This post is the first in a series from BibleMesh Institute Research Fellow in Philosophy and Apologetics, Shawn Langley.
Throughout history, the relationship between philosophy and theology has been widely debated. That remains the case for many today. For some, philosophy provides a window into the pinnacle of human understanding and as such proves indispensable in our search for God, while for others it represents the utter futility of reasoning apart from revealed truth and thus deserves a rather swift dismissal.
So, in light of these potential differences of opinion, how should we begin to think about the place of philosophy in the study of theology? After considering one caveat, we will outline three categories to help guide our attempt at an answer, namely how philosophy provides us with a toolset, a tradition, and a template, all of which can serve to strengthen our pursuit of theological studies.
What Not to Do
To orient our discussion, it might help first to state how we ought not to approach the question of philosophy’s place in the study of theology. There can be a tendency for us to associate our views on the relative merits of philosophy with our own natural interest or disinterest in the discipline. Those who think analytically might find symbolic logic nothing short of exhilarating. But if this is more of an acquired taste for you, it may be difficult to see any practical purpose in it.
To counter this tendency, it can be helpful to think of philosophy as an important but imperfect resource. There is nothing inherent to philosophy that in itself gives us a deeper or more accurate knowledge of God. We can know him and his Word with full confidence in the understanding imparted by the Spirit through the church regardless of our familiarity with the changing tides of human reason. And yet, to neglect philosophy is to limit the types of discussions with which we are conversant, and this in turn can impede our attempts to engage winsomely within cultures informed by and reliant on these discussions.
Philosophy, then, can assist in our theological efforts, but we must be careful to balance its importance with its imperfections in a way that is faithful to both the high standard of reasoning we have been called to, as well as the Word on which this reasoning is based.
Philosophy Offers a Set of Tools to Simplify Complex Problems
Turning now to our first category, one of the most valuable contributions philosophy can offer to students of theology is a set of tools for carefully unraveling the challenging questions inevitably faced in life and ministry. This has been done primarily in the handing down of agreed upon forms of argument, an expectation for carefulness of thought, and a lexicon of (usually) precise terminology.
This doesn’t mean we have to adorn our every discussion with sophisticated jargon or always follow inflexible patterns of analysis when speaking with others, for the fundamental purpose of these resources is to deepen our own understanding of certain questions in an effort to think and communicate as clearly as possible. Yet, even for those of us who may not be overly enthusiastic about the idea of technical categories such as “affirming the consequent” or synthetic a priori, there is nevertheless a valuable place for these tools insofar as they help sharpen what and how we think about any number of theological difficulties.
Rigorous philosophical analysis, like any good tool when used rightly, can aid our efforts to know God by helping undermine the ambiguity and unclarity sadly still afflicting our limited, sin-laden minds.
One area of immediate relevance for these tools is the ministry of the Word. This is in part what the Westminster Confession of Faith has in view when describing those things not “expressly set down in Scripture,” but “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” such as “some circumstances concerning the Word of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” (WCF 1.6)
That is, there are places in the Bible where sometimes the meaning is anything but obvious, and when we come to these difficult places, we are expected to figure out (to “deduce”) the intended meaning in faithful adherence to the rest of Scripture. And so, while we do not look ultimately to philosophy to define or delimit any given text, wielding philosophical principles with skill and care can help us stay our course amid those places in the Word “not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” (WCF 1.7)
Philosophy Offers Safeguards from Error
Next, in what sense does the tradition of philosophy contribute to our study of theology? As we might expect, being familiar with this tradition keeps us from having to confront each new challenge in its entirety or entirely from scratch, and this helps both to safeguard us from certain errors and to situate our thinking in a particular context. In the first place, it provides us a safeguard against widespread notions that can be as common as they are mistaken.
One example of this would be the well-known dictum from the nineteenth century that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”1 It would be hard to overstate the pervasive influence this view of supposedly sufficient evidence (and a whole host of related views) has had on the study of theology in the English-speaking world, but it would be similarly hard to overstate how emphatic has been its abandonment within much of contemporary philosophy.
Related to this, the tradition of philosophy also situates us in a particular context, allowing us to engage difficult questions with substance and relevance. For example, being aware of the titanic influence of eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant on the thinking of so many modern societies, from education to morality to religion, will make us much more able interpreters both of our own beliefs and of those to whom we teach or minister.
Were we to ignore so rich a resource as the philosophical tradition, we would be depriving ourselves of a most useful means for describing and defending the beauty of God and his Word.
Philosophy Offers a Template for Studying Theology
Finally, then, how does philosophy give us a template for our study of theology? In many ways, this third category is simply the practical outworking of the other two: where the tools and tradition of philosophy provide us with a static structure to consult when trying to engage the difficult questions of our day responsibly, the template can be seen as an open opportunity for creative application of these resources in our own unique context.
Whether responding to criticism (e.g. on the existence of God) or clarifying a perplexing notion (e.g. divine revelation), the template of philosophy can help us refine or revise our thinking based on any number of relevant factors. For example, can we ever adjust our doctrine in response to cultural change or influence? If so, which doctrines, and in response to which cultural changes and influences? Such decisions can at times demand an exactness in style and structure that often eludes even the most astute minds, and thus the template of philosophy can help ensure we are being as careful as our calling requires.
The proper handling of philosophy is a valuable help to the study (and practice) of theology. Just as we ought not neglect the profound insight into the character and purposes of God available to us through other disciplines, such as literature or psychology or mathematics, so too should we heed the important though imperfect contributions of philosophy in our effort to honor the One in whom the true love of wisdom has both its source and its aim.
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.