Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is Philosophy Necessary in Theology?

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine (Jack Kilcrease) posted a blog in which he argued that people need to be familiar with Aristotelian philosophy if they are going to understand the arguments of theologians from the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy (latter half of the sixteenth century through the end of the seventeenth century), especially from the time period of John Gerhard (1582-1637) onwards, since all academic endeavors in that era were influenced by the Aristotelian Renaissance. Kilcrease’s argument makes sense, since one must understand the language in which something is written. This is doubly the case when there are precise, technical definitions given to certain words that might be used in a looser, non-technical sense in common parlance today or even in a technical sense that is somewhat different today.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates
But there is another question that Kilcrease did not explicitly address, although I do not believe that he will differ with the answer I give below. The question is this: does one need to use philosophy or philosophical terminology in theology at all? Granted, one must understand philosophy in order to understand the theological arguments of such ancient thinkers as Gerhard or Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but do we have to know philosophy in order to do theology today? Should we not just acknowledge that these old theologians have added an unnecessary layer of difficulty to the theological task and that we should be concerned simply with the (non-philosophical) thoughts of the Bible? As one of my Roman Catholic friends has put it, do I need to know Aristotle in order to know Jesus?

When put that way, the only pious answer—indeed the only correct answer—seems to be “No.” Christian theology must be based on the Scriptures and their teachings. They must be grounded in the person and work of Jesus, who was not a Greek philosopher or worked in their categories, but who thought and taught in a Hebrew way that is at times quite foreign to us as well as to the ancient Greek philosophers. We must be careful that we do not adopt a philosophical framework outside of the Scriptures or that taught by our Lord and then try to pigeonhole our Lord’s words into that framework. In other words, theology cannot be placed upon the Procrustean bed of philosophy, ancient or modern.

But how have Lutherans expressed this truth in the past several centuries, yes, even down to the present day? We have said that the gospel is the material principle of theology and the Scriptures are the formal principle of theology—and that philosophy is neither its material nor its formal principle. But, of course, we are using two philosophical phrases that derive ultimately from the works of Aristotle. Thus, even as we deny that philosophy is a governing principle of theology, we use philosophical terms to do so and we use those terms to distinguish two principles that govern theology. (I will omit in this discussion that God is the efficient principle of theology and that the glory of God, knowledge of divine truth, and mankind’s salvation are its final principles, as Gerhard argues.)

Gottfried Eichler, The Last Supper
But why should we distinguish between the Scriptures and the gospel as two different principles in theology? Why should we adopt this language at all? Consider these questions. Is the Scripture important, in fact indispensable, in doing theology? Is the gospel likewise important, in fact indispensable, in doing theology? Well, which is it? Is the Scripture or the gospel of vital importance, the source of all Christian thinking? A genuine Christian who is very knowledgeable about the faith should say, “Both are important, but each plays a different role. The gospel (and by that I mean especially our justification by grace through faith in Christ) is what Christian theology is about. Everything we teach is either predicated upon this fact or leads us to understand this truth. To deny the gospel or to obscure it would be to ruin Christian theology. At the same time, this gospel is not some nebulous idea. It has taken body in the words of the Scriptures—yes, with all their genealogies, historical narratives, letters to ornery churches, and other quirks. You can’t abstract the idea of the gospel apart from the Scriptures without theology going off the rails.”

In short, we are acknowledging that the gospel and the Scriptures play a foundational role in theology, but in different ways. And here it is useful to have some kind of terminology that distinguishes between the various kinds of foundational roles that something might have. To find those terms we look around to grammarians, wordsmiths, or anyone who thinks deeply about these matters. And these people say that there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. About twenty-four centuries ago, a Greek philosopher named Aristotle started asking, “When we say that something is the cause or foundation or source of something”—he would have used the word arche for all three ideas—“what are the possible meanings of that term and how can we distinguish between the various nuances?” He coined several terms that would be refined over the centuries; this allowed people to distinguish (among other things) between a material cause (or principle as it came to be called via the Latin) and a formal cause. Thus, a table has a certain shape given to it because a particular pattern (formal cause) was imposed upon its material, the wood from a tree (material cause). If asked, one could rightly say that a particular piece of furniture was a table or a wooden object, but one wouldn’t make the error of saying that it had the shape of a wooden object or that it was made out of a table.

Since this terminology has been found useful for a long time, we do not feel any need to invent new terms. You could say that the philosophers have done theology a service by being careful linguists and asking what we mean by “cause” or “principle.” It helps us to be more precise than we otherwise would be. And this precision is necessary. When people make the gospel into the formal cause of theology (whether they use that term or not), theology becomes an abstract idea divorced from the real flesh-and-blood history of Christ, Israel, and the apostles. When people make the Bible into the material principle of theology (again, whether or not they use that particular terminology), theology becomes legalistic or moralizing as people overlook what the Scriptures are really all about. And thus it is helpful to acknowledge both the gospel and the Scriptures as foundational principles for theology, but in different senses.

This terminology, I must point out, is not sacrosanct. If we were convinced that it did not adequately express the truth, we would have to invent new terminology that could. The history of Christian theology is full of people doing just that—either inventing new words or tweaking the meaning of old ones and pressing them into the service of Christian doctrine. For example, Christians took over the older philosophical terms essence (ousia) and substrate (hypostasis) and gave them somewhat different definitions, even as they coined new words such as Trinity (Trinitas)—all to explain the relationship of the three divine Persons in one divine Being. They didn’t necessarily take the philosophical language of the day and make Scripture conform to it, but they looked about to see if there was something they could borrow or adapt for their own purposes to make their point clear. And that remains a major task of theology: to make divine revelation clear and precise so that there will be no confusion or as little as possible.