How Useful is Philosophy for Theology? image

How Useful is Philosophy for Theology?

The question of philosophy’s importance for theology is massively complicated and oversimplifications and misunderstandings abound (this post probably won’t help in that regard!), not least because of how these two disciplines can be defined so differently by different authors. Nevertheless, it’s a really important question. So here are some (over generalised) explanations of the views of some German speaking (to keep it simple) theologians on the matter. I’ve imagined that they are each giving a score out of 10 for philosophy’s usefulness to theology:

1. Martin Luther, known for his great subtlety of expression, considered philosophy (or at least reason) to be the “the devil’s whore”; but this is to quote him out of context. He was indeed highly critical of the potential of reason to enable the human enquirer to reach God. This was partly a response to the high place accorded to reason within the Roman Catholic Church of his time with its strong sympathy for St Thomas Aquinas who went mad for a bit of reason (alongside revelation). However, reason, and subsequently philosophy on Luther’s understanding, does have its value in helping to bring order; both to human thought in general and to practical matters such as government.
Score 2/10

2. Friedrich Schleiermacher endeavoured to make theology attractive to the modern mind of his day (somewhere between romantic and enlightened). He appealed to a general awareness of God evident in the human experience of religion as the basis for theological study. He accepted some philosophy, but did think that theology shouldn’t become held captive to philosophy; particularly the kind of philosophy that was most critical of religion. So philosophy has its place, but only where there is room within that particular philosophical worldview for (Schleiermacher’s particular kind of) theology.
Score 5/10 (Human experience 7/10)

3. G. W. F. Hegel is the exception here because he’s best described as a philosopher as opposed to a theologian (or, at least, as a philosopher first; theologian second). Hegel thought that philosophy and theology were the most sophisticated sources of knowledge and saw the two working synthetically. However, he thought that philosophy was the supreme discipline of the two. For example, in terms of how knowledge of God can arise (something that Hegel thought was possible), reason and revelation should be seen as working in synthesis. However, within this synthesis philosophy still trumps theology as the absolute form of knowledge.
Score 10/10

4. Karl Barth was highly critical of philosophy as a means of arriving at theological propositions. Philosophy, for example, can give no objective proof for God’s existence of any value. Barth was particularly critical of natural theology (which has overlaps with philosophy), and considered there to be no way through from nature to the true God. Having said this, he was positive of philosophy for a number of reasons e.g. for what it can tell us about ourselves, and for helping academics develop disciplined and rational thought. Barth engaged with a huge amount of philosophy and thought that any decent theologian should do likewise as good philosophy can show us what is bad about bad theology.
Score 3/10

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that philosophy couldn’t be ignored as to do so would be to pretend that it hadn’t had an impact on theology (for good or ill). Indeed, much of his early work was a direct engagement with philosophy. Also, his understanding of philosophy helped him critique the so called ‘liberal’ theology of his day. Having said this, Bonhoeffer certainly didn’t think that philosophy could offer anything foundational for theology as it tends not to account properly for the importance of revelation. Bonhoeffer did think, though, that theology shouldn’t ignore the philosophy of the 19th century, particularly philosophy that recognised the limits of reason (e.g. Immanuel Kant’s).
Score 4/10

Whose view do you come closest to agreeing with?

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