Thoughts about Philosophical Theology

What is philosophical theology?

            Philosophical theology is a discipline that seeks to apply the tools, language, and methods of philosophy to theological concerns. Some have purported there are two categories within philosophical theology. As one writer noted, “The first category includes attempts to demonstrate the truth of religious claims by appeal to evidence available apart from purported divine revelations. The second category includes attempts to demonstrate the consistency and plausibility of theological claims using philosophical techniques.”[1] The first category is what is commonly referred to as natural theology. Natural theology is what can be known about the existence and attributes of God apart from special revelation. What does nature, reason, emotions, history, and other avenues excluding the Bible say about God? The second category essentially attempts to articulate, explain, and defend Christian beliefs using rigorous thought and argumentation. Does this doctrine make sense? Is this theological idea coherent? Do any of these beliefs contradict when held together? Important questions like these are asked, studied, and answered utilizing the tools bequeathed to us by philosophy and logic.

Why does it exist?

            Philosophical theology exists to further the Church’s mission and to better articulate Christian doctrine and convictions to a wider world. It exists for the same reason all other things exist—to bring God glory. After Paul’s lengthy discussion of our salvation in the letter to the Romans, he exclaims, “For from (source) him and through (means) him and to (goal) him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:36)” He writes elsewhere, “…all things were created through him and for him. (Col 1:16)” All things, philosophical theology included, are created through and for Jesus Christ.

Though Scripture is sufficient providing all we need for the knowledge of God and our salvation, there still exists a need to explain how certain truths about God cohere or make sense within the Christian faith. Explaining what we mean when we talk of God’s attributes and his work within the world is helpful. Furthermore, if every area of life has relevance to the teachings found in Christianity, great intellectual rigor should be undertaken to apply theological truths in such a way that God is honored and people understand more about him. It does not serve the truth well to make blanket statements without proper explanation.

Why is it important?

            Philosophical theology is important because ideas have consequences. Many times what we do and feel is intricately connected to what we believe. This is evident also within our culture. Philosophical theology is important because thoughtful reflection and articulation of the truth can be used by God to bring people to the faith. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland write, “Why is this [Christian philosophy] important? Simply because the gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieu in which one person lives…One of the awesome tasks of Christian philosophers is to help turn the contemporary intellectual tide in such a way as to foster a sociocultural milieu in which Christian faith can be regarded as an intellectually credible option for thinking men and women.”[2] We desire the reality of God to be preeminent within the hearts of people and people make up culture. Removing intellectual barriers to faith is a tool God can use to change people and societies if enough people are converted.

Why is it disdained?

            Philosophical theology as well as any real philosophical discussion within the local church is viewed with suspicion or disdain because of the anti-intellectualism rampant within our wider culture. My former apologetics and philosophy professor, Dr. Steve Cowan, remarked “I believe that THE greatest threat to Christianity is the anti-intellectualism that permeates the church. For about a century now, Christians have largely retreated from the intellectual arena and entrenched themselves in a version of Christianity that emphasizes feelings, experience, and pragmatism, and have ignored the life of the mind. We have adopted a view of faith that sees it as opposed to reason. The result has been the marginalization of the church from the larger culture and our inability to be salt and light, and the increasing secularization of our society.”[3] Christians today simply value other things apart from knowledge. How often is the phrase “I just feel like” more common than “I think that…” even within the Church? Thinking deeply on certain subjects can be difficult, time-consuming, and tedious. Regardless of those barriers, we are told to love the Lord with our whole being which includes our mental faculties.

What can we do to further it in the Church?

            For starters, we can reject the prevailing sense of anti-intellectualism within the Church and begin presenting Christianity for what it is—an all-encompassing view of reality. There’s always a fear that we will lose some if we go too deep in sermons, Bible studies, conversations, and other venues for sharing the truth. We need to make a conscious effort to bring people up within their walks instead of leaving them within a certain intellectual playing field. As a youth minister, it is a burden of mine that my youth know not only what to think but how to think. Because of that, I have taught the youth a litany of informal fallacies so they can begin to spot an error in reasoning. If the Church began offering avenues for people to appreciate logic, philosophy, and reason more, maybe philosophical theology would fare better in the Church. Of utmost importance is an educated minister. There are extended arguments throughout Paul’s letters and Jesus himself was a philosopher and sharp debater. A minister ought to show his congregation the goodness of precise and meaty exegesis as well as thoughtful, theological reflection buttressed upon the biblical text.

                [1] “Philosophical Theology,” Theopedia, http://www.theopedia.com/Philosophical_theology#ref-0, (Accessed December 8th, 2014).

                [2] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations of the Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP Academic, 2003), 2.

                [3] Steve B. Cowan, ” DR. COWAN ANSWERS SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT APOLOGETICS PART I.” Austin’s Blog | Washed and Waiting for the Resurrection. Blogging until that Day. https://austind90.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/dr-cowan-answers-some-questions-about-apologetics/ (accessed December 7, 2014).

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