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Does Theology Need Philosophy?



Philosophy and theology share an intimate union in a search for truth and wisdom. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, a search to know and to answer the greatest questions. Theology is the study and quest to learn of and about God. Does theology then need philosophy? What is the importance of the two principles within one another? Theology fulfills and gives purpose to philosophy. What, then, can philosophy bring to theology? Finally, what do the principles lack without one another? John Paul II approaches this question with the use of Scripture, the philosophical history of the Church, and the basic and immeasurable understanding of the relationship between faith and reason.


To first understand the proposed question, we must elaborate and clarify the principles of philosophy and theology. Let’s begin with philosophy, which enables us with the tools and process of coming to know the deeper or true reality beyond only our sensory perception, that of nature and existence. Theology is the study of the nature of God and His revelation. Both principles seek to answer the questions that pervade the human heart. St. John Paul II seeks to reaffirm the value of the two in his encyclical Fides et Ratio. His opening words speak an important and necessary truth in understanding the relationship of philosophy and theology, or faith and reason, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves”[1]. This is a desire placed within our hearts to seek out and know God and ourselves, both philosophy and theology aid in this.


In the early church, philosophy was regarded as a cautious and dangerous form of paganism within the world, like that of Gnosticism. This union, however, was not immediate or simple as the early church was more concerned with a personal relationship with Jesus and saw that philosophy was a distraction, or wrongly, that it was gnostic in origin. “It is clear from history, then, that Christian thinkers were critical in adopting philosophical thought”[2] and became prevalent in the works of St. Augustine, who brought a Platonic depth of thought into his writing. This had a great effect on the approach to exegesis, study, and thought in the great minds of the Church that followed Augustine. It is important to note that the first great interactions of philosophical thought originated in the works of Christian thinkers who wrote in a great depth of theological and Christological wealth for the Church. These thinkers, saints, bishops, were able to bridge the gap between the two schools and, in turn, bring a sound and resolute assuredness to their work. These great minds of the Church, Augustine, and Aquinas, know that “Theology learns from philosophy but also elevates and perfects philosophy because it is based fundamentally not upon what humans can figure out about God but what God has revealed about himself”[3] and understood the importance of the union.


The use of philosophical thought by the great theologians of the Church has brought about clearer and greater understanding to some of the biggest questions and problems in theological thought. Most notably, Aquinas’ distinction between essence and existence and the sources of action in the one subject of Christ. First, through the Aristotelian framework, Aquinas gives fuller reasoning to essence and existence; essentially, essence expresses what a thing is, whereas existence expresses that it is. This metaphysical reasoning plays a distinctly important role in the Eucharist and transubstantiation. Secondly, through the concepts and terminology of philosophy helped greatly define the sources of action in the one Christ, or more fully understood, ‘that Christ is one divine Person, who has two complete natures, one divine and one human.’[4] These complex examples of the problems that faced theologians found their answer and resolution in the philosophy within theology.


Theology, however is not solely reliant on philosophy, nor faith upon reason. There is a need for both within one another. Moreover, philosophy seeks to find God because is aims to know the source of all and understanding, it is the pursuit and love of wisdom. Therefore, theology gives a distinct and necessary center to the wanderings of philosophy. Philosophy without the context of theology and without God ultimately becomes incoherent, illogical, and dangerous to the moral character of the human heart. Most notably in Kant, Hegel, the Nietzschean element, and existentialism and relativism philosophy breaks from its union with theology and in turn goes awry. One of the most immediately recognizable problems is the understanding of causes or movement, specifically in that each mover has been moved by a mover and therefore, to escape an infinite regress, there must be an unmoved mover. The philosophy that moved away from theology was deeply rooted in the movement of thought from the inner, or interior, self outward, whereas the earlier thought moved outward in. Without a self-guiding principle, the intention to move outward becomes an impossible task.


Philosophy then becomes an inward search for meaning. It becomes a directionless path that ultimately leads to the Nietzschean phrase “god is dead” and the existentialism of Heidegger, which is a self-centered, self-absorbed philosophy. St. John Paul II however reaffirms the notion of the importance of the two schools of thought working within one another, especially in the moral reasoning of the human heart which desires truth. Theology and philosophy, faith and reason. He goes on to say, “Moral theology requires a sound philosophical vision of human nature and society, as well as of the general principles of ethical decision making.”[5] Namely, theology desires philosophy and philosophy desires theology.


What then can we learn from this? Ultimately only through fides et ratio, faith and reason, can one come to truly know God and in turn himself. St. John Paul II enlightens the unity between the principle of theology and philosophy in a simple and delicate presentation of their importance to and within one another. To reiterate, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves”[6]. Philosophy enables theology with the concepts and terminology to more fully express the revelation of God, as theology lifts and perfects philosophy.


Does theology need philosophy? Yes.




Todd Mesler, Jr.






Bibliography

- Paul, John. Encyclical Letter Fides Et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II: to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason. Pauline Books and Media, 1998.

- Dr. Christine Wood. Phil – 508. Philosophy for Theology. Lectures.


[1] Paul, John. Encyclical Letter Fides Et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II: to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason. Pauline Books and Media, 1998. Pg. 7. [2] Ibid. Pg. 53. [3] Dr. Wood. Lecture 1. [4] Ibid. Lecture 5. [5] Paul, John. Encyclical Letter Fides Et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II: to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason. Pauline Books and Media, 1998. Pg. 87. [6] Ibid. Pg. 7.

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