Richard G. Howe

How Theology Needs Philosophy

Richard G. Howe | 28 May 2020 | 10 min read

I encounter a pattern of reactions from my fellow Christians upon learning of my interests and training in philosophy. Understandably, many have only a vague concept of what philosophy is. As such they lack any appreciation of how it relates to Christian theology and life. Others have a degree of animus towards philosophy, denying not only that theology needs philosophy, but insisting that philosophy is the problem, standing in opposition to Christ. Taking a cue from Colossians 2:8, some regard philosophy as “vain deceit” and something to be opposed.[1]

In contrast, I have discovered that sound philosophy plays an indispensable role in sound theological thinking. The role it plays is not meant to displace the role that sound theology must play in the mind and life of the believer. I celebrate the adage “theology is the queen of the sciences.” The longer version adds “… and philosophy is her handmaid.” The metaphor has the idea that since God is Supreme Being and theology is knowledge about God, then theology is supreme knowledge. As the apex of knowledge, it was known as the queen of the sciences (where ‘science’ was roughly equivalent to ‘knowledge’ and ‘queen’ was the central and most important figure in the royal court). The purpose of the handmaid was to service the queen in whatever capacity was needed. Taking that imagery, I am interested in (at least) defending the fact that sound philosophy has much to offer the “queen” as she goes about her duties.[2] By ‘philosophy’ I mean the careful attention and in-depth analyses that reason must accord how God has revealed Himself through His creation. By ‘sound’ I mean the classical realist tradition from Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) through Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). This tradition has continued up to today with various philosophers.

While a “normal” person can see that the “heavens declare the glory of God”[3] and that God’s “invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made”[4], due to the deleterious effects that bad philosophical thinking has had in the world, God’s revelation through His creation can be blunted. As such, the conversation sometimes needs to be massaged to help others see exactly how it is that the existence and attributes of God are knowable and understood through “the things that are made.” Such bad philosophies have robbed many of the message God is giving us through His creation. C. S. Lewis observed:

“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”[5]

Lewis is echoing a sentiment given centuries early by Thomas Aquinas who said:

“But seeing that a teacher of sacred Scripture must at times oppose the philosophers, it is necessary for him to make use of philosophy.”[6]

Though Christian thinkers throughout the centuries are not unanimous in their praise of philosophy, one does find the recognition of philosophy’s place and value for the Christian even among the church fathers and reformers. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) observed:

“There is then in philosophy, though stolen as the fire by Prometheus, a slender spark, capable of being fanned into flame, a trace of wisdom and an impulse from God.”[7]

Augustine (354-430 AD) maintained:

“Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.”[8]

One might recognize this thinking in the oft-cited phrase “all truth is God’s truth.” Perhaps to the surprise of some, John Calvin (1509-1564) acknowledged how the philosophers can nevertheless attain to truth by God’s grace:

“Therefore, in reading the profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator… Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature were blind?… Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration.”[9]

Philosophy and Biblical Interpretation

One foundational issue for Christians is the question of how we can interpret the Bible. Not a few contemporary Christians take exception to the notion that there are truths known from outside the Bible that we must bring to Bible to understand what the Bible means. This is sometimes the case with ideas from the natural sciences.[10] However, my concern is not so much the role the natural sciences might play in biblical interpretation.[11] Rather, my concern is whether and to what degree philosophical truths should play a role in our understanding of the Bible.

If one should ask from where do we get our principles of interpretation (hermeneutics), the answer has to be that these principles must come from outside the Bible. If we say that they must come from the Bible, one has to ask how we can get to them. If we are able to interpret the Bible to get our hermeneutical principles, then we would be able to interpret the Bible before we had our hermeneutics. If we are not able to interpret the Bible until we have our hermeneutical principles, then we would not be able to interpret the Bible to get our hermeneutics. It would seem, then, the only place from which we can get our principles of hermeneutics is from somewhere outside of and anterior to the Bible.

I suspect my reader is expecting me to claim that we get these hermeneutical principles from philosophy. That is not my position. Instead, we get hermeneutical principles from the nature of reality itself. God’s nature is such, and God has created things with such natures, that we, as created in God’s image, are able to know quite a bit of truth. Such truths would include principles of language, meaning, and truth; the relationship of language to the rest of reality; principles of grammar; principles of hermeneutics; and more. The discipline of philosophy comes in only when these truths are assaulted by bad philosophy (e.g., Postmodernism) and need to be defended or when one is desiring a more in-depth understanding of these truths.[12]

Philosophy and the Existence of God

Many contemporary debates on the existence of God employ elements from contemporary natural science, notably astronomy and biology. One does not have to look far into the past to discover, however, how philosophy dominated this debate. To be sure, those arguments appealing to contemporary science resonate more than challenging philosophical arguments. This is no doubt because the categories of contemporary science (time, space, energy, etc.) are more familiar than the categories of classical philosophy (act/potency, causality, substance/accident, essence/existence). Nevertheless, I agree with philosopher Joseph Owens who said:

“Other arguments may vividly suggest the existence of God, press it home eloquently to human consideration, and for most people provide much greater spiritual and religious aid than difficult metaphysical demonstrations. But on the philosophical level these arguments are open to rebuttal and refutation, for they are not philosophically cogent.”[13]

Philosophy and the Attributes of God

In addition to our defense of principles of hermeneutics and the existence of God, both of which can be demonstrated and defended by sound philosophy, there are specific passages in the Bible that can be properly understood only by an appeal to truths God has revealed through His creation. While for some these passages might be sufficiently understood, because of the deleterious influences of bad philosophy and cultic thinking, an in-depth analysis and defense of these truths is sometimes in order. This is done by sound philosophy.

Let us look more closely at the problem so we can appreciate the solution. Sometimes the Bible describes God in finite, human terms. Psalm 8 tells us that God has fingers and hands. Isaiah 30 talks of God’s lips and tongue. Other passages mention God’s feet, eyes, ears, hair, head, face, and arms.[14] No doubt, many who have professed Christ through the millennia have taken these passages to be figures of speech. But how can we know that they are figures of speech?

I asked a friend how he understood Genesis 3:8 which says that Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” I asked him if he believed that God had legs, since it was impossible for God to walk without them.[15] He appealed to John 4:24 which says “God is Spirit” as proof that God did not literally have legs. I pressed him as to how he was able to know which passage was literal and which was figurative. The texts themselves do not adjudicate the matter.

Let me shift the illustration to clarify what I think the answer is. Isaiah 55:12 tells us. “… all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” We know that Isaiah is speaking poetically, employing the figure of speech known as metaphor. We know this because we can know enough about the nature of trees to know that trees do not literally have hands. Thus, if a biblical writer is attributing hands to trees, we know that he is speaking poetically. The challenge is that, while we can come to know the nature of trees by our sensory experience of a sufficient number of trees, we clearly cannot know God this way. We cannot see God to know that God does not literally have legs or any other bodily parts. How, then, can we know enough about the nature of God to know when the Bible is speaking metaphorically of Him?

I have already given the answer in so many words. God reveals His glory and invisible attributes through the things that are made.[16] For those on whom this message is lost in the confused cacophony of contemporary philosophical and cultic thinking, the conversation has to be managed more carefully. What does it look like to help someone reason from what they can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell to the God who is simple, infinite, immutable, impassible, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, perfect, loving, just and more? The conversation that demonstrates the existence and attributes of God, when that conversation is taken to its appropriate and sufficient depth, is what we would now recognize as sound philosophy. I am not suggesting that philosophy is necessarily the first resort in making our argument. I am instead saying that, in making our argument, it may become necessary to follow the argument to a sufficiently in-depth level—what one will perhaps recognize to be ‘philosophy.’

Conclusion

Many of us have encountered challenges to Christian truth arising from the natural sciences. For those who desire to participate in the conversation and debate about these truths, it might require some training in those natural sciences. By parallel, many of us will encounter challenges to Christian truth arising from philosophy. These challenges might also arise from our own reflection on the existence and nature of God and the nature of God’s creation. Space does not allow me to treat issues like God and morality, Natural Law Theory, the Problem of Evil, the sanctity of life, and the sanctity of marriage. Carried to a deep enough level, the tools and information required to participate in the conversation and debate about these truths require sound theology. But challenges that themselves aim at the heart of sound theology also require sound philosophy.

Suggested Readings

Budziszewski, J. Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Dolezal, James E. All that Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2017.

Fesser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.

Fradd, Matt and Robert Delfino. Does God Exist? A Socratic Dialogue on the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas. St. Louis: Enroute, 2018.

Geisler, Norman L. Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991.

Howe, Thomas. Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation. Altamont Springs: Advantage Inspirational, 2004.

VanDrunen, David. Divine Covenants and the Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014.

Wilkens, Steve. Faith and Reason: Three Views. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] Note, for example, John MacArthur’s blog “Christ Plus Philosophy” (https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B190410/christ-plus-philosophy, accessed Jan. 25, 2020). MacArthur begins by defining the word ‘philosophy’ as it is used in Col. 2:8, saying that it “literally means ‘the love of human wisdom.'” He expands upon this definition saying that philosophy “is man’s attempt to explain the nature of the universe” and that “it pictures the way the Christ-plus-philosophy heresy was abducting the Colossians from truth into the slavery of error. Thus the apostle portrayed philosophy as a predator that seeks to enslave undiscerning Christians in ‘vain deceit.'”

In response, I argue, first, that MacArthur’s definition of ‘philosophy’ is wrong. The word comes from philos (fivloV) meaning “love” and, sophia (sofiva) meaning “wisdom. There is nothing in the Greek that implies that the wisdom referred to is necessarily human as opposed to godly. Indeed, the Scriptures speak of the wisdom (sophia) that characterizes the Christian life (Acts 6:3; Col. 4:5; James 1:5). To be sure, the philosophy against which Paul is warning was threatening the health of the Christian life of the Colossians. But this knowledge arises from the context, not from the definition of the word ‘philosophy.’

Second, of course, philosophy is “man’s attempt” inasmuch as it is humans who utilize philosophy. But one might as well make the same illicit move and dismiss theology as “man’s attempt” to explain God. Interestingly, in an earlier treatment of the subject, MacArthur’s title of his sermon was more austere: “Philosophy or Christ?” (https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/2141/philosophy-or-christ, accessed Jan. 25, 2020). But how ridiculous would it sound for someone to title a sermon “Theology or Christ?”

Third, there is no reason to think that Paul is referring to that body of thinking that we now call philosophy. Consider what Henry Alford says in his Alfords’ Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, vol. 3, Galatians – Philemon (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1976), 218. Alford argues that Paul is not condemning philosophy in general, but is condemning a particular philosophy “which is vain deceit,” viz., the insidious legalism that had infested the thinking and practice of the Colossians, possibly arising from a nascent Gnosticism. Further, A. S. Peake, in his commentary on Colossians in W. Robertson Nicoll’s The Expositor’s Greek Testament concurs, saying, “the word [philosophy] has, of course, no reference to Greek philosophy.” He goes on: “there is no condemnation of philosophy in itself, but simply of the empty, but plausible, sham that went by that name at Colossæ.” (A. S. Peake, Colossians, inW. Robertson Nicoll, ed. The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 3, “Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians” (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1974), 522).

[2] For a treatment of the origins of the handmaiden metaphor, see Albert Henrichs, “Philosophy, the Handmaiden of Theology,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 9 (1968): 437-450, available at https://grbs.library.duke.edu/article/view/10741, accessed Jan. 30, 2020.

[3] Psalm 19.

[4] Romans 1:20.

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (London: William Collins Sons, 1939), 28 as cited in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds. The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1989), 473.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, Q. 2, art. 3.6, published as Faith, Reason and Theology: Questions I-IV of His Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, trans. Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), p. 48.

[7] Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, I, 17, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02101.htm, accessed Jan. 25, 2020.

[8] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. from Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Book 2, Chap. 40, §60, from http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/ddc2.html, accessed Jan. 25, 2020.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), 2.2.15, vol. 1, pp. 236. In the same context, Calvin says (with obvious implications for philosophical truth), “If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or contemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver” (2.2.15, vol. 1, p. 236). Calvin urged his readers to embrace such intellectual gifts of truth as provided by God. “But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the works and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth” (2.2.16, pp. 236-237).

[10] Consider, for example, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis in the panel discussion with Hugh Ross and others who argued “Shouldn’t you take outside ideas and reinterpret [the Bible]? No, you can’t do that” (Ken Ham vs. Hugh Ross – TBN Debate, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0ZzU_Y8YD0&t=355s, accessed Jan. 25, 2020). The context had to do with whether, and to what degree, contemporary scientific information should play a role in understanding the Bible. In defense of a young earth model, Ham resisted the consensus of contemporary scientists who maintain that the earth is quite old, relative to Ham’s own estimation.

Tim Chaffey and Jason Lisle concur with Ham. “When someone ‘reinterprets’ the clear meaning of the words to accommodate outside notions, it simply means he does not believe the words.” (Tim Chaffey and Jason Lisle, Old -Earth Creationism on Trial: The Verdict is In (Green Forest: Master Books, 2010), 110-111).

[11] A quick look at the early modern controversy surrounding geocentrism (the earth as the center of the solar system) vs. heliocentrism (the sun as the center of the solar system) should prove that sometimes scientific data can change our interpretation of biblical passages. The prevailing view among scientists and philosophers from ancient times was that the earth was immobile and that the sun was moving. Later, Christian thinkers adopted this view as grounded in passages such as Joshua 10. If Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, this was proof (the argument went) that the sun was moving since it would be impossible to command the sun to stop moving if it was not moving to begin with. Starting with the work of Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) and culminating in work of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), heliocentrism eventually won the day with the natural scientists and was officially recognized by the Catholic church in 1757. The lesson to gain from all this is that the interpretation by heliocentric Christians of Joshua 10 changed from literal to phenomenological (language of appearance). This change was motivated one hundred percent by the scientific data. Clearly an idea “outside” the Bible was used to “reinterpret” the Bible despite Ham’s, Chaffey’s and Lisle’s protestations.

[12] For a thorough treatment of these matters, see Thomas Howe, Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation (Altamonte Springs: 2004).

[13] Joseph Owens, “Aquinas and the Five Ways,” Monist 58 (Jan. 1974): 16-35. (p. 33). To see the philosophical cogency of these arguments would require more space than I have here. I invite the reader to consider some of the suggested readings.

[14] In his study Bible, Finis Jennings Dake (1902-1987) defends the literal (albeit not physical) meaning of these passages. See the note on p. 97 of The Dake Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville: Dake Bible Sales, 1991). As I hope will be clear from this article, our contention with heresies such as those of Dake cannot always be settled exegetically.

[15] Some have suggested that this is a Theophany—an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. Such Theophanies, however, are still figurative manifestations unlike, for example, the actual encounter Jacob had in wrestling the man in Gen. 32:24-32. Thus, my point about the legs still would follow. In any case, to press the point one could change the example to any number of physical descriptions of God pointed out by Dake.

[16] Romans 1:20.

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