Philosophy and theology are always intertwined. This is perhaps most clear when it comes to questions of method: how do we interpret what the Bible says or how do we arrive at the doctrines we should believe?
While our study of biblical teaching often looks much like an attempt to accumulate as many individual doctrines, such as the Trinity or baptism, with as much accuracy and clarity as possible, the reality is that our approach to these individual questions is always being informed by a basic system of understanding that guides the entire process. That is, we always assume a philosophy that informs how we interpret and apply Scripture.
This is not unlike a computer, whose operating system ultimately determines the types of inputs and outputs that are even available to a particular machine in the first place. Although a calculator and an iPhone are both types of computers, good luck getting Mom to answer FaceTime with your TI-36!
The same is true of our own theological process. The type of philosophical system we adopt—knowingly or unknowingly—determines the entire purview of what questions we ask, if we ask them, and how we ask them as we read God’s Word. Therefore, as we begin to appreciate more fully the role of philosophical method in our own and others’ thinking, we will be better equipped to respond with appropriate relevance to whatever questions we might face.
But first, what exactly are we after in a consideration of theology and philosophical method? Essentially, we are asking how theology has been and continues to be undertaken within the methodological confines of a distinctively philosophical system. In other words, how have the tools of theology been put to work in an environment determined and developed by philosophy?
How have the tools of theology been put to work in an environment determined and developed by philosophy? To answer this, let’s look at one question and two traditions
To answer this, let’s look at one question and two traditions. By understanding what exactly philosophy is attempting to accomplish, as well as the two basic approaches underlying and informing this attempt, we will have a much surer footing as we engage some of the problems perpetually beguiling philosophy and theology.
With What is Philosophy Concerned?
The word philosophy means “love of wisdom,” and thus its history has been given, century after century, to the human mind’s relentless attempt to understand. And yet, because this pursuit has been focused on so many different objects of inquiry over such a wide span of time, it can be difficult to pinpoint precisely what it is that unifies and distinguishes the “love of wisdom” as a discipline. What exactly is philosophy? What makes something a matter of philosophical interest?
Well, not too surprisingly, this question itself has seen its fair share of speculation. But if we peel back the layers of philosophy, is there a single notion or problem or question underneath the whole thing?
Counterintuitively, perhaps the best way for us to think of the defining purpose of philosophy in this life is in its preparing us for death. If the love of wisdom is meant to better our pilgrimage through this world, and if the only surety of this pilgrimage is its inescapable end, then the achievement of wisdom amounts ultimately to accepting the only thing known for certain about this brief journey. And in this acceptance lies the longed-for fruit of philosophy: conquering the fear of death.1
the defining purpose of philosophy in this life is in its preparing us for death. If the love of wisdom is meant to better our pilgrimage through this world, and if the only surety of this pilgrimage is its inescapable end, then the achievement of wisdom amounts ultimately to accepting the only thing known for certain about this brief journey
But it is not simply what the love of wisdom seeks that distinguishes it, but how. Because wisdom, according to philosophy, is ultimately a matter of the individual human mind, it is up to that mind somehow to attain understanding of life and death without appealing to anything that could be seen as outside its principles or processes (such as an all-knowing, self-revealing Deity). Thus, one of the defining characteristics of philosophy, over against theology, is its insistence that these challenges to human understanding be overcome by human understanding itself.
How, then, has philosophy sought through the power of unaided human understanding to conquer the fear of death? Let us look at two of the most significant traditions characterizing this search.
The history of philosophy can be divided up in many ways: chronology, geography, subject matter. But the most popular division, and arguably the most helpful, is that of methodology. Many names have been given to this particular partition, but in contemporary discussions it has become common to distinguish between continental and analytic philosophy. Using these terms to represent the tradition as a whole, we will sketch a brief overview of some essential aspects of each approach and save further assessment for future analysis.
The first of these traditions, what we are calling continental philosophy—so named simply because of its predominance on the continent of Europe— attends to the pursuit of human wisdom ultimately to uncover wider connections and deeper implications to build a system of thought that can account for our place in the world with ever increasing consistency. Those in the continental tradition are prone to focus less on the minutia and more on providing as comprehensive a view of reality as possible.
Probably the most recognizable example of continental philosophy to contemporary readers would be the system of thought bearing the name of Karl Marx. The philosophy of Marxism is often associated with a term as accurate as it is unglamorous: totalitarianism. The reason for this, we can see, is that continental philosophy is not content with individual statements of fact.
Rather, continental thinkers aim to unveil the hidden interconnectivity of every mode of inquiry and sphere of society, such as religion, education, politics, morality, science, economics, and art. Our engagement with continental philosophy, then, requires us to approach various thinkers and theories with our eye toward the broadest narratives, asking how and why certain ideas have been put together in a certain way and what it all might mean.
The tradition of analytic philosophy, on the other hand, places its emphasis primarily and predictably where continental philosophy does not. Where continental thinkers are concerned with the bigger picture and how different facets of the system all relate to the whole, analytic thinkers are concerned with distilling our thought content down into its most microscopic components and scrutinizing them until any underlying ambiguity has been removed.
Where continental thinkers are concerned with the bigger picture and how different facets of the system all relate to the whole, analytic thinkers are concerned with distilling our thought content down into its most microscopic components
This process has taken on many forms throughout time, but its general preoccupation has been with the basic building blocks of meaning: words, sentences, and sometimes even mere symbols. According to the analytic tradition, our efforts to systematize and interconnect are ultimately futile without first establishing certainty, to whatever extent and in whatever way that is possible.
A recognizable example of this in our everyday life would be something like the syllogisms we find in standard treatments of logic or critical thinking. Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. Though seemingly quite basic, this emphasis on the minutia of meaning has continued to grow in complexity over time (think programming languages) and remains the hallmark of the analytic tradition of philosophy.
It might be good to mention here, before closing, that these two traditions need not be thought of as mutually exclusive. Someone can be interested in being meticulously logical in the interest of an all-encompassing system of human thought and experience. Thus, it is best for us to consider each tradition as a matter of preference, with the reality being something more like a continuum along which we might locate differing methodologies.
1 Cf. the popular essay by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne [1533-1592], “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,” 1580.
In the next post of this series, we’ll consider how the various tools of philosophy have been applied to theology and the task of biblical interpretation.