Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (12): Further Thoughts on Theology & Philosophy

In the last post, we discussed briefly the relationship between Scripture, theology, and other academic disciplines. In this post, we will follow up on one strand of that discussion by discussing the historically enigmatic relation between theology and philosophy. An account of the theological task must provide an account of the relation of these two disciplines. Before doing so, however, one must define this notion of “philosophy,” which can be used in quite different manners. David Clark points out that theologians use the word “philosophy” in at least four different manners.[1] First, philosophy can refer to a person’s philosophy of life, his worldview, his most basic conceptual grid. Under this view, philosophy is a macroperspective which interprets the whole of life. Second, philosophy can refer to an academic discipline which consists of a cluster of sub-disciplines such as logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics. Third, philosophy can refer to second-order areas of study that have become academic disciplines with their own integrity. Examples include philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. Fourth, philosophy can refer to one’s commitment to critical thinking and argumentation.

When unfolding the relation of theology to philosophy, this post has in mind a combination of the latter three uses of the word philosophy. In our view, Christian philosophy is the attempt to describe systematically the structure of creation (the nature of being, of knowledge, of beauty, etc.), drawing upon God’s self-revelation found in the created order and in the Bible, and using the tools of critical thinking and argumentation. It seeks a comprehensive view of the created order as creation (not merely as “nature”), and draws upon Scripture. Although Scripture does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of creational realities, it does provide the framework and many clues for understanding them. Bartholomew and Goheen write, “In our experience, sometimes people get so excited about philosophy-believe it or not-that they forget that it is Scripture which is God’s infallible word. Indeed, in our opinion a healthy Christian philosophy, like a healthy Christian theology, will take us back again and again and deeper and deeper into the Bible. We also believe that because the Bible is God’s Word for all of life that philosophy too must bow to its authority.”[2]

How, therefore, is Christian philosophy related to the task of systematic and integrative theology (such as the type being encouraged in this blog series)? First, philosophy is helpful for conceiving one’s theological method. For example, Christian philosophers can help the theologian articulate the ontology and epistemology that undergird the theological enterprise. Second, the philosophical sub-discipline of logic helps the theologian conceive and articulate each doctrine in a unified and coherent manner, and further to relate the doctrines to each other in a likewise coherent manner. Third, the philosophical sub-discipline of “history of philosophy” can help the theologian understand both the positive and negative developments in intellectual history. Fourth, philosophical tools can help the theologian make a deep-level exegesis of his cultural context. Fifth, philosophical tools can help clear the ground for a person’s conversion, by answering various objections to belief. Sixth, philosophy can assist the theologian in analyzing various aspects of the creational order and of human life, an aspect of the philosophical task to which we now turn.

[1] David Clark, To Know and Love God, 296-299.

[2] Bartholomew and Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy, ch. 1.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (11): Some Thoughts on Theology, Philosophy, and Science

Many of the most formative moments of my life occurred during college (waaaayyy back in the mid 90s). I had just recently truly embraced Christ and had begun to realize the moralism and self-righteousness that had blurred my spiritual and theological vision. During those years, I began to realize that, if the gospel is true, then it is relevant to absolutely every realm of thought. More to the point, I began to realize that it is relevant to disciplines such as philosophy and science, which have often been held up as the rational ideals and cultural authorities for any civilized person. In the first centuries of the church’s existence, philosophy held the position of “cultural authority” (for many people), while in the past several centuries, science has held that position (for many people). In fact, when Christians do theology publicly, the elephant in the room usually is “the sciences.” Perhaps no subject has been so sharply divisive over the past centuries. One thinks of Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the Catholic and Protestant churches, of the divisive nature of the Scopes monkey trials, and of the acrimony that sometimes exists today between theologians and scientists.

In light of the robust presence of philosophy and science in our cultural spaces, and in light of the contributions that have been made by philosophers and scientists, this installment (together with the next two installments) argues that theologians benefit from dialogue with philosophers, scientists, and those who work in other fields of learning. In such encounters, how should theologians view the fruits of philosophy, science, or some other discipline, especially if the practitioners with whom they interact are not believers and do not take into account the teaching of Christian Scripture?

Levels of Reflection:

Before tackling the notions of philosophy and science separately (in the next two blog installments), first we must provide a conceptual map relating those disciplines to Scripture, biblical theology, worldview, and systematic theology. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen provide such a map.[1] In their view, Scripture is the inspired Word of God. Biblical theology is the study of Scripture which conceives of and articulates Scripture as a unified and coherent narrative which is the true story of the whole world. Worldview consists of the basic beliefs drawn from the biblical narrative, in interaction with a particular culture’s basic beliefs.[2] Systematic theology and Christian philosophy both arise from Scripture, biblical theology, and worldview. They, like worldview, are abstractions from the biblical story. Other disciplines (e.g. the arts, the sciences, business, economics) arise from Christian philosophy and systematic theology, drawing upon them as they study the particulars of their own creational reality.

The larger model, therefore, has five tiers:

Scripture (God’s Word written)

Biblical Theology (the story of the Bible)

Christian Worldview

Christian Philosophy & Systematic Theology

Other Disciplines

They further explain this model by means of an analogy, comparing knowledge with a tree.[3] In this analogy, the roots of the tree are “faith,” or the direction of the heart. All humans practice faith, either in God or in idols. The base of the trunk is biblical theology, providing the foundation and trajectory for the growth of the tree. The main body of the trunk is a Christian worldview, which in turn has two main branches, namely, systematic theology and Christian philosophy. Growing from those two main branches are further branches, which represent the special sciences, the various disciplines which each have their own creational integrity. In this view of things, Christian theology and Christian philosophy stand side-by-side in the search for truth. Neither discipline seeks to build its knowledge independent of God’s revelation. Both disciplines arise from the biblical narrative and its attendant Christian worldview, and therefore find themselves in a healthy and fruitful dialogue and partnership with one another.

[1] Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Invitation to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 26-28.

[2] Goheen and Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads, 27.

[3] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming 2012), chs. 1-2.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (10): The Task of Theology is Shot Through with Culture and Context.

No doubt those of us in conservative circles understand the deleterious influence “culture” has had on Christian theologians throughout church history. We rightly (and repeatedly) note how liberal-revisionist theology tends to become captive to its own cultural context. Schleiermacher and some of his heirs viewed theology as disciplined reflection on human experience (which is always “had” within a cultural context), and therefore their Enlightenment- and Romantic-context theologies tended to be a-supernatural, moralistic, experiential, etc. This is why Schleiermacher’s work was heterodox, and why he leaned to the left more than a NASCAR driver on Percocet®. But what we have not noted is how conservative theologians can be equally susceptible. (I’m a card-carrying conservative, farther to the right than Sam Donaldson’s part.) We conservatives view theology as disciplined reflection on Christian Scripture, but because our reflection on Scripture takes place within a pragmatic, nationalistic, militaristic, consumerist, and individualist cultural context, our theologies can inappropriately reflect those idolatries. So there is a need to get this “theology and culture” thing right, both in theory and in practice. And this need extends to theologians of every stripe.

A faithfully integrative theology is always conceived and articulated in cultural context, whether that context is Boston, Beirut, or Beijing. For biblical illustration of this inescapable fact, one notes how Paul shaped his sermons and speeches for specific contexts. An examination of his sermons in Acts 13 (to Jewish Diaspora), Acts 14 (to rural animists), Acts 17 (to the cultural elite of the Areopagus), and his testimonies in Acts 22 (Jewish patriots) and Acts 26 (to the cultural elite of Syria-Palestine) reveal Paul’s conscious and consistent determination to communicate the gospel in a contextually appropriate manner.[1] Further, cultural context is not an evil the theologian seeks to escape. God himself established culture when he created his imagers with culture-making capacities and told them to be fruitful, till the soil, and practice dominion. These inherently social and cultural commands, combined with the social and cultural nature of the eternal state (Rev 21, 22), assure us that the deeply cultural nature of human existence is something to be embraced rather than avoided.[2]

The biblical testimony leads us to believe that theologians must affirm that God has woven “culture” into the fabric of human life, that theology is done in the midst of human culture and by means of cultural realities such as human language, and that the theologian must critically recognize the human rebellion and idolatry that has marred his cultural context precisely because his theology is crafted in the midst of, and for the sake of, that context. If one’s theology is to be appropriately contextual, it must be crafted faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically. First, theology must be done faithfully, by recognizing Scripture as our primary source and supreme norm. Second, theology must be done meaningfully, by being conceived and articulated in ways that are appropriate for the particular social and cultural context. We want the hearer to apprehend our words and actions in the way that we intend, and to respond in a way that is meaningful for that context. Third, theology must be done dialogically, being crafted in such a way that God’s word speaks prophetically to that context, unmasking its idolatrous underpinnings and its insufficiency on its own to understand the truth about God and the world. God’s word calls every human culture into question, calling it to conform to the image of Christ. The gospel does not condemn all of a culture, but it is always and at the same time both affirming and rejecting. If the gospel we preach does not have a prophetic edge, then it is not truly or fully the gospel.

David Clark and other theologians have elaborated on the dialogical process for contextual theology.[3] Clark provides a particularly helpful explanation of the dialogical process, and does so by means of seven steps that a contextual theology might include.[4] First, Christians raise questions from within the particular cultural context. Those questions are shaped by that context’s cultural matrix, including its distinctive set of beliefs, feelings, values, practices, products, and so forth. Second, Christians offer initial responses based upon their understanding of the biblical testimony. Because the questions are raised from within a particular culture, which is not the culture in which the Bible was written, the questions asked may not find an easily packaged answer from the pages of the Bible. Third, Christians seek to embrace and obey the conclusions they have provisionally drawn; they prayerfully allow God to keep their hearts open to further light from the Scriptures. Fourth, they allow Scripture to judge the cultural context from within which the questions were asked. No human culture asks all of the right questions or has all of the right conceptual categories for conceiving and articulating the gospel. In fact all human cultures are underlain by idolatry, which distorts both their questions and their categories.[5] Fifth, through prayer and hard work, they form a contextual theology, a theological framework. Sixth, if possible, they discuss their findings with theologians from other cultures, whether those theologians are the church fathers from eras past or contemporary thinkers from other global or cultural locations. Seventh, Christians return to the Bible once again, evaluating the emerging theology, and continuing the cycle. Clark explains, “Using a dialogical method implies we notice the danger in simply asking Scripture to answer the culture’s concerns. A dialogical approach requires that the Bible not only answer our concerns but also transform those concerns.”[6] In this way, the theologian does contextual theology that allows Scripture its place as the primary source and supreme norm of the task.

[1] For a detailed exposition of the contextual nature of Paul’s preaching and teaching, see Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 155-208, 334-353.

[2] For a more extended theology of culture, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Gospel & Culture,” in Theology and Practice of Mission, 109-127.

[3] See Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985); William A. Dyrness, Learning About Theology from the Third World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); David K. Clark, To Know and Love God, 99-131.

[4] Clark, To Know and Love God, 114.

[5] Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Prophetic theology treats contemporary culture with the utmost seriousness, though not as having final authority. Faith seeks contextualization, but we have argued that this does not mean bowing the knee to prevailing plausibility (and popularity) structures. Though theology employs the linguistic and conceptual resources that are at hand, it does not leave them unchanged.” Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 356.

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 115.