What Are Some Of The Problems With “Philosophy-Free” Theology?

By Jonathan Thompson

“I only need the Bible, not man’s philosophy!”, “We don’t need to use philosophy since we have the Holy Spirit!”, “My beliefs are exegetically driven, yours are philosophical!” Many statements like the ones just mentioned sound reverential and benign to the religious ear, but these statements need to be refined. Often when one presses these types of statements for technical precision one will find in them the pervasive attitude of anti-intellectualism, more specifically, the unconscious implication that one can engage in good theological practices having divorced any antecedent philosophical commitments, or else, having no need to understand the underlying philosophical assumptions or implications that these religious doctrines are imbued with.

What the proponents of these “Philosophy-Free” views primarily fail to grasp is that philosophy is an indispensable feature underpinning virtually all rational practice. The cosmologist, for example, won’t be able to infer an era of inflation without making certain philosophical assumptions (e.g., that the world is a rational place susceptible to discovery, that our best cosmogonic theories actually approximate reality, etc.) . Similarly, the theologian simply cannot make any type of rational theological inferences without being first committed to certain ancillary beliefs which enable them to do theology in the first place. At least five difficulties with the “Philosophy-Free” view immediately come to mind:

What Are Some Of The Problems With “Philosophy-Free” Theology? – Five Difficulties

1. “Philosophy-Free” theology is self-refuting. What “Philosophy-Free” proponents fail to realize is that the belief that one can engage in theological practice having divorced all of their philosophical presuppositions is itself a philosophical presupposition, namely, an interpretive philosophy. How is it, that we know, for example, that when we see God saying “Let there be light” that the author isn’t teaching that, lay aside the incarnation, God is actually a biological organism? It is through a philosophy of interpretation through which these conclusions are to be arrived at. In short, without philosophy it is simply impossible to come to these types of theological conclusions.

2. “Philosophy-Free” theology is, by definition, irrational. This becomes most evident when one realizes that the word“philosophy” is just an academic locution for reasoning. To say that we should do our theology without philosophy, really just is to say that we should interpret scripture without reasoning about it or else having not reasoned about how we are to apply the interpretation ascribed to it. But to do theology without thinking about it just is, by definition, to give oneself to irrationality. Instead, the relevant question before us which needs to be addressed is this: what is the criteria to which we can determine the truth-value of a given theological proposition?

3. “Philosophy-Free” theology cannot help to adjudicate between competing theological viewpoints. If we are aiming at truth, then it won’t be enough to just point to a set of teachings that are, in fact, exemplified in scripture and automatically assume their truth by virtue of them being in the Bible – that only begs the question. Rather, if truth is our end goal, we still need to exercise our God-given cognitive abilities to determine whether or not these various theological teachings are, in fact, coherent. Look at it this way, if our reasoning tells us that a particular doctrine taught in scripture is actually false, we shouldn’t jettison our reasoning in favor scripture since, that is, by definition, to prefer irrationality – surely that isn’t God-honoring! Instead, if such were the case, as uncomfortable as it might make some of us, we should actually derelict our own views with respect to inerrancy, at least so far as we are to remain rational. That in mind, given the preclusion of philosophy that the “Philosophy-Free” view assumes, there simply remains no other resources available to the theologian, inferential or otherwise, that can be used to evaluate the truth-value of a theological claim since any resource given to the theologian will be, at it’s root, philosophical. So even if it were the case that one could exegete a text divorced from any type of philosophical presuppositions, it would still be the case that you couldn’t derive any theological truths, much less adjudicate between competing theories.

4. “Philosophy-Free” theology leaves one apt to be fooled by false doctrines. William Lane Craig has, I think, quite rightly pointed out that “the man who claims to have no need for philosophy is the one most apt to be fooled by it”.[1] Given this, it’s not surprising then that we will often find these introspectively callow ilk being drawn in to false beliefs themselves or else objecting to other viewpoints in such a way that suggests that they don’t even really understand the the view that they’re criticizing. Quite simply, it is through reflection upon the antecedent philosophical commitments underpinning a doctrine that helps serve to weigh its plausibility. To do theology without this feature leaves one at an epistemic standoff, that is, it leaves a symmetry of ignorance regarding competing viewpoints. For the interlocutor this means preferring one doctrine over another, not as a result of rational reflection, but of subjective feelings or perhaps, even blind faith. Thus, the individual that is sensitive to their own presuppositions has a considerable advantage over the person who does not, with respect to coming to true beliefs.

5. “Philosophy-Free” theology further perpetuates the stereotype that Christians are uncritical of their own beliefs. American culture has already become post-Christian. In media it’s not uncommon to see Christians caricatured as intellectually uninformed persons who believe what they do blindly. Now, you may ask yourself, why can’t we Christians just ignore what the culture believes about us at large? The answer is, because a culture that sees Christians as a group of intellectually thoughtful people, sensitive to their own assumptions, will be open to their beliefs in such a way that a culture influenced by stereotypes will not be. If Christians exemplified more thoughtfulness in their beliefs in terms of being able to recognize ones own presuppositions, the cultural perception of them will change.

What Are Some of the Problems With “Philosophy-Free” Theology? – Informing Christians may help ameliorate their hostility towards philosophy

So why do so many Christians seem to make statements implying they believe in “Philosophy-Free” theology? One possibility, which, perhaps, is the most charitable is that these Christians really are just speaking colloquially, lacking in technical precision and as a result of this they inevitably end up making statements that entail beliefs they don’t actually hold to. In cases like these we should simply gently press these folks for technical precision. Another possible explanation is that these Christians simply lack the appropriate philosophical training necessary for them to realize the implications of what they are actually saying; phrases like “I only need the Holy Spirit”, “I don’t need man’s philosophy”, “I’m a Bible guy”, and so forth sound like pious statements, have rhetorical force, and so are uncritically espoused to by otherwise well-meaning people. The solution? Inform them about the ubiquity of philosophy and hope they will eventually come to embrace it.

Visit Jonathan’s Website: FreeThinkingMinistries.com

 

NOTES


[1] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/hawking-and-mlodinow-philosophical-undertakers

 

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17 replies
  1. Tom Rafferty says:

    Wow, just wow. All this talk about folks who accept theology but not philosophy is truly mind-boggling. Regarding reality, neither one has anything to say about it. Theology grew out of humanity’s search for meaning and comfort and offers zilch to present humanity. Philosophy is a great tool to organize and understand logic and reason. However, it spawned science and the rest is history. Science trumps any other tool for understanding reality.

    Reply
      • toby says:

        Assuming you mean this statement: Science trumps any other tool for understanding reality. I’d say that yes, you can. For example you could do a study on the climate change in which you research experimentation and research methods into the issue, then contrast that to people that get their information by looking outside and saying, “Huh! It’s snowing! Global warming my butt!”

        Reply
          • toby says:

            Sure they can. And it demonstrates that philosophy arises from the universe.

            Take the principle of identity. A=A. We can take an atom of hydrogen and examine it, measure its properties, then come back later and do it again. After many measurements we can say definitively that A=A. Prior to that it was unsupported supposition dreamt up in someone’s armchair. We can say a lot of things and label them “philosophy” but until they’re verified it’s just brain droppings (to borrow from Carlin).

          • Beck says:

            Some people believe we live in a matrix or provide ssibly the whole world we see is a dream, so when you say science is the best judge of reality they would disagree because that is actually a philosophical statement first believing the world is intelligible and able to be properly tested for truth.

          • toby says:

            “Some people believe we live in a matrix or (possibly) the whole world we see is a dream, so when you say science is the best judge of reality they would disagree because that is actually a philosophical statement first believing the world is intelligible and able to be properly tested for truth.”

            No, their beliefs are ideas with no proof and can therefore not be assigned any possible truth valuation. We can make all kinds of statements about existence that have no basis in reality. So some people think that we live in a dream. They have no proof one way or another of this, but simply because the statement of that idea is made doesn’t mean that the affirmative statement “we live in a dream” carries any more weight or truthiness than “we don’t live in a dream”. You can’t assign any likelihood to its truth because you can’t demonstrate anything about it. Are you falling into the trap of mystification by labeling anything and everything as ‘philosophical’?

            Look at this: There is a pink unicorn under my bed. That is a “philosophical” statement that can be tested. You can look under my bed.

            Contrast it to this: “There is an intangible pink unicorn under my bed.” You can’t assign any sort of truth value to this statement. It’s a null statement. Brain droppings, in other words. and can be dismissed.

          • Plantinga Bomb says:

            Toby, you claimed that philosophical statements can be tested in a laboratory, and this was your example:

            “Take the principle of identity. A=A. We can take an atom of hydrogen and examine it, measure its properties, then come back later and do it again. After many measurements we can say definitively that A=A.”

            I am wondering what you’d say if I gave you a blue box, and you examined it and measured its properties, and then I gave it to you again except painted red. If we repeated the same thing a couple times would this definitively prove that A =/= A?

            I think the problem here is you’re taking the principle of identity to be a statement about something remaining the same thing over some period of time. But that’s not what it is. It’s the claim that for any x, x is x. This isn’t something you can’t empirically verify even in principle. But hopefully you wouldn’t reject it for that reason!

            Based on your latest comment, I think you have been captivated by the verification principle, and actually take it even further than the logical positivists of the 20th century did! The principle is that all cognitively meaningful sentences (sentences that can be true or false) are scientifically verifiable or true just by the meanings of the words. You seem to take it that only scientifically verifiable sentences can be meaningful (others you say are null and cannot be assigned a truth value).

            But the problem with this is that the verification principle is itself a sentence which cannot be scientifically verified (nor is it true just by the meanings of the words)! So we must abandon it. Which means accepting that statements that can’t be scientifically verified can still be assigned a truth value.

            If you wish to retract that claim and return to your claim that science trumps any other tool for understanding reality, that is fine. Science for sure produces a lot of knowledge about reality and is a wonderful thing. But we shouldn’t take our zeal for science so far that we dismiss other fields of academia that generally aren’t even in competition with science. Philosophy and science are just about different things in most respects, though there is some overlap (philosophical positions might inform some interpretation you take of a scientific theory, for example). Philosophy is not trying to compete with science, nor is it trying to displace theories in science with philosophical explanations. Accepting that philosophy can be a legitimate source of knowledge doesn’t require giving up any science.

          • Morgan says:

            Toby, you claimed that philosophical statements can be tested in a laboratory, and this was your example:

            “Take the principle of identity. A=A. We can take an atom of hydrogen and examine it, measure its properties, then come back later and do it again. After many measurements we can say definitively that A=A.”

            I am wondering what you’d say if I gave you a blue box, and you examined it and measured its properties, and then I gave it to you again except painted red. If we repeated the same thing a couple times would this definitively prove that A =/= A?

            I think the problem here is you’re taking the principle of identity to be a statement about something remaining the same thing over some period of time. But that’s not what it is. It’s the claim that for any x, x is x. This isn’t something you can’t empirically verify even in principle. But hopefully you wouldn’t reject it for that reason!

            Based on your latest comment, I think you have been captivated by the verification principle, and actually take it even further than the logical positivists of the 20th century did! The principle is that all cognitively meaningful sentences (sentences that can be true or false) are scientifically verifiable or true just by the meanings of the words. You seem to take it that only scientifically verifiable sentences can be meaningful (others you say are null and cannot be assigned a truth value).

            But the problem with this is that the verification principle is itself a sentence which cannot be scientifically verified (nor is it true just by the meanings of the words)! So we must abandon it. Which means accepting that statements that can’t be scientifically verified can still be assigned a truth value.

            If you wish to retract that claim and return to your claim that science trumps any other tool for understanding reality, that is fine. Science for sure produces a lot of knowledge about reality and is a wonderful thing. But we shouldn’t take our zeal for science so far that we dismiss other fields of academia that generally aren’t even in competition with science. Philosophy and science are just about different things in most respects, though there is some overlap (philosophical positions might inform some interpretation you take of a scientific theory, for example). Philosophy is not trying to compete with science, nor is it trying to displace theories in science with philosophical explanations. Accepting that philosophy can be a legitimate source of knowledge doesn’t require giving up any science.

        • Beck says:

          All you’re doing is confusing terms. You seem to believe the “truthiness” of something is only established through science , but obviously whether something is true or not is true whether you have evidence for it or not.

          Reply
          • toby says:

            No, that’s not what I’m doing. Science helps discover truth, rooting out junk claims from actual ones.

  2. Lisa Kesler says:

    My high schooler and I agree, much learning is wearisome to the flesh. Philosophy tends to lend itself an inordinate amount of study. A wise man noted that ” For in much wisdom is much grief, And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Philosophy definitely has limits and sorrow, but it’s not worthless. Human wisdom untrained in the power of God drowns itself in self seeking, envy, confusion and evil things. Fortunately, there is wisdom from above. Truth’s philosophy is be a fool for Jesus Christ! Love revealed His-story in history because human wisdom couldn’t discover the mystery on their own. I am grateful that God’s only begotten Son paid the ransom for the souls lost in the war of bad philosophy, puffed upped-ness, eloquent speech,and human craftiness. The redeemed say it’s freely given and available to those who seek it. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”

    Reply
  3. Matt says:

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for writing; here are my quick two cents. Forgive typos please. The three quotations you begin with picture the most extreme, anti-intellectual position there could be on one side of a legitimate and fruitful debate. As a reader, I see this as a caricature that, unfortunately, avoids the root question. That is: what is the foundation, what is supreme in how a person pursues and thinks about truth? Is exegetical theology from the Word of God supreme, with philosophical reflection as its handmaiden? Or is philosophy supreme, with Scripture as its handmaiden? Are they equal, supplemental parts? The debate has to do with the basic starting point for truth — for understanding ourselves, the world, the nature of history, etc.

    Of course, on either side there are extreme cases, and each side can set up a caricature of the other and make it look foolish. These, I think, are a shame. To me, challenging, fruitful discuss will revolve on questions like this: What is the proper relationship between Scripture and philosophy. What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is the nature and role of human reason in attaining to truth? These are not new questions.

    Responding directly to how your thesis is framed, and suggesting what is probably what you want to get at, I would note that a great deal of people are self-consciously seeking a theologically-driven philosophy in opposition to a philosophically-driven theology. The debate continues on which is better and/or necessary. My point is simply that seeking a theologically-driven philosophy is not the same as seeking a philosophy-free theology.

    Nevertheless, there are indeed people who think the way forward is a philosophy-free theology, but there are also those who think the way forward is a theology-free philosophy. The first is anti-intellectualism; the second is hyper-intellectualism. The first rests in his superficial piety and misplaced sense of spiritual superiority; the second rests in his naive fantasy of achieving perfect objectivity. They both live in delusion. One man’s delusion is that he is so spiritual that he doesn’t have to think. Another man’s is that his capacity to reason and reflect on reality is of such a nature that it need not be grounded by the revealed truth of God. Both, in my opinion, are extremes to be avoided.

    Thanks again,
    Matt

    Reply
  4. Michael Caruthers says:

    Philosophy? Really? Philosophy is an exercise in futility. Philosophy promises wisdom, yet does not deliver. The earliest tenets of Philosophy are easily seen as man questioning all things separate from God. It’s foundations (Philosophy) are in error when compared to Scripture; and all reasoning/logic stemming from such can only be in error also. Scripture says that, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”- Galatians 5:9. Titus 3:9 states, “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.”. Having any training in Philosophy does not a better Christian make. Salvation is not the result of eloquent speeches or manifold words. Be wary of the Philosophy of the ancients and their misguided children to the very present dictates of modern Philosophy. Scripture is clear on this: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,” – Romans 1:22.

    Reply
    • Roger says:

      Would you recommend we throw out reasoning entirely then?

      You’ve fallen for the same error the article talks about. It does no good to fill oneself with pious language that ultimately does not stand up to reasonable scrutiny.

      Knowing how to reason makes a Christian better prepared to deal with philosophical criticism to the Christian faith and thus a better witness for Christ overall.

      You’re throwing out reasoning because others have come to errors with it. Should I throw out the message of Scripture because others have made theological mistakes in understanding it?

      Reply

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