Theology, Philosophy and History

One of the important discussions taking place in the centuries of the Reformation had to do with the nature of theology. Is theology wisdom? Is theology science? Does theology exist to give us instruction about God so that we can have correct understanding, primarily, or does it exist so that we can behave accordingly? The reason these questions matter is that the way you answer is going to shape the theology you do. If you emphasize one thing at the expense of the other, you will end up paying for that over time (you can breed error in unattended places, for instance). So the best definition of theology is the one that leaves nothing crucial out of consideration.

Wisdom is obviously an Old Testament theme. That it is a theme of the whole Ancient Near-East is acknowledged, and that the Old Testament’s concern was a part of this wider concern would be hard to dispute. From what I can gather, the writers of the Old Testament were involved in the context of international wisdom. They participated in it by reading and examining, by studying and appropriating from it. You can find a large number of Proverbs that had their origin in Egyptian lore, to name just one example. What the writers of the Old Testament seem to have done is taken things and put them in the context of Israelite monotheism. Here these shards and pieces lost their rough edges and found their place in a coherent pattern. If international wisdom offered patterns, Hebrew wisdom contributed positively by offering a distinctive pattern which we know to be true.

Wisdom was also a concern of Hellenic civilization. All the wisdom of the Old Testament is the wisdom of a pre-speculative people. There are no real abstractions, no dealing with geometrically pure abstract arguments. Greek philosophy sought to move beyond the manipulation of analogies and physical entities into a purely mental realm because the Greek philosophers believed the purely intelligible was either more fundamental or at least key for acquiring wisdom. This became a very important influence in the development of Christian doctrine.

The Ancient Church was also an international movement. It arose in the sheltered context of Judaism, appropriating the institution and order of the synagogue and Jewish education methods. But these institutions and methods alone were not sufficient for Christianity. It had to grow beyond the limited ethnic bounds of Judaism. It had to be much more of a phenomenon of the wider world. So you see men wrestling with interpreting the Old Testament differently from the Jews, seeking an education that could yield better answers to their questions. Like the Old Testament appropriators of an international culture of wisdom, Christians grappled with the international philosophy of the Greco-Roman culture. They sought ways to expand their own understanding, to appreciate Scripture better, to defend themselves in that sophisticated context, and to explain the wonder of what they possessed. If philosophy begins in wonder, it is no wonder ancient Christians turned to philosophy to grapple with the wonder of their religion.

Stoicism was a much admired philosophy. It lacked robust metaphysical development but was strong on logic and ethics. Many ancient Christians appropriated it, and it has influenced people as distant from it as John Calvin. Stoicism is more of a practical wisdom, and therefore more rudimentary—we might say. It is a good beginning, but it had to be left behind. In the third-century collapse of the Roman Empire, a more otherworldly philosophy became dominant: Neoplatonism. And it was this metaphysically sophisticated philosophy that most influenced Christianity for the next thousand years.

It is true that in the collapse of the pagan consensus and the end of the Greco-Roman culture of antiquity, ancient Christians disparaged philosophy. But what must be acknowledged is that these disparagements came only after it had been so thoroughly absorbed that the Christian Platonists who were disparaging Plato and Proclus were quibbling about in-house matters, much as today Presbyterians debate whether or not the Covenant of Works is republished in the Mosaic Law: you have to be a covenant theologian to appreciate it. To appreciate what the Fathers were reacting to, you’d have to be a Platonist to begin with. All the advantages of classic antiquity thoroughly shaped not only Origen and the Cappadocians, but also Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great. These were all Christian Platonists.

The millennium of Christian Platonism was a millennium of deep and fundamental theology: the doctrine of the Trinity, the Christological controversies, the elaborate Christian metaphysics, cosmology and ontology of Eriugena’s system, the deep-theological-space contemplation of Anselm, the cosmic-liturgical symbolism of Maximus Confessor and Rupert of Deutz all speak to this. It was a millennium of theology as wisdom. (What is wanting today is an appreciation, a way to understand and enter these difficult things. The wonder is so distant from contemporary experience and sensibility that it is difficult for people to grasp it. It requires someone with the sensibility of Charles Williams to do so, and someone with the appreciation for a Charles Williams such as C. S. Lewis to promote it. Which is to say, this is very difficult to appreciate. You would have to cultivate the imagination as a way of knowing, and who does that?)

What Christian Aristotelianism brings (arising in the very Christian Platonist 12th century) is a new sense of theology. Theology is not only wisdom, it is also something lower which we call science. Science means knowledge, and knowledge is something that wisdom contains, but wisdom is the greater category. It was the genius of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas to see how theology could be something lesser (a science) without ceasing to be something greater (wisdom). The result of thinking of theology not only as philosophy but also as something more specialized, science, is systematic theology.

Why do you only get theological prolegomena, then, in the centuries of the Reformation? Not because Protestantism somehow lends itself to a more self-conscious approach. The reason you get these discussions on method is that theology was only approached with a method when it began to be regarded as a science. In the fullness of time, as a result of the interchange of the crusades, because plundering Constantinople had a precedent from the fourth crusade, thanks to Aristotle’s more crabwise, horizontal approach—to name a few influences—we start reflecting on whether theology is principally a science, whether it is aimed at knowing or aimed at doing, and all those questions.

What is the best definition of theology? What is theology? And what philosophical principles undergird it? After the first millennium of Christian Platonism we had what Richard Muller is willing to describe as a half-millennium of Christian Aristotelianism. This epoch includes the Reformation and Reformed Scholasticism. This last collapses as the new Rationalist Cartesian influence become prevalent. It is something to wonder about Edwards—to what extent was he an empiricist, to what extent old-school? What were his philosophical principles? There follows also a Kantian Christianity (which I do not call Christian Kantianism) and Idealist Christianity. Modern Christianity, we might say, and Post-modern as well, and now post-Christian. That is why classic theism (besides having the catholic—which is to say historic—appeal) appeals: it is based on pre-modern philosophical principles. I have found that theologians moving back prefer to move to Christian Aristotelianism. Christian Platonism is too confident in Reason, too much a pure discipline of Wisdom for people attempting to recapture a pre-modern outlook. Method is what you get when you do not have Anselm’s soaring confidence and use of Reason. When you just write reason and not Reason, one might say. Christian Aristotelianism, however, is a move in the right direction.

Of course, there will always be the Christians saying that we don’t need philosophy. These I name smugglers. They smuggle in unexamined philosophical assumptions because philosophical principles are necessary, speaking unphilosophically about that which is philosophical. This produces incoherent theology.

Next time you use a book of theology, look at the definition and think about it.


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