Similarly, suppose we say a deity is responsible for giving us our world, is the deity itself dependent on these mysteriously invisible categories?

As we can see, a seemingly trivial metaphysical question about the essence of an apple proves relevant for how we understand the deepest truths of our existence, such as whether and what kind of God exists, and if there is anything contributing to or detracting from his participation in the world.


What Do You Know?

Along with the theory of reality, a second philosophical theme for theological method is the theory of knowledge, or epistemology. Where metaphysics is concerned with the essential principles underlying our existence, epistemology is interested in how we come to know such things in the first place.

The primary aim of epistemology is to ask how we can have confidence in what we believe or come to believe. In other words, how do we account for the many things we have little reason to doubt, such as our knowledge of what we are presently doing, and how do we develop processes to ensure we form true beliefs in response to new experiences.

The primary aim of epistemology is to ask how we can have confidence in what we believe or come to believe.

For example, what should we do when one of our most firmly held intuitions is contradicted by some other type of belief we have good reason to accept. Let’s say you have been raised to think anyone in crimson is not to be trusted and, despite no conscious memory of how you formed this belief apart from its passionate and widespread endorsement within your community, you have also had its truthfulness confirmed seemingly regularly throughout your life.

But then one day a friend, who you find otherwise reliable, points out a certain passerby and tells you he is both fond of crimson and a relatively good person. What are you now to do? Is your friend a liar, or deceived, or perhaps malevolent? Or could it be that your intuitions, reliable though they have appeared for so long, are actually mistaken and not to be trusted? How do you know who or what to believe?

From a theological standpoint, consider having grown up believing in a wise and loving God. You don’t remember forming this belief, but it has been confirmed by your community and your own experiences seemingly regularly throughout your entire life. But then one day someone you find otherwise trustworthy or reliable gives you some pretty compelling reasons to doubt your initial intuition. What are you to do? How do you know who or what to believe?

From the tiniest insecurities to the biggest questions of meaning, we all face doubt. Developing a theory of knowledge gives us the resources we need to confront these doubts rather than ignoring their slow but steady takeover of our hearts and minds.

How Then Should We Live?

The final theme from philosophy deals with how we live a life of virtue. After developing a theory of reality and of knowledge, it remains for us to ask how we ought to conduct ourselves in light of these things. This, of course, is the most recognizable theme from our everyday experience, but the study of ethics and morality is about far more than making good choices.

ethics teaches us how to cultivate the type of character that can meet the many uncertainties of life with clarity and courage, like a tree standing firm through every season (Ps. 1).

Of course, we do need to learn how to respond in unforeseen or morally ambiguous circumstances. But more than this, ethics teaches us how to cultivate the type of character that can meet the many uncertainties of life with clarity and courage, like a tree standing firm through every season (Ps. 1). Similarly, ethics also instructs us in the practices that contribute to the greatest possible well-being for ourselves and for others, which leads not only to good decisions but good societies and civilizations.



The more comfortable we become with these themes from philosophy, the better equipped we will be to handle the questions of theological method. In subsequent discussions, we will consider several examples that help clarify our own methodological assumptions.

Shawn Langley

Shawn Langley

Shawn Langley is also a Research Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge, England. His writing focuses on the relationship between philosophy & theology, particularly the way epistemological questions shape and are shaped by biblical interpretation.